In Manfredi’s, one of four restaurants open for dinner on the new Viking Sea, I take a bite of the Bistecca Fiorentina. I’ve had the steak before, on Viking Star last year, and my reaction tonight is the same as it was back then. Pure bliss. The tender beef melts in my mouth. Unequivocally, the Florentine Steak is the best I have had on land or at sea, and that includes at a particularly good restaurant in Florence.
Viking’s new ocean ship does things right, from the delicious steak in Manfredi’s to the thoughtfully designed pull-out mini-bars in staterooms, “so that you don’t have to bend over to look in the refrigerator,” says Erling Frydenberg, whose business card reads “Owner’s Representative, Cruise Operations Development.”
Frydenberg is the eyes and ears of his friend Torstein Hagen, chairman of Viking Cruises. The two were instrumental in developing Royal Viking Line, which during its heyday in the 1980s, set the gold standard in luxury cruising. Some say that Frydenberg was (and is) the best hotel manager in the business. Along with Viking Sea’s talented General Manager Karl Eckl (who came over from Seabourn a few years ago), the pair certainly run a tight ship — and a much loved one.
“I walk around and listen to guests all day,” Frydenberg told me over coffee in Viking Sea’s Mamsen’s, the Norwegian bistro named for Torstein Hagen’s mother. “What I hear from the guests on a fairly consistent basis is that they haven’t found a ship that has such a calming effect on them.”
That perhaps is the most interesting attribute I’ve heard ascribed to a ship, and probably the most accurate one. Indeed, Viking Sea is quiet and uncrowded during my cruise. We aren’t sailing full, but we’re close to capacity. The ship seems to have a way of absorbing guests and dispersing them to cozy venues throughout the vessel so that no area feels cluttered. At various times during my voyage from Barcelona to Lisbon, I found myself tucked away in the Explorers’ Lounge, the Wintergarden, the so-called Living Room (the heart of Viking Sea) and on the outer decks where the furniture invites you to lounge and linger.
Add to that Viking Sea’s clean sight lines, its colorful woven textiles and light woods that evoke the Nordic connection to the natural world. It all conspires to produce what Frydenberg refers to as a calming effect.
And while Viking Sea’s interior design “appears to be Scandinavian minimalistic, it’s not minimalistic in a true sense,” Frydenberg says. “You still have great attention to detail. It’s not over-designed, though. Yes, there are the clean lines, but the Explorers’ Lounge is a bit more cluttered. That’s on purpose. It represents the history of the Vikings and the explorers, and what they used and found and what they brought home with them.”
The first of the Viking ocean ships, Viking Star, got it so right from the beginning that there weren’t many changes on Viking Sea. My stateroom looked the same, with one notable, and much appreciated, exception: bedside USB outlets for charging mobile devices. Having just finished designing a home of my own, I was aware of the attention to detail that went into such touches as the USB outlets, the pull-out mini-bar, a roomy shower with a bench to hold all the things that go into the shower with me.
“Torstein began thinking of the idea for the ocean ships 10 years ago,” Frydenberg says. “So we had time to do a lot of research. E-mail campaigns, focus groups, all asking guests what they were looking for. In one focus group, one person said, ‘I would like a comfortable shower, a comfortable bed, and somewhere I can sit and read a book as well as a veranda with chairs.’ ”
That is precisely what Viking Sea offers. Comfortable beds, sitting areas, verandas with chairs, and bathrooms with showers and no tubs. “On cruise ships if you put a bathtub and shower in the bathroom, it gets crowded, so we have only a shower,” Frydenberg says. “We also wanted to make sure that the showers were large enough to satisfy guests and the shower heads had the right pressure, and so one night in the fall of 2014, I flew to the shipyard in Italy just to test the shower.”
It is such attention to detail that wins high praise for the Viking vessels. A gifted pianist performing on Viking Sea, Tomono Kawamura sat down with me one evening in Mamsen’s. I had cruised with Kawamura on several luxury cruise lines, so what she said surprised me. “There are not a lot of ships that I would pay to cruise on,” Kawamura said. “But I’d pay to cruise on this one.” That’s quite an endorsement from someone who works on luxury ships.
“I have worked on 11 ships, and this is the best design I’ve ever seen,” said Jan Grundler, a bartender on Viking Sea. Even the back of the house is designed so that the staff can work efficiently and professionally, Grundler said.
All in all, Viking Sea is an extremely comfortable and calming ship. And with its inclusives – WiFi, wine and beer with lunch and dinner, one tour in each port of call – it may just be the best ship at sea, particularly for English-speaking guests. Here are seven things that make Viking Sea stand out.
1. It’s designed for English-speakers, Americans primarily. I appreciate international ships and enjoy mixing with people from outside the good ole’ USA. But Viking Sea is a ship designed for Americans. All nationalities are welcome, of course. Just don’t be offended by the Pool Grill’s pastrami (sourced from Chicago) or the Pancho Villa burger, topped with guacamole, blue cheese and rucola stacked on American-bred Black Angus beef.
2. It’s not crowded. A couple who stepped into the elevator during my cruise remarked, “Isn’t it great that you push the elevator button and you don’t have to wait on it?” Yes, it is great, I responded. They went on to say how much they appreciated not having to queue up for lines and being on a ship that felt uncrowded.
