Escape from the lockdown
Robert Lucas | July 20, 2021 | Viking Ocean Cruises | Viking Venus
The Covid-19 pandemic caused the suspension of most cruises for around two years. So having sailed many times with Princess, P&O, Azamara, Regent and other cruise lines, we have been hoping for a cautious resumption. At the time of writing, the UK government allowed cruise ships to sail with no more than 1,000 passengers (or 50% capacity, whichever was less). So clearly, it would have been be uneconomic for large ships to operate with only 1,000 passengers.
Several lines are promoting “seacation” cruises from Southampton. However, most of these voyages remain offshore and do not visit any ports. That is why we were attracted to the programme of one-week voyages from Portsmouth, offered by Viking Ocean Cruises. Viking operates a fleet 11 new, and virtually identical ships, with capacity for up to 930 passengers.
The first part of this review describes the safety measures that Viking have implemented.
• Occupancy was restricted exceed 50% of the ship’s capacity.
• There is an accredited laboratory aboard each ship, equipped to perform PCR virus testing.
• There is enhanced air purification technology on all Viking ships with UV-C lights, high-density filters and independent air handling units for all guest staterooms, which do not share air with other areas of the ship.
• Bookings were only accepted from UK residents, who had received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccination, not less than two weeks prior to departure. We would have been happier, if Viking had insisted upon two doses of the vaccine. However, most passengers were in the age group that had received both doses – and I believe Viking have upgraded their criteria for subsequent cruises.
• Prior to arrival at the port, passengers must complete an on-line health questionnaire.
• To prevent queuing in the terminal, Viking have introduced pre-bookable check-in times.
• They check passengers’ body temperatures prior to boarding and regularly aboard the ship.
• Having checked in, passengers were asked to go directly to their cabins to provide a saliva sample for PCR testing.
• Supplies of face masks and hand sanitation gel were provided in every cabin.
• Passengers and crew always wore face masks around the ship (except when eating and drinking).
• Passengers were required to carry an electronic “contact tracing dongle”.
• Every morning, passengers had to complete a short health questionnaire and provide a daily saliva sample for PCR testing.
• There were temperature scanners and hand gel dispensers (with UV light) at all of the restaurants. There were wash basins at the entrance to the “World Café” buffet, where a waiter checked that passengers had washed their hands before entering.
• In the buffet, all food was displayed behind screens and dispensed by waiters.
• Passengers were only to go ashore, if they joined a ship’s excursion (one excursion was offered free of charge in every port of call).
Some of these procedures might appear daunting but in practice, they were not oppressive. On the contrary, it was reassuring to know that everything was being managed so carefully.
Viking Venus is the newest ship. This was only her second voyage, so everything was in pristine condition.
Public areas were bright and airy, with spacious open plan lounges and plenty of well-spaced seating. There were bookshelves around the Viking Living Room in the Atrium and surprisingly, used those shelves for a selection of books, instead of the library. We particularly liked the Viking Bar within the Viking Living Room on Deck 1, which served alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks including speciality teas and coffees. All of the teas and coffees were complimentary (similar to Azamara) and the quality of the coffee was so much better than standard beverages on Princess and on P&O.
The ship had two small cinemas and a spacious theatre. And with less than 500 passengers aboard, social distancing was not an issue and there was plenty of seating for everyone. I didn’t use the Spa or Fitness Centre.
The atmosphere and activities were low key –and similar in some respects to Azamara. So there were no art auctions, no photographers or casino, and no hard sell activities. Unlike Azamara, we rarely saw the ship’s officers around the ship, talking to passengers. However, this lack of social contact might have been intentional, as a Covid-19 precaution.
There are no inside cabins. All staterooms and suites have a balcony.
Our cabin was bright, airy and tastefully decorated. Our first impression was that it was not particularly spacious, but subsequent research indicated that the dimensions are more generous than on the latest Princess ships. Comparative sizes are:
Standard Veranda stateroom 270 sq ft (Princess balcony cabin = 214 sq ft)
Deluxe veranda stateroom 270 sq.ft (Princess balcony cabin = 214 sq ft)
Penthouse Veranda stateroom 338 sq ft (Princess mini-suite = 323 sq ft)
Penthouse Junior Suite 405 sq ft
We chose a deluxe stateroom, which provided plenty of storage, hanging space and ample drawers. The layout of a deluxe stateroom is identical to the standard version, but additional amenities include a Nespresso coffee maker, earlier access to the cabin on embarkation day, and priority reservations for shore excursions and the speciality restaurants. The furnishings included two comfortable chairs and a low table, with an additional table and two chairs on the balcony.
