The Explorers’ Lounge aboard Viking Cruises’ ships. PHOTO BY ERIC LAIGEL.

Keep Your Eye On … Viking Ocean Cruises

BY DON NICHOLS — Fall 2017

ver the last two decades, Viking Cruises has firmly established itself as a leader in river cruising, especially in Europe. But 2017 is proving to be a big year for the company out in the deep blue sea. It launched its third ocean vessel, the Viking Sky, in February and will debut its fourth, the Viking Sun, in October. Still more growth looms, with its fifth and sixth ships scheduled to set sail in 2018 and 2019. Plus, last April, the company signed an agreement with its Italian shipbuilder for two more vessels, with an option for yet another two.

With all this growth, Viking says it’s now poised to become the largest small-ship ocean cruise line in 2019. Quite a feat considering it christened its first ocean vessel — the Viking Star, with 465 all-veranda staterooms — just two years ago.

The company doesn’t believe in reinventing the wheel, so all new builds look identical to the Star, including its second ship, the Viking Sea, unveiled in early 2016. “We plan our projects well, and when we get it right the first time, we see no reason to vary with future ships,” says company founder and chairman Torstein Hagen.

Having recently sailed on the Sky for seven days of a 15-day Scandinavian cruise, I can see why Viking has stuck to a design that easily impresses. Rottet Studio, a Houston-based firm that has designed luxury hotels such as the two new Four Seasons properties in Bogotá, Colombia, has given the ships an understated, elegant look with a decidedly Scandinavian aesthetic, in deference to Hagen’s Norwegian heritage. Spaces are light-filled and strikingly beautiful with clean lines. They’re inviting and comfortable, with furniture pieces from notable designers such as Alvar Aalto, Antonio Citterio, Charles and Ray Eames, and Sergio Rodrigues adding a touch of class. “I like the fact the people who know good design can recognize that Viking is always about being there with the best,” says Richard Riveire, a principal with Rottet.

Three Diz armchairs by Rodrigues caught my attention in the Explorers’ Lounge, a favorite spot of mine. This two-floor cozy and quiet retreat on Deck 7 with floor-to-ceiling windows and a glass staircase overlooks the bow of the ship and the ocean. You’ll feel like you’re in a bright and airy den, so you’ll likely want to order a cocktail or coffee from its bar and curl up with a book on one of its cushy chairs or leather sofas. No problem if you don’t have a book of your own; the lounge has plenty of good ones for you to peruse in its bookcases.

Other public spaces include: another comfortable lounge area called the Living Room; the Wintergarden, where the staff serves afternoon tea daily; multiple dining outlets; a theater; a nightclub; two pools; and the LivNordic Spa. Definitely a step up from what you might expect on a small ship, the spa rivals many of the ones I’ve experienced in luxury hotels. Its big draw: a tranquil Scandinavian Thermal Suite where you can take part in a traditional Nordic bathing ritual that alternates hot and cold therapies. For treatments — including massages, facials, manicures, pedicures, and hair styling — the spa uses only organic products with no chemicals. Its well-equipped fitness center boasts Technogym bicycles and treadmills, TRX equipment, kinesis stations, and more. Guests seem to like the facility as much as I did, with at least three or four working out anytime I passed by it, day or night.

Living Room. PHOTO BY ERIC LAGNEL.

The company’s stronghold in river cruising has clearly helped it build guest support for its ocean ships so quickly. At the captain’s welcome reception on my cruise, only about a third of attendees raised their hands when asked if they had ever taken a Viking ocean cruise. But nearly three-quarters enthusiastically raised their hands when asked if they had ever been on one of the company’s river cruises. I immediately thought of the Philadelphia couple I had met earlier that evening at the mandatory safety drill. They booked the Sky because of their experience on a Viking river cruise about a year ago. “They took such good care of us. We’d ask if something would be possible, and almost before we’d finish the sentence, they’d say ‘of course,’ ” the wife told me.

Like the Philly couple, most passengers seemed to be 55-plus empty-nesters and all the ones I met had indeed sailed on one or more Viking river cruises and cited that same high level of service as their main reason for trying the ocean cruise. All felt the Sky’s staff lived up to their expectations. A couple from Mexico spent too long in one port and the Sky sailed without them that evening. They spoke appreciatively of the empathetic staffer who met them at the dock with their passports and explained how they could meet up with the ship at the next port, quickly relieving their anxiety. An Ohio woman I chatted with over lunch likes to drink white wine at meals, but with a glass of ice. The waitstaff picked up on this quickly and she never had to ask for the ice again; it just came with her wine, she said.

The same woman had one minor complaint. “There’s not enough storage space in the rooms, but that’s a woman thing,” she said. Not necessarily. I noticed the same in my 270-square-foot deluxe veranda stateroom, but the ships come with multiple self-service laundry rooms, so I’d probably just pack lighter next time. No laundry duty for you at sea? I had good luck with the reasonably priced laundry and dry-cleaning service, paying $4 for a laundered dress shirt and $1 for a pair of socks.

Speaking of pricing, Viking prides itself on not nickel-and-diming its passengers. Your cruise fare includes all onboard meals (including 24-hour room service), beer and wine at lunch and dinner, minibar beverages and snacks, all port charges and government taxes, one shore excursion in every port, Wi-Fi, and access to the spa even if you have no treatment scheduled. Oh, laundry duty won’t cost you a cent, either.

WHERE THEY SAIL: Viking ocean ships cruise in Scandinavia and the Baltic, the Western and Eastern Mediterranean, North America, and the Caribbean. For its maiden season, the Viking Sun will embark on a 141-day world cruise spanning five continents and 35 countries. 855-884-5464; vikingcruises.com

Don’t Miss

Viking spends millions on all the specially curated art displayed throughout each of its ocean ships. Just one example of what you’ll see on the Sky: lithographs by noted Norwegian artist Edvard Munch hanging in the Living Room. While onboard, download the easy-to-use Viking Art Guide app for insightful commentary as you take in various pieces.

IN THE LANDS OF PYRAMIDS

Viking River Cruises has been offering Egypt itineraries, but on chartered ships. Come March, it will start sailing the Nile on its own boat, the 24-stateroom Viking Ra, which the company bought earlier this year and has been extensively renovating.In keeping with Viking tradition, the vessel will sport a Scandinavian design but with a few Egyptian touches, such as geometric Arabic patterns and terrazzo floors.

The Ra will be part of a new 12-day “cruisetour” in which guests will be based in a Cairo hotel the first three nights and spend their days touring iconic sites in the area, such as the Great Pyramids of Giza. They’ll then fly to Luxor for a day of touring before boarding the Ra for an eight-day round-trip cruise along the Nile to Aswan. They’ll get special access to the tomb of Nefertari in the Valley of the Queens and see other sites, such as the Temple of Khnum in Esna. At journey’s end, they’ll fly back to Cairo for a final night before their flight home.

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