San Francisco Bay Area
CruiseClout score: 95.0
Viking Star: New ocean ship offers a near-luxury experience
Stylish, spry and quite the looker, the first ocean ship from Viking Ocean Cruises gives off the vibe of a different kind of cruise ship. Yes, like its river ship cousins, Viking Star places a big emphasis on place, with itineraries jam-packed with drool-worthy destinations and intriguing shore excursions. But it also manages to provide a near-luxury experience and premium amenities at down-to-earth prices.
Unlike mass market lines with their crowded buffets, endless lines and persistent efforts to pad your final bill, Viking Star offers a refreshing change of pace. Throughout our voyage, we never felt crowded, even for a moment. Crew members are genuinely friendly and relentlessly attentive. And the ship’s décor is honest and modern, featuring clean lines, light-filled spaces and Scandinavian accents, a tribute to the company’s Nordic roots.
Viking Star knows where it came from and seems confident about where it’s going.
Who will like sailing on Viking Star
If you're looking for something fresh and want a cruise experience that is destination-focused with maximum time in port, then this new ship might be ideal. Experienced travelers with an interest in history, art and culture will find a lot to like on the laid-back, genteel Viking Star. The ship is geared to couples in their 30s to 70s rather than to families; the minimum age is 16. As with many other cruise lines, the passenger makeup is a bit homogenous, with many newly retired affluent couples, and Viking says that 95 percent of Viking Star's guests are Americans.
Where Viking Star sails
Viking Star offers cruises throughout Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea as well as the Western and Eastern Mediterranean.
This is no supersized river ship
If you think Viking just supersized its river ships for ocean voyages, think again. Viking Star, which debuted in May 2015, was conceived from the ground up as a new kind of ocean ship.
Let us count the ways Viking Star differs from Viking's fleet of river ships:
- It calls on a host of international ports, such as Istanbul, Barcelona, Venice, Dubrovnik and Santorini.
- It's much larger: 14 decks, 47,800 gross metric tons and 745 feet long with 550 crew members and 465 staterooms and suites holding 930 passengers, making it comparable in size to Crystal Symphony (922 guests), Crystal Serenity (1,070 guests) and Holland America’s petite Prinsendam (835 guests).
- The ship features six restaurants — all included in your fare — as well as two pools, a spa, fitness center and six bars and lounges.
- Star has two theaters featuring live performances and movies, with comfy sofas and pillows with images of film legends like Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman.
At 47,800 gross metric tons, the Star is sleek enough to dock at most ports minutes from the heart of the action. We had to take a tender only in Santorini, Greece, and Pula, Croatia.
Where I went & what I loved
My wife and I sailed on the “Empires of the Mediterranean” itinerary in November 2015, along with 840 fellow guests, starting in Istanbul (where we felt completely safe, by the way) and continuing on to Kusadasi (Ephesus), Athens, Santorini, Kotor, Dubrovnik, Pula, and ending in Venice on Thanksgiving morning.
I didn't have a lot of time preparing for this cruise so I relied on Cruiseable's in-depth travel guides, and we came to look forward to the daily Port Talks given by the silky-voiced, entertaining cruise director, Aaron Syfert.
Admirably, Viking provides one shore excursion at each port as part of your fare, as well as giving you the option to sign up for more extensive explorations at an additional cost. The excursions were handled by engaging, knowledgable local guides shepherding about 15 or 20 of us at a time. Less steady were the QuietVox audio receivers, a staple of Viking cruises, which flaked out with some regularity so we couldn't hear the guide's descriptions. (Time for an upgrade, Viking corporate!)
We had been to Athens, Santorini and Venice before, but not Istanbul, Kotor or Dubrovnik, but we fell in love with all three destinations and hope to return soon.
Activities & entertainment on board
Viking Star is not a ship that parties late into the night — and that's fine, since you'll likely be up at the crack of dawn preparing to hit another port.
That said, there's plenty to do on board. Some highlights:
- The Living Room, on the first floor of the three-deck Atrium, always seemed to be thrumming, with a small ensemble in the evening or solo performers on grand piano or flamenco guitar. Turn to your left and you'll see guests gather around a lively little bar. Gaze up the stairway and you'll see a grand digital screen displaying gorgeous photos of Norwegian scenery. (The ship's captain, fittingly, is from Norway.)
- The two-story Explorers' Lounge, forward on deck 7, offers sweeping vistas as the ship glides into new ports. And you can browse the exhibits here and the rich tapestries in the stairwells and hallways that honor Viking heritage and depict ancient trade routes. Very cool.
- The Infinity Pool at the ship's aft was pretty spectacular. Though small, it affords you an unobstructed view of the surroundings, like the cliffside villages of Santorini.
- The stylish and light-filled Wintergarden offers high tea and biscuits at 4 pm daily.
- Some nights the nightclub, Torshavn, attracted a dozen or so slow dancers and slow drinkers, with a live cover band. Other nights it was packed during a schmaltzy, lively performance of "The Rat Pack."
- The Spa, run by LivNordic, a Sweden-based company (a nice change from the Steiner spas found on most cruise ships), was a highlight. Some guests seemed unaware that the spa room — including the pool, whirlpool, sauna, ice water bucket and the first snow room at sea — is complimentary, and there was no pitch to buy surcharge services like massages and facials.
- The movies "American Sniper" and "Jersey Boys" were among the Hollywood fare that played in the Star Theater and on the big screen above the pool. Star Theater was also the venue for some diverting musical productions.
There were enough options on our sailing to please foodies, both on the ship and on land, and we loved staying out for dinner in Istanbul, Athens and Kotor — plus all those lunches in port. We also took advantage of the complimentary 24-hour room service in our stateroom. And while Viking Star offered multiple choices for al fresco dining, we didn't see anyone brave the November climes and venture outdoors for breakfast or dinner during our sailing. In warmer weather, the Aquavit Terrace at the aft of the ship looks splendid.
