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Daring to be different

The Wintergarden - Frank Gehry chairs, newspapers, books, blonde wood 'trees' stretching up to the glass roof (Photo: Anne Kalosh)
Viking Ocean Cruises' No. 1 guiding principle is 'Don't be everything to everybody.'

It dares to be different.

'Why not be crystal clear? We try to have Viking as a whole a thinking man's and woman's cruise. Those are the type of people we like to have on our ships,' Viking chairman Torstein Hagen said.

'There's another guy, my age, who seemed to enjoy riding a bumper car on his ship. That's not why people come to us,' he added. To drive home the point, if travelers want to 'be in the sun, the casino, get drunk or bring the children, they are on the wrong line,' Hagen said.

Instead of focusing on entertainment, Viking strives for a shipboard ambience that encourages mingling and emphasizes enrichment and destinations. This reflects the personality of an owner who wanted to create a cruise line for people like him, who are 'still interested, learning, curious.'

Viking Star's size, on-board programming and interior design facilitate that.

Passengers read, converse, gather for group knitting, play Monopoly, mingle and pack the lectures. There's no casino, photo shop or bingo. A museum-quality display of Viking exploration is tucked into a nook off the Atrium.

Recently the cinema aired a different TED Talk every hour. Spearheaded by Viking vp Karine Hagen, a new partnership with the noted nonprofit TED foundation brought to sea clips of short, powerful talks by compelling leaders.

Enrichment lectures mirror the destinations. On one cruise veteran Thames pilot Capt. William Wells narrated Viking Star's passage from Greenwich through the Thames Barrier. Linda Ferreri, writer, art historian, attorney and former UNESCO consultant, peppered her talk on the UNESCO World Heritage List with current events, including the risk to Syria's ancient Greco-Roman site of Palmyra, just seized by ISIS. A maritime historian, an astronomer and a former Concorde pilot rounded out the speakers.

The destination focus extends to the entertainment, with Viking bringing aboard local performers, such as fado singers in Lisbon and the Montserrat Choir in Barcelona.

Viking Star has a residential style.

'The Living Room really is like a living room. It's not a lobby,' Hagen said.

At the base of the triple-deck Atrium, this area has intimate sofa groupings, armchairs, quiet spaces, social spaces and areas for entertainment (a Steinway grand piano, a dance floor). The shore excursion staff and pursers meet with people at tables.

Cruisers are congenial and seem to enjoy conversing. When people pass on the wrap-around promenade deck or in the corridors, they say hello.

More than 65% of passengers booked during the first five months are past river cruisers, according to Richard Marnell, svp marketing.

'They're used to being open and friendly and traveling that way,' he said. 'They're culturally curious.' And, he added, there are 'little elements of discovery that are even designed into the ship to provoke discussion.'

Richard Reveire of Rottet Studio in Los Angeles and SMC Design of London were responsible for the interiors.

Viking Star's unfussy look belies a bevy of details, varied textures and materials—stone, wood, wool, metal, glass, even fur. Railings and door handles are covered with white vinyl that looks like leather. Some dining room chairs have backs with needlepoint designs. Beside a soft armchair in The Living Room, a glass and metal table has geode insets.

The decor, artwork and the food reflect the owner's Norwegian nationality.

Anthony Mauboussin, Viking Ocean's director of culinary development, previously worked for The World, Oceania Cruises, Azamara Club Cruises and Celebrity Cruises. He spent three weeks in Norway to learn how to cook for the Scandinavian deli Mamsen's, and Hagen said he set the French chef straight on not heating the vinegar for a cucumber salad.

There are two no-charge a la carte venues, but Hagen mandated the 380-seat Restaurant (to be renamed The Dining Room to sound more residential) serve the best food on board. The dining emphasizes freshness, made from scratch and regional dishes. Vegetables are vacuum-packed to keep their flavor. The bread is by a champion French baguette maker.

Mauboussin doesn't believe in giving too many choices, but just offering the right selection.

Prints by Norway's Queen Sonja adorn The Restaurant's walls, and there are two large paintings by Norwegian abstract artist Jakob Weidemann. These flank a 12-seat round table for special dinners hosted by Hagen or the captain. When the weather is good, the windows open to the promenade deck for alfresco dining. Plus, there are 32 outdoor seats aft.

One a la carte specialty venue is Manfredi's Italian Restaurant, named after Silversea Cruises chairman Manfredi Lefebvre d'Ovidio, a close friend of Hagen's.

'We went through a lot of hoops to make Mr. Manfredi happy,' a Viking executive said. Antipasti are prepared in an open kitchen. The appetizers include asparagus with polenta and truffle oil and a tasty tomato soup. Lasagne and risotto are among the pastas, and main dishes include osso bucco, veal and Tuscan-style grilled steak.

The 100-seat Chef's Table offers a food and wine pairing menu following different themes—'Sweet & Salty,' for example, has tomato and watermelon gazpacho, prosciutto and melon, veal tenderloin and a strawberry and basil dessert. The menu changes twice per cruise.

Tucked inside, The Kitchen Table is a 12-seat venue used for exclusive events and classes including a 'Shopping with the Chef' experience ($299), sold only on board, and offered in cities with great markets like Bergen, Venice and Barcelona. Participants can learn sophisticated techniques such as using liquid nitrogen. The goal is to take away the formality of the cooking school and focus more on sharing and informality.

Up on Deck 7 is the World Cafe, a buffet venue that stretches into the open-air Aquavit Terrace, facing aft and ringing an infinity pool. Hagen's 'own' table sits at the pool's portside corner.

The main pool, midships, is topped by a retractable glass roof, and a screen behind a decorative cover opens to show movies at night. The striking Wintergarden, adjacent, has blonde wood 'trees' stretching their branches up to the glass roof, forming a lattice canopy. The ravens Huginn and Muninn of Norse mythology perch in a corner.

