Until recently, my experience of travelling on a large ship could be traced back to the eons-before-social-media 1970s. It was aboard the beer-sodden, wave-lurching, cross-Channel ferries that my family endured from Dover to Calais in order to go skiing in the depths of an English winter. Not many Instagram moments there.
So it’s safe to say I was circumspect about my first ocean-going cruise. Like many sceptics suspicious of the hype around this (admittedly popular) way of holidaying, I suffered visions of cramped cabins, footy club-issue carpet, the relentless jingle of poker machines and elbow-jostling at greasy, carb-laden buffets.
But as respected colleagues returned from cruises around the world, seemingly completely taken with it all, I started to wonder if I was the only person who didn’t get cruising.
Then an opportunity emerged to join a week-long ocean voyage on Viking Sky, travelling from Rome around the foot of Italy and up to Venice, via a day in Croatia (not a bad itinerary to launch into, right?). Travelling with a girlfriend from my college days, another cruising novice, here was the chance to test each of my preconceptions.
OUR CABIN WILL BE TINY AND CLAUSTROPHOBIC
A Deluxe Veranda Stateroom. Photo: Anthony Weller
Well, first of all it’s called a stateroom, not a cabin. Secondly, if you’re clutter-phobic like me, here aboard Viking Sky, it’s a compact but nevertheless cleverly designed space full of drawers and cupboards to stow all your stuff (suitcases went under the twin beds).
There is a fitted wardrobe with plenty of wooden hangers (and your ever-smiling steward will bring more if you need them); a desk with a hidden make-up mirror and jewellery organiser (I used it for teabags and my passport); bedside tables with USB chargers (there is free Wi-Fi throughout) and a small sitting area.
A fridge is restocked daily with complimentary soft drinks and snacks; there’s a capsule coffee machine and the smart bathroom has heated floors and a decent shower. Best of all, each stateroom has a verandah, a peaceful setting to enjoy room-service breakfast or watch the sunset over the ocean. Well, that’s one myth busted.
THE SHIP WILL BE CROWDED WITH RETIREES BLOWING THEIR KIDS’ INHERITANCE
Viking Sky is classed as a small ship, carrying up to 930 guests. That’s certainly fewer than those mega ships that so many equate with cruising. But equally there are so many different areas that it’s always easy to find a quiet spot.
The Italian itinerary is clearly popular with Americans, who make up the vast majority of guests, and the ones we get chatting to are friendly and well travelled.
One woman is a lecturer at the same college as US First Lady Jill Biden; many are entrepreneurial types with their own businesses. There are friends travelling together, multi-generational family groups and older couples celebrating anniversaries. The fitness centre is popular for workouts or yoga. All in all, I don’t feel quite as young as I’d hoped.
I’LL BE SEASICK THE ENTIRE TIME
Apparently a classic (and understandable) concern. However I can confirm that I am never once aware of any rocking or rolling, it is all so smooth and quiet. (I guess the Mediterranean is not the high seas and, more importantly, modern-day cruise ships are fitted with state-of-the-art stabilisers.)
In fact, things are so peaceful and calm that we wake up to discover we’ve unknowingly docked at a new town or we glance up from a book to see that we’ve set sail without realising and are back on the open seas.
AS AN INDEPENDENT TRAVELLER, I WILL NEVER TAKE A SHORE EXCURSION
First stop: Naples.
Our first port of call is Naples and, determined not to join a group bus tour with “photo stops”, we decide to cancel our included excursion and set out to explore the city independently.
We’re armed with a “highlights of Naples” list and a smartphone for directions. Unfortunately it’s not long before we enter a 4G dead zone, Google maps freeze and we’re lost on a steep pathway covered in broken glass and cigarette butts.
Hot and cranky in the midday sun, we sheepishly remember our smug rejection of the air-conditioned coach that is now escorting other cruise passengers on a comfortable panoramic tour of the city’s seaside villas and vistas.
Suffice to say, from day two we adopt a hybrid approach to excursions, joining a group to get transported quickly from each port to the historic centre of the city or to specific areas of interest, then going our own way (mostly into cafes, restaurants, food markets and bars, it must be said), only rejoining the bus to return to the ship.
We stroll Italy’s wealth of historic laneways, peer inside churches and castles, sip coffee or aperitivi with the locals and even hang out at a beach club in the tiny port town of Crotone.
THE FOOD WILL BE TERRIBLE BUT I’LL LOSE WEIGHT
The Chef’s Table dining room. Photo: Anthony Weller
Yeah, no. Onboard Viking Sky are four restaurants, a pool grill, several bars and Scandi snacks at Mamsen’s. Oh, and afternoon tea in the Winter Garden and 24-hour room service.
Our favourite eating spot quickly becomes World Cafe, a huge and airy buffet with a cornucopia of sushi, seafood, roasts, pasta, pastries and desserts that you can take to a sunny outdoor table on the deck.
The first time my girlfriend circles the room, she returns with an empty plate, dazed by the choice.
It is easy to eat well, with a daily roast (maybe rib-eye or porchetta) carved to order, seasonal salads with a choice of dressings and freshly made bread. There are homemade biscuits, fresh fruit, gelato and good espresso coffee.
It’s not pushing any culinary boundaries but it is crowd-pleasing, straightforward food using quality ingredients with occasional themes such as seafood.
Elsewhere aboard, Manfredi’s Italian is also very good (and the bread basket is exceptional); The Restaurant is reminiscent of a traditional American steakhouse, while The Chef’s Table offers a set five-course menu with matching wines that changes every couple of days.
