Encore! Viking Does It Again With Viking Sea
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
Thursday, May 5, 2016
Today, along the banks of the River Thames, Viking Cruises officially christened its newest ship, Viking Sea. The 930-guest ship is the sister-ship to last year’s trendsetting Viking Star, and I joined Viking Sea in London for the big event and a short preview cruise to Bergen, Norway.
If you’ve sailed aboard Viking Star – or even the company’s hugely successful Viking Longship river cruise vessels in Europe – you’ll find much to love about the new Viking Sea. Stepping onboard in Greenwich, England, I found myself greeted by familiar fabrics and color patterns. Friendly smiles from the personable crew. And a pleasant air of informality, evident from the first moments onboard when guests are checked in at a series of unassuming computer stations tucked away in a corner of The Living Room, the ground floor of Viking Sea’s sweeping three-story atrium.
What’s fascinating to me about Viking is that the company pays attention to details – the little details – in a way that you rarely see from cruise lines these days. Most of the time, competitors talk about how they’ve managed to squeeze every last available dollar out of the ship. They talk about the calculations that go into itinerary planning that, frankly, would make even the most optimistic person wonder why they got into the business anyway. There are profit margins, onboard revenue expectations, return on investment.
Those things are important to Viking, too. It is, after all, a successful company that has been in existence since 1997, and certainly Viking chairman Torstein Hagen wants to see that continue.
The Viking difference, however, can be immediately felt onboard.
Take a stroll up to the Explorer’s Lounge, a spectacular forward-facing public area spanning the height of decks eight and nine, to see what I mean. The place is my fantasy library, mounted on a ship. The entire room pays homage to famed Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen – the Amundsen who beat Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole. The Amundsen that claimed the North Pole for Norway, and discovered the Northwest Passage for the first time. The guy was a one-man polar wrecking ball, yet we never hear about him in North America because he was the only one to not completely eviscerate himself on the ice.
Viking has dedicated this entire room to him. To that end, you’ll find books dating back hundreds of years. Artifacts. Memorabilia. And books on nearly every aspect of Polar exploration and navigation. Some are new. Others are quite old. All can be read in the comfort of the lounge, or by taking them back to your stateroom.
Now, maybe you don’t like Polar Exploration. That’s okay. Every other lounge aboard Viking Sea features books on nearly every subject, including books produced on the onboard art collection. Viking Sea introduces a new partnership with Oslo’s Munch Museum that not only features dozens of works by the famous artist onboard, but also introduces guests to these works through a series of “Munch Moments” held each day.
There are onboard games like Scrabble and Monopoly that adorn tables in the beautiful three-story atrium; they aren’t relegated to some sad-looking, windowless games room as on other lines. There’s no casino onboard, but you can play digital blackjack (no money involved) on one of the interactive multimedia tables.
This space – known as The Living Room – encourages guests to sit and admire the live music in the stunning atrium, or simply sit and watch the ocean go by through the spectacular oversized windows.
Everything in this room is chosen carefully, from the chairs to the tables to the bookcases. The attention to detail is astonishing. At a press conference onboard, Torstein Hagen stated that guest satisfaction rates for the company’s ocean product (along with the river cruise product) are through the roof. In fact, Viking outperforms several luxury cruise lines in terms of overall guest satisfaction.
“We’ve had many debates internally about the “L” word,” he said. “Since the beginning of Viking, with the four ships in Russia, it would be somewhat of a stretch to call that luxury. But we have really debated that: should we use the word or not? My mentor, Warren Titus of Royal Viking Line, said we should never use the “luxury” word.”
Hagen is careful to not mention the word. Viking’s stance has always been that it should deliver a high quality cruise product, that it’s okay to not be everything to everyone, and that it should never insult its guests with a stream of onboard revenue sources. Hagen himself relates a story of sailing on a competitor once and having to trudge to the Reception Desk just to buy tokens (“at two dollars apiece”) for the so-called ‘free’ onboard laundry service.
Still, the fact remains that, luxury or not, Viking is delivering a cruise product that comes very, very close to approaching luxury levels. If you purchase the company’s Silver Spirits package, your beverages suddenly become all-inclusive. Coupled with the onboard free wi-fi, complimentary dining choices, free shore excursions, and longer hours in port (12.1 hours on average), Viking starts gaining a real advantage.
Viking Sea is, as expected, beautiful. But this new ship is also personal for the Hagen family, and tonight’s christening ceremonies revealed that.
In her christening speech, Godmother Karine Hagen – daughter of Torstein Hagen and Viking’s very own Senior Vice President – thanked the crew of the Viking Sea for their hard work and tireless efforts. She thanked the guests who have returned to sail with the line again and again. And she thanked her father, company chairman Torstein Hagen, telling him that her beloved grandmother Ragnhild – affectionately known as “Mamsen” – would be proud of the company he has built. Karine Hagen teared up on one occasion, and, emotionally, caused many guests to do the same. I think everyone, regardless of their role here onboard, feels quite protective of the Viking legacy. I know I do.
With that, the ceremonial ribbon was cut with a replica Viking broad axe. A bottle of Gammel Opland Aquavit – Mamsen’s favorite – smashed against the hull, shattering on the first attempt. Fireworks were set off over the bow and stern, and the Thames came alive with cheers both onboard and ashore.
Four coins have been inserted into the forward radar mast of Viking Sea. These “good luck” coins – a long-standing maritime tradition – represent three generations of the Hagen family. There’s Ragnhild “Mamsen” Hagen, born in 1911. Torstein Hagen, born 1943. Karine Hagen, 1970. Finally, Karine’s travelling yellow Labrador Retriever, Finse, is honoured with a coin of her own. Finse is the subject of Karine’s series of children’s travel books, The World of Finse.
Once upon a time, a young Tor Hagen headed up the beloved cruise company, Royal Viking Line. Royal Viking Line may be dead and gone, but its spirit has been resurrected for future generations to enjoy. Viking Sea embodies the very best of ocean travel, without the gimmicks and distractions that have become so common on mainstream ships. This is the way cruising used to be – made cool, relevant and so very timely.