Travelers looking to explore the Yangtze River in China or the Danube in Europe may have already heard of Viking River Cruises, which offers dozens of boats plying various rivers around the globe. But the company has recently expanded to include larger ocean-going cruise ships, with the first one launching earlier this year.
Viking Star is the first of three identical, 930-passenger ships; the other two, Viking Sea and Viking Sky, will debut within the next two years. I recently sailed aboard Viking Star from Barcelona to Rome to see how well the experience might suit independent travelers. Read on to learn what I loved about the cruise — as well as a few drawbacks.
1. Unique Itineraries
Viking Star sails all over Europe as well as to the Caribbean and the East Coast of the U.S., and it’s hard not to be enticed by some of the less-traveled ports the ship visits. The 14-night Ancient Empires & Holy Lands sailing, for instance, starts in Rome and includes calls in Israel (Haifa and Jerusalem) and Turkey (Ephesus and Istanbul) as well as Naples and Athens. Or head north to follow “In the Wake of the Vikings,” a journey that starts in Bergen, Norway, and passes through Scotland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland en route to Montreal. The Caribbean itineraries start in Puerto Rico instead of Florida, minimizing days at sea and allowing passengers to explore islands like Tortola, Guadeloupe and Antigua.
2. (Almost) Everything Is Included
On most mainstream cruise lines you’ll pay extra for things like onboard Wi-Fi, dinner in an alternative restaurant, and beer/wine with meals — all of which are included on Viking Star. There’s always one free shore excursion in each port as well (typically an introductory bus or walking tour). Another nice perk? All cabins have balconies.
Note that a few things do cost extra, including spa treatments, gratuities for the crew, some shore excursions, and premium cocktails, wines and spirits.
3. Tasteful Ambience
If your vision of cruise ships includes cheesy, over-the-top decor and crowded buffets, rest assured; as befits its Scandinavian sensibility, Viking Star feels elegant and understated. My favorite spots included the quiet Explorers’ Lounge, where you can curl up on a couch with a book from the well-stocked bookshelves, and the Nordic spa, where you can cool off in a Snow Grotto between trips to the sauna or hot tub.
4. Longer Days in Port
On my Mediterranean sailing, Viking Star overnighted in two different ports (Rome and Barcelona), and stayed late in most others; passengers didn’t have to be back onboard until 8 to 10 p.m. — unusually late for the cruise industry. That meant we had at least 12 hours to explore each day, giving us the option to take multiple excursions or to eat both lunch and dinner ashore if we wanted to experience the local cuisine.
5. Enrichment and Immersion
Daily lectures (such as “The Restoration of the Sistine Chapel: What Went Wrong and Why?”) and informational port talks help passengers get to know each destination before visiting, and many of the shore excursions go beyond the usual major sightseeing attractions. For example, one offering in Rome takes travelers to the ancient Etruscan city of Tarquinia, which predates the rise of the Roman Empire. During a call in Livorno, Italy, you can take a cooking class in a medieval Tuscan castle or meet working artisans in Florence. Viking also offers a Kitchen Table experience that involves shopping with the ship’s chef at a market in port and then working with him to prepare local specialties (such as Spanish tapas).
Despite all of these benefits, there are a few important caveats to note about sailing with Viking Ocean Cruises. Most importantly, despite the overnights and longer days in port, these itineraries have the same major drawback as any other cruise, particularly in Europe: not enough time. Spending a single day in a city like Florence or Jerusalem will give you no more than a taste — especially in places where the port is a one- or two-hour bus ride from the city you actually intend to see. To avoid frustration, consider your cruise a sampler that will help you figure out which cities are worth a longer visit in the future.
Also, while the included shore excursions are a nice perk, independent travelers who chafe at the thought of shuffling along with 35 other tourists behind a guide holding up a Viking sign should book their own private tour (for a more personalized experience) or simply go it alone.
Cruises start at about $2,000 per person (not including airfare). Learn more at VikingCruises.com.
Photos: 9 Best Destinations to See from the Water
— written by Sarah Schlichter
Editor’s Note: I traveled as a guest of Viking Ocean Cruises, with the understanding that I would cover the trip in a way that honestly reflected my experience — good, bad or indifferent. Along with the cruise itself, Viking also included some complimentary extras to allow me to experience various aspects of its onboard experience. You can read our full editorial disclosure on our About Us page.
