Transatlantic Battle

Viking Oceans vs. Norwegian Cruise Line
Viking Sky – 930 passengers

This post is being written to compare our two 2018 transatlantic cruises – eastward in March on Viking Sky and returning westward home to the USA in November on Norwegian Star.

Norwegian Star – 2,348 passengers

Norwegian is a mainstream line and typically one wouldn’t think of doing a direct comparison to Viking Oceans which is more of a luxury cruise. However, much to our surprise, the total costs of the two cruises were not significantly different and therefore I believe it worthwhile to do this comparative review.

We elected to celebrate retirement with a cruise to Europe in March 2018 (was it really almost a year ago?) and then back in November after our adventure of not living in the US. Not only was a cruise the most comfortable way to travel but it is the most frugal transport across the Atlantic if you book an inside cabin. Our initial budget was based on pricing seen previously for last minute purchases in inside cabins. If you have been following my blog for the last year or so, you know that we ended up blowing that budget by 1. not waiting until the last minute and 2. sailing with Viking Oceans. For more on how we got to that decision, please see my earlier post: https://cruisinwithclay.com/2017/10/22/transatlantic/

Cost Comparison

Since budget is critical to us (especially since we are just starting to learn to live with all our money going out and none (well except for stock dividends) coming in, I am going to go through the budget comparison first. Later I will go more into detail on the two ships for those that are interested.

As with most everything in life, it is difficult to exactly compare apples to apples, but I am going to at least try to make the financial comparison as close as possible. In order to do that, I am going to disregard the extra onboard credit we received from Viking (which we used to pay for the Silver Spirits package-their unlimited drinks package) after they had a significant price drop (due to Hurricane Irma cancelations we presume). I considered including the drinks package in our calculation as our Norwegian cruise included the free drinks but since we got that for free by booking through a group it didn’t seem to be completely fair. Also Viking provides beer, wine and soda at meals and the on board credit we got from our Travel Agent would have been enough to pay for our gratuities as well as any extra cocktails. The “apples to apples” overall cost for 14 days on Viking for us both in a V2 veranda cabin totaled $4,999 while the same number of days on Norwegian in a BB veranda cabin was $3,851- a difference of $1,148 or $41 per person per day.

So what did Viking provide for this cost difference? Included excursions in three ports, unlimited internet, larger room with more comfortable seating, better entertainment on a bigger television, significantly better bathroom with a huge shower, dining table on the balcony, better food in the various venues, no charge for alternative dining, no charge for room service, no one under the age of 18 (not really a big deal on a transatlantic on any line), no casino (which didn’t make much difference to us either way), free self service laundry (not a big difference to us since as Norwegian Platinum guests we get two free bags of laundry), interesting guest lecturers, daily afternoon tea with scones, free access to their spa and a covered pool. I have bolded those which we used/appreciated most.

In addition to the pluses for Viking I note above, I find the decor and attention to detail throughout the ship more appealing – lots of comfortable seating, games and books everywhere, and for those that get chilly, blankets and throws on just about every sofa or chair. Is this worth more of my money, probably not, but when combined with all the other pluses, we reached the conclusion that the extra $41 per person per day was worth it to us.

Embarkation/Disembarkation

Boarding Viking Sky in San Juan – the atrium is just through the opening

Viking was the easiest embarkation we have ever experienced. Some of this is I am sure due to 930 guests rather than 2,300. But also helping this is that Viking gets all your information ahead of time including your photo so all we had to do was put our luggage (we were traveling in rollaboards only) “over there”, hand them our passports, sign a form saying we weren’t sick, and receive our key cards. Literally three minutes after entering the terminal, we were on the gangway shown above which was at dock level. The gangway deposits you in The Living Room – Viking’s main atrium where we were handed a glass of champagne.

The sort of skybridge we had to use to board Norwegian Star

We boarded Norwegian Star in Civitavechia Italy. Boarding here was relatively quick as PlatinumPluses we have a separate line. However, we still had a wait of five or more minutes before reaching the checkin agent. The checkin process took a few more minutes, we had to fill out and then sign the health form (had actually done this while waiting), show our passport and have our picture taken. We then received our key cards and began the long walk through the enclosed skybridge like gangway that ramped up to Deck 5 or 6 in the Star’s lobby.

