James Shillinglaw | May 11, 2015 2:37 PM ET
Meet the Viking Star!
Think of a ship whose public spaces are separated into a series of living rooms, complete with comfortable chairs, couches, tables, books and Norwegian art work. You can spend hours on board, especially during sea days, just reading, playing games or contemplating the seas, rivers or coastlines of Europe.
A new star has arrived in cruising, at least for the premium, adult-oriented segment of the market, and that is Viking Cruises’ Viking Star, a nine-deck vessel carrying 930 passengers and displacing 47,800 gross registered tons. It's one of the most eagerly anticipated new ships in years, especially since it is the brainchild of maverick river cruise impresario Torstein Hagen, who has now taken his Viking river concept to the seas and then some.
I'm writing this column as we sail down the Seine from Rouen out to the English Channel on a five-day pre-inaugural sailing from Lisbon to London. There are real passengers onboard, though this is not a regular itinerary, including 125 who are booked from Istanbul to Bergen, Norway. The ship will be christened on May 17, Norwegian Constitution Day, in Bergen, and will officially begin scheduled sailings after that event.
The passengers on this cruise are experienced and many have sailed on Viking's river itineraries in Europe. They also represent an older demographic than Viking's stated focus on the 55-plus guest. Many seem to be 65-plus or much more, so it's a rather sedate cruise, especially most evenings. And that's a shame, since there is at least one rather good nightclub called Torshaven, after the founder himself, which hasn't seen many passengers on this cruise, aside from a few of the more boisterous journalists aboard.
That said, here are a few observations about Viking Star, which is set to compete in the small ship premium market.
As I wrote at the start, this is a ship divided into small living spaces. The main lounge on Deck 1 in the three-deck atrium is a great place for passengers who want to relax, read, drink coffee or eat pastry, or enjoy a drink at the bar.
It's also used nightly for entertainment, including pianists, a string instrument combo, and a classical guitarist. Guests lounge around in the "living room" or even sit on the grand staircase leading up to a giant backlit screen depicting photos of Norwegian nature.
Indeed, Norway and the Viking heritage of the ship's owner and operator, Tor Hagen, is evident through the decor of the vessel. The living spaces and staterooms are decorated in light woods and materials in a very modern and Scandinavian look.
Artwork throughout the ship is from Norwegian artists, except for the reproductions of the Bayeux Tapestry in the stairwells. And for those who don't know the history, the tapestry depicts the Norman invasion of England. The Normans (or Norsemen), who inhabited the northeastern region of France, were descendants of the Vikings. Carrying the Viking theme even further, there's a small museum of Viking heritage and history on Deck 2.
The small living spaces theme carries through to Deck 7, where there are two lounges to choose from. First there's the Explorer's Lounge, a two-level space overlooking the bow offering comfortable chairs, Norwegian artwork, lots of books, and even a small cafe featuring Norwegian specialties for breakfast, lunch and late-night snacks called Mamsen's, after Tor Hagen's mother.
Then there's the Wintergarden, a greenhouse-like lounge on Deck 7 located next to the pool, with lots of couches and chairs, as well as a bar. Here guests can take afternoon tea and also lounge around on sea days to read or play games.
Back on Deck 1, this ship has a very different flow compared to others I've been on. There are two specialty restaurants in the stern, Manfredi's and the Chef's Table (more on those later). Moving forward, guests get to the main atrium lounge I've described above, before passing by the Viking Shop (selling jewelry, cosmetics, etc.), a hair salon and then the reservations desk for the LiV Nordic Spa.
On most cruise ships the spa is located on an upper deck, but not on this one. The spa, featuring eight treatment rooms, also has a unique "snow" room where guests can quickly freeze themselves before going back to the sauna, a hot tub or large plunge pool.
Sticking to that pool theme, the ship's main pool, located on Deck 7 just behind the World Cafe dining area, features a magrodome that can slide over to enclose the entire pool area. There's also a second smaller infinity pool and hot tub in the stern on Deck 7. Guests can relax in that pool while looking directly out over the stern.
Deck 2 features the other main public space, starting in the stern with The Restaurant, the ship's main dining venue, a large space that circles the stern of the vessel. There's even a small living room space for guests waiting to meet for dinner.
Farther forward is the Viking Museum mentioned above and the second level of the atrium, where once again there is living room space, including card and game tables. That leads into another shopping area, including one store offering high-end jewelry and another featuring handbags, clothing and ship logo wear.