On the first day of a recent trip to Barcelona, Spain, I found myself elbow to elbow with a mob of fellow tourists outside Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Batllo, one of the city’s most famous attractions. A few hours later, I shouldered through the hordes at a Christmas market in front of the cathedral. And the next day I discovered a line stretching out the door of the basilica in Montserrat (a popular day trip from Barcelona), where hundreds of travelers waited to touch the hand of the revered Black Madonna. I’d hoped to miss out on crowds by traveling in early December, part of Spain’s winter low season, but that wasn’t the case — with one exception.
During an hour and a half at Pedralbes Monastery, located in a leafy residential area just a 15-minute subway ride from the center of the city, I wandered through the world’s largest Gothic cloister, peered into small cells where nuns once embroidered and prayed, and marveled over a chapel adorned with colorful 14th-century frescoes. The best part? I had this serene spot almost entirely to myself.
Known in Catalan as Reial Monestir de Santa Maria de Pedralbes, the monastery was founded in 1327 by Queen Elisenda de Montcada as a home for the Poor Clare Sisters, an order of Franciscan nuns. While the sisters lived lives of quiet contemplation, they also accumulated a surprising number of religious treasures, from altarpieces and alabaster sculptures to gold and silver chalices. (My favorite? The massive, richly illustrated choir books.) Many of these artifacts are on display under the vaulted ceiling of what was once the nuns’ dormitory.
As you walk through the monastery, you’ll see the sepulcher of Queen Elisenda, the refectory where the nuns took their meals, the abbey room (the oldest part of the building) and even the kitchen, where I loved the colorful tiles added in the 19th century. It’s easy to imagine what life may have been like here, especially when you stand in the center of the cloister with its trees, fountains and medicinal garden. It’s a perfect place for quiet contemplation — and a balm to anyone seeking to escape the crowds at Barcelona’s top tourist spots.
To reach the monastery, you can take the FGC train (which connects easily to the Metro) from Placa Catalunya to the Reina Elisenda station, a 10- to 15-minute walk from Pedralbes. Barcelona’s hop-on, hop-off bus also runs out to the monastery. Note that the church attached to the monastery is accessed via a different entrance and has more limited hours, so you may want to stop there first to make sure you don’t miss out.
Photos: 10 Best Spain Experiences
Do you know any other under-the-radar attractions in Barcelona? Share them in the comments!
— written by Sarah Schlichter
I’m a sucker for a good top 10 list. I’ll read any that come across my Facebook and Twitter feeds. They’re nice and neat, a good round number, easily skimmable if the topic doesn’t thrill me.
Throughout the year, I’ve collected the best top 10 lists in travel. Most are useful and worth bookmarking; others rank high on the “fascinating but useless trivia” scale.
10 Places You Have to See to Believe: The gorgeous photography withstanding, it is hard to image that some of these spots actually exist on Earth. This Conde Nast Traveler slideshow in and of itself is a bucket list.
10 Longest Flights in the World: It never ceases to amaze me that a giant hunk of metal called an airplane can get off the ground, let alone stay up there for hours at a time. Currently, the longest flight in the world is more than 17 hours long; this article from Road Warrior Voices tells you where it goes.
Top 10 Train Station Restaurants in Europe: I’ve always found train travel to be so civilized and dignified. My next trip to Europe will be even more so when I dine at one of these spots.
10 Most Ethical Destinations in the World: Each December, a California-based nonprofit called Ethical Traveler releases a list of the countries that do the most to promote human rights, conserve their environments and support social welfare. Palau, Uruguay and Lithuania are among those that made the list in 2015.
Top 10 Film- and TV-Themed Bars and Restaurants: There’s a “Breaking Bad”-themed coffee shop in Istanbul — who knew? (I’d keep very close tabs on what they put into your coffee if I were you.)
Top 10 Travel Apps for 2015: This Business Review Europe article introduced me to a free app that monitors the ultraviolet index in your current location and reminds you when to reapply sunscreen. This was helpful during a beach vacation and a high-altitude trip to the Rocky Mountains, when I normally wouldn’t think too much about sun protection.
10 Luxury Journeys to Experience in 2016: CNN interviews travel specialists about their picks for stylish destinations to see next year. Central Asia, a little-known spot in Japan and Colombia made the intriguing list.
Top 10 Bike-Friendly Wine Routes: From the Wachau Valley in Austria to the northernmost tip of New Zealand’s South Island, these are the most picturesque places to combine an affinity for cycling with a love of wine tasting.
