Viking Orion’s naming cruise
A brand-new, sate-of-the-art luxury cruise ship…Italy…a beautiful (and extravagant) naming ceremony…a bunch of NASA astronauts, the chance to meet one of the most interesting personalities in the cruise business…this is a post I had long wanted to write.
Yes, I know that Viking Orion’s maiden voyage is not exactly breaking news - it took place in 2018 and another ship, the Viking Jupiter, has been delivered since then - however, even today, after more than one year has passed, it is hard to forget that very first voyage on the Viking Orion cruise ship.
This is not just because of the amazing ship naming ceremony that took place at the port of Livorno, Italy, but also because this cruise gave an opportunity to try out, first-hand, Viking’s Nordic-inspired luxury cruise experience and I think it’s fair to say that pretty much all my observations about the ship and the services it offers are still perfectly valid today.
Viking Orion is the fifth of Viking’s seagoing cruise ships.
It was followed in 2019 by the “Viking Jupiter” and there are six more ships on order, plus options for an additional four. So, if all goes according to plan, Viking’s ocean-going fleet will number 16 by 2027.
This is quite a commitment by Viking Cruises, that only relatively recently (2015) entered the market for sea-going cruises. The Norwegian-owned, Swiss-headquartered, operator has traditionally been better known for the river cruises that are at the roots of the company. Viking Cruises started up in the 1990s, after founder Torstein Hagen purchased some second hand river boats in Russia to ply that country’s internal waterways. It has since become the largest operator in the world in this market segment.
Viking’s sea-going ships are all identical in their dimensions and design. Some of the features onboard, though, such as the Explorer’s Dome on Viking Orion (more on this later), may differ from ship to ship.
This Viking Orion maiden voyage was by invitation only and not open to the general public.
Passengers were a rather unusual mix, starting by Viking’s charismatic owner, Torstein Hagen, his daughter, Karine Hagen, who is also involved in the management of the firm, and most of the firm’s top brass. Guests, flown in for the occasion, included an impressive number of astronauts (retired and active) as well as other personalities connected to space exploration. They all joined in Viking Orion’s celebration of space exploration, a recurrent theme through this very special cruise (more on this later!)
The itinerary: Civitavecchia to Barcelona by way of Livorno, where the naming ceremony took place, Portofino (offshore stop), Genoa and Montecarlo.
Before that, the ship had earlier sailed from Fincantieri’s shipyard in Ancona (all of Viking’s ships have been built by the Italian shipbuilder) with only crew onboard.
Because of agenda constraints I had to get off the ship at Genoa (btw, see my chronicle about this fascinating Italian port city), but in the two days and nights I was onboard, and despite this not being your ordinary cruise, I could get a glimpse of how is it like to sail on a Viking cruise.
The 47,842-ton, 14-deck Viking Orion can carry up to 930 passengers, a rather suitable size for the sort of high end experience that it aims to provide. It has most of the facilities you can find on larger ships, such as the elegant spacious central hall (above), the spa and deck pools (below) yet, it is able to maintain a feeling of exclusivity throughout.
One of the distinctive features of the Viking Orion (and, although I have not seen it by myself, I guess is the case of all its other ships too) is its Scandinavian-style decor, that pervades every corner of the ship. It is a rather subtle, understated type of luxury that draws its inspiration from nature and is instrumental in creating the sort of harmonious, cozy interiors that you find in most areas of the ship.
Some of the common areas, such as this reading room (below) wouldn’t be out of place in a Norwegian mountain lodge, it is only when you turn your head and see the blue expanse of the sea through the large panoramic windows, that you come round to the fact that you are actually onboard a ship!
Viking Orion features 2 specialty restaurants (Chef’s table ad Manfredi’s), plus the every-day “originally” named “The Restaurant", a pool side grill buffet.
The several bars and cafés that dot the ship are also an option for a light meal and, of these, I would highlight “Mamsen’s”, right next to the Explorer’s Lounge, on one of the ship’s upper decks. It offers great views in a relaxed, cozy environment. Its offerings, based on Norwegian specialities and inspired by the culinary tastes of Mr. Hagen’s mother, make it quite unique to the Viking experience.
As this was a special cruise, with quite a few celebratory events where a rather generous amount of food and drink was served, the eating regime was far from normal. I don’t think a culinary critique would be very representative of the regular Viking experience.
If what we tasted on the aforementioned occasions, the skills of Viking Orion’s chefs and kitchen staff are on a par with the rest of the experience.
As they say, an image may be worth a thousand words…
All cabins onboard Viking Orion are verandas with sea views.
There are three types of cabins available for booking, by order of luxury (from less to more): Veranda Stateroom, Veranda Deluxe Stateroom and Penthouse Veranda Stateroom.
