Cruise Critic is just back from sailing on the Viking’s Octantis, the cruise lines’ first expedition ship. We sailed on one of its eight-day Great Lakes itineraries: the Milwaukee, WI to Thunder Bay in Ontario, CA itinerary. (Other regional itineraries include Thunder Bay to Milwaukee , which makes some different stops; Toronto to Duluth or Milwaukee.)
The 665-foot-long, Polar Class 6 ship carries 378 guests and 256 crewmembers and sailed its inaugural in Antarctica before heading north. It is summering in the Great Lakes region before heading back to the Antarctic and other destinations.
Here are our impressions of the ship, the onboard science and other offerings, and tips on activities and excursions in ports visited on Viking Octantis Great Lakes sailing.
For both those who know the Great Lakes region well and those, like me, visiting for the first time, Viking chairman Torstein Hagen knows starting or ending a Viking Octantis cruise in Milwaukee brings up the question: “Why Milwaukee?”
In a pre-cruise media presentation in the ship’s impressive, high-tech auditorium called the Aula, Hagen said it was partly because cruising out of Chicago just did not work out. (American Queen Voyages is the only Great Lakes cruise provider who currently sails from Navy Pier in Chicago).
But Hagen said it was also because when he spent time in the United States in the early 1960s on a Fulbright scholarship, he became fond of Schlitz beer and its catchy slogan, “The beer that made Milwaukee famous.”
Holding up a bottle of modern-day Schlitz, he noted that it no longer makes that claim. Instead, he said, Viking aims to make Milwaukee famous for cruising as “the Miami of the Great Lakes.”
For those who have sailed on one of Viking’s ocean ships, the Octantis expedition ship (and its twin, Viking Polaris, which will begin sailing later in 2022) will immediately feel familiar.
While in most places more compact, many of the core spaces on Viking's ocean ships are replicated here, including the Aquavit Terrace, the World Café, Manfredi’s restaurant, the Nordic spa, a two-floor Explorers’ Lounge, Mamsen’s for Norwegian cuisine, and the Living Room. Many much-appreciated stateroom amenities, such as heated bathroom floors and 24-hour room service, are carried over here too.
For new Viking customers – and we ran into a sizable number of them on this sailing – the ship is easy to get to know and to maneuver around. Although we never quite got the hang of finding our way to “The Hide,” a cozy, ‘secret’ spot Viking describes as being “[a] place that has to be discovered while on board.”
For everyone, though, the ‘wow’ factors will be the science lab where passengers can learn about and partake in real research; Expedition Central, stocked with everything from 3-D maps, chart tables and daily geology and other displays to aid in interpreting the scenery and surroundings; and the top-drawer expedition equipment that includes everything from kayaks and military-grade Special Operation Boats (known as SOBs) to a pair of yellow submarines named John and Paul. (The two subs on Viking Polaris will be named, you guessed it, George and Ringo). More about these ‘toys’ below.
Staterooms have plenty of storage space, coffeemakers, high-quality loaner binoculars, and a drying closet for bathing suits and other wet gear. In lieu of balconies with tables and chairs (not that useful in polar regions) there are “Nordic Balconies.” These are floor-to-ceiling windows that can be lowered half-way with the push of a button. You will have your own private, protected viewing spot with a ledge for elbows, cameras, or binoculars, but just be sure to close the window when mosquitos are around. We left ours open a little too long and got bug bites as souvenirs.
We were pleased to see that Viking Octantis has made room for a well-equipped fitness room. There is also a spa offering body and hair services as well as the full of range of Nordic bathing options offered on Viking’s larger ocean ships, including saunas, cold bucket showers, a small snow grotto and, new here, a wood-sided hot tub, or ‘badestamp’ that is sheltered from the elements but open to the outside.
There is no full-size pool, but a “swimming experience” of three small pools set at three different temperatures: the hot caldarium, the warm tepidarium, and the cold frigidarium, plus an inside-outside swim-through section.
For dining, we were impressed with the meals and the table service at the expedition-ship versions of Manfredi’s (Italian cuisine) and The Restaurant (classics, Scandinavian, and regional dishes); the Norwegian waffles, cookies and snacks offered in Mamsen’s; and the constantly changing variety of international dishes offered in the World Café. We were regulars at the sushi and cold seafood bar and constant oglers (and nibblers) at the open galley bakery, where fresh breads, rolls, pretzels, and other doughy treats are prepared fresh all day.
After dining at each restaurant at least once, some passengers we spoke with passed up the table-service meals in favor of return visits to the grill in the World Café, which serves up serious steakhouse-style cuts of meat, tuna steaks, burgers, Norwegian hot dogs, and a popular surf and turf option, all made-to-order.
Outdoors, the sunken Finse Terrace, just outside the Aula auditorium, was our favorite spot for relaxing in an out-of-the-way retreat with heated couches, lava rock firepits, and a hedge surround. Indoors, we found plenty of comfortable seating nooks and viewing spots, along with an impressive art collection that includes historic black and white photograph reproductions from polar expeditions and of explorers such as Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen. We found or sections honoring other iconic explorers such as aviator Amelia Earhart as well. The Viking Voyager app has a fact-filled audio tour on the art throughout the ship, but we were happy to just stop on each floor and in the corridors to be amazed at what these early adventurers endured.
