My introduction to transatlantic crossings was aboard the legendary FRANCE, back in 1971. During the ensuing decades I’ve sailed aboard more than 60 passenger ships and have crisscrossed the Atlantic too many times to count. The VIKING SEA voyage I’m reviewing was the third Atlantic crossing my husband and I have made in twelve months. And it was our first time sailing with Viking Ocean Cruises.
Departing San Juan, VIKING SEA crossed to Barcelona in 15 days, with en route calls at St. Maarten, Madeira, Tangier, Cadiz and Valencia.
We found the ship to be light-filled, spacious and very attractive. The décor is what one might call relentlessly Scandinavian (reindeer pelts draped over sofas!), with a color palette comprised mostly of whites, shades of taupe and pale blues, accented with blonde woods. The overall look is elegant, if a bit severe, and will appeal to some passengers more than others. Hard surfaces predominate throughout the public rooms, ensuring that voices carry. (Often the very voices you wish didn’t…)
VIKING SEA was kept scrupulously clean throughout our voyage. I don’t know when I’ve sailed on a more spic ‘n span ship.
Our cabin was a Penthouse Verandah that was bright, roomy and comfortable. Wardrobe and drawer space was more than adequate for our two-weeks onboard. Clothes-hangers are wood and are not of that irritating, ‘anti-theft’ design. The large bed (with room underneath for luggage) was wonderful, though the pillows were too thick and too firm for us. (I don’t know why we didn’t ask if other types were available; our mistake.) The ship’s laundry and the complimentary pressing service were excellent.
Blessed with beautiful weather all the way across the Atlantic, we slept each night with the door to our balcony open and enjoyed falling asleep to the sound of the waves. You can't beat that!
Having crossed westbound five months previously aboard Windstar’s STAR BREEZE (the former SEABOURN SPIRIT), I couldn’t help but compare the two cabins. The use of deep, rich colors aboard STAR BREEZE, as well as the heavy curtain that can be drawn between the sleeping and living areas, gave that cabin a wonderfully cozy look and feel. I could have moved-in permanently. Our VIKING SEA accommodations on the other hand - all blonde woods and neutral-colored fabrics - felt coolly utilitarian; rather like a quiet corner in an airport business class lounge. I never warmed to it.
The bathroom was fairly large, with a heated floor and good cabinet and drawer space. The lighting was not very well thought-out however, as it was directed in the wrong directions. The roomy shower produced an absolute torrent of hot water at all times. But the glass door didn’t quite meet the marble sill, so we were always having to mop-up water that had leaked onto the floor.
Our hard-working room stewards - one from China and the other from the Philippines - were always eager to please, friendly, immaculately groomed, and completely professional. In fact, all of the personnel whom I would consider to be ‘junior‘ staff or crew were extremely personable. We never walked past anyone cleaning a window or touching-up paint who didn’t greet us with a big smile and a friendly word. It was only those who’d attained a higher rank onboard who sometimes exhibited a bit of an attitude.
So far, mostly all good. But I’ve yet to mention the cuisine…
And that’s where Viking really disappointed us, because the majority of our meals were mediocre at best. And some were just downright bad. Too many of the hot entrees reminded me of corporate cafeteria fare; unimaginatively thought-out and prepared. Self-serve items sometimes sat-out far too long, such as slices of pizza that dried-out under the heat lamps. A celebration dinner in Manfredi’s Italian Restaurant was so salty we couldn’t finish it. (And we heard the same complaint from other passengers.)
The onboard restaurants are oddly managed. Mismanaged, I’d call it. Imagine being told by various maitres d’, over the course of two weeks, “I’m sorry, but there are no tables-for-two available next to a window.” And then, after being seated in the middle of a restaurant, being asked by the waiter “Wouldn’t you prefer that table-for-two over there by the window?” This happened over and over!
At the end of yet another evening of musical chairs, I wryly commented to the maitre d’ “You and your colleagues gaze intently into that computer of yours, looking for available tables, and yet you don’t seem to know which tables actually ARE available. So really, what is the purpose of passengers lining-up to check-in with you for a table assignment? You tell us the table we want isn’t available, and then the waiter assigned to serve us tells us it is!” I received a chilly, tight-lipped stare. This awkward disconnect, almost every time we went to dine, was something we have never experienced aboard other ships.
