Jeannine Williamson enjoys modern Scandinavian hospitality among the delights of ancient Greece on a trip with Viking Cruises – and hears all about the line’s exciting expansion plans
It’s 8am and, wearing just a swimsuit and flip flops, I push open the wooden door and step onto a crunchy layer of fresh snow, catching my breath in the frosty air. Afterwards I warm up in a bubbling hot tub before going for another snowy stroll – finding a tiny snowman built by another early morning walker.
The whole thing wouldn’t seem quite so incongruous if I was in Scandinavia. However, outside the warm spring sunshine is reflecting on the glistening water where the Aegean meets the Med and rising over the 14th century walls surrounding Rhodes, capital of the Greek Dodecanese islands. However, I quickly found that with Viking even seasoned cruisers should be prepared for the unexpected; from the snow grotto in the spa to the private sauna in the flat-sized 135 square metre Owner’s Suite.
Sailing at the start of Viking Sky’s maiden season provided plenty of opportunity to learn how this Scandi-cool line – charting a course to become the largest small ship ocean cruise line by 2019 – offers passengers a very different experience. Viking’s third ocean ship, being christened on June 22 in Tromso, is a near identical sibling to Viking Star and Sea launched in 2015 and 2016 respectively. This November Viking Sun joins the fleet, with Viking Spirit debuting in 2018 and three more vessels launching between 2019 and 2022.
The original Vikings were famous for ground-breaking voyages, sailing huge distances from their Scandinavian homeland to raid and plunder. More recently, Torstein Hagen conquered the river cruise market after founding Viking 20 years ago and growing it into the world’s largest river cruise fleet, twice breaking Guinness World Records for the largest number of riverboats christened on the same day, and effectively putting river cruise on the map for other lines. With Viking’s foray into the ocean world he has steered a determined course and bucked the trend for all-singing, all-dancing seagoing giants.
Carrying 930 passengers in sea-facing staterooms, that come in five easy to comprehend categories rather than a bewildering number, we soon found our way around the nine-deck ship which provides a feeling of déjà vu for anyone familiar with the Viking Longships. Stylish, understated design is a feature throughout, and the beautiful public areas are filled with books, stunning artwork plus a live mural of ever-changing images dominating the staircase in the atrium.
Viking’s foray into the ocean world has bucked the trend for all-singing, all-dancing seagoing giants
That said, it takes a few days to discover some of the fun, idiosyncratic details such as cheeky Norwegian trolls peeking out as you go up and down in the lift, the Norse god Odin’s pair of black ravens keeping a watchful eye over things in the airy winter garden shaded by contemporary ‘trees’, a fun animated version of the Bayeux Tapestry and a floating museum of artefacts, including a meteorite, that evoke the Viking spirit of discovery.
What the ship lacks actually adds up to a number of key selling points for clients looking for a sophisticated cruise with like-minded travellers. There’s no waterpark, casino, loud music, sail away parties or constant announcements on the adult-only vessel. Some of my favourite moments were sitting on the wraparound promenade deck, or on my balcony, enjoying the views as Viking Sky slipped silently in and out of port.
We joined the 14-night Cities of Antiquity & the Holy Land itinerary from Rome to Athens, with nine included tours to fascinating and diverse destinations such as Heraklion, Jerusalem, Limassol and Crete.
Viking’s culture-rich experience has just been enhanced even further with the recent introduction of Viking Resident Historians; expert onboard lecturers who also host round-table discussions, themed dinners and hold daily ‘office hours’ for one-to-one time.
Hagen has essentially put the best parts of river cruise on an ocean ship, including free wi-fi, wine with lunch and dinner and an included shore excursion in almost every port. There is also more time in destinations, often late into the evening or overnight, allowing for one or two excursions or the chance to explore under your own steam, stopping to find a bar or restaurant in between sightseeing.
In Rhodes, Sky moored next to the bustling Unesco-listed historic quarter, which is Europe’s largest inhabited medieval city and a testament to the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem who conquered the island in medieval times, bringing great wealth from the Holy Land. Entering the walled old town I strolled up the steep, cobbled Street of the Knights leading to the Grand Master’s Palace, now an impressive museum. Afterwards I sat in one of the many street cafes with cup of strong coffee and a honey drenched baklava, a popular Greek treat.
Back on the ship the food was equally delicious, with a range of dining options all included in the fare. There’s the main dining room, The Restaurant, with plenty of tables for two, the expansive World Cafe buffet with a novel open kitchen, casual Aquavit Terrace, cosy Mamsen’s serving Norwegian-style food and a barbecue by the main pool which has a retractable roof. Alternative dinner venues are the Chef’s Table, with eight rotating tasting menus that change every three days, and the outstanding Manfredi’s serving imaginative Italian dishes, including steaks that the carnivores in our group declared the best they’d ever had.
When it’s time to relax the infinity pool at the back of the ship provides a dip with a view. The vessel also stands out with its Nordic-themed spa with a succinct menu of treatments. Adding to the bliss is the complete lack of hard sell to buy products. Onboard during our trip was Wendy Atkin-Smith, MD at Viking Cruises UK, and head of sales Neil Barclay, who provided further insight into the company’s ongoing growth and support for agents.
In common with its historic Viking counterparts, it’s constantly expanding its horizons. While other lines have been slow to return to Egypt, a destination that has suffered due to instability, Viking has bought a 48-passenger Nile ship that will be revamped in its trademark Scandinavian style with cruises starting in spring 2018.
“We know from our passengers that people still want to go there and others are looking for something new,” explained Atkin-Smith. “There has always been a lot of interest in Egypt and the Nile is a classic river cruise destination. We are also going back to the Ukraine.”
The debut of Viking Sun will herald Viking’s first ever world cruise, a 141-day journey through five continents, 35 countries and 66 ports, which is also noteworthy for its break with tradition.
In common with its historic Viking counterparts, the line is constantly expanding its horizons
“We are not selling it in segments, which is very unusual for a world cruise, and passengers will sail on the whole itinerary,” added Atkin-Smith. As a testimony to this philosophy, sales for the cruise departing December 2017 have been very strong, with only Deluxe Veranda cabins still available at the time of going to press.
A total of 13 new itineraries will be rolled out in 2017, 2018 and 2019, including a 14-night Miami round-trip to Panama and Central America, 14-night Australia and New Zealand itinerary and 10-night Alaska sailing.
Barclay said: “We have invested heavily in the trade with our new Made for Trade website and quarterly magazine Hei!. We have two people permanently on the road, in the north and south, and now have a dedicated team working on oceans to help agents. It is very easy for agents who are used to selling our river product to sell our ocean product as it is such a comparable experience with similar features and inclusions such as all outside cabins, complimentary drinks with meals, free excursions and wi-fi.”
The final word goes to Atkin-Smith, who said: “We have got the river product very well covered, where people will see further expansion is on the ocean side. Keep an eye out!”