Disembarkation on both ships was similar, leave luggage out the night before, after breakfast leave the ship. On Viking anytime is fine, on Norwegian, you have to wait for your “color” to be called. Both ask you to be out of your rooms by 8 or 8:30 and off the ship by 9 or so.

So no astounding differences between the two ships, Viking was a little more civilized but that is to be expected when only dealing with 930 passengers. Let’s call this a tie.

Stateroom

Viking Sky V2 Stateroom
Norwegian BB Stateroom

Viking only has verandas and we booked the lowest level of them. We had a similar level of cabin on Norwegian Star. Both are about the same square footage, offer comfy beds, though Viking’s blanket was really great for snuggling under during an afternoon nap. We found the two chairs much more comfortable than the armless loveseat/sleeper sofa on Norwegian. Winner Viking

We also appreciated the refrigerator on Viking as the soft drinks were complimentary (in our category the fridge drawer isn’t refilled but all the bartenders were happy to give us a CokeZero during meal time to take back to restock it ourselves.) In DV and above staterooms, the fridge is restocked daily and in PV and above it comes with liquor. On Norwegian, the refrigerator is a stocked minibar which costs about the same as drinks in a bar. While we had the beverage package, on Norwegian it doesn’t include canned soft drinks so we couldn’t stock it ourselves. Winner Viking

Storage was much better on Norwegian Star. The closet is located in the entry from the corridor whereas on Viking Sky it is located beside the bed making it difficult to get to. Additionally, Viking only has a few drawers whereas Norwegian has more as well as a number of shelves. Winner Norwegian

Viking Bath
Norwegian Bath

Viking is the clear winner when it comes to the bathroom! Norwegian’s is broken into three compartments, the sink is in the center on a vanity with with the toilet behind a sliding door on one side and the shower beside a sliding door on the other. The vanity has some shelves under it and some storage caddy on the side walls but doesn’t have a lot of space. Unfortunately, because the toilet room has an angled wall, it is difficult for those of us tall folks to have enough leg room with the door closed so all it really does is get in the way. The shower is fine and the glass door is a great improvement over the shower curtains on some ships. However, the shower is relatively narrow – slightly more than shoulder width for me.

On Viking the vanity is very wide, includes two big drawers, shelves on both sides and a no fog mirror-very nice for post shower shaving! The bathroom floors are heated, which wasn’t a good thing during our Transatlantic (we had the steward turn it off) but would be great on a cold weather cruise. The toilet is in the same room which while not perfect does mean legroom isn’t an issue. But it is the shower that is the real treat. It is at least as long as the one on Norwegian but is close to a square so it is much more roomy. It includes a shelf for leg shaving…or for me, shampoo holding. Winner Viking

Entertainment/Enrichment

Big Production Show onboard Norwegian Star
“Big” Production show on Viking

Norwegian offers higher quality production shows than Viking – more singers, more dancers, bigger sets, etc. But Viking does a great job with having live music everywhere…and not of the sort that keeps you from being able to have a conversation which we found problematic on Norwegian. Typically there was either a pianist, a guitarist or a chamber trio playing in the Living Room during cocktail hours, in the Winter Garden for tea, and in the Explorer’s Lounge (observation lounge) pre and post dinner. Norwegian’s live music was usually of the dance sort in the atrium or by the pool except for an occasional singer or guitar player in bar area outside Le Bistro. Viking did have a good cover band with two singers who performed nightly in TorsHaven, the nightclub onboard. And we were VERY lucky on our Transatlantic to have the University of Virginia accapella group, The Virginian Gentlemen aboard as special entertainers. They did a short set most nights before dinner in the atrium and then a full show one night in the theatre. Not only were they great entertainers, but having their youthful excitement onboard added to the cruise.

