REVIEW

Viking Orion cruise: putting the journey to the test

There's plenty of fun to be had on board Viking's Orion.
There's plenty of fun to be had on board Viking's Orion.

Viking Ocean Cruises may only be four years old, but it has already got a reputation for value that has made Australia its second-biggest market. Peter Lynch tries one of the line's Asian journeys.

My cruise documents arrive in a felt zip-bag with a quote from Albert Einstein woven on the cover: "The important thing is to never stop questioning".

Einstein might have felt right at home on Viking Orion. Its book-lined public spaces, planetarium (complete with resident astronomer) and lecturers would have appealed to the man who produced the theory of relativity.

Viking founder and chairman Torstein Hagen, a Norwegian billionaire who conquered Europe's rivers and once inaugurated 14 vessels in one day, says his four-year-old ocean fleet offers "the thinking-person's cruise".

But if that sounds like hard work, don't worry. There's plenty of fun to be had on board Orion, and her crew are probably the friendliest bunch I've sailed with.

Hagen's "no kids, no casinos" catchcry means his guests are adult not just in age, but also in outlook. And it's a stance that is resonating with a baby-boomer generation - including many Australians.

We are sailing on Viking Orion as she travels from Bangkok, Thailand, through Cambodia, Vietnam, China and Hong Kong - a terrific Asian sampler which takes a relaxed journey through the region's most fascinating cultures.

The 670 Americans, 60 Australians, 41 Brits and 35 Canadians on board genuinely treasure the peace and tranquillity of sea days, when reading and good food are the order of the day.

The ship's Scandinavian interiors are crisp, light and modern. There are nooks and crannies everywhere to hunker down with a good book or enjoy the free wi-fi. High tea in the beautifully designed Wintergarden is as crowded as the dainty cake plates (egg and cucumber sandwiches with crusts off, followed by scones with jam and cream).

The Viking Classic Duo play cellos while we feast, and in the evenings, there are shows, an open-air cinema on three of the nights, and solo performers around the bars, while guests settle into comfy designer chairs and sofas for a chat or game of Scrabble and a glass of wine.

The port talks are packed and peppered with questions about the local culture and experiences. Enrichment lectures on topics such as Asia's politics, the Vietnam War and the region's history are also surprisingly well attended.

The seven-strong Viking ocean fleet is only four years old, but already has a huge fan base. It's not hard to see why. At 930 passengers, the size is just right.

Orion can dock close to city centres - in Hong Kong we are at Ocean Terminal, just a stone's throw from the Peninsula Hotel. We see this astonishing city's nightly light show from the upper deck with a glass of bubbly - it has to be one of the best views in town.

We get to know quite a lot about the Viking chairman on our journey. Hagen is as proud a Viking as Ragnar Lothbrok from the TV series Vikings, and his ships are a mobile billboard for his culture.

There is a small Viking museum, and Scandinavian art is everywhere. There's a Nordic bathing ritual (it involves an ice bucket, steam room, cold bath, sauna, snow grotto and a scrubbing brush - not for the faint-hearted!), a LivNordic Spa and even a Nordic hair ritual.

As we sail, we begin to understand Hagen's boast that he never "nickel and dimes" his passengers. Viking Ocean's all-inclusive cruises mean you can pretty well leave your wallet in your cabin.

All meals are included, so no specialty charges. And the food on offer in all the restaurants and bars is excellent.

Wine and beer are served free with meals, though you can buy a premium drinks package for $28 a night if you like. We opted for one during our Chef's Table meal, and were served an Italian pinot grigio, an American riesling and a Loire Valley dessert wine, accompanied by a running commentary from our sommelier.

We particularly loved the way the staff at every restaurant made it a point to fill your glass just before nine o'clock, when the free pouring stops.

Food is a high point. Manfredi's - impishly named after one of the owners of rival ultra-luxe line Silversea - is one of the best Italian restaurants we've sampled. And the Chef's Table serves up a series of exclusive dishes every night and there is a Chef's Kitchen, where you can go to local markets with the ship's head chef, then cook what you bought for lunch.

You can take one of the included shore excursions at every port, and we found most tours informative and entertaining.

The spa's Snow Grotto (a Viking exclusive) steam room, pool and sauna are free, and spa staff members are under instructions not to upsell. In fact, we never felt pressured to buy anything - a very pleasant change from some cruise lines that need onboard revenue to survive.

We stayed in a 25-square-metre Deluxe Veranda Stateroom which has a Nespresso coffee maker, soft drinks in the mini bar and snacks that were also free of charge.

While maintaining Viking is not a luxury line - Hagen calls it "deluxe" instead - there are many more inclusions than most, making Viking Ocean hard to place in the customary cruise ship categories. For Australians, it's a value proposition hard to resist.

Pricewise, Viking sits at about $466 a day per person - a significant difference from Silversea's $620 per day and Seabourn's $892 per day for Asian journeys.

The line has confirmed the return of Viking Orion to her seasonal Sydney and Auckland home ports between December 2021 and March 2022 - her fourth consecutive season based Down Under.

She will offer six 15-day Australia and New Zealand itineraries from Sydney to Auckland or vice versa, plus a 17-day Komodo and the Australian coast voyage from Bali to Sydney, before sailing Asian routes similar to the one we travelled.