Everything you wanted to know about the Viking World Cruise
Several blog readers have requested a description of our cruise life. We are in the middle of nine sea days crossing the Atlantic from Uruguay, South America, to the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa. This offers the opportunity to write a blog devoted to life on the world cruise. Before describing the ship, I will explain why we were motivated to take a four-month cruise at all. Four months is a long time to be in a ship cabin smaller than any room in our house.
Susan and I are not cruise novices. From 1987-91, we worked for several months each year as entertainers on Royal Viking Lines. Royal Viking was bought by Norwegian Caribbean Lines in 1992. The founder of Viking Cruises was an executive with Royal Viking and modeled Viking Cruises to a great degree after its predecessor. For example, Viking ships are not huge like Carnival, Celebrity, Disney, and other mega-ship cruise lines. The mega-ships accommodate thousands of passengers and typically make short cruises with limited destinations close to the states, such as sailing to the Caribbean or down the coast of Mexico. There are no casinos on Viking ships. Children are not allowed. The result is a more restful atmosphere compared with the larger ships.
After working during that five year period on Royal Viking Lines, we had no desire to pay for a cruise, since we were used to getting paid. But after fifteen years or so passed, we decided to finally pay for a cruise, choosing our favorite itinerary, from Vancouver through Canada’s Inside Passage to Alaska. Eventually, we took two cruises on the Norwegian Hurtigruten Cruise Line. The first cruise was from the northernmost town in Norway, Kirkenes, southward along the beautiful Norwegian fjords to Bergen. We liked that cruise so much that a decade later we took the Hurtigruten ship north from Bergen to Kirkenes and back to Bergen, a two-week cruise. During the last decade, we took four Viking River Cruises, including the upper and lower Danube River from Bucharest, Rumania, to Passau, Germany, the Rhine River from Basel to Amsterdam, and the Douro River from Porto, Portugal.
While isolating under covid in 2020, Susan proposed that when we were able to travel again, that we should go someplace and stay for a month or more. About that time we received the first announcement for the Viking World Cruise. The itinerary would begin in Los Angeles, sail to Hawaii, and then to the South Pacific (Tahiti, Fiji, Marquesas Islands, etc.), then to New Zealand and Australia, up to Bali, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, and finally to the Middle East and various Mediterranean ports. Unfortunately, covid intervened. First, Hawaii was excluded…then Australia, New Zealand, and Bali. Other destinations were removed, with the result that two days before our January 10 departure Viking scheduled a Zoom call for a special announcement. It was announced that our itinerary had radically changed. Instead of sailing to the South Pacific and Asia, we would be sailing around South America, to African Island ports, to the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal Saudi Arabia, and finally to rejoin our original itinerary in Aqaba, Jordan to sail back through the Suez to Israel, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, London, and ending in Bergen, Norway, in mid-May. Luckily, since we enjoy the cruise lifestyle, we like the revised itinerary as much or more than the original one, because we had previously visited many of the ports included on the original itinerary.
What’s to like about a cruise? Well, many things! Gourmet meals available anytime, fresh sheets and towels every day, an excellent house band supplemented by a rotating roster of guest entertainers, brilliant guest lecturers, meeting interesting fellow cruisers, and last but not least, touring exotic ports with a choice of various optional tours. It’s a very luxurious way to see the world. We are already fantasizing about future cruises after this one. (Japan, Vietnam, Svalbard Island, the Amazon Basin, etc.) Our fellow passengers are all longtime cruisers. Nobody buys the world cruise as their initial cruise. However, one difference from all our previous cruises is that there are no “formal nights.” I didn’t have to pack a coat and tie. Indeed, except for the specialty restaurants at night, I’m able to wear shorts and sandals all day long.
The senior officers of the Viking Star are mostly Norwegian. The ship is registered in Bergen, Norway. Otherwise, there are thirty-one nations represented among the crew. There are many South African junior officers, but also junior officers from America, India, the Philippines, and more. There seem to be more regular crew members from the Philippines than any other country. But there are a substantial number from Malaysia, Indonesia, Ukraine and other Eastern European countries. There are many African crew from Zimbabwe who live in South Africa. The ship’s captain announced that if Russia invades Ukraine, that no Ukrainian crew member will be forced to return to their country if it is at war.
