Viking Grace – voyage report

A brand new Viking Grace in Turku on the evening of January 16th, preparing her second scheduled roundtrip.

Viking Grace must be the hottest news on the ferry front during 2013. Not only is Viking Line one of the trendsetters on the early days of ferries and their second hand ferries found their ways almost everywhere in Europe – some even all the way to Canada. She is even more interesting as their fleet is ageing fast, and thus getting very  old. Their last newbuilding for the Finland - Sweden routes was the Europa that ended up for Silja Line as Silja Europa, and that was 20 years ago.

So imagine the joy and  excitement when Viking Line finally ordered a new ship, with an option for a second unit! The discussions on Scandinavian forums among enthusiasts have been long, a real neverending story. The original Viking Grace-thread on Landgången has reached 171 pages – and there are now several others. The option was never declared, so Viking Grace will be partnered by the 25-year old Amorella, although for the first month she will run opposite Isabella as Amorella is to be drydocked and modified. 

Viking Grace is really an interesting ship. She is to be powered by a set of Wärtsilä Dual-Fuel engines, running on Liquefied Natural Gas, and her fuel tanks have thus been placed outside on her poop deck. Because of this power plant she is an environmental trend setter, although Fjord Line will follow later in the year with a pair of smaller LNG-only twins – which have their tanks hidden down below the car decks.

Once a long long time ago – from 1970 until 1993 Viking Line was the real trend maker with several series of interesting ferries, that from the beginning were intended to attract a number of cruise passengers onboard. Even the Papenburgers of the 1970ies were equipped with conference rooms in order to attract some additional passengers in the off season, and the “ferrycruise” trade slowly developed with each generation. The ships of the 1980ies generation doubled car capacity and tripled berth capacities, having more cabins than the previous generations had had cabins. The current cruiseferries were built between 1985 and 1992 and were again an even larger generation.

I would like to describe the Viking Grace as a modern version of the Europa, as both are designed to open up the precious light from the outside with massive windows and this way also allow impressive views over the beautiful archipelago they are intended to sail in. This time this is achieved by placing the public rooms on the upper decks of the ship – and this creates an additional bonus. As the massive tax-free shop is placed on deck 9, and the entertainment areas on decks 10 and 11, with all cabins being on decks 5-8 (and a small portion of cabins forward on deck 9, below the restaurants, the cabins do not suffer from noise.   

 In theory she has a simple layout. Deck 5 has crew cabins on the outside and a car deck on the inside. Passenger cabins are on decks 5-8, lifeboats placed on deck 7, and a small number of cabins are directly aft of the bridge on deck 9. Aft of this cabin block is a conference area, the reception area and 1800 square meters of shopping.

Deck 10 has the Buffet Aurora with magnificent views forward, and then a Sweet & Salty cafeteria aft of this. The traditional arcade can be found – but is now on the port side, and this overlooks a large three-deck high glass window with an atrium. The cafeteria is not large, but diners can do a modified Viking XPRS-tour, meaning they can walk aft to the Rock More bar or the Retro bar (port and starboard respectively) – and additionally a section of the Aurora can be changed from one restaurant to the other. The night club, now Club Vogue, is at the stern with huge windows and taking the aft section of decks 10 and 11.

On deck 11 the forward section has the a la carte restaurant Oscar´s, with its own champagne bar – really an idea introduced on the Athena in 1989. Aft of this is again a port side arcade, with the successor of Ella’s, the Franks Casual Dining on the starboard side. Aft of this is the Spa section. Both Franks and Sweet & Salty have a playroom with glass walls next to it, so parents can sit down and eat watching the kids play. Now, how long have we waited for this? 40 years or so, it seems.

 

When planning the ship they decided to use an interior designer (dSign Mortti Kivi) that had never touched his hands on a ship. The result should be called TRENDELLA, not Viking Grace. She is ultra cool and 1960ies and 1970ies at the same time. Watch old Star Trek episodes, and you might recognize the ship. Grey almost everywhere on the walls, but a lot of dark brown on the furniture. But also glittering fabrics, that apparently would be intended on the gowns of the dancing go-go girls, not chairs, zebra stripes, colours that change again and again thanks to the lighting system. Honestly my first impression was a surprised one. She was greyer than I thought, but all in all interesting. I am not sure what I really like about her, so I will start with the negative aspects.

Deck 9 I did not particularly like. The reception is a small one, almost hidden, and it has several weird corners. I found the bulkheads, fire doors and pillars to be unusually disturbing, in the way. The bulkheads divide the arcade on deck 9 into several sections – instead of creating one large area it divides it into smaller sections. The one below the atrium is nice, and the furniture is nice, but I still found it somewhat confusing. I have seen much better arcades on several ships until now.

