As past readers know, I’ve been documenting our travel experiences through a series of blog posts. (The most recent of these was Pat and Dave’s Post-Covid Continental Caper, describing our travels in September of 2022, from Geneva to the Rhine River, the Mosel River, and on to Paris with Viking River Cruises.) Having just returned from our first ever Ocean Cruise, I’m posting yet another chronicle. Speaking of chronicles, I almost titled this one Pat and Dave’s Caribbean Cruise Chronicle, but somehow that didn’t seem to have the right panache. I probably could have come up with something better, but didn’t want to waste too much effort on the title, given my atrocious alliterative ability. Having now set the stage, let me begin the blathering.
In my introduction to the Continental Caper, I explained that we had originally booked that trip in 2020 but had to cancel due to Covid, rebooked it for 2021 but again had to cancel, and finally made the trip in September of 2022. The Tropical Trek was similarly plagued by Covid, this time not only postponing it twice but also changing the destination. We had originally decided to take a trip with Viking Ocean Cruises to Greece and Turkey in fall of 2021, rebooked that for January of 2022, then cancelled again as the omicron variant blossomed worldwide.
The deciding factor regarding the second Greece/Turkey cancellation was the requirement to have a Covid test in Athens before being allowed to return to the US. What if we tested positive? We’d be quarantined halfway around the world for two weeks in some Covid prison with a pile of dirty laundry, scrambling to make flight arrangements. As we contemplated this unsettling proposition, we decided that maybe a tour starting from and returning to the US would be a safer bet. Thus, on our third try, the Ocean Cruise to Greece and Turkey morphed into an Ocean Cruise to the Panama Canal!
We had several reasons for deciding on Viking Ocean Cruises as opposed to Norwegian or Carnival or one of the other major cruise lines. First, we were very impressed with Viking River Cruises on our two trips with them (the Danube River back in my pre-blog days of 2014, and the aforementioned Geneva to Paris trip). Second, we get a catalog from Viking at least every other month, so we often spend time salivating over the potential itineraries when we are not actually travelling. Third, the Viking ships are much smaller than those of the other cruise lines. Pat and I are rather introverted souls (I blame my Finnish heritage and genes for that, which seem to have leaked and spread to Pat during our 44 years of marriage) and have no interest whatsoever in the social aspects of cruising. Simply put, we presumed it would be much easier hiding away from some 900 guests on a Viking ship than 6,000 on another line.
At any rate, after more than a two-year wait, the date for embarking on the Panama Canal cruise finally drew near. Our flight to Fort Lauderdale was scheduled for 7:35 AM on March 7, so we had booked an overnight stay at the Intercontinental Hotel at the MSP airport for March 6, to avoid a 4 AM trip to the airport on travel day. I was in Grand Marais delivering copies of my latest best-seller wannabe, Watery Grave, to the local bookstores on Saturday, March 4, so I was a bit behind the eight ball as far as preparations go. By Sunday evening, I was back in Minneapolis but still hadn’t started packing, even though Pat had her things all ready to go. I finally got going on Monday morning, loading our large, worn-out suitcase to the brim with my CPAP, travel junk, and enough clothes to cover the entire trip without doing laundry. As we prepared to head down to the condo lobby to wait for our Lyft driver, I stuffed my moccasins into the outside pocket, zipped it up, and watched in shock as the entire zipper disintegrated. I frantically dredged through the utility room until I found some duct tape to slap it back together before we rushed down to catch our ride.
Once at the airport hotel, we looked at the sad, old suitcase, with the duct tape peeling off and the outside pocket beginning to gape open again, and decided there was only one thing to do. We jumped on the light rail to the Mall of America and bought a new suitcase. After repacking our stuff, we trundled the decrepit old suitcase down to the front desk and bid it farewell forever. As we readied ourselves for bed, I pulled out the cords we had packed for charging Pat’s iPhone and watch and my iPad. “That’s nice,” I thought, as I attempted to plug the USB-C connectors into the USB-A ports on the adapters we had brought along. “Now we need to buy adapters with USB-C ports, since we left those at home.” Which we did after checking our bags at the airport on Tuesday morning, paying about twice what they would have cost anywhere but at an airport. Adding up the costs for the hotel, the suitcase, the adapters, and a couple of meals, we were nearly $700 in the hole and hadn’t even left town yet!