From everything I’ve heard, Viking Cruises is the absolute leader in controlling the possibility of covid infection. All passengers were required to have been fully vaccinated as well showing a recent negative test. Upon boarding, all passengers were sent to their cabins and had to submit a saliva sample for a PCR test by the onboard laboratory. (Several passengers who tested positive were then put into quarantine until they could show three consecutive negative tests.) Apparently, in Los Angeles five passengers and four crew members tested positive. Three weeks into the cruise, we were declared covid-free, perhaps one of the few ships currently at sea that could guarantee that. Now in our fifth week, every passenger and crew member is still tested every day. Masks are required to be worn throughout the ship except when eating. At one of our ports, there were three ships that were quarantined, that is, not allowed to dock due to the Chilean fear of their spreading covid based on their lack of strict covid prevention protocols similar to Viking’s.
Our ship’s officers conducted a question/answer session with passengers. One question was, “What are your criteria for hiring?” The surprising answer: “We hire strictly based on personality! We can train anyone to do any job, but we can’t train personality.” Perhaps this is the key difference between the fantastic service on Viking compared with other cruise lines. Every single staff member is trained to greet every passenger whenever they meet. They do this consistently with a pleasant demeanor. I think that if any crew member resented this directive, I would sense it eventually. But I’ve never sensed any negative vibe from any crew member. The result is a very pleasant social atmosphere. Of course, English fluency is required by all crew members. English is the unifying language for the thirty-one nationalities among the crew.
As part of the officers’ session, we were shown a video from the engine room and other operational systems. The ship desalinates sea water for all uses on board, e.g. plumbing, laundry, cleaning, cooling, and passenger consumption. All toilet/plumbing discharges are pulverized, dissolved, and purified into non-toxic “gray water” which is discharged into the ocean. A similar process is applied to all food waste. All plastic, glass, and metal refuse is crushed into compact cubes to be off-loaded to appropriate dumps. The ship’s engines smoke is filtered and purified, such that only steam is discharged from the smokestacks. There is a complete machine shop and engineers with different specialties, capable of repairing engines/motors, appliances, air-conditioning systems, plumbing, furniture, or practically any other part of the ship that needs repair. The engine room and its associated systems are managed by thirty-six specialist crew members.
What’s to eat? Well, gourmet food available twenty-four hours a day (including room service). This presents (for me) the hazard of over-consumption. There is a main restaurant and four specialty restaurants. Before covid, there was a self-serve buffet every cruise ship. But covid precautions require that the “buffet” be displayed behind a plexiglass barrier for passengers to point to what they want, which is then delivered by a gloved/masked staff member. One beneficial effect for me is that I eat less than I did when the buffet was self-serve. (Notably, I remember the first time I discovered Tiramisu in a large pan with a scoop the size of a small shovel.) The buffet, known as the World Café, varies its daily offerings but always contains a wide selection of meats, vegetables, sushi, salads, breads, and deserts. After an over-indulgent initial couple of weeks (mostly by me), Susan and I now skip some meals and try to work out at the gym most days. As one of the few vegans onboard, Susan has a senior officer in the restaurant, who is from India, who provides her vegan dishes at every lunch and dinner when the normal menu is lacking enough vegetarian/vegan dishes. Despite the availability of custom omelets-on-demand, we now skip breakfasts.
We receive a four-page newsletter every evening with the following day’s activities. They try to offer “something for everyone.” Looking at today’s newsletter, we have: stretch class, wildlife watch with our naturalist, bridge, mahjong, art classes, an origami demonstration, team trivia, a wine tasting, a mixology class, as well as three different expert presentations by our enrichment lecturers. I am totally impressed with the lecturers, who are three Brits (two career diplomats and a historian), three Americans (a clothing expert with her husband who is an ocean specialist and surfer, and an Australian naturalist who has deep knowledge of geology, geography, birds, and marine life. The lectures are presented live in the theater but can be viewed on the in-room television if desired.