The Virginia Gentlemen

Both lines offered enrichment lectures. Viking had four speakers aboard for our transatlantic – a naturalist who did a few talks and a twice daily nature watch from the Explorer’s Lounge, a lady who had crossed the Atlantic in a rowboat who spoke several times about her adventures, President Reagan’s secret service agent who gave talks about presidential history and life and one more that obviously didn’t make much of an impression on me. Norwegian had one lecturer aboard, this British lady spoke four times mostly about the royals. I went once and her lecture was mostly her showing pictures taken from People Magazine and giving her opinion on how pretty Princess Kate was.

I think it is a tie between Viking and Norwegian on this category….though if you are into production shows, Norwegian is a winner and if into lectures, Viking is your place to be.

Service

I think the two lines tie here too, as there was staff on both lines who went out of the way to make you feel welcome, provide whatever you needed, etc. I will say that both lines have similar internal communication issues. It often seems one department doesn’t let the other know important information. On Viking this was best shown when we passed the Rock of Gilbratar at midnight. There were at least 200 folks in the Explorer’s Lounge where the naturalist lecturer was telling us about what we were passing but only one bartender and two servers. Even though the lounge staff’s shift ended at 12:30, they all worked themselves to death until closer to 2 am to keep the group “happy”. On Norwegian, we experienced similar disconnects between the guest services staff and the engineering department when we had an issue in our cabin.

Spa

Viking Spa – the bubbles are off in the big pool but normally they were on

On Norwegian, use of the spa is an extra charge and is limited to a certain number on each cruise. For our transatlantic, I believe it was just over $200 per person. While many say this is the only way they will take a cruise, as they use it as a personal oasis since it is never crowded, we decided it wasn’t how we wanted to spend our money. On Viking however, use of their spa is included, so we did use it a good bit. We particularly enjoyed the snow grotto after time in the steam and I loved the thermosaphapty pool….not sure how to spell it or what it does, but it is supposed to have minerals good for your body…i just liked the bubbles! Winner Viking

Food

Aboard Viking Sky – the best Sea Bass EVER!

This is probably the most subjective category in any cruise review but Viking really wowed us. On Norwegian, we found the main dining room food to be more than acceptable and generally tasty and there were even a few items that were standouts-asparagus risotto comes to mind. On Viking, the food in The Restaurant (their main dining room) was simply a cut above. Again, I suspect this mostly has to do with cooking for fewer passengers. The food was always hot whereas on Norwegian, it was rarely hot, more likely warm. Additionally, rather than their only being the occasional outstanding menu item, it was the opposite, Viking’s misses were few and far between. Our biggest complaint about Viking’s main dining menu was that the appetizers were not better coordinated with the entrees. If there were shrimp egg rolls as an appetizer, the only asianesque entree (if there was one at all) would be shrimp. We also found it strange that the bread basket (while tasty) had the exact same cumin breadsticks, corn muffin, rye roll and mini-baguette in it every day. Of course, Viking really showed their colors when they realized that they had lobsters ready to serve before the other table was ready for them and rather than stick them under a heat lamp, they offered a second to Mike! In 28 years I had never seen him not clean his plate if lobster was involved…..I had to help him out!!

When one lobster just isn’t enough!

Viking also wins at the buffet. On Norwegian, the food was rarely hot and never outstanding. On Viking many of the dishes – pasta, fried shrimp, etc. are cooked when you order them. Yes it may take a minute or two longer while you wait, but boy are they tasty….and given you didn’t have to wait to reach the front of the line as you would on Norwegian, it was probably wash anyway. Additionally, most of the items in the main dining room were also available in the buffet in a more casual atmosphere. We particularly enjoyed the sushi, crab claws and shrimp on the buffet in the evening. They became our cocktail hour/sunset viewing snack enjoyed most evenings overlooking the wake at the Aquavit Terrace.