3. Viking Sea has some really gorgeous rooms. There are a lot of beautiful ships sailing the seven seas. If I had to choose one as the most beautiful, that ship would be Europa 2. Hapag-Lloyd’s modern flagship reminds me of a floating fine art museum. Europa 2 is spacious, with works of art throughout, and like Viking Sea, it too features a clean design, with large windows that frame beautiful images of the sky and the sea. Here’s the thing: Viking Sea resembles Europa 2. Viking Sea’s clean design is comprised of light woods, comfortable furniture, throw pillows and blankets – and lots of attention to detail, such as the woven patterns resembling rosemaling on the backs of the chairs at the Viking Bar. Among the most beautiful rooms, The Living Room, an atrium-like space, the Wintergarden and the Explorers’ Lounge.
4. Mamsen’s. There is nothing else like this at sea. Going back to Europa 2 for a moment, waffles are served on the Hapag-Lloyd vessel, but Mamsen’s serves waffles with a lot of heart and soul. The space was to have been named Karine’s, or so chairman Torstein Hagen thought. When the space was revealed to him, however, Hagen was taken aback. It had been named for his mother. A life-size photograph of her adorns the back wall. Norwegian waffles, in heart shapes, are served with berries and cream – and get this, on plates replicated from those that were found in his mother’s home. Those plates even bore an imprint, Tor Viking. The company that produced the plates had stopped manufacturing the line, but Frydenberg and Hagen’s daughter Karine, convinced the company to start up an exclusive production for Viking Cruises. “Torstein was so surprised when he saw Mamsen’s that he had to sit down,” Frydenberg said. “I still get emotional when I think about it. That is the power of mothers and grandmothers.” You’ll love the waffles served in Mamsen’s.
5. Viking Heritage/Scandinavian Ethos. Hagen imbued his new Viking vessels with a Scandinavian ethos and combined that with the Viking heritage to create vessels that appeal to both the aesthetic-inclined and the adventurer. There is also continuity with Viking’s river-going Longships. “Torstein said that when guests walked on board the ocean ships he wanted them to see who the parents were,” Frydenberg said. “As on the Longships, the staircase is there, with a lot of light. The rooms are similar, there are open spaces, there are leather handrails on the staircase, as well as the Aquavit lounge and terrace.
“Torstein wanted a recognition with the river vessels, because guests love the river ships,” Frydenberg added. “If they felt comfortable because something was recognizable, he felt they would be at ease here: the crew wearing the same uniforms, the same Viking beds, the soft goods that the guest touches — they are the same in both companies. The glassware, the silver, the coffee pots — all the same.”
Credit goes to Rottet Studio’s Richard Riveire, the lead architect for the Viking ships. Riveire was the mastermind behind the design, supporting the vision of Hagen. The furniture is Scandinavian in appearance, what IKEA furniture would look like if it were upscaled. There is no glitz, no brass or gold or silver. Nor are there many mirrors. There’s little, if any, flash on Viking Sea. What you’ll find instead are elements of nature, birch bark and gardens of lichen.
In Mamsen’s there is even an elongated fire behind glass, except that it’s not real. It looks real. “When we launched the Royal Viking Sun in 1988, we had a real fireplace,” Frydenberg said. “But the U.S. Coast Guard made us take it out.”
6. Inclusions. One plus that Viking has over most of its competitors in the cruise industry: inclusions. Wi-Fi is included. You won’t pay extra to use wireless internet throughout the ship. Nor will you pay extra for beer and wine at lunch and dinner (also included with room service during lunch and dinner), and if you want to make your cruise all-inclusive, you can purchase the Silver Beverage package for a daily cost of $29.89 per person or tiered pricing from $209 for seven nights to $419 for 14 nights, per person. That includes any brand of beer, wine by the glass and cocktails priced up to $9. Prices include 15 percent gratuity. Not included in your cruise, however, are gratuities, at your discretion but added to your shipboard account, $14 per person per day.
7. Spa & Infinity Pool. The spa is beautiful and operated by Stockholm’s Nordic Liv. There is a snow room and a hot room, a ton of treatments, gym, sauna and more. But the reason that I love Viking Sea’s spa (and the reason many others said they appreciated it) is that there is no hard-sell of product after treatments. On some ships, you leave the spa feeling like a cheapskate if you haven’t purchased product following your treatment. Not so on Viking Sea. And on my cruise nearly all of the spa staff was from Sweden. You can get a more authentic Swedish massage at sea.
I also like the Infinity Pool aft on Viking Sea. It’s a beautiful touch that highlights Viking Sea’s connection with the ocean.
So I’ve given you seven reasons that Viking Sea just could be the best vessel afloat. There is one reason, however, that it can’t claim that lofty title all to itself, and that is because it has a sister, Viking Star.
An avid traveler and an award-winning journalist, Ralph Grizzle produces articles, video and photos that are inspiring and informative, personal and passionate. A journalism graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ralph has specialized in travel writing for more than two decades. To read more cruise and port reviews by Ralph Grizzle, visit his website at www.avidcruiser.com.