We've travelled on Royal Caribbean for many years, always moving to bigger and bigger ships.
This time, we went with Viking - initially because we've enjoyed their River Cruises so much (I think we've taken 10 or so). When we heard they were branching out into ocean cruising, we had to try it.
One of the coolest things about the ship is that everyone has an outside cabin with a veranda - a luxury in this age of tiny inside rooms on other lines. Please see below for an extensive review of our wonderful cabin.
Someone met us at the airport in Barcelona for ship transfer...when they found out some guests would arrive late, they called someone else to help them later and took us right away.
When we got to the cruise terminal, they saw we had a suite and walked us right on to the ship. I think we waited an hour for our bags, which was fine, since we had a bottle of champagne waiting for us and were hungry anyway. When walking the hallways, you notice that instead of a bunch of second-rate art packed onto the walls, they are mostly bare - just wallpaper and simple, light wood trim with a strong horizontal line - but every so often there's a large photo of some landmark, e.g., the Eiffel Tower.
DINING: There's a traditional restaurant setting on the lower part of the ship, with a menu that changes every day, with dinner every evening, breakfast and an occasional lunch, depending on whether you're in port (mostly no). You can just give them a window of time that you'll be there and whether you want a table for 2 or larger...you meet interesting strangers this way. If you've never been on a cruise, it's an easy way to meet people from a variety of backgrounds (but all of whom can afford to take a cruise, lol). Tons of honeymooners and people with anniversaries.
CASUAL DINING in the World Café is located toward the top of the ship. But when I say "casual dining," that doesn't do it justice. On a big RC ship, there's a huge cafeteria with many stations spread throughout the space, one for burgers, another for pasta, and on and on for salad, soup, hot entrees, asian/ethnic, continental, traditional American, etc. It has "cafeteria" written all over it and it's an apt description of the food.
Again, this is on OTHER ships.
ON THE VIKING STAR, casual dining involves tables already set (that you choose) and free wine & beer. There's one wall that surrounds the central kitchen (so the whole thing space runs around one end of the ship), and there are individual bars/counters, very orderly, that serve different types of food. Instead of throwing everything they possibly can at you, there's an ever-changing menu that is more limited and very high quality. So you might get an asparagus timbale decorated with red pepper relish, on a saffron-infused cream sauce. Perhaps caviar with blinis and all the traditional condiments. Grilled eggplant and zucchini, with an herbed vinaigrette. And, of course, you can also get all the entrées that are on that night's restaurant dinner menu, but it's pretty much all you can eat. The difference is that you can see into the open kitchen, so if they're waiting on something to come out of the oven, the cook will point back into the kitchen so you can see them making what you're about to eat. I've never seen anything like it on a cruise ship, except in a fine-dining venue, which always costs extra. There's a sushi bar (again, in casual dining), where you can watch the sushi chefs make what you're going to eat. Want your ahi seared instead of rolled? Just say the word and you can even wave at the chef when you think it's had enough heat. There are fresh crab legs, claws, and a few varieties of prawn and shrimp...always. I had a first course of crab claws every night. Want gelato? Chocolate fountain? Creme brulée? Fruit mousse (varies nightly)? After two meals in the restaurant (which is a bit quieter), we made the switch and ate here every time that we could. There were some things available every night, but main courses, sides, etc varied every day. There were usually some ready for you to pick up, but sometimes you had to wait for them to prepared, so everything was always fresh. And swimsuits, shorts, sleeveless whatevers are not allowed - there's a grill by the indoor pool for people who want it *too* casual.
ENTERTAINMENT: there are some shows. Since this ship carries less than a thousand guests, they aren't very elaborate, but are still pretty good. Movies are shown in a theatre twice a day, I think. There are also daily talks about the history of whatever port you're visiting. They're usually given by academics and can be a bit yawn-inducing if you aren't into WWII or whatever. I only saw them because they are used as background material when you are waiting for a tour group to assemble.
There were no children. HALLELUJAH.
FINE DINING VENUES: You have a limited number of reservations for each. There are two fine-dining venues, one is Italian/Steak House, with the same menu every night. It was fine.
The second is The Chef's Table, which serves a degustaçion menu that changes every three days. This food was top-notch in quality, presentation and flavor. There are different wines served with every course. The service isn't quite what you'd get in a 4 star restaurant (for instance, a waiter couldn't confirm the details on the ingredients of a sauce one night), but it's efficient since every table gets the same meal you do. Eat here twice a week if you can get a reservation.
OTHER SHIP VENUES: the Explorers' Lounge at the front of the ship is wrapped in glass and is coffee tables, sofas, chairs, with board and card games. There are also furs and blankets all over the place and it's hilarious to see a guest wrapped in what looks like the skin of a polar bear or a holstein cow, wandering around after a few drinks. This lounge has two floors. The upper has TV screens built into the table tops. The lower has a long and lovely fireplace on one wall. You can sit in a corner and read or hang out with friends; there are lots of soft surfaces, so the noise level is always a bit hushed, even when there's a convivial crowd. This lounge also has something called "Mamsen's" that allows you to have traditional Scandinavian smorgasbord until around midnight. The venue is actually open to guests 24 hours. There's also a small disco that sometimes doubles as a venue for lounge acts and a theatre for the shows.
