Day 168: River Rat or Ocean Pirate?

Day 168 of the Nowhere To Be Project was spent on an airplane (again). As my eyes tired from the book I’m reading, I spent some time trying to figure out why I wasn’t feeling totally blown away by my recent British Isles ocean voyage on the Viking Sky. I’ve been pondering this feeling for the three days since I disembarked and I think I’ve figured out that I am simply more of a river rat than an ocean pirate.

Recently my daughter and I were reflecting on the many cruises we’ve done, mostly on the ocean. When the kids were little, the ship (a.k.a. the kid’s club) was the draw and the destinations were secondary. It was all about escaping from my hectic life and relaxing back then. Since I got a taste of river cruising though, my perspective has shifted significantly and it took one final ocean cruise for me to realize this.

Ocean cruises offer many more shipboard amenities than are possible on river cruises. I’ve been on megaships and on smaller ocean vessels, both with their own unique benefits. No matter the size, most modern cruise ships offer multiple dining options, room service, spa, fitness, theaters and countless enrichment and entertainment options. However, their sheer size means more people and the need for larger ports that are often on the outskirts of the destination, necessitating the need for tenders, shuttles, buses and the like.

River ships are tiny when compared to ocean-worthy vessels. Those that I’ve been on offer fairly basic staterooms, one or two dining options, and usually just one bar/lounge which is used for all meetings and enrichment opportunities. With fewer people and the ability to dock within city limits, river cruises eliminate the lines that are so common on cruise ships. This means more time for exploration and that is my current mindset.

Which do you prefer?

Day 167: Is There a Holy Grail for Travel Loyalty?

Day 167 of the Nowhere To Be Project had me pondering the concept of travel loyalty. What I mean by this is loyalty to a particular hotel chain, airline, cruise company and so on. We were just on the Viking Sky for two weeks, having arrived home only two days ago. While on board we learned that 75% of the passengers were previous Viking guests. I found that to be an amazing number, so the company is surely doing something right.

Viking staff always says “hello”, calls me by name and asks if I need anything!

I think that the high level of service Viking provides may be the key to their astronomical levels of customer loyalty. For example, by day two on our voyage every staff member we had encountered on the first day greeted us by name (cabin stewards, guest service, bar and restaurant staff, spa staff). I have no idea how they do it, but it really means a lot because you feel as if you truly matter.

Beyond the exceptional service that is provided by Viking Cruises, the incentives to return are appealing. Past guest discounts make booking future travel seem like a no brainer. The company also provides lucrative offers to encourage passengers to book future travel while still onboard. We took advantage of this when we booked an Elbe river cruise just days into the cruise. We were given a deep discount, free economy airfare, onboard credit (for the cruise we were on and for the future cruise), a reduced deposit and a penalty-free cancellation policy. We were already considering several river cruises and these offers made booking while onboard too good to pass up!

What does a company need to do to earn your travel loyalty?

Viking staff assisting a passenger down the gangway

Day 166: Is Being Vegan on Viking Cruises Easy?…It’s Complicated

Day 166 of the Nowhere To Be Project was spent reflecting on our two-week British Isles voyage on the Viking Ocean’s ship the Star. Over the next few days I will post reviews of different aspects of the trip (Dining, Itinerary, Service, etc.), but I wanted to begin with a post about the vegan options on board as I have had many, many questions on this topic.

I notified Viking that I was vegan well in advance of our trip and the ship’s restaurant manager Joan (pronounced Joanne) was aware of this from the outset. She approached our table on embarkation day after I inquired with the wait staff about vegan options for lunch in the World Café (the casual dining buffet). She explained the process for special dietary requests to me at that time which goes as follows:
1- decide at least a day in advance where you will dine
2- obtain a photocopy of the menu
3- select the items you’d like
4- return the menu to the restaurant manager by 9am on the day you will dine

This process sounded simple enough and I was pleased. Not so fast! Despite following Joan’s instructions to the letter, the process of being vegan on the Viking Star was a comedy of errors. No matter which dining option we chose, when we arrived the wait staff seemed put off and confused about my diet. The only case where the chefs had been notified in advance of my arrival was at the Chef’s Table. All other meals were made on the fly, took forever to prepare and almost always included non-vegan ingredients (cheese, whipped cream, honey, etc.).

