(7 a.m. EDT) -- "If you’ve seen one of our ships, you've seen them all."
That's what I heard Viking chairman and CEO Tor Hagen say just a few weeks ago. We were on a different ship -- the cruise line's newest oceangoing ship, Viking Saturn -- whereas I'm currently on Viking Mars, which debuted last year.
But as I stepped aboard Viking Mars for an eight-night voyage across Denmark and Norway, I knew exactly what Hagen was talking about. Far from a dismissive statement, Hagen was proudly upholding one of Viking's most cherished distinctions: All its ocean ships are designed identically. As Hagen said, "There is a deliberate familiarity to our ships. We want you to know where to go; we want you to feel at home."
Sailing on a Viking ocean vessel for the first time reveals many more reasons that justify the cruise line's commitment to shipbuilding uniformity. Every design and architectural choice has a meaning -- some practical, some whimsical, yet all purposeful.
Here are some highlights we've observed during our Scandinavian sailing and how they enhance and complement the Viking experience.
With capacity for 930 passengers in 465 cabins, Viking Mars can be considered a modestly sized ship, but certainly not a tiny one. On our fully booked sailing, you could never tell there were more than 900 passengers on board.
In fact, the only instance when our journey felt truly crowded was during our port day in Warnemünde. Most passengers chose shore excursions in Berlin, and they all returned to the ship on a private 2-plus hour journey from the German capital to the Baltic coast. While the train itself didn't feel busy, getting off the train did, and the relatively small cruise ship terminal in Warnemünde seemed slightly overwhelmed.
Having said that, the boarding process was swift. And once aboard Viking Mars, crowds were nowhere to be found. That's because gathering spaces on the ship are ubiquitous and equally inviting. The ship's two-deck Atrium, for example, could be considered the heart of Viking Mars, as it features a wealth of nooks and crannies that ensure you'll find your spot to lay back and relax.
And this is true of other popular public spaces on the ship, including the two-level Observation Lounge on decks 7 and 8; the Wintergarden and adjoining pool deck on Deck 7; the Aquavit Terrace aft on Deck 7 and the Star Theater on Deck 2.
Even Torshavn -- the somewhat small nightclub named both after the cruise line's owner and the capital town of the Faroe Islands -- is never shoulder-to-shoulder on the liveliest of nights.
The generous sense of space is enhanced by the ship's décor, which relies heavily on pale birch tones, wintry-blue accents and earthen colors. Moreover, most public spaces are flooded with light, which is especially noticeable on Scandinavian summer sailings, when daylight lasts well into the night.
Viking isn't just a name for this cruise line. The ships fully embrace and embody the heritage of Nordic ancestors, and proudly celebrate Scandinavian culture. Beyond all the comfort and stylish flair, stepping on a Viking ship is an opportunity to learn about Scandinavian history and culture, from the distant Viking Age to the not-so-distant Golden Age of Hollywood.
The aforementioned Atrium, for example, features clever nods to ancient Viking longships. You can appreciate this on the ceiling pattern as well as the Viking Bar, both emulating the clinker building style in which hull planks overlap each other. Below the Atrium's main staircase, you'll find the multicolored lichen garden. This fascinating display made up of moss, lichen, slate and birch bark all laid out in knitting patterns emulates the landscape of the mountain plateaus near the Norwegian village of Finse.
On Deck 2, Atrium also hosts the small but comprehensive museum devoted to Viking history -- aptly called the Viking Heritage Museum. Faithful replicas of artifacts, jewelry, tools, weapons and clothes are displayed here, as well as informational timelines that delineate relevant events of the Viking Age. Slightly more contemporary but equally fascinating is the collection of authentic Norwegian Bunads, or folk clothing, displayed on Deck 3.
The Star Theater on Deck 2 also finds a way to link showbiz to Nordic culture. All over the seating areas, you'll find pillowcases with black-and-white photos of famous Scandinavian silver screen luminaries like Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, Nils Asther or Liv Ullman.
Elsewhere on the ship, the four "trees" in the Wintergarden also borrow from Norse mythology by bearing a faint resemblance to runic depictions of Yggdrasil, the sacred tree that houses the Nine Worlds. In this space you can also find references to Odin and his two ravens Huginn and Muninn. According to Norse mythology, the ravens fly all over the world to bring back information to Odin. This legend is playfully referenced in Wintergarden by displaying the birds in far-flung destinations like Antarctica.
Even the spaces on the ship that are transitional in nature -- like staircases and elevators -- find a way to pay homage to Norse history and traditions. The pièce de résistance is a detailed reproduction of scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry, an 11th-century embroidered cloth showcasing the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Across eight decks, you can follow along the events that lead up to the Battle of Hastings and the death of Harold II, King of England. Why is it here? Because William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy that led the victorious battle, was a descendant of Vikings.
If you prefer to take the elevator, you'll see a playful nod to the trolls of Scandinavian lore. The mythological mischievous creatures are hidden between the trees of the birch bark wallpaper. What's more, they depict real people like Karine Hagen, Viking's Executive Vice President and daughter of Tor Hagen.
Even Manfredi's Italian restaurant on Deck 1 -- Viking Mars' least Nordic space -- refrains from straying too far from the Scandinavian style. Here you won't see traditional checkered tablecloths or over-the-top references to Mediterranean landscapes. The space instead exudes Viking's subdued elegance, with brown leather chairs, black and white floor tiles and dark Murano glass chandeliers.
Nods to nature are prominently featured throughout Viking Mars, but perhaps the space that best celebrates Scandinavian landscapes is the LivNordic Spa on Deck 2. And all passengers stand to benefit from this, as access to this wellness area is complimentary (although spa treatments do cost extra).
The Spa is decorated with Swedish limestone and black slate, while juniper wood and teak furnishings dot the area around the main pool. In typical Scandinavian style, you'll find a sauna here. But the showstopper is the Snow Grotto, a small room with snowfall and chilled air that's part of the old Nordic tradition of alternating hot and cold treatments.
Viking's emphasis on comfort and efficiency transitions seamlessly into the ship's cabins. All 465 staterooms have balconies, plentiful storage space, a king bed that can be divided into two twin XL beds, a desk and a living area that features two chairs and a coffee table.
But what really stands out is the impeccable attention to detail and small design touches that raise a cabin from good to great. Outlets, for instance, are plentiful and feature USB ports as well as European and American electrical sockets. The bathroom floors are heated, the mirrors are anti-fog and the clothesline in the shower runs diagonally instead of across, maximizing length to allow you to hang more clothes to dry. The handles on your cabin doors and closet doors are wrapped in leather, a little touch that might seem insignificant but goes a long way in neutralizing bothersome static electricity. The closets have motion-activated lights and the bed's headboard has a couple of strategically placed night lamps. And the desk features a pop-up mirror.
There are so many thoughtful and logical little perks in your cabin that you can't help but feel at home -- and wish you could take some of these design touches back home.
Seeing (and sailing aboard) Viking Mars might very well mean that I've now seen all nine ships in Viking's ocean fleet. But it also means I'd look forward to sail on every one of them and indulge in their comfort and familiarity.