During the two days I was onboard I was lodged in a Veranda Stateroom and the whole experience was very positive and not just because I was the very first one ever to sleep on that cabin (so it was as new and shiny as it gets!).
The space is more than enough, particularly if you consider that you are likely to spend most of the day outside enjoying either the excursions or the ship’s multiple attractions.
A nice detail that I particularly appreciated is that the room is equipped with a pair of binoculars (it was great entertainment to spend some time in the balcony doing a bit of ship-spotting and tracing the contour of the Italian coastline from the distance!) as well as a universal adaptor to recharge electrical devices.
Thumbs up also to the bathroom: contemporary design following the same type of minimalist, elegant lines that are a signature of the house…and guess what? the floor is heated!
The amenity kit, that features personal care products from several Nordic brands, is also very nice.
If you have made it this far down the text, you have possibly noticed, by now, a common theme: Scandinavian-ness.
And for those of us that are big fans of that region, this is great news!
True to Viking Cruises’ name and roots, Scandinavia’s celebrated approach to design is a constant, wherever you are in the ship: the simple, elegant lines, the palette of soft colours, the air of understated sophistication…
It is not just that subtle equilibrium between minimalism and warmth that only the Nordics seem capable of achieving, Viking Cruises goes one step further in claiming its Norwegian (and Nordic) heritage and succeeds in turning it into a major corporate identity symbol.
For a starter, there is a whole section of the ship dedicated to Norwegian culture and history, this includes some interesting exhibits, such as these traditional dresses (below) that we would have a chance to see again during the naming ceremony!
There is also a prominent place for Nordic art, in its different expressions, all throughout the ship.
Runestones, an ancient form of Norse art that consists in decorating stones with memorial purposes. They are found all over Scandinavia and in some of the territories that were once upon a time visited by the Vikings. The Viking Orion partakes of this tradition too and runestones hang from the ships’ walls (I guess they are copies, not the real thing, though!)
Another piece of decor with Nordic undertones: a reproduction of the famous Bayeux tapestry (that narrates the Norman conquest of England in the 11th century) adorns several levels of the ships’ main staircase.
If Nordic identity is a company-wide feature, space exploration is Viking Orion’s theme.
Viking Cruises been able to use the ship’s name and its astronomical resonances as an excuse to engage in an amazing exercise of story-telling.
Space exploration has inspired what is perhaps, the ship’s most unique signature feature: the Explorer’s Dome and Space exhibit, a planetarium and space-themed 3D cinema that lets passengers explore the universe and deepen their astronomical knowledge.
Not for nothing the ship’s godmother is retired NASA astronaut Anna Fisher, who has the honour of having been the first mother to travel to space. Several other astronauts were also onboard (possibly, the largest gathering ever of astronauts in any one place outside NASA) as were several prominent astro-physicists and senior figures connected to NASA and space exploration.
The ship’s naming ceremony in Livorno, was another opportunity to link the ancient Viking’s legendary exploration skills (they were the first European to get to America after all!) with that of Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, who lived in the nearby (but inland!) city of Pisa.
As a passenger you receive everyday a detailed booklet with detailed information about the next port of call and the activities available to you. So far so good, but here is where things start to get interesting…
When it comes to experiencing a destination, Viking deploys a rather immersive approach.
Passengers are able to attend a full programme of talks and lectures covering specific historical and cultural aspects of the places they are going to visit during the cruise. In fact, there is an historian-in-residence on every ship (Viking Orion being no exception) tasked with designing and delivering these prep talks. At the company level there is also a chief historian (would this be a CHO?) tasked with developing and coordinating all these learning programmes for Viking ships around the world, which gives you an idea of how seriously Viking takes this specific part of the cruise experience.
But this is not all…in the case of Viking Orion, an astronomer-in-residence is also at hand with pretty much the same functions!
For those that are into food, Viking offers also a rather immersive experience.
At selected destinations you can join the ship’s chef on an expedition to the local markets to source fresh ingredients. When back at the ship these will be the raw material for a hands-on cooking session where passengers learn about different culinary traditions.
The resulting meal is then enjoyed, together with the rest of the group, at the intimate eating venue next to the kitchen (below).
Although this is not really part of the regular “Viking experience” (or of that of any other cruise operator for that matter), I thought it was necessary to include some words about the impressive naming ceremony of the Viking Orion in Livorno.
The images below can give you a feel of how it was like.
The show, that had British explorer Ranulph Fiennes as master of ceremonies, started with a magnificent music and light show projected on the tower and walls of Livorno’s fortress. Guests could as well enjoy the voice of renowned Norwegian opera singer Sissel Kyrkjebø, that performed live at the event.
The surprise came in the form of a jetpack-flying man that delivered the ax with which retired astronaut Anna Fisher cut the inaugural ribbon.
She was next to give Torstein and Karine Hagen some really cool-looking NASA jackets just before the event closed with a massive firework display.