But things began to go better once we finally got on the plane. The direct flight to Fort Lauderdale was a breeze compared to the marathon of getting to Geneva for the Continental Caper. We were met at the FLL airport by Viking representatives and boarded a bus for a fifteen-minute drive to the cruise terminal where our ship was waiting. We got out of the bus and checked in at a reception desk in the terminal while porters delivered our luggage directly to our room. Excitement building, we boarded the ship to begin our adventure.
We were two of 911 passengers booked on the Viking Star, nearly at its full capacity of 930. It looked pretty big when we first saw it, but it was dwarfed by some of the larger ships we subsequently encountered. Here are some photos of the ship I captured during the voyage:
We spent the first couple of hours on board wandering around the nine decks and finding the various amenities, and I was surprised that it didn’t feel crowded at all. That was in part because not everyone had yet boarded, but also because the various restaurants, bars, libraries, pool, theater, and so forth are spread out throughout the ship so large crowds don’t accumulate in any particular location. I’ve posted some schematics and some photos of various parts of the ship below.
When we rebooked the trip to Panama after canceling the Greek cruise, we found that we had chosen a somewhat less expensive journey, so we ended up with a little more to spend on the trip in the form of a credit we had to use or forfeit. As with the Rhine/Mosel trip, we elected to use some of the extra credit to upgrade our room from the basic option to a fancier one. We ended up with a nice room with a balcony on Deck 6. Here are some photos of our stateroom, number 6083:
The room upgrade wasn’t enough to use up all of the credit, so we also ended up getting what Viking calls the “Silver Spirits” package. This allowed us to get so-called premium wines and bar drinks at no additional charge throughout the trip, with a limit of $100 a day. This is in addition to the house wines and beers and various special drinks available to all guests at any of the restaurants. We weren’t able to drink as much as we could have, and the Silver Spirits option wouldn’t have been worth it except that we needed to use up the credits. Even so, the trip felt a bit like a booze cruise, and we came back wearing most of the extra calories around our waistlines.
Of course, alcohol wasn’t the only contributor to those extra pounds. The food on board was excellent and plentiful. There were four main restaurants:
- The World Café is a self-serve smorgasbord with a huge variety of foods available during breakfast, lunch and dinner times. I estimate that 200 people could eat there at any time. While the food was self-service, friendly servers brought beverages as requested, including water, juice, wine, beer, coffee, tea and who knows what all. I liked this place the best because I could wear my jeans and hat and select any eclectic combination of food that struck my fancy. We ate most of our meals here.
- The Restaurant is a classic eatery with servers who take food and drink orders and deliver to your table. The menu offered fewer options than the café, but the food was perhaps a bit better. I could wear my jeans and hat for breakfast and lunch, but at dinner they have a silly no denim and no hat policy. Collared shirts only, of course. Just because of this policy, I brought along the only non-denim pants that I own, which I bought some ten years ago and hadn’t worn for at least five years. I did manage to get them on, buttoned, and zipped, but I felt like an overstuffed sausage as I waddled off in them for the first time. We ate at The Restaurant three times, once with my jeans and twice with the fancy pants.
- Manfredi’s is a rather fancy Italian restaurant that accommodates about 60 people and requires an advance reservation. The menu offered fewer choices than The Restaurant, but the food was excellent, and we ate there twice.
- The Chef’s Table is the fanciest of all, accommodating around 40 people and also requiring reservations. A meal consists of five courses, each but the palate-cleanser paired with a suitable wine. The menu is fixed and based on a specific ethnic cuisine which changed every third or fourth day during the voyage. We ate there twice – the first time with a Mexican menu, the second time Xiang Chinese. The food and wines were divine. As Silver Spirits guests, we got the premium wines, which may almost be enough to make that option worth it.
So, I was forced to wear my fancy pants (which are actually just a pair of Dockers, but non-denim) and collared shirts for a total of six meals. I was always out of the pants within five minutes of returning to our stateroom. The funny thing is, they seemed to fit better as time went by in spite of my expanding waistline, probably due to stretching of the fabric. They didn’t rip, however, and if we ever go on another Viking Ocean cruise, I’ll make sure I can still fit into them – heaven forbid that I might buy some new pants.
