VIKING OCEAN CRUISES ~ Perfect Ports of Call & Excursions
In 2015, Viking Ocean Cruises launched its first ocean-going ship, the Viking Star, with an innovative approach to cruising built upon its success on the rivers of this world. Viking has met with formidable applause from the critics and public alike ever since. If you enjoy cruising, or are a debutante eager to give this burgeoning form of travel a try, then come along for the read and I’ll take you on my fabulous Viking journey and tell you what I loved most about my recent Viking Ocean Cruise.
My husband, Denis, and I had the distinct pleasure of cruising for 22 days from Catalonia to Athens on the Viking Star. Since I have a lot to report after this lengthy cruise, I’m writing a series of articles to give you an intimate picture of what cruising with Viking Ocean Cruises is like, both onboard ship and on land. This first article is devoted to the exceptional ports of call and touring on land with Viking.
INNOVATIVE FEATURES ELEVATE CRUISING TO A NEW LEVEL
Perhaps you are wondering why I described Viking’s approach to cruising as “innovative”. Viking is innovative in a multitude of ways across most aspects of the cruising experience they offer, but with respect to the specific focus of ports of call and excursions, Viking is innovative in that it offers a solidly interesting “included” tour available at no charge to passengers at every port of call which provides a great overview of that particular location, both visual and historical. Plus Viking prides itself on having long stays in their ports of call, often from early am to 6pm or later in the evening. Three of the very popular ports on our cruise, Barcelona, Venice, and Athens, featured overnights which enabled us to enjoy the local night life or savor a leisurely dinner out at a local restaurant and then take a Viking shuttle back to our ship.
The most original “shuttle” system we encountered was in Venice, where water ferries just down from San Marco left every hour to shuttle us to the ship which was docked approximately a 15-minute ride away. That evening, therefore, Denis took advantage of the overnight and the shuttle to surprise me with an early birthday dinner celebration at the elegant Bistrot de Venise, renowned for its historic and traditional Venetian dishes where we spent a glorious 3-1/2 hours enjoying superb food, wine and service. Unforgettable, including the gorgeous night-time ferry ride amidst the twinkling lights of Venice back to our ship.
For ports like Monaco where the ship does not spend the night but the nightlife is fabulous, Viking offers a late evening departure so passengers can stay in town for part of the evening and enjoy the local offerings … such as the magnificent casino in Monaco. Even if gambling isn’t your thing, you must at least visit this stunning casino … which of course we did!
Innovative again is Viking’s exceptionally broad selection of excursions catering to a wide variety of tastes and interests, from the religious traveler focused on monasteries and relics to the adventurer who thrives on mountain-biking or hiking up hillsides to the culturally curious who seeks to meet & mingle with the locals and see how they live up close and personal, and of course to the rapidly growing focus on culinary tourism.
We fall mainly into the third and fourth categories, and we absolutely adored our Dalmatian coast food & wine tasting tour outside Dubrovnik. I loved the traditional presentation of the first press of the olive oil by the owner and his hard-working donkey, followed by the delicious sampling of house-made cheeses, prosciutto, bread & wine by him and his wife. Enchanted by them both and by the quality of their offerings, Denis and I bought several bottles of the couple’s first press extra virgin olive oil which is not available outside of the local region.
This fascinating tour continued onto several other experiences, including a most enjoyable short cruise to the oyster & mussel beds of the historical town of Ston where we enjoyed a local white wine along with some sweet freshly caught oysters whose aroma and taste sung indescribably of the sea. For not only were these oysters caught just moments before they were shucked and popped into our mouths after a squeeze of fresh lemon, but this was “oyster season” for Dubrovnik and the entire region was scheduled to celebrate with festivals and tastings in just a few days’ time. The people, the food, the oysters, the views, as well as the local guide … an awesome excursion!
Key to the success of the excursions is the Viking Star’s impressive Shore Excursion Manager, the fiery Julia Lux, who runs her department with devotion and top-notch professionalism. Although the ship was full to capacity, carrying 930 passengers, the tours were organized so that we never felt immersed in crowds. On the contrary, we received lots of personal attention to quickly get through security and to meet up with our guide. Moreover, the guides are overall extremely articulate, well-informed and caring, and the comfy buses all had excellent experienced drivers.
But the visit to each port would not have been complete without the daily Port talk by our oh-so-talented Cruise Director, Suzanne Gayle. She hit a home run daily as she gave us a lively and colorful introduction to each of our 16 ports of call. Suzanne regales you with tales of history and intrigue in her stories and she will also tell you a bit about her personal favorites, from restaurants and cultural sites to foods and shops. Always – without fail — she increased my enthusiasm level which was already pretty high indeed.
So what were our favorite ports of call and our favorite experiences on land? Before diving into that fun topic, I should explain that while Denis and I are happy to start a tour with a bus trip around a large town or city, what we love most is a walking tour which explores the town more intimately. After the tour finishes, we like to continue exploring on foot, walking through the side streets, visiting the outdoor markets, and enjoying a good local meal where the locals like to go. If we already know a town well, we are often tempted by the trips to the countryside where we get a chance to hobnob more with the locals and see how they live. With that picture in mind, on to our visits in some of our favorite ports of call …
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