Viking Cruises heads off on new, exciting adventures
Travel to the ends of the earth
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American
For most Norwegian Americans—and many others—when you think of riverboat cruises to exciting destinations, you think of Viking. There are those famous PBS Masterpiece commercials, and many of us have gone exploring with them on one of their luxury itineraries. Viking has become synonymous with quality travel and the good life, a reputation well earned. The phenomenal success of the company, which now consists of three divisions—Viking River Cruises, Viking Ocean Cruises, and Viking Expeditions—has brought it to a No. 1 rating in the industry, both on the rivers and the oceans. With more than 250 awards to its name, in 2021 and 2022, it was the recipient of the prestigious Readers’ Choice Awards from Condé Nast Traveler and was the 2022 winner of two World’s Best Awards from Travel & Leisure. It the only cruise line to reach the top of its categories in both publications in the same year. The company has an annual revenue exceeding $3 billion, with over 5,000 employees. All this in just 25 years.
At the helm of Viking is Norwegian entrepreneur and visionary Tortstein Hagen, founder and chair. Hagen’s dream was to make travel more destination-focused and culturally immersive. Viking has registered the tagline “The Thinking Person’s Cruise,” with purpose of both educating and entertaining “curious, experienced travelers.”
“Dream big. If you don’t dream big, you don’t get anywhere,” says Hagen in a video created to mark the 25th anniversary of the company last year. On Aug. 5, 1997, the company was launched with four ships that explored the rivers of Russia. The following year, nine more ships were added in Europe, and in 2000, the company acquired KD River Cruises, making Viking the largest river-cruise operator in Europe. Then in 2001, Viking became the first cruise line to introduce four new ships in a single year.
Rapid expansion continued, and in 2004, Viking launched China cruise tours with a custom-built ship on the Yangtze River.
In 2011, the collaboration with PBS began when Viking became the national sponsor of the hit Masterpiece series Downton Abbey. Millions of viewers across the United States were introduced to river cruising.
The fleet continued to grow rapidly, and by 2014, Viking carried 1 million passengers.
Another landmark year was 2015, when Viking launched its first ocean-going vessel, Viking Star. In the ensuing years, an entire fleet was built as Viking reinvented the category with small, sleek, elegant ships.
“It’s a totally unheard of thought for someone to start an ocean-cruise business from scratch, but nothing is impossible,” says Hagen. “Things may take time, they may cost money, but impossible, no.”
In a short amount of time, Hagen’s big dream had come true.
The Viking longships
One of the things that make a Viking river cruise so special are the longships. They have patented their al fresco Aquavit Terrace® design, also a registered concept.
The bar is also a special feature of the ships, crafted in wood in a style that goes back to Viking times. The bar is one of many places on the ship to congregate with others and relax.
Viking longships are light and airy, with floor-to-ceiling windows to enjoy the scenery you pass by on your voyage. Off the light-filled reception area, there is a spacious, well-stocked library. Each ship is equipped with Wi-Fi, and if you should choose to leave your computer at home, there are laptops available in the library.
Dining is an important aspect of any Viking cruise, and the dining area is large, light, and spacious. On all the ships, there is open-seating dining with a casual dress code. Some of the world’s best wine selections are served to accompany the ships’ gourmet cuisine.
You can also dine outdoors in the fresh air on the Aquavit Terrace. The deck areas are the ideal place to soak in more scenery on a sunny day, and with the ships’ ecologically friendly hybrid engines, you will enjoy quiet and smooth sailing. Sustainability is important at Viking, with solar panels lining each side of the ship. You will even find organic herb gardens on the deck to provide fresh ingredients to help create Viking’s exquisite cuisine.
And at night, you will sleep soundly on board in cabins that offer you the utmost of Scandinavian-style comfort. Many of the cabins have their own verandas, and on each ship, there are two Explorer suites for extra space and more luxurious living.
Weathering the pandemic
In 2020, the world was quickly brought to a standstill with the outbreak of a global pandemic, with a profound effect on the travel industry. On March 11, 2020, Viking was the first cruise line to stop all operations.
With the entire cruise industry more or less shut down, Viking focused on researching the virus to develop a comprehensive health and safety program for its ships. The new scientifically based measures put in place allowed them to be one of the first cruise lines to restart operations, and in the summer of 2021, guests were welcomed on board again in ships that were safer with new technology and protocols in place to safeguard against illness. As a result, many passengers have said that they feel safer on board a Viking ship than back home.
Because health and safety are of primary importance, Viking offers its own travel protection plan to cover unforeseen circumstances that may arise before or during your trip, including any necessary medical, quarantine, or repatriation expenses related to COVID-19.
The company also requires that all travelers be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 at least 14 days before departure, and all crewmembers are up to date with required immunizations. All guests are encouraged to take a COVID-19 test three days before their trip starts.
Another important development during the pandemic was the expansion of Viking’s online cultural offerings, including Viking TV (viking.tv). With host Karine Hagen, the founder’s daughter and company executive vice president, grounded travelers could enjoy researching and exploring Viking’s many itineraries, including the history and traditions of the various destinations. Topics include art and music, local life, explorers from Leif Erikson to Roald Amundsen to the astronauts of our time. There are yoga and meditation sessions and world-class performers to enjoy. A favorite was “Sissel Sundays” featuring Norway’s superstar singer Sissel Kyrkjebø, who is also the godmother of the ocean-going vessel Viking Jupiter.
The scheduled video livestreams were free for anyone with an internet connection, and many programs are available on an on-demand basis.
Culture on board
There is much talk about “The Viking Difference,” and much of this has to do with the strong focus on culture.
This experience starts already before you leave on your trip with the articles and videos available on the main Viking website (vikingcruises.com), its subsites, and Viking TV.
But this is only a prelude to what you will experience on board in real time on your way to your destinations, with guest lectures and port talks by qualified experts in their fields, destination performances with regional artists, crafts and cooking demonstrations, and special classical and regional musicians. Expect to hear a choir, be amazed by a folk dance troupe in colorful costumes, or simply be surprised by the variety of entertainment.
“Destination Insights” are a special series of short films that you can view on your own stateroom television to provide information and insights ahead of arrival at scheduled destinations on your tour.
Then, of course, the foods you will eat on a Viking cruise will be typical of the regions you are visiting, so you can explore new cultures through local cuisine and regional beers and wine. And for the somewhat less adventurous, a classic menu is also available enhanced with locally sourced ingredients, for the freshest and most delicious food experiences possible.
Service is reported to be impeccable on a Viking cruise. Its highly trained staff delivers award-winning hospitality year after year. Viking is about loyalty, and overall employee satisfaction and retention is the highest in the industry.
Finally, when it comes to the overall culture or atmosphere on a Viking ship, the company has underlined that it is also important to talk about what they are not. As the Viking website states: “We do not try to be all things to all people. Instead, we focus on delivering meaningful experiences to you.”
Therefore, you should expect the following on a Viking cruise: no children younger than 18; no casinos; no nickel-and-diming; no charge for Wi-Fi (expect varying speeds); no charge for beer and wine at lunch and dinner; no charge for alternative restaurants; no umbrella drinks; no photography sales; no art auctions; no inside staterooms; no entrance fee for the spa; no spa sales pressure; no charge for use of launderette; no smoking; and no waiting in lines.
The year 2022 was a special year for Viking, as it marked its silver anniversary with a myriad of innovations and changes.
Viking Expeditions were launched with the ships Viking Octantis and Viking Polaris. These state-of-the-art ocean-going Polar Class 6 ships take travelers literally to the ends of the earth, from the northern realms of the Great Lakes to the Antarctic region. Housing only 378 passengers each, these ships offer yet another type of ocean-going adventure for Viking travelers.
In Egypt, the Viking Osiris is now sailing on the River Nile, and in Asia, there is a new ship sailing on the Mekong River. Two new sister ships were added to Viking’s ocean fleet, and in the United States, the Viking Mississippi is sailing the historic Mississippi waterway, bringing Scandinavian-style cruising to the New World.
All in all, today Viking River Cruises offers itineraries in Europe, Asia, Egypt, and along the Mississippi in the United States, The larger ships of Viking Ocean Cruises sail to Scandinavia and Northern Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, Asia, and Australia, and offer extended “Grand Voyages” to multiple destinations around the world. With the Viking Expeditions you can explore Antarctica and lower South America, the Great Lakes and Canada, and take off on other Grand Journeys spanning North and South America.
The possibilities with Viking are almost too vast to describe in one short article. Details are available on the Viking website, but one word of warning: plan to spend a lot of time there. It is not a website that you can peruse in a matter of minutes or even hours. It is so full information and is such an excellent travel resource that you will want to visit many times.
Looking back on the first 25 years, Torstein Hagen reflects: “Its’s hard to believe that the little company that we started on Aug. 5, 1997, has become the Viking of today. But we knew, even from those early days, that we wanted Viking to be different.
“I think we have done quite well, and it’s largely due to the fantastic spirit we have in the company. That’s really where we distinguish ourselves, to come from nothing to where we are today. I think that’s quite something.”
This is perhaps Norwegian modesty at its very best when talking about one of the more sensational success stories of Norwegian enterprise ever. We all look forward to what the next 25 years will bring.
All photos courtesy of Viking
This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.