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New in 2015 — Viking Star

Second in a series about new ships

This is what happens when river-ship people get into the ocean-ship business. Viking River Cruises is about to become just Viking Cruises (on the water) and what makes this first crossover venture a game-changer that will be watched world-wide is that all suites on the Star (270 square feet minimum) have balconies and cruises will depart late at night or stay over in ports.

Launch date: April 11

Capacity: 930

Sister ships: To come — Viking Sea and Viking Sky, both in 2016

Maiden voyage: Istanbul to Venice in nine days

Home port: Do river ships even have homes?

Ships then in Viking ocean fleet: 1

Interesting: Small by ocean standards, the Star comes out of the gate with a whopping 49-day cruise…yes, it can be broken into sections. The ship emphasizes simplicity, with gathering places named The Restaurant, The Kitchen Table and The Living Room. Several of the company's popular riverboat features are included — the Aquavit Terrace and an alfresco dining venue — and Viking is taking its commitment connecting customers and destinations to a new level by going ocean. With fewer than 1,000 passengers, the Star’s likely to feel spacious.

Today at portsandbows.com: All the latest cruise news

Carnival Conquest
6 nights
March 1, 2015
Fort Lauderdale (return): Key WestGrand CaymanCozumel
Inside: $329
Cost per day: $54

Viking Offer for China a Bucket Lister?

Going to China isn't something that's ever made it onto our Bucket List but if it did, could there be a more appealing way to go than on a river cruise?

There are many choices, and one of them caught our eyes this week because it seems somewhat affordable, which river cruises often aren't for the average traveler, from Viking Cruises.

How does this sound?

A 13-day cruisetour called Imperial Jewels of China at the end of February, from Shanghai to Beijing for $3,000 per person. That's about $230 a day and it includes 11 guided tours to many places a first-time tourist would like to see — The Great Wall, Three Gorges Dam, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square — in addition to all the usual accoutrements like a balcony room, just about all meals, two nights in upscale hotels, two Intra-China flights.

The ship is the Viking Emerald and, yes, of course you also have to fly to China. Viking's got a deal on that, too — $797, a 2-for-1 offer that applies on flights from Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle.

Add it all up and you can spend 13 days seeing China for under $3,800 per person. Viking's regular price for all this is $8,595.

Are we going?

Can't make it this time…we have a commitment in Washington DC the day the cruise ends.

But it just might go on the bucket list after all.

Norwegian Sky
4 nights
January 6, 2014
Miami (return): Grand BahamaNassauGreat Stirrup Cay
Inside: $149
Cost per day: $39

A History Lesson, Courtesy of Viking Cruises

Cruising is almost always an education. New countries, new ports, new customs, new people. Sometimes it can be an education just to read something about cruising. Sometimes, even advertising can do the job. Like Viking Cruises, which last week sent advertising emails which read as follows:

"Who are you? The year is 1887 A.D."

It was accompanied by a picture of a man who looked very much like Nikola Teslasomeone from 1887…a century and a quarter ago.

"You were born in a small town in what was then the Austrian Empire, now part of Croatia," the message continued. "You are a brilliant inventor, physicist, mechanical and electrical engineer. You are well aware of your own genius, and you are driven to do whatever it takes to realize your dreams. You will redefine the term 'mad scientist'; your home country will honor you and an exciting high-end consumer product will be named after you 150 years after your birth."

Hmmm…Einstein? Unlikely, since he would have been eight years old. Frankenstein? A fictional character. Charles Darwin? Right century, wrong science…he was more of an evolutionist and geologist.

The name of the "mad scientist" is Nikola Tesla, born in a small town in what is now Croatia. He patented a "brushless alternating current induction motor based on a rotating magnetic field principle" that was sold for $60,000 to Westinghouse, which two years later hired and enabled him to become an American citizen.

Tesla MuseumSixty years after he died, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs dedicated to making electric cars named their company Tesla Motors in his honor.

What does this have to do with Viking Cruises? On one of Viking's itineraries, Passage to Eastern Europe, ships regularly stop in Belgrade, where passengers can visit the Nikola Tesla Museum.

And, if you're like us, all of this enabled you to learn something new today…about Viking, and about Nikola.

