If the Vikings were historically revered for their seagoing prowess, today’s modern Vikings are up to the challenge.
In 2012, Viking Cruises did what many at the time thought was impossible: The company took delivery of six brand-new, 135-meter long river cruise ships in a single year. Initially, the line had hoped to have all six present in Amsterdam for its March christening date, but had to settle for two due to construction delays. Two would follow in April of that year, with the final two entering service over the summer.
It was by any account a monumental achievement in an industry that tended to launch ships one – perhaps two – at a time. Dubbed the Viking Longships, the new vessels focused on integrating technology and Scandinavian design into the creation of river cruise vessels that were unlike anything that had come before them.
The following March, Viking handily broke its own record and managed to set a Guinness World Record at the same time when the company christened 10 brand-new Viking Longships in Amsterdam.
This past March, however, the line did it again. Viking set another Guinness World Record for the most ships christened by a single company. Nine ships were welcomed into the fleet in Amsterdam on Monday, March 17, 2014. On Tuesday the 18, four Longships were inaugurated at the Neptun Werft shipyard in Rostock, Germany, followed by three more in Avignon, France. An additional two vessels would follow on Friday, March 21 in Porto, Portugal.
Grand total: 18 new vessels in the span of a week.
“Today we mark a new milestone for Viking and for modern river cruising,” said Torstein Hagen, Viking Cruises’ enigmatic Chairman. “We are proud to celebrate the arrival of our newest ships, and it is an honor to have each one named by a prominent godmother.”
New Ships, New Changes
With so many Viking Longships on the waterways of Europe, it would be easy to think of them as mere carbon-copies of each other. But the fact is that Viking, together with Neptun Werft in Rostock and Oslo-based interior design firm Yran & Storbraaten, have been making subtle tweaks to each successive pair of Longships to enter service – and the Class of 2014 are some of the best.
Viking continues to refine and enhance the design of its Viking Longships, and there have been some notable improvements this time around. Aboard Viking Heimdal in Avignon, we noticed that “the hump” – a raised partition of the corridor floor leading to the massive Explorer Suites at the stern – is now gone. In staterooms and suites, electrical outlets have been re-arranged to be more convenient, as have switches controlling the stateroom’s lighting. Gone are the dimmer switches that few could figure out, replaced instead with a much more intuitive switch-and-dial system.
Lighting and soft furnishings throughout the ship’s public rooms have also been enhanced, giving these Longships an even brighter, more open feel than their predecessors. The line’s experiments with slatted wood dividers seems to have ended in favor of glass and other transparent materials, and acoustics in the Viking Lounge and The Restaurant have been much-improved thanks to the use of sound-dampening fabrics as wall and column treatments.
Even the dials in the shower for hot and cold water have been re-arranged to be more user-friendly.
But among the small tweaks and changes, what made the earliest Viking Longships such a success is still present today. Guests can choose between standard riverview staterooms that measure 150 square feet or splurge on the line’s massive, stern-mounted Explorer Suites: 445-square-foot beauties that feature separate living and sleeping areas along with 270-degree wraparound balconies and separate French balconies.
The vast majority of accommodations aboard the Viking Longships still feature full step-out balconies that, thanks to Viking’s unique offset corridor design, don’t cut into the available space in the stateroom. The offset corridor design – which Viking has patented – also allowed designers to incorporate 275-square-foot Veranda Suites on the ship’s port side that feature full verandas and French balconies along with separate living and sleeping areas.
Matching Supply With Demand
River cruising’s first true suites – not to mention the bright and airy overall design of the ships – have clearly resonated with consumers. “River cruising is the fastest-growing segment of travel, and it is in large part because of the enthusiasm of our guests and travel trade partners that we have enjoyed such success,” Torstein Hagen stated during the christening ceremonies in Avignon. “We are working hard to match supply with demand, and with these newbuilds we have the best designed, newest and most extensive offer of ships on the rivers – more than double all our competitors combined.”
Hagen’s allusions to river cruising’s rapid growth are, if anything, understated. At the christening ceremonies for Viking Hemming and Viking Torgil three days later in Porto, Portugal, Hagen admitted that demand for the line’s Portugal’s Rivers of Gold itinerary – which was just launched last year – had nearly outstripped supply for sailings in 2014. This, despite having twice as many available berths this year along the Douro compared with last year.
That Viking can – and is – filling all available berths across Europe is nothing short of astonishing.
France, Portugal Are Hot
One of the most popular itineraries is also one of Viking’s newest. Departing roundtrip from Bordeaux, France, Viking’s new Chateaux, Rivers & Wine itinerary is the line’s first foray into France’s celebrated Bordeaux region, noted for its world-famous wine, truffle and cognac production.
Viking Forseti invites guests to cruise along the Dordogne, Garonne and Gironde rivers to some of the most picturesque places in France. In Libourne, guests can visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of Saint-Emilion and enjoy wine tastings in both Pauillac and Cadillac. Extended stays in Bordeaux offer ample time to visit La Belle Endormie, so named because of the city’s remarkable restoration program in the last decade.
In Portugal, Viking Hemming and Viking Torgil operate a weeklong itinerary roundtrip from Porto that Viking has paired with a two-day pre-cruise stay in Lisbon. Sailing the Douro River through the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Douro River Valley, guests visit six different cities in Portugal and can even participate on an overland journey to the historic city of Salamanca, Spain.
Portugal’s Douro River Valley is the epicentre of port wine production, and Viking’s second full year of operation along the Douro includes excursions and tastings that highlight Portugal’s most famous export. Cultural diversions like traditional folkloric shows are paired alongside fully guided tours in each city, including the ancient capital of Portugal, Guimarães.
As fabulous as Portugal is, the new Viking Hemming and Viking Torgil might steal the show. Built and operated in conjunction with Douro Azul, both new vessels are 79.85 meters in length and carry just 106 guests and a crew of 36.
Douro Azul owns and operates nearly all ships plying the Douro River. The company provides the operational and technical crew for the vessel, which is then chartered by Viking. Viking, in turn, provides the hotel and management staff for both ships. Viking has put its trademark stamp on both Viking Hemming and Viking Torgil, modeling them after the highly successful Viking Longships.
Anyone who has set foot aboard a Viking Longship will feel right at home on these new ‘Longship-esque’ vessels. The general arrangement and layout of public rooms is nearly identical to the Longships, and stateroom and suites offer up the same classy mix of Scandinavian décor and modern furnishings.
There are even a handful of improvements to the staterooms, such as rainforest showerheads and improved electrical outlet access. Blackout drapes in Balcony staterooms are electronically controlled, and Viking has still managed to offer 11 true, two-room suites that measure 302 square feet. These complement the 24, 185-square-foot Full Balcony staterooms; two French Balcony staterooms; and 16 standard ‘riverview’ staterooms onboard.
The World Is Viking’s Oyster
With the Douro nearly sold out for the remainder of 2014, Viking hinted that the possibility more ships could be introduced in the region isn’t out of the question. But the line was also quick to point out that it is casting its eye on other regions of the world too.
The Mississippi remains a strong possibility for Viking, though the line admitted that any service would likely not begin until after 2016. Long-standing rumors persist that Viking is actively looking into operations along the fabled Amazon River, and the line has quietly added a handful of itineraries in Egypt back onto the availability roster for this fall.
For 2015, another 10 Viking Longships will enter service in Europe, along with Viking’s first oceangoing vessel, the 930-guest Viking Star, which will be christened on May 17, 2015 in the Norwegian port of Bergen.
After three straight years of runaway growth, Viking’s mantra seems to be, “If you build it, they will come.” It’s an ideology that has paid off handsomely.