The Rising Tide: How Viking Changed Cruising

Courtesy Viking Cruises

In just under two decades, Viking Cruises skyrocketed from a small river cruise agency to one of the best cruise companies in the world, redefining guest expectations and converting non-cruisers into repeat customers while they were at it.

The name synonymous with river cruising may be set to take over the high seas. In 2015, Viking launched its first ocean vessel, Star and another, Sea in mid-2016. Its next ship, Sky is scheduled for delivery in early 2017. The Scandinavian founded, Basel-based company recently announced that it placed an order with Italian shipbuilding manufacturer Fincantieri for three additional sister ships, which will bring Viking’s total number of ocean-going vessels to six by 2020.

These striking new ships are a cut above standard cruise liners. There’s an emphasis on clean, uncluttered spaces and modernist decor, atypical of cruise ships. There are Eames chairs in the Living Room and Frank Gehry Cross Check furniture in the Wintergarden. In the sun-flooded Aquavit Terrace, an atomic chandelier glows above an ice bowl filled with take-away wheatgrass smoothies It’s so modern and airy you might think you're in Copenhagen, except that it happens to overlook a mosaic-lined infinity pool (one of three pools on board), making it feel more like Mykonos. The top deck is home to an alfresco parcour course while the Explorers’ Lounge is fitted with vintage maps, leather globes, antique telescopes, and a library stocked with old and new expedition titles. For those who need a bit more pampering, there’s a full-service spa on Deck 1 with a snow grotto, bubbly thermal bath, and cavernous steam room. In other words, this is not your mother’s cruise ship.

So how did Viking grow from a small river cruise company to one of the best cruise companies in the world in just a few years?

Viking River Cruises was only founded in 1997. Few travel companies with such a short history have built such a reputable brand in so little time. The company remained small in its salad days, maintaining an average market share of river cruisers. But its emphasis on longer shore visits and cultural-driven itineraries quickly made it the leader of upscale river cruising. By 2012, Viking released their new “Longship” vessel, designed by Houston-based Rottet Studio with a contemporary Scandinavian aesthetic and sensibility, and embarked on an aggressive fleet development program for the next four years, launching 46 new Longships to be used on their routes from the Rhine to the Danube. This growth spurt coincided with the company’s sponsorship of Downton Abbey, which made the brand a household name. By the time Star launched in 2015, Viking had become a clear industry leader, with a whopping 49 percent market share of the American river cruising segment. The company has spent over $1 billion in marketing and in September of 2016, announced another $500 million investment from a private equity firm in Canada.

The Explorer's Deck aboard the Viking Sea.
Courtesy Viking Cruises

Viking’s expansion into the ocean going cruises has made the company an industry game changer, and competitors are scrambling to match the brand’s outstanding itineraries and onboard facilities. “We launched Viking Ocean Cruises to reinvent the category,” says chairman and founder Torstein Hagen who runs the company with an active hands-on approach with his daughter, Karine. “Too often in recent years the most talked about ships have been the biggest ships, Torstein says, “We believe some cruise lines have not focused enough on helping guests connect with the destination. This is why our ships are built for exploration, helping travelers spend more time immersed in their destination.”

What Torstein tapped into was a gold mine. Cruise passengers were already tired of the nickel-and-diming for onboard extras like Wi-Fi and alcohol, only to be hit by another wave of extra costs like exclusive access excursions, and upscale specialty restaurants. So when Viking “imported” what worked on its river cruises to the ocean ships, it brought a level of “luxury value” to cruising that passengers hadn’t before witnessed. “When we started this company 19 years ago, we had two cell phones and no money, but we knew there was an opportunity to do things differently,” he continues.

And those differences really stand out. As a “reluctant cruiser” who’s been on a few voyages, I was exceedingly impressed by the onboard design during my four-night sailing on the Viking Sea. Staterooms, bathed in contemporary beiges and blues, come standard with heated bathroom floors, and roomy verandas equipped with sturdy wooden deck furniture. Closets are spacious and so too are bathrooms, which have glass-encased showers with high-pressure showerheads. Wi-Fi is complimentary, as is the 24-hour room service, the wine and beer stocked minibars, self-service laundry, and the cable TV, complete with free movies on-demand and daily onboard-broadcast lectures offering everything from weather and embarking logistics to the unique wine varietals and regional dishes found at each port. If for some odd reason you decide to actually sleep in your amenity-laden room, plush beds are topped in the same quality of cottony-soft sheets and fluffy down pillows found in five-star hotels. Those wanting more space can book suites with tubs and wraparound decks; the owner’s suite has a butler entrance, and a private sauna, raising the bar for at-sea luxury.

