Jeannine Williamson embarks on a modern-day Viking voyage of discovery.
I am standing beneath a wooden pail of cold water preparing to unleash my inner and - until now - latent Scandinavian. If I wasn’t so hot it would be easy to chicken out, but I hold my breath, pull the cord and the contents gush out. I can’t help but gasp before retreating back to the heat of the Nordic-strength sauna.
Then I nip across to the adjoining snow grotto, where fresh flakes fell overnight, to cool off another way. After a few trips back and forth my skin is glowing and the whole things feels more bracing than barmy - even though I’m in the Mediterranean on a warm spring day.
On a leg of Viking Sky’s maiden season, we’re visiting culture-rich destinations on the 14-night Cities of Antiquity & the Holy Land cruise which include Rome, Naples, Crete, Jerusalem, Haifa, Limassol, Mykonos and Athens. At sea I soon discover that you need to be prepared for the unexpected. While other ships are trying to tempt passengers with robotic waiters, dodgem cars, West End shows and all sorts of razzmatazz, Viking Oceans’ third ship - identical to Viking Star and Sea launched in 2015 and 2016 - continues to buck the trend, and it’s an impressive concept.
The brainchild of Torstein Hagen, founder of the Viking river cruise line, the adult-only vessel lacks things you’ll find on other ships, such as a casino, waterpark, photographer, automatic tips added to bar bills, a hard sell after spa treatments and speciality restaurants that cost extra. What it offers instead is the very reason many people will want to go.
Carrying 930 passengers, it’s a ‘small ship’ in cruise terminology, and every cabin is sea-facing with a proper balcony - so nobody’s in the dark in inside cabins not knowing if it’s day or night. WiFi is free, a complimentary shore excursion is included at every port and wine, beer and soft drinks are included with lunch and dinner. Hagen has essentially put the best bits of river cruising on an ocean ship. This also means more time in port, often late into the evening or overnight. So no more panic souvenir buying in a short space of time while fretting that you’re going to miss the boat, in more ways than one.
Our excursions included strolling through the bustling UNESCO-listed medieval city of Rhodes, shaped by the wealth of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem. Another day we climbed the 150 steps to the top of Acropolis Hill to marvel at the Parthenon, the landmark of Athens dedicated to the goddess Athena. It was well worth the effort and afterwards our well-informed guide pointed out the highlights of the Acropolis Museum, opened in 2009 and ten times larger than the previous building. Then there was plenty of time to stroll around the Plaka district and indulge in a slice of baklava, the sweet Greek treat soaked in honey.
Back on board I always enjoyed watching the various cityscapes fade quietly into the distance as we sailed out of port. On Viking Sky there are no enforced sail away parties, with glasses of warm Champagne pressed into your hand that you later discover you have to pay for. My favourite place was the wraparound promenade deck, where you can relive your Titanic moment (with chunks of ice in your drink rather than an iceberg of course). A rarity on most modern cruise ships, this lovely deck epitomises the elegance of cruising in bygone days.
That said, Sky is ultra-stylish throughout but it’s certainly not staid, and there are lots of idiosyncratic details that take a few days to find - such as cheeky Norwegian trolls in the lift, a chunk of real meteorite, the Norse god Odin’s pair of watchful ravens and a brilliant animated version of the Bayeux Tapestry. The decor is designed to evoke the Viking spirit of exploration - minus the pillaging part - and from the wooden chairs and ‘trees’ in the airy wintergarden to stunning artefacts and unexpected pieces of art, it proved a constant talking point.
Viking Sky also comes up trumps with a variety of dining venues all included in the fare. There’s the more formal main dining room The Restaurant, with plenty of tables for two, expansive World Cafe buffet with an open kitchen, cosy Mamsen’s serving Norwegian-style food and airy poolside bar. The two speciality restaurants are the superb Italian, Manfredi’s, and the Chef’s Table serving a rotating menu of exquisitely prepared tasting dishes paired with wine.
There’s entertainment in the main theatre and areas around the ship, including a classical trio, pianist and guitarist along with dance hits played by the band in the cosy Torshavn bar. For culture vultures Viking recently introduction resident historians, expert lecturers who also host round table discussions, themed dinners and hold daily ‘office hours’ for one-to-one time with passengers.
From the hot and cold extremes of the spa to informative excursions and talks, you’ll find plenty to float your boat both on and off the ship, along with plenty of unexpected touches. After buying a book at the airport I used a scrap of paper as a makeshift marker. I returned to my cabin that evening to find the steward had replaced it with a proper one.
Another well thought out chapter in a very memorable cruise.
Viking Cruises offer a variety of itineraries in the Norwegian fjords, Baltic, Mediterranean, Caribbean and North America - including the first-ever world cruise in December 2017 - with seven-night cruises from £1,790 per person. The 14-night Cities of Antiquity & the Holy Land itinerary is from £3,990.
Fares include all on board meals, wine beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, an included excursion at each port of call, gratuities, flights and transfers. Call 0800 319 6660 or visit www.vikingcruises.com/oceans.
This first featured in the May edition of etc Magazine pick up your copy now.