I recently returned from a very special cruise aboard Viking Cruises’ Viking Star: her maiden transatlantic crossing to North America. Not only was the itinerary a unique, one-of-a-kind voyage from Bergen, Norway to Montreal, Canada, but the crossing was also noteworthy for being Viking’s first-ever foray into North America.
Up until now, if you wanted to try the popular river cruise-turned-ocean-cruise line, you had to fly to Europe. That all changed this past Sunday, when Viking Star docked in Montreal, Quebec and concluded her 15-day transatlantic crossing. For the first time ever, guests embarked a Viking cruises ship in a North American port of call. Best of all, this Sunday ushered in a brand-new era for Viking Cruises, as Viking Star prepares to reposition south for a winter season of cruises in the Caribbean that depart roundtrip from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Over the course of the 15 days I was aboard Viking Star, I had the chance to really get to know the Viking Cruises product better than before. Although I’d been aboard Viking Star and her sister Viking Sea for their christenings, this voyage through Norway, Scotland, Iceland, Greenland and Atlantic Canada was the first time I’d had the chance to truly test out the Viking Cruises product on a long-term basis. And I liked what I saw.
So what is Viking doing differently from its competition here in North America? As it turns out, a lot. Here’s five of my most surprising takeaways from my Viking Star experience:
1. It’s Almost an Expedition Cruise
If Viking slapped some inflatable Zodiac rafts on the upper decks of Viking Star, mine would have been a full-blown expedition cruise. My biggest surprise of this voyage was just how expedition-like the Viking Cruises experience is, from the half-dozen guest lecturers that sailed with us and talked on destination-relevant topics to the high level of passenger engagement.
Guests were encouraged to log wildlife sightings on sheets of paper placed out in the Explorer’s Lounge, and a variety of complimentary excursions ashore felt decidedly expedition-like. This was most apparent in Greenland, where guests were invited to go ashore and explore on their own, but with the help of the local townspeople. The Caribbean might not have that degree of exploration, but if Viking ever did an all-Greenland or all-Iceland cruise, I’d sure book passage.
2. You Can Make It Nearly All-Inclusive
The Viking Cruises experience is nearly all-inclusive: beer, wine and soft drinks are provided complimentary with lunch and dinner. But for $19.95 per person, per day, you can purchase Viking’s Silver Spirits Beverage Package that includes almost all beverages up to $9.50 per glass, and only excludes beverages in Torshavn on Deck 2. Which makes sense: Viking doesn’t want guests hammering back the lounge’s collection of vintage (and costly) Armagnacs. But at $20 per guest, per day, Viking is vastly undercutting even mainstream cruise lines, many of which will nail you for more than $50 per person, per day, for similar offerings.
Couple that with a complimentary thermal suite in the LivNordic Spa and a selection of free excursions ashore, and Viking Cruises starts to have a lot more in common with its luxury counterparts than it does with its upper premium competitors that it currently identifies itself with.
3. Nobody Does Ports Like Viking Does Ports
Ports of call are Viking’s deal. What impressed me about Viking was that in each and every port we visited – even tiny Nanortalik, Greenland, with a population of just 1,300 – Viking equipped its guests with a free, Viking-made map of the city. On other cruise lines, you’re lucky if you get a real map that showcases more than just Diamonds International locations.
Coupled with some spectacularly informative Port Talks that actually focus on the town and aren’t just a hard-sell for excursions, Viking arguably educates its guests more than most cruise lines about the places they’re going to be visiting. It’s a good thing, but it’s also the culturally responsible thing too, and I applaud Viking for putting as much into its on-shore product as it does into its onboard one.
4. Sea Days Are a Bonus
Bad weather forced us to have a few more sea days on our North Atlantic crossing than we had anticipated – and that was okay with me. The ship is so beautiful that you almost feel guilty going ashore. I’m a huge literary fan, and I devour books on polar exploration, world history, and the like – and that makes Viking’s expertly curated collection of onboard books that literally line every single public room aboard the thing such a bonus. The ship is, essentially, one gigantic library.
Between the exceptional service, the wonderful books, and the authentic Norwegian snacks at Mamsen’s on Deck 7 adjacent to the Explorer’s Lounge, sea days aboard Viking Star aren’t just a necessity; they’re a pleasure.
5. It’s A ‘Thinking Man’s Cruise’
Perhaps the biggest takeaway of my entire 15-day voyage was the recurring thought that Viking’s arrival into the North American cruise market is going to make a lot of cruise lines nervous. And it should. Even in the over-saturated, under-priced market that is the Caribbean, Viking could carve itself out a very nice niche as the one cruise line that seeks to provide its guests with something other than the stereotypical “beach-and-beer” experience.
Viking Chairman Torstein Hagen calls Viking the “Thinking Man’s Cruise”, and it’s not hard to imagine this relaxing, pseudo luxury-expedition-premium hybrid line attracting a lot of folks that might have otherwise given the Caribbean, with its megaships packed with thousands of guests, a pass.
When I disembarked in Montreal on Sunday, I took one look back at Viking Star. Although she’s not scheduled to call on this part of Canada again, I know one of her fleetmates will eventually be back.
The Vikings are back in North America – and the future looks all the brighter for it.
Ready to experience it for yourself? Contact a Cruise Specialists:(888) 993-1318