THERE’LL BE NOTHING TO DO AND I’LL GO STIR-CRAZY
The spa on board. Photo: Eric Laignel
I get this bit really wrong. I am attracted to Viking as a cruise line by the promise of no kids onboard (been there, done that), no casinos (a big turnoff), plus the fact that everything is included (apart from spa treatments and some excursions). Viking’s serene Scandinavian design ethos also appeals.
But I have no idea of the distractions available to passengers. Aside from two swimming pools there is a spa (with snow room), luxe treatment rooms, a hair/nail salon, a light-filled fitness centre, and shops selling jewellery and Scandinavian clothes. There is a library, board games (including computerised ones in coffee-table-like consoles), giant jigsaws and a sports deck.
Viking’s “enrichment program” means guest lectures, TED Talks, a cooking school and wine tastings. Your room’s 42- inch flat-screen TV has a choice of channels including CNN and a good film selection.
Live entertainment around the ship includes a pianist, guitarist and classical duo, movies under the stars, Met Opera screenings, trivia nights and cover bands in the Star Theatre (not really our speed, sorry).
In our eight days aboard we barely make an impression on the dizzying array of amenities and attractions, though this may be due to the fact that we spend the vast majority of our time by the pool with an endless supply of Aperol spritzes.
CRUISING IS ENVIRONMENTALLY UNSOUND
Let’s face it, cruising does not have a great track record environmentally, even though its carbon footprint pales in comparison to commercial aircraft, making up only a tiny percentage of the global tourism and shipping industries (two per cent and one per cent respectively, according to Cruise Lines International Association Australasia).
Cruise ships traditionally use fossil fuels, discharge waste into the ocean and deposit thousands of tourists into historic cities where their limited spend doesn’t do much for local businesses.
But the industry is changing, having committed to reducing CO2 emissions by 40 per cent by 2030 and to net zero by 2050. The newer ships recycle 100 per cent of waste produced onboard and there is significant investment in new technologies such as cleaner fuels.
Meanwhile shore excursions engage local drivers and guides and often include meals at local restaurants, like the generous and delicious lunch we have at a farmhouse in a remote area of Calabria.
During the cruise we make sure to eat out in every city we visit (no hardship there) and also book-end our trip with hotel stays, helping, in our own small way, the local tourism economies still emerging from pandemic woes.
IT’S AN EXPERIENCE I WON’T REPEAT
The Infinity Pool. Photo: Eric Laignel
Okay, so I don’t love every single thing on my cruise. They have to cater to a broad range of tastes so not everything is going to appeal to everyone. But you can just pick and choose the bits you like and leave the rest – retreat to the library with a book if you don’t fancy the Beatles renditions.
It’s also true that you don’t really get under the skin of a destination when you’re only there for a limited time. But the upside is that you get to see lots of different places, some of which are difficult to reach by land, and there are overnight stays in certain ports so you don’t have to rush back to the ship.
Ultimately, this is without doubt the most relaxing holiday I’ve had in a long time. The crew members are unfailingly friendly and helpful, get to know our names (and drink orders) within hours and seem to genuinely enjoy their jobs and their interactions with guests.
Oh, and that number one cruise cliche about unpacking once is absolutely true – and returning post-cruise to lugging suitcases, wrestling with car hire and rushing to catch trains rudely highlights the ease of our trip.
My verdict after my week-long Viking Sky cruise? Well, I’ve already been Googling prospective 2023 cruises. A repeat Mediterranean visit – this time with an Athens to Istanbul itinerary – sounds particularly appealing. It’d sure beat the hell out of a Dover to Calais crossing.
Trudi Jenkins travelled as a guest of Viking Cruises.
FIVE MORE TIPS FOR FIRST-TIME CRUISERS
DO PLAY LUGGAGE TAG
Make sure you add the supplied luggage tags to your suitcases before arriving at the port. We’d been in Rome beforehand and forgot to do this. Our unlabelled bags were whisked away by a porter and we had a mild panic before the crew hunted them down.
DON’T BE CRUISY ABOUT BOARDING
Don’t leave it too late to board on day one; it’s more relaxing to get your bearings, unpack and have a leisurely dinner before the ship leaves. We boarded in the evening and by the time we’d sorted ourselves out, the restaurants were closed.
REMEMBER TO DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Read all of the details and be organised. Restaurants, spa bookings and popular excursions fill up quickly. Bookings open on different dates pre-cruise, depending on the stateroom you’ve booked. Download the Viking app so you can make and keep track of bookings.
READ ALL ABOUT IT
Study the daily newsletter that’s delivered to your stateroom the evening before. There are lots of included events that are easy to miss, and useful local intel about the next day’s destination. Port talks either in the theatre or screened on your TV will give you more background on each place.
BE SURE TO BE SHORE
Join an organised shore excursion if the trip is to a remote town or regional attraction you couldn’t otherwise get to or you want insights from the tour guide. If you’ve docked near a large city and want to explore independently, get the bus to the centre and find out the time it returns to the ship. Cruise ships won’t depart if a tour group is late returning but they will leave if you’re not part of an organised excursion and don’t get back in time.
Viking’s eight-day Italian Sojourn cruise goes from Rome (Civitavecchia) to Venice, with stops in Naples, Messina, Crotone, Bari and Sibenik.
From $3995 a person, and includes one complimentary shore excursion in every port of call; beer, wine and soft drinks with meals; port taxes and fees; self-service launderettes; access to The Nordic spa and fitness centre; alternative restaurant dining and 24 hour room service. See vikingcruises.com.au