Athens and Viking Sky

So this is our (my wife who posts as BellKat) and I are first-time Viking Cruisers. We have a very close friend who has been telling us to try them for years. We are long-time cruisers with more than 30+ cruises behind us. Most were on Celebrity,, HAL, Azamara and RCL (with the kids). We are traveling with my brother, his wife, her sister and her husband. My usual practice is to do posts as I am sailing so here goes.

We did the Viking pre-cruise in Athens. Two days at the Athens Marriott. The hotel was just fine but the location left a lot to be desired. I am a walker and a photographer. On most of our trips, when we are on land, I like to get out pre-dawn and shoot photos. But the Marriott is nowhere near the center of historical Athens. I tried and walked four miles and got to nothing I really wanted to take photos of as it is a very industrial area.

When we arrived at the Athens airport (we had flown down from Amsterdam) we didn’t even have to put on our Viking stickers, their rep saw us and walked over and introduced himself before we even had our luggage. He helped us load up and then got us to the coach which was a full-size bus just for six of us and we were off to the hotel. The pre-extension we had reserved included two nights at the hotel (which has the GREATEST water pressure ever), breakfast but no tours so we arranged our own through a company called Tours By Locals.

We were beyond lucky to get the incredible George C. as our guide. He took us to all the usual spots including the Acropolis, the Parthenon, the Museum of Antiquities, the original Olympic stadium and the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknowns but the best place he took us was for lunch. One of the most amazing meals we have ever had. And it was at what George called, “A momma place” because they cook like your Greek momma. They brought us some of everything and we loved every bit of it. So much food and so many courses plus lots of excellent Greek wine. We ate outdoors on a shady patio next to a farmer’s market. What an outstanding Greek experience. I even got a chance to do some street photography in the farmer’s market. We did have reservations at a restaurant recommended by Rick Steves in the Plaka district but decided to cancel them after this HUGE lunch. We don’t feel like we missed anything. You can see all my pics in the gallery right here. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

The next morning (Saturday) was our embarkation day on the Sky. We had to have our bags outside the hotel rooms by 7:00 am. We got them out and went down to an excellent breakfast. Lots of choices and great service. We were on bus four of four to go to the ship. Each one left about 15 minutes apart. The Viking machine at the hotel was incredibly well run. Got us on, took 15 minutes to the port, off and onboard within another 10. Total time hotel lobby to Viking Sky living room was 30 minutes max. I do want to mention that due to a strange Greek rule, we had to take a COVID test the day before (between 7:00 and 8:00 am) in order to LEAVE Greece. Not sure why they care who is sick when they leave. Viking has no testing scheduled at all. Viking took care of our tests and I was told that not a single person had a positive test.

Once onboard we were greeted with champagne and told that we could go up to the World Cafe (buffet) for lunch. When we had checked in on the pier we were told our staterooms would be ready by 2:00 pm. The rest of our party who were on the deck below us were told 3:00 pm. Needless to say, we were a little upset (i said a little—we were on a cruise 😜) because we thought our staterooms (based on our stateroom class) would be ready by 1:00 pm. But in a surprise under promise/over deliver situation, as we were finishing an excellent lunch, the announcement was made that ALL staterooms were open before 1:00 pm.

We are incredibly pleased with our stateroom. It is huge by cruise ship standards, a full 338 square feet (our Celebrity stateroom was about 230 square feet). The only part of the stateroom we don’t like is the bed. We have frequently found European beds ot be harder than US beds. At home, we sleep on a Tempurpedic and we love it. Sleeping on the bed here was like sleeping on the floor. My brother had the same problem and mentioned it to his cabin attendant who said he had a foam mattress topper he could add to it. We are. having the same done to ours for tonight so hopefully, things will improve and I will get a better night’s sleep. I was going to include a video or photographic tour of the stateroom but I found one online that is much more professional that you can see by clicking here.