One expert that was unexpected and most appealing to me is the resident chess master. He’s a retired librarian, who happens to be rated in the top-one-hundred US chess masters. He has played in many international tournaments, and organizes local chess tournaments. I call it my “humility exercise” to play with him. I don’t expect to win against him, though I have won against several fellow passengers.
The theater which presents lectures, concerts, and movies, is a state-of-the-art facility. There is a huge LCD display (2×48 monitor arrays plus two separate columns) yielding 108 monitors which deliver incredible digital backgrounds to all music concerts. There are digital displays throughout the ship which rotate a large library of digitally-displayed classic artworks and nature photos (mostly from Norway). The technical staff is outstanding. There is an excellent soundman, a lighting manager, a videographer (who manages the LCD displays), a stage manager, and several assistants. This ship has the best technical team we’ve ever experienced on a ship. They record every enrichment lecture for later viewing in the Viking TV system, which also offers a wide selection of movies as well as live channels (which are often unavailable due to internet problems). All internet goes through the ship’s satellite feed. The captain explained that the internet satellites are aimed at land masses and not toward the middle of the ocean. Also, the ship passes through different satellite zones, which results in internet interruptions.
There is a show in the theater every night, mostly concerts (though there have been two guest magicians). Guest musical artists board the ship for two week stints during which they present two or three concerts. We’ve had a variety of guest musical artists including two guitarists, two pianists, an electric vibraphonist and his dancer-wife, and two solo singers. Alternating with the guest artists are the “house musician” consisting of six Filipinos—a quartet plus two singers, and four British singer/dancers who are backed by the quartet plus pre-recorded tracks. Apart from the main theater, there are two other rooms with daily music provided by a solo guitarist (also Filipino), as well as three Ukrainian classical musicians—a violinist, cellist, and a solo pianist who performs classical pieces on the grand piano in the large open atrium in the middle of the ship. The entertainers on Viking are more oriented to an “older” audience. I suppose Susan’s and my music might be better received by Viking passengers than the “party ship” passengers. I’ve sat in playing a few tunes with the quartet, who would like to feature a jazz evening with me. But the question is whether they will receive permission from the London Viking entertainment office.
The world cruise offers many more opportunities than shorter cruises to get to know fellow passengers as well as staff members. Among others, we regularly have meals with a couple originally from Lebanon, a father and son from Mobile, Alabama, the chess master and his wife, and a husband-wife retired diplomat couple who have both provided very interesting enrichment lectures. We know a number of people superficially. Sometimes it’s difficult to recognize and remember faces that are always masked.
In closing, I’d like to share one of the great acquaintances we’ve made. William (“Bill”) Simpson is the author of a best-selling biography entitled Prince, the Story of Saudi Prince Bandar. Bandar was a Saudi diplomat and behind-the-scenes power broker through the presidential administrations of George H.W. Bush, through Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Prince Bandar is now retired in Saudi Arabia. Bill Simpson, an Englishman, was a classmate of Bandar’s at the Royal Air Force Academy. They became good friends as fencing partners, a friendship that lasted for decades through the end of apartheid in South Africa and the trauma of 9/11. Because of Simpson’s close association with Bandar, he beat out journalist Bob Woodward for the right to write Bandar’s authorized biography. In the course of writing the biography, Simpson conducted interviews with UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and South African President Nelson Mandela. Both of these world figures recorded video endorsements for Simpson’s book. We had amazing conversations with Simpson about the behind-the-scenes scandals, grudges, and secret deals that never are revealed to the public. Indeed, Simpson said he was sworn to secrecy about some events, never to ever reveal them. Bill Simpson has been delivering enrichment on cruise ships for over ten years on a variety of subjects. Meeting him was one of the unexpected pleasures of traveling on this Viking world cruise.
Occasionally, the Star brings on local performers to present shows when we are in port. The photos below are all from a Chilean music/dance group who performed a variety of Chilean music and dance styles. Note the quality of the various images on the LCD screen behind the performers.