I've been interested to sail with Viking Ocean since seeing them enter this market a couple of years ago. We've been loyal and long-time (2008) Oceania customers, but in very recent years, the quality of that experience as begun to diminish. In reading reviews and looking at industry trade publications about Viking's new ocean offerings, it seemed that they were doing what Oceania set out to do ten years ago, but perhaps doing it to the same or higher level of quality that Oceania seems to be leaving behind in an effort to be more cost-conscious.
I should note, too, that I had previously done a Viking River cruise in 2010, and am part of an extremely small minority that didn't really love that experience. The ship was too small, too sedate, and the other passengers were of a much older demographic. (I don't need casinos and zip lines by any means, but I wasn't ready for the level of 'quiet' vs. 'interesting things to do' that we encountered on this trip.) I took my mother on the itinerary that included the Passion Play in Oberammergau, and while many aspects of the ship itself were first rate, the overall experience isn't one I was interested in repeating. So I didn't book the Viking Ocean cruise BECAUSE OF a wonderful experience with Viking River, but IN SPITE OF my 2010 river cruise that wasn't really my cup of tea.
That's important background context, because I found every aspect of this cruise to be well above expectations. No experience is flawless, but this one came close.
We selected this itinerary because it was a shorter duration (7 nights), leaving from an easy-to-get-to port (Miami), and was close to the date of my mother's birthday, which was the primary purpose of the trip. I also wanted to try Viking out on a shorter itinerary to determine if I liked it well enough to book a longer itinerary with my husband for later this year, for our anniversary. (Again, we had originally planned to book with Oceania, but the last two voyages with them have been disappointing.)
I splurged on an Explorer Suite for this trip, primarily because that category is the only category on the Viking ocean cruise ships that have a bathtub, which my mother prefers. But the ES suite itself, cabin 3094, was huge. It was way more space than we needed, but definitely contributed to the overall experience.
The main Pros, in our opinion, in no particular order:
1.) The ship itself. These ships are all new, and they have been so thoughtfully designed that it's impossible to find a flaw. The decor is understated and typically Scandinavian, with a heavy nod to Viking culture. There is interesting artwork/sculpture throughout the ship; I was still finding new things to look at tucked away in various corners on the next to last day of the cruise. The layout also lends itself to a feeling of lots of open space. There were times when I would be in the corridors and would be the only person I saw. The wrap around walking deck on the Level 2 was over completely unoccupied other than myself and the occasional crew member, for example.
2.) The cabins. As I walked around the ship - I often walk up and down the stairs for exercise, and then around the corridors - I could peak into most of the other cabins while they were being cleaned. There really isn't a bad cabin on the ship. Even the smallest ones have balconies - although the very least expensive category would be too small for comfort on a long voyage, in my opinion, unless you were traveling with someone really organized. It looks like it's a little difficult to access the closest in this lowest category of stateroom. In our ES suite, of course, we had much more room than we actually needed. These suites have two full rooms, a sitting room and a bedroom, a gigantic bathroom with 2 separate sinks, a separate tub, and a separate shower, and a walk-in closet. The ones in the back of the ship, where we were, have larger wrap around decks, and the ones in the front of the ship have smaller decks and larger interiors.
3.) Construction quality. I had worried about the location of our cabin, since it was right above the main Restaurant and outdoor seating area. My concern was that we would hear set up and breakdown in the early morning and late night hours. It was absolutely not a problem. Whatever soundproofing technology Viking has used is amazing. We heard nothing at all once we were in our rooms, ever. I met people who were in the suite at the other end of the ship, same deck level, just above the theatre. They reported not being able to hear rehearsals or other movement in terms of stage set up, etc. So I think they've really gotten the soundproofing right.
4.) Food. This is where Oceania has historically stood out - although as noted above, my last two cruises with her weren't at the same high standard as in other years. In my opinion, the food on Viking equaled that of Oceania in the old days. There are two specialty restaurants, one of which - The Che'fs Table - is a little bit "out there" in terms of what's on offer - I heard one passenger describe it as "foamy" - but you have to give them points for creativity. I'm glad I tried it, but wouldn't choose it on a future cruise. The other, Manfredi's, was terrific. Food in The Restaurant, which is the main dining room, was without exception excellent. And the portion sizes are reasonable, even on the smaller side, so you don't feel like you're either stuffing yourself or wasting food. Mamsen's is a small spot that serves breakfast, a small lunch selection, and afternoon snacks. Worth visiting just for where it's located on the ship. Afternoon tea is served every day in an area called the Wintergarden, and it was very well done. The string trio plays during the tea hour, which is a nice touch. We had room service breakfast twice, and everything arrived hot (or cold) and on time. Truly, Viking did an excellent job with the food in every location at all meal times. Service in The Restaurant was prompt and attentive - this had been something mentioned in other reviews that they were having problems with across the first year or so, but we didn't experience it at all.