The rest of the ship is beautiful, the crew has been outstanding so far. The food at lunch was superb…but let’s not talk about dinner. Well, let’s talk about dinner. We decided to have dinner in The Restaurant (the ship’s main dining room) around 7:00. We went for a drink in the living room first and then we headed to The Restaurant at around 7:05. No one was waiting in line and we were seated (our party of six) at a table for eight right near the door. Here’s our timetable for dinner. We got to the dining room and were seated by 7:10. We had bread and water on the table by 7:20. Our order was not taken until at least 7:40. In fact after we got the bread and water, we didn’t see anyone else for almost 20 minutes. Our server came by and asked if we wanted wine. She had a German red and a German white. She said, “Sorry, I don’t have time to do the winelist with you tonight but I will go over it with you tomorrow.” Really?

So there we were at 7:45 with six glasses of German wine when our server took our orders. That took almost 10 minutes while the server attempted to enter the orders on a very small screen iPhone or iPod. Once the orders were taken, appetizers showed up about 10 minutes later, followed by our entrées about 20 minutes after we had finished the appetizers. Dessert was at least 20 minutes after finishing our entrées. The wine was refilled twice but we had to ask for it. Same with water. We were finally done with dinner and left The Restaurant at 9:15. Sorry, but that’s two full hours to eat a meal. That’s too long.

And to be honest, the meal was not that good. I ordered the Chef’s Regional Menu which was a Greek-themed menu including a lentil soup, moussaka and baklava for dessert. I can make all three better at home. I have made all three better at home. That’s just sad. My lovely bride ordered the chorizo-coated sea bass. She ate about half and just didn’t want anymore. My brother had the same thing but about 10 minutes after the rest of us. They forgot his order so we all waited while they got him a new one. It was just sad. We had such high hopes for The Restaurant after all the videos we have seen but last night did NOT live up to them. But we are very willing to give them a second chance. The food in the buffet this morning and yesterday at lunch was excellent so we know they can make the food we love. And tonight we are eating at Manfredi’s, which is Sky’s Italian restaurant so I will share our experiences there tomorrow.

To sum up…love the ship, love the crew, love the buffet and only had two experiences we didn’t like: dinner in The Restaurant and our very HARD bed. We will let you know if either get better…or I hope not…worse.

Greece was a muse. It inspired creativity in magical ways that I can’t even begin to understand or explain.  —Joe Bonamassa

Amsterdam and northward…then on to Greece

This time I am writing from Athens, Greece. But first I wanted to post the last pics from our day north of Amsterdam with our outstanding guide, Hans. I found Hans (as well as our guides in Athens and Barcelona) through Tours by Locals. We have used this company before and they are all over the world. The reviews on the site are usually right on and can be trusted. We have found you get some great local insights you would not get from a ship tour because these are the people who live right there. You learn so much.

Hans met us right on time at our hotel and we were off. Since we had already toured Amsterdam on a prior visit, we were looking to see the outskirts of the city as well as some of the countryside. Hans did a great job of doing just that. See the photo captions for some of what we saw. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

On to Athens

We had dinner the night of our northern Netherlands tour at a place Kathleen and I had eaten at on our last trip that Jamie and Steve wanted to try—Restaurant Zaza. It’s a short cab ride from the Banks Mansion. It was just as good as it had been in 2016, it both service and food. Had a great time.

The next day we had a flight to Athens at 12:20 pm. The hotel as well as every post we had seen online suggested we get to the Schipol Airport no later than four hours before we flew. So off we went at 8:00 am and check my previous post for how we did at the airport. The flight itself was “fine” (you know what that means) and they gave us an actual sandwich…not really, it was just two pieces of VERY stale bread with a single slice of the worst cheese in The Netherlands between it 😜. But they got us (AND OUR LUGGAGE) there almost on time and as soon as we got to baggage claim a rep from Viking Cruises met us and whisked us and our luggage away to a waiting coach for our almost hour-long trip to our hotel, the Athens Marriott. You should know that this hotel was not our choice, but Viking’s as we are now in their care on our pre-cruise extension. I will say that it is a very nice Marriott, it has the best water pressure EVER (I took too many long showers) but it is located in a very non-photographic part of town. The first night I tried taking a photo walk and you will see what I came up with below. Then in my next post I will show you shots of the Athens you were expecting.

Watch the next post for my report on a very HOT but rewarding day in Athens.

I like the look of a windmill. —Jeff Duncan

And We’re Off!