Passengers gather to read (books and newspapers are available) in the Wintergarden's Frank Gehry Cross Check chairs or the comfy chaise lounges facing the sea. The Wintergarden is packed during afternoon tea.

Above the bridge the double-deck Explorers' Lounge provides sweeping views, a bar, a Scandinavian deli and upstairs library. The library has an explorers theme, with shelves of artifacts and cases of ship models like Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki. It's so homey a man was stretched out asleep on a sofa one day. At night the library glows in soft lighting.

The deli, Mamsen's, displays a changing selection—homemade waffles and brown Norwegian goat cheese, fresh berries and pastries at breakfast, smørbrød (open-faced sandwiches) during the day and, at night, charcuterie.

Mamsen or 'mum,' refers to Hagen's mother. 'She departed a few years ago and was very important to us, and we miss her greatly,' Karine Hagen said. The enlarged black and white photo on Mamsen's wall shows the matriarch on skis, pulling a sled.

(The coins in Viking Star's keel are from 1943, the year Torstein Hagen was born, and 1911, the year his mother was born.)

Skins drape some sofas of the Explorers' Lounge, and one side has a long, glass-enclosed fireplace (it's actually vapor), shared on the other side of the wall by the owner's suite boardroom.

Hagen is occupying the owner's suite, off and on, until July, when it will be open for sale to the public. It has a collection of his books—from physics (Feynman and Schrödinger) to business (Robert Townsend's 'Up the Organization'), family photos and art. There's an ample walk-in closet, a bedroom and a bathroom with an ocean-view sauna that opens to a deck. Another work by Weidemann, Hagen's favorite artist, hangs beside the dining table, while an Odd Nerdrum painting decorates the boardroom.

Just because Viking Star is for 'thinkers, not drinkers' doesn't mean it's a dry ship. Beer and wine are included, and at Torshavn, the dark, cozy nightclub, special liqueurs and aquavits are sold. Small bars, in fact, dot the vessel. Tucked into The Restaurant is a sleek, white granite bar with a birch forest backdrop on a base of smooth pebbles, while The Living Room's Viking Bar has chic leather chairs and deli snacks.

The roomy Theater, which stages lectures and shows, has a super-high-definition screen and contains two cinemas. Pillows with the faces of Scandinavian stars like Sonja Henie scatter across the deep blue sofas, and each cinema seat has a cashmere throw.

The entertainers put that high-definition screen to dazzling use with special effects for 'Songscape: An Operatic Fantasy,' melding songs from The Who's 'Tommy,' Gilbert & Sullivan, 'The Phantom of the Opera' and more. Other entertainment is more intimate—an impromptu tango in the Atrium, a guitarist, a pianist.

The LivNordic Spa by Raison d'Etre, which runs the spa at top properties like Stockholm's Grand Hotel, features a thalassotherapy pool, snow grotto, bucket dump, heated loungers, eight treatment rooms, salon and fitness area. Massages start at $150 and the therapists don't push product sales during treatments, or at all. Passengers can use the facilities without buying a treatment.

The boutiques stock upscale Scandinavian designers like Georg Jensen silver jewelry, designer knits by Oleana and sweaters by Dale of Norway.

The all-veranda accommodations start at a generous 270 square feet plus 46-square-foot veranda and range up to Explorer Suites of more than 757 square feet plus verandas of 167 to 490 square feet.

Rooms provide lots of storage, large flat-screen televisions, movies on demand, bathrobes and slippers, safes, hair dryers, spacious showers (only the suites have tubs) and 24-hour room service. All but entry-level rooms have stocked mini-bars (some with alcohol and snacks), coffeemakers, binoculars and a cashmere throw. On the long desk, a pop-up section reveals a vanity mirror.

A lot of thought went into the details, even the waste baskets. They are square. This means trash is more likely to make its mark than a round container, Hagen said. The toiletries are in large bottles with easy-to-read names and have tops that open easily in the shower.

At least a dozen elements ship-wide were carried over from Viking's river vessels. On Viking Star, too, are the discrete reading lamps embedded in the beds' headboards. The cutlery is Hepp from Germany, the linen is Portuguese and the bedding is by Germany's Müldorfer.

Many elements boost fuel efficiency. The most obvious is an extra-large ducktail, which lengthens the waterline of the ship, making it move through the water more efficiently. This and hydrodynamic hull design, optimized propellers and other features resulted in 13% to 14% greater efficiency than originally envisioned.

Viking Star also has scrubbers that can function in open or closed loop.  

Hagen often compares his new ship to the upscale R-class fleet, built between 1998 and 2000. Versus Oceania Cruises' 15-year-old Nautica, Viking Star is 17,500gt larger yet less costly to operate, he maintained.

Viking can spend more time in port, because 'we have a very fuel-efficient vessel.'

Hagen claimed a $2,005 difference in the fares between similar August 2016 itineraries and said his cruises include more—excursions, transfers, Wi-Fi and beer, wine and soft drinks.

As Viking has differentiated itself on the rivers, it's stressing value and enrichment on the oceans, too.

On a recent cruise passengers seemed enthusiastic about Viking Star overall, apart from the spotty Wi-Fi. And while dinner reservations at Manfredi's were in short supply due to its popularity, The Chef's Table got mixed reviews.

In a pleasant twist, some who had been on board for back-to-back cruises eagerly pointed out their favorite details to newcomers. A daily spa-goer cited nifty features like a centrifuge to dry swimsuits and the fact that in the self-service laundries, even the detergent is free.

'The homemade ice cream is the best,' said another woman, who was cruising for 50 days.