Conde Nast Traveler’s annual “Top Cruise Ships” poll, released online in January, included many of the usual suspects. The survey’s more than 11,000 participants singled out Disney Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises and Princess Cruises in the best-big-ship (more than 1,500 passengers) category. Royal Caribbean, Crystal Cruises, Regent Seven Seas, Disney and SeaDream received well-deserved accolades for onboard spas. And Grand Circle Cruises’ Bizet won the top spot in the small-ship (fewer than 500 passengers) category for the second year in a row.
But eagle-eyed cruise industry observer Teijo Niemela, publisher of Cruise Business Review, was intrigued by a new entrant on the top-15 list for medium-sized ships (500 to 1,500 passengers). Right up there with Crystal — whose Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony placed numbers one and two — and with Regent Seven Seas — whose Seven Seas Voyager and Seven Seas Mariner were three and four — was a ship that most North Americans have probably never heard of.
The 2,500-passenger Viking XPRS, launched in 2008, was named by Conde Nast readers as the fifth-best mid-sized ship in the world, beating out “best of” regulars from lines like Oceania Cruises and Holland America.
But here’s the rub. “This is not at all a cruise ship,” Niemela says. “It’s a ferry that basically transports people and cars from points A to B, as fast as possible.”
It’s true that Viking XPRS does offer some cruise-style amenities. There are enough cabins onboard to sleep 732 people during the 2.5-hour trip (these are more for relaxing or napping than anything else; the remaining passengers just hang out in public rooms). It was designed by Sweden’s Tillberg Design, which is also known for creating public spaces on ships like Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 and NCL’s Norwegian Pearl, Norwegian Gem and Norwegian Jewel. Restaurants are onboard; the Bistro Bella is a buffet venue, and Viking’s Inn Pub serves bar food. (Dining is not included in fares and is priced additionally.) There is also plenty of entertainment on tap for such a short trip. Options range from a troubadour and a DJ to a dance band.
Beyond the overall rating of 88.2 that landed Viking XPRS into fifth place, Conde Nast readers also voted in individual categories, from cabins to dining and from activities to design. The ship’s seriously high score for shore excursions (92.7), another category, particularly makes no sense. Niemela says that the only “tour” offered is a bus ticket from the port of Tallinn to the city itself. As well, its similarly lofty rating for itineraries (96.3) is a head-scratcher; Viking XPRS sails back and forth between Finland and Estonia every day, stopping at no ports along the way.
So how did the ferry make it onto Conde Nast’s gold-chip list of cruise ships? Speculation is rampant that a prankster may have been able to rig the results.
In Wikipedia’s Viking XPRS entry, there’s a note that “the ship’s high placement in the ranking was, in fact, the result of a hoax of some kind.” Still, a Conde Nast Traveler editor, Beata Loyfman, who oversaw the survey, defends its accuracy. “After we get the data,” she told Cruise Critic today, “it goes through a rigorous system of checks and balances, where we put it through several different layers to make sure they’re not on there because of ballot-stuffing.
“Viking XPRS passed all of its cross-checks.”
The inclusion of a car ferry on Conde Nast’s annual best-in-cruising list is more humorous than anything else (unless someone books a “cruise” aboard the ship, expecting excellence on par with Crystal, Regent Seven Seas and Oceania). Whatever the reason for the ship’s appearance on the list, it’s important to note that, this year, more than ever, there was a strong international presence in the survey.
“This year we’ve tried to open up the dimension of the cruise polls,” Loyfman says. “The world is large and constantly changing, and we’re trying to be as comprehensive as possible.”
As such, Conde Nast’s “Top Cruise Ships 2009” survey covered an expanded 418 ships and offered poll-takers a chance to weigh in on a handful of cruise lines, beyond Viking Line, that are not necessarily household names. Loyfman notes that Malaysia-based Star Cruises, which caters primarily to Asian passengers, and Naples-based MSC Cruises, a pan-European line — which is beginning to make itself known in the U.S. — both made strong showings in this year’s poll (though not strong enough, in either case, to make the best-of list).
Aussie-based Orion Expedition Cruises’ Orion — which merited Cruise Critic’s ultimate five-ribbon rating from both editors and members — was another rather exotic cruise line that Conde Nast included in the survey for the first time. “It is the best of both worlds,” Loyfman says, “offering … all the amenities of a luxury cruise ship, where you can have a spa treatment and enjoy a leisurely lamb chop, while sailing to the remotest places on earth — places like Papua, New Guinea and Antarctica.”