Caribbean Adventures on the Viking Sea

Your guide to island hopping in the Caribbean via a Viking cruise ship

Viking Ocean Ship approaches Saint Kitts

Courtesy Viking Cruises


The polar vortex swung into Minnesota like a bat out of…well, you know.

Thankfully, I did a bit of advanced planning this year and booked a trip on Viking Cruises to explore the islands of the Caribbean. When the good Norske folks at Viking extended the invitation to spend 10 days on the 745-foot Viking Star ocean ship in mid-January, I gratefully welcomed the opportunity to wave the Norwegian flag of my ancestors and jump on board.

The ship is considered a small sailing vessel, with a total guest capacity of 930. Viking has been the industry leader in riverboats, and, in 2015, they expanded their operation with a small-ship ocean-cruising division. Their stellar reputation for service has been widely reported, and Travel + Leisure magazine has rated the Viking ocean cruise line no. 1 for the past three years. This would be my maiden voyage.

With the face-freezing January weather staring me in the eyes, I was more than ready to leave the winter coat behind and grab a pair of flip-flops and head to the Virgin Islands.

Before I share some of the highlights of the amazing places I visited, for those unfamiliar with Viking, or who might be first-time cruisers, I’ll go over the guest experience. (This becomes your home for 10 days, after all.)

The Explorers Lounge in the Viking Ocean Ship

Courtesy Viking Cruises


Crew: On Viking, crew members must be programmed with a robotic memory card. At least, that’s how it feels. From my first encounter with my ship steward to the last cocktail I ordered in the Explorers Lounge, my first or last name was used during the majority of my interactions. I wasn’t wearing a name tag. They see 900-plus new passengers approximately every 10 days. This, perhaps, was due to the frequency of my visits.

The upper portion of the Explorers Lounge

Courtesy Viking Cruises


Accommodations: The understatedly elegant Scandinavian design is carried through every feature of Viking ships. Every stateroom has a private veranda and king-size bed with luxury linens and a traditional Norwegian Marius-weave blanket.

The atrium inside the Viking Ocean Ship

Courtesy Viking Cruises


Common Areas: Again, hats off to the Scandinavians for their design. The open, airy main atrium of the ship is designed to feel like you’re in the haul of a traditional Viking longship. The space uses traditional Scandinavian blond wood with a minimalistic approach to decor. The atrium is anchored by a large, two-story light panel of rotating art. There are a number of relaxing areas where guests can have coffee and scones—or, in my case, gravlax and a glass of Chardonnay—in front of the fireplace, watching the ship cut a path through ocean waters.

The spa in the Viking Ocean Ship

Courtesy Viking Cruises


Spa: One should really not leave a Viking cruise before taking part in the Nordic bathing ritual. There are four steps: Begin by relaxing in the sauna. Secondly, dip into the cold plunge or get a bucket of cold water poured over you. Third, go back to the sauna. Fourth, head to the Snow Grotto—a frigid room—and cover yourself with snow. To enhance the experience, and to increase circulation, you can add the step of tapping your body from head to toe with soaked birch leaves. I followed the pros from the LivNordic Spa and did it all. It was a pretty intense experience that I am glad I did (once!).

The Snow Grotto, for a Nordic bathing ritual onboard the Viking Ocean Ship

Courtesy Viking Cruises


Dining: You have a wide variety of “dinning” options on a Viking cruise—from fine dining to killer burgers at the grill. The foodie crowd will enjoy the menu at the Chef’s Table, where the tasting menu pairs with wines selected by the restaurant’s sommelier. Manfredi’s is fine dining, where I enjoyed a sizzling lamb chop paired with a snap-pea-and-lobster risotto. One of my favorite haunts on the ship was the casual counter-order spot Mamsen’s. It caters to Norwegian specialty items, and my go-to, day and night, was the traditional Norwegian waffle, embellished with berries, whipped cream, and maple syrup.

Manfredi’s Italian restaurant

Courtesy Viking Cruises


Exploring the Caribbean

When visiting any destination for the first time, I am big on exploring as much of the area as possible to determine my interest in returning and just where I may want to spend time. So, for me, this cruise was the right combination of time at sea and time in port.

During the day, I explored the islands, and in the evenings the captain of the vessel navigated my journey to each port while I had time to enjoy the spa, the gym, the restaurants, entertainment, and various lounges for a cocktail.

The islands I visited on my 10-day tour of the Western Caribbean included Puerto Rico, Tortola, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Barbados, Dominica, Antigua, Barbuda, Saint Martin, and Saint Thomas. Here are some of the highlights.

