Strolling through the Blue and White village of Sidi Bou Said on a sun-splashed afternoon, we had finally settled into the rhythm of the day. It felt just like we could be in any of the other gorgeous and interesting places we had grown to love in the Mediterranean.
And any apprehension about setting foot in this new country had long melted into the recesses of my mind as I sat at the rooftop cafe sipping my mint tea flavored with almonds. About a dozen of the nuts bobbed in my small glass as I savored my drink and soaked in the pleasant surroundings.
We had arrived in Tunisia with Viking Ocean Cruises on its new Viking Sky cruise ship. Viking is one of the few travel companies to resume bringing tourists to the country not quite two years since a pair of deadly terror attacks on Western visitors, at the Bardo Museum and later in 2015 at a beach resort.
A young couple also traveling in Tunisia was working to get the perfect selfie at their table in front of us on the rooftop. After snapping several pics on their own, the young woman asked me whether I will take a picture of her boyfriend and her. I obliged, grabbing her phone, telling them to smile and providing another angle of the cute duo and another memory for them to file away, share on Instagram or whatever we do with all the images we accumulate of our travels.
Colleen had chosen the mint tea with pine nuts. What a truly Tunisian thing we were experiencing, relaxing in the early afternoon, grabbing a bit of shade and a soothing drink while watching the bustling markets in the street below.
In Sidi Bou Said . . .
U.S. State Department advisories still warn about the threat of terrorism in areas of Tunisia, and when we arrived in Viking Sky, Viking Ocean Cruises' third ocean-going ship, in the morning, many of the disembarking passengers make some mention, even if brief, of the fact that we were among the first American cruise passengers to return since terror attacks flared up in the mostly Muslim North African country.
You could tell this was different. This was Viking's fourth cruise stop back in the country, and it has received assurances that the risk is minimal to American tourists. Security measures were tight during our visit, with our four buses kept together and escorted by armed police and military forces throughout the day. They were obvious but never intrusive.
Camera crews stood at the pier filming our arrival, gathered alongside four camels (rides available for photo opps). The fact that Westerners are returning -- along with the vitally important tourist dollars -- is big news in Tunisia.
Colleen and I had wondered what it would be like. We were extremely excited to see another new country, and we weren't going to miss this chance.
Tunisia was a highlight of our Viking Sky cruise, with a daylong exploration of the Roman ruins of Carthage and a visit to the North Africa America Cemetery and Memorial.
Carthage is especially stunning. The UNESCO World Heritage site, the place holds still recognizable components of Punic, Roman, Phoenicia and Arab civilizations that ruled. Carthage was a major commercial port and metropolis dominating a hillside overlooking the Gulf of Tunis.
In Carthage . . .
North Africa American Cemetery . . .
Many other interactions were simple enough -- but heartwarming -- from friendly smiles and exchanges of bon jour or assalamu alaikum (an Arabic greeting) to haggling at the market stalls as we bought a jewelry box, leather belt and necklace, earrings and bracelet set.
All in all, a very good day and one that reinforces to me the importance of travel. For the world to be better and to steer away from hate, we must meet one another, get to know each other.
This is also important to Viking Ocean Cruises. Aside from Tunisia, we also visited Naples to explore Pompeii, went shopping at a market in Cagliari on the island of Sardinia, adventured into caves at Palma de Mallorca. We also stopped in Valencia and the fishing village of Trapani, where we had dinner ashore at a family-owned restaurant.
In Pompeii . . .
In Cagliari . . .
In Palma de Mallorca . . .
In Trapani . . .
"We are a cruise line for the thinking man, not the drinking man," he says.
Our sailing on 930-passenger Viking Sky started in Rome and ended in Barcelona, and we shared the week of immersive experiences and comfortable luxury onboard with like-minded travelers.
When I call Viking Sky's amenities and decor "comfortable luxury," it's is the best way I can describe the mostly inclusive nature of the cruise as well as the modern and spacious yet not too ostentatious decor and feel of the vessel itself.
