How would you feel about a cruise line that offered free shore excursions, complimentary ship-wide Wi-Fi and overnight stays in ports of call? One with a small ship (less than 1,000 passenger) ambience, where wine and beer at lunch and dinner were served liberally -- and without charge -- and with all verandah cabins that were 20 percent larger than the norm?
Oh, and one other twist: We're not talking not about a super-luxury cruise with fares priced in the stratosphere. This one comes with a strong value-for-money price point.
Welcome to the new Viking Cruises. At a gala launch event Thursday night in Beverly Hills, California, Torstein Hagen, the visionary founder of Viking River Cruises, the world's largest and fastest growing river line, told the assembled travel agents, journalists and past passengers the company would launch its ocean-oriented cruise line in May 2015.
It has placed an order with Fincantieri's Marghera shipyard for two 48,000-ton, 928-passenger ships. The first, Viking Star, will debut in May 2015. The as-yet unnamed second will launch a year later, and Viking has “conditional orders and options for four more additional ocean vessels.”
In its maiden season, Viking Star will spend spring, summer and fall trawling the waters of northern Europe's Baltic and fjords, and the Mediterranean. Winter itineraries haven't been announced.
With the addition of the ocean line, Viking is undergoing a modest name change. The company will be called Viking Cruises (www.vikingcruises.com), and its two cruise segments will be characterized as Viking Rivers and Viking Oceans respectively. Viking is the first cruise line since Disney Cruise Line to begin its life with purpose-built newbuilds.
In designing the new ships, Viking has incorporated the best elements of riverboats –- for which the line has been on a record-setting new-build tear, debuting 28 of its new Longships designs between 2012 and 2014. That includes the company's popular Aquavit Terrace, an alfresco dining venue, and plenty of outdoor space on the sundeck and beyond. All have the same design sensibility: spare Scandinavian decor that's comfortable, airy and light.
Viking Star's blend of fresh, contemporary features with some retro touches will resonate with fans of ocean cruising. Such features harken to Hagen's stint at defunct-but-fondly-remembered Royal Viking Line, an upscale brand. Looking toward the new, Star features a main pool (with magradome roof that opens and closes) with a fire pit, a Nordic-influenced spa with a snow room and sauna and revolutionary technology that allows for the windows in the ship's main restaurant to open to the elements in good weather. All cabins come with verandahs. The smallest is 270 square feet, a good deal roomier than the average.
Ship traditionalists will also appreciate Viking Star's walk-around promenade deck that fully encircles the vessel. Its Explorer's Lounge, an airy two-deck top-of-the-ship venue, offers an observation area -- a feature that many of today's newest cruise ships lacks.
Many travel agents attending Thursday's event compared Viking's offerings and price points to lines that at Cruise Critic we call luxury lite (elements of upmarket travel, such as cozy ships that can offer far-ranging itineraries along with superb service and cuisine but at a moderate price point). Those most mentioned were Oceania Cruises, Azamara Club Cruises and Windstar Cruises. But Hagen last night said Viking would distinguish itself with elements that included destination-focused cruising, locally sourced cuisine, an understated and comfortable but elegant onboard ambience, immersion-oriented touring and enrichment and this one: “No nickel-and-dimeing.”
Viking Cruises' ocean arm officially goes on sale in North America today. Plans to reveal Viking Star and its fleetmates are anticipated to roll out in the U.K. and Australia later this year.
--By Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief