In the wake of Viking explorers, a North Atlantic cruise
ABOARD THE VIKING STAR—Looking out over the sea, you can almost see the Viking longboat at sail, far off in the distance. Or that might just be your imagination, teased by the whitecaps and swells, as you trace the route taken a millennium ago by so many intrepid seafarers.
The image played out as we made our way across the North Atlantic on the Viking Star. Launched in 2015, the 930-passenger ship was the first ocean-going vessel to set sail for Viking Cruises, known for its fleet of longships plying rivers of Europe, Russia, China, Southeast Asia and Egypt.
Responding to a demand for more destination-oriented trips, Viking looked to the sea, offering itineraries to the Baltic, Mediterranean, Caribbean and North America. Just as the Norsemen ventured off into the unknown, Viking Cruises was sailing into somewhat uncharted territory with its “In the Wake of the Vikings” voyage, a 15-day trip first offered in the fall of 2016. The sailing will be repeated in September 2017.
Last fall's itinerary began in Bergen, Norway (flights from the U.S. were booked through the cruise line) and continued on to Lerwick, Scotland; Torshavn, Faroe Islands; Reykjavik, Iceland; Nanortalik and Qaqortoq, Greenland; L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland; and Saguenay, Quebec City and Montreal, Quebec. The stops appealed to me and my wife as out-of-the-ordinary ports. No palm trees and sandy beaches here. This was something new and intriguing, taking us to places not inundated by tourists—at least not yet.
In Scotland's remote Shetland Islands, hearty cheers of men clad in Viking outfits greeted passengers walking off the gangway in Lerwick. Those outfits are also worn when they torch a replica Viking galley as the highlight of the Up Helly A' winter festival, a local tradition.
In Nanortalik (“Place of the Polar Bears”), a town of roughly 1,300 at the mouth of a fjord in southwestern Greenland, villagers delighted visitors with a church concert where they sang in Inuit. The cruise to the village featured scene after breathtaking scene of towering mountains and glaciers edging toward the fjord. The sun-splashed view was so awe-inspiring that the captain at one point stopped the ship and spun it 360 degrees so nothing was missed.
Some passengers were invited into homes of locals who wanted to display their crafts and culture. In Qaqortoq, a young woman eager to practice English joined us as we walked in town and spoke of her dream to travel beyond her island home.
At L'Anse aux Meadows, the northern tip of Newfoundland where Leif Erikson arrived in the late 900s, we marveled at the remains of the Norse village unearthed in the 1960s, revising longstanding notions of who “discovered” Vinland.
Just as the Vikings faced the Atlantic's mercurial moods, the Viking Star got a taste of what the ocean can dish out. After warm and sunny late-September weather in Bergen and Lerwick, rough seas prevented us from stopping at the Faroe Islands. It got even rougher en route to Iceland, with 80-90 mph gusts and 45-foot waves. The motion took a toll on glasses, dishes, liquor bottles and some passengers' stomachs, but the nimble-footed servers (representing a diverse array of nationalities) performed admirably as they balanced loaded trays.
The storm gave way to sunny weather in Reykjavik, where we luxuriated in the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal pool of 102-degree mineral-rich, milky-blue water surrounded by walls of black lava. Then it was on to Greenland and our Canadian ports. In Newfoundland, persistent ocean swells delayed trips on smaller boats from the Star to shore. Trips to L'Anse aux Meadows ran so late that some passengers could not even board a launch. Disappointment, yes, but no mutiny. Viking acknowledged the weather-related curtailments and offered $250-per-person credits for a future cruise.
Although the northern route might elicit shivers from some, the weather for most of the voyage was pleasant and warm enough to sit on the open deck for meals or drinks. Even in less-balmy weather, some passengers took to whirlpools on deck (although we opted for an opulent indoor spa, which also featured saunas and a snow grotto, where snowflakes descend through the chilled air). The ship's two swimming pools include one protected from the weather by a retractable glass roof.
Dining options range from a cafeteria-style cafe to a full-service restaurant, plus specialty settings where reservations are requested. Entrees included European, Russian and Asian dishes. Reindeer consomme and poached Norwegian salmon were part of our five-course meal, each course served with a different wine, in The Chef's Table.
In addition to the shops, salon, theatre, bars, library, laundry and other amenities including verandas off all staterooms, the Viking Star offers space—enough room in public areas so that you don't constantly feel wedged in a crowd. There's no casino on board (for us, a plus).
The Wake of the Vikings cruise featured excellent speakers on voyage-related topics. Among them: What causes the northern lights we saw last night? Why the geothermal springs in Iceland? What about Norse women? And the ultimate myth-buster: Did you know that Vikings didn't have horns on their helmets?