The pros and cons of ocean cruising vs. river cruising with Viking

By Stephen O. Addison, Jr.
This article appears on page 34 of the July 2016 issue.
View of the port and waterfront in Rovinj, Croatia.

As veterans of eight river cruises (six with Viking River Cruises), my wife, Paula Owens, and I were intrigued when Viking Ocean Cruises (Woodland Hills, CA; 866/984-5464, was formed. Ocean cruising opens up many new and appealing itineraries, but would Viking be able to maintain their high standards? And how would Viking’s small-ship river-cruise experience (accommodating fewer than 200 passengers) translate to a 930-passenger oceangoing ship? 

To find out, we booked a 10-day cruise from Venice to Istanbul in the inaugural season of the beautiful Viking Star ($4,149 per person, including round-trip airfare from Charlotte, NC). 

Pros and cons

So what did we find to be different in our late-September/early-October 2015 cruise?

Public areas were where we noticed the principal improvements. There was a quarter-mile promenade deck; a large swimming pool under a retractable roof; an exercise room; a spa, including free saunas, steam rooms and Jacuzzis, and a (disappointing) Snow Grotto. Other spaces included a 2-level Explorers’ lounge, a theater and several other attractive public spaces of various sizes. (The two small and underutilized lanais were our favorites.) 

The Aquavit Terrace was pleasant but not nearly as alluring as its counterparts on Viking’s long ships. 

Large interactive touch-screen displays were scattered throughout the ship, providing deck plans, menus, etc., but several weren’t functioning properly at the beginning of our cruise.

The staterooms were larger than those on the river ships and featured larger bathrooms and closets. Storage space was generous, especially in the bathrooms, but an additional drawer or two for clothing would have been appreciated. All staterooms had generously sized verandas.

The Viking Star cruise was not without lots of food and drink, and the menus were more varied, typically with a greater number of selections featuring local dishes. The included wine and beer that accompanied lunch and dinner were the best I’ve experienced on a Viking ship. 

There were additional dining venues available, along with free room service, and lots of tables for two (albeit closely spaced), a rarity on river ships. 

Manfredi’s Italian Restaurant, one of the exclusive (but still free) reservation-only venues, was everyone’s favorite. 

Onofrio Fountain in Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Compared to the river ships, the Viking Star offered a dramatically improved Wi-Fi and Internet connection experience, the best, by far, that I’ve encountered on a ship. Each stateroom-only deck included a very popular (and free) self-serve laundry room with washing machines that automatically dispensed detergent and fabric softener. Viking deserves kudos for both of these enhancements.

Off the ship

Viking Ocean Cruises offered plenty of activities to keep passengers busy, with three or four lecturers on board who delivered several interesting presentations. The off-ship excursions weren’t always quite as successful. 

The included excursions (one per port) were somewhat basic and limited. These appeared designed for people with mobility issues. Viking’s river cruises offer separate excursions for individuals with limited mobility; I feel that practice should be extended to their ocean cruises. 

Several optional excursions (i.e., extra cost) were available at each port. These were usually worthwhile and a reasonable value, although their quality varied considerably.

By far, the best excursion of our cruise was the “Highlights of Montenegro” tour ($79 per person). It began with an exhilarating (or scary, if you are what we Tennessee hillbillies call “flatland tourists”) drive up Lovc´en Mountain into Lovc´en National Park (part of the Dinara Alps) on a narrow road that seemed to have an endless supply of hairpin turns. This route offered fantastic views of Kotor, the Bay of Kotor and the surrounding mountains. 

This was followed with a stop at Njeguši, a tiny mountain village where we sampled the local prosciutto and cheese (definitely recommended) along with the local “firewater” — very much welcome after the exciting climb up the mountain. This village, known for its folk architecture, is located in a beautiful area that would be worth exploring for a couple of days. 

We traveled onward past scenic mountain and valley views to Montenegro’s former capital, Cetinje. Along the way, we could see the mountaintop Mausoleum of Njegoš off in the distance. Historic Cetinje also deserves two days to explore its stately mansions, museums and monastery.

The town of Cetinje, Montenegro, lined by mountains.

Our drive continued, now past Lake Skadar National Park. Lovely Lake Skadar, shared with Albania, is the largest freshwater lake in the Balkans. 

Then we began our descent from the mountains. This much-less-challenging road offered excellent views of Montenegro’s rugged Adriatic coast. We eventually arrived in Budva, an overgrown, crowded resort town with little charm. 

Finally, we returned to Kotor for an informative walking tour of the Old Town. After a late lunch, we explored the well-preserved medieval area on our own. It was easy to explore on foot, as the streets were generally pedestrian-only. 

There was a small collection of interesting sites (churches, museums, etc.) packed into a relatively compact area. The small size helped to keep us from getting lost in the labyrinth of narrow streets. While crowded during our visit, the town hadn’t yet become too touristy (but that appears to be a possible danger). 

Until you visit, it’s hard to appreciate the splendor of this country, in general, and the Bay of Kotor, in particular. On a cruise that included Venice, Dubrovnik, Santorini, Athens, Ephesus and Istanbul, Montenegro was the surprise favorite stop for us and all of the fellow passengers we asked. 

Overall, we enjoyed our Mediterranean cruise, though not as much as we enjoyed our river cruises. Primarily, that’s because we prefer the more intimate experience of small river ships, which typically dock in the heart of each city, often with direct pedestrian access to points of interest. Tenders were required at two ports on our ocean cruise, and two other docking locations were located beyond walking distance of areas of interest. 

If your cruising priority is the shipboard experience, give a Viking ocean cruise a try. If the destination is your top priority, stay with the river cruises. Maybe we’ll see you there!