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Bookings on Viking Ocean Cruises’ single ship, Viking Star, have been a hot ticket. So much so that many past Viking River guests had to settle for space on a winter ocean cruise on the Mediterranean, even when making reservations a year and a half ago. But what started as a compromise has turned into a new travel pattern for many of them, as the advantages of sailing the Med in winter have become evident.
I heard the same story over and over on a February cruise from Rome to Barcelona: Guests were delighted with the comfortable temperatures, the uncrowded attractions onshore and a host of financial advantages, from lower airfare to the price reductions on local goods.
“We already booked next February,” a couple from Tucson told me. “This is totally different, and I wish we had known years ago.”
Another couple from Canada, who usually sails in the Caribbean in winter, is converting to Europe sailings.
“The airfare is so much more reasonable than in summer, and we can stay longer,” they said.
A family of five was equally pleased.
“It’s like learning a secret and becoming part of a special group on the inside,” one of the younger family members told me.
“Northern Europe in the summer, Southern Europe in the winter from now on,” another agreed.
One of the reasons for guests’ satisfaction was the comfortable temperatures that made it a delight to go on walking tours — we didn’t have to deal with heat or crowds; even popular attractions had no long lines. Temperatures topped out in the mid- to high 60s, and although we had rain for a few hours one day of the weeklong cruise, the rest of the trip was sunny enough for passengers to fill up the outdoor tables on the ship and onshore.
Some passengers were convinced that the February seas were going to be rough and came well-armed against seasickness. Strong swells can come up any time of year in the Med, but nobody on our cruise had any need of the remedies they had packed. In fact, sail-away from the ports of call was invariably so smooth that guests sometimes missed it, looking out to find that the ship was already well on its way.
“I’ve been on cruises in July and August where we had to change ports because of high seas and winds — this is nothing at all,” one surprised passenger said.
Viking customers, like many cruisers, typically want to encounter the authentic life of the cities and villages along the way, which is far easier when they are not buried under waves of tourists and the locals have time to relax and chat with visitors. Passengers told one another stories at dinner about friendly shopkeepers who showed them pictures of their families and discussed their favorite foods.
And for shoppers, this particular sailing season is nirvana. Post-holiday sales are dramatic and — coupled with the strong dollar — irresistible, culminating in February with as much as 70 to 80 percent off. In upscale meccas such as Taormina, Italy, not all stores are open, but there are plenty to keep dedicated shoppers busy for hours, and the relaxed, uncrowded streets, amazing prices and ease of getting around make it a treat. Several guests who returned to the ship heaped with colorful bags of clothing, shoes, jewelry and ceramics announced that they were splurging with the money they had saved on airfare in the off-season.
Without the bags, you could hardly spot the cruise passengers in the ports; they blended with the locals in their light jackets, sauntering comfortably and energetically in the cool air. As they sat at tables in the sun, enjoying their cappuccinos, cannoli, wine and tapas, they vowed to come back next winter.