The minibar beneath the writing desk contained chocolate snacks and a selection of complimentary soft drinks (Sprite, Tonic Water, Coke and Diet Coke), which were replenished daily. It also contained a complimentary bottle of German sekt (sparkling wine).
We had booked this cruise to celebrate our golden wedding anniversary (delayed by a few weeks by the Covid restrictions). Viking had marked the occasion with an additional bottle of sekt and a gluten free gateau, which was a lovely and unexpected gesture.
Our cabin had a large TV. However, reception was really unreliable and the range of international TV channels was not aimed at an entirely British clientele. However, the complimentary Wi-Fi was excellent, and download speeds were adequate for streaming British TV programmes.
Our tiled bathroom was stocked with premium toiletries and was much better than the bathrooms on many mass-market cruise lines. The shower cubicle had a glass door, instead of a clingy plastic curtain. Although the room was brightly lit, I wonder why designers don’t seem to understand that men who shave and ladies, who might need to attend to their makeup, prefer lighting that illuminates the face – not the back of the head.
We preferred the “World Café” buffet for breakfast but for dinner, we chose flexible dining in the Main Restaurant (the ship was less than half full, so reservations were not required). At lunchtime, we alternated between the World Café and the Restaurant.
Common allergens were clearly identified on the menus and in the buffet, so it was easy to select dishes suitable for dietary restrictions. And every evening, my wife received the menu for the following evening, which enabled her to request gluten free choices. Gluten free beer was available upon request.
We also dined in Manfredi’s Italian Restaurant and in the Chef’s Table Restaurant. The menu in the Chef’s Table changes every few days and some of the more “adventurous” offerings might not appeal to everyone. Consequently, I recommend checking the menus, before reserving a table.
The quality of the food throughout the ship was really excellent and we were very happy with the complimentary wine, beer and soft drinks at lunch and dinner. Although the French, Chilean and German house wines did not pretend to be fine vintages, they were perfectly acceptable. Service was first class.
The Itinerary and Shore Excursions
Having boarded at Portsmouth, we spent the next day at sea.
Our first port was Liverpool, where Viking’s free excursion was a guided coach tour of “Iconic Liverpool”. That excursion and commentary were excellent, even though passengers had no opportunity to leave the luxury coach. Consequently, the tour was only an overview.
On the next day, the ship anchored off Tresco, in the Scilly Isles –a sub-tropical paradise bathed by the Gulf Stream, 28 miles from the tip of Cornwall. Passengers were taken ashore on local boats and most people visited the exotic Abbey Gardens, which are simply wonderful. That visit was a highlight of the cruise.
Subsequent ports included Falmouth, where we had a very disappointing and uncomfortably cramped coach tour along jam packed roads. The guide’s commentary was inaudible and the only stop was a bathroom break at a public car park, which offered a distant view of St. Michael’s Mount.
The next destination was Portland, an island connected by a causeway to the Dorset coast. We enjoyed the short guided coach tour, and travelled as far as Portland Bill, where we were able to walk to the lighthouse. That excursion was much better.
Our voyage ended with a day’s scenic cruising around the Channel Islands of Guernsey, Jersey and Alderney. Unfortunately, we saw very little, because the islands were shrouded in mist and rain.
Viking offer one free excursion in every port. We had pre-booked the free excursions and didn’t receive the list of optional (and chargeable) excursions until we reached our cabin on the ship. Coaches have to operate at less than 50% capacity during the pandemic – and I accept that must affect the cost. However, the optional excursions were overpriced and so expensive that we decided to stick with the free alternatives.
Entertainment and Enrichment
On most evenings, a classical string duo performed recitals of chamber music in the Viking Living Room. The discordant bowing and scraping was painful to my ears, so I avoided those performances. However, the resident pianist and the guitarist were much better and more suitable.
A small team of vocalists performed three shows in the Star Theatre, accompanied by the ship’s band. On other evenings, Viking showed films “under the stars” on the pool deck.
A series of guest lectures was presented by resident historian Commander Michael Cheshire (Royal Navy retired), John Chapman (senior tour guide at Bletchley Park), Jan Meek (explorer, adventurer and ocean rower) and Alan Wright (BBC Radio and TV Presenter).
Viking Venus is a small ship, so all of the entertainment was fairly low key. That might not suit everybody but we were happy, because we didn’t want or expect the style of lavish performances that are customary on larger ships.
Viking’s voyages are aimed at a different market sector from the large operators so when comparing costs, it is important to remember that fares include gratuities and much more. They offered one free shore excursion in every port. Wines, beers and soft drinks were complimentary with lunch and dinner and they did not attempt to charge for “optional” extras, such as espresso coffees, speciality restaurants, room service or bottled water (for excursions), etc. We prefer that approach and felt we received value for our money.
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