Chilled split king crab claws, boiled peeled shrimp and cold langoustines on the buffet aboard Viking

Norwegian has several specialty restaurants where the food is a step above what is served in the Main Dining Room. As PlatinumPlus level in Norwegian’s loyalty program, we receive free dinner at two of these. We enjoyed our meal (as always) at Le Bistro – their french restaurant and at Moderno, their brazilian steakhouse. Because we were on a budget, we did not pay to go to to any of the other charged specialty restaurants. However, we did eat several times at O’Shehans, Norwegian’s included diner/comfort food venue. We really liked their ruben sandwich. On Viking, there are two “alternative” restaurants. Viking refers to them as alternative as they expect the quality level to be the same as in the main dining venue and they are right. Additionally, there is no additional charge for either of these two restaurants. Manfredi’s is their Italian restaurant. We ate here twice, once in the private dining room with a group from our CruiseCritic roll call and a second time just the two of us. In both cases we enjoyed our meal, although it was too much food! We also ate twice at the Chef’s Table. This restaurant has a fixed tasting menu that changes every three days with each menu having a theme. We had one that was a history of the world – roman to contemporary and another that was french influenced. The menu leans heavily to foams, gastriques, whiffs, aires and plating that requires tweezers.

Some of our Viking roll call friends in Manfredi’s (Viking’s Italian) private dining room

Viking’s pool grill is also heads above Norwegian’s. They grill burgers, tuna, hotdogs and chicken to order along with just out of the fryer french fries and onion rings. Best of all they overcome my big complaint on Norwegian’s buns (dry and stale from sitting out) by buttering and toasting them. I have to say that partway through the cruise on Star, I learned that if you ask, the grillmaster will toast your bun for you.

So while we never went hungry and the food on Norwegian is good (and occasionally great), Viking’s is hands down so much better. It is sort of the difference between eating at your weekday restaurant and dining at the fancy place you go for your anniversary or birthday. Winner Viking

Overall

Gosh knows that I like Norwegian Cruiselines have spent 127 days aboard them but after sailing on Viking, if the prices are anywhere comparable, we will be on Viking. Our issue with Viking and our budget is that on their regular cruises they are waaaay more expensive than on their transatlantic cruises (and other non port intensive itineraries) and therefore we can’t rationalize making them our sole cruise line. If you typically cruise in Norwegian’s Haven (we don’t) then sailing with Viking may be much more like Norwegian that what we typically experience and you are already used to the price point. To give you an idea of the price differential for a regular cruise, I just priced a Caribbean cruise on each for October 2019 – Viking is about $329 per person per day and Norwegian is about $114 per person per day both in a veranda cabin. But next October’s Norwegian Star in a balcony is currently $119 per person per day (so not much difference from their Caribbean price) whereas Viking’s transatlantic is $199pp/pd. So more than Norwegian but still 60% less than their “regular” cruises.

We like the smaller size, lack of children, better food and overall ambiance so much so that we leave in 42 days on Viking Sea headed from San Juan back to Barcelona. This time, Mike’s Mom Lois is tagging along and we will spend several days in Barcelona before heading to Rome for a few days and then flying home. Viking had a “last minute” (in early January) deal for $2,999 per person including airfare both ways in a DV (one category above what we had last year) so works out to be about the same price as what we paid in 2018.

Conclusion

If you can swing it (and/or can find a deal) I highly recommend you give Viking Oceans a try- particularly if you don’t have to take kids along and don’t need a casino, bingo games, a climbing wall, ropes course or water slide to have an enjoyable cruise!


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St. Louis

We had an uneventful trip to St. Louis and arrived about 3 pm CST and checked into the Hampton Inn about three blocks from the Gateway Arch, the reason we wanted to come to St. Louis.

The arch is built between the river and downtown. This part of town was the original settlement but during a fire that started on a river boat and spread to the riverside buildings, the area was destroyed-some of it as a fire block to the rest of town.

The arch was designed by Eero Saarinen as a monument to the western expansion of the United States and was completed in 1968. It is the world’s tallest arch. At 630 feet high (and wide) and made of shiny stainless steel it is visible from far away-we first saw it when we were 10 or 12 miles away.

The National Park around the arch is beautiful and appears to be well used by St. Louisians(?) even on a cold day like today. We enjoyed our walk through the new plaza that crosses over the now buried interstate to reach the below grade entrance to the arch. After checking out the sample cart that one rides to the top, we decided that they weren’t built for big boys. The idea of the two of us sharing it with three others did make us laugh though!