In addition, all public areas have bar service. Since they are located around the atrium, you can hear a live jazz combo that also plays "Three Tenors" type stuff as well off and on through the day and evening. They've designated a small area as a library, but the entire center of the ship has seated conversation and gaming areas that use open book shelves as dividers. You can borrow any of these books, some of which are complete series collections of classic and specialty authors, so if you want something to read, from novels to histories, you won't lack for any of it. Drink service is available in all public areas and servers come around regularly.
When you order a drink at a bar, lounge, or anywhere else, they'll ask for your cabin number and that's that. Although it's added to your bill, you don't sign for anything.
There's an indoor pool. The room is kept quite warm unless the weather is nice, when they roll back the ceiling to let the sun and fresh air in. At night, they occasionally show movies poolside. Blankets, popcorn, and earphones (if you need them) are provided.
There's also a section of the ship called "The Wintergarden." It's really classy and beautifully appointed. There are screens made of...you know, I can't really do it justice. Please check the photos. Here they serve afternoon tea (and it's the whole nine yards). Also cocktails and such at other hours.
SPA: one of the best spas ever. Haircuts, massages, manicures, etc. PLUS: hot tub, pools of different temperatures, an ice cold bucket rinse, dry sauna, steam room, and a snow room that is so packed with the stuff that you could build a snowman if you wanted. Yes, a room full of snow. Awesome. And a hot tub and infinity pool at the front of the ship.
STAFF: Friendly, mostly Eastern European and Filipino, service-oriented and efficient.
Front desk: there is no front desk. If you need assistance with something on your bill (for instance), you go to a waiting area of sofas and chairs, and wait for a rep to help you. Sometimes, you'll go to their desk; sometimes, they'll come to you. Much different than waiting in a long line of irritated people.
SHORE EXCURSIONS: the only area where I'd give the experience a very, very slight "ding." There are excursions *INCLUDED* with your cruise for every port, but they are often lead by people with questionable English who might decide to stop for an informative talk in a back alley or some other inexplicable place. One of my favorite quotes from such a tour was, "Here is a museum of Napoleon's home. You can see the line. We won't go in; it's just a table and a chair." Later in the same tour, we could see the "famous outdoor restroom of Napoleon." We stuck with paid excursions from then on, and they were fabulous.
For instance: we had an after-hours tour of the Vatican that included the Sistine Chapel. If you've never been, no one is allowed to speak inside the Chapel and a recorded voice repeats the word "Silencio" regularly. None of that for us! Usually, the guide describes what's on the other side of the door and then lets you loose - no photos. This time, since there was only one guard, our guide came in with us and gave a complete lecture, describing all the scenes (which are pretty complex once you really get into them), loads of info about the historical setting and the difficulties both the artists and patron had to overcome, answering our questions, and we took all the photos we wanted. Unbelievable. Besides that, he was one of the best-informed and most knowledgeable guides we'd ever met. His name is Niels-Arne Dilger and if you get a chance to take this tour, it's worth every dime. Plus, dinner after, mostly small plates, with a bunch of people who just had an unforgettable experience. Let's just say the wine flows freely, lol. There's also a panoramic drive through the city, included with the tour. A great "pilgrimage" tour. On top of this, the birds were migrating, so we saw several huge murmurations of starlings, and they made hypnotic, ever-shifting shapes in the evening sky, just at dusk.
Our other paid excursions: usually very good, just don't go to the "working ranch/museum" on Corsica...it's a beautiful drive, but that's about it. The rest is mannequins with thimbles of wine at the end.
SHOPPING: Palma de Mallorca, which has some of Europe's best shopping areas and beautiful public squares, finally has shops open on Sundays all year long, which was illegal until the recent economic downturn. No tour needed.
Barcelona's port has a great mall that's a 10 minute walk away. You can also get a cab at the port...the driver will take you to other shopping malls, but you'll need to pay him about 10 euros an hour if you want him to hang around so you get back to the ship on time. If you've been to Barcelona before, take the tour to Montserrat. Breathtaking.
TIPPING: Unlike every other major cruise line, there were no suggested gratuities. A small service charge was included on liquor, and that was it. Nobody hung around, hoping you were going to grease their palms, or anything like that. Of course, we did a combination of some tipping, some glowing performance reviews (which were read out loud at staff meetings, we later learned; I think our cabin steward is getting promoted), and gifts of wine that we got in port. Our wine steward, from the Philippines, had never tried Beaujolais Nouveau. We were in a french grocery in season and there was the Wall of Beaujolais Nouveau: we got some for ourselves, too.
That's another thing: RC won't let you bring food or alcohol you get in port on board ship. Viking ENCOURAGES you to buy local cheese, regional snacks, wine, bring it back to your ship and it's no problem. We got a great floral arrangement for our room in France and weren't hassled at all. RC makes you buy their own horrible vases of carnations and mums if you want flowers in your room. What a difference.
TO SUM THINGS UP, we went small and don't regret it. If you've been taking your kids on RC or other family cruises and they're finally out of your hair, or if you haven't had kids yet, this is absolutely the way to go. The next time we find an itinerary which we haven't run yet, this is our first choice. Read Less