The big apple on Viking Star

The big apple on Viking Star

Anthony Pearce joins Viking Cruises’ elegant Viking Star on its first departure from New York City. As the ship sails south towards the Caribbean.

On Friday evening, Viking Star sailed out of New York for the first time, leaving behind the city’s illuminated skyline for four nights at sea on a journey to San Juan. The Puerto Rican capital will be the ship’s base for its itineraries in the Caribbean this winter, and I was invited — along with US journalists and travel agents, and a handful of customers — to join this quite spectacular repositioning.

New York's incredible skyline
New York’s incredible skyline

It meant I had the chance to spend time in Manhattan, joining Jacqui, Wendy and Neil from the UK office in the Midtown Hilton — a few blocks from the likes of Central Park and the Museum of Modern Art — for one night before boarding the ship. We spent that evening in the shadow of the iconic Carnegie Hall, dining al fresco at an excellent Italian (drawing some confused looks, given the autumnal weather), allowing us to people watch, as some of New York’s many eye-catching characters wandered by.

The next morning, we gorged on waffles for breakfast at the nearby Brooklyn Diner, where portions start at supersize and get bigger, before heading to the Top of the Rock, taking in the world’s most famous skyline, the Empire State Building at its centre.

The Manhattan port, where the Star was docked, is remarkably close to the action — a 20-minute taxi ride from our hotel — and backs right onto the city. That evening, from the aft of the ship, we were able to enjoy one of the world’s most magical sights: New York City transforming from day into night, lighting up as the sun sets. Under this enchanting glow, we set sail, a little later than planned, by which time we were tucking into dinner at Manfredi’s — the magnificent presence of the New York City outside the window. There was tangible excitement as we approached the Statue of Liberty — even among the New Yorkers on board — making for a truly special moment.

The ship's famous steak didn't disappoint
The ship’s famous steak didn’t disappoint

I’d heard so much about the restaurant’s steak — the best at sea, I’d been told more times than I can remember — meaning I didn’t have to consult the menu to pick my main. The exceptional rib-eye that arrived, marinated for four days with salt and chilli flakes, exceeded even those lofty expectations.

Viking’s ocean offering launched last year to quite remarkable acclaim, I had been dying to get on board since. I now had four days to explore — but it took me about 10 minutes to fall in love with it. The Star brings the intimacy and the elegance of river cruise to a 930-passenger ocean vessel — and it looks beautiful.

True to the company’s Nordic ties is the influence of Scandinavian design on board, most obviously in the beautiful wooden chairs and tables of the Explorer Lounge and Wintergarden. But’s it’s much more than that. Viking has used the movement’s ethos of simplicity, minimalism and functionality throughout the ship. The Star may be luxurious but nothing here feels superfluous or over-the-top.

The attention to detail is so impressive because of the many human touches you find in both the rooms and public areas. My cabin, a massive penthouse veranda, is full of a little surprises: there’s under-floor heating in the bathroom, where the mirror doesn’t steam up and the (amazing) shower is easy to use; there’s an umbrella in the wardrobe (we’ve got you covered, reads the tag); and a pair of binoculars hidden away in a compartment in the desk with a vanity mirror.

The lobster wasn't bad either
The lobster wasn’t bad either

The more you look around the more you notice these gentle but clever touches. Mamsen’s (Norwegian for mum’s) serves mouthwatering waffles using the recipes of chairman Torstein Hagen’s own mother, and there’s even a black and white photograph of her and his daughter on the deli wall, giving it the feel of a family-run café. Nearby, at the entrance to this area, and beyond, in the Explorer Longue, are illuminated maps of constellations; and, on huge screen in the atrium, either images by Viking photographer Alastair Millar or works of art by Edvard Munch are displayed. In fact, all the artwork, like the calming décor, is incredibly tasteful.

Even more impressive is the retractable roof above the tranquil pool area, and the huge amount of outdoor space — on decks two and seven are promenades that loop around the ship.

The spa is perhaps the Viking Star’s most impressive area: I spent an afternoon there trying out the Norwegian technique of thermotherapy (at first with a little scepticism) of going from really hot places to really cold ones, which is said to aid circulation. That meant luxuriating in the enormous spa pool, Jacuzzi and steamroom and then standing in the snow room (quite literally a room full of snow) or under a bucket of icy water — and feeling, to my surprise, all the better for it. The rest of that afternoon was spent reading on deck, by the infinity pool, and looking out to sea as the sun set. Blissful doesn’t even begin cover it.

Compared to some ships, there aren’t tons of features on board. Hagen, who, on Saturday morning, gave an entertaining talk about the company’s 20-year history and expansion from river into ocean, was keen to point out how the things that Viking doesn’t do — for example, you will find no casinos here — sets it apart. As soon as I embarked I knew I wouldn’t be bored, that four nights at sea would fly by — and would mostly be spent eating.

The ship also offers you the chance to try and cook yourself
The ship also offers you the chance to try and cook yourself

After two days of pigging out — steak on Friday, exceptional lobster (followed by New York raspberry cheesecake) on Saturday, with burgers, pizzas and pretty much everything else in between — I decided to see it from the other side, taking some cookery classes in the Kitchen Table, an innovative space where guests are invited to help prepare meals. When the ship is in port, customers are able to head to local markets with chefs to source the ingredients. Inevitably, I ended up doing more eating than cooking, but just watching such an accomplished chef at work was a joy.

Viking’s ocean offering occupies an unusual place in the market. While it doesn’t brand itself as luxury as such, there is a lot included here, like on many of the high-end lines. That is: beer and wine with lunch and dinner; one shore excursion option in each port; wi-fi; use of the spa; and access to speciality (it calls them “alternative”) restaurants, including a wine-tasting menu and private dining space.

And it terms of looks there are few ships that can rival it. The result is one exceptional product.

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