(2:50 p.m. EST) -- We're onboard Viking Sky, Viking Ocean Cruises' newest ship, which is sailing its inaugural voyage on the Mediterranean from Rome to Barcelona. The third ocean vessel for a cruise line long-known for its river boats, Viking Sky holds 930 passengers and is designed for relaxation and exploration.
Each person sailing on Viking Sky gets at least one excursion per port included in their cruise fare. Viking also offers optional for-fee excursions, which are reasonably priced: Most of them are offered for less than $100, and many of them are less than $80. Many passengers on our sailing are trying out the optional offers, and the ship has been virtually empty on days it's in port, so clearly passengers are getting out to see the cities. Here's how it's going so far.
A Return to Tunisia
Viking Sky visited Tunisia on Tuesday. La Goulette (Tunis), once a common port on many Med itineraries, was dropped by every cruise line after a March 2015 attack targeting cruise passengers visiting the Bardo National Museum left 17 dead. Viking is the first cruise line catering to North American passengers to return to Tunisia, and our cruise is the fourth one to visit. (Sister ship Viking Sea visited the port the next day, bringing the total passenger count to 4,427 since January 1; 93 percent were Americans, according to a spokesperson for the port.)
Like many passengers, we were a bit nervous about visiting a country that sadly has made headlines because of terrorism, but we wanted to see this beautiful and historic spot -- and we weren't alone. A majority of passengers on our sailing elected to get off the ship to visit the port. We selected the included tour, which took us to the highlights of Carthage and Tunis, with stops at ruins and the beautiful town of Sibi Bou Said. Four coaches full of passengers set out on this journey, the most popular excursion of the day.
Viking's return to Tunisia is working, and here's why: While passengers definitely were a little uneasy about visiting, the structure of the tours and the safety of travelers was well-thought-out and fully vetted. Viking says it worked with a whole host of people, including the Tunisian government, excursion operators and security, before deciding to add the port back into itineraries. Viking would not return to Tunisia if it didn't believe passengers would be safe.
It played out smoothly on our tour, where the four buses were accompanied by police escorts at every turn. The police presence (and their armored vehicles) was enough to ease passenger concerns without being obtrusive. Yes, we saw security carrying weapons when we got off the bus, but they stayed back, keeping a watchful eye on, well, everything. It also helped with traffic, as keeping all four buses together driving from site to site would have been otherwise impossible.
From the moment we got off the ship and went through the port terminal, the people of Tunisia were friendly and grateful to see tourists. It was such a big deal, a local TV station sent a reporter and cameraman to cover the event of our arrival. Passengers were equally friendly, stopping to talk, ride camels and listen to music. At the stops along the way, passengers shopped, bargaining with eager shopkeepers happy to strike a deal, and many came back with trinkets and souvenirs, including one fellow who bought a handmade Tunisian rug -- a big-ticket purchase that brought a smile to the face of everyone he passed.
The Kitchen Table
A favorite with passengers, The Kitchen Table experience is divided into two parts: a shore excursion to visit local markets in the morning and a huge dinner at night. On our trip, we tried out The Kitchen Table in Cagliari, Sardinia. This was a hit, especially with the foodies in our group, who loved watching the chefs from the ship haggle with shop keepers, pick out fresh ingredients and sample cheeses and wine. We regrouped at 6 p.m. for an incredible dinner that used the ingredients we shopped for during the day. Our excursion cost $249 -- that includes the meal with wine -- and similar excursions are offered in other ports for $180 to $260.
Variety of Ports
Part of the draw from cruisers on our itinerary has been the interesting variety of ports. Our cruise started in Rome and will end in Barcelona -- both major cities that many Mediterranean cruises visit -- but along the way, we stopped in Trapani, Sicily; La Goulette, Tunisia; Cagliari, Sardinia; Palma de Mallorca, Spain; and Valencia, Spain. While other ships do visit the ports, they are really more off-the-beaten cruise path, and even veteran cruisers said they were visiting some ports for the first time.
The one hitch along the way has been problems with the QuietVox system, which guides use to communicate with passengers on excursions in ports. With Quietvox, guides speak into a microphone, which transmits to passengers who wear earpieces. The upside is passengers can linger to take photos while still hearing the guide. On our cruise, though, many passengers have reported audio boxes that don't work, despite overnight charging. Others lose the signal in the middle of the excursion. Viking is working to fix the issue, even flying in a technician to meet the ship and fix the issue.
--By Colleen McDaniel, Senior Executive Editor