There is, it’s said, a cruise for everyone. This time last year, I was fizzing down water slides, enjoying a “bike ride in the sky” and chuckling at a hairy chest contest on the upper decks of a ship that was packed to the gills with bubbly guests having a whale of a time as we cruised the Mediterranean.
Now, embarking in the same port (Barcelona), I find myself on a very different, and more laid-back and sophisticated vessel, one where passengers are more likely to be perusing the onboard art and antiques, admiring performances from live violinists or leafing through coffee-table books about history, architecture and the universe.
Viking’s ships certainly attract the thinking man and woman, with an onus on cultural enrichment. But their cruises are not stuffy. The dress code is never more formal than “elegant-casual” and the service is polite but not obsequious.
Initially specialising in river cruising, Viking branched out into ocean voyages in 2013 and has since launched six more-or-less identical, 930-passenger ocean-going vessels — with 11 more planned over the next decade.
I’m on the newest member of the fleet, Viking Jupiter, which has itineraries in Europe, the Caribbean and South America over the coming year.
We have ample time to savour the ship on our 15-day voyage to Copenhagen, which includes ports of call such as Malaga, Porto, Portsmouth and Amsterdam, and three days at sea.
Designed with nods to Nordic culture and heritage (the company was founded in 1997 by Norwegian billionaire Torstein Hagen), Viking’s ships are small compared to many 21st century ocean-going juggernauts.
But their compact size enables them to dock at smaller ports and travel through narrow locks, such as those of the Kiel Canal, which we spend almost a whole day navigating, moving from the North Sea to the Baltic via the bucolic countryside of northern Germany.
Viking’s ships have so many lovely places to linger and lounge around, where you can gaze at the view or browse all those coffee-table books.
One of the nicest hang-outs is the Wintergarden, a glass-enclosed space, where afternoon tea is offered daily. This is complimentary as part of your cruise fare, as are the culinary delights — including many dishes inspired by your ports of call — in the main a la carte restaurant and the buffet-style World Cafe (look out for the top-notch sushi). By the main pool, which has a retractable roof, there is a grill and salad bar and themed dinners are held here some days.
After departing Le Havre, we’re spoilt for choice with confit de canard, moules marinieres and pungent cheeses.
Two speciality eateries are also “free”, but require a booking: Italian affair Manfredi’s (where I have seafood risotto and bistecca alla fiorentina) and The Chef’s Table (which has a revolving nightly menu; it’s Mexican when we go).
Wine, beer and soft drinks are served complimentary during meals, but at other times, most drinks, excluding teas, coffees and infusions, will cost you extra. At $US5 ($7.25) for a glass of wine and $US7.50 for a cocktail, though, they’re reasonably priced.
Other snack-friendly retreats on Viking’s ocean ships include Mamsen’s, a lounge named in honour of the Hagen family matriarch. For breakfast here, you can order waffles coated with Norwegian brown goat’s cheese or jams made with old family recipes, and for lunch there’s a choice of smorrebrod (traditional Scandinavian open-faced sandwiches). There’s also 24-hour complimentary room service if you don’t fancy getting out of bed — which is tempting considering how homely are the staterooms and suites, all of which have verandas, king-size beds and roomy bathrooms and closets.
There’s plenty to lure you from your room, from port talks and lectures by resident historians to mini-golf and table-tennis on the alfresco sports deck.
In the stairwells, there are reproductions of the Bayeux Tapestry, which traces how the Norman descendants of the Vikings invaded England in AD1066.
Only Jupiter — and its sister ship Viking Orion — has an Explorer’s Dome, a 26-seat planetarium that showcases films about the aurora and outer space. Viewings are free.
Also free to use is the gym and spa, which embraces the traditional Nordic philosophy of hot and cold bathing. Funnily enough, the most alluring part for many guests is the “Snow Grotto”, which has a steady temperature of -10C and a floor carpeted in white powder (similar to the artificial snow produced at ski resorts).
After a few minutes’ freezing in here, you’ll be hankering for some heat.
Fortunately, a few footsteps away, you’ll find thermal pools, a steam room and a sauna to help spark you back to life.