LEKNES, Norway — Just a few years ago, the only Viking ship that appeared in the waterways around this town of 3,200 people was a replica of something more than a thousand years old. But over the past three years, its sheltered harbor has welcomed a growing number of Viking vessels of a different sort. On a recent Friday, there even were two visiting at once.
Flying the Norwegian flag and carrying 930 passengers a piece, they are the ships of Viking Ocean Cruises, the new ocean cruising-focused sister line to 20-year-old Viking River Cruises. And they’re an increasingly significant presence not just in Norway but across Scandinavia and the Baltic region.
Many cruise lines in the summer send a significant portion of their vessels to the Mediterranean and Alaska, with just a few reserved for Northern Europe. But in an unusual departure from deployment orthodoxy, fast-growing Viking has been assigning its entire fleet to Scandinavia and the Baltic in the summers. Last year that meant two ships in the region. This year it means three.
It’s a deliberate strategy to become a dominant player in the one-time homeland of the ancient Vikings.
“Scandinavia in my mind is Viking territory,” Torstein Hagen, the Norway-born chairman and founder of Viking, tells USA TODAY. “We want to own it.”.
Speaking aboard Viking’s newest ship, Viking Sky, after its recent christening in Tromso, Norway, Hagen notes Scandinavian heritage runs deep at the line. While the company is based in California and caters mostly to North Americans, several of its founding executives are from Norway, and its ships are being built with a streamlined Scandinavian design. The exploring spirit of the Vikings of a thousand years ago is a touchstone at the company.
In short, there’s a reason the word Viking appears in the line’s name.
“We think we know a lot about this part of the world,” says the 74-year-old entrepreneur, who spent some of his early years in Bergen, Norway running a Norwegian passenger ship company and, later, a Norway-based luxury cruise line.
Still, Viking’s heavy summer deployment to Scandinavia and the Baltic is driven by more than the line’s heritage. Hagen has a strong belief that the region is more appealing in the summer than the Mediterranean, which he thinks is best seen during the fall, winter and spring. In a major contrarian move, Viking is deploying ships to the Mediterranean this year only during those periods — traditionally considered the off season.
“In broad brush we said we want to be in the Mediterranean in the winter and Scandinavia in the summer,” Hagen says. “People say ‘why would you do that?’ And I think it’s fairly obvious. If I have a choice of being in Rome in February or July, I’ll pick February any time. The temperature is more pleasant, the queues are much less. It’s a totally different experience.”.
It’s also one that fewer lines offer.
“For me, it’s a no-brainer,” says Hagen, who at times seems to relish the role of industry contrarian. “But don’t tell them.”.
Viking’s contrarian streak extends to the itineraries that it has developed for Scandinavia and the Baltic. The line’s most popular route in the region, Viking Homelands, is a 14-night, one-way trip between Bergen and Stockholm, Sweden that features several days exploring the fjord region of Norway’s west coast in addition to stops at more typical Baltic cruise destinations such as St. Petersburg, Russia and Helsinki, Finland.
The itinerary is a rethinking of what a Baltic cruise can be. It requires the use of relatively small Bergen (pop. 278,000) as a gateway, something no other line is doing. While flights into the mountain-lined city are limited, the line is managing, and Hagen says the itinerary has been very successful.
“We wanted to combine Bergen and the fjords with the Baltic, which was innovative, I thought,” Hagen says.
Viking also is offering its own take on a typical Norway cruise with a 14-night itinerary out of Bergen that includes several stops in the northernmost part of the country above the Arctic Circle. Dubbed Into the Midnight Sun, the one-way route between Bergen and London features calls in Tromso, Norway, sometimes called the gateway to the Arctic, and far-north Honnigsvag, Norway. The itinerary also boasts stops in the remote Shetland Islands and Orkney Islands, which are part of the U.K. But have ties to Norwegian and Viking history.
The Into the Midnight Sun itinerary offers a more in-depth exploration of Norway than is available from many North America-based brands. Norway cruises often are just seven days in length. The itinerary also has been carefully crafted to maximize the experience for passengers. Hagen notes that Viking ships sailing the itinerary begin or end the trip anchored near the heart of London in Greenwich. Most other lines sailing to or from Norway from the U.K. Operate out of Southampton or Dover, England, which are a considerable distance from London. That difference alone makes for a better experience, Hagen says.
More new itineraries are on the way. Just in the last few days, Viking has rolled out three new routes for 2018 that focus on Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The line also recently revealed plans for rare winter voyages along the Norwegian coast that will kick off in 2019. Featuring stops in northern parts of Norway above the Arctic Circle, the latter sailings will offer passengers a chance to see the elusive Northern Lights.
Viking Cruises to offer voyages to Arctic to see Northern Lights.
The winter trips that include stops above the Arctic Circle are particularly notable. Voyages into the Arctic Circle in the winter are a relative rarity in the cruise industry. While a few European lines offer such sailings, no other North America-based cruise brand offers something similar to what Viking is planning.
Adding winter voyages along the Norwegian coast that will bring passengers to the Northern Lights is just another way Viking can own the Scandinavia and Baltic region, Hagen suggests. Plus, it’s just darn cool.
Seeing the Northern Lights is “an experience that should be on everyone’s bucket list,” he says.
Design-wise, Viking’s ships may be the perfect fit for cruises around Scandinavia and the Baltic. In addition to Scandinavia decor, they are full of references to Scandinavian culture old and new. Each Viking vessel has a small on-board heritage center with displays on the early Vikings, and there are homages to Scandinavian explorers in deck-top observation lounges. Each Viking ship also is home to a spa operated by Stockholm-based LivNordic Spa & Wellness. There’s also a special Norwegian menu that rotates into The Chef’s Table restaurants found on each Viking vessel.
Viking ships also feature main pool areas covered by sliding glass roofs, also known as magrodomes, which allow for deck-top lounging and swimming even in the colder climates of the North.
Hagen says Viking will continue to grow in Scandinavia and the Baltic over the next few years as it adds more ships. Already, it has announced plans for four vessels in the region for the summer of 2019.
Viking’s fourth vessel, Viking Sun, will debut this fall with four more sister ships due between 2018 and 2022.
5 things to love about the new Viking Sky.
The rapid growth at the company will allow it to add summer sailings in the Mediterranean, too, starting in 2018. The following year it will begin summer sailings in Alaska. But Scandinavia and the Baltic will remain a priority for summer deployments, Hagen suggests.
The line’s strategy, he says, has been to “first own (Scandinavia and the Baltic), then own the Mediterranean in the winter and then Alaska in the summer.” Rounding out the line’s early efforts are voyages in the Caribbean that Hagen says have been designed to be differentiated from what other lines offer and, starting next year, around-the-world cruises.
“When this part of the world is nice, it’s very nice,” Hagen says of his homeland region. “I’m proud of showing it off.”.
USA TODAY was among a handful of U.S. Media outlets to get early access to Viking Sky earlier this year in advance of its June christening. For our deck-by-deck tour of the vessel, scroll through the carousel at the top of this story.
Viking Ocean’s ships are among USA TODAY’s list of the 25 most beautiful cruise vessels. To view all 25, scroll through the carousel below.
Countdown: The 25 most beautiful cruise vessels.