When the chairman of Viking River Cruises set out to build his first ocean-going ship, he followed the theme song of many an aging free-thinker: Torstein Hagen did it his way.
Hagen’s new ship, the 930-passenger Viking Star, now is cruising to ports from Northern Europe to the Mediterranean Sea, following a May naming ceremony in Bergen, Norway. If you want to cruise on this ship during the next year or so, you will have to go to Europe, though a Viking spokeswoman said the company eventually wants to bring its Star to North America.
The goal in building Viking Star, and at least two and perhaps as many as nine future siblings, was to produce a vessel different from the competition in the cruise business.
Viking Star is Scandinavian modern and sophisticated. The ship’s public rooms are stunning for their design, simple seeming, but as detailed and quirky as Hagen. With so many eccentricities aboard, a week’s cruise may not be enough to find them all. One of Hagen’s favorites: Passengers with aging vision need not worry about taking their glasses into the shower to read labels on those little amenity bottles; words such as “shampoo” are in big letters. Tops twist open easily, too.
Hagen, 72, is fresh off his great successes at Viking River Cruises, amassing more than half of the American passengers on riverboats in Europe. He wanted an ocean ship that would appeal to folks who love river vacations because of their refined, intimate and cultural experiences.
That does not sound like the typical big-ship cruise vacation.
“We appeal to the upstairs of people,” Hagen says. “Sure, we serve excellent food, but our tours really are for people to continue to educate themselves. Forty-four percent of our river guests have a graduate degree.” Future Viking Star passengers may want to study up a bit.
Hagen, who once was involved deeply in management of Norway’s old and much loved Royal Viking Line, has spent decades studying how to start a new cruise brand — not a common occurrence because of the costs — and how to build a profitable ocean ship for his style of riverboat passenger.
The key to understanding the heart of Viking Star is to take its pulse. Start with a walk around the ship’s expansive, three-deck living room that fills the mid-ship area. On most big cruise ships, this is the atrium, full of bustle, commotion and clamor, bars and shops, and walkways crowded by daily displays of watches, jewelry and overpriced baubles that are touted intrusively over the loudspeaker.
Not on Viking Star.
This ship’s living room is furnished with a series of gathering spots as in a posh home, with arresting artwork and pockets of comfy chairs for quiet reading, casual conversations and playing board games.
All about the room, and the whole ship for that matter, are nooks and books, more books than ever seen on a cruise ship. Viking Star is like a floating library, with volumes, new and vintage, selected not for popularity but for their classical nature or their seaworthy usefulness, such as maps and charts, travelogues, geographical and historical perspectives. A warning: You could spend a week on Viking Star and miss the entire itinerary while camped out, reading through the libraries on a cushy couch.
What you won’t see anywhere on Viking Star: a casino, water slides or children.
Instead, the ship is similar to a riverboat on which passengers spend most of their days off the ship, in port, learning something cultural, returning to the vessel and relaxing with new friends in the evenings. Diversions aboard are personal, and Viking plans some sort of social gathering each day so passengers might get to know one another.
The Viking Ocean cruise rate includes basic Wi-Fi; entrance to the Nordic-inspired spa (for a steam and a walk in the snow grotto, a dip in hot and cold pools); an introductory shore excursion at each port; and meals at all restaurant choices, such as the informal buffet (with the same menu as the sit-down dining room), a chef’s table, and Manfredi’s, an Italian eatery named for Manfredi Lefebvre, chairman of Silversea Cruises.
Hagen sees his strongest cruise competition coming from such lines as Oceania and Azamara, which are similarly priced. He touts figures to show that Viking Star is a much better deal financially, but rate comparisons are difficult as this upper premium cruise category has many variables among cabin classes and what is included in the basic rate.
Viking, for instance, offers five cabin classes, starting in size at 270 square feet, which is large for a cruise ship. All cabins have a private balcony, but what is stocked in the complimentary mini-bar, from soft drinks to alcohol, depends on the category class.
Each upper premium cruise line also has its own list of included amenities. For example, one provides nearly all alcohol (Azamara), another no alcohol (Oceania), and a third beer and wine with lunch and dinner (Viking).
So, if price is the primary issue, consumers probably will do best to pick an itinerary and have a travel agent provide the comparative rates.
Viking Star reportedly is sold out for the summer and has strong bookings through December in the Med.
▪ Information: vikingcruises.com.
David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com