A pre-ordered “vegan” wedge salad served with bleu cheese:-/
A “vegan” burger served with cheese:-(

On the fifth day of the 14 day trip, I decided that the simplest option for me and the staff was the World Café for lunch and dinner where the dishes are labeled. However, “vegan” and “dairy” labels are not used by Viking and nearly all the vegetable-based dishes included invisible butter and/or cream. The only labels used by Viking are “gluten free”, “sugar free” and “vegetarian”. I inquired with World Café’s wonderful sous chef Clifford about this and he said he’d mention it to the “higher ups”. He was always willing to help in explaining the vegan options to me, but they were so few among the prepared dishes that I usually had to have something made special. Despite his enthusiasm, he was usually overwhelmed with his job duties which made accommodating my needs difficult for him. He was also limited in terms of available ingredients. In a nutshell, I ate pasta with garlic, olive oil and vegetables for nearly every meal and by the time I received it, my husband was eating dessert. Meal time became very stressful and I felt bad having to ask for special treatment just to eat. I worried aloud to my husband more than once about those on board with food allergies. If my dietary restrictions had been due to allergies, I undoubtedly would have become very, very ill.

Creamed spinach prepared with whole milk instead of nut milk:-$

After learning the hard way in the restaurants on board, I relied on room service for breakfast each day. Hang tangs are placed in the staterooms each evening for the following morning. Instead of selecting the listed options, I wrote in almond milk, avocado and mushrooms sautéed in olive oil each night and had no problems with what was delivered the following morning. Just a note that almond milk and avocado were not available by “special order” anywhere else on board despite my repeated efforts at obtaining them.

My daily “special order” breakfast
Specially prepared pasta in Manfredi’s…served with pepper and no oil! Yuck!

Vegan diets are becoming more prevalent each and every day and Viking MUST take action to adapt. We love nearly everything else about the company and are confident that they can work this out. In fact, this was our fifth voyage with Viking in just a couple of years and we booked our sixth while onboard (a river cruise on the Elbe River). It is my hope that Viking takes charge of educating their staff on vegan food preparation or it may be my last. The staff is so eager to please, but lacks the time, tools and knowledge of vegan food to do so on the fly! In short, a vegan option (other than fruit and salad) should be planned and included at every meal (labeled accordingly).

A success at Chef’s Table…mushroom tarte!

Day 164: End of Cruise Blues

Day 164 of the Nowhere To Be Project had us up and off the ship at 4:30am. As always, the Viking staff was so efficient with the transfer to the airport in Bergen, Norway (they need to give some pointers to the shore excursion crew, but more on that in a future post:). We flew on Norwegian Air for the first time (booked by Viking on our behalf). It is a bare bones airline and we had a several hour delay for our connection at London-Gatwick. The one positive thing I can say about Norwegian Air is that their seat-back entertainment system is great! We loved ordering drinks and snacks right from the screen! We’ve just landed after 20 hours of flying and cannot wait to climb into our bed. Sleep was exceptionally rare for us during our British Isles Explorer journey aboard the Viking Sky, so we have some major catching up to do tonight;). Many more details and photos to come over the next few days…

Day 163: Norwegian Sunshine in Bergen

On Day 163 of the Nowhere To Be Project we arrived in Bergen, Norway. Norway is known for cold air and abundant rain and today was no different. Travel tip: pack a hooded raincoat when visiting Norway. I did not and was soaked to the bone by what the locals call “Norwegian Sunshine” (rain…over 80 inches each year)! Umbrellas are pretty useless here as the wind can get fierce.

Bergen itself is a busy port city filled with seafood, boats and tourists. The colorful wooden row houses are the signature of this former capital city. Travel tip two: bring a very fat wallet for a visit to Norway because prices are at least double what one might pay in the U.S. for the same item. A pint is $15 and an average glass of wine around $25. The ever-popular Norwegian sweaters range from $200 to $600. A casual dinner for two can easily cost several hundred dollars. We kept (most of) our money and enjoyed the free scenery instead, haha. It is very easy to whittle away the hours just watching the boats come and go and we did that very thing with great pleasure.

Day 162: I Want All the Ponies

On Day 162 of the Nowhere To Be Project we were given the chance to explore Lerwick, a small port town in the Shetland Islands of Scotland. The town itself is very, very small. However, by venturing out into the countryside on an included Viking tour we were able to learn about and meet some of the famed Shetland Ponies. They live idyllic and long lives roaming the vast countryside. What they lack in size, they make up with in spirit…so lovable and affectionate (reminded me of my Golden Retriever). Many families in the Shetlands bring their ponies inside their homes in inclement weather and I can totally see why!

