Viking Star brings river cruising to the ocean

Most new ships make waves because of their increasingly-elaborate amenities. From robotic bartenders to skydiving simulators, it seems there’s nothing that can’t be put aboard a cruise ship these days. Viking Cruises 930-guest Viking Star isn’t like that. She has books where other lines have iPads; outdoor solariums where others have ropes courses and waterslides. And she’s winning the hearts and minds of cruisers around the world.

Viking StarCourtesy of Viking Cruises

It’s hard to believe that a ship that is 754 feet long and 94.5 feet wide could be considered “small”, but that’s where the brand-new Viking Star fits into the overall world of cruising. In an age where there’s no shortage of ships that carry you and a few thousand of your friends, a ship that holds under a thousand guests starts feeling like your own private yacht in no time at all.

The antidote to the homogeneity that has become the watchword of mainstream cruises, everything aboard Viking Star is unexpected – and surprisingly wonderful.

The first thing I noticed when I boarded in Greenwich, England was that Viking Star lacks a formal check-in area; preferring a small, unassuming alcove off the side of The Living Room on Deck 1. Here, smiling Viking reception girls are armed with portable laptop computers. Check-in aboard Viking Star is a brief formality rather than an unpleasant ordeal.

Viking Star_Living RoomCourtesy of Viking Cruises

Viking Star doesn’t have an onboard library – because the ship is the library. Books are such a huge staple aboard Viking Star that they’re included in every single public room. Nearly all are related to world, maritime or polar history, and all can be taken and read onboard as you please. It’s like the book collection in my fantasy library.

To call the décor “understated Scandinavian elegance” is to do it a disservice. The interior design in both public rooms and staterooms is absolutely breathtaking, from the outrageously clear two-and-a-half story digital screen in front of the gran atrium staircase that projects images of your next port of call to reproductions of the famous Bayeux Tapestry that adorn the main stairwell landings from Decks 1 to 8. Each stateroom even features hand-drawn artwork of famous cities around the world created by children in China that attend Viking-sponsored schools.

Viking Star_Penthouse JSCourtesy of Viking Cruises

On the accommodations front, Viking Star features six different types – all of which include a private balcony. The smallest stateroom, designed with the same functional elegance found aboard the Viking Longships, measures a spacious 270 square feet. At the high end is the Owner’s Suite on Deck 7, which spans 1,448 square feet and was personally designed by Viking Cruises Chairman Torstein Hagen himself.

Relaxation extends outside of the staterooms. The LivNordic Spa aboard Viking Star takes the thermal suite concept to entirely new levels – and not just because it’s tucked down in the bow on Deck 1 instead of being located on some absurdly-high deck. This spa is a veritable wonderland, with a massive hydrotherapy pool, heated thermal loungers, aromatic steam rooms, saunas, and even a Nordic Snow Room that produces real snow.

I figured that, like most lines, a fee of a little over a hundred dollars for the entire week would apply as the price of admission for this relaxing experience. Imagine my shock when I found out that access to the thermal suite doesn’t cost anything. I had to ask the girl at the front desk again, who laughed and told me that yes, it was complimentary.

Viking Star_Nordic SpaCourtesy of Viking Cruises

That approach of giving you more than you would expect spreads to other facets of the onboard experience. Beer, wine and soft drinks are complimentary with lunch and dinner. Pressing and dry-cleaning are provided free of charge in many stateroom categories, and complimentary self-service laundry stations are located on each deck. At least one shore excursion option is provided at no extra cost in each port, and Wi-Fi internet access is also provided free of charge.

Most complimentary excursions – like the one offered in Bergen, Norway – tend to be comprehensive walking tours similar to what the line would provide on their river cruises. These can include coach transfers to more out-of-the-way points of interest that might be harder to reach from the ship on-foot, and typically include the option to stay in town following the tour to return to the ship on your own. They also utilise the QuietVox audio headsets, meaning you can wander from your guide and never miss a bit of information.

Reservations at the specialty restaurants onboard Viking Star are also inclusive, with preference given on the category of your stateroom. According to Hagen, the food onboard was always designed to be “good” – quality, local fare that didn’t go overboard. The line, he stated, isn’t trying to win awards for their cuisine, preferring to focus on their commitment to destinations. However, I think Viking might have failed in this respect: the quality of the onboard food, from the casual World Café buffet to the Italian-inspired elegance of Manfredi’s, starts approaching the level you’d expect from luxury lines that cost twice what Viking is charging.

Viking Star_WintergardenCourtesy of Viking Cruises

The elegant Wintergarden on Deck 7 is the nicest space I’ve seen on any cruise ship, hands down. After almost 100 voyages, I thought I’d seen it all – yet Viking Star continued to impress at every turn. Even the most jaded cruiser can’t fail to be wowed when, with the push of a button, the full-height dining room windows electronically whoosh open, letting in the warm European air. It’s a technological marvel, and Viking applied the same technology to the casual World Café on Deck 7. Suddenly, even the most mundane meal is a seaside wonder.

Viking Star will have two new sister ships in the next few years with Viking Sea arriving in 2016 and Viking Sky debuting in 2017. If Viking gets its way, you could eventually see ten of these sleek, nibble little ships plying the waters of the world.

Sounds like music to our ears.

Written by Aaron Saunders. Originally published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles Fall/Winter 2015 issue.

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