In addition to the main restaurants, there were also several other places to eat and drink:
- The Pool Grill, near the pool, as you might guess, which served hamburgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, and salads. We ate lunch there several times. The hamburgers may be the best I’ve ever had.
- Mamsen’s, named in honor of Viking CEO Torstein Hagen’s mother, of all things, served excellent waffles, soups, open faced sandwiches, fruits, and dessert tarts and rolls.
- The Wintergarden served a British-style tea every day at 4 PM, including several sandwiches and desserts, accompanied by either a pianist or a violin/cello duo. We partook of this delightful event six or seven times. Pat always had tea, but I opted for Prosecco. (I had to try to make that Silver Spirits thing worthwhile, you understand.)
- There were also bars all over the ship, including the Viking Bar, the Explorer’s Lounge, the Aquavit Bar, the Pool Bar, the Atrium Bar, and my favorite, the Torshavn. Why was it my favorite? Because the other ones only carried one or two single malt Scotches, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, even though they showed some others on their menus. I was growing tired of the same bland ones every day until I discovered that the Torshavn also carried Laphroaig, Glenmorangie, and several others, but by that time there were only four days left in the journey.
In addition to all the great food and drink, there was some sort of entertainment going on almost all the time. In the large Theater, we attended an ABBA review performed by an earnest and talented quartet that just didn’t quite manage the desired vibe, I think mainly because either the Agnetha clone or the Anni-Frid clone (I couldn’t tell which one) had too much vibrato. We also attended a hilarious comic magician show, and we watched the Oscars broadcast live in the Theater. There were all sorts of shows we didn’t go to, though we occasionally overheard some of them as we roamed the ship, including a Beatles revue, the Viking Band, a couple of Broadway-style singers, a guitarist, the aforementioned pianist and classical duo, and the Irish cruise director with a lovely accent who, as we heard other guests saying, sang like an angel. They even broadcast Puccini’s Turandot by the Metropolitan Opera.
Other activities on board included line dancing, trivia contests, enrichment lectures, discussion groups, and all sorts of things that I can’t even remember. There was a spa, a sauna, and a snow room, which Pat walked through and said were quite nice. And, of course, there was the pool, where dozens of people lounged for hours at a time, and maybe 50 deck chairs which were filled constantly from early morning until dinner time. The pool crowd might have provided some enrichment of another sort, except that the average age of the guests had to be around 65 or 70.
In short, there was plenty to do on the ship. While many of the guests seemed to have formed into social groups that did everything together, Pat and I, true to our natures, pretty much just kept to ourselves. We chatted occasionally with other folks during meals, but we didn’t actively socialize at all. This was one difference from the River Cruises, which had far fewer dining venues. As a result, people tended to sit at the same tables for dinner every night and even we curmudgeonly folks struck up friendships wit a few other people. To reiterate, while there were 907 guests on this trip, it never felt overly crowded, and we were happy just being there by ourselves. We especially enjoyed sitting on the balcony with our books and various beverages.
Here’s a map of the journey indicating the various stops that we made along the way.
In Part 2, I’ll finally get around to talking about our shore excursions, including stops in Cozumel, Belize, Honduras, and Costa Rica.
In Part 3, I’ll cover our stop in Panama (including Colon and Gamboa), our transit of the Panama Canal locks, and our final stop in Jamaica.
Stay tuned …
5 thoughts on “Pat and Dave’s Tremendous Tropical Trek – PART 1: The Beginning and the Ship”
Hey, Dave, this is great. Perhaps you could have a new career as an advert writer for Viking! A fun read.
Not a bad idea, but I suppose they’d want me to be even more pro-Viking than I seem to be. :>)
What’s a “snow room”? And considering the flight delays and cancelations that have occurred this year, you’re gutsy to have timed the flight to be the day of the ship leaving! I’m glad it worked out for you.
Pat tells me the snow room was a small, cold room with a bench and shaved ice piled up around the edges (like being inside a snow cone), presumably to cool down after a sauna — since you can’t jump in the ocean, of course.