A cruise virgin from Newton (we’ll call her “M”) wasn’t exactly onboard when her husband suggested a cruise vacation. She was so anti-cruise, she rejected the idea every time her guy brought it up — for 30-some years. Out of excuses, she finally relented, and they sailed aboard the 930-passenger Viking Sea in the West Indies this winter.
Color her a convert.
“I didn’t feel like I was part of a herd,” she says. “The food was great, the service was excellent, and I had the deck all to myself for my morning run.” (We met at the ship’s bakery, so suffice it to say, she was a fan of the pastry too.)
If you think cruising equals “floating hotels” with dizzying water slides, know this: The cruise industry has evolved. Yes, the big ships keep getting bigger, and adding more crazy features, but those are only half of the story. On the flip side are cruise lines that eschew old-school cruise elements, like formal nights, casinos, and art auctions, to offer a more curated and streamlined experience. These cruises are tailor-made for travelers who find a choice of 25 themed restaurants to be overwhelming, not relaxing. And they include nearly everything in the base fare, because who wants to make a million decisions every day about whether or not to spring for a glass of wine, or a sightseeing tour? That’s a joy suck. (Not to mention too much math.)
Here’s a look at two cruises — one oceangoing, the other a river ship — that totally nail the basics.
Sleek and seamless: Viking Ocean Cruises
Most people know Viking for its river cruises (and relentless advertising on PBS’s “Downton Abbey.”) In 2015, this family-owned line launched its first ocean ships. It didn’t take long for the company to rack up more awards than Bruno Mars at last year’s Grammys, including No. 1 Ocean Cruise Line in Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best Awards, No. 1 in its class in Cruise Critic’s Cruisers’ Choice Awards, and top billing from Architectural Digest in a roundup of luxurious, design-forward vessels.
“Viking spoils you for other cruises,” a repeat guest told us aboard the Viking Sea. “Like the Disney parks, it’s a seamless experience.” A sister ship, the Viking Jupiter, earlier this year became the sixth Viking ocean vessel. They are all the same size (745 feet long, carrying up to 930 guests) and look the same: cool Scandinavian style, not the over-the-top-’80s-disco vibe or Art Deco excess that other lines seem to favor. (Viking ships are designed by an architect whose background is in hotel design, not cruise ships.) These cruises are all about the destination; in port, everybody disembarks to explore. New itineraries include the Northern Lights and Alaska. Viking is also launching ocean and river combo cruises.
Call it “the thinking person’s cruise”: Viking is geared to folks who favor culture, art, and history. All of its ocean ships have a resident historian and, often, a guest lecturer relevant to the destination. There’s a cultural component to many of the shore excursions — in the West Indies, for example, you can practice tai chi and yoga in an instructor’s home, learn Caribbean cookery, or try your hand at perfume creation. (These cost extra; included excursions are general sightseeing tours.)
So why do people love them with the zeal of Pats fans during the playoffs? In an age where serenity is elusive, Viking aims to deliver it. Guests must be 18 or older, and most are upward of 50. Think Armagnac tastings, not beer pong, with a soundtrack of live classical music. Although this comes at a cost (the price point is between premium and luxury), there are lots of inclusions. There’s no upcharge for specialty restaurants, and wine and beer are included with lunch and dinner. (We loved the food, and we’re as finicky as toddlers.) Overnight hotel stays before and after some cruises are included in the price, as are shore excursions in every port. Even the Wi-Fi and the self-service laundry are free. You can hang out in the LivNordic spa, with its hot and cold elements (a snow grotto!), all you want for no extra charge.
Plus, the ship is well designed and comfortable. All staterooms on Viking’s ocean ships have verandas, and the public spaces boast Nordic touches (there’s a lichen garden under the stairs), art by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, and sweeping views. It’s the stylish home you wish you had, staffed with people who cook, clean, and drive you to a different place every day.
Evening entertainment is engaging but low-key. Few souls make it past the nightly musical performance in the Star Theater. (The Viking Sea cruise director quipped, “There were five people in the lounge last night. Wow. A big night for us!”) But guests got their boogie on during an evening of “Dancing Under the Stars” to Motown tunes. And a sail/snorkel excursion from St. Kitts to Nevis featured day drinking (rum punch) and a conga line with the boat’s crew — proving a Viking trip isn’t all about culture.
Cultural immersion, plus style: CroisiEurope
Francophiles, this one’s got you all over it. You’ll improve your French language skills, eat tasty French food, and discover the best of the French countryside in delicious languor aboard CroisiEurope’s MS Renoir. Your main job: to ooh and ahh at the views of, say, Paris after dark, a medieval village, or an ancient chateau. It’s all about la belle vie (the good life) aboard the MS Renoir, one of the 55 ships run by the family-owned French cruise line CroisiEurope. And there’s this: You’ll dock within view of the Eiffel Tower, right in the heart of Paris. Wrap your mind around that one for a minute.
Completely overhauled in 2018, the MS Renoir carries 105 passengers along the Seine River from late March through late October, always from Paris to Honfleur or the reverse, or round trip from Paris, with journeys lasting from four to seven nights. Operated by the third generation of the Schmitter family (they own or charter all 55 ships), CroisiEurope is now being marketed to a North American audience.
Currently, about 55 percent of the guests are French-speaking, while 45 percent typically come from Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and the United States. It isn’t necessary to speak fluent French to enjoy yourself on the MS Renoir, but you’ll feel more comfortable if you can understand some French. Shipboard announcements are made in French and English, and most of the staff speaks some English. Dining tables are assigned, and you’ll be seated with other English speakers unless you specify otherwise. The typical age of guests is 45 and up.
As for the food, executive chef Alain Bohn has crafted a menu of Instagram-worthy (and delicious) French classics, such as duck terrine, fish in puff pastry, and crepes Suzette. It’s a set three-course menu for lunch and dinner, but this can be modified for dietary restrictions. Note that the staff is still getting used to American tastes; ask for a diet soda, for example, and you may get a raised eyebrow — but you will get your beverage. There also isn’t much choice for shore excursions; you’ll select either a classic must-see (i.e., a chateau visit) or a more active or off-the-beaten-path option.
This is river cruising, streamlined. There’s no pool, spa, or fitness center. There are few decisions to make, since meal times are set, shore excursion choices are minimal, and there are only two cabin categories, not five or six. For many travelers, value is a key benefit: CroisiEurope’s prices tend to be about 30 percent less than the competition. Wine and shore excursions are included. On this tiny, chic ship, you’ll feel like you’re touring the Seine in a floating boutique hotel. The international mix of travelers adds a dash of elan.