Mike who doesn’t like heights was happy with this decision and after being cooped up in the car the last two days, we enjoyed our walk around the beautiful park and along the mighty Mississippi. Of course the arch remained the focus.

The shapes of the arch make for some interesting abstract photos.

We left the park at the north and walked through the older part of St. Louis which was brick warehouses now lofts and an entertainment district. I had originally identified a Trip Advisor recommended BBQ restaurant but after our big lunch we decided we wouldn’t enjoy it. So instead we stopped in a brewery and had a beer apiece and split two appetizers-pretzels with incredible beer cheese and a delicious crab cake. We didn’t have high hopes for it but was really tasty. Best of all everything was half price for happy hour!

Tomorrow we are headed to Eureka Springs but as it’s only 5 hours away and we don’t have any plans there until Thursday morning we are looking forward to having s lazy day and being able to stop along the way as we want.

Our afternoonā€™s work.

Making Christmas cookies is much more fun than shoveling snow. šŸ˜‚ Especially with a glass of wine!

Mike made these cookies several years ago after finding a handwritten card in our recipe folder.

It was titled “Grandma J’s” so he tried to surprise me by making my grandmother’s cookies. But it was him who was surprised when I reminded him that both my Grandmothers were named Margaret!

So while we don’t know who she is/was or how her recipe got in our stuff, we do know she makes/made a really good cookie. The cookie is basically a shortbread dough rolled in cinnamon sugar and baked in a slow oven. They only spread a little and are crumbly and delicious. They have become tradition for us and for several friends who also bake.

Next up some new cookies George introduced us to….Forgotten Cookies. You mix them, put in the oven and cut it off. The next morning they are done!

Anyone want to bet that they are so forgotten that we preheat the oven tomorrow morning and burn them?šŸ˜‚

CuraƧao.

We had a great day in CuraƧao on Saturday. We had never visited this island before and joined Peggy & Lowell (who had been there before) on a day tour aboard a school bus that took us to the western part of the island.

This is the more rural part of the island and is rocky and still mostly natural and undeveloped. It is quite a contrast to the area near the pier and especially to Aruba.

Our first stop was at a volcanic formation of caves. The surf was rough and while I would have loved to go in, we were warned it wasn’t safe.

We also tasted iguana soup at the snack shack here. It tasted like really good chicken stock. Eddie our guide promised it would make us look 20 years younger. He said it would take a day or two to do so…it’s now day three and no difference. Think I can get my $2 back?

CuraƧao is relatively arid so the island is covered with cactus which is strange to see on a tropical island.

Our next stop was a beach beside a fisherman’s pier. The fish remnants draw sea turtles and the turtles draw tourists. It was great swimming with them. The ones we saw were all pre-adult-under 25 years or so. Apparently they become vegetarian as adults and go elsewhere to find sea grasses. They ranged in size from 18″ Long to over three feet. Sorry I don’t have an underwater camera but the picture below is of the pier taken from our next stop. You’ll have to trust me that the turtles were incredible. Mike hadn’t been excited about this mostly beach trip (he burns so easily and hated sunscreen) but after our 30 minutes with the turtles he said any sunburn (there wasn’t any thankgoodness) would be worth it.

The next stop was for folks to jump from a 40′ high cliff into the beautiful water below. Given my unfortunate cliff diving incident in Cozumel several years ago, I declined the offer! LOL. The two (out of 23 on our bus) who did it said it was great.

Our next stop was at the #8 beach in the world as ranked by someone. It was beautiful. The title picture was from there as are these:

We stopped for a late lunch at another beach. The seven of us who were on the ship really only had time for a quick dip and lunch while the other guests from hotels got an extra hour of beach time. We loaded up and headed back towards town.

On the way we made a picture stop at the salt ponds to see the flamingos. These birds fly over everyday from their nests in Venezuela (42 miles) to eat the more tasty shrimp in CuraƧao. Talk about foodies!

