Typically, it’s the biggest cruise ships that grab the headlines, the ones that could carry the entire population of a small city, have more restaurants than Ocean Drive, and claim the most thrilling recreational amenities at sea.
But a smaller class of ships is becoming popular, vessels that have a more intimate feel, can get into smaller harbors than the big ships can and offer neither Broadway stage shows nor giant water slides. It’s only a sliver of the cruise market, but the segment is growing.
Viking Cruises, which popularized European river cruises among Americans, has brought its oceangoing cruise ships to the United States, and they fit right into that category. They are 745 feet long, have nine public decks and can carry 930 guests.
Viking launched its first oceangoing ship in 2015 and now has four ships in that fleet, with more in the works. It added Miami-based cruises in November; the last one of the season, on Viking Sky, will depart PortMiami on Sunday. The line will return in November. Although none of them will stay long, three Viking ships will sail out of Miami at some point in 2018.
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My introduction to Viking’s ocean cruises for this review was aboard the line’s newest ship, Viking Sun, on a cool Friday afternoon in December. The room steward, Muhammad, found me as I was unpacking and acquainted me with my stateroom. He showed me how to use the coffee maker, power drapes, reading lights in the headboard and heated floor in the bathroom. He said the air conditioning would shut off if I left the door to the balcony open. He pointed out the mini-fridge, stocked with soda, water and a bottle of sparkling wine.
Later, I stood on my balcony and watched other cruise ships pull away from the dock and move slowly toward open water. When Viking Sun departed Miami for the south coast of Cuba, the sun had set.
For people who have been on a Viking river cruise, a trip on a Viking ocean cruise will seem familiar. Although the ship carries five times as many passengers, it has the same architectural style, with blond woods, clean lines and an airy feel. The nighttime entertainment is small-scale and subdued. There are no formal nights. The average passenger is 65, well traveled, English speaking and financially comfortable. Bedtime comes early.
The oceangoing ships could be called casual elegant. They are chic but comfortable, their decor strongly influenced by their Nordic roots. There are six classes of staterooms, from 270 to 1,448 square feet; all have verandas. Unlike other cruise lines, all of Viking’s oceangoing ships are identical.
Viking’s ocean cruises generally fit in the niche between premium and luxury — usually higher fares, more space and crew per guest than Princess, Holland America or Celebrity but less than Seabourn or Regent Seven Seas. A daily shore excursion — typically a basic city tour — is included in the price; premium excursions are available for an extra fee. Wine and beer are included with lunch and dinner, but there’s a charge for drinks at a bar. None of the dining options costs extra.
They tend to be destination-oriented ships rather than floating resorts. Instead of big-stage entertainment and gee-whiz features like bumper cars or surf pools to tempt guests to stay onboard during a port call, Viking offers lectures, free shore excursions and destination-inspired menus to whet appetites for sightseeing.
One word you won’t hear in a description of a Viking cruise is raucous. Its ships don’t have casinos, so there are no slot machine bells ringing, no shrieking over the spin of a roulette wheel. The trivia competition is sedate. No loud games or contests by the pool, no karaoke bar, and considering the age of the passengers, no chugging contests. In fact, Viking cruises don’t allow guests under the age of 18, so there are no young feet pounding down the corridor outside staterooms, no sugar-fueled screams as bedtime approaches. Say aaahhhh.
It was Viking’s river cruises that turned the line — established in 1997 with four ships — into a cruise powerhouse. The company zeroed in on the U.S. market, targeted its preferred demographic by sponsoring TV’s “Downton Abbey” and other Masterpiece Theater shows, and now has 63 river ships. Viking has plans to add river cruises in North America, but has not announced a date.
The idea for ocean cruises came from Viking’s chairman, Torstein Hagen, and came to fruition less than three years ago with a single oceangoing ship cruising Europe. Viking expanded to the Caribbean in late 2016, with ships sailing out of Puerto Rico, then added Miami-based cruises a year later.
“Most of our [river cruise] passengers were taking ocean cruises and were dissatisfied. There is too much nickel-and-diming,” said Richard Marnell, senior vice president for marketing. “We designed the [ocean] experience with them in mind. What we didn’t expect is that they would love it as much as they do. We didn’t think we would be building so many ships.”
