Viking Ocean Cruise – Mediterranean Exploration and Enrichment.
By John and Sandra Nowlan
The oysters and mussels we hauled up from the bay were almost as tasty as those from Prince Edward Island. But we were far from Canada, on the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia near the historic town of Ston, site of the longest medieval wall in Europe. Oyster and mussel farming in the clear, cool waters is big business here.
Our tour, which included a visit to a horse-driven olive oil mill and sampling some excellent local wines, was one of several offered by our cruise ship, the 930 passenger Viking Sky, the third and newest in the fleet. Viking is best known for its river cruise ships, but its expansion into ocean cruising has been very successful. By 2020, Viking will have launched six identical vessels, each dedicated, as the General Manager told us, “to educate, explore and enrich.”
Our ten day adventure began in Athens with an overnight at the majestic Grand Bretagne Hotel, adjacent to the busy central square. The top floor breakfast room affords a magnificent view of the 2600 year old Acropolis, a breathtaking sight in “the birthplace of democracy”.
We boarded Viking Sky in nearby Piraeus, the main port for Athens, and were immediately impressed. The sleek, all-balcony vessel is a marvel of Scandinavian design with a series of welcoming public rooms featuring muted colours, comfortable chairs (some draped in deerskins) and bookshelves holding many history and geography volumes. The ship has the feel of a luxurious, yet informal country club. There are two swimming pools (one is an infinity pool at the stern of the ship), a relaxing Wintergarden for afternoon tea, a two-story Explorers Lounge at the front of the ship (with an old-fashioned telescope and many rare books about Arctic and Antarctic exploration) and a Nordic Spa where guests can indulge themselves in the complimentary thalassotherapy pool followed by a steam room and snow grotto (where you can have snowball fights, if you wish). The main theatre is spacious and comfortable with high tech light curtain effects and a stellar cast of eight singers and dancers featured in several creative productions.
Energetic production shows
Accommodation is comfortable and stylish with king size beds, excellent lighting and the best high resolution TV system we’ve ever seen on a ship. Storage space is limited (we were told that extra drawers are going to be added to all rooms) and the bathroom doesn’t have a tub (only a very efficient shower) or a make-up magnifying mirror. Insulation must be excellent because we never heard a sound from our neighbours.
We were delighted by the culinary choices. The main dining room (called The Restaurant, guests can come anytime between 6:00 and 9:00 pm) offered excellent options including Lobster Thermidor (lobster flown in from the Maritimes), Dover Sole, succulent prime rib and Cornish game hen. The two optional restaurants (no extra cost but reservations required) were Manfredi’s (excellent Italian cuisine) and the Chef’s Table (fixed menu with wine for each course). The World Café buffet on deck 7 was rarely crowded and the food choices were extensive. Unlike most cruise ships, the morning coffee was excellent.
Lunch on the aft deck
Viking, in its short history as an ocean cruise line, has set new standards that are being noticed by its competitors. It has just been honoured by readers of Travel + Leisure magazine as the number one ocean cruise line in the world. To its credit, free wi-fi is available throughout the ship (apparently the crew loves it), complimentary excursions are offered at every port and complimentary wine is available at lunch and dinner (some we tried were excellent, some just so-so). There’s also an extra-cost wine list with reasonable prices but no trained sommelier as on some lines.
In addition to the oyster and mussel farm in Croatia, our busy itinerary included stops every day in fascinating and historic Mediterranean countries and communities (a relaxing sea day would have been welcome). After leaving Athens our first stop was at Santorini where whitewashed buildings crown the top of an ancient caldera, 300 metres high, the result of a gigantic volcanic explosion 3600 years ago. A unique community.
The next day we visited the legendary city of Olympia, birthplace of the modern Olympic Games. In 776 BC, athletes (only men) gathered to compete and to honour the god Zeus. The tradition continued every four years until the 4th century. The main running track is still here in addition to many of the ruins from the remarkable architecture of the era. The tour ended with a Greek lunch (including a cooking lesson for tzakaki) and entertainment by traditional musicians and dancers. The Greek wine lubricated several guests enough to try table dancing to the lively music.
Ruins at Olympia
In Corfu, Greece (birthplace of Prince Phillip), the prettiest sight was Mouse Island and the Vlacherna Monastery. History and culture at every turn of the road.
Montenegro was a new country for us and we docked in the coastal town of Kotor, surrounded by steep mountains with its Venetian walls built in 1420. We chose a tour to an olive grove where the farmer showed us his centuries-old trees and explained how he grew and processed olives using both traditional and modern methods. He showed us the proper way to taste and evaluate olive oil.
Viking Sky docked in Montenegro
A second Croatia stop took us to the island of Pag, totally barren on one side because of prevailing winds but reasonably lush on the other. Lush enough, in fact, to support a world-class cheese factory that just won a gold award in Wisconsin. We sampled several varieties including Paski Sir (Pag Cheese) made from sheep milk.
Our last port, before disembarkation in Venice, was Koper, Slovenia. We docked directly in front of the Old Town (an advantage with Viking’s medium size ships) with a great view of the 12th Century Cathedral of the Assumption. The ship arranged a walking tour of the ancient city that showed its many Italian influences through the centuries.
Viking seems to have hit all the right notes for its new ocean cruise ships. Its target market is older adults, most of whom are river and ocean cruise veterans. Such guests don’t want a casino or photo gallery but demand knowledgeable lecturers on the history of the ports along with creature comforts like outstanding service, accommodation and cuisine. Viking delivers.
John and Sandra Nowlan are travel and food writers based in Halifax