A Star is Born

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I always find travel in large ocean cruise ships to be akin to being trapped with hundreds of other inmates in a floating velvet prison. But the christening of Viking Star in Bergen, Norway, in May 2015 introduces the concept that less is more for travellers looking for high quality destination-focused ocean cruising. “In the race to build bigger ships, many cruise lines have lost sight of the destinations to which they sail,” the chairman of Viking Cruises, Torstein Hagen, said at the christening, held amid lively local celebrations of Norway’s annual Constitution Day festivities in the old Hanseatic town which will be Viking Star’s home port. “With our new ocean cruises, we are applying the principles behind our award-winning river cruises; privileged-access excursions and onboard experiences to make destinations the true focus.” Viking’s ocean cruises will target experienced travellers, 55 and over, with an interest in geography, culture and history and feature onboard cultural enrichment and shore excursions that provide deep immersion in local music, art, cooking, dance, history and cinema. With more time ashore than their closest competitors, Viking has kept prices reasonable and onboard expenses negligible without sacrificing comfort, food quality or space for 928 passengers. On a brief, two-night leg to Bergen, I’m winding down in the Viking Living Room, a dramatic three-deck atrium, utterly mesmerised by the mellifluous melodies of the Viking Classical Trio and by art set in the walls, which is digitised so “paintings” change every minute or two. Around me in various intimate lounge settings, library shelves are filled with books catering to many interests, from classical art to architecture, contemporary fiction and non-fiction and old and new accounts of great explorers and sea journeys. Operated by Viking Ocean Cruises, this is the first foray into ocean cruising for the company which already operates a fleet of 60 longboats on the rivers of Europe, Russia, Egypt, China and Southeast Asia. Built by Fincantieri at the Marghera shipyard near Venice for its Florida-based American owners, she first touched saltwater in June 2014 and passed her sea trials in December under Norwegian skipper, Captain Gulleik Svalastog. Viking Star took on her first guests in Istanbul in April 2015 on her first ocean voyage to London before crossing the North Sea to Bergen to be christened on May 17, Norway’s Constitution Day, by her godmother and popular Bergen Mayor, Trude Drevland. Thousands of Bergeners braved an icy night for a 90-minute concert before Mayor Drevland pushed the button to break the champagne. “I am so privileged to be godmother to the new Viking Star,” she said. “She will be the soul of Scandinavia, but with some touches of Bergen.” The smallish, 227m ship has nine decks accommodating 928 guests in 465 staterooms sailing on itineraries to Scandinavia, the Baltic, Western and Eastern Mediterranean and the British Isles. Two more ocean ships, Viking Sea and Viking Sky, are also on order. Accommodation ranges from Veranda Staterooms of 25sqm up to Explorer Suites of more than 70sqm. Every stateroom has a private veranda, king sized bed, 24-hour room service, free laundry, quality toiletries, 42-inch flat screen LCD 3D interactive TV system with movies on demand, mini bar, safe, hair dryer, direct dial satellite phone and free, but slow, WiFi. While too much culture may never be enough for some, I wrench myself away from the Atrium’s trilling trio to explore the rest of the ship and discover there are no signs of rock bands, no shrieking children (minimum age 18) and no casinos. The sense of peacefulness is further enhanced by the remarkable silence of the ship’s four energy-efficient diesel/turbo hybrid engines. Beyond the comfortable, stylish Viking Living Room I pass shops glittering with gemstones and silver things way beyond my humble resources and a gymnasium way beyond my physical capabilities. And then there’s the spa. Designed with Scandinavia in mind, it has multiple treatment rooms, a sauna and a bubbling cauldron of a pool with a smaller spa pool attached, just a short stroll away from a Scandi-style jolt in the startlingly blue, ice-covered freezer room, a “snow grotto” where snowflakes gently descend from the ceiling through the chilly air. Near Torshavn nightclub and cabaret there are two cinemas and the Star Theatre where live performances touch on opera, art songs and Gilbert and Sullivan. Star Theatre is also where onboard experts lecture on topics as varied as the Northern Lights, British shipping in the 20th century, the heritage, culture and history of the old Hanseatic port of Bergen and famous art thefts. Up on Deck Seven, guests are bobbing in the infinity pool at the stern, taking high tea in the Wintergarden, swimming in the main pool which has a retractable glass roof or just reading and snoring on soft daybeds. Explorers Lounge has wrap around picture windows, another thoughtfully selected library, a bar and Mamsen’s, a deli offering traditional Norwegian cakes and open sandwiches based on the recipes of Torstein Hagen’s late mother, Ragenhilde, including Fyrstekake (prince’s cake), crusty, creamy almond cake and blotkake, a creamy, strawberry sponge. Bars stocked with quality wines, spirits and international beers pop up on most decks and dining spaces include The Restaurant, World Cafe, The Chef’s Table, Manfredi’s Italian and The Kitchen Table, all overseen by French Director of Culinary, Anthony Maubuoussin, the gastronomic genius responsible for creating every menu across Viking’s entire fleet. In The Restaurant, the flavour of the roasted French free-range Bresse chicken is incomparable. The rosemary crusted lamb in Manfredi’s with sweet onion white bean puree and taggiasche olive sauce is another masterpiece as is the orange juice marinated veal tenderloin with pumpkin and red onion marmalade at The Chef’s Table. Back in the quietude of the Viking Living Room, I sip from a bottle of German Warsteiner Pilsener. My gaze climbs the staircase to the enormous electronic mural above of a moving snowmelt mountain stream and, while resident pianist, Laura, massages the ivories on the Steinway grand piano, my thoughts hark back to the words Torstein Hagen had offered earlier. “Viking Star,” he mused, “is the thinking person’s cruise, not the drinking person’s cruise.” “Bottoms up, Torstein.”

The writer was a guest of Viking Ocean Cruises.

Viking Star offers four base itineraries of 10 – 15 days and four combination itineraries of 22 – 50 days to Scandinavia, the Baltic, Western and Eastern Mediterranean and the British Isles including the 8-day Romantic Mediterranean Cruise from Barcelona to Rome visiting Spain, France, Italy and Corsica from $3,049. The 15-day Viking Homelands Cruise from Stockholm to Bergen includes overnights in St Petersburg, Stockholm and Bergen plus calls in Helsinki, Tallinn, Gdansk, Berlin (Warnemünde), Copenhagen, Aalborg, Stavanger and Flam from $6,999. The full 50-day Viking Empire Cruise form Istanbul to Stockholm visits 19 countries priced from $86,449. Contact travel agents, in Australia call 1800 131 744 or visit vikingcruises.com and vikingcruises.com.au

Story and Images (unless otherwise noted) ©Copyright David May 2015.

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