Carnival Sensation
4 nights
November 17, 2013
Port Canaveral (return): FreeportNassau
Inside: $159
Cost per day: $39

The Booming 'Other' Kind of Cruising

Our first experience of "river cruising" consists of a week on the Midi Canal in the south of France on a 27-foot "ship" with a crew of two, neither of whom knew much about how to steer a vessel in the water, never mind negotiate the 64 locks that lay ahead of us. Oh yes, and the person tying our little ship to the bollards in each of the 64 locks didn't know how to swim.

Experts, we are not. Credible commentators, we are not. We are, however, intrigued by what's happening on the rivers of Europe…and Asia…and North America…and South America.

River ships are being built with amazing regularity. The industry leader, Viking, put 10 new ships in the water this year and will add 12 next year. That will bring the size of the fleet, according to the Viking website that lists them all but the class of 2014, to 68 ships.

Our esteemed colleague Phil Reimer of Ports and Bows has filled screensful of space enlightening the cruise world about the man behind Viking, Torstein Hagen. He is, if nothing else, a fascinating and wealthy Norwegian with a physics degree from his homeland, an MBA from Harvard and an ambition that taunts (or should) the cruise industry at large. Other than being the 69-year-old founder (also CEO, Chairman, President and chief cook and bottle washer) of Viking, not a lot is known about him…even Wikipedia is only able to come up with two paragraphs, one of them to simply identify him as "a Norwegian citizen."

Last week, not content to blow the river cruise industry out of the water with his expansion, Mr. Hagen dipped into the "other guy's" pond and unveiled plans for an ocean ship. The Viking Star will be relatively small by ocean standards (about 1,000 passengers) but it will mirror the marketing of his river ships.

Which is?

In a word, destinations.

Viking ships carry a couple of hundred passengers, each of whom can figure on paying $200 and $300 per night for a week of seeing the sights of (plug in the continent) from the rivers that at one time were the principal form of transportation. The emphasis is on spending time in what ocean cruisers call ports, sometimes for a day or two, as opposed to six or eight hours. There are no casinos, no plethora of fancy restaurants, no explosion of entertainment.

"I like to say ocean cruising is a drinking man's cruise," Hagen has often said. "River cruising is a thinking man's cruise."

It sounds like the accommodation is classy, the shore excursions are eclectic and the cuisine is elegant.

Hmm, just like on our 27-footer on the Midi Canal.

Norwegian Jade
7 nights
August 3, 2013
Venice (return): Corfu, Santorini, Mykonos, Olympia
Inside: $849
Cost per day: $121


Internet Issue Bound To Change

Remember when…

Every time you checked into a hotel and asked about getting on the Internet, the hotel was happy to provide you with an ethernet cable to connect, for a price?

Remember when…

WiFi was available at airports, at a cost that bordered on the ridiculous?

Today, almost every hotel provides free WiFi, if not in the rooms then in the lobby. Today, the diminishing number of airports that charge to let you go online do so for what seems to be a more reasonable fee.

What about cruise ships?

Often vilified for charging an average around 75 cents a minute — cell phones are more (up to $6 a minute) — and that's almost always for slow and often interrupted connections, cruise lines are surely going to have to get with the program. For too long, they have justified what could be described as gouging their customers by pointing out the exorbitant infrastructure required to connect their moving objects with the satellites.

There's a story making the rounds this month about a service  that will result in phone calls from cruise ships for about $1 a minute. It's called Connect At Sea, from MTN, the company that provides most cruise ships with satellite transmission, and AT&T. The partnership is called Wireless Maritime Services.

A lot of tekkie talk is involved in the story. The bottom line is you'll have a better connection on your phone from a cruise ship, and it will cost about the same as roaming does on land. Anybody who uses Vonage (as we do) or some other VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) connection will be familiar with the quality.

Meanwhile, will realistic Internet prices be next?

The appetite for it is ravenous. Last week, our colleague Phil Reimer of Ports and Bows attended a press briefing about the first ocean ship for Viking River Cruises and when company owner Torstein Hagen said there would be no charge for Internet on his Viking Star, the applause was deafening.

It seems to be such a sore point with passengers that cruise lines would be better off to build their Internet profits into the price of a ticket. Unless, of course, their profits are even bigger than what we all imagine.

Holland America Zaandam
7 nights
June 16, 2013
Anchorage, Glacier Bay, Haines, Juneau, Ketchikan, Vancouver
Inside: $399
Cost per day: $57

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