The tax-free shop was also confusing. It is huge. You enter through what can only be described as the gas chamber – intended to keep all us who are allergic to perfumes far away from the shop. The perfumery section is large, and even I had trouble breathing with eyes filling with tears. Unacceptable. The entire shop area has white floors, and the first ugly skidmarks had apparently been made on the maiden voyage. The flooring will look ugly within a month or so. The other problem was electrical. The lights in the aft section of the shops were flimmering, going on and off. I heard a comment that this is due to the electrical system being underdimensioned in the shop – but have no clue to if this is true or not. But there are good sides to the shop as well. It is spacious, and they finally have an area for the wine-tastings and competitions that they have daily. I also liked some of the shelves, that were framed.

Deck 10 has no really large lobby in front of the Buffet. The port side arcade is in reality cut down because of the Rock More bar. It is intended to be a pub and disco, having Karaoke and Disco, but it is long, narrow, lacks a dance floor and essentially creates a road block if you want to go to Club Vogue. Also the sofas narrow down the corridor too much – so even when it is empty the corridor is too narrow for a ship of this size. Maybe that is why the Club Vogue only has 660 seats, as the rest can never get past Rock More…

 

On the starboard side the Retro bar is appropriately named. Welcome to the 1970ies. Some of the seating face a blank wall which contains only doors for access to the toilets and a storage space for high chairs. And if you are male, standing at the urinal – if somebody enters, then those seats are offered a view… Otherwise the Retro is a much better functioning space than the Road Block sorry Rock More. Large dancefloor, stage, much wider corridor and more seating.

The Club Vogue on the other hand has excellent views on the lower level, but the upper level has limited viewing from much of the seating. The ones being closest to the opening of course have grand views over the stage and dance floors, but most of the seats have better views towards the sea than the action. Having said that – the views out are excellent especially at the stern.

As for dining. We ended up eating in the Buffet Aurora both ways, and breakfasting in Oscar´s. Both are arranged so that the views are excellent. We had intended to have a late lunch or early dinner at Frank´s, but this was denied, as my wife is allergic and they refused to serve her. They said they cannot guarantee that her food would meet the standards required – meaning it can be contaminated by spices.  Not all bad – as this is better than to serve and cause a reaction. This was also the first time that she has been served in the buffet by what was available in the buffet. On all our trips until now she has been served a la carte meals specially composed for her. This is the reason why we again and again have always returned to Viking. So food this time was for her part not that memorable, just expensive. Although the dessert pineapples and grapes were good, I was told. Thanks to this I believe we will rather use the older ships in the future, but the reason is purely practical. Paying over 30 euros for boiled potato, steak, cucumber, green salad and pine apple is not worth it. I can on the other hand comment that what has been served on Mariella, Gabriella, Amorella and Isabella has been fabulous and the service fantastic.

 

 

Breakfast in Oscar´s was enjoyable – good company, piano, grand view and good food.

Cabin. We were lucky to have Premium cabin. I have had LXB cabins on Viking ships before, and can only comment that these were an improvement. Gone are the shower curtains, and a real shower cabinet with a glass door has replaced them!


Entertainment onboard was nice. Part of it was the captains welcome aboard speech. Or should we say the pling plong Welcome pling plong captain Henrik Grönvik pling plong Stockholm arriving pling plong…. Every few seconds the captains voice was cut by a new pling-plong signal and apparently he was totally unaware of this – and totally incomprehensible. At least as fun was the a cappella group FORK, which I really recommend. Disco I was told was a flop because of the room, I myself did not see it – but saw the same problem with people wanting to dance already early in the evening so I believe it fully.

She was late when leaving Turku, berthing in Stockholm, departing Stockholm, arriving and departing  Mariehamn as well as arriving Turku. Still, seeing her dwarf Isabella – which by the way can claim to be taller due to a higher funnel – in Mariehamn was fun. There were a lot of people watching her arrival. The sun deck was freezing cold – but this will most likely be fixed until the summer season… ;)

With 1125 passengers onboard she functioned quite good, but the Road Blocks were a problem occasionally. Also disembarking was not enjoyable, the lobbies really fill up. As I said, the layout has issues – and apparently dSign had no idea how to create successful passenger flows on a ferry.

I believe I am not alone in thinking that Viking Grace is an impressive ship, a trendy ship, a ship that needs not to be ashamed, at the same time being worried about how the people are going to accept her. She is really a huge leap towards some direction – I am not just 100 % it is straight forward. You will either love her or hate her. And it might take a while before you know which one choose. She will function all right, but we are still waiting for the perfect ferry. Among other things, the Galaxy and Baltic Princess have hundreds of more seats available for the same number of passengers.


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