Viking Ocean Cruises, the coastal cruising arm of the river behemoth, doubled its small fleet this month with the addition of Viking Sea. To those who know that Viking River morphed into the largest river cruise line by building — to date — some 46 nearly identical «Longship» vessels — it won’t come as a huge surprise that the company is taking somewhat the same approach with its ocean offshoot. There’s very little difference between Sea and Star (the line’s original newbuild), save for cosmetics like art collections and some furnishings.
That’s a good thing because the 930-passenger vessels are beautifully designed with a spare, yet warm and light-filled, Nordic influence. Numerous public lounges and a sprawling sundeck manage to be cozy and airy at the same time. The line’s all-open-seating dining scheme features a main dining venue, buffet cafe with the industry’s first open kitchen in a buffet space, a superb Italian restaurant, and numerous other options. Its spa is not only the most beautiful at sea but also the most generous — there’s no fee whatsoever required to use the sumptuous thalassotherapy pool, steam, sauna and snow room, a highly unusual option in cruising.
And the ship’s pretty cabins — each one has a private verandah — are efficiently designed to make use of more square footage than is average on cruise ships today. Bathrooms are luxurious, with heated tile floors and towel warmers among the delights.
These features are old news. What we noticed aboard Viking Sea’s first revenue cruise in early April was how much attention was being paid to softer stuff. Executives have been tweaking offerings like entertainment, enrichment, excursions and menus since Star originally launched, and you can see definite improvement here on Sea.
Local flavor. Always a destination intense experience, Viking has punched up port calls to reflect more local flavor. On shore, all passengers have the option to take at least one included-in-cruise-fare tour. While still meant to be basic trundles around town, the tours now feature smaller groups than before, more scheduling options (the addition of afternoon tours, for instance), and a better quality of guides. Beyond that, the line’s extra-fee excursions, meant for those who are interested in a more in-depth experience, offer additional range. On our voyage, a home visit in Santorini was a particular highlight, as was a 4 x 4 off-road adventure in Montenegro’s remote countryside.
Chef’s Table revamp. Viking Ocean’s Chef’s Table restaurant, originally meant to be a theme-based, course-by-course wine pairing experience didn’t appeal on the line’s original ship. After long days in port, passengers weren’t necessarily interested in overly leisurely dining. The restaurant’s rather rigid by-reservation-only and set seating policy also didn’t jibe with the otherwise more fluid nature of the Oceans’ ambience. As a result, company chefs have shaken up the Chef’s Table, relaxing the rules and increasing rotation of menus, so that even on a 10-night trip there’s an opportunity to try three different cuisines. They’ve also increased the range of themes (new on our visit was a delicious Scandinavian bistro menu and a crowd-pleasing China-themed meal). What we loved about the Chef’s Table in its tweaked incarnation is that it offers a wider variety of culinary options that are typically found on a ship of this size.
Better food. On last year’s Viking Star, we thought the quality of the cuisine onboard was pretty good. On this year’s Viking Sea, it’s clear that a lot of effort and thought has been given to raising the bar even further. Now each night, you’ll find a regional menu choice that offers specialties from that day’s port of call (along with continental cuisine and lovely always-on-the-menu staples like roast chicken and poached salmon). There’s a stronger effort as well to offer more complimentary wines that reflect the region. And a shout-out has to go to the ship’s room service menu and the new gourmet comfort food offerings; don’t miss the homemade macaroni and cheese and, if you really want to indulge, the chili cheese fries.
Enrichment. The first sign we got that the line’s enrichment program had been reconfigured was when our extended stay in Istanbul was morphed to a location further south, in the heart of the Dardanelles. That night, a retired British admiral who served as the onboard lecturer hosted an impromptu talk, as we passed through this military-laden historic spot in Turkey. Just for fun. That talk — which encouraged us to attend other of his presentations on history, both remote and recent — was a highlight of the cruise.
Still, there are some areas in which Viking Sea does miss. Among them:
Service hotspots. On a ship whose service is almost always consistently superb, there are two areas that need work on Viking Sea. The Restaurant, the main dining room, has been particularly poor, especially with breakfast and lunch. It’s a combination of a not-very-warm welcome (on several visits I had to wander through the restaurant to find a table) to orders getting lost or severely delayed (one hour wait for a burger, for instance).
We also weren’t terribly impressed by the encounters we had (or witnessed) at the purser’s desk area, otherwise known as «customer service». In one case a woman was asking for a copy of a flyer on booking another cruise and the woman behind the desk told her to come back the next day — seriously? My own experience with an issue on my bill wasn’t handled particularly well.
Music in cabins. On a ship where music is celebrated in nearly every public space, from beautifully played classic trios to a rollicking great fun Beatles-themed show, it’s odd that the otherwise very-well-stocked in—cabin television/entertainment system doesn’t have a music channel. We’re told that the company is developing one.
Cabin tables. The ship’s wonderful in-cabin dining menu is first rate, particularly if you’re dining on your private balcony, because the table there is of the proper height. But if you’re noshing in your cabin, you either pull a chair up to the desk, or eat on your lap as the in-cabin coffee table is not height-adjustable.