Each passenger gets at least 270 square feet of space in their staterooms, which all have a balcony.
WHAT MAKES VIKING SKY UNIQUE . . .
Visits to smaller ports that the big ships can't reach, like the ones we went to on our trip. Viking Sky also sails the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada to Quebec and in Norwegian fjords among the waterways it can reach.
LivNordic Spa. This Scandinavian spa retreat features six types of treatments (Snow Grotto, sauna, steam room, Thalassotherapy pool, cold plunge pool and cold bucket) that allow you to alternate hot and cold in the true Viking style. Or just hang out in a lounger or hot tub. It's all included.
Included Wi-Fi onboard. We were easily able to surf the Internet, post video and pictures of our trip and have access to email, etc. It's a nice perk in this day and age of constant connectivity.
Beers and wine at lunch and dinner. The line has a nice variety of Norwegian beers onboard, too.
Sushi. Colleen thought the sushi offerings at The World Cafe buffet area deserve special mention. Actually, the entire buffet is fantastic, with foods made fresh and plenty of healthy options.
Afternoon tea time. A relaxing mid-day gathering with music, tasty scones and other delectable bites, like turkey croissant sandwiches.
Gourmet burgers. The Pool Grill crafts incredibly juicy Angus beef burgers, like the Pancho Villa (blue cheese, guacamole and habanero mayo) and the Viking Burger (cheddar cheese, bacon and barbecue sauce).
Specialty restaurants. Passengers can experience gourmet dining at Manfredi's Italian Restaurant, which features amazing steak and pasta dishes; The Chef's Table has a set menu that rotates every three days, offering culinary explorations of Asian, French bistro or Indian foods, for example. Cruisers are guaranteed dinner in each of these places at least once per sailing.
Free laundry. A laundry room is located on each passenger deck, and the machines are free to use. They even are programmed with the laundry detergent.
Room service. Offered 24 hours and complimentary (it's nice to tip the staffer who brings your meal), we found this service invaluable when our schedule got out of sync with the standard eating times onboard. We used the room-service menu for three breakfasts, one lunch and a couple afternoon snacks when hunger struck. The menu offers a wide choice of foods, too, not just sandwiches. I also ordered the smoothie of the day for after my morning workouts.
Excursions. Viking Ocean Cruises offers an included excursion in each port of call. The line also features a menu of optional (for-fee) excursions to choose from. For example, we did the included tour in Tunisia and opted for a different activity in Palma de Mallorca (cave tour) and Cagliari (market shopping and dining experience with the ship's chefs).
WHAT YOU WON'T SEE ON VIKING SKY . . .
Crowded spaces. The pool area was always quiet. It features a retractable roof that is opened on sunny days and shut during cooler times. You'll also find a little-used infinity pool at the back of the ship on Deck 7. It's glass back makes it look as if you can swim right off the ship and into the port-side scenery. The pools are heated and each has a hot tub, too.
The Wintergarden is also a quiet place to read a book. The ship has no formal library but a number of areas with bookshelves, games, game tables and puzzles set out. It got visibly busy only during lunch time, when lines grow for the Pool Grill burgers and in The World Cafe at the gelato bar.
A casino. No gambling on this ship, unless you place a wager with your table mates on who can eat the full Bistecca Fiorentina steak and Manfredi's.
Children. These cruises are for travelers 16 and older.
Slides, climbing walls, pool games, etc. I love these types of attractions, but this isn't the ship for learning how to ice skate or sky dive or climb ropes at sea. No belly-flop contests, either. This is a place for a more relaxed vacation experience with little to no hassles, traveling with other passengers who want to see cool and historic places, meet new people and enjoy it all in comfort.
The line, which started in 2015 with its first ocean ship, now has three vessels: Viking Sky, Viking Sea and Viking Star. Also, Viking Sun is coming soon, and the company says it hopes to eventually have 10 ships in its Viking Ocean Cruises line.
The ships hold up to 930 passengers and sail itineraries all over the world.