In a double celebration in its 25th anniversary year Viking unveils its latest ocean ship
As Ilina gets to work against a soft musical backdrop the fragrant aroma of blueberries fills the air. They certainly smell good enough to eat, but in this instance they’re all going to end up on me rather than in a bowl.
I haven’t had a cutlery malfunction as I’m not sitting in a restaurant, but lying on a massage bed cocooned in warm, fluffy towels in the spa on Viking Mars. I’ve decided to treat myself to a Nordic-inspired therapy combining a trio of relaxing treats; a back massage, blueberry body mask and scalp treatment where Ilina gently brushes a smoothing berry seed serum through my hair.
It’s all the more relaxing as Viking’s spa treatment menu is short and uncomplicated, with no weird and wonderful pseudo-scientific treatments with lyrical descriptions, so it doesn’t take long to pick something you fancy. Additionally comforting is the fact that there’s no pushy hard sell of products at the end; an unwelcome feature in many cruise ship spas. That said, I am tempted by the cute sauna elves on sale, albeit I don’t have a sauna.
The spa scenario is one of many things that are very different from other vessels, but the exactly the same on Viking Mars and its sister ships. That might sound like a contradiction in terms, but Viking founder and Chairman Torstein Hagen tore up the rule book when he decided to branch out from the river ships – first launched in 1997 and now making up the world’s largest river cruise line – and debut Viking’s first ocean ship in 2015.
Viking Mars was named on Norwegian Constitution Day in a toned-down ceremony in Valletta, Malta. Instead of a large-scale event Viking donated £10,000 each to 25 charities. In another departure from the norm a bottle of aquavit replaced the Champagne that is usually cracked over a ship’s bow on christening day.
Hagen, who was on board for the inaugural voyage to Rome, admitted there were detractors when he first announced plans for an adult-only ocean fleet. In the eyes of some people there was so much ‘missing’; a casino, photography studio, waterpark, razzle-dazzle entertainment, art gallery to name just a few. Even the traditional sprawling reception desk has made way for private individual tables spread out in the multi-purpose Living Room.
Recalling one-man battles with complicated showers, miniature hard-to-read bottles of toiletries, baffling lighting and TV remote controls in hotel rooms, he said he deliberately set out to keep things simple, which in turn meant ordering identical ships for Italy’s Fincantieri shipyard, of which Viking Mars is the seventh.
“We are not trying to be everything to everybody,” he said. “We are very targeted at who we want to appeal to and that is the curious and active 55-plus market. People who are interested in history, science and culture, including those who might not have considered going on a cruise before.”
Having been on several of the other ocean ships I certainly enjoyed the comfortable feeling of déjà vu when I stepped aboard Viking Mars. Finding my way around the 930-passenger ship was easy and any surprises in my cabin were pleasant – a thoughtful book mark placed inside my bedside reading matter, for example – rather than unexpected. I was spoilt for choice on that front as all manner of books line the ship’s public spaces in what has to be one of the best collections at sea. The same goes for the artwork, the only thing that is different from ship to ship. It includes originals from international artists, including Norway’s famous Edvard Munch, and there’s a handy guide to the floating gallery in all the cabins.
Books aside, with the programme of daily lectures, live classical music, afternoon tea in the light and airy Wintergarden, cocktails in the two-deck Explorers’ Lounge, and choice of restaurants all included in the fare it would have been easy not to venture off the ship.
However, Viking also bucks the norm by including a complimentary shore excursion in every port, plus a list of enticing and well thought-out for-fee tours. On a small boat trip to the impossibly Blue Lagoon, off Malta’s baby sister island Comino, we are the first to arrive. There’s nobody else in the water when the skipper drops anchor for passengers that want to swim. When we leave a flotilla of tour boats are heading to the same spot.
On a walking tour around the squares of Naples there’s free time and my guide recommends the quiet cafe inside the Teatro di San Carlo opera house, rather than the busy tourist magnet of the Gambrinus, which is the most famous caffeine stop in town. I take time out to try a shell-shaped sfogliatella riccia, a delicious flaky confection filled with ricotta cheese and flavoured with citrus peel that is the Neapolitan pastry of choice.
From Viking Mars’ Scandi-style spa treatments and eateries such as Mamsen’s, which serves some of Torstein Hagen’s family favourites, it’s another taste of authentic experiences to be savoured at sea and ashore. Even on a ship with more of the same, you can never get enough of a good thing.
Viking Mars will spend its maiden season Mediterranean, Scandinavia and Northern Europe. The ship then repositions at the end of the year for voyages around Australia and New Zealand. Fares include flights, all meals, wine with lunch and dinner, a shore excursion in every port, Wi-Fi and gratuities.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Viking.