5.) Included shore excursions. This was a Caribbean itinerary, so the choices were really "water activites" or "Mayan ruins". We decided to focus on the latter - this was my mother's 90th birthday gift, and although she's in amazing shape for her age, and quite active, she's past her parasailing days. We took the included excursion at each stop, and in Key West, went back to the Truman White House on our own in the afternoon and took the tour there. On a longer itinerary, I'm sure I'd choose a mixture of the included excursions vs. the ones you pay for, but for this length of trip, on this itinerary, the excursions Viking chose to offer as included were outstanding. All of the guides were knowledgeable and entertaining, and the excursions themselves included a variety of different areas to explore. No, these weren't all the most active excursions possible, but none of them consisted of just 'sitting on a bus while a guide talks over a microphone'. We were out and walking around historic districts (Merida), or climbing around Mayan ruins (San Gervario outside Cozumel), etc. Very well thought-out to appeal to a wide variety of ages and interests.
6.) The spa on the 1st level. The fact that you can go into the spa any time, use the pool, the saunas, the "snow grotto", etc., for no additional charge, regardless of category of stateroom, is pretty special. Spa treatments, of course, are additional, but I had the best massage of my life during the cruise - worth every penny. (On the downside, this area isn't large, so it was often difficult (or impossible) to find a locker to use, or a chair around the pool area.)
7.) Ship personnel. The waitstaff, cabin attendants, and shore excursion personnel were all friendly and engaging, but what really stood out was the presence of the officers. The captain himself - Robert Bamberg, in this case - was out in the public areas every day. Senior officers ate meals in the main restaurant and were always happy to engage with the customers. The cruise director and assistant cruise director performed themselves at various points during the cruise.
8.) Entertainment. There were several lectures available throughout each day, many of which we attended and found interesting. The string trio as well as a couple of different pianists were often playing at various spots around the ship. And on a few evenings, they did a creative thing during which the string trio played Norwegian-inspired or Norwegian-composed pieces while Munch paintings were displayed on the large screen in the main atrium. The main theatre had one musical production each evening, and these were all entertaining. The cast on this particular sailing was new to each other as we left port in Miami,and they did a terrific job. There was an Abba tribute, a Beatles tribute, a couple of Broadway reviews, and one very creative production number that is impossible to describe, but the cast did a great job with it. These aren't the flashy, big scale production shows the larger mass market lines offer, but they are entirely sufficient and enjoyable.
These are truly minor, but if I were reading a review and considering spending the dollars with Viking vs. Oceania or perhaps Azamara, I'd appreciate reading them:
1.) A few times throughout the cruise, I overheard the crew being snippy/short-tempered with each other. I never ever saw it with a passenger, but it's not great that it happened more than once where a passenger could overhear it. Makes me wonder how much worse it might be when the crew is truly out of the public eye.
2.) While I did book a longer itinerary for my husband and me - In the Wake of the Vikings - for this September, I did that separately and independently of the person on the ship whose job it was to handle these bookings. I stopped in to see him one afternoon, and he was curt with me, distracted, told me he could give me two minutes if I really had to have it, but he had somewhere to be at 4 p.m. Understandable that he didn't have time to see me since I was just a drop in, but he could have handled the interaction infinitely more effectively. Had I not been so impressed with everything else, his behavior would have made me think twice about whether I actually wanted to book again.
3.) Travel arrangements. You're going to read this in other reviews, and it appears that there are ongoing problems with whatever vendor Viking uses for their air travel arrangements. I travel all the time with my job, and always have a zillion points accumulated, so I rarely book travel through the cruise companies. In this case, I considered it, because airfare is "included" and you don't get any type of credit if you don't use it. But in the end, I decided to just make my own arrangements - largely based on the negative commentary I'd read here and on other forums.
During the cruise, when we were seated at dinners or in the lounges just relaxing, I overheard several conversations - at least 7 separate ones that I can recall, and maybe more - of passengers discussing air arrangement problems. These ranged from people seeming to be slightly annoyed to a couple of different couples who were 'never using Viking again' due to how poorly their air arrangements had been handled.
So, while I didn't experience this personally, I'd say that it still appears to be a problem, and I hope they figure it out before it does more brand damage. It's a shame, since everything else works so well.
4.) Embarkation was a little rocky. Really bad weather delayed the ship on the return into Miami from the prior cruise, so we were several hours late in boarding. On the positive side, they brought in coffee and pastries, and then later sandwiches and drinks, but on the negative side, the communication wasn't proactive - passengers had to ask repeatedly what was going on, for status updates, etc. Additionally, priority boarding based on class of stateroom was completely abandoned. Mostly, it was an overall confusing experience that could have been completely avoided with periodic updates to the entire group waiting in the terminal over loudspeakers.