There are no two words that will get an East Coaster to book a trip to the Caribbean faster than "polar vortex."
Sure enough, as temperatures dipped from a frigid 20 into the single digits for the third week in a row this past January, I gladly packed my bags and made my way south to San Juan. I was invited to spend 11 days cruising the West Indies on the Viking Star, whose itinerary brought with it the promise of perpetual sunshine and back-to-back beach days in "azure blue" water. It couldn't have come soon enough.
Meeting family members from the West Coast in San Juan and setting sail in the Caribbean has been a tradition for the majority of my adult life. This year, I was thrilled to be joined by the other biggest troublemaker in our family, my father, on his maiden Viking voyage (mine was a year earlier aboard the Viking Sky in the Baltics).
After departing from San Juan, our first port call was on the British Virgin Island of Tortola, where we decided to ditch the hordes heading to Virgin Gorda, opting instead for a catamaran cruise over to neighboring Jost Van Dyke.
On the way to indulging in all-day painkillers at the Soggy Dollar Bar, we couldn't help but notice the number of roofless structures vaguely resembling houses, casualties of the 2017 hurricane season.
Some of our cruise mates, who opted to visit neighboring St. John to snorkel, shared similar observations that evening as we dined at Viking's specialty Italian restaurant, Manfredi's, where we tucked into bistecca Fiorentina (a thick-cut rib-eye coated in garlic oil and rubbed with porcini mushroom powder, brown sugar and red-chili flakes).
The main pool promenade on the Viking Star. The ship features an infinity pool and the LivNordic spa, which guests can access without having to book a treatment.
As we made our way across the Eastern Caribbean from St. Kitts to St. Lucia and Barbados, each day spent lounging on this beach or that catamaran on the way to said beach, we'd come back onboard for afternoon tea in the ship's Wintergarden followed by a quick dip in the infinity pool or a stop at the spa for a steam and shower. Settling into our Caribbean cruise routine wasn't hard, especially on a ship as comfortable and elegant as this.
At night, we enjoyed cocktails and dinner from the Aquavit terrace at the back of the ship; otherwise we'd interchange the main dining room for the other specialty restaurant, the Chef's Table, where the degustation menu changed every three days and never failed to deliver. Our favorite was the Szechuan-inspired menu that included a lobster and chicken shumai appetizer and an entree of Peking duck wrapped in egg paper paired with wines selected by the restaurant's sommelier. Most nights we'd catch the onboard entertainment, my favorite being a tribute to ABBA.
It wasn't until we called in Dominica about halfway through our sailing that the scale of the destruction caused by Hurricane Irma in 2017 came into full view. Making our way from the capital of Roseau, we zigzagged our way north for the better part of two hours over makeshift bridges, past decimated sugar cane plantations and defunct rum distilleries, until we finally arrived at Secret Bay in Portsmouth, a five-star property that just reopened in November following major renovations. Dominica — called the "nature island" due to its volcanic features, waterfalls, rainforests and 365 rivers — more than any of the islands we'd visited over the course of our trip is still rebounding and highly dependent on tourism from cruise ships like ours. Our visit was short and bittersweet and made the juxtaposition from land back to our floating paradise aboard the Viking Star all the more stark.
Back onboard, Mamsen's was calling. Located in the Explorers Lounge in the front of the ship, Mamsen's is Viking's Norwegian-style deli and can always be counted on to serve up snacks and soups as well as their piece de resistance, a heart-shaped waffle served with Norwegian brown goat's cheese, fresh berries and a dollop of sour cream.
Not to be missed is the chance to luxuriate in the ship's LivNordic spa. No day passes or spa treatments are necessary to use the gorgeous facility, which is equipped with a snow grotto, sauna, thermal pool and Jacuzzi.
The tradition of sauna rituals runs deep in Scandinavian culture, and one of our personal highlights was the Nordic Bathing Ritual, a 90-minute treatment available for an additional fee. My father and I and six other passengers (all women) alternated from sauna to snow grotto, all the while rubbing organic berry products (from Sweden, of course) onto our skin before being struck with birch leaves by our massage therapist, a practice that is said to help boost circulation.
The West Indies Explorer itinerary starts at $2,999 per person, based on double occupancy for a standard Veranda stateroom.