Kongo recently completed a 13-day ocean cruise aboard the Viking Star, the newest addition to the Viking fleet. The Viking Star represents the company’s first foray into the world of ocean cruising and the monkey was able to take one of the inaugural cruises known as the Mediterranean Odyssey. This is a review of the cruise. If you’re a fan of the traditional Viking river cruises and are considering a new experience on their ocean cruise segment, please read on.
Kongo’s Mediterranean Odyssey included port calls in Venice (the start of the trip), Split, Croatia, Dubrovnik, Corfu, Naples, Rome, Florence, Monaco, Toulon, and ended in Barcelona. There were two days in Venice and two days in Barcelona. The other ports were one-day visits and there was one whole day spent sailing across the Ionian Sea from Corfu to Naples.
In other blog posts Kongo is writing about the various shore visits so this post concentrates on just the shipboard experience with a brief description of the tours. Each port had several shore excursion options. Included in the price of the cruise are many tours that provide an overview of the city being visited with either a walking tour or a coach ride to the best areas. Additional tours can be purchased and Kongo went to Pompeii in Naples, a trip to the top of some mountains in Corfu, a gondola ride in Venice (you can’t do Venice without getting in a gondola), an excursion to Florence and Pisa across the Tuscan countryside, and a visit to vineyards and villages in Provence in conjunction with the Toulon visit.
The ship is magnificent. It is well appointed throughout, extremely comfortable, and spacious. There are six restaurants on the ship (some require advance reservations) and a number of cozy bars where you can relax with a cocktail or glass of wine. There’s a spa, a gym, sports deck, pools, night clubs, and lounges.
You may have read about some speed bumps Viking had in launching their ocean cruise service such as a breakdown and cancelled cruise when the ship was visiting Latvia, exploding shower doors, and poorly organized shore excursions. While none of these disasters happened to the monkey on his trip, there were a few areas that Viking still needs to improve upon as it works through the bugs of this new line of business. He describes these later in this post.
By the way, beer and wine are included with lunch and dinner meals and the staff is not stingy about keeping your glass full. Unless you purchase a drink package, drinks bought at other times are charged to your room. Drink prices are reasonable and rail drinks or standard wines were $4 each. Room service is available 7/24 free of charge and Kongo had a room breakfast about half the time. The monkey did not purchase a drink package and is glad he didn’t. There was more than enough alcohol to be had and the drinks he did purchase ended up costing a lot less than the drink package.
The staterooms are extremely nice. Kongo reserved a deluxe room on Deck 5 on the starboard side near the aft end of the ship. All staterooms have balconies. Since the monkey planned to spend as much time as possible ashore or sleeping, he didn’t go for one of larger penthouse suites, which would have come close to doubling the cost of the cruise. From what he could see of these upgraded rooms, however, they looked spectacular. All the staterooms have wall mounted flat screen TVs that are integrated into the ship’s computers so that you can view movies, music, get a view looking forward from the bridge, check your account, learn about upcoming port visits, or see the daily calendar of events and activities. Although there is free WIFI on the ship it is VERY SLOW and only appropriate for checking Email. Kongo could not upload pictures or keep his blog updated while on the ship. The heads (that’s a bathroom for landlubbers) are wonderful, the showers are great, and the king size bed is very comfortable with plenty of room to store big suitcases underneath. The housekeeping staff is fantastic and visit your room twice daily. A built in refrigerator is stocked daily with water and sodas. The rooms have plenty of wardrobe space, a built in coffee maker, and safe. Laundry can be sent out daily at extremely reasonable rates and there are self-service washing machines and dryers on each deck.
There are two swimming pools and a jacuzzi on the ship. The main pool has a roof that slides back and forth to open the entire space up to the air or protect loungers from the rain.
The ship offers lots of entertainment options that range from cabaret singers in the nightclub, to movie nights, poolside bands, piano players, guitar serenades, and classical strings.
The demographics of the passengers on this trip seemed to be a bit older that what the monkey was expecting. Most cruisers were in their 70s or 80s and some had difficulty getting around. This brings to mind a comment one of Mrs. Kongo’s friends once made to her where she opined that “You’re not old enough to go on a Viking cruise.” We didn’t know what she meant then. We do now. This is not to say that we were in a retirement home but it was an older group. Kongo wasn’t looking for a bunch of kids to disco the night away with and there were lots of younger couples in their 40s and 50s to meet, its just nice to be able to mingle with a group of new people that have more in common with you. Almost all of the people Kongo met had previously taken Viking River cruises so if you have that in your rear view mirror then the monkey expects you know what you’re going to find on the ocean ships. It seemed that many of these cruisers didn’t go ashore. There were many lounge lizards or pool people who just enjoyed the experience of being on a ship and being waited on hand and foot. Nothing wrong with that. Kongo met some interesting people, however, including a retired chief inspector from Scotland Yard, The majority of passengers were American with a good collection of cruisers from the UK and Canada. Almost everyone was a couple. There were no children except for perhaps the one 30-something young lady who was escorting her grandmother.
The ship holds 900 passengers and this cruise was sold out.
