Viking Polaris was built as an expedition ship from the ground up, and the ship is designed to get you out into the wilderness. The chief feature here is the Hangar, where two submarines, Zodiacs, kayaks and two Special Operations Boats are stored. Having the Zodiacs at ground level, as opposed to on a higher deck, means that they can be deployed quickly if the weather turns great and expedition activities can begin faster.
That being said, you spend less time on land in Antarctica than you would on a smaller ship, simply because there are limits as to how many people can be at the sites at once. It also takes the ship more time to cycle all the passengers through. So while other expedition ships might visit two sites per day, on Viking Polaris you'll go to one.
The landings, too, are perhaps not as strenuous as you might find on other lines. That's due to the general older age of Viking's passengers. One of our landings took place at a slippery site, and the expedition staff were fully employed helping less agile passengers on shore. There's no way to separate out passengers by activity level as you can on one of Viking's river ships. Viking also eschews a polar plunge, again simply because of logistics of the larger ship and older passengers.
Viking gives every passenger a red parka to wear that they can bring home, which also comes with a puffy liner. You will also be given waterproof pants and boots to use, although these you turn in at the end. You submit sizes for these before your cruise, but if you arrive and things don't fit, it's easy to switch. Viking also has an online store where you can buy base layers and other gear, but it's generally cheaper to buy from Amazon, REI or your favorite outdoor store.
On an Antarctic landing, you have the opportunity to walk around in the snow, using provided trekking poles if needed, along paths that are set out by the expedition staff. You'll be able to view penguin rookeries from a distance, although the penguins often disregard the limits and walk toward you curiously. Each landing is usually an hour long, not counting the time you spend lined up or traveling to the site by Zodiac.
The ship's expedition staff tries to get everyone out on a landing as possible. While you may "sign up" for Zodiac landings before your trip, keep in mind that these will certainly change, as trips are highly dependent on weather and site availability. On our cruise, we did three landings, on Petermann Island, Damoy Point and Cuverville Island; on days that we couldn't land, Zodiac cruising was available.
Tip: Take the first landing or Zodiac cruise that you can, as conditions can get worse as the day goes on.
Many passengers on our trip were flummoxed by the excursion reservation system and it's true that things were often somewhat chaotic. You have to check your app on a regular basis, as timings can and will change every day, and sometimes you have more than one activity scheduled at the same time, which requires a trip to Guest Services to sort it all out. People who are used to the clockwork timing of a river or ocean cruise will be surprised by how fluid an expedition itinerary is. Our suggestion is to pack your patience and go out as often as you can. If you wait for the weather to be perfect, you might never leave the ship.
Zodiacs are the backbone of any expedition cruise, and on Viking Polaris, you'll learn to love them. The ship uses them for both scenic cruising to get close to icebergs and wildlife and for landings on shore. While getting on a Zodiac might seem scary to a novice, the veteran expedition staff is very efficient at getting people on and off; just make sure you always listen to the instructions.
On Viking Polaris, passengers get on and off the Zodiacs in a space called The Landing, a mud room of sorts. You come down to the Landing in all of your gear for Zodiac trips; kayaking requires different gear, including a full dry suit, while the sub has you shedding your big boots for booties. On a busy landing day, the Landing can seem like Grand Central Station, but the expedition staff did a good job of keeping everything moving with a minimum of confusion.
Viking Polaris has two six-passenger submarines, George and Ringo (Paul and John are on Viking Octantis). For expeditions booked after April 1, 2023, the sub rides are classified as optional excursions, costing $499 per person, beginning on voyages starting June 1. (Anyone who booked their cruise March 31, 2023 or before will not be charged).
Even if you pay the fee, conditions have to be perfect for the subs to go out, you might not get to go. The passengers in the subs are assigned to their seats by weight, and so if someone on your scheduled trip bails at the last minute, the whole ride might be scrapped.