We arrived back to town with plenty of time to spare so Mike and I walked the 5 minute into the old part of town. To get there, you go through the old fort which had now become the home of restaurants and shops. Our goal was to see the floating Queen Emma bridge. This pedestrian only bridge crosses the bay and joins the two parts of the original town. Because all the industry is upriver, it has to move. We luckily got there just as a barge was coming in so it opened up (it becomes shorter by moving the floats closer together and swings parallel to the water flow) to let it go by. It is apparently the oldest and longest floating bridge in the world. It was originally built in 1888.

We then headed back to the ship. Viking was docked in front of us today (she had been behind us yesterday). It’s always fun to see ships we’ve sailed before. This morning (after a sea day on Sunday) we awoke to have Celebrity Summit sharing our pier in St Maarten. We sailed her in 2003 for Mike’s 40th Birthday cruise to Alaska. That was the trip that made us realize how much we enjoy cruising.

We are staying aboard the ship today enjoying having it almost all go ourselves. Tonight we celebrate Peggy’s birthday in LeBistro. Tomorrow we are in St. Thomas and are likely to stay aboard there too. Then two sea days before we disembark in Miami on Friday morning and fly to Raleigh that evening. Hard to believe this first adventure of our retired life is coming to an end…really doesn’t seem like it was 10 months ago that we were packing up that U-box in Houston starting out on it!

Sagrada Familia.

Mike and I visited Barcelona in the 1990s as part of a whirlwind 10 day trip that included Madrid. At that time, Sagrada Familia only had Nativity and Passion entrances, and the towers associated with them. There was no roof over and hardly any columns in the nave. We had intended to visit the interior when we were in Barcelona last May with Mike’s brother and his family. However, I apparently failed to hit the purchase button to buy the tickets so we wandered the outside while they toured inside.

Thankfully we had a second chance and we really enjoyed our morning inside the basilica. I rarely get emotional over architecture but that wasn’t the case here. It is an incredible building. On a macro scale it is powerful but the details are really striking. No matter where you look, you see something new, innovative and inspiring. Unfortunately the pictures can’t give you the full impression. If you have the opportunity, please go. I know we hope to be around to make it back after they complete it (only 10 more towers to go!) in 2026…of course I think when we visited 25-30 years ago they hoped to have it done by 2010 or something…so we will see how it goes.

Below are pictures of the altar, the nave including the incredible effect of the stained glass windows.

We also visited the sacristy, the space used to store the priests supplies and vestments and where they prepare for mass. As a former altar boy, where we used a closet for a similar purpose, I hope you will trust me when I say Gaudi created the most beautiful space I’ve ever seen-he also designed the storage units.

As some readers may recall, when we were in Barcelona previously we had a wonder tapas experience at a little restaurant near our hotel and the Triumphal Arc, Elsa y Fred. Six other couples from the larger Cruise Critic that rode the metro together from the port to the church joined us to walk to the restaurant for lunch. While delicious, Mike and I agreed we wished we had of just ordered tapas rather than the meal of the day. Each of the three courses had two offerings so we had all six dishes and just halfed and halfed then between us. Of course we had to have their delicious octopus..and it was just as good as we remembered!

Appetizers were a delicious pea soup and a salad.

The main dishes were risotto with seafood and a really tasty sausage plate. Unfortunately no pictures of dessert.

After lunch we headed through the Gothic Quarter towards La Rambla, the pedestrian street that runs for many blocks. Along the way we happened upon a beautiful performance palace. I would like to go back and tour it’s interior. We also happened upon an ancient church which was the polar opposite (by just as impressive in its simplicity) to Sagrada Familia.

After getting to La Rambla, we wandered it back towards the port. All in all a wonderful day and a good walk-5.9 miles!

While I used the port terminals WiFi to post some overdue blogs, Mike went aboard and learned we wouldn’t be leaving as scheduled due to the weather predictions at Funchal. I’m writing this a week later in the middle of the Atlantic and the ship is still full of rumors as to whether it was the weather or the repairs that delayed us. Who knows and frankly I don’t really care.

We discussed using the extra day in Barcelona to explore some more of the city but that long walk the day before took it out of us and after not waking until almost 10 am, we elected to treat it as a sea day and do what we now do best. Nada!