by Aaron Saunders

More than a thousand years ago, Leif Erikson arrived on the shores of present-day Newfoundland. His Viking settlement would go undiscovered until the 1960’s, when the significance of present-day L’anse aux Meadows was recognized. It’s no accident that Viking Cruises chose this historic location as the first North American port of call on the company’s first-ever journey across the Atlantic. 

L'Anse aux MeadowsL'Anse aux Meadows national Historic Site in Newfoundland - courtesy of Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism/Barrett & Mackay Photo

Three years ago, Viking’s ocean cruise division was nothing more than a spark in Chairman Torstein Hagen’s imagination. Now, its flagship, the 930-guest Viking Star, has completed her first-ever transatlantic crossing as Viking prepares to operate its very first cruises in North America – and Canada is playing a starring role. In fact, the entire latter half of this historic itinerary is exclusively Canadian, with not a single American port of call to be found.

For a city that gets over 230 days of rain per year, it was sunny and unseasonably warm when I embarked Viking Star at her berth in Bergen, Norway on September 18. With the Norwegian flag billowing from her stern (the ship is registered in Bergen), Viking Star sailed away from her homeport and out into the open Atlantic for the first time. She would not see her home again for half a year.

Our crossing took us in the wake of the Vikings – literally. First, we called on Lerwick, in Scotland’s Shetland Islands, where rolling hills and distilleries are the order of the day. A planned call on Torshavn, in the Faroe Islands, had to be scrapped when we encountered rough seas. Like a true Viking, we sailed smack into a fall storm, with 45 foot seas and gale force winds that persisted for a full day until it disappeared into nothing, leaving us to sail relatively unscathed into Reykjavik, Iceland.

After calls on the ruggedly beautiful towns of Nanortalik and Qaqortoq, Greenland, guests aboard Viking Star had their first glimpse of North America. The northernmost tip of Newfoundland came into view off our bow, on a sunny day with clear skies. Tenders were lowered, and guests set out to explore the ancient Viking settlements at L’Anse aux Meadows.

L'Anse aux Meadows Viking HutCourtesy of Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism

It’s here that Viking’s way of thinking really pays off. Rather than charging guests for each excursion, Viking offers at least one (and sometimes two or three) complimentary shore excursions in each port of call. Appropriately, today’s Viking Experience was a complimentary half-day tour of the UNESCO World Heritage Site at L’Anse aux Meadows.

What’s truly remarkable about Viking’s decision to call on L’Anse aux Meadows is just how difficult it is to get here by any other means. More ships call on Greenland than they do here, and those that do are typically small, expensive expedition cruises. The visit is more than memorable as it offers the opportunity to imagine yourself, 500 years before Columbus, stepping off your late 10th century ship with Viking Leif Eriksson as he led the first European landing. As you wander the rugged seaside setting on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, see millennium-old remains, and tour a Viking sod longhouse, you’ll gain a new appreciation for the courage of the Vikings.

Saguenay FjordSaguenay Fjord National Park - courtesy of ©TO/Outpost

Viking Star bypassed bigger-name ports like St. John’s and Charlottetown in favor of petite Saguenay, Quebec – and the townspeople of the city let those onboard know how happy they were. I was awoken bright and early in the morning by the sound of a francophone man’s voice coming over a loudspeaker, and looked out to see dozens of locals crowding the quay. They were dressed in period costumes and danced with guests and crew in the brilliant sunshine.

The scent of homemade blueberry pies wafted through the air, with guests being offered a slice as they disembarked, along with local blueberry juice and traditional maple syrup, served up on a stick, over ice, just like the old days. Our local host welcomed us to Quebec, then turned in the direction of Viking Star’s navigation bridge. “Captain!”, he said, “Blow your horn!” A minute later, Viking Star’s deep whistles echoed off the mountains of Saguenay Fjord.

Saguenay should be on any cruiser’s wish-list. A quaint town with plenty of Quebecois charm, just strolling its tidy streets and enjoying a bowl of poutine (a local dish with French fries, cheese curds and gravy) should satisfy most. For others, Viking pulled out all the stops here, with flightseeing tours of the Saguenay Fjord; home-hosted visits where locals invited guests in for tea, coffee and homemade desserts; and in-depth explorations of the countryside.

Chateau FrontenacCourtesy of PGIAM/iStock

Viking saved the very best for last, with a final port of call on Quebec City - the historic home of the Plains of Abraham, the Fairmont Hotel Chateau Frontenac, and the city’s old-world Quartier Petit Champlain, named for Samuel de Champlain who founded Quebec in 1608. Even with tourists crowding the city from the five different ships docked on my visit, it was hard to not feel a moment of awe as we ascended the so-called Breakneck Stairs – the oldest stairway in Quebec City – and came upon the imposing Chateau Frontenac and a street scene more reminiscent of France than Canada.

Even for Canadians, this is a chance to see our country in an entirely new way. No two parts of Canada are wholly alike, and Viking has picked some of the best examples to round out the last week of its 15-day crossing between Bergen, Norway and Montreal, where my journey came to an end.

Viking StarCourtesy of Viking

This Viking’s a Real Star

Torstein Hagen likes to call this the “thinking man’s cruise.” It’s not hard to see why: books on exploration line the shelves of every public room, from the two-deck Explorer’s Lounge on Decks 7 and 8, to the cozy Living Room on Deck 1 that also doubles as the ship’s three-storey Atrium.

Viking Living RoomLiving Room - Courtesy of Viking

Viking Explorer's LoungeExplorer Lounge - courtesy of viking

Viking has styled its ocean cruise experience after the one it has nearly perfected on the rivers of Europe, with similar Scandinavian influences throughout the ship’s interior décor. There’s no nickel-and-diming onboard, with beer, wine and soft drinks provided complimentary with lunch and dinner; free Wi-Fi internet access; a choice of complimentary shore excursions; and one of the best thermal suites at sea, complete with heated loungers, a steam room, a snow room, aromatic showers, and a massive hydrotherapy pool served up to guests for no additional charge.

Viking is offering its In the Wake of the Vikings journey between Norway and Canada again for the 2017 season, with Viking Sky and Viking Sea both heading across the Atlantic in September.

Originally published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles Winter/Spring 2017 issue.

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