Expedition cruising is all about learning, adventure, and exploration and Viking Octantis does all that, plus real research, thanks to relationships with a growing list of scientific partners such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the University of Cambridge & Scott Polar Research Institute.
We attended Great Lakes-oriented lectures presented by a highly-credential expedition team on everything from discoveries made on an epic 1000-mile hike around Lake Michigan to the geologic history of the region. We toured the working science lab, while others participated in a microplastics workshop where the observations made help inform a global database.
And we got up early (with more than 50 other passengers) to witness the weekly -- for now -- launching of a weather balloon off the top deck. Thanks to its partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Viking Octantis (and Viking Polaris) have joined the sanctioned list of 102 other weather balloon launch stations sanctioned by the U.S. Weather Service and are the only civilian ships on the list. The balloons have transmitters that collect data on wind, temperature, and pressure. And once the balloon was out of sight, passengers rushed to Expedition Central to watch the real-time data arriving on the computers.
Expedition Central is also where we spent time studying the dozen full-size felt birds, including a bald eagle, a red headed woodpecker, and a common loon, that we were likely to see for real in the wild, during our trip. Viking commissioned felt artist Susan Beal from Vermont to make 96 super-realistic birds so that different sets can be displayed in each region Octantis (and Polaris) will visit.
And in the spirit of exploration (and because we asked nicely) Dr. Damon Stanwell-Smith, Viking’s Head of Science and Sustainability, was kind enough to bring out a set of the Antarctic felt birds, including penguins, for a special display.
For off-ship adventures, Viking Octantis has an impressive and extensive range of expedition vehicles, include a fleet of professional-grade zodiacs, lots of two-seater kayaks, a pair of military-grade, 12-set Special Operation Boats that everyone calls SOBs, and two yellow submarines with revolving seats that can each carry six guests and a pilot and offer 270-degrees views.
Rides on all these ‘toys’ are included with the cruise and the crew takes them out whenever possible. We enjoyed our zodiac rides to and from excursions and loved exploring in the SOB, which launches from a slipway inside “The Hangar” and has individually suspended seats for an incredibly smooth ride at high speeds.
Our scheduled submarine ride was canceled due to a technical issue, but those we spoke with who did get their turn in the sub enjoyed the novelty of the adventure, although most said they did not see much in the Great Lakes waters.
A few notes on the sub rides: guests will need to sign waivers before they ride, attest that they are nimble enough to transfer from a zodiac to the sub (even in choppy waters) and agree to be weighed (though not in front of a crowd) so that each sub trip is perfectly balanced. And while currently submarines may only be launched outside of U.S. waters, there are plenty of Canadian port stops, so everyone who wants one should be able to schedule a sub ride.
While our canceled sub ride was disappointing, there were plenty of other activities to keep us engaged and entertained off the ship during our one sea day and our days in tiny ports. In each port there is at least one included excursion, although most days there were several additional included hikes and other activities led by members of the ship’s expedition team or local guides.
Mackinac Island, MI, a completely car-free throwback to simpler times, is easy to navigate on foot, in a horse-drawn carriage, or on a rented bicycle, which can be used to ride the 8.2 miles perimeter around the island in about 1.5 hours. From the fudge-forward downtown, it is a 20-minute hike to the grounds of the famed Grand Hotel or a $7 ride in a horse-drawn carriage.
In Georgian Bay (Parry Sound), Ontario, some passengers opted for landscape painting with a local artist, while others learned about local efforts to revive the craft of making birch bark canoes. We spent several hours with the staff working to protect the Georgian Bay Biosphere and visited their apiary and turtle lab. In Killarney, still in Georgian Bay, we hiked to a lighthouse and stopped at the Killarney Lodge for selfies with what is said to be the world’s largest canoe paddle, which is 107 feet long and weighs in at 22,000 pounds.
In Frazier Bay, many passengers spent time on the grounds of the historic Okeechobee Lodge, while we joined a group of hearty soles for a rewarding hike to the top of AJ Casson Peak, named for Canadian landscape artist and "Group of Seven" member, A. J. Casson.
Before ending in Thunder Bay, Ontario, the ship makes a stop in Silver Islet, on the southern edge of Sibley Peninsula, at the mouth of Thunder Bay. The remains of a now-abandoned underwater silver mine are less than a mile from the Silver Islet shores. Visitors learn the history of this mine and the former company town, as well as the legends associated with sea lion rock and the Sleeping Giant Rock formation during coastal walks and hikes in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park.
Though not an off-the-ship excursion, a highlight of this Great Lakes itinerary is the ship’s passage through the gravity-powered Soo Locks, which were built in 1885 and connect Lake Superior to Lake Huron.
For this ‘expedition,’ passengers gathered on decks fore and aft as the ship made its way into what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has dubbed the “Linchpin of the Great Lakes.”
Pulling a cruise ship into the locks and waiting for 22 million gallons of water to raise the water level by 21 feet to match the level on the other side takes a lot of time. But the journey, and history of the locks and the surrounding area, were well-narrated by the expedition team from a perch up on the bridge.