We had a wonderful time. For the most part, the ship suited us, the staff was friendly and accommodating, and the Interary gave us what we wanted out of the trip. If you are accustomed to visiting European cities with well- maintained attractions or Caribbean islands with you have fist class bars, restaurants, and beaches you will be in for a bit of a shock. If you (like we were) want to visit a unique place where you can see the impact of 60 years of socialism/communism on what was once a tourist hotspot, and how people function under that system, then you should consider this cruise.
The ship was just the right size. The decor was subdued, elegant and modern. The room (Deluxe Veranda) was clean, roomy, comfortable with the best cruise ship shower we have ever had.
We had been on 3 Viking River cruises and several ocean cruises with more mass market cruise lines mostly Princess. We were curious how this experience would compare to those.
We had some frustration with Viking Air but I will detail that in a separate post.
I will give you a day to day rundown on what we did along with some general observations. I am also going to compare the Viking Ocean experience with their River Cruises and with the mass market Ocean Cruises I had been on.
Day One (Thursday, November 😎 On-Boarding/Depart Port: This was by far the easiest and most relaxing on-boarding experience we have ever had on any Ocean cruise. We could not get a decent enough flight from Phoenix to fly in that morning (Part of the Viking Air frustration to be detailed in a different note) so we flew in the day before and took a Lyft to the ship. Got here about 10:30 dropped off our luggage, checked in, and got our room keys inside the cruise terminal and were on board at 11:00. Were greeted with a glass of Champaign and because the rooms would not be ready until 2:00 had a seat in the lobby and enjoyed a cup of coffee. At noon we went up to the World Café buffet (more on the buffet later). You make your dinner reservations for the two specialty restaurants at the entrance. We only received two reservations (one to each of the restaurants) with our class of room, so we made one for Manfredi’s Italian that evening and one for the Chefs Table on Wednesday. At 2:00, as promised, our room was ready. After unpacking we toured the ship, spent about 90 minutes enjoying the spa and then got ready for our outstanding dinner. We almost bought the drink package, at $20/day it is not a bad deal at all, but we decided we would not because we would be tempted to use it more than was probably good for us. Another reason we did not get it was because the wines that were included were not that exciting and not that much better than the house wines they served at lunch and dinner and the bottle discount only applied to bottles of wine priced $60 or more. They had a lot of nice wines in the $40-$60 price range that if the drink package offered a discount on, we probably would have purchased it. After our amazing dinner (in talking to some people they never made it to one of the specialty restaurants which was kind of sad) we sat in the lobby listened to some music and then went up to bed.
Day Two (Friday, November 9) Sea Day: After breakfast at the buffet we went and spent a couple hours in the spa, we were amazed at how few people were using it. In the locker room, they feature a sitting area, a sauna and cold-water plunge pool (was never brave enough to take the plunge), and a wonderful rainforest multi-directional shower. The communal area features 4 stone beds, 10 or so padded lounge chares, some padded lounge chairs, a steam room, a snow room, a large medium hot saltwater whirlpool, a standard sized hot tub, a rainforest shower, and cold-water bucket dump area (never was brave enough to use it). Again, I was surprised at how few people there were in the spa (more on that later). Was surprised by how much I enjoyed the snow room, was disappointed that the stone beds were almost only room temperature (I told them about this several times but they claim they were set at the right temperature. On our mass market ocean cruises, we always purchased the spa package, and warm stone beds are the main reason we do).
After a wonderful lunch in the sit-down The Restaurant (I wonder how much they paid a marketing consultant to come up with that name). We then decided to sit out by the main pool area. This was a big step for me because I’m not sure what hell is like but I’m convinced it is not that much different from the main pool area on the other ocean cruises we have been on. I was pleasantly surprised. It was calm and relaxing. Was able to find a shady lounge chair. There were no unsupervised children or people with over filled plates of food our buckets of beer bumping into us, there was no blaring reggae music playing, it was dare I say it pleasant. I even did something I never do, I went it the pool. I was wondering why everyone was hanging on to the sides and I found out. The entire pool is 5’8” deep. Unless your nose is 5’9” above the ground, if you are not swimming (the pool not really big enough to swim) or treading water you need to hang on to the side of the pool. This is not a bad thing I just found it odd.
That evening we had they had a reception in the lobby for past Viking guests in the atrium. You get a glass of sparkling wine (it is branded Viking and comes for Germany) and if you are on the first floor, they pass around some Hors d’ oeuvres (we were on the second floor). After that, we had a wonderful dinner at The Restaurant. The food is on par with the Viking River cruises, and far superior to the food in the main dining room of the mass market cruises we have been on. After dinner, we went to the captain's reception where we got another glass of Germain sparkling wine and were introduced to the captain and the department heads.
