This was our first experience with Viking and, though all-in-all a good cruise, we departed feeling like there was room for some improvements.
Viking’s reputation and recent ratings speak for themselves, so my wife and I were very much looking forward to this cruise, our sixth. We sailed from Barcelona, Spain on the Viking Sea ocean ship, ending up in beautiful Bergen, Norway. The 15-day itinerary along the west European coast was very attractive to us, both in length and variety of ports to be visited. We expected an above-average experience, which Viking pretty much did deliver, but they fell short in some unexpected areas. Spoiler alert: yes, we will likely sail with them again, despite the lapses that I’ll try to articulate here, along with some well-deserved compliments.
The highlights/stars of the cruise were, for us, the ship and the crew. Both were exceptional compared to previous cruise experiences. I need to start somewhere so I guess I’ll go in alphabetical order. And since I usually refer to a ‘ship’ as a ‘boat’ I’ll talk about the Viking Sea first. ;-)
Our last cruise had nearly 5000 passengers on it – way, way too many. Without going into details, the crowds, lines, noise were obvious issues. ALL of that was absent on this cruise. The Sea carries up to 930 passengers. There is no casino, no interior cabins, no huge shops, no children, no photographers; everything is scaled-down from the bigger liners, yet we never once felt harried or even particularly delayed, even while getting food at the buffet. The longest line we stood in was at the U.K. stop where everyone had to go thru a formal immigration interview. At first the number of folks queued up seemed exceptionally daunting, but we were whizzed in and out of there in no time. Much appreciated.
The interior of the boat was stunning. Built in 2016, it was modern, well-organized and immaculate. The décor spoke to my Scandinavian roots; I’ve always been a fan of that type of furniture coupled with the clean, eye-pleasing space design. One unexpected detail we liked were the leather-wrapped stateroom door handles and hallway safety railings; very plush. The customer service/lounge area on deck one was appropriately called ‘The Living Room’ and instantly evoked sophistication and comfort at the same time. A few decks up, the Wintergarden lounge area amidships was especially attractive. I can’t find the words to describe it – do yourself a favor and Google it real quick. Our favorite area ended up being the Explorer’s Lounge at the bow on deck seven. It had two levels, the lower featuring a bar and LOTS of comfortable seating; the upper level was smaller, a bit more private and very quiet. Both had panoramic, 180 degree views of the outside. Side doors led to an exterior walkway in front which provided, IMO, the best forward-facing views of port arrivals and sail-aways. Every evening at 6 we were treated to either a violin/cello duet or piano music, which further enhanced the pre-dinner, end-of-the-day unwind, accompanied by refreshing libations and the new friends we met.
I’m not a spa guy, but as promised to my wife I tried it on the last sea day. I felt it was modest, though classy; that is the space was in keeping with the rest of the décor. It seemed rather small to me, likely due to the boat’s size. That probably also explains why all the chaise lounges were taken. I hung in as long as I could, but on my way out I couldn’t resist checking out the Snow Room, a small rustic chamber with real snow in it. I sat for a few moments and actually felt somewhat refreshed. Never seen one of those before! (Avoiding the extreme temptation to say it was ‘cool’!)
Ok, how was the room? We were in a Deluxe Veranda stateroom on deck 5, ALL the way forward on the starboard side, right below the bridge. The size (270 sq. ft.) and layout were serviceable. The bathroom was relatively spacious and featured a heated mirror and floor. The heaters were activated automatically when you inserted your sea pass card to activate the room lights, but they could not be turned off until you left the room (or took your card out). The heated mirror prevented fogging during showers and worked well. I didn't like the warm floor, in general, as it tended to heat up the whole bathroom space. My wife, who is always cold, loved it. For some reason there was only one little 22” towel rod in there, which pretty much forced us to have most of the towels changed out each day. If there’d been one or two more I would’ve gladly re-used those linens.
The living area was comfortable, with a nice big flat-screen monitor in front of the bed. A small wet bar tucked in the desk had a nice assortment of snacks and non-alcoholic beverages. There was a bit of extra space to cool off wine bottles and food. The balcony was smallish, but not tiny. If the weather had been less windy I could see the two of us hanging out there more often than we did. The under-hanging search light just outside the railing (part of the bridge structure right above us) was only a minor annoyance. The MAJOR annoyance was the lack of dresser and shelf space. We got only three small drawers and a couple of open shelves in addition to an un-remarkable closet space. This was confounding given the open wall areas where they could have thrown up one or two shelf/drawer units. Some new friends showed us their Penthouse Junior Suite on deck 8 and that one had an actual dresser, in addition to more room. Another issue was the nightlight. Located at floor level near the bathroom, it was BRIGHT. We first tried covering it with some tape we’d brought, but we soon realized that a folded-up towel was required; it was that annoying.
Mad, mad props to Viking Sea's crew. On our last cruise this element was a memorable low-point. This time, everyone (literally), no matter if he/she was a deck hand, housekeeping, or bridge officers, always looked us in the eye, smiled and offered a pleasant 'Good morning', ‘Enjoy your day', whatever. This simple gesture is essential, IMO, for an enjoyable cruise experience. The customer service personnel were knowledgeable, the bartenders were personable, and the wait staff were very attentive (with one lone exception, see below). The highlight came after our Bruges, Belgium excursion. As our bus pulled up to the boat, we were greeted to the sight of a huge red carpet and a double line of what appeared to be most of the senior officers and staff. Music was playing, hands were clapping, feet were stomping, and we got the 'welcome back aboard' of a lifetime! Gosh knows how long they had to stand out there; we were one of the last tour groups to return. I asked a waiter about it later and he indicated that they do this at least once a cruise, pretty much at random. How fun. Nice touch Viking!