In addition to the four oceangoing ships already sailing, Viking has two under construction — one to be delivered in June, the other in 2019 — plus two on order, and options for two more.
Viking’s target market is the English-speaking world, Marnell said, and 85 percent of its customers are from the United States. Most are older repeat customers.
“We like to think that quiet and serenity is the new luxury and that we can best offer that by having only adults on board,” Marnell said.
I’ve been trying to decide what I liked best about Viking Sun and I’ve narrowed it down to these three points: the heated bathroom floors; the variety of dining choices with no extra fee; and the peace that comes with having no children on board.
I also appreciate Viking’s destination-oriented philosophy. I don’t mind if a ship doesn’t offer a lot of entertainment and other activities if we’re spending most of our time in ports, as most Viking ships do. But when a weeklong cruise has two sea days, as ours did — because of the time it takes to get to Cuba’s south coast — that skimpy menu of activities and entertainment needs to be beefed up.
Here’s a rundown of what a Viking ocean ship is like.
Viking’s ocean ships have 465 staterooms in six categories, ranging from the veranda and deluxe veranda at 270 square feet to the owner’s suite at 1,448 square feet (the square footage includes the balcony). Most of the staterooms — 272 — are deluxe verandas. All have just one bedroom with a king bed or two twins.
The staterooms are attractive and well designed, making good use of space, especially in the bathrooms, which feel bigger than they are. Drawer space is good, closet space is adequate (but there are free self-service laundry facilities so you can stretch a small wardrobe). The furniture echoes the simple, straight lines and light woods of the ship’s public spaces.
The rooms have 42-inch flat-screen TVs, Wi-Fi at no extra charge, a mini-fridge with soda and snacks (no charge), carafes that are regularly refilled with filtered water, safes and 24-hour room service. All but the basic veranda cabins also come with movies-on-demand, binoculars and coffee makers.
The owner’s suite — there’s only one — is the antithesis of other ships’ glamorous owner’s suites loaded with luxury amenities. It is the size of a modest condo and its decor is as understated as the rest of the ship. In addition to the bedroom with a large veranda, it has a living room with a dining area, a boardroom with a fireplace, a small kitchen/pantry, three bathrooms (double sinks and a full-size tub in the master bath) and a dry sauna.
There are also 42 basic veranda staterooms, the same size as the deluxe stateroom but with fewer amenities; 104 penthouse verandas at 338 square feet; 32 penthouse junior suites at 405 square feet; and 14 explorer suites with at least 757 square feet.
I ate at least once in each venue, and in each, the menus are well thought out, the food well prepared. The dishes tend more toward the traditional than the creative, but with healthy updates. Portions are small. Most of the restaurants close at 9 p.m. Between midnight and 6:30 a.m., room service is the only dining option.
The Restaurant is the main dining room. The menu has a nice variety of well-executed dishes from burgers to pasta to fresh fish, but a few quirks, including a nicoise salad that comes without tuna. Another example: When the waiter served my burger, he neither brought nor offered condiments. When I asked, it took about 10 minutes before he returned with a small bowl of mustard that he spooned onto my cooling burger until I said “enough.” If you want a burger, get it at the pool bar. The condiments are right there, and they’re self-serve. Extra points: Big windows with great views.
The World Cafe is the pool-deck buffet, again with plenty of windows, as well as an outdoor seating area called Aquavit Terrace at the rear of the ship. The selection is not as large as on big ships, but the hot section of the buffet includes prepare-to-order pasta and wok stations. There’s also a deli section, and pizza is served at lunch and dinner. I liked the seafood and sushi bar so well that I never got beyond it — except for the dessert bar.
Manfredi’s is an Italian restaurant with a good-sized and sophisticated menu with Italian classics like caprese salad, osso buco, fettuccine carbonara and its signature Bistecca Fiorentina, as well as more creative takes. One night I had an appetizer of mussels and crab in a light broth, veal wrapped in prosciutto with risotto and an unexpectedly plain side of asparagus. Reservations are required, and the category of your stateroom determines how many evenings you’re guaranteed a seat, but you can eat there on other nights if tables are available.