Alton Brown’s Favorite Restaurants from a Cross-Country Trip: The Food Network star is a humble diner. He picked an old-school soda fountain in Philadelphia, a Boise drive-in and a tamale joint in Tucson as some of the favorite places he ate this year during a lecture tour.
10 Totally Madcap Micronations: Every year you hear of some guy declaring his independence and starting his own country. World Travel Guide tells the stories of 10 so-called “micronations,” including one with a giant, goofy smiley face on its flag.
Quiz: Where Should You Travel This Winter?
— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
Okay, so winter technically hasn’t even officially arrived yet — but we’re already getting sick of short, gray days and long, dark nights. And we’ve still got several months to go!
To cheer ourselves up on days like these, we naturally turn our thoughts to thoughts of travel. Today we’re mentally transporting ourselves to the following vibrant destinations as an escape from the dreary winter landscapes here at home.
The charming little fishing village of Burano, located in the Venetian Lagoon, is painted every color of the rainbow.
Photos: 11 Best Italy Experiences
Get a taste of another culture in Singapore’s Little India neighborhood, where you can visit a temple, browse bustling markets and nosh on authentic Indian dishes.
Singapore City Guide
Now is a perfect time to book a spring trip to see the magnificent Keukenhof gardens in Holland, which are only open for a couple of months a year.
The World’s 9 Most Gorgeous Gardens
With its fascinating culture, vibrant cities and warm sunshine, Cuba will cure any case of the winter blahs.
A Walking Tour of Old Havana
Where are you planning to travel this winter? (And if you’re not sure where to go, take our quiz!)
— written by Sarah Schlichter
Dust off your floppy safari hat and polish your binoculars: Botswana is the hottest travel destination for 2016.
Travel guide publisher Lonely Planet selected the southern Africa safari destination as the No. 1 country to visit in 2016 in its annual Best in Travel survey. The list compiles the biggest travel trends, destinations, events and experiences in the world in the coming year.
Botswana topped the list because of its resplendent wildlife viewing. But it’s also celebrating the 50th anniversary of its independence in 2016, making it one of Africa’s most thriving and stable nations. It’s “wild Africa at its best,” the Lonely Planet staff proclaimed.
Planning an African Safari
Other countries making the top five are Japan, the United States, Palau and Latvia.
The top-rated region for 2016 is Transylvania, Romania — not just for castles and vampire lore but also for wildlife watching and an up-and-coming art scene. Other top regions include West Iceland, the Valle de Vinales in Cuba, the Italian wine-producing region of Friuli and Waiheke Island, New Zealand.
The No. 1 city for 2016 is Kotor, Montenegro, which was touted for its gorgeous harbors. Other top cities include Quito, Ecuador, a UNESCO World Heritage Site noted for being both relaxed and vibrant; Dublin, which has bounced back from the global recession; George Town, Malaysia, which is hot among foodies into the street vendor scene; and Rotterdam, Netherlands, which opened a humongous indoor food market last year.
On the “new openings in 2016” list are Disney’s first resort in China, a manmade surf lagoon in Wales and the Louvre Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
The website has some other fun lists too, including best silent retreats (the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California), favorite final frontiers (the dense jungle-entwined Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama) and best luxe experiences for budget travelers (thermal baths in Iceland).
Where do you plan to travel in 2016?
–written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
Thanks to the strengthening U.S. dollar and the weakening euro, trips across the pond are getting more affordable — which has many of us daydreaming about sipping espressos in Italy or listening to traditional music at a pub in Ireland. But which European cities are the biggest draw?
HomeAway, a vacation rental site listing homes and apartments around the world, recently answered that question for us. The company delved into its search data to find out which European cities generated the most vacation rental inquiries from Americans between July and September 2015. The winner: Paris, followed closely by Amsterdam.
HomeAway examined the booking preferences in nine different major metro areas around the United States, identifying the top two most requested European destinations in each. Paris was the top choice in San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth and Seattle, while Amsterdam won out in New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. Rome was another popular pick, appearing second on the lists for three different U.S. markets (San Francisco, D.C. and Chicago).
There were a few outliers as well; New Yorkers and Philadelphians showed interest in Italy’s Amalfi Coast, while folks in Los Angeles, perhaps sick of all that sunshine, were hankering for a trip to Dublin.