The umbrellas over Fortaleza Street in San Juan

Courtesy Todd P. Walker


San Juan, Puerto Rico

The city’s Spanish influence, with centuries-old houses, lines the streets in the Old Town area, where the famous umbrella canopy over Fortaleza Street highlights brightly colored canvas. I took a walking tour of the island, learning some history, and a tour of the towering fortress Fort San Cristóbal that stands watch over the Bay.

Turns out I struck gold, as my visit landed on a weekend right in the middle of the vibrant San Sebastian Festival—known to locals as the SanSe—which celebrates the Christian Saint Sebastian, this year on January 16-20. I perched myself on a bar stool at La Factoría, rated no. 32 on the list of the best bars in the world, to watch the parades. The soul of San Juan unfolded in front of me. On my stroll back to the ship, I sampled some of the street food, including bacalao, a large piece of deep-fried, very crispy cod that was larger than my head.

Virgin Gorda

Courtesy Todd P. Walker


Tortola, British Virgin Islands

The largest island in the British Virgin Islands’ archipelago, Tortola is a visual wonder, created by a chain of dormant underwater volcanoes. I spent my day on an excursion to the caves, pools, and coves of Virgin Gorda, another island. After a 45-minute boat ride from the shores of Tortola to Virgin Gorda, I hiked the beach surrounded by fascinating rock formations created by volcanic eruptions. The massive boulders are stacked on top of each other, creating natural pools of water and sea caves. 

Saint Kitts and Nevis

The island of Saint Kitts and the neighboring island of Nevis were once major producers of sugar. Mangos have since replaced sugar as the islands’ most prominent crop. The combined islands make up the smallest independent country in the Americas. The capital of the islands, Basseterre, is located in the main port area, and it’s one of the oldest towns in the Eastern Caribbean. I spent my day sailing the blue waters to the island of Nevis for an afternoon of snorkeling in a private bay among a colorful array of tropical fish.

Castries, Saint Lucia

Saint Lucia is a sovereign nation but still part of the commonwealth of England. It’s said to be one of the most picturesque of the islands, and I would concur. It has miles of beaches near the capital, and the majestic Pitons, two mountains, stand watch over the islands. I spent my afternoon taking on an adventure I had seen only online and on the Travel Channel: I headed to the north shore of the island to meet my Sea Trek helmet-diving guides, to prepare to walk on the seabed. I was fitted with a helmet that was attached to a tank above water, allowing me to have a near-zero gravity experience walking among marine life. 

Bridgetown, Barbados

Barbados is often referred to as “little England” due to still-apparent British influence. Cricket and afternoon tea are common pastimes, and, the day of my arrival, the city was active and energized because of a cricket match against the rival Londoner team. Barbados is also the proud birthplace of Rihanna, and the pop star’s music seemed to be on repeat at many of the shops and tourist attractions I visited.


Dominica

Courtesy Todd P. Walker


Roseau, Dominica

Dominica is often called “the nature island of the Caribbean” due to its rich, lush rainforests and mountainous topography. Hit hard by Hurricane Irma in September 2017, the island is in recovery mode. Most activities take place on the waterfront.


In Antigua

Courtesy Todd P. Walker


St. John’s, Antigua and Barbuda

The islands of Antiqua, Barbuda, and the neighboring smaller islands make up an independent country, the capital being St. John’s. I headed out on a reef rider to explore the Caribbean Sea, traveling to Cades Reef for an afternoon of snorkeling in turquoise waters. 

Saint Martin, France and Holland

This island was the most difficult for me to fully understand and navigate. France and Holland have shared Saint Martin since 1648. There is a distinct border that identifies the French side from the Dutch side. Marigot is the capital of the French side (Saint-Martin), and it’s well known for the fishing ports, quaint villages, and the white-sand Orient Beach. The capital of the Dutch side (Sint Marteen) is Philipsburg, mostly comprised of a cruise ship harbor, ocean-side resorts, and shopping areas for tourists.


During the America’s Cup Race

Courtesy Steven Moore


The highlight of my entire 10 days in the Caribbean was heading out to sea from Saint Martin to take part in a simulated America’s Cup race. I was on one of Dennis Conner’s Stars & Stripes vessels, that raced in the America’s Cup competition in Australia in 1987. Guests were divided into two teams. Then we headed out to the waiting yacht. Each participant is given a specific task. You challenge your competitors on a shortened course that simulates the actual route. Win or lose, the intense, adrenalin-filled adventure is worth it.

The native islanders were very friendly and appreciative of tourists making the visit. Tourism is the leading industry for the islands, and since Hurricane Irma, all of the islands have struggled to come back to where they were pre-hurricane. This should not deter your travel plans, as your tourism dollars make a difference in their recovery efforts.

If you want to island hop and get a feel for where you may want to return for an extended stay, a cruise ship with daily visits to many ports may be your answer.

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