Notably, all of our meals were included in the base fare. Two of the dining venues would qualify as specialty restaurants, with a surcharge, on other ships.
The Restaurant, the mainstay dining venue on the ship, serves standard Continental and American fare with added splashes of regional specialties. (And check out the photo of the creepy-cool moving characters, straight out of a Harry Potter movie, at the entrance.) During breakfast and lunch I loved the floor-to-ceiling windows that offered an al fresco ambience.
It's apparent the dining staff is still working hard to find its groove. On our first night, I made the poor choice of ordering the lobster, which proved to be dull and unappetizing — though that may be due to my years on the Left Coast dining on fresh lobster, which most cruise ships can't regularly snare.
Our second dinner at The Restaurant proved more rewarding, with a nice Beef Wellington and lump crab salad, and we struck up a conversation with a couple from Missouri next to us. (Seating, with an adjoining table a foot away, was such that you could decide to be social or keep your conversation contained.) Service, though earnest, was hurried. At one point my Sauvignon Blanc was refilled with the house wine; at another point, a waitress cleared our silverware and glasses, even though the main course had not yet arrived.
World Café & Pool Grill
We wound up having dinner most nights at the World Café, given its informal vibe and wide-ranging variety of global cuisines and regional specialties. Have sushi, or a Scandinavian dish, or pizza, or that odd-looking Asian delicacy that you have to ask the name of. Cappuccino and espresso drinks are also available, gratis.
In the mood for a burger or salad? Head right outside the World Cafe's doors to the Pool Grill next to the ship's main pool.
Manfredi’s Italian Grill
We were impressed by our lone meal at Manfredi’s Italian Grill, and should have arranged a second dinner reservation. The restaurant offers a range of Tuscan and Roman dishes, but one of the best meals of the voyage was a succulent, finely seasoned rib-eye steak paired with a nice Bordeaux. (Just don't ask for a Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines are Euro-centric.)
Chef's Table & Kitchen Table
Our most memorable meal came at The Chef's Table, where we lingered over a five-course dinner in a cozy, hushed room. The Chefs Table features theme dinners, and ours was "La Route Des Indes," with an emphasis on fresh regional spices. Our courses included Carrot and Cardamom Cream, with star anise; Spicy Tuna Tataki, with coriander and peppercorns; Ginger and Tarragon granita; Beef Tenderloin with paprika, cumin, coriander and cinnamon, and an apple tarte for dessert with butterscotch calvados sauce. Each course was exquisite.
We didn't pony up the extra $299 per person for dinner at The Kitchen Table, where a handful of guests accompany the chef into a market to select fresh, local ingredients to prepare for their dinner, held in a spartan room resembling a test kitchen. It's done once per cruise.
After a few days, we discovered Mamsen's on deck 7 forward in the Explorers' Lounge, and we knew we had found our breakfast spot. I loved the Norwegian waffles served with fresh fruit and berries (hold the cream) while taking in the view of the sea or a new port. Oatmeal, pastries and other fare are also on tap. It’s also open for lunch and after-dinner snacking. Mamsen's, inspired by the recipes of Viking founder Torstein Hagen's mother, remained a hidden gem throughout the voyage, never crowded and always mellow.
Viking Star features 14 Explorer Suites, which are two-room suites ranging from 757 to 1,163 square feet that offer sweeping views from wrap-around private verandas as well as additional amenities.All staterooms on Viking Star have their own private veranda (yes!). Guests can choose from five stateroom categories, starting from a 270-square-foot veranda stateroom. All staterooms come with king-size beds (convertible to doubles), roomy showers, robes, slippers, toiletries, a hair dryer and a safe.
We had a Deluxe Veranda (also 270 square feet) with a modest balcony, typical bed and a desk where I began writing this review. The complimentary movies on demand and TV stations (Fox, MSNBC, Sky News) on the 42-inch flat screen LCD TV were a nice touch, plus you could check the monitor to see the state of your bill. We also appreciated the fact that the loudspeaker system was used sparingly and the announcements weren't blaring.
During the day, guests wear casual attire. At night you'll see more sport coats and dresses. There are no formal nights on Viking Star.
Designed with the environment in mind, Viking Star features energy-efficient hybrid engines, hydro-dynamically optimized streamlined hulls and bows for maximum fuel efficiency, onboard solar panels and equipment that minimizes exhaust pollution and meets the strictest environmental regulations.
Internet on board
First, the good news: Wi-fi is available throughout the ship, including your stateroom, and it’s free. Now, the bad news: Her VSAT satellite connection is woefully slow. In Istanbul I measured a download speed of 0.91 megabits per second and 0.44 mbps up. Sailing out of Ephesus, 0.31 mbps down, 0.04 mbps up. In Kotor, 0.73 mbps down, 0.24 up.
Translation: It took 20 minutes to upload a 15-second video to Instagram. Not the end of the world, but if you’re a techie like me, or a member of the always-on generation who likes to share experiences during a voyage, you may want to look for an Internet cafe in port and resign yourself to kicking back on board.
J.D. Lasica sailed on Viking Star, along with two other members of the press, as a guest of Viking Ocean Cruises. See Cruiseable's Ethics & disclosure policy.
Have you cruised on Viking Star? What was the highlight? I'd love to hear about your own experience in the comments below.
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Interested in a cruise on this ship?
Top highlights on this ship
- Understated elegance and modern Scandinavian design
- Two pool choices featuring a main pool with a retractable dome and a glass-backed infinity pool
- Top-flight shore excursions to fascinating destinations (included in your fare)
- Attentive, courteous and genuinely friendly service from the crew.