It’s impossible to know for sure why certain destinations are more popular in some areas than others, but we suspect that the availability of affordable flights plays a role. For example, Boston’s number one pick was Reykjavik, and both Icelandair and WOW Air offer cheap nonstop flights there from Beantown. (Bostonians, take note: We found an incredible $374 roundtrip fare from WOW Air for an off-peak itinerary next month. Northern lights, anyone?)
Flights aside, it’s not hard to explain the popularity of Paris and Amsterdam, especially for vacation rentals. Imagine setting forth from your flat in Montmartre to pick up a freshly baked croissant from the patisserie on the corner, or parking your bike on your balcony after a day riding along Amsterdam’s canals. Yes, please!
Check out HomeAway’s full list of popular cities below — and tell us which European destination you’d most like to visit.
New York Metro Area
2. Amalfi Coast
Boston Metro Area
Los Angeles Metro Area
San Francisco Metro Area
Washington D.C. Metro Area
Chicago Metro Area
Philadelphia Metro Area
1. Amalfi Coast
Dallas/Fort Worth Metro Area
Seattle Metro Area
Vacation Rentals: A Traveler’s Guide
— written by Sarah Schlichter
About 25 percent of travelers say they bring workout clothes on vacation but don’t use them, according to a travel trends survey conducted earlier this year. The reason? They’re pressed for time, or too tired.
I’d also venture to say they’re bored by the workout offerings at their hotels. Who wants to waste valuable vacation time in a bland, windowless hotel gym when you can be out having fun? Fortunately, some interesting options are available to ensure you actually don your workout gear during a trip.
Here are seven of the more unusual vacation workouts you may want to try:
Skipping lessons: Yes, you read that right — skipping, like you did as a kid. “Intense” skipping lessons are included in the boot camp-style workout on the Isle of Wight in England through a company called Wildfitness. The four-day itinerary also includes boxing in the woods and leaping over rocks on the beach.
Nude yoga: Try it on one of several clothing-optional cruises to the Caribbean, Europe and French Polynesia organized by the tour operator Bare Necessities.
Desert ice skating: In Dubai, summer temperatures can reach 113 degrees Fahrenheit. But at the Hyatt Regency Dubai, you can learn how to ice skate in the desert from a professional trainer at the hotel’s in-house rink.
Heel workout: The Canyon Ranch SpaClub at the Venetian in Las Vegas has a foot-focused workout for women who wear high heels. After finishing the “Fit for Heels” class, you can get a complimentary analysis of the biomechanics of your feet.
Soca dancing: Jamaica’s Jewel Paradise Cove Beach Resort & Spa offers soca dance classes at its fitness center. Originating in Trinidad and Tobago, soca is a dance involving jumping, waving and hip swaying.
Ironman training: The Thanyapura Sports Hotel in Phuket, Thailand, has an elite Ironman triathlon coach on staff to provide private training to triathlete vacationers. The hotel also offers rugby and track and field training, in addition to lessons in the usual sports you’d find a resort (like tennis and swimming).
Spoga: The all-inclusive BodyHoliday Resort on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia has a glass-enclosed treehouse studio where you can do spoga (a spinning/yoga combo class).
–written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
On September 13, Semester at Sea unveiled its sixth ship, the World Odyssey. Since the inception of the program in 1963, Semester at Sea has offered a unique “university afloat” program for college students and lifelong learners. The debut of the World Odyssey — a new breed of ship for the program — will include a more traditional and upscale cruise setting within its hull. Onboard public spaces include a pool, fitness center, library and outdoor dining area.
Semester at Sea is not about a single ship; it is about a voyage around the world — and a voyage of profound personal and global discovery. As a past participant, I carry with me a deep respect for foreign culture and an understanding of how language, history and sustainable living impact our lives on a global scale. Notable past SAS participants who have gone on to create globally minded enterprises include Jessica Jackley, co-founder and board member of Kiva; Po Chung, co-founder of DHL International; and Adam Braun, founder and executive director of Pencils of Promise.
9 Best Destinations to See from the Water
The Semester at Sea program caters to college-age students but also offers a lifelong learning program for past participants or travelers interested in an academic and cultural experience that is as deep as it is wide. The ship sails approximately 100-day itineraries departing in the fall and spring each year, visiting up to a dozen countries on each voyage. In the past, participants have enjoyed one-of-a-kind opportunities to meet key public figures such as Mother Theresa, Fidel Castro in Cuba and Desmond Tutu.
