The 372-passenger Viking Polaris Expedition ship is arguably the Swiss army knife of small-scale cruising.
How so? Let’s start with the Viking River Cruise hallmarks, which include an upscale food and beverage program, a clean Scandinavian luxury aesthetic, meticulously planned guided on-shore excursions, and “enrichment” lectures that are reassuringly in place. However, as the ship and its sister craft Octantis are designed for longer-length cruises and itineraries covering “ends-of-the-Earth”-type places, one will find several ocean cruise-like features. These include multiple restaurant concepts, an impressive full-service spa and fitness area, university-style discussions led by members of an in-house science team, and a hidden speakeasy-style bar.
In other words, everything he or she needs for a mentally stimulating and highly-social journey is neatly bundled up into one handy package that unfolds into something larger than what meets the eye.
Other tangible and non-tangible elements include adventure travel “toys” such as submarines, kayaks, Zodiac boats, and other gear that can be viewed from a working science lab post excursions. There’s also the Aula, whose design is based on a lecture hall at a prominent Norway university, and a museum-like assemblage of displays adjoining the activities desk. The Polaris is outfitted with practical extras such as complimentary 24-hour laundry rooms (detergent, included) and outstanding, personable service that keeps the warm and welcoming on-board social atmosphere afloat, from start to finish. Some of the best souvenirs just may be new friendships.
The appeal of the expedition ship as the full package hits the Baby Boomer sweet spot with day-at-sea enrichment activities, educational lectures and talks, trivia nights, and pop and classical music performances. However, the university-at-sea feel and a larger roster of active outdoor pursuits reflect Viking is looking towards its future—specifically, Generation X and Millennial passengers seeking out bracing hikes, water sports, and e-biking over slower-paced history or nature-based walking tours.
High-profile Antarctica adventure aside, the best thing about Viking’s expedition ship proposition is that it also sails itineraries such as “Canadian Discoveries,” providing options to mix elements of the expedition and traditional river cruise experiences or try the expedition “experience” before investing money and time into a journey that will fully concentrate on rugged terrain, potential extreme weather conditions, and exploration beyond modern and historic cities. “Canadian Discoveries,” for example, sails the Saint Lawrence River to major cities (Toronto, Quebec City), smaller towns, and lesser-known places such as Cap-aux-Meules and Saguenay where nature and a simpler way of life are front and center. On the days at sea, there are spontaneous announcements made by the cruise director or another team member about wildlife sightings, impressive rock formations, and significant landmarks visible from the boat—sometimes accompanied by complimentary cocktails.
The expedition ship is also equipped for things like business incentive travel and executive retreats as well as straight-forward vacation travel. There is a gorgeous private dining room accommodating roughly a dozen people, an expansive Living Room area appointed with smaller enclaves, interactive game and information tables, old-school board games, and an impressive selection of books that rival some of the best public libraries in major cities. Activities such as stargazing sessions, post-excursion science lab sessions, and even a table with 2,000-piece puzzles in the center of “residential” floors are designed to keep conversations flowing and encourage continuous connection between passengers.
Mixology classes, spirits and wine tastings, and other small private events are staged in The Hide, a stand-alone bar tucked into Deck 1 with sleek, clubby décor similar to big-city terrestrial cocktail lounges—but with the clever added touch of serving as a tribute to Viking Expedition godmothers Liv Arnesen and Ann Bancroft. Although the cocktail lists at the Aquavit Terrace, The Living Room, The Library, and the Explorer’s Lounge consist of standards such as martinis, mai-tais, and margaritas, the Polaris bar team threw a few curves on the “Canadian Discovery” with their own cocktail inventions and themed sips served during happy hour and impromptu wildlife sightings outdoors on The Bow, The Shelter, and Finse Terrace.
Viking’s food and beverage program also reflects a shift toward more adventurous passengers of different generations. The aptly-named “World Cafe” features a rotating selection of Thai, Chinese, and Indian dishes, a dinner hour sushi bar, and a fresh seafood station with chilled shrimp, crab legs, calamari, and condiments that could give the brunch at some Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton locations a run for their money. The Grill delivers simple, substantial burgers and other comfort foods, while the Bakery has passengers with a sweet tooth covered. Norwegian cafe Mamsen’s, tucked between the sprawling Library lounge area and the World Cafe, offers some of the healthiest breakfast and lunch fare on board—though the waffles served at breakfast based on the namesake’s recipe need to be sampled at least once.
Fine dining rooms The Restaurant and Manfredi’s are on par with high-end terrestrial restaurants in terms of quality, consistency, and presentation. Manfredi’s is rumored to be the hardest spot on the boat to secure a required pre-cruise reservation, and for good reason. Highlights include the intensely flavorful “Bistecca Fiorentina,” which is big enough to share, even with waiters insisting the portions were “relatively small.” Other favorites we ordered on repeat during our August “Canadian Discoveries” sailing included Insalata del Mercato, Parmigiana di Melanzane di Manfredi (eggplant parmesan with paper-thin layers), Lasagne al Forno, bucatini pasta, and an apple cake reminiscent of the Dutch apple pie found in Amsterdam cafes. The Restaurant skews more traditional and continental but has creative and beautifully-plated appetizers as well as one-off dishes that are pretty stellar (As of this writing, I am still dreaming about a lobster tail main served with brown butter as well as a halibut soup.)
Much of Deck 2 is dedicated to wellness. A well-equipped fitness center with TechnoGym machines, a weight training/fitness class area, and a thermal relaxation suite with heated ceramic loungers are open to all passengers free of charge as is a circuit of hot and cold therapy areas consisting of a hydrotherapy pool, badestamp (hot tub room), wet and dry saunas, therapy and cold water bucket showers. All public areas including the pool/sauna circuit area have floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to the sea and adjoin the treatment rooms and locker areas of LIVNordic Spa. A combination of innovative modalities (such as those incorporated in the Hygge Massage, including a covered sand table that conforms to and supports the body), exclusive LIVNordic skincare products, and talented practitioners make specialty massages, body scrubs, and facials worth the splurge.
Throughout the ship, the intention of making the Viking Polaris a destination in its own right is apparent. The “Expedition” area on the first floor features artifacts and interactive screens that reflect what passengers may experience in the outdoor activities (kayaking, Zodiac and Expedition boat rides, hikes, bike rides). The hallway artwork on each deck is dedicated to great world explorers and regional wildlife. The way a lot of the Polaris’ on-board space is used also suggests Viking is gradually shifting toward younger luxury travelers’ interests even as it maintains the plush status quo for the loyal.
While the service is unfailingly impeccable and personalized, it’s important to note that many of the crew and expedition leaders are older Millennials or Gen Xers. They are the heartbeat of this specific Viking Cruise experience that makes it a communal, multi-generational uniting of like-minded people interested in science, history, and living in the present.
To learn more about the Viking Polaris and its itineraries, sailings, and packages, visit vikingcruises.com/expeditions.