Work hard, play hard on new expedition ship Viking Octantis

In its 40th anniversary year, Duran Duran’s hit Rio is belting out as we channel our inner 1980s New Romantics on a hired yacht in glitzy St Barts.

It’s meant to be more of a snorkelling trip but passengers on this cruise excursion from Viking Octantis are finding the glamorous French outpost, lapped by the azure waters of the Caribbean, is going straight to their head – and that includes me.

We are giddy in this billionaires’ playground as the crew point out the mega yachts: Rising Sun, owned by Dreamworks’ founder David Geffen; Limitless, one of the world’s largest private superyachts owned by lingerie company Victoria’s Secret; and clothing giant Tommy Hilfiger’s navy and white yacht Flag.

The bubbly is flowing and we sail into a sandy cove to swim with turtles. Ok, it’s all just for a day but we are milking the magic moments, clambering back and forth onto the yacht to dry off in the sunshine before another dive into the warm sea.

It’s certainly no let down returning to our expedition ship which strikes a pose just outside Gustavia, the capital of eight square-mile St Barts. The 378-passenger ship is actually an even tastier vessel with an in-ship marina rammed with £10 million-worth of special operations boats (SOBs), two submarines, RIBs and zodiacs – with rides in all of these ‘toys’ included in the cruise fare.

And in James Bond-style, an 85ft slipway lowers from the back of the ship (aft) into the sea, allowing passengers, including those with more limited mobility, to safely board boats while on the ship. It’s genius.

Exploring the waters between St Kitts and Nevis while strapped into a SOB, half-sitting, half-standing in this mean machine while the pilot Fabian puts the military grade boat through its paces is yet another day of fizzing excitement.

Two six-seater yellow submarines, named John and Paul in tribute to the Beatles, are also part of the adventure kit, although a reasonable level of fitness is required to board, in the sea, from a zodiac. On the day I am due to dive it is windy so I miss that opportunity. It’s disappointing but that’s part of expedition cruising; if the weather is not on your side there’s no use complaining.

Not that there’s time as there is never a dull moment on the Polar-Class Viking Octantis. This new breed of expedition ship also offers opportunities to learn as well as play. A 17-strong expedition team made up of geologists, marine biologists, botanists, glaciologists and oceanographers all share their knowledge with enthusiasm.

In The Lab, Dr Brandi Revels transforms rookies into eco warriors – monitoring water samples taken from Antarctica. The results are shocking; fibres in that water will take decades to biodegrade and the results are sent to Viking partner, NIVA, the Norwegian Institute for Water Research.

This research is serious work and Viking also partners with the University of Cambridge, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

In the evenings, after dinner, we settle in The Hide (a cosy lounge on Deck 1) for a drink while the team take turns to tell stories of their adventures.

The team urge us to get up early to get involved with their weather monitoring project. Across the world 900 balloons are sent up between 11am and noon GMT to collect real-time data to provide a profile of what is going on in the atmosphere and assist global weather predictions.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, approached Viking to join the weather programme as Viking ships sail into areas where data cannot be easily gathered. All other data either comes from land bases or government vessels such as the US Navy.

At 7am more than half of the passengers are on the helipad to witness the launch and a cheer goes up as the balloon catches the wind, soaring above the ship with its sensor measuring air temperature, and pressure, wind speed and direction as it rises into the stratosphere.

We are sailing from the Caribbean to New York (part of a repositioning cruise from Antarctica to the Great Lakes in Canada) and there’s a rustle of excitement as word gets round that Viking chairman Torsten Hagen will be boarding in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It’s the first time he will have been on his newest ship.

He is known for his attention to detail so it’s fascinating to watch him cast an eye over Viking Octantis – and I ask him what he thinks. “It’s close to perfect,” he laughs. “Although there are a few chairs that I don’t think are comfortable enough and that drummer is not right for the lounge. It needs to a quieter space.”

Hagen has grown the business from a few river ships to 80 Longships, seven ocean ships and expedition ship Viking Octantis to be closely followed by sister ship Viking Polaris and the pillars of design are his: a salute to Nordic heritage combined with modernism, handmade crafts and textiles and a nod to nature, all giving guests a home environment to explore the world in comfort.

He has got it spot on. The adults-only ship is sumptuous but not glitzy. It has the same feel as Viking Ocean ships and despite being smaller, accommodating up to 378 passengers rather than 900, it feels spacious with plenty of nooks and crannies for quiet relaxation after busy days on and under the water.

Menus in the main restaurant, the World Café and Manfredi’s also echo Viking Ocean ships’ fine dining reputation. There is no extra charge in any restaurant while wine and beer are served with lunch and dinner. Any other alcoholic drinks can be bought in a package.

Father and son Brian and Nick Fox are on their first Viking cruise and spend their evenings playing backgammon on the electronic games table. Nick said: “After busy days in the sunshine we come back to the ship tired and hungry. We have enjoyed every meal on this ship and I’ve definitely needed to go to the gym every morning.”

Brian, who is in his 80s, says the cruise is ‘out of this world’. He said: “I can’t believe the things we’ve done; out on the SOB, climbing in the submarine, swimming in the sea and lazing on a private beach, even visiting a cigar humidor in San Juan. When I get home I will think it’s a dream.”

Next steps

Go to Viking to find out more.

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Lesley Bellew

Cruise & travel journalist

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