On board the inaugural voyage of the Viking Sea
“Nordic spas are based on the contrast between hot and cold”, explained the multi-tasking Swedish stylist as she wrapped my hair in a warm towel to allow the conditioner to sink in, gave me an expert neck and upper back massage and applied warm pads to my shoulders before leaving me to relax.
By then I should probably have realised that with a name like Nordic Hair Ritual there was a hint of what was to follow. On her return the cold water rinse did come with a prior warning, and an optional cop out clause, but when you’re on a Scandinavian ship you may as well release your inner Viking. Following the initial scalp-tingling Arctic experience it was remarkably refreshing and invigorating, and after being styled my hair stayed sleek and frizz-free for days.
Sailing on a leg of Viking Sea’s maiden voyage, the hair treatment was one of many surprises; and even seasoned cruisers should be prepared for the unexpected – in the nicest possible way. While some of the newest ships are enticing passengers with fairground rides at sea, Broadway-style extravaganzas and celebrity chef restaurants where you have to fork out extra to dine there, you won’t find any of that on this ship.
Torstein Hagen, founder of Viking River Cruises, bucked the trend when he launched the line’s first ocean ship Viking Star in 2015, and set out to bring the best bits of his river ships to sea. A year later, the near identical Viking Sea is following in Star’s wake.
Firstly, it doesn’t resemble a floating block of flats. Carrying 930 passengers it’s a ‘small ship’ in cruise ship terminology and when I’m out on my balcony enjoying the warm Mediterranean sunshine I know I’m not the only one, as every cabin is sea-facing with a walkout veranda. WiFi, which can come with eye-watering charges on other lines is free, along with a complimentary excursions at every port of call and, best of all in my book, wine is included with lunch and dinner, so no horribly sobering drinks bills on the final day.
There’s also plenty of time in port, often into the evening or overnight, allowing time to take one or two excursions or explore under your own steam, using the shuttle bus service if the town or city centre isn’t within walking distance.
I sailed on part of its first western European cruise, from Barcelona to Lisbon. In Malaga some passengers head off on the day trip to Granada and the Alhambra Palace, while I opt to join the first of the day’s four free tours into town. The first stop takes us to the 14th century Gibralfaro fortress, high on a hillside and affording panoramic views of harbour, where our floating home glistens in the morning sunshine.
Walking around the old town we hear about the town’s famous sons; painter Pablo Picasso, Jewish philosopher Solomon Ibn Gabirol and actor Antonio Banderas. Stopping at the atmospheric restaurant and bar El Pimpi a wall is covered with photos of more famous names signing the wine barrels, including a youthful Sean Connery and Tony Blair. As Viking Sea doesn’t sail until late afternoon there’s plenty of time to stop for some tapas. Our guide tells us the Spanish institution of eating small tasty bites even has its own vocabulary; tapear is to go out for tapas, tapeo is the activity itself, while a tapeador is someone who eats tapas. Whoever knew?
Later, it was lovely to stand on the balcony and watch the shrinking cityscape as we set sail to Cadiz, Spain’s oldest continually inhabited city. There are no rowdy sail away parties, with glasses of fizz pressed into your hand that you later discover you have to pay for. It’s so much nicer to find your own spot on the sun deck, or two-storey Explorer’s Lounge, with your cocktail of choice. In my case the former was the wraparound promenade deck, a rarity of most modern cruise ships, where you can indulge in your Titanic moment, with the only ice being the chunks in your glass.
During a sea day I book another treatment at the LivNordic Spa, where all the therapists are Scandinavian. Divided into sections of ‘calm’, ‘clean’ or ‘deep’ treatments, the spa menu is pleasingly uncomplicated with no effusive pseudo-scientific descriptions and wild promises. My Swedish Mindful Massage was relaxing and soothing, and almost as blissful was the total lack of the dreaded hard sell of products at the end.
In fact there are thoughtful touches everywhere; heated bathroom floors, small and large slippers and binoculars in the cabins, an extraordinary library of books scattered throughout the ship (with a bookmark popped into your saved page by the cabin steward if you make do with a piece of notepaper or similar) and, just in case you stray too far, “please take me back to the ship” translated into the local language on the front of the Viking Daily bulletin that you can hand to taxi drivers.
Food, a major part of cruising, is varied and imaginative. The Restaurant and self-service World Cafe are the two main dining venues, with lunch also served by the pool. The two alternative venues, Manfredi’s and the Chef’s Table, are free and you just need to book in advance. Carnivores in my group were bowled over by the steaks in Manfredi’s, some declaring it the best they’d ever had. The menu in this Italian eatery also has plenty of options for fish lovers and vegetarians. The Chef’s Table serves a set menu, rotated every three days, with wine pairings, and is good in theory but in practice only works if everyone likes what is listed and has no special dietary requirements. A nice place for snacks is Mamsen’s a Norwegian-style cafe serving waffles, open sandwiches and lighter bites.
Entertainment is also a class act. Aside from fairly standard song and dance shows in the main theatre and a late-night band in the Torshavn bar, Viking excels with outstanding classical musicians and on our cruise they included concert pianist Tomono Kawamura.
From the hot and cold extremes of the sauna and snow grotto with freshly falling flakes – another novel feature in the spa – to culture-rich excursions, onboard lectures and performances, you’ll find plenty to float your boat on the stylish Viking Sea.
Viking Ocean Cruises sails on a variety of itineraries in the Norwegian fjords, Baltic, Mediterranean, Caribbean and North America with seven night cruises Mediterranean cruises from £1,790 per person. Fares include all onboard meals, wine beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, an included excursion at each port of call, flights and transfers.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Viking Cruises