Warm towels as you board. Champagne in the Explorer Room, which offers a 180-degree glass view of the Mississippi River beneath a constellation design that lights up at night. A live band and turntable for playing vinyl records at your leisure in the lounge dubbed the Living Room. And don’t forget the narrow but soothing infinity plunge pool on the top deck by the Sun Terrace.
Welcome to the Viking Mississippi, the first luxury cruise liner to visit downtown St. Paul in roughly a decade. The five-deck, 386-passenger boat began its inaugural voyage toward St. Louis, Mo. on Sept. 3, arriving Saturday morning back at St. Paul’s Lambert’s Landing with a boatload of passengers. On Saturday evening, the Viking Mississippi was scheduled to depart again for a 15-day sojourn down the iconic Mississippi River to New Orleans, the first of what promises to be a regular series of trips from the river headwaters to its gulf.
“The ship is so beautiful,” said artist Marianne Harlor, while waiting along Shepard Road Saturday morning with her partner, sportswear executive Herb Winward, for a hotel transport. “They worked hard.”
The couple, from Tacoma, Wash., were impressed with the friendly and attentive crew and the modern ship design, which borrows heavily from larger luxury ocean vessels, though they acknowledged that Viking was still working out the kinks in a handful of areas. “It still has a few problems,” said Winward, pointing to small hiccups such as a digital menu on the in-room TV screen that was stuck all day on breakfast.
“It’s only its third trip,” said Winward, who planned to spend almost a week in Minnesota and Wisconsin before flying home. “It’s beautifully designed and the decor is fabulous. The crew communication, they’re just getting to know each other. It’s just minor things.”
Purpose-built for the Mississippi River in New Orleans by vessel builders Edison Chouest Offshore, the 450-foot-long cruise ship has persevered through regulatory challenges, labor shortages and a pandemic. A debut, once envisioned for 2017, was delayed five years while Viking worked through the approval of its American charter with the US Maritime Administration, which ultimately allowed Viking to lease operations from Edison.
Among the luxury finishes, all 193 passenger staterooms open to the ship’s exterior. A white tablecloth restaurant, one of two eateries aboard, serves cuisine inspired by the recipes of company founder Torstein Hagen’s mother, who was nicknamed Mamsen, which is Norwegian for “mum.” In fact, all Viking vessels host a Mamsen’s Deli.
Decorative touches include an illustrated chapter of Huckleberry Finn inscribed on a stairway that weaves through the vessel from top to bottom. Framed wall photos of the people and places of the Mississippi River line hallways, and a large map of the lower Mississippi overlooks the bar in the Explorer Room, a first deck lounge that offers a glassy view of the river on three sides.
Not all the sailing has been smooth. Room preparations have continued up to the last minute and beyond (a Viking tour guide on Saturday declined to show off the staterooms as they were being turned over). Voyages scheduled to and from St. Paul in July and August were canceled this summer, and some customers have said they’re still being bumped from trips.
When the Viking Mississippi boarded off St. Paul’s Shepard Road on Saturday, Jeff Marschner wasn’t aboard. A former attorney with the state of California, Marschner had been looking forward to the 15-day “America’s Great River” voyage from St. Paul to New Orleans until Sept. 8, just nine days before his departure date, when Viking informed him in writing they would sail “at a reduced capacity” and had canceled his reservation.
The international cruise giant, based in Los Angeles and Switzerland, reimbursed him (he was otherwise offered a consolation voucher good for 110 percent of his $18,000 fare), but he was left wondering if the company had overbooked, of it he had simply been bumped at nearly the last minute in favor of another guest or Viking executive.
“As you may be aware, due to circumstances beyond our control, construction of the Viking Mississippi was delayed, impacting the ship’s delivery date and the preparations necessary to welcome guests on board,” reads his Sept. 8 letters from Viking.
“The ship has now begun sailing with her first guests, but we are still putting the finishing touches on the overall experience and refining the itinerary. On your scheduled departure, we must operate at a reduced capacity as we continue to ramp up service. Unfortunately, this means that some staterooms need to be cancelled, and we are contacting you today because yours is among them.”
Paul Boyd and Marleen Moreau of Coventry, Rhode Island had originally planned a Viking voyage on the Rhine River in Switzerland, which was canceled during the early days of the pandemic. Their consolation trip mostly lived up to expectations, at least until it was time to get to their hotel. “Lambert’s Landing” doesn’t always show up online on GPS-based mapping services.
“Trying to get an Uber,” said Boyd good-naturedly, standing along Shepard Road while his wife explained their whereabouts to their perplexed driver by phone. “Having a hell of a time.”
Other than that, Boyd said, his only complaint was that the week-long experience was too short. “I wish they could have stopped a little longer at each port,” he said. “We needed a little more time.”