Our Three Most Memorable Cruise Travel Experiences in 2015

The 500-passenger Europa 2 is designed by the German line Hapag-Lloyd to appeal to an English-Speaking audience.
The 500-passenger Europa 2 is designed by the German line Hapag-Lloyd to appeal to an English-Speaking audience.

As 2015 draws to a close, it’s revealing to look back at the major events that shaped our corner of the cruise world. Here’s a look at three of our most memorable experiences.

The Norse Factor

When Viking River Cruises announced several years ago that it planned to enter the world of ocean cruising, we wondered how that would turn out. Torstein Hagen, former CEO of the storied Royal Viking Line, was involved so that was a big plus. But no one would argue that cruising has changed sizably since the days when that luxury line sailed. Back then, shuffleboard, midnight buffets and guests mainly in their 70s and 80s were prime attributes.

Explorer Suites on Viking Star offer a 167- to 490-square-foot verandah.
Explorer Suites on Viking Star offer a 167- to 490-square-foot verandah.

Enter Viking Star of the new Viking Ocean Cruises. When we walked aboard the 47,800-grt ship in Lisbon in May, we were mesmerized by the fresh, modern — yet comfortable and homey — product that not only was up to the modern-day-standard but far exceeded it. With alternative dining choices, cutting-edge design and a mid-sized ship concept, the 930-passenger Viking Star was a star from the outset.

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We loved the ship’s multi-level atrium aptly named The Living Room. Another favorite spot? The two-level forward Explorers’ Lounge which seemingly brings the sea “inside.” With plenty of nooks and crannies to while away the hours reading, conversing with friends or just watching the sea, this lounge is brimming with books, artifacts and living room knick-knacks, comfortable seating, a telescope and, if travelers get the munchies, Mamsen’s featuring Hagen’s own mother’s recipes for such Scandinavian deli-style fare as waffles, pea soup, gravlax and cream-filled treats.

On the specialty dining side, we loved Manfredi’s, repeatedly returning for its tasty Italian cuisine; the restaurant is named for Silversea Cruises’ Chairman Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, a friend of Hagen. Viking Star’s infinity pool was also a hit — giving guests the feeling of swimming in a pool that drops off the aft end of the ship. Accommodations are roomy and comfortable, but most appealing is the product’s inclusivity with everything from specialty dining to complimentary access to the spa relaxation room, free Wi-Fi (despite slowness when everyone is on their devices), port charges and more.

For agents, the star attraction is the extension of Viking’s NCF policy from the river side onto the ocean. Viking also has another two ocean ships under construction, Viking Sea and Viking Sky, to debut in 2016 and 2017 with several more on the horizon as well.

The Luxury Equation

The highlight of our year was the opportunity to sail on Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ all-suite Europa 2, launched in 2013 and updated in 2015. “Impeccable” seems an apt word to characterize most aspects of this 500-passenger luxury ship, designed by the German line to appeal to an English-speaking audience. Yes, there were a majority of German guests onboard, but we met a few English guests and the entire crew spoke very good English. English menus, an English daily program and some English shore trips made us feel comfortable.

That said, it’s clearly not a product for every guest — certainly not for first-timers nor for those not willing to mix and mingle with an international audience and German speakers (most of whom DID speak good English). In addition, depending on guest mix, clients need to be prepared to “go it alone” and enjoy the experience just for themselves — not always making instant new friends onboard. It’s not that type of ship.

What it is, however, is the lap of luxury with incredibly spacious, well-designed suites. It seemed a cross between the North American luxury lines’ ships and the new feel of the Viking Star. Our Verandah Suite #701 had a living area and bedroom separated by an open-air slatted divider bathroom, a large balcony, large walk-in closet and a bathroom with a humongous soaking tub and robust separate shower. Let’s just say I would have been comfortable living in this suite for the entire year.

Europa 2, again though, isn’t a product that resembles others from North America. It truly had its own personality, and the German sense of engineering excellence was front and center. When we entered, there was a brochure to explain how to operate the complex lighting — with a slew of dimming and options for turning this and that set of lights on and off. A jewelry holder and cleaner was positioned on the bed stand. And, the credenza in the living area had large panels above the desk that one pushed to open into an enormous lighted make-up mirror, if so desired.

A big surprise? The ship had lovely family accommodations and a supervised children’s club with different age groups, as well as a teen club. So while most luxury ships really don’t have the accommodations or facilities dedicated for kids, this ship did. It was a different experience on many levels. Would we go again? Yes, you bet.

The Food Republic on Norwegian Escape is a collaboration between Norwegian and Pubbelly Restaurant Group.
The Food Republic on Norwegian Escape is a collaboration between Norwegian and Pubbelly Restaurant Group.

The Choices of ‘Escape’

Attending both the three-night christening cruise and a regular, week-long sailing of 164,600-grt Norwegian Escape for the annual CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. conference in November, we had sizable face time with Norwegian Cruise Line’s latest star. This 4,248-passenger Breakaway Plus-class ship is the first of four planned (one of those targeted at the Chinese market.)

Certainly, dining in a slew of savory alternative restaurants has always been a Freestyle mainstay. We can report that Le Bistro and Cagney’s Steakhouse were stellar. Teppanyaki, the Benihana of Tokyo-style, slice-dice-and-grill experience was booked solid night-after-night. La Cucina still serves up Tuscan favorites and the complimentary O’Sheehan’s can’t be beat for great cooked-to-order breakfast and fish and chips. We also loved our dinners in Manhattan Club with the live combo playing jazz or other light music, the darkened bluish glow to the room and stellar service with wait staff in elegant uniforms resembling the grand days of ocean sailing.

New choices? James Beard Award-winning Iron Chef Jose Garces designed the cuisine at the Pinchos Tapas Bar. We — along with many travel agents on our cruise — absolutely loved the Food Republic, a collaboration between Norwegian and Pubbelly Restaurant Group; guests order small-plate global dishes ($4 to $7) from on-table tablets. You’ll find everything from sushi to sliders, terrayaki chicken, pot stickers and savory pad Thai with shrimp.

The new Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville serves up signature burgers and other pub fare with a slew of margarita concoctions, including a watermelon margarita. Norwegian was responsive when I encountered one food issue at this eatery. I asked for the manager, she was helpful, the dish was replaced immediately and I was subsequently visited by a uniformed food-and-beverage officer to make sure I was satisfied with the replacement. The District Brewhouse features craft beers from Wynwood Brewing Company, and a quiet, often-overlooked spot on our cruise was The Cellars, a Michael Mondavi Family Wine Bar.

One forte of Frank Del Rio, president and CEO, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, is food, as evidenced by the creation and development of Oceania Cruises, a foodies’ favorite. Did you know that Del Rio reviewed and adjusted every single menu on Norwegian Escape? It’s true, and now the same culinary team that creates dining on Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceania is handling Norwegian’s culinary program.

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