After the shops on Deck 2 comes the main nighttime venue, Torshaven, a bar and lounge located in the center of the ship complete with dance floor, combo band and DJ. But during our cruise it has been much underused, even though it's actually quite a nice space.
Moving toward the bow, guests get to the Star Theater, the ship's main entertainment venue. Featured on this cruise was an original musical called La Peregrina, which blended James Bond and Get Smart humor in a spy comedy. The proved to be pleasantly diverting.
The most original feature of the theater is a digital back screen that project any kind of scene or performance behind the live actors. Also featured was a comic vocalist named Paul Fredericks. The Star Theater is where most lectures also are held during the day, and the rear of the space can be partitioned off to create two movie theaters (though no movies were shown on this sailing).
Notably, Viking Star has no casino onboard, something Tor Hagen vowed he would not feature on his new oceangoing fleet. So if you're into gaming, this is most likely not the right ship for you.
What’s to Eat?
Dining venues onboard include aforementioned The Restaurant, Manfredi's and the Chef's Table. When planning the ship, Hagen said his main restaurant would be one people would like to eat in most of the time, instead of the specialty venues. To a large extent that seems to be true, according to the passengers I spoke with.
But a quick favorite has been Manfredi's, an Italian eatery named after Manfredi Lefebvre d'Ovidio, chairman of Silversea Cruises, a close personal friend of Hagen's. The restaurant features photos of Italian movie stars interspersed with a couple of Tor and Manfredi cooking up a storm. (I mean when have you ever seen a restaurant on a cruise ship named after another cruise line's top executive?)
Less successful so far is the Chef's Table, a tasting menu restaurant featuring food and wine pairings. The menu changes weekly, but most passengers seemed more interested in dining in other venues.
In between the Chef's Table and Manfredi's is the Kitchen Table, located not surprisingly next to the main kitchen. This offers a dining experience where guests help the chef shop for food in the morning and then help him cook it in the afternoon, before dining in the evening. At $299 per person, however, we didn't get to sample this experience this time around.
Up on Deck 7, the World Cafe, the ship's buffet-style restaurant, offers a series of food stations: sales and cold cuts, grill and main courses, desert and ice cream (fresh home-made gelato). The dining space itself is sleek, modern and comfortable, opening up to an Aquavit Terrace in the stern, where guests can dine al fresco next to the infinity pool.
Next to the pool, the Pool Grill offers hamburgers, hot dogs and salads, while in the Explorer's Lounge, the aforementioned Mamsen's Cafe features Norwegian specialties, including homemade soups, open-faced sandwiches, waffles with fruit and Norwegian desserts. Mamsen's, open for breakfast, lunch and late night snacks, and is quickly developing a following for those seeking a quick but delicious meal.
Finally, wine and beer is free at lunch and dinner; only premium wines and alcohol carry a charge.
As for the accommodations, Viking Star is an all-balcony ship (no inside cabins) and there are five stateroom categories: Explorer Suite, Penthouse Junior Suite, Penthouse Veranda, Deluxe Veranda and Veranda.
I'm on Deck 5 in a Penthouse Veranda cabin, which is spacious and comfortable with a large balcony. The room is decorated in Scandinavian style reminiscent of the accommodations aboard Viking's river ships. It features a comfortable king-size bed, large closet, more than adequate drawer space, a surprisingly large desk (designed with writers in mind obviously), a large couch, easy chair and coffee table.
The spacious bathroom comes with a large shower (Hagen once said he would not have bathtubs on his ships because he does not take baths), a designer sink, a large mirror and plenty of white towels.
There’s a minibar with free soda, beer, wine, champagne and snacks, providing a more inclusive, river-style cruise at sea.
Entertainment is provided by a 40-inch flat-screen TV with six "live" TV stations (Fox, CNBC, E Entertainment, MSNBC, BBC and an entertainment channel), a large selection of current and classic movies, and a selection of TV shows.
And that brings me to one of the few challenges on Viking Star: the Internet. This is free to guests (a real plus), but on this cruise at least the bandwidth was not good enough to send photos, though I have been able to send and receive emails and view websites. I guess you get what you pay for, which in this case is nothing (a plus on its own, I guess).
Then again, if you see a photo accompanying this column, I may have been able to send one through after all. I hope to provide a photo montage of Viking Star’s features when I reach land in London tomorrow.
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