Viking River Cruises Take To The Oceans

For the past five years, Viking River Cruises has consistently topped numerous "World's Best" travel lists. Its Longships, whose commercials air during episodes of sponsor Downton Abbey, have set the high bar in the increasingly popular arena of river cruising. Earlier this year though, Viking launched its first ocean ship, Viking Star. To practically nobody's surprise, the new ship was awarded five stars and named "Best New Ocean Ship" in the Eighth Annual Cruise Critic Editor's Pick Awards. Berlitz also ranked the Star number one. But how does a ship carrying 928 passengers stack up to the much more intimate 188-passenger Longships? In a word: Magnificently.

If there's been one overwhelming change in cruise ships recently, it is in their size. As hard as it is to believe, Viking Star is considered a mid-size ship, especially compared to the behemoths that now carry over 6,000 passengers and crew. At 47,800 tons with a crew of 550, Viking Star has managed to retain many of the features passengers love about the Longships. But first, here's what she is not: A party boat; the Star lacks a casino and accepts no passengers under 18. This is a ship for grown-ups.

But never underestimate what is to offer here: gracious, spacious accommodations — every single one with a balcony, multiple cozy corners that belie the size of the ship, and phenomenal list of activities both on board and ashore. Like its river counterparts, Viking Star is destination-oriented and includes a shore excursion at every port that's built into its fares. Or you can up the ante and pursue personal interests. For a food-lover, these include wine and olive oil tastings, visits to local markets and food producers, and even the chance to cook side-by-side with expert regional chefs. Or one can opt to go to market with executive chef Federic Camonin, and then return to the ship to cook together.

Altogether, the ship has seven dining options. They range from the World Café, with its self-serve buffet and popular Gelato Bar, to the chic Chef's Table, featuring four tasting menus that change every three days. There's a wildly popular Italian restaurant called Manfredi's and, in a salute to the mother of Viking Ocean's founder, Torstein Hagen, there's Mamsen's. Wonderfully quiet at breakfast, it opens sporadically during the day to serve a menu of Norwegian specialties. Additionally, there is the ship's main dining room, which isn't an immense banquet hall, but an intimate space cleverly divided into smaller rooms. And how was the food? An unqualified success. As on the Longships, the menus coincide with the destinations' local specialties and wines in addition to always-available classic American favorites like whole grilled lobster. Dining is made even more pleasant by the truly remarkable wait staff, whom, like every other crewmember on the ship, cannot possibly do enough for you. But the kicker here — and the thing that should make its competitors run for their lives — is that the only surcharge at all is for caviar. Unlike the vast majority of cruise lines, which charge a fee to eat at their specialty restaurants, Viking does not. And, just as on the riverboats, there is ample pouring of wines and beers at lunch and dinner. Even at breakfast, you can scare up a complimentary mimosa.

There is not a moment aboard when one cannot find something to eat. A full tea service is offered daily in the Wintergarden, room service is available 24/7 (again, without a single additional charge), and if you're thirsty, all but the minimum-grade staterooms come with a complimentary mini bar that's replenished daily with liquor, beer, soft drinks, and snacks. 

Torstein Hagen is an old hand at ocean cruising. In the 1990s, he chaired Royal Viking Cruise Line, which set the standards for luxury cruising for years. Mr. Hagen's imprimatur is on full display aboard Viking Star. From the art collection to the spa, the range of dining options to the calm and soothing colors of the ship's light-filled interiors, Mr. Hagen has built a ship that embodies his style and Scandinavian heritage. If there is any complaint from today's cruisers, it is the sensation of being nickeled and dimed at every turn, but this is decidedly not the case on Viking Star. For example, on other lines, there is often an added fee just to enter the spa. At Mr. Hagen's insistence, the Star's spa is open to all. Of course, private treatments are additional, but the value for money here is extraordinary — especially when compared to every other comparably-priced cruise, and even some that are considerably more expensive and/or smaller in size.

In the end, the ship's grand size is perfect for its population: large enough to find plenty of companionship with like-minded travelers, but also spacious enough to be able to avoid those who are not, with extra space utilized in staterooms you are loathe to leave. With two new sister ships — Viking Sky and Viking Sea — arriving this year and next, there will be plenty of opportunities to taste what Viking has to offer. And it's almost guaranteed to be delicious.