Clad in a swimsuit, I hesitantly push open the door and step on to a crisp layer of snow. It’s 8am and my plastic flip-flops leave footprints in the fresh flakes as I walk around and catch my breath. Nearby, a woman eases herself into a bubbling whirlpool which, at 39C, is too hot for me, despite the chilly morning stroll. We exchange pleasantries, speculating on whether or not the Bay of Biscay’s infamous Atlantic swell is going to be kind to us later in the day.
Snow at sea in Europe in spring might appear incongruous. But from the minute I step on Viking Star and encounter trolls in the lift – the little folk from Nordic mythology, not their cowardly counterparts on the internet – it’s clear this is no ordinary ship. Not least as this one comes with a snow grotto; perhaps a nod to its Norwegian founder, Torstein Hagen.
Head of the world’s largest river cruise line, Hagen has lately set his sights on the oceans and the result is a sleek 930-passenger vessel that pays more than a passing nod to his heritage. Not that you have to been on one of Viking’s river vessels to appreciate his new baby, which is a relative tot compared with most of today’s cruise behemoths that are capable of carrying five times as many passengers.
Some people I talk to, mainly Americans, Canadians and a smattering of Brits, have never been on a river cruise. They booked when Star was a mere twinkle in Hagen’s eye; eager to be on the maiden voyage and experience the first new ocean cruise line in more than a decade.
That said, it bucks the trend for all-singing, all-dancing mega-ships and marks a return to rather glamorous, retro-style cruising, with a focus on destinations instead of contemporary fun and games at sea. For a start there’s no casino, no blaring music on the lido deck, no announcements aside from the captain’s noon briefing, no ship’s photographer, no under-18s and no passenger participation entertainment bordering on ritual humiliation. The closest you’ll get is the fiendish and gently competitive quiz. In fact, it’s all very civilised. It could even appeal to committed landlubbers averse to the concept of cruising.
Akin to its river-going cousins, the emphasis is on full days in port with plenty of time to soak up history, culture, art, music and food. Free daily walking tours are included, you can go it alone on foot or by shuttle bus, or sign up for optional excursions, starting from around £30, that pledge to “go beyond the iconic and expected”.
That is certainly the case during our stop in Lisbon, when a driver inconsiderately parked his vehicle across one of the tram lines that have been transporting the the Portuguese capital’s residents since 1873. The subsequent log-jam leaves us waiting for our tram for nearly an hour. The guide issues a call to action to the pair of girls in colourful national dress accompanying our tour (as well as public trams there are 75-minute guided journeys). Out of large panniers, glasses of ruby red port and just-baked custard tarts in flaky puff pastry shells are duly distributed as we wait, more patiently now, at the stop.
When our delayed conveyance finally arrives we merrily embark on a tooth-rattling journey through narrow streets, past grand monuments and along the switchback of undulating hills. The Bergen to Barcelona “Passage Through Western Europe” itinerary covers a mix of familiar and lesser-known destinations, such as north-west Spain’s Coruña, where the 16th-century fortress of San Antón houses an interesting archaeological museum.
From Le Havre, I head to the pretty medieval town of Honfleur, and a boat trip beneath the soaring Normandy Bridge spanning the Seine. Opened in 1995, it was the world’s largest cable-stay bridge before being overtaken by Japan’s Tatara Bridge four years on. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive sight. When we disembark, the tempting pavement cafés around the harbour are filling up. It’s a great spot to sip wine, tuck into a plate of garlicky mussels and watch the world go by.
Back onboard, I’m not the only one relaxing on the balcony. That’s because every cabin is sea-facing with a veranda. Rooms are stylish, displaying the elegant and understated decor that runs throughout the ship. Resembling a floating boutique hotel, its highlights include the “living room”, which is an atrium-cum-reception minus the usual hustle and bustle, since staff work from individual desks.
An ever-changing screen of scenic and arty photos dominates the staircase, but you need to look down to admire the moss garden below. And, each day, I stumble upon new surprises. A meteorite in the two-storey Explorer’s Lounge, raven sculptures keeping a watchful eye over the airy Winter Garden and those mischievous trolls in the lift. One lunchtime, a “pop-up” entertainer appears by the main pool and recites a sea-faring verse by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, while another day dancers get entwined in the tango.
Waist-expanding food options include two restaurants, additional to the main dining room and World Café buffet, available at no extra charge. The Chef’s Table features intriguing set wine pairing menus, such as Sweet & Salty, while Manfredi’s serves sophisticated Italian dishes.
In a token effort to offset the over-indulgence I head to the gym and try out the wonderful glass-sided infinity pool at the aft of the ship. Needless to say, more time is spent gazing out at the wake than swimming.
After the bracing forays into the snow grotto, on the final morning I pluck up the courage to immerse myself in the Nordic zeal for hot and cold extremes. Standing below a wooden pail in the spa I pull the chain that unleashes a waterfall of icy water. I gasp. My tolerance isn’t yet at Viking level – I might just need to take another cruise.
Viking Cruises (0800 319 6660; vikingcruises.co.uk/oceans) offers a 14-night “Passage Through Western Europe” from Barcelona to Bergen aboard Viking Star, from £3,499pp for a 17 April 2016 departure. Price includes all meals, wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, 10 guided tours, flights and transfers. The next available voyage aboard the Star is a Romantic Mediterranean itinerary on 8 December (from £2,099pp).