Viking Sea alone spent over $3.2 million on the onboard art, which includes the kind of quality pieces you might encounter at Art Basel or Frieze. Edvard Munch lithographs on loan from Oslo’s Hotel Continental hang in the Living Room on Deck 1. The are modernist paintings by Norwegian Jakob Weidemann and graphic artist Kjell Nupen. Emerging Swede Mikael Nilsson’s lonely oil landscapes of empty Nordic roads recall Edward Hopper but with a evocative Scandi-style all its own. And Queen Sonja of Norway’s dark abstract watercolors adorn the walls of The Restaurant on Deck 2. Experimental photography and provocative site-specific installations found throughout the ship were a far cry from the generic landscapes and pastel birds hung in the halls of other ships. (A new Viking art app offers detailed information of the ship’s hundred-plus pieces.)

While there’s some room for improvement on the food front—many meals cater to a dated American palate: coffee is weak and dishes are under spiced and overly sweet—another Viking difference is that their specialty restaurants don’t cost extra. The Chef's Table features creative cuisine, like king crab in coconut milk paired with premium wines not available at other venues on the ship, and cozy Italian osteria Manfredi's emphasizes hearty Italian dishes, like Osso Buco, spaghetti carbonara, and Nutella panna cotta, already a guest favorite. (Both were good, but not worth missing a meal on shore for.) The ships’ global cooks, who are encouraged to experiment with flavors from their own countries, however, do impress. Unique “off-menu” creations include licorice gelato, shrimp tequila ceviche, and pork lok lak from Cambodia. Classics like tuna sashimi and crab legs are found nightly at the buffet, while new luxury-comfort classics like truffled burgers and lobster mac and cheese make frequent appearances. A tender and perfectly cooked steak, ordered at midnight and delivered to my room, was one of the better meals I had on board, as was the tuna sashimi at World Café, where senior crew members often eat.

The Wintergarden sitting area aboard the Viking Sky.
Courtesy Viking Cruises

The principal edict of Viking’s unique business philosophy is “Don’t be everything for everyone.” Passengers under 18 are prohibited—a detail surely appreciated by its key demographic: age 55 and up. And unlike many cruise companies who have increasingly gone after the family, multigenerational, and newlyweds markets, Viking has focused on experienced adult travelers with interests in history, art, and culture. The itineraries typically have fewer sailing days and are more destination-intensive. This has not only helped them draw repeat guests, but helped them win over first-time (and disinclined) cruisers who look to a cruise to show them the world—not the inside of a casino or waterpark, neither of which Viking ships have.

Viking’s new ocean itineraries range from under-visited Mediterranean ports of call in Sardinia, Slovenia, and Corfu to off-the-path destinations like Gdansk, Tallinn, Caracas, and Guadeloupe to Norway’s North Cape where guests can gaze at the Northern Lights from the hot tub. There are Caribbean sailings and Alaska cruises forthcoming, and a new world cruise launching on the company’s fourth ocean-going vessel, Viking Sun, in late 2017. The epic 141-day westward journey from Miami to London visits 66 ports of call including hard-to-access destinations like Cuba, the Marquesas, Komodo, and Malaga.

The new ships carry 930 passengers and 550 crew, an especially high crew-to-guest ratio. The service they offer is noticeably gracious and three dimensional, putting Viking’s service in a class alongside trusted travel name brands like Four Seasons and Abercrombie & Kent. Notably, crew members don’t respond with robotic responses, are intuitive enough to anticipate a problem, and—just as importantly—know when to leave you alone.

Sea had several hidden nooks for reading and escaping other people (another rarity on cruise-ships), and I spent a gloriously quiet evening alone in the best of them: the Explorers’ Lounge library, a highlight for any intrepid traveler. The bookshelf is decorated with elaborate pieces of coral, succulent-filled terrariums, and intricate models of 19th-century sloops and steamships, but the 300 or so books were no afterthought. I sank into a leather sofa thumbing through a gold-embossed copy of Farthest North by Fridtjof Nansen, scanned Livingstone’s Missionary Correspondence, 1841-1856, and perused the hefty three-pound, 715-page behemoth The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garr. An even heftier four volume Encyclopedia of Exploration got me excited just thinking about all the ideas it contained. The library’s acquisition of out-of-print facsimile reproductions, newly released titles, and preservation of century-old first editions shows an inspiring dedication to the spirit of exploration. I spent a lot of time in the Explorers’ Lounge while the ship crossed the North Sea from the Thames Estuary to Bergen, lavishing a nautical comfort the authors couldn't possibly dream of—and reveling in what is surely a new and very comfortable age of exploration.

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