It’s almost time to start our big journey. Just before 2:00 pm on Monday, our good friend Marjorie is going to pick us up and take us to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport where we will check in with Delta and wait about three hours until we are scheduled to take off on flight 144, a non-stop to Amsterdam at 5:20 pm (just about 24 hours from when I am writing this). We did a COVID test this morning and we are good to go. Our meals on the plane are ordered and after we eat dinner, I will get our boarding passes printed out.

We are supposed to get into Amsterdam at 12:20 on Tuesday afternoon (that’s our route above). Hopefully, we will be on time and picked up at the airport and transported to what we believe is the greatest hotel on planet Earth, The Banks Mansion. By the time we walk into the “Living Room” at The Banks, my brother and sister-in-law should be sitting there having a drink (free bar!!!) and waiting for us to join them.

We are then headed to a traditional Dutch dinner at Moeder’s. Probably going to have stamppot, a traditional Dutch dish. According to Wikipedia, it’s Dutch comfort food. We had it the last time we were in Amsterdam and it was wonderful.

We will spend the next day (Wednesday) touring Amsterdam, going to the Van Gogh museum and having dinner at Restaurant ZaZa which we loved on our last visit to Amsterdam. Then early next morning we will all head to the busiest airport in Europe, Schipol, where we will catch our 12:20 pm flight to Athens, Greece. Hopefully, we will arrive pretty close to when we are supposed to, meet our other traveling companions (my sister-in-law’s sister and her husband) and hopefully head to dinner at a traditional Greek restaurant I have reservations for.

The next day we will tour Athens with Alexios from Tours By Locals (a tour company we have used before and I love). Then another dinner in the Plaka district. The other thing we have to do on Friday is to take a COVID test. Here’s a strange situation. Greece requires a COVID test to LEAVE their country. I get it when someplace wants to keep COVID out of their country by testing those coming in. But to require a test only for people leaving their country makes no sense.

Then next Saturday, we will board the Viking Sky for our 21-day cruise. Viking calls it the Mediterranean & Adriatic Sojurn. Here’s where we are going.

For Kathleen and I this will be a chance to revisit many places we have been. For the rest of our group, this will be their first time in this part of the world. Although we have been to most every place after we leave Sicily, we have never been to most of the stops in the Adriatic Sea. We have spent time in Venice and it has always been one of our favorite cities. It was really the first place we ever went to in Europe. Luckily for us, we have almost three full days in Venice. Our good buddies (and always neighbors, Jayesh and Lisa) were there last month and did some scouting for us, finding us some amazing restaurants to try. We can’t wait to try.

So I want to invite you to virtually follow us on this journey. I will do my best to post here on a very regular basis but with not a single sea day on this trip, I might run a little late. And of course, it also depends on the quality of the WiFi on the ship. So make sure you have subscribed so you can keep up with the ports. You know how much I love to share our travels. See you soon, right here.

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.
—St. Augustine

Why Viking?

Since my last post was about why we are leaving Celebrity Cruise Lines after 25+ cruises I thought I would give you a quick explanation of why we have decided that the first cruise line we will try post-Celebrity (other than some HAL, RCL and Azamara cruises we have already done) will be Viking Ocean.

The first reason is that one of our closest friends (who we met when we started working at our original Expedia office) has been on a bunch of Viking cruises and has many more planned. She sold us completely for a lot of reasons. For us, it pretty much comes down to what Viking has but maybe it is really more about what they don’t have.

Here are the things we love about Viking and why we can’t wait to board the Viking Sky in about two weeks.

