Star gazing aboard Viking Jupiter in its Explorer Dome planetarium

In stark contrast to the ancient Viking warriors – whose reputation, fairly or unfairly, for unsavoury behaviour endures to this day – Viking's cruise ships are justly renowned for their cultured, civilised air. Whether you're sailing around the Caribbean islands, up the Norwegian fiords or between historic Mediterranean ports, a Viking voyage is a treat for the thinking traveller.

Founded by Norwegian billionaire Torstein Hagen, Viking started off in river cruising, before branching out into the ocean in 2015. The atmosphere on board Viking Jupiter, the sixth and newest in the company's sleek fleet of ocean-going vessels, is calm, inviting and akin to that of a gallery or a private club.

On our 15-day cruise from Barcelona to Copenhagen, we find our fellow passengers – mostly over-60s – routinely perusing the ship's array of, largely, Scandinavian art and artefacts, often while listening to a narrated tour via the Viking Art Guide app.

There are paintings by Edvard Munch to seek out, outfits once worn by Viking men and women and reproductions on stairwell walls of the Bayeux Tapestry, which charts the AD1066 invasion of England by the Vikings' Norman descendants.

We also enjoy live performances of classical violin music, attend history lectures and port talks and take the opportunity to relax in the ship's assortment of cosy lounges, nursing a drink or two and dipping into a terrific collection of coffee table books about subjects as diverse as architecture, polar exploration, fashion and astronomy.

When we're not in port, and on shore excursions in storied destinations such as Malaga, Porto and Amsterdam, we have three days at sea, including one navigating the Kiel Canal, which links the North and Baltic Seas via the pretty countryside of northern Germany. As Jupiter enters the locks at the town of Brunsbuttel, where the canal meets the River Elbe, we listen to commentary from Michael Fopp, one of the guest speakers on this cruise. A former director of the London Transport Museum, Fopp is the son of an Australian-born Battle of Britain fighter pilot and a fountain of knowledge on a range of topics from aviation to seafaring.

Viking's onus on cultural enrichment is taken up another notch on Jupiter, and its sister ship Orion, with the Explorers' Dome. While Viking's ocean-going vessels are virtually identical, each carrying 930 passengers, Orion and Jupiter are uniquely fitted with this high-tech planetarium, which can transport guests to distant lands and galaxies.

Seating up to 26 people, it's accessed on the upