In Viking Polaris, the second expedition ship from Viking Cruises, the line that revolutionized both river and small ocean ships has done it again. It's almost perfect.
Viking Polaris shines on a macro- and micro- level. The ship has all the programming, scientific equipment and expedition staff to bring the wild places it goes to life. We sailed in Antarctica and had the opportunity to experience many firsts -- first time south of the Antarctic Circle, first time in a submarine, our seventh continent -- along with plenty of seal, whale and penguin sightings. Viking Polaris also sails in the Great Lakes, where Viking has developed an itinerary that will make even people familiar with the Midwest sit up and take notice.
Viking Polaris also boasts all the comfortable details that Viking is known for. There are multiple restaurants that are just as good as the ones on the line's ocean ships. Some are better; the World Café now has a full grill where one could get lobster and tomahawk steak every night if they wished, and the popular sushi and seafood counter has been expanded into a mini-restaurant. Lounges have the same luxe Scandinavian décor present throughout Viking's fleet, with faux fireplaces and furry throws. The thermal spa has been reimagined here with an open-air hot tub that allows you to relax, while still enjoying the fantastic outdoor views.
In its first season, Viking Polaris has pulled together a team of expedition leaders and scientists who work hard to bring their research to life. Lectures are accessible and fun; you don't feel like you're in a classroom, and the Aula theater, modeled on an iconic hall at the University of Oslo, presents a grand environment for such a small ship.
We say almost perfect because the reason that the ship has so many amenities is also the reason why Viking Polaris isn't the right expedition choice for everyone. With capacity for 378 passengers, it's larger than almost any other ship plying the waters in Antarctica. And that increased passenger load has repercussions, in terms of how much time you'll actually spend outside at landing points in areas that have restricted use. If you're someone who wants multiple daily landings in Antarctica at a frantic pace, a different line might suit.
For those who want a lot of creature comforts in a first-class expedition environment, Viking Polaris will deliver your bucket list dreams, and then some.
The Viking Polaris deck plan focuses on excellent public areas, both inside and out, for people to gather for wildlife sightings, bird watching and more. There is so much space, in fact, that some goes unused; the Finse Terrace is a lovely outdoor area that no one used during our Antarctica Explorer voyage. Most passengers gathered instead at The Bow, which has a nearby covered area called The Shelter where people could regroup with their coffee in rain or snow, or at the outdoor areas outside the Explorer's Lounge.
Even when you're inside, the Viking Polaris deck plan keeps the outdoors front and center. Every restaurant and lounge has ocean views, and there are seats in the hallway corridors near the elevators where you can sit and take it all in. The décor references polar exploration at every turn; you're immersed in it, even when you aren't in the areas that the ship has dedicated to science and enrichment.
The rooms are generally kept free from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the ship, although you do have to pass through living corridors to access some public areas. The hallways have attractive black and white photos of Arctic and Antarctic scenes; one contained solely photos of hardy husky dogs.
It can be difficult to find on the deck plan, but The Hide, a speakeasy-style space tucked away on Deck 1, is worth seeking out. During the day, you can come down here to watch some spectacular waves and for a few hours every night, after-dinner drinks are served.
As with many of the new expedition ships being built, Viking Polaris has cabins that feel more like luxurious hotel than the bunkers that were on old icebreakers. Even the less-expensive cabins on Deck 2 have king-sized beds, and what Viking calls "Nordic balconies," essentially panoramic windows that raise and lower.
The full-length drying closets are key to airing out your expedition gear -- the complimentary parka and liner, water pants and boots that Viking lends you -- between landings. On smaller ships, you often keep these items in a public mud room, but Viking Polaris is simply too big to have that much storage. We also found that the heated bathroom floors, a hallmark of Viking's ocean ships that are also on its expedition ships, were great for drying smaller items, like gaiters, hats and gloves.
You're spoiled for choice on Viking Polaris, although these voyages are typically long enough to build up routines and favorites. Venues include the Restaurant and Manfredi's for sit-down dinners, Mamsen's Norwegian Café for snacks, and an expansive World Café buffet for all three meals. Room service is included in your fare, and you'll find many Viking favorites here, including the Chairman's Special, poached salmon with a dill sauce. Items at the World Café and on the menu are labeled with ingredients, handy if you have food sensitivities or allergies.
The Viking Polaris chef and staff know how to make milestones "events," with food and drink to match. On a sunny day after we crossed the Antarctic circle, an outdoor BBQ with lobster tails, steak and seafood took place. Caviar and aquavit toasted the launch of a NOAAA weather balloon. Pastries and mimosas were available on our first approach to the Continent. The Living Room handed out small treats daily, whether it be hot chai tea or mulled apple cider.
One thing that people didn't love was the reservation system for the restaurants. In theory, you're limited in how many times you can dine at The Restaurant and Manfredi's and you're supposed to make reservations before you leave -- almost impossible on an expedition ship where the daily programming changes. If you don't get the reservations you want, don't worry -- it was very easy to walk in, especially if you're in a smaller group.
With higher fares and more amenities, Viking Polaris tends to draw an older crowd than many expedition ships in Antarctica. While our cruise had a fair number of adult children traveling with their parents, this isn't usually the norm -- the cruise after us had a majority of passengers in their 70s and 80s, we were told.
Viking Polaris uses Zodiacs for landings and cruising, and you must be able to get in and out of this small craft to get off the ship, although the expedition staff is great at helping you. Hiking poles are included when you go ashore to help navigate the snow, and the staff does note when a landing is going to be slippery or difficult. There is a small flexibility test for readiness for kayaking and the submarine.
Meet-ups for solo travelers, those avoiding alcohol (Friends of Bill W.) and veterans were held during the cruise. The onboard atmosphere is welcoming to international travelers, as well as the LGBTQ community.
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