The Thoughtful Cruise
By Irene Middleman Thomas
Viking’s expedition ships offer adventure, education and excitement — and not an umbrella drink in sight
Heading to the subs now,” our skipper, Jessica Dickson, shouted into her walkie-talkie. The choppy waves of Ontario’s Georgian Bay, the world’s largest freshwater archipelago, forced the six of us to nervously grip the side ropes of our Zodiac inflatable raft. When we arrived at the yellow submarine named Paul (yes, really), Viking expedition guides carefully helped us aboard. Within minutes, we were submerged 50 feet, at the bottom of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the northeastern arm of Lake Huron, the second largest of the Great Lakes.
“I just love this, “Mark Andrews, our pilot, says with a huge grin. “When the ship was in Antarctica last winter, a monster jellyfish floated in front of the sub.” Conversely, the bottom of Georgian Bay — home to some 30,000 islands — was not offering much to look at: sand, one fish and a few rocks. Still, the experience of being in a $4.2 million submarine was pretty darn cool.
In early 2020, Viking, which promotes itself as “the thinking person’s cruise,” announced two new state-of-the-art polar class expedition ships, Octantis and Polaris, designed for adventure and exploration in Antarctica, South America and the Great Lakes. It is no small challenge to build ships that are suitable both for sailing in Antarctica and also sliding through the narrow Welland Canal connecting Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Essentially floating research facilities with internal submarine storage marinas, the ships have scientific agendas but also are designed to attract the guests that keep Viking afloat — especially those leaning toward adventure tourism.
Celebrating 25 years in river and ocean cruising — traveling to 88 countries since 1997, with more than 500,000 guests annually — Viking distinguishes itself from other cruise lines by what it does not offer: casinos, inside (windowless) staterooms, children under 18 and, amusingly, umbrella drinks.
Here’s what Viking’s two new 378-passenger, 189-stateroom polar class ships do offer: 16 Hobie kayaks, 17 military pro Zodiacs designed for professional use and two military-grade special operations boats, as well as science and microplastics research labs (passengers can assist in studies). On board are experts such as marine biologists, naturalists, wildlife photographers, ornithologists, geologists, historians and highly experienced adventure tour guides. Viking funds the research conducted on board, allowing the scientists to conduct their work without having to apply for grants.
Marcos Golding, a staff naturalist with an extensive background in geology and mountain guiding, says he learns something new daily from his colleagues. “Each of us has unique knowledge and experience. Viking scouted out people from the adventure tourism world, and I jumped at the opportunity.”
Emily Cunningham, climatologist and oceanographer, concurs. “This is expedition cruising with a purpose,” she said. “I love that we can engage our guests with much-needed research, as ‘citizen scientists.’”
But don’t imagine that these are bare-bones research vessels. Conducting science experiments is not obligatory, and most passengers simply enjoy the scenery and excursions and take in a few nature documentaries or explorer talks in The Hide, a saloon/sanctuary tucked in the bow of the boat.
Viking lives up to its “Exploring the World in Comfort” slogan with understated elegance. One day, after our exhilarating Zodiac joyride, we settled into The Living Room and plopped into the plush leather sofas topped with cozy Norwegian blankets and reindeer skins. Sipping sherry and sampling the immense library of nature books while listening to superb onboard musicians playing classical music felt very luxurious indeed.
Viking’s expedition voyages might seem slightly pricey compared to the traditional river and ocean itineraries, but there’s no extra charge to use any of the marine craft, including the submarines. Clean-lined Scandinavian design distinguishes all Viking craft, and ergonomic staterooms offer balconies and windows that open to fresh air. For those who are worried about seasickness, the ship’s stabilizers reduce rolling, so that not once in eight days did we feel any movement. Also, the expedition ships are designed to be environmentally sensitive, with special methods of treating garbage and sewage and the use of catalytic converters.
The focus is on science, nature and the thrill of being able to take submarine rides and speak one-on-one with scientists and naturalists. Excursions (at least one per day included in the price, but more are offered) feature things like a day on Michigan’s quaint, albeit touristy, Mackinac Island with its Grand Hotel, a blissful kayak ride in Georgian Bay, and hikes along the wildflower-bedecked shorelines and into small lakeside towns.
Truly unique, the ships are the first civilian vessels to be certified as National Weather Service balloon launch sites for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, one of Viking’s many scientific partners. One dawn, dozens of us stood on deck to cheer on the balloon countdown and view the launch, a one-off experience.
“We’re not just doing this for the fun of it,” says one staffer. As proof, passengers who are interested can visit The Science Lab after the launch to see the balloon’s weather data arriving as it ascends to 16 miles.
Devoted cruisers will find new things to do on expedition voyages. Even the spa experience is a bit different, with saunas, a snow grotto and a large indoor hydrotherapy pool. After a swim, rest on one of the beautiful, heated stone beds beside the pool.
When I asked a passenger who had taken numerous Viking cruises to name her favorite part of this trip, she replied, “It’s really everything; the ship itself, the food, the drinks, the staff, the staterooms, the music, the lectures. It is such a complete experience.”