Scandi style and charm meet value for money on a Viking Ocean cruise, as James Litston discovers in the Caribbean.
I don’t think I have ever seen waves quite as tall as this. Great walls of water eight metres high are bearing down on Viking Sky, with every impact causing the ship to reverberate to its core. From where I’m sitting, at a window-facing table, the view dramatically oscillates between angry water and menacing sky as we ride the rollercoaster of the ocean’s pitch-and-trough swell.
We have sailed into the tail end of an Atlantic tropical storm and the turbulent scene outside is by turns fascinating and alarming. It’s all business as usual for the staff on breakfast duty, though. Waiters gamely ignore the ship’s motion as they dart between tables with coffee and juice; I don’t see a single drop spilled as they deftly tend to passengers’ cups.
“You think this is bad?” the restaurant manager asks me jovially. “The worst I’ve seen at sea was more like 10-metre waves. Now that was rough!”
Not everyone is weathering the spectacle well, however. Some passengers look decidedly green, and a good few are camped out on the lowest guest floor, nearer the ship’s centre of gravity. It is said that the motion is least severe here, although massive waves breaking over the windows are reminders of the sea’s ferocity. But for those better able to take the ship’s erratic rolling in their stride, it’s an undeniably exciting and memorable start to an ocean cruise.
We’d set out the previous evening from New York’s Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, where the Downtown skyline and Statue of Liberty made for a picture-perfect backdrop to our departure. Ahead lies a two week Around the Caribbean Sea itinerary, with stops including St Kitts, St Lucia, Curacao, Aruba and Grand Cayman before disembarking in Miami, where Viking Sky will homeport for the winter. But first we have three relaxing sea days to look forward to; and once we leave the storm behind and reach much calmer waters, everyone is able to enjoy the ship’s facilities.
It is these onboard amenities – in tandem with excellent service and value for money – that make Viking Cruises stand out in a crowded market. From a Viking museum to the LivNordic Spa, the brand’s Norwegian heritage is everywhere, though most evidently in the interior design. A classy, pared-back colour scheme of blues, browns, greys and off- whites reflects the colours of earth and ocean, and a focus on natural materials means plenty of blond wood, leather and wicker.
With three days at sea, there’s ample time to admire the attention invested in Viking’s finer details. I love the Scandi-style furnishings, especially the reindeer-hide throws and artificial fire place in the cosy Explorers’ Lounge. A retractable roof makes the pool deck welcoming in any weather, while hand-woven blankets and comfy cushions make the bright and airy Winter garden feel very inviting. Other nice touches include private verandas with every stateroom, plus under-floor heating in the bathrooms. Even the pens are thoughtfully designed: square barrels ingeniously stop them rolling on the desk.
Similarly, the restaurants have beautiful tableware from high-end German and Nordic brands – all the better for showcasing standout cuisine. From the buffet to speciality dining, the quality is exceptional; and while menus are global in their scope, open sandwiches, smoked salmon and cinnamon buns stay true to the line’s Norwegian roots. I am particularly impressed by the World Cafe’s ocean-fresh sushi bar but the real star of the show is Manfredi’s, whose Italian fare must surely make it one of the best restaurants at sea.
Another plus point for Manfredi’s is that both it and Chef’s Table (the other speciality restaurant) can be enjoyed without surcharge, along with such other extras as room service, Wi-Fi and mealtime wines and beers. Of course, clients who enjoy a tipple can upgrade with a Silver drinks package that includes cocktails and champagne; but at just $19.95 per person per day, even this seems absurdly affordable.
Also included in the price is an excursion in each port of call, which is something I take advantage of when we finally reach dry land. Our first landfall is St Kitts, and today’s complimentary excursion involves a bus tour of the capital, Basseterre, and a visit to historic Fairview Great House.
The two-hour tour is well-paced and well attended (all four scheduled departures are fully subscribed) and concludes with some Caribbean-style limin’ over a chilled Carib beer on Fairview’s sunny, sea facing terrace. It also leaves sufficient time for an optional excursion (at extra cost), so I plump for the Nature Kayaking experience to compensate for onboard overeating. As is often the case with active excursions, sign-up is poor: I am one of just four participants. But whereas other cruise lines I have sailed with might have cancelled the trip if it does not meet minimum numbers, today’s adventure goes ahead regardless, avoiding disappointment all round.
This level of customer-focused service permeates the entire cruise experience and, along with the inclusions and first-rate facilities, makes Viking truly shine. With all four ships being essentially identical, clients can expect consistency across the brand; and there’s soon to be greater choice too, with four more ships being added by 2022, starting this summer with Viking Orion. The full, eight-strong fleet will make Viking the largest small-ship ocean cruise line.
Agents should feel confident recommending it to clients who enjoy quality, style and understated elegance. With no kids, no casino and no stuffy formality, it is also a good bet for younger-than-average cruise clients and even first-timers, especially those who might previously have dismissed cruising as “not for them”. For agents, selling Viking Cruises should be plain sailing – notwithstanding excessively stormy seas.
Book it: An 11-night West Indies Explorer itinerary costs from £2,490pp in March 2018, based on two sharing an ocean-facing cabin and including flights, transfers and full board.