Day 3 (Saturday, November 10 Cienfuegos): Cienfuegos is a tender port. The Star by far has the nicest and most comfortable tenders we have ever been on. Each tender holds about 200 people. Because you are moving so many people so quickly it is a bit of a cattle call. If you are on an excursion you meet in the Star Theater at a specific time and then instructed when to board your tender. If you are doing the port independently you tell them and they tell you when you can board. There is a fairly long line to get on the tenders but I don’t see how they could do it any better. For those of you that are not afraid of alienating your fellow passengers if you take the elevator down to level 0 and cut into the tender line there you will avoid most of the line.
There is a money exchange once you clear customs and before you get to the tour buses. There is I think an 8% fee for exchanging American money. Your credit card and ATM card will not work in Cuba. We had some euros left over from a previous trip and exchanged those in because there is no extra fee for doing that. Another good option is Canadian money. The lines to exchange money the first day very long and many people were unable to do so because they did not want to miss their tour bus. The truth is that most places that tourists would be interested in will accept American money so you may be able to get away without exchanging any money at all.
We went on the “Cienfueguos on Foot” included shore excursion. We took a bus into town and our tour consisted of walking 4-5 blocks to the main square of the town. You can see that in its day this was a pretty magnificent place but it had not been kept up. We observed the way the people went about their day to day lives. It is dirty and a bit unkept but none-the-less interesting. In addition to the stores and markets and restaurants on the street, there were several street vendors selling local crafts and jewelry. The tour was supposed to include a tour of a cigar factory but the factory does not operate on Saturdays so they substituted going into a cramped cigar/rum store where there was a lady in the back, rolling cigars. We received a complermetary rum and coke and a tiny cigar. Because of time constraints, they asked us not to buy are cigars and rum here but at another store, we would be near the end of the tour. This tour is offered all three days we are in the port. If you want to see a cigar factory (we did) do not do it on Saturday. We then walked down the town square where they directed us to a cigar/rum store and gave us some time to wander around on our own. The store is not set up for the thong of cruisers that descend upon it. If you want to make a purchase do it quickly. By the time we decided to buy something the line was 20 some people deep and with one cashier we decided to hold off buying anything until a different day because we would have missed the bus ride back to the ship.
On our way back to the ship we stopped off at the Palace de Valle for a rum and coke and some music on the roof. The place is beautiful on the outside and in some of the public spaces, but you can tell by going in the restrooms and in peeking in some other rooms it has been neglected. Enjoyed the music and enjoyed the views.
Our guide for this tour, like the guides on all our tours, works for a government-owned tour company. They were all passionate about their job and worked hard to make sure we had the best experience possible. I was impressed with their ability to communicate and their candor. No question was off limits. Some of us were wondering if they had to turn in their tips to the government and were told they only share their tips with their families.
We then proceed back to the ship where we cleaned up and went to our dinner at the Chefs Table. The theme for the dinner was “La Routes Des Indes” and we paid $25 each for the upgraded wine pairing. The two main courses were Spicy Tuna Tataki and Beef Tenderloin seasoned with four Asian spices. The meal was outstanding and the wine pairings went well with the food being served. I went back and did some research and the 4 wines served each retail for between $10-$15 so the ships markup (if you don’t deduct the cost not drinking the house wine which I suspect is something south of $8 a bottle) is not that extreme.
After dinner, we listened to some music in the lobby and went back to our room.
Day 4 (Sunday, November 11) Cienfuegos: We did the “A Day in Havana” shore excursion. Long day but worthwhile. After breakfast, the 20 minute or so tender ride, and clearing customs (it was much quicker today), we boarded our busses for 3 1/2 drive to Havana. Before we got there, we stopped a little sea town where there was a bust of Earnest Hemmingway in the town square and had a Mojito at his favorite bar (based on what we were told by our tour guides there are a dozen or so bars that were Hemmingway’s favorite). You can tell by looking around that the town used to be something but it was run down and was now something else. The description of the tour said we were going to visit Hemmingway's house but the house is closed on Sundays. As this is the only day the tour is offered, I was wondering why they said they were going if the place was closed. I was looking forward to going and this made me sad. My frown turned to a smile when I found out that in its place Viking substituted a 30-minute car ride in classic convertibles through the of Havana. We got to ride in a pink ‘53 Chevy. That was pure joy and a great way to see and feel the city. I hope for the sake of future cruises that hey never open the Hemmingway house on Sundays because the car ride was a highlight for everyone that went on the excursion. Prior to the car ride, we had an authentic Cuban lunch of beans, rice, and chicken. You can have beer, wine or soft drinks with lunch and one of our fellow cruisers was a bit off put because she ordered a diet coke and they brought her the Cuban equivalent. It was hard for her to process that Coke is not sold in Cuba.