Tip: If you want to do this, sign up for a sub ride as soon as excursion reservations open, as it did seem that people who got their name in early were the ones who got the rides.
We were fortunate to go out in the sub, and while we didn't see all that much -- starfish, sun stars, small jellyfish -- it was still a thrilling experience to get down 270 feet to the ocean floor. You travel to the sub on a Zodiac and you do need to transfer from the smaller boat to the sub, but the staff makes it easy to do (you're required to prove that you can squat when you sign up for a trip). The sub operators are focused on safety but also give some commentary on what you're seeing. If you're extremely claustrophobic, this might not be the activity for you, but my 6'5 husband was able to fit in the sub and enjoy it, no problem.
The Special Operations Boats are a differentiator for Viking, and besides being more accessible for people with mobility issues than a Zodiac, these "SOBs" are just plain fun. A ride on these boats is included in your fare, although keep in mind that even if you sign up, you might not get a ride. The SOBs are jet propelled and can't operate in areas with too much ice. Our advice: Keep trying to get on, as these boats can take you closer to wildlife. We were able to get within 20 meters of humpback whales, close enough to hear them.
Viking Polaris has a fleet of 16 kayaks and if you enjoy being active and have paddled before, do not miss the opportunity to do it in Antarctica. You do have to get in the kayaks from a Zodiac, but there's a required training onboard and the expedition staff help you. Being able to kayak so close to penguins, who "porpoise" in the water near you, was truly a highlight of the trip.
The Aula theater is state-of-the-art, and artistic too; it's modeled after the Aula Hall at the University of Oslo, which has original paintings by Edvard Munch (known by most as the painter of The Scream). Screens with Munch paintings keep the Aula theater dark for presentations in the Midnight Sun conditions.
The lobby going into the Aula doesn't have a bar, but there's a coffee station and also screens with quotations from famous books, such as Walden and A River Runs Through It (look up for a life-size replica of an albatross). You gather at the Aula for your daily briefing (also broadcast on the in-room TV), as well as scheduled lectures from the expedition staff.
We enjoyed most of the lectures by the staff, which seemed more accessible to a layman than what we've heard on similar expedition ships. The staff went out of their way to make the science lectures interesting, with lots of focus on sea birds, wildlife, whales and more. Movies were shown in the Aula some nights.
The daily schedule can shift quickly, as the expedition staff determines where the ship is going and what type of activities can be offered. During the down time, there were several extra fee wine and alcohol tastings offered, as well as a science trivia.
Expedition Central and The Studio, both on Deck 2, were great spaces to drop by and get your nature fix. Both areas have interactive tablets where you can call up all kinds of data about Antarctica and your trip. Full-size bird replicas created especially for Viking by a Vermont artist serve as a good backdrop for the daily birder meet-up. A list of the wildlife spotted on the trip is kept here, and there's also a specialty coffee machine.
Viking Polaris has a well-equipped Science Lab onboard, with some state-of-the-art microscopes and more. We got the impression, though, that the line was still trying to figure out how to best allow passengers to use the lab. Originally, people were able to help researchers on an ongoing micro-plastics project but that participation was stopped because people weren't all that good at actually identifying things correctly.
More successful is the NOAA Weather Balloon partnership. The staff made the balloon's release an event, with caviar and aquavit snacks and a countdown liftoff from a usually restricted area. Afterward, people could go down to Expedition Central and see in real-time the data being sent back from the balloon. Don't miss it.
You find out what's going on through the Viking Voyager app. You really need the app on an expedition cruise, as it is updated frequently with your expedition activities. Your personalized schedule is also available on your in-room TV.
As with most expedition ships, things shut down fairly early on Viking Polaris. There's no nightclub per se, like Torshavn on the Viking ocean ships, although there's live music every night in the Explorer's Lounge.
What Viking Polaris does have is The Hide, a tucked-away speakeasy bar that serves after-dinner drinks from 8:30 until 10:30. You have to seek The Hide out down on Deck 2, and true to its name, it can be a bit hard to find. But it's worth it, especially for the full windows that are almost at sea level. Come down here during a blustery day when the Drake Passage is stormy, if you dare.
No one comes on an expedition ship to party hard, but Viking Polaris has plenty of places to have a nice cocktail, a glass of wine or a cup of hot team. The Silver Spirits drink package is reasonably priced, and gives you access to more options at mealtime too.
For an afternoon latte. The Living Room is a gorgeous multi-use Scandinavian-influenced space that looks like a library but has people using it all day long for reading, card games and casual conversation. There's a full selection of teas and specialty coffee drinks, as well as a bar.
For a nightcap (or wake-up). The two-story Explorer's Lounge has a delightful bar, comfy seating and fantastic views. On our sailing, the venue served as an early morning gathering spot for scenic cruising into the Continent, as well as the Lemaire Channel, with mimosas and Bloody Mary's. It also served as the late-night venue, with live music and a bar that goes until passengers do.
For something special. The Hide is unique, and a fun getaway. True to its name, it's never crowded, and the after-dinner drinks make the space feel even more special.
Viking has tweaked the pool on its expedition ships to make it more usable in cooler climates. The infinity pool is now indoor-outdoor, with part of it enclosed under a retractable roof. There's also a hot and cool infinity tubs outdoors, although we never saw anyone braving them during our Antarctic trip.
The thermal suite also has a sizable indoor pool; see below for more details.
Viking Polaris has many places to go out and view wildlife. On our Antarctic trip, the most popular was The Bow on Deck 3. From here, you get great views of the front of the ship, and when pods of whales surfaced, the captain worked hard to keep us in place so we could capture that elusive whale tail photo.
Directly in front of The Bow is an enclosed area called The Shelter. This proved to be a great space to get your winter gear on and off before heading out to view wildlife in the snow or rain.
The Explorer's Lounge at the front of the ship also has an outdoor area that offers panoramic viewing. The back of the ship has the Aquavit Terrace with lots of outdoor space too.
Like its sister ship, Viking Polaris also has the Finse Terrace, a large Nordic Garden with faux hedges and firepit and padded outdoor seating. It's a gorgeous space that will probably get a lot of use on the ship's Great Lakes itineraries. In Antarctica, it's simply too chilly to be out there, and the space was underused.
Viking Polaris has a small shop where you can buy sundries, as well as cold weather gear that you might have forgotten (although it's on the pricy side).
The Wi-Fi on Viking Polaris was fairly amazing, given the remoteness of the setting. We were able to FaceTime our family back home, stream a Peloton workout, attend a doctor's appointment virtually and communicate with the office via email and Slack -- even from the Drake Passage. Wi-Fi is included in the fare.
There's a medical center onboard, and you can go there if you need seasickness remedies (although you really should pack your own for an Antarctica trip). All passengers are required to have a signed doctor's note and medical form before coming on a polar trip.
Viking Polaris has a larger fitness and gym area than you might expect, with two rooms allotted. One room has yoga mats and room for stretching, as well as BoSu and TRX hooks in the ceiling. The other has cardio equipment, Technogym machines and free weights. We found that the gym was quite busy in the morning, with a bit of a wait for treadmills. There are no fitness classes, but a complimentary meditation class took place every morning.
You can walk around the ship outside, but you'll have to go up and down a few stairs to do so. Watch out for icy conditions.
Given the clientele, the excursions themselves are not particularly active -- the kayaking is where you'd get the most aerobic exercise because the staff will only take you out when conditions are calm. Trekking poles are available when you're on snow during a landing, but the distances that you'll go are on the easy side. The expedition leader told us that the ship simply doesn't have the staff to be able to offer "active" excursions to those with a higher level of mobility and fitness.
Viking Polaris has an age requirement of 18 so there are no facilities onboard for families with young children or teens.