In truth, the whole open-seating concept seems just beyond Viking’s capabilities, since there was always an impatient line of diners waiting to be seated, not only at the ‘come when you like’ main Restaurant, but at reservations-required Manfredi’s and The Chef’s Table as well.
On one occasion, arriving late in the evening for dinner in The Restaurant, I asked the maître d’ on duty why we couldn’t be seated at an empty window table-for-two, clearly visible across the room. “Because there is no one to re-set that table” was the response. I had to bite my tongue, because I really wanted to say “Excuse me? FIND someone to re-set it.” I was pretty much DONE with dining on VIKING SEA at that point.
I kept that thought to myself only because it was obvious the staff members in all of VIKING SEA’s restaurants were working furiously, meal after meal, seldom pausing for an instant. (Forget exchanging a few pleasantries with the person serving you. They haven’t the time!) Many of the younger staff seemed rather overwhelmed, and at times, unsure of their duties.
At the start of a dinner with wine-pairings in The Chef’s Table, the white wines we were to be served with specific courses were all poured into our glasses at the same time by the young wine stewardess. When we said we’d like to have the white wine for the later course poured along with that course, so that it would be chilled, she was clearly unhappy. Our request meant, of course, that she would have to make more than one trip to our table. I understood that she may have had too many tables to serve on her own, but the staff’s excessive work load shouldn’t become the passenger’s problem. It often did when dining aboard VIKING SEA.
Our waiter in Manfredi’s apologized for our evening’s chaotic service, confiding “Viking has taken away our waiters’ assistants. And on top of that, tonight is the first night with this new menu…” He was clearly stressed, which hardly made for the elegant dining experience Viking’s promotional materials extol. But then as I mentioned earlier, the food was too salty to enjoy anyway. And there were more problems to come…
The expensive bottle of Veuve Clicquot that I’d requested – 24 hours in advance – be placed in an ice-bucket one hour before the time of our dinner reservation, arrived at the table only slightly chilled and with a dry paper label – a sure sign the bottle had not been iced. And then, at the end of the meal, the birthday cake I’d arranged as a surprise for my husband never materialized. When I later voiced my disappointment to the maître d’ with whom I’d made the arrangements, and who had carefully noted my requests for the Champagne and the cake in his small notebook, he offered only a sheepish shrug in the way of an apology, and blamed the sommelier for forgetting to ice the wine.
Now honestly, icing a bottle of Champagne and arranging for a birthday cake should not be beyond the capabilities of anyone overseeing a restaurant – on land or sea. Failing to follow through on both of my requests was inexcusable.
Offerings at the self-serve World Café were the most meager and the most haphazardly-prepared we’ve encountered on any cruise ship. (Dried-out, lukewarm scrambled eggs at breakfast...)That VIKING SEA’s galleys could turn-out so many sub-standard food items over the course of two weeks was a major let-down. Especially considering Viking’s lofty per diems!
By way of comparison, we crossed eastbound last spring, from Cartagena to Lisbon, aboard Pullmantur’s MONARCH (the former MONARCH OF THE SEAS). Spanish-owned Pullmantur is hardly a high-end cruise line, yet the food served onboard was consistently impressive. Every meal we were served in the dining room was delicious, and the choices and quality of the myriad items available at the early morning-to-late night buffet were amazing. It was some of the best food I’ve ever enjoyed on any ship. Our VIKING SEA crossing cost us five times more than our junior suite aboard the MONARCH. Five times. Proving once again that paying more doesn’t necessarily guarantee getting more!
Filling-out the comment card distributed prior to disembarkation, I suggested to Viking that “rather than rapidly adding one new ship after another to your fleet, perhaps you should consider investing more heavily in the ships – and the employees - you already have.”
Maybe then we’d consider sailing with Viking again. But in the meantime, my husband and I are cancelling a previously-booked 2020 Viking cruise in Asia. We don’t want to risk being disappointed a second time.