Viking Star Review: Scandinavian Chic On The High Seas
I used to be terrified of Vikings. As a nine-year-old living in a small seaside town, plunder and pillage were not part of my vocabulary, but after one particular school lesson the mental image of pelt-clad marauders carrying flaming torches haunted my night spaces for months.
Thankfully the only pelts on board Viking Star are those draped over the sofas in Mamsen’s, a cosy lounge on deck seven, where jam and cream vafler (waffles) are served. I did spot a fire-starter pouch and a spangelhelm (the hat dates to AD 970 and was found under a burial mound), but they were just exhibits in the ship’s small Viking heritage display.
In an adjacent cabinet was an 'ear spoon' adorned with an interlace design. My teacher never told me about those. Who could fear an intruder who removes his waxy deposits with a patterned spoon?
A star is launched
When the mayor of Bergen christened the new 930-passenger cruise ship in the Norwegian city this year, the ceremonial thwack of glass on steel heralded the arrival of the first new ocean cruise line in more than a decade. The ship – on which every cabin has a balcony – was the first of three ocean vessels being launched by Viking, which already operates more than 60 river ships (Sea and Sky will launch in 2016 and 2017).
According to Viking’s founder and chairman, Torstein Hagen, the new ships are designed for “function, comfort and understated elegance”. The line’s patented Longships, launched in 2012, revolutionised river-ship design (think indoor/outdoor dining, tables for two, sun decks and more balcony space).
There are now 40 of these ships: last year Viking smashed its own world record for the most river ships inaugurated in a single day when it christened 16. When asked if they would try an ocean cruise, an overwhelming majority of Viking’s customers said “yes”, and they weren’t fibbing – its maiden season was sold out.
Fans of the Longships will be pleased to know that the “barely there” Scandinavian aesthetic is writ large across Viking Star’s eight decks. Light pours in through the glass-curtained main restaurant, simply furnished in blue and white, and its windows simultaneously roll back at the touch of a button.
I didn’t see a single flower arrangement on the ship and yet nature was very much brought in – via the wall art, the tactile arrangements of moss, bark and twigs and bonsai, and in the sound of birds chirping in the lavatories. “It’s a Longship on steroids,” noted one passenger.
Shortly after boarding the ship in Barcelona, our small group was taken on a whistle-stop tour by Hagen. His ships are for thinkers, not drinkers, he declared, on meeting us.
“Ocean cruising is the drinking-man’s cruise. River cruising is the thinking man’s cruise. We are the thinking-man’s ocean cruise.”
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It was a brave statement for a first foray into ocean cruising, although arriving late to the party with a blank canvas can have its advantages. Hagen is particularly proud of the atrium. Ships’ overly functional, often fussy lobbies can feel unapproachable but here is a series of inviting 'rooms'.
Crisp blond woods softened by hand-woven textiles, tapestries, tactile pelts and leather set the Nordic-chic tone. The wood bar emulates the clinker-built prows of the original Viking boats, while Nordic-print throws and cosy fire pits complete a look that would be at home on the cover of Livingetc.
The usual showpiece atrium bauble is noticeably absent. Instead, one wall of the three-deck stairwell is a frame for changing scenery – a mountain plateau, a curly-horned goat, moss-covered boulders.
An open-tread staircase rises above a lichen garden so that every step conjures a walk in a mossy glade. I half expected one of Norway’s mythical trolls to grab my ankles.
In the indoor-outdoor Wintergarden, dappled light filters through a canopy of tree 'branches' to form a delicate, sky-lit ceiling tracery. I longed to flop in one of the whimsical seats (imagine linguine that has escaped from the saucepan and set in the shape of a chair), but there was no time for loitering.
“Come on, hurry up,” chided Hagen, who is in his 70s, when a handful of journalists almost missed a lift. I would not have wanted to meet his forebear on a dark night around AD 800.
He showed us the all-weather pool, where a wall doubles as a cinema screen. But it’s the other pool, a chic infinity number cantilevered off the stern, that has everyone talking. It’s a stylish addition but, at three strokes to a length, it is not something for serious swimmers.
In the stairwells a reproduction of the Bayeux Tapestry has been placed, panel by panel, on each landing, while in the stylish spa, Swedish granite, slate and limestone are warmed by fire pits (water vapour and coloured light create the illusion). One is encouraged to bathe starkers as is the Scandinavian wont, but that tradition is unlikely to be maintained among the 55-plus, largely American clientele.
