We had never been on a cruise before. With the Viking Star, we started at the top. So said our fellow passengers who had experienced life aboard the Carnival, Princess, Oceania, Regent Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean and other cruise ships. They maintained that Viking surpasses them all.
These fellow passengers – cruisers as we like to call them – were a little surprised that we were doing it for the first time because they like to do it all the time. They book their travel for eight to 21 days at a time, make instant friends once aboard, and enjoy the camaraderie that follows. They also like the fact the crews look after their every need.
We were very impressed with many aspects of the cruising experience, starting with the air travel arrangements. The Viking people booked our flights and picked us up at the Barcelona airport for the bus transfer to the ship. We had attached their blue-and-white luggage tags to our bags and put red stickers on our shirts as requested, so it was easy for them to find us. Our bags, much to our relief, were waiting for us outside our cabin door after we checked in. On the way home, the organizers got us and our bags to the Istanbul airport in plenty of time for us to make our early-morning flight to Amsterdam.
The cabin was small but well appointed, with a comfortable king-sized bed, plenty of storage space, heated bathroom floor, a shower that produced an instant flow of hot water, and a balcony we could have used more if the weather had been warmer. March turned out to be not the best month for cruising the Mediterranean. It was windy and cool in most places we visited, and we also had rain in a few places. We had been checking the weather conditions in February and they were always favourable, so this was a surprise. On the other hand, we did have many of the places almost to ourselves because we were the only cruise ship in town, so we didn’t have to contend with the teeming hordes.
For meals aboard ship, we could choose between four restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner. At dinner time it was fine dining all the way. The lunch and dinner menus changed daily so we never found ourselves complaining about same-old, same-old.
A four-page bulletin, updated daily and delivered to our cabin each evening during the supper hour, gave us a rundown of what to expect the following day. Buses or shuttle boats awaited us at each stopping point, and the local guides for our shore excursions were invariably knowledgeable and entertaining. Many of them had to double as museum docents, which made the tours all the more enriching for us. One small frustration, however, was that these tightly-arranged excursions only allowed us an hour or so of free time to explore and shop before we had to be back on the bus.
On board, we could enjoy “enrichment lectures” by experts in local art, history, politics and other subjects, listen to live music by a classical guitarist, pianist or string trio, watch one of the shows performed by the house troupe, and dance the night away to the sounds of the house band. We could also work out in the fitness centre, relax in the spa, swim in the pools, soak in the hot tubs, let the pores open and the sinuses clear in the steam room, and try the Nordic experience of cooling down in the snow room after warming up in the sauna. Or we could just spend time consigning our soiled clothing to the washers and dryers of the laundrette. It’s always nice to arrive home with clean laundry in your bag.
Bottom line: This Viking cruise experience was as good as we could have hoped for. The company already enjoys a good reputation among Masterpiece Theatre viewers for its popular river cruises. These new ocean cruises promise to build on that success.
Would we repeat the experience? Likely not. As much as we enjoyed waking up in a new city every morning without having to pack and repack our bags, we were particularly frustrated at being unable to spend more time in the cities we really liked. Plus, we really couldn’t get into the instant camaraderie thing because many of our fellow travellers just wanted to talk about other cruises they’d been on.
We knew this going in, of course. We knew there would be some places that would just whet our appetites for more. We’ve already made mental notes of the places we want to revisit some day. Through Viking we were able to see 16 cities and towns in eight countries in three weeks, and that’s something we are grateful for. We had to miss out on Istanbul, unfortunately, but we can’t blame the cruise people for that. They only had our safety in mind, and we wouldn’t have wanted them to do otherwise.