The Chef’s Table rotates through a series of set four-course menus (five if you count the sorbet) that are themed to a particular country or region, with wine pairings included. The dishes are more experimental than in the other restaurants. One night I had beef cheek consommé with truffle and quenelles of sole with a French bistro dinner. Another night, the meal began with a contemporary interpretation of a “Roman Empire delicacy”: a goat cheese mousse with cucumber jelly, goat cheese foam, puree of romaine and hazelnuts. If you’re not an adventurous eater, beware — there are no choices or substitutions. Chef’s Table has the same reservations system as Manfredi’s.
Other eateries: The Pool Grill has the usual selection of burgers and other hot sandwiches, plus a small salad bar. Mamsen’s, located in the Explorers Lounge, offers a small selection of Norwegian sandwiches, soup and pastries. In the Wintergarden, afternoon tea is served, with scones, finger sandwiches and tiny pastries.
Aboard Viking Sun, I never lost sight of the ship’s Nordic roots. So many details: Art by Edvard Munch, the Norwegian painter. Under the atrium stairway, a patchwork garden of lichen, rock and other natural materials from Norway. An oak cask of aquavit, spirits that, according to Norwegian tradition, should be carried on a ship across the equator and back. A tiny Viking Heritage Museum. On the carpet, a line drawing of a Viking longship, sections of which are repeated elsewhere in the decor.
At the heart of the ship is its “living room,” a three-deck atrium with collections of books, board games and tabletop digital games, a variety of seating and a bar that also serves coffee drinks, coffee and muffins. It’s comfortable, spacious and has the feel of a town center — albeit a very small town — with shops, guest services, the salon and fitness center clustered around it. A classical trio performs here, as do a pianist and, separately, a guitarist; it is the center for much of the entertainment.
One of my favorite spaces is the two-level Explorer’s Lounge on Decks 7 and 8 at the front of the ship, where guests can see the ship’s course through floor-to-ceiling windows. The carpet is patterned with compass roses; elsewhere are depictions of constellations and an exhibit celebrating Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer. The lounge has a bar, overstuffed chairs and couches, and a fireplace. Mamsen’s is usually the last place serving food late at night.
The ship has two pools. The central pool has a retractable roof and lots of deck space with loungers, some of them shaded. A second, smaller pool with an infinity edge is at the rear of the pool deck, on the Aquavit Terrace outside the World Cafe.
Part of the main pool complex is the Wintergarden, which is perhaps the ship’s most elegant space. It has upholstered seating, a design that looks like the glass roof is held up by stylized trees, and was my favorite spot for reading a book.
The sports deck has a mini-golf course, shuffleboard and a bocce ball green. A lap around the promenade on Deck 2 is about a quarter-mile.
SPA AND FITNESS CENTER
Even if you’ve overlooked all the other hints at the ship’s Nordic roots, it will be hard to miss them in the spa. The thermal suite features Norway’s cold/hot (or hot/cold) bath treatments with a snow grotto and a warm pool of salt water; there are also dry saunas and cold plunge pools. The alternating hot and cold are believed to be good for blood circulation. The thermal suite is free to all passengers, apart from any spa treatments.
The spa offers the usual array of massages, facials and other treatments. There are also a salon and barbershop.
The fitness center is small, but equipment includes weight machines, free weights, treadmills, and stationary bicycles. A small fitness studio offers classes including yoga and Pilates, and a personal trainer is available. It seemed that no matter what hour I passed by, at least a few people were on treadmills and bicycles or working with weights.
Most of the large-scale entertainment takes place in the Star Theater, which has a main stage and two cinemas. My cruise had an ABBA tribute show here and a screening of “La Boheme.” Port talks and lectures by experts on destination-related topics are held in the Star Theater too. Some performances also take place on the pool deck — we had a Beatles tribute show there. On some nights, movies are shown on a big screen overlooking the pool. The Torshavn bar on Deck 2 has live music and dancing at night, and an occasional whiskey, wine or Armagnac tasting.
▪ Information: www.vikingcruises.com/oceans