Would you consider a trip with Semester at Sea?
— written by Vicki Flores
Seville may be romanticized as the vibrant jewel of southern Spain, but for me it’ll forever be remembered as a dusty, hot and overcrowded tourist trap. My only vivid memory is of being drenched in sweat walking up the never-ending ramps of the Giralda bell tower.
Ditto for Florence, Italy, which was overrun with American tour groups and so lacking in lodging when I visited that I had to sleep in a shabby hostel where the roaches congregated at night by the drain in the shower.
There are cities that you’re supposed to fall in love with, that you’re supposed to dream of visiting over and over again. Seville and Florence weren’t among them for me, and I don’t ever think I’ll go back. (To see more staff picks for cities not worth a second trip, see 12 Places You Only Need to See Once.)
Where will I return? Most certainly these five places:
Lima, Peru: I must admit, I wasn’t impressed during my first visit to Lima nearly a decade ago. But the city has improved — traffic seems less frenetic and neighborhoods less run down. Lima is worth the trip for its foodie scene alone; some of the world’s most noteworthy restaurants are there.
10 Best Peru Experiences
San Francisco, California: I don’t think of the City by the Bay merely as a U.S. city. San Francisco belongs to the world. Of all the cities I’ve visited, San Francisco is, hands down, the most beautiful. I never tire of the view, especially if the Golden Gate Bridge is within sight.
Oslo, Norway: The two days I spent after a cruise to Arctic Norway weren’t nearly enough time in the pristine and pretty Norwegian capital. Oslo is expensive ($12 for a cup of coffee? Seriously?), but worth another visit merely for an extra day strolling through the incredible sculpture garden in Vigeland Park.
The Best Cities to See Cool Public Art
Toronto, Canada: This is where I first got hooked on traditional afternoon tea (at the Fairmont Royal York) and on ice hockey (at the Hockey Hall of Fame).
Segovia, Spain: I’ve visited several times, always visiting the cathedral and walking along the aqueduct walls. Segovia is the Spain you imagine. Sorry, Seville.
Which places could you visit over and over again?
— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
Heights: You either love them or wither at the thought of them. If you fall into the phobic category like I do, you’re probably not apt ever to ride a glass-bottomed hot air balloon or swim in the glass-bottomed swimming pool that a British developer recently announced that he’ll construct 10 stories up, spanning two London apartment buildings.
I don’t see those activities in my future. But maybe one day I could stroll across a high-in the-sky glass skywalk. Here are six skywalks I’d like to cross, in order from highest to lowest, if I ever find the nerve:
Tianmen Skywalk, China
Before you jaunt across the glass-bottomed walkway hugging the cliffs of Tianmen (“Heavenly Gate”) Mountain in the Hunan Province of China, you must wrap your shoes in protective booties. This ensures the glass stays clean, so that you can clearly see all 4,700 feet down. (But is it slippery?)
Grand Canyon Skywalk, U.S.A.
Run by the Hualapai Nation on the western side of the Grand Canyon, the Skywalk is a horseshoe-shaped glass walkway that juts 70 feet from the edge of the canyon and 4,000 feet above the riverbed below.
Shanghai World Financial Center Observatory, China
The observation deck of this skyscraper contains a 180-foot-long glass-bottomed walkway that soars more than 1,400 feet in the air.
Glacier Skywalk, Canada
In a horseshoe shape like the Grand Canyon skywalk, this walkway overlooks the Columbia Icefield in the Canadian Rockies. It’s only 918 feet to the valley below. Only.
Dachstein Glacier Skywalk, Austria
This alpine walkway sits aside a glacier 820 feet up the side of a sheer rock-walked mountain. You have to take a steep gondola ride to get there, and there’s a gut-churning suspension bridge too.
Tower Bridge Glass Floor, England
It sits a mere 138 feet above the River Thames in London, but looking down on the zooming-by bridge traffic below you will make you feel dizzy. One of the coolest times to be there is during a bridge lift.
If a glass walkway is too much for you, maybe you could instead handle a peek through a glass floor at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Skytree in Tokyo or CN Tower in Toronto.
Or, if you’re extra bold, try the glass-enclosed boxes that jut out from a ledge at the Willis Tower in Chicago or the side of Chamonix Peak in France. I know I won’t be.
Photos: 9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should
— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
Photo of Tower Bridge Glass Floor used and shared under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic. Original photo copyright Flickr user Bex Walton.