For the brave there is a Snow Grotto in which to cool down after using the Finnish sauna. “At home we like to roll around in the snow and then jump into a lake,” said Nora, the Norwegian spa manager. “We’ve tried to recreate that.”
It 'snows' only at night: when I paid a visit to the grotto around 7pm, it looked more like a freezer in thaw mode, but the next morning there was plenty of fresh snow. The traditional Norwegian hats sold on board are knitted by Nora’s 95-year-old grandmother, Berit Clausen.
Economies of scale
In the boardroom of the Owner’s Suite, coffee and warm waffles were being served as Hagen explained some of the economies of scale on the new vessel. The bathrooms, for instance, have roomy showers, but no baths.
“River operators are used to being cost and space-conscious,” said Hagen. “A bath takes up 6 per cent of cabin space.” (That means 6 per cent of the ticket price.)
Casinos waste space, too, and neither he nor the “well-educated, curious and active cruiser” that Viking Ocean is targeting, wants one, he said. He believes the practice of "nickel and diming" cruise passengers is demeaning, hence the two self-service laundries (with televisions) on every deck.
“Fleecing people is not good business practice in the long run,” he said.
Room service is free, as is Wi-Fi. Dining in alternative restaurants doesn’t incur a surcharge and bar prices are reasonable.
The spa was not such good value. A 50-minute massage cost about $A200, plus 15 per cent service charge and an optional tip. What is a massage if not a service?
After a long day’s travelling I was hoping for another waffle with some more of that delicious lingonberry jam, but, lo, a bunch of slides went up. One compared price points between Viking Star and another ship, Oceania Nautica. Taking into account all inclusions (an excursion in each port, alcohol/drinks served with meals, port charges and taxes, and air-fare), the Oceania cruise fare weighed in at nearly $A5,000 more costly.
Cabins on the Viking Star range from the entry-level veranda (25 square metres) to the top-of-the-range explorer suites (108 square metres). Oceania’s smallest cabins are 20 square metres. “They have smaller cabins on a ship that is 17 years old and is 59 per cent more expensive,” he said. “I wish them luck.”
Per day spend also came under scrutiny. Hagen calculates this on Viking Star to be about $A625 – less than that on Celebrity Eclipse ($A655), Pacific Princess ($A785), Azamara Quest ($A930), Oceania Nautica/Marina ($A965), Seven Seas Voyager (regarded to be the most inclusive line; $A1,240) and Seabourn Quest ($A1,340).
It clearly wasn’t Hagen who took a tape measure to the main pool, where the water depth sign read: 1.8 metres. At 157 centimetres, I was head and shoulders above the surface.
Before we all piled out of the boardroom, Hagen (whom we christened Viking Tor) had begun to thaw. Raising a cup, he explained the raison d’etre for the retro, home-style crockery with its delicate flower motif. He has duplicated the one he used as a child. On the way out he showed us a picture of himself on the wall, aged three, and dressed in a sailor suit.
Not all was running smoothly, however. While food was of fine-dining standard in the main restaurant, at the Chef’s Table (where a rotational menu is served), and at the Italian grill Manfredi’s, there were lengthy queues for the buffet stations at lunch. “The buffet doesn’t function entirely effectively right now,” agreed Hagen.
Although service generally could not be faulted, in the packed Wintergarden, where I went to sample afternoon tea, it took almost 10 minutes to be served. A pot of tea and a squat scone arrived about 10 minutes later. By the time I had requested cutlery, cream (runny), jam, sugar and milk in that order … my tea was a long time cold.
In the big scheme of things these niggles were minor. In less-hurried circumstances I’m almost certain I would have left Viking Star becalmed. I’d like to have transplanted most of its paintings, plant arrangements and soft furnishings to my home. There was lots of chair-stroking going on among female passengers.
“I hope you like her homey interior,” said Gulleik Svalastog, the Swedish captain, to the passengers gathered in the atrium on the first night of our voyage – his accent pure Benny, from Abba. “Skal!” he said, raising a glass of Champagne. “This is the only time I get to have a little taste of the goodies.”
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This article was written by Teresa Machan from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.