Day 161: Solemnity at Culloden

Day 161 of the Nowhere To Be Project places us eleven days into our two week British Isles Explorer voyage aboard the Viking Sky. We docked in Invergorden and joined an optional tour to visit the battlefield of Culloden. The drive through the lush heather-covered rolling hills of the Scottish Highlands was so peaceful that the horror of what happened at Culloden on 16 April 1746 nearly escaped us. That is, until we stepped foot on it. Tombstones etched with clan names dot the grounds to mark the mass burial sites. We were told that after the battle, wives and mothers came to identify and bury their kinfolk only to be raped by the loyalists who had defeated the Jacobites so fiercely. Sadly, the humiliation didn’t end there. Following the battle, clans were no longer allowed to dress in their tartans and were not permitted to speak in their native tongue, Scots Gaelic. So many men died which wiped out many Highlanders clans. The Fraser clan was so depleted that men from outside the clan were offered twenty pounds to change their names to Fraser! Today’s visit was so moving, rivaling the time I spent on Omaha Beach in Normandy. Both are tricks of the mind…so much natural beauty, yet so incredibly tainted by the ignorance of war.

Day 160: Like Locals in Edinburgh

On Day 160 of the Nowhere To Be Project we did something we’ve never done before…hired a local for a private tour. After ten days of large group tours we needed a break and found a website (ToursByLocals.com) that matches local expert guides with travelers for custom day trips. For just over $600 we became the sole focus of our wonderful guide, Felicitas. At the outset we explained that St. Andrews was the primary goal for my husband. I asked that any extra time be focused on satisfying my Outlander curiosity (a.k.a obsession). We were met at the port and immediately whisked away for nine hours to fulfill our wishes through the eyes of a local.

We began in Falkland, Scotland. It is a tiny picturesque village filled with 17th and 18th century structures. Outlander used this location for the filming of Frank and Claire’s second honeymoon. Must sees include Bruce Fountain, Campbell’s Coffee House and The Covenanter Hotel.

We were then on to St. Andrews and the old course. This is a very busy area (mostly American tourists)! It is also a lovely seaside university town filled with lots of options for shopping, drinking and dining. My husband was thrilled to recreate a famous photograph of golf legend Jack Nicklaus on the Swilken bridge of the 18th hole.

The grand finale of our local’s tour took place in Culross, an adorable 17th century time warp of a town. Culross Castle is a must even if you’re not interested in the fact that it was used for Outlander filming (the outdoor stairs, the kitchen and the garden). While visiting, be sure to venture up the hill to view the abbey! It is remarkable!

I loved the experience of roaming with a local and would highly recommend it!❤️

Day 159: Standing Stones

As a huge fan of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series (and the corresponding television show), I was so excited to awake on Day 159 of the Nowhere To Be Project in the Orkney Islands of Scotland. While this particular place isn’t directly featured in the series, it is rumored that the author was very inspired by her visit to the Ring of Brodgar.

We spent the morning in Kirkwall and the afternoon in the countryside at the Ring of Brodgar, a Neolithic circle of standing stones.

Two remarkable things happened today. Firstly, I fell absolutely, completely and hopelessly in love with this tranquil corner of the world. There is literally water everywhere you look. There are very few people and countless rolling hills. Traffic isn’t a thing at all. Animals roam freely and with a year-round temperature of about 55 degrees it seems like utopia.

The second stellar thing that occurred today was our visit to the stones. To witness their perfect placement amidst the coast and land was breathtaking, especially when taking into account that they are 5000 years old! I begged my husband to push me through the stones so that I could go back in time to find my own Jamie Fraser, but sadly they were cordoned off. Oh well, heading for Lallybroch tomorrow. He’ll probably be waiting for me there, haha.

Day 158: Surprise Sea Day

We were preparing to spend the day hiking at Knockan Crag in the Scottish Highlands when the captain announced that high winds would make tendering to Ullapool too dangerous. Therefore, Day 158 of the Nowhere To Be Project was spent entirely on board the Viking Sky. The cruise director followed the captain’s announcement with one of her own promising lobster macaroni and cheese by the pool as a way to fill the day. Many people took her up on the offer, but we used the time to wander the ship.

The Viking Sky is a lovely vessel. It is streamlined and comfortable. The common areas rarely seem crowded, probably due to the cozy nooks and crannies peppered throughout the ship. The decor is somehow muted and warm at the same time. No matter one’s mood, there is always an appropriate place on board to satisfy. Rest and relaxation can be found by either of the two pools, in the spa, at Wintergarden or the Explorer’s Lounge, and in the library. Entertainment looms in the ship’s two theaters, the atrium, the shops, the sports deck and in the game room. Dining options are located in the Restaurant, Manfredi’s, The Chef’s Table, World Café, the Pool Grill, Mamsen’s and via 24 hour room service. Conversation, drinks and dancing are also easy to access in the Aquavit Bar, the Explorer’s Lounge, the Pool Bar, the Viking Bar and at Torshavn, the ship’s version of a nightclub. With that brief rundown, I’m guessing that it’s fairly obvious to see that we had absolutely no trouble filling today’s unexpected hours at sea.