Viking joins Miami’s fleet of ocean-going cruise ships

Typically, it’s the biggest cruise ships that grab the headlines, the ones that could carry the entire population of a small city, have more restaurants than Ocean Drive, and claim the most thrilling recreational amenities at sea.

But a smaller class of ships is becoming popular, vessels that have a more intimate feel, can get into smaller harbors than the big ships can and offer neither Broadway stage shows nor giant water slides. It’s only a sliver of the cruise market, but the segment is growing.

Viking Cruises, which popularized European river cruises among Americans, has brought its oceangoing cruise ships to the United States, and they fit right into that category. They are 745 feet long, have nine public decks and can carry 930 guests.

Viking launched its first oceangoing ship in 2015 and now has four ships in that fleet, with more in the works. It added Miami-based cruises in November; the last one of the season, on Viking Sky, departed PortMiami this month. The line will return in November. Although none of them will stay long, three Viking ships will sail out of Miami at some point in 2018.

My introduction to Viking’s ocean cruises for this review was aboard the line’s newest ship, Viking Sun, on a cool Friday afternoon in December. The room steward, Muhammad, found me as I was unpacking and acquainted me with my stateroom. He showed me how to use the coffee maker, power drapes, reading lights in the headboard and heated floor in the bathroom. He said the air conditioning would shut off if I left the door to the balcony open. He pointed out the mini-fridge, stocked with soda, water and a bottle of sparkling wine.

Later, I stood on my balcony and watched other cruise ships pull away from the dock and move slowly toward open water. When Viking Sun departed Miami for the south coast of Cuba, the sun had set.

For people who have been on a Viking river cruise, a trip on a Viking ocean cruise will seem familiar. Although the ship carries five times as many passengers, it has the same architectural style, with blond woods, clean lines and an airy feel. The nighttime entertainment is small-scale and subdued. There are no formal nights. The average passenger is 65, well traveled, English speaking and financially comfortable. Bedtime comes early.

The oceangoing ships could be called casual elegant. They are chic but comfortable, their decor strongly influenced by their Nordic roots. There are six classes of staterooms, from 270 to 1,448 square feet; all have verandas. Unlike other cruise lines, all of Viking’s oceangoing ships are identical.

Viking’s ocean cruises generally fit in the niche between premium and luxury — usually higher fares, more space and crew per guest than Princess, Holland America or Celebrity but less than Seabourn or Regent Seven Seas. A daily shore excursion — typically a basic city tour — is included in the price; premium excursions are available for an extra fee. Wine and beer are included with lunch and dinner, but there’s a charge for drinks at a bar. None of the dining options costs extra.

They tend to be destination-oriented ships rather than floating resorts. Instead of big-stage entertainment and gee-whiz features such as bumper cars or surf pools to tempt guests to stay onboard during a port call, Viking offers lectures, free shore excursions and destination-inspired menus to whet appetites for sightseeing.

One word you won’t hear in a description of a Viking cruise is raucous. Its ships don’t have casinos, so there are no slot machine bells ringing, no shrieking over the spin of a roulette wheel. The trivia competition is sedate. No loud games or contests by the pool, no karaoke bar, and considering the age of the passengers, no chugging contests. In fact, Viking cruises don’t allow guests under the age of 18, so there are no young feet pounding down the corridor outside staterooms, no sugar-fueled screams as bedtime approaches. Say aaahhhh.

Credit: Marjie Lambert

Credit: Marjie Lambert

It was Viking’s river cruises that turned the line — established in 1997 with four ships — into a cruise powerhouse. The company zeroed in on the U.S. market, targeted its preferred demographic by sponsoring TV’s “Downton Abbey” and other Masterpiece Theater shows, and now has 63 river ships. Viking has plans to add river cruises in North America, but has not announced a date.

The idea for ocean cruises came from Viking’s chairman, Torstein Hagen, and came to fruition less than three years ago with a single oceangoing ship cruising Europe. Viking expanded to the Caribbean in late 2016, with ships sailing out of Puerto Rico, then added Miami-based cruises a year later.

“Most of our (river cruise) passengers were taking ocean cruises and were dissatisfied. There is too much nickel-and-diming,” said Richard Marnell, senior vice president for marketing. “We designed the (ocean) experience with them in mind. What we didn’t expect is that they would love it as much as they do. We didn’t think we would be building so many ships.”

In addition to the four oceangoing ships already sailing, Viking has two under construction — one to be delivered in June, the other in 2019 — plus two on order, and options for two more.

Viking’s target market is the English-speaking world, Marnell said, and 85 percent of its customers are from the United States. Most are older repeat customers.

“We like to think that quiet and serenity is the new luxury and that we can best offer that by having only adults on board,” Marnell said.

I’ve been trying to decide what I liked best about Viking Sun and I’ve narrowed it down to these three points: the heated bathroom floors; the variety of dining choices with no extra fee; and the peace that comes with having no children on board.

I also appreciate Viking’s destination-oriented philosophy. I don’t mind if a ship doesn’t offer a lot of entertainment and other activities if we’re spending most of our time in ports, as most Viking ships do. But when a weeklong cruise has two sea days, as ours did — because of the time it takes to get to Cuba’s south coast — that skimpy menu of activities and entertainment needs to be beefed up.