Cruising the Mediterranean with Viking Ocean Cruises Part 1: The Ship

 The Viking Star, docked in Livorno, Italy

The Viking Star, docked in Livorno, Italy

The Viking Star, one of Viking’s fleet of ocean-going vessels, was the perfect ship for my first ocean cruise experience. The Star is relatively small compared to many cruise ships, accommodating just 930 passengers. It was the lure of this small ship experience, along with my previous positive experiences with Viking river cruises, that convinced me to give an ocean cruise a try. The experience did not disappoint!

 Monaco - one of many exciting ports of call on the itinerary.

Monaco - one of many exciting ports of call on the itinerary.

What delighted me most about the cruise? It would be hard to pick one single thing. But the combination of a gorgeous small ship, an itinerary that took me to new places and offered exciting excursions in each, the chance to go “off season” when there were smaller crowds, the adult vibe, and Viking’s outstanding amenities and service all added up to make this cruise memorable. Trying to cover everything about the cruise in one post would make for a very long read, so I’ll start with the ship and follow up in a second post about the itinerary, ports, and excursions.

First, the ship. The Viking Star is floating luxury. Sleek and modern, its beautifully appointed common areas, from lounges to libraries to bars, are visually appealing and offer comfortable and relaxing spaces as well as lively venues for entertainment and socializing. 

 One of many comfortable and quiet public spaces on the Viking Star

One of many comfortable and quiet public spaces on the Viking Star

 Sections of the Bayeux tapestry line the staircase landings 

Sections of the Bayeux tapestry line the staircase landings 

The attention put into selecting art, which is displayed throughout the ship as well as on a huge ever-changing screen in the two-story atrium of the Viking living room (decks 1 and 2), is impressive. Even the staircases have interesting art - a reproduction of the Bayeux Tapestry. This provided a good incentive to take the stairs - important considering the availability of excellent food onboard! An audio guide (downloadable onto an iPhone) provided explanations of the art on display. There are also displays of Viking artifacts - from helmets to old iron keys to reproductions of historic Viking ships. Discovering the many art pieces tucked away throughout the ship was part of the fun - a treasure hunt at sea.

 

 Main pool, shown with roof closed  (photo from Viking website)

Main pool, shown with roof closed  (photo from Viking website)

 Explorer's Lounge with panoramic views (photo from Viking website) 

Explorer's Lounge with panoramic views (photo from Viking website) 

The main pool and hot tub, with retractable roof (roof closed during this colder weather, off-season itinerary), was surrounded by chaise lounges - some facing the pool and others facing outward with views of the sea or port. This was a popular area not just for swimming and soaking, but also for reading, napping, and casual dining at the pool bar. At night, it made a good movie venue (complete with popcorn). 

Next door to the pool is the winter garden with its intricate wooden ceiling. This bright and elegant space made the perfect setting for afternoon high tea (served daily from 4 to 5 p.m.). The shared tables also encouraged new friendships and interesting conversations. Most enjoyable was the tea I shared with an 18-year-old man (18 is the minimum age for passengers) and his grandmother. They were delightful tea companions and I enjoyed being part of celebrating his birthday and first trip to Europe. They already have me thinking about how many years it is until my oldest grandchild will be ready for such an adventure.

My favorite “hang-out” spot had to be the two-story Explorer’s lounge at the front of the ship (deck 7). Its comfortable seating, casual food service at Mamsen’s (Norwegian-style waffles, soups, sandwiches, sweets), full bar, and expansive views (especially from the upper story) provided a less hectic spot for breakfast or lunch and a perfect get-away in the afternoons. I even found a quiet spot to do some writing.

 

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The stateroom was also a treat. A last-minute upgrade offer to a “Penthouse Veranda” cabin meant extra space at a reasonable cost, including a seating area with sofa, chair, desk, and mini-fridge complete with a bottle of champagne. There was also a private veranda (every stateroom has one). The rooms were designed to maximize storage while maintaining a beautiful environment. The bathrooms are marvels of efficiency and who doesn't love heated bathroom floors? 

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Also on board are a gift shop and jewelry shop, as well as a spa, hair and nail salon. Appointments are definitely required for the spa. I was too busy exploring the ship and the various ports to shop or schedule a massage so I didn't get a chance to try these out - something to look forward to on a future cruise! I did get to experience the theater,  which is the site of live entertainment (a fabulous group of Catalan gypsy musicians and dancers in Barcelona), movies, TED talks, art and port talks, and daily excursion information. 

I can’t forget to mention the onboard dining. Wow! The Restaurant (largest restaurant on board, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, no reservations needed) was elegant but not too formal. Dress code is "casual elegant" (no jeans or shorts; dresses or slacks and nice tops for women and collared shirts for men). It is large but organized in a way to feel cozy and quiet, making conversation easy. The menu had "classics" available every night (steak, chicken, salmon) as well as nightly specials, many themed to the port of the day (bouillabaisse in Marseille, tapas in Barcelona, risotto in Livorno). There were always meat, fish, and vegetarian options and several choices of appetizer, main dish, and dessert. Pictured below are a few samples: a shrimp cocktail appetizer, a tender roast lamb with flageolets, and a wonder phyllo-wrapped Brie with a cranberry sauce. 

And, in case you are wondering about dessert options, all I can say is that pictures won't do them justice. I think everyone in my party of four agreed that the dessert prize went to the warm chocolate soufflé with Bailey's sauce. But we didn't complain about the chocolate mousse or the berry crostata, all three pictured below.  

 The best waitstaff at sea

The best waitstaff at sea

As for the waitstaff (from all over the world), well, let’s just say my group bonded immediately with the men working at table 104 in The Restaurant. They were amazing - personable, fun, and knowledgeable about the food and wine. And did we ever laugh with them! We looked forward to dinner every night half because the food was amazing and half because we enjoyed the staff so much. How can you not love someone who, when you order a simple piece of cake, tells you that "it would be much better with a scoop of ice cream alongside?" We had reservations one night at Manfredi’s Italian (one of a couple of reservation-required specialty dining venues on board). The food at Manfredi's was good but, truth be told, we missed “our guys” and the wider variety of choices in the main restaurant.

 Norwegian-style waffles for breakfast at the World Cafe (also in Mamsen's)

Norwegian-style waffles for breakfast at the World Cafe (also in Mamsen's)

There is also casual dining (breakfast, lunch, dinner) at the World Cafe. The service is cafeteria style but this was no ordinary cafeteria. There are multiple stations serving baked goods, salads, pastas, meat dishes, fish, local specialties, and fresh chilled shrimp and crab legs. There is even a dinner time sushi bar. The food was great and often included many of the same dishes as the main restaurant but in a more casual atmosphere.  The wines served were quite good too (included at lunch and dinner).

 

 

 A "two-bite" plum tart from the bakery in the World Cafe aboard the Viking Star

A "two-bite" plum tart from the bakery in the World Cafe aboard the Viking Star

The World Cafe turned out to be my favorite place for breakfast and lunch as the choices were varied, the setting comfortable and unfussy, and - oh, did I mention the gelato bar and dessert counter? Luckily the desserts came in miniature portions. Having just one was practically guilt free. 

My overall impression of the Viking Star is that it is a beautiful, well-appointed ship with luxury amenities, an upscale but unfussy vibe, outstanding staff and service, and top-notch dining. The  cruise was a great value as all meals (with wine or beer) were included along with scheduled excursions in each port. More about the itinerary, optional excursions, and ports of call in an upcoming post.

-post by JMB

 

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A pilot boat guides us out of port and into the open waters of the Mediterranean Sea.