After the car ride we took a fascinating walking tour of old Havana. You can only imagine what the place was in its hay day. On our walking tour, we spotted a MSC cruise ship docked in the harbor. We were told that Viking could not dock there because there were no slots available. That’s a shame because I am not a fan of bus rides (although it was fascinating seeing how the people in the countryside live as I looked out the bus window). I would also feel comfortable wandering around Havana on our own, something I did not feel comfortable doing at the two ports the ship did visit. Someone told me that in the next year Viking will indeed dock in Havana which would be a good thing.
Our last stop was a cigar/rum store. We made sure we made our selections quickly because there was a throng of people in the store.
We then boarded the bus for the long ride back to the ship. We were told that we would be getting a box dinner on the bus. Turned out to be a boxed snack. They must have gotten some complaints about this before because the kept the buffet open until 11:00 that night which was much appreciated.
Day 5 (Monday, November 12) Cienfuegos: We did the Botanical Garden & Laguna Guanaroca shore excursion. We were tired from the previous long day and this trip was about the speed we wanted to go and we enjoyed it very much. We enjoyed it not because we saw anything breathtaking or magnificent but because of its simplicity. It was a relaxing walk where you learned about local plants, birds and insects. Our guides were engaging and interesting. The description for the tour says we would see flamingos but they warned us ahead of time the flamingos were elsewhere and gave us the opportunity to cancel. We were happy we went.
We got back to the ship and made our way to The Restaurant for a nice relaxing sit-down lunch. Several of our other cruises had the same idea. Turns out The Restaurant is only open for lunch on 100% sea days and this being 50% sea day it was closed. We then proceed up the buffet where I had flashbacks to Carnival cruises we went on when our kids were young. The place was packed it was next to impossible to find a table. There were long lines to get food. Another night they were promoting a seafood buffet and how wonderful it was for diner. I love seafood but when we went up there the buffet consisted of clams, mussels, and one type of white fish. The Italian buffet consisted of two types of pasta sauce and some meatballs. In both cases, we skipped the buffet and went to The Restaurant. I had mentioned earlier that my least favorite thing on mass-market cruise ships was the main pool deck, for me a close second is the buffet. In my view, Viking solved the pool deck issue but they have some work to do on the buffet.
Day 6: (Tuesday, November 13) Santiago de Cuba: We went on the included Panoramic Tour. Did not expect much and were pleasantly surprised. Santiago is bustling with activity and we got a great chance to see how people live their lives. I thought this was going to be mainly a bus tour but we got a chance to walk through one of the main shopping districts, and got to observe people in and around the main town square. The highlight for us was a stop at Basilica of Santiago. People go there to be healed, the church is beautiful, and has wonderful views. Got back to the ship about 1:15 wished The Restaurant had been open but mustered up our courage and faced the throng in the buffet.
After lunch, we decided to go to the spa to relax. Since our last visit, the Spa had been discovered. It was wall to wall humanity. There was not a lounge chair to be had or even a hook to hang your towel. People were putting their towels and robes on the still too cold stone beads reserving them while they enjoyed the other spa amenities. I took someone's towel off the stone bed and put it on the table next to the bed. I got a stern look from the towels owner when they got back several minutes' latter. My view is that with only 4 beds for 950 guests they should not allow people to reserve them if they are not using them. Viking should enforce this and not force their guests to be the bed police. As nice as the spa was the first couple of days it was more like the hunger games the last couple of day. The Spa beautiful but it is too small for the size of the ship. This is an area where the mass market ships may have it over Viking. You may have to pay a daily or weekly fee to use the facilities (which are nearly as nice) but this limits the crowd and makes it a more relaxing experience.
We were not that hungry and just had some soup for lunch and then had another great dinner at The Restaurant.
Day 7: (Wednesday, November 14) Sea Day: Had our first and only breakfast in The Restaurant. It was outstanding, wish we had gone sooner. After breakfast, we went to the Spa for some to try and jam in some relaxation. We were not hungry so we just had a bowl of soup for lunch (the soups on the ship are fantastic) After that we went up to the pool deck and was able to relax and finish the book I brought on board. They have an afternoon tea in the Winter Garden (a beatify designed and relaxing area of the ship). They have one of these just about every day and we were sorry we did not go sooner. We had another outstanding dinner in The Restaurant. Packed and then went to the captain's sendoff farewell show at the Star Theater. Don’t know if this is a requirement to be a cruise director on Viking but the cruise director Aaron Syfert has an amazing singing voice (as does the assistant cruise director) and this was one of many opportunities for him to sing. In reading Syfert’s bio his is musically trained and had a role for 6 years on All My Children and was a regular on a children's show for several years. The ship captain had a wonderful personality and stage presence and during the sendoff. As a reminder to tip well they brought staff members on board from every department to thank us and wish us a great journey home. Following the sendoff, the ships singers performed a show which was typical cruise ship entertainment.
Day 8: Miami: Got up, had breakfast, they made getting off the ship as easy as they did getting on the ship. Our Viking transfer got us to the airport got us there in plenty of time to make our flight.
Let me know if you have any questions.