Part II of our favorite cruises of 2015, by Aaron Saunders.
It's rare that a cruise line gets a new class of ship so right on the first try, and rarer still that a cruise line that's never built an oceangoing ship succeeds straight out of the gate. Yet that's exactly what I discovered when I sailed aboard Viking Cruises' first oceangoing cruise ship, Viking Star, on a short preview cruise from London to her christening in Bergen, Norway.
For four straight days, I walked around the ship with my jaw hanging open. Not only was the 930-guest Viking Star spacious and intimately designed, but her interior décor was immaculate. No detail had been overlooked – and clearly, no expense had been spared in her construction.
Viking Star harks back to the days of the famous Royal Viking Line that set the standards for luxury cruising during the 1970s and 1980s. The parallels between Royal Viking Line and Viking Cruises aren't accidental: Viking Cruises Chairman Torstein Hagen previously headed up Royal Viking.
To that end, you'll find spacious public rooms adorned with Scandinavian artwork, books, and memorabilia from early cruise ships and Norwegian explorers. In fact, there are so many books onboard available for guests to use that there’s no need to bring your own. Viking even produced a comprehensive book available in the appropriately named lower atrium level, The Living Room, detailing the varied pieces of art aboard Viking Star.
Boardgames and diversions like Scrabble are available on each of Viking Star's three atrium levels, which is anchored by a massive LED screen that showcases images from your upcoming ports of call. The atmosphere is unlike anything we've ever seen on a newbuild, particularly in an industry that is focused on additional revenue generators.
Other features that we like about Viking Star? Tor Hagen's insistence on bringing river cruise-style amenities to an oceangoing ship. To that end, you'll have wine, beer and soft drinks included with lunch and dinner, as well as an assortment of complimentary excursions ashore. Internet access is provided free of charge for all guests, and you won't have to fork over a single dime to use the amazing Scandinavian thermal baths, heated loungers, and snow room in the onboard spa: They are all complimentary as well.
This is the one cruise where ports of call – and even the magnificent christening ceremonies in Bergen – paled in comparison to the ship.
In terms of out-of-the-way journeys, Silversea’s Middle East & Suez Canal itinerary on the intimate 296-guest Silver Wind makes it to the top of my list of favorites for 2015. Sailing from Muscat, Oman, we traveled first through Oman before sailing along the coast of Yemen and into the Gulf of Aden. Then, we called on multiple ports in Egypt and Jordan before transiting the Suez Canal. We finished our voyage by exploring Israel and Turkey before Silver Wind came alongside in Athens, Greece.
This wonderful cruise – anchored by Silversea's luxurious amenities and friendly service –was one of contrasts.
Take, for example, Oman – a wealthy Sultanate presided over by the long-serving, enormously popular Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said. Compare that with Egypt, where locals are trying desperately to figure out what exactly to do with the deposed former President Hosni Mubarak, who was forced to resign in 2011. Then, there's poor Jordan, which has seen its tourism absolutely bottom out simply because it happens to share a land border with Egypt, Israel and Iraq.
More disappointingly, if you Google “Jordan,” you get Michael Jordan – the basketball player – endorsing Nike. Jordan, the country, is two or three results down the page.
As we sailed off the coast of Aden, the Saudis were bombing the Yemeni port city back into the Stone Age. Fifty-one nautical miles offshore we saw nothing, sailing blissfully along on our luxury yacht, swirling the day's white wine selection in our mouths to see if we liked it. Yes, it'll do. It's a contrast I appreciated, but I was not entirely comfortable given the despair that many Saudi's faced so near to us.
Once again, the dependable Silver Wind proved to be an excellent ship to sail on for such an adventurous itinerary. All of the Silversea staples are here, wrapped up in a package that holds no more than 296 guests.
Although she celebrates her 20th birthday this year, Silver Wind has plenty of distinctions that set her apart from the rest of the fleet. Her forward-facing Observation Lounge on Deck 9 is one of the best in the fleet, if slightly under-used. As on the Silver Cloud, Le Champagne aboard the Silver Wind is the most attractive variety of this restaurant fleetwide, save for perhaps the Silver Spirit.
Now, less than a year after I embarked Silver Wind at the Port of Muscat, it's questionable if this voyage will even be possible in the future given the turmoil that this region of the world finds itself in. The Paris attacks hadn't occurred yet, and the Syrian refugee crisis was in its infancy when I sailed back in April.
Rudyard Kipling once wrote: "We’re all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding."
I think that's true now, more than ever. And I'm glad Silversea continues to offer voyages to places that might be considered off-the-beaten path.
My list of favorite voyages ends very much the way it began, with a voyage to the polar extremes of our world. Antarctica has been on my bucket-list forever, and in January, I sailed aboard Hurtigruten's sturdy expedition vessel FRAM, bound from Ushuaia, Argentina for the Antarctic Peninsula.
You might know Hurtigruten better for its Norwegian coastal voyages that take passengers on pseudo-cruise ferry ships from the historic city of Bergen to Kirkenes in the north and back again. But the line also specializes in expeditions to the Polar Regions of our world: Arctic Svalbard, Greenland and Canada in the north, and Antarctica in the south.
Built in 2007 specifically to sail the polar regions of the world, Hurtigruten's 318-passenger FRAM is appropriately named: Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen used a purpose-built ship called the Fram on his South Pole Expedition of 1910, and Hurtigruten named its ship in honor of this historic vessel that can still be seen to this day in Oslo, Norway.
FRAM's interiors have been created to reflect the culture and language of Greenland. To that end, the ship features extensive use of materials like wool, leather and dark woods that lend the ship a decidedly Nordic feel that reflects both Greenland culture and Hurtigruten's own Norwegian heritage.
Even Fram's public rooms reflect this focus on Greenland. There's the Imaq Restaurant, which means “sea” in Greenlandic Inuit. Sky is represented by the Qilak Lounge, and the earth by the Nunami Lobby.
At first, you might balk a bit at Fram's passenger accommodations, which are smaller and more Spartan at the entry-level than many of the line's competitors in the region. Don't. You're hardly going to be in your stateroom on these expedition sailings anyway; on more than a few occasions, I hauled myself into my layers of clothing and up onto deck at two in the morning to watch ice calving, or pods of whales playing off the bow of the ship.
In Antarctica, Hurtigruten provides guests with a sky-blue parka that's theirs to keep. They also rent out rubber boots for the duration of the voyage, and include nearly all expeditions ashore. All you need to pack are your clothes, some books, and a great sense of adventure.
That sense of adventure was present throughout every day of my voyage, and although we had to cut our time short due to a medical emergency, each and every day was an astonishing experience. FRAM is one of the most beautiful and sturdy ships to ply the waters of Antarctica, and the onboard expedition team has its on-shore program down to an absolute science. You can even go camping in Antarctica. For a modern-day polar adventurer, it doesn't get any better than that.
Hurtigruten isn’t like any of the other players in this region. They’re not luxurious like Seabourn and Silversea, nor are they scientifically-driven like Lindblad-National Geographic or Quark. Service on my voyage was uneven at best. Onboard purchases are made in expensive Norwegian Krone, and very few allowances are made for those who don’t follow the daily schedule precisely. Yet, I’d recommend it based on the strength of Hurtigruten’s itineraries in the region, which are exemplary. I also recommend it based on the FRAM herself, which has been designed from the ground up specifically to sail these turbulent waters.
The Hurtigruten experience is rugged, adventurous, and imperfect – but one year later, it still made an enormous impression on me.
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