We also enjoyed the many educational lectures they offered, most of them aimed at the ‘middle ages trade routes’ theme of the cruise. Their ‘Port Talk’ presentations gave us useful info on the next port of call and the scheduled excursions. If we missed anything, we could view a recording of it later on their internal media system. I’m not a night owl so I can’t comment on the evening entertainment.
Speaking of excursions, everything was very well organized. There were always plenty of personnel around to direct us and answer questions. The tour guides were fun and professional. Accommodations were made for folks using crutches, wheelchairs, etc. The disembarkation process on the final day was very efficient (sort of a one-way, final excursion, right?). No lines, we were whisked thru the terminal where our baggage, porters to carry them and taxi cabs were all waiting.
Sadly, I need to move on to the "irks" part of this review, i.e. the food. The buffet was, maybe predictably, repetitive after a while. They did throw in some variety, most of which was not for my palette unfortunately. At breakfast, the scrambled eggs were Eggbeaters; to get a real egg you had to order an omelet or grab an Eggs Benedict (on which the ham slices were always way too small). The coffee was mostly bitter to my taste, and for some reason, you had to go from one end of the buffet to the other just to pair a bagel with some cream cheese. And I can't for the life of me understand why they couldn't, at least once in a while, put out some seasoned ground beef, chopped lettuce, cheese and tortillas so I could have a taco or something (i.e. Mexican food). They had Italian, they had Spanish, they had Asian - what gives? Overall, the food tended to be under-seasoned and bland, period, with very few options to jazz it up other than ground pepper or some Tabasco sauce.
The memorable food-related highlight was our dinner at the 'Chef's Table' and an Asian-style menu. It was fantastic. Very gourmet-style, each course was as pleasant to look at as it was to eat. For daily faire, the burgers were excellent, and the buffet’s bakery always had a wide variety of tasty breads, rolls, pastries, etc. The low light was Manfredi's, their flagship Italian restaurant. Number one, I couldn't read the menu, it was ALL in Italian. I knew I wanted the rib eye steak, their signature dish, but I needed the waiter to help me choose a side. The food was good (yes, I can recommend the rib eye), but as we were eating, the waiter decided to disappear. From then on, we had to ask for everything: plates to be cleared, dessert menus, ready to order, etc. A second waiter eventually came by, and our desserts instantly appeared. Great, but where's the coffee we ordered? So we waited. And waited. Finally the first waiter decided to check in and he went off to look for coffee. The maître d’ stopped by - we had three people looking for coffee and the desserts were still sitting (granted, our choice). Sadly, it didn't end there. My wife's Tiramisu was a gloppy mess; just one little layer of sponge at the bottom, topped off in a coffee-cup-sized container with some kind of whip creamy, chocolate swirly, ... glop. We got back to our room and we're thinking 'Holy cats, what just happened?!' It was extremely disappointing, especially given the high regard in which the restaurant was held.
Just a few more random observations to offer and I’ll wrap up (thanks for hanging in!). The captain had an irksome habit of docking early. We enjoy sail-ins and are willing to get up early to watch the early-morning ones when the opportunity avails. The Viking Daily newsletter always provided lots of info including arrivals/departures so we planned accordingly. More often than not we woke up to realize that we were already pulling into a port long before our alarm was due to go off. Oh well. Another frequent irk was the spotty wi-fi. It seemed to happen mostly during the day – the signal would just quit. Lastly, at many ports Viking would arrange for shuttles, or at least guides to help independent sightseers to explore on their own. This was completely absent at Amsterdam, which was especially confusing after my wife (being much more adventurous than I) found out that, with just a bit of advice from a fellow passenger, a short walk led to a very attractive part of town. The boat’s resources were silent on this.
One last remark, and I don’t consider it to be a knock, is that the boat, at 745 feet long and 94 feet wide, got tossed around a quite bit in the choppy seas we encountered coming into the English Channel, then later in the North Sea. It got a bit dicey at times, where you had to walk really carefully when you were moving around. I doubt a larger boat would ride that way but IMO it just added to the experience.
So, all things considered, it was a very enjoyable cruise. A lot of this was due to the spectacular, unusual stretch of clear, moderate weather we enjoyed in all the ports we visited; no rain, not even many clouds. The rain finally did arrive - on the day we departed. Viking, for the most part, came through with a wonderful experience, just as we expected they would. I remember on the last full day, a few of us were in the Explorers Lounge filling out Viking’s lengthy feedback questionnaire and it became apparent we were all struggling with how to rate the cruise with “As Expected”, “Better Than Expected”, etc. We all ‘expected’ an exceptional experience from Viking, but it seemed weird to choose “As Expected” because it felt like we were dinging them. In fact it was a compliment – we expected better and Viking delivered. On that basis, we’re more than willing to look into another ocean cruise with Viking. Too, I strongly suspect that we’ll try one of their river cruises in the future.
And on that note, I’ll close. Thank you for reading this – I hope you’ve found it helpful.
Comfortable, nice lay-out, roomy bathroom, but lack of dresser drawers and a really, really bright night light were negatives. Bed was comfortable. Didn't mention it in my review, but the ship was creaky, always making noises! Several fellow passengers commented on this. It wasn't particularly bothersome, just seemed a bit weird for such a new boat.
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