  • No one under 18 can cruise on Viking. (It’s not that we don’t like kids; we took our grandkids on Royal Caribbean. That’s where kids belong.)
  • No smoking. Anyplace. We are vehement anti-smokers. I get the worst headaches when I breathe cigarette smoke.
  • No art auctions.
  • No casinos. These two normal places on most ships take up room that Viking uses for rest and relaxation.
  • No charge for beer or wine with lunch or dinner.
  • No ship photographers in your face all the time selling photos no experienced cruiser really wants.
  • No upselling in the spa.
  • No charge for internet access.
  • No charge for specialty restaurants. You are guaranteed two reservations per cruise and long-time Viking cruisers tell us it is no problem getting in to the restaurants on more nights than that once you are on board.
  • Viking includes one shore excursion in every port. These are usually walking tours of a downtown or coach tours of the surrounding area…or a combination of both. There are also other excursions you can purchase at reasonable prices.
  • All staterooms are at least verandahs. There are no inside (no windows) or outside (a window that does not open). There are also a few suites, but about 90% of the staterooms are verandahs.
  • Every stateroom has a minbar that is included. You know, like the ones in many cruise staterooms or hotels where a candy bar costs $5. Depending on the type of stateroom you are in, yours get restocked every day or every other day. Also depending on what stateroom you are in, you get alcoholic beverages in your minibar. In our Penthouse Verandah stateroom, ours will be refreshed every day and we do get gin, vodka, whiskey and one other liquor as well as mixers.
  • A couple relax inside a penthouse veranda stateroom on board the Viking Star

    All the staterooms are large staterooms. The smallest class of staterooms on the ship are 270 square feet. By comparison, the smallest staterooms on a Celebrity ship are 170 square feet. We are in a Penthouse Veranda (not a suite) and our stateroom is 338 square feet. That is only 40 square feet smaller than the Neptune Suite we were in last January on Nieuw Statendam. I am going to post a video tour of what our stateroom looks like once we are onboard. Based on what we have seen it is very comparable to what we had on Celebrity Flora.

    Penthouse Junior Suite Bathroom
  • The staterooms have huge bathrooms with heated floors and a gigantic (for a cruise ship regular verandah stateroom) shower enclosure and we get both a couch and a chair around a coffee table.
  • Only 928 guests on the entire ship. There are 465 crew members which is about a 2-1 ratio—above average for most cruise lines.
  • Their smaller ships can get into smaller ports. On our cruise next month we go to a lot of small towns in Greece, the Adriatic, Spain, France and the back side of Italy’s boot that a big cruise ship could not get near or would have to tender into.
  • Viking focuses on ports and traveling. Our cruise is from Athens to Barcelona with NO sea days (my next post will show you our complete itinerary). It will be exhausting but at least there are four overnights (Athens before, Venice, Livorno and Barcelona post-cruise).
  • No formal, fancy chic or “whatever cruise lines are calling it now” nights. Dress in the dining room is fairly casual. They just ask that you don’t wear shorts or jeans. That means less packing.
  • There is a full laundry on every deck. so more reasons you can pack less. There is no charge to use their laundry. All soap and fabric softener included. If you have clothes that need ironing, those are available too. And if you are in a PV or higher stateroom (like we are) all pressing is free.
  • No waiting in lines because there are so few guests and the ship is so well designed.
  • No nickel and diming. You can have a great cruise without paying an extra cent. Everything is included except gratuities and we pre-paid ours.
  • Much more interesting food. The menus look amazing as do the videos we have seen about the food.
  • The ships are gorgeous—a clean Scandinavian design. We have seen so many pictures, read a bunch of descriptions and watched a ton of videos.
  • No caste system. If you are in the lowest category of stateroom or the highest suite, no one will know what category you are in after you are on board. Everyone has access to everything. No special places/restaurants/sections for suite guests.
  • Longer cruises in more exotic places. I refuse to fly all the way to Europe for a 7-night cruise. Other than the Baltic, that’s about all Celebrity (and most other cruise lines) do anymore. Most of our Celebrity European and Down Under cruises were 14 nights minimum. Viking has 7, 14, 21, and 28-night cruises. That’s worth going to Europe for. And we are. Watch for our itinerary announcement early next week.
  • We have been told that their televisions play Downton Abbey on repeat. We LOVE Downton Abbey so we will be all set 😜 if we are stuck in our staterooms. I plan to watch the entire series all over again in between shore stops.

I think that pretty much covers it (as if that weren’t enough). And yes, it is more expensive. A Viking Ocean cruise is not cheap but we believe it is a great value. I priced out our 21-night cruise on Viking Sky against three seven-night cruises on Celebrity (they don’t have any 21-day cruises). When you add in everything we get and that they don’t have—Viking wins hands down. Come on along with us over the next few weeks and find out if we are right.

Price is what you pay. Value is what you get. —Warren Buffett