Dress aboard the ship is casual. Shorts and capris and T-shirts are fine during the day. Bathrobes and bathing suits work fine going to the spa or pool. Evening dress is a bit more formal with men wearing slacks, collared shirts, and a sprinkling of sports jackets.
Despite the poor reviews Kongo read about this ship’s shore excursions before arriving on the ship, he found that the tours were generally good. At least they were “okay.” The biggest problem was that the most of the tours had too many people. This made it difficult to interact with your guide although Viking uses a remote listening system that enables you to hear the tour guide while you’re walking about. Many of the tour groups Kongo went on involved lots of walking and climbing 2000 year old steps and walking on cobblestone streets. Many of the passengers simply were not up to these tours and went so slowly that everyone had to move along at a snails pace, limiting the amount you could see ashore. Sometimes Kongo wanted to ask, “Do your children know you’re here?” but he kept his simian lips together and pressed firmly. More than a few took a tumble and one poor lady did a face plant directly in front of Kongo along a cobblestone street in Florence. Fortunately she was OK but we had to slow down and arrange for taxis to take her to the rest of the stops on the walking tour. Another cruiser crashed in Pompeii.
On most tours Kongo ranged within about 100 yards of the group taking pictures he would not otherwise have snapped had he stuck with the guide. The trick here is to keep your eye on your group because in some of the ports there are two or three ships in at any given time and the groups tend to get tangled up. Whenever the voice of the guide began to fade in Kongo’s ear, he would reverse course and go hunting for his group again. Mrs. Kongo knew that at worst case she would stay with the tour and Kongo could figure out how to get back to the ship on his own if he had to. Fortunately, that did not happen. Kongo heard about a couple of tours where the couple didn’t have these agreements and the bus ended up waiting for two hours when someone wandered off and got lost. Please don’t do this.
Except for the visit to Monte Carlo in Monaco, the ship went to the pier in all the ports so you were able to board using the normal brow. In Monte Carlo the ship utilized its tenders to shuttle passengers to and from the shore.
The food in all the restaurants was excellent. The service was terrific, the menus were varied and interesting, and the wine pairings were perfect. The specialty restaurants were over the top with respect to service and preparation. Although you are supposedly limited to only two nights in each specialty restaurant Kongo suspects that if you show up at 8 PM you’re going to get a seat. Breakfasts could either be from a menu or in a buffet style. You also have 24-hour room service available at no charge if you get back from a day of hiking hills in Dubrovnik and don’t feel like taking a shower and changing clothes.
The entire Viking staff and crew were fantastic. They are genuine and professional, intent on catering to your every need. They learn your names and room number and make you feel at home when they see you again. The housekeeping staff was particularly excellent. Tipping is not done on the ship but a 15% gratuity is built into your bill. Of course, cash is always a nice way to thank someone who was especially accommodating and Kongo left an extra 100 Euro for his housekeeper.
Accommodations, including staterooms and common areas, are luxurious and tasteful. This is a brand new ship and it even still had that “new ship” smell. The artwork, decor, and furniture is tasteful and interesting. The electronics (except for WIFI) are state of the art.
Viking did an excellent job in getting luggage on and off the ship promptly. We boarded the ship about noon (which was early) and after a burger and beer at the pool bar made our way to our stateroom. Kongo did not utilize Viking for air travel or shore side hotels. We flew to Venice three days early and stayed in Barcelona an extra three days after we left the ship. Kongo understands that the shoreside hotel chain that Viking uses is the Hilton in Venice. He’s not sure what they use in Barcelona. Passengers not staying over or arriving early are met at the airport on arrival and taken to the ship or they are taken back to the airport when they disembark. Kongo flew Delta from Atlanta to Venice direct and direct back from Barcelona.
Is this cruise for you?
If you are a Viking river cruiser keep in mind that this is NOT a river cruise. While the ship is relatively small compared to some big cruise lines there are still 900 people aboard and getting on and off the ship at port calls is more challenging than on a river cruise. The tours are frequently more strenuous and there are not accommodations for those who are slow walkers or who may need assistance in getting around. The historic places you will visit in Europe have not heard of the ADA so you need to be able to walk briskly, climb up and down hills and steps, and generally keep up with your group. Bathroom availability in many places is sporadic so plan accordingly and always have a few Euro in coins in your pocket in case there is a toilet attendant.
Overall, Kongo enjoyed this cruise very much but he wouldn’t do it again. The 900 passengers, a small size by many cruise ship standards, is still too many for the monkey’s liking and he would prefer a younger group although in another ten years or so maybe not. Highlights for the monkey were the time he spent in Venice, Barcelona, Florence, and Rome. Pompeii was great. Croatia was interesting. It was wonderful to spend nearly three weeks relaxing and only worrying about what time to go to dinner. The monkey was NOT ready to come home and could easily have stayed in Europe another week or two or three.
If you do take this cruise, Kongo highly recommends that you arrange your schedule to get there two or three days early and stay a couple of extra days after leaving the ship. This cruise starts and stops in either Barcelona or Venice and these two cities are simply too wonderful to only spend a single day here.
Travel safe. Have fun.