We're a couple in our mid-70's, and this was our first Viking ocean cruise after two river cruises (Danube and Rhine) as well as three ocean cruises with three different lines. Our cruise itinerary was east to west (Rome to ... Read More
We're a couple in our mid-70's, and this was our first Viking ocean cruise after two river cruises (Danube and Rhine) as well as three ocean cruises with three different lines. Our cruise itinerary was east to west (Rome to Barcelona).
To be honest, the primary reason we chose this cruise was because of the pre-cruise offering in Tuscany, and it didn't disappoint. We were lodged at the Villa il Poggiale, an absolutely charming hostelry dating from the 1500s. Our hosts were wonderfully kind and accommodating, and our Viking host, Alessia, was extraordinary, the equal of any we've ever had. Unlike other pre- and post-cruise extensions we've had with Viking, most of the meals were included and were both bounteous and delicious. Thank goodness for all the walking we undertook on the tours.
The first full day was a bus ride to Florence and a walking tour, including lunch. We had been to Florence back in 2002, and it was nice to see it again. April, however, is not a good time to visit since this is the time in Italy for school trips. The usual swarm of tourists, therefore, was greatly magnified by youngsters elementary to high school age. Shopping was nice, as always, and our free time began outside two affiliated stores, one for gold and the other for leather, with whom Viking has arranged a significant discount.
The second day we went to Siena and San Gimignano with a wonderful lunch at a Tuscan farmhouse in between. Siena was crowded, of course, but even the large number of people could not diminish the magnificence of the Piazza del Campo, where the biennial races are run matching horses from some (but not all) of the 17 contrade, or sections, of the city, each of whom bears a fanciful name, from dragon to caterpillar.
San Gimignano, like Siena, is perched on a hill, but is much smaller, consisting mostly of a main street that goes up one side and down the other. Wonderful views and more good shopping, including the locally grown lavender.
We left the villa early Saturday morning for the bus trip to Civitavecchia, Rome's port city. It's always exhilarating to board a ship, but we were sorry to have to part with Alessia.
The Viking Star, launched in 2015, has aged very well despite a stain here and a worn chair seat there. Embarkation was wonderfully smooth -- better even than Viking's river cruises. Our stateroom class (penthouse veranda) gave us access at 1 a.m., so our arrival at 11:30 gave us just enough time for a good lunch and a bit of a stroll around the ship. For information on our cabin, see below.
Dining is primarily in the World Cafe (all buffet with the menu changing daily) and The Restaurant, where guests are seated and attended by very friendly and helpful staff. The food and service, I thought, were consistently better than in the World Cafe. Specialty restaurants were Manfredi's (Italian, very popular) and The Chef's Table (varying theme menus, kind of edgy and not as popular.) I think the Viking demographic (50 and up, sometimes way up, white Americans) had a sort of distrust of Chef's Table fare. There's no charge for these restaurants, but reservations are necessary. The breakfasts were excellent -- so many dishes from which to choose. Our only quibble is that the orange juice did not seem fresh, but rather more of an orange drink.
We went to the entertainment only the first two nights, but both were excellent -- a quartet of opera and light classical singers and then a 12-member saxophone ensemble from a music school for teens. The enrichment activities were very appealing, but we didn't attend any due to time constraints. Day-long shore excursions and hearty suppers with wine made for early bedtimes.
We did, however, go to a Cruise Critic "Meet and Mingle" party on the second afternoon. It was very nice, with most of the senior officers there, except that we and another couple were the only passengers to attend out of the 12 who had accepted the invitation. Shame on you people who weren't there. It was a bit awkward for everyone.
Shore excursions (including one free one) were featured at every port of call. Our favorites were Scenic Lucca and Pisa (from Livorno), the Exclusive visit to Villa Rothschild (at Monaco), the Palace of the Popes at Avignon (from Marseille) and Montserrat Abbey north of Barcelona. We saw Lucca on a Sunday morning and, for once, there weren't any crowds -- at least until lunchtime. During our free time, had a good visit to Puccini's home (now a museum) and the gift shop. The Rothschild villa is splendid, but the real treat was a stroll through the breathtaking gardens capped by champagne and canapes al fresco. The papal palace is immense and only partially restored, but the part on view is most impressive. Montserrat Abbey is high in the mountains, about 4,000 feet above the plain, and we reached it by cog railroad. The jewel of the abbey is the Black Madonna, which we got to see up close. The complex is home to a school of young choristers famous through Europe. Bought a CD, of course.
The only dud (and this wasn't Viking's fault) was the day on your own in Florence. It was a Monday, hence most of the major museums were closed, and the crowds prevented us from seeing much of anything else, including the Duomo, for which we had bought tickets in advance. Disembarking on the final morning was smooth, at least until we reached the train station for the journey to Madrid. Our guide had told us we'd probably be on Track Six or Seven. We got there only to find that we were really on Track One. Kind of harum-scarum.
While the Madrid extension is billed as two days, it's really a day and a half since most of the first day is taken by a train trip from Barcelona. We were housed at the Intercontinental Madrid. Our room was tiny, smaller, I think, than our cabin on the Star, and the window looked out on a forest of rooftop television aerials and satellite dishes. Surely Viking could have insured us nicer accommodations. The bottom floors, however, are splended, indeed, with lots of mirrors and polished wood.
The hotel is not smack in the center of the city, thus is not walking distance from the Prado art museum, the royal palace, or the Plaza Mayor. Still, it was in a good part of town, with plenty of embassies and lots of nearby restaurants that were affordable. There also were a couple of small art museums nearby, and the National Library had a very good exhibit on mass communication devises from hieroglyphics to flash drives. Dining at the hotel was distinctly unaffordable, for us, anyway. The tab for two Coke Zeros in the bar, for instance, was 17 Euros (over $20 USD). The main restaurant is similarly pricey, but the bar menu is much more in reach. The breakfast buffets (included in the rate) were wonderful.
Altogether a wonderful trip, particularly the Tuscany extension. There were about 32 of us, and we achieved such camaraderie -- doubtless grape-fueled to some extent -- that we held a reunion party in the Explorer Lounge on the last night of the voyage and are keeping in touch with one another via email. Read Less