An Ocean Cruise Without the Crowds
Cruise ship entertainment can be, let’s say, cheesy. We almost ditched the new variety show on the last night of our Viking Homelands Ocean Cruise in the Baltic Sea. We are so happy we did not. Heather Clancy, our outstanding cruise director, was the spotlight entertainer that evening, belting out a stunning rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” preceded and followed by other top-rate singing and dancing. Heather, we learned later, has been a professional singer for years. As in everything else we experienced on this cruise, Viking went beyond our expectations. It wasn’t just the big things, like the superb entertainment, the on-board TED talks and historian lectures, the oh-so-posh afternoon high teas, the foodie-friendly cuisine and the exquisite Scandinavian design elements throughout. It is the small touches too, like the hot, steamed washcloths handed to passengers returning from excursions.
The bookmarks placed beside books in the staterooms. The baristas remembering how you like your coffee. The display of traditional Scandinavian costumes on Deck 3. The almost 1-to-2 employee-to-passenger ratio, permitting employees to take time to chat without feeling rushed. Viking management seems to understand that many passengers enjoy learning about the staff, which hails from dozens of countries. For us, meeting staff members was fascinating and one of our highlights. As three-time Viking River Cruise veterans, we were a tad apprehensive about trying an Ocean Cruise, but our recent voyage in the Baltic Sea on the new Viking Jupiter eased all our fears.
This sleek, 745-feet-long ship has just enough public spaces that when we wanted, we could find plenty of privacy, but if we sought companionship, we headed for one of the bars or music lounges, the library, swimming pools, spa or fitness area, planetarium and more. Voted the No. 1 Ocean Cruise Line for ships in the size category of 600 to 1,299 passengers by Travel & Leisure Magazine readers for the past four years, the line offers ocean cruises in the Americas and Caribbean, Scandinavia and the Baltic, the Mediterranean, Asia and Australia. Durations of trips range from eight days to a whopping 161 days on the aptly named Grand Voyages. Viking promotes that it is designed to give as much time in ports as possible. Excursions are primarily culturally, historically and geographically focused, but there is almost always at least one bicycle trip offered and several nature-based excursions. On our cruise, many guests proclaimed their time at the renowned Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg as their highlight, but for us, the nature and wildlife enthusiasts we are, the reindeer feeding trip we took in Finland was our own favorite. The Homelands cruise also visits Stockholm, Poland, Germany, Denmark and Norway. There is something for everyone’s taste, and while we were worried we might be bored on the one at-sea day, the reality was quite to the contrary. After breakfast, we took a vigorous salsa dancing class taught by a Chilean instructor, then stopped by the brunch buffet for an almond croissant and cappuccino, followed by a planetarium show on the Aurora Borealis given by the resident astronomer/rocket scientist. We then had a lunch of tasty Mexican-style pulled pork sandwiches and slaw at the Pool Grill.
The afternoon consisted of a trivia game and cocktails and appetizers at a Viking return guest reception. We followed that by a sublime visit to the very Scandinavian Spa, with its heated swimming pool, sauna, steam room and even time in the Snow Grotto, filled with snow, which was actually delightfully refreshing after the steam room. Very relaxed, we then enjoyed listening to the on-board classical musicians on the main deck and followed that with dinner and the nightly entertainment of a first-rate British magician/comedian. Viking ocean ships feature king beds with fluffy duvets and goose-down pillows, flat-screen LCD TVs, large closets, US/EU electric outlets, robes and slippers, large glass-enclosed showers with anti-fog mirrors and heated towel racks and floors (such a nice touch in colder climes.) On Viking’s list of what is not included, it is clear that the company attracts—and pursues—a certain clientele. No umbrella drinks, no children under 18, no casinos, no smoking and no art auctions. Dining includes eight options, including two alternative restaurants. The buffet-style World Cafe is where most dashed in for breakfasts before heading off to land excursions, but for those staying on board or sleeping in, several other cafes serve later breakfasts and brunches.
Foodies rejoice in the gourmet and more exotic plates, such as Filipino adobo, Polish pierogi, gravlax and capers. For non-foodies, there are plenty of hamburgers, fries and such, along with a very tempting ice cream and sorbet bar. I feasted almost every day on a delectable pile of steamed shrimp and aioli mayonnaise over Swedish dark rye in the Living Room Bar, accompanied by an IPA. Perhaps the most beautiful dish on board was the flower-like Scandinavian waffle topped with fruit and cream, whipped up upon request, piping hot from a Norwegian waffle iron. I asked for it over and over. What could be better than gazing at the sea, sitting in a sky blue comfy chair, with a reindeer fur pelt behind me, and a spectacular waffle and hot coffee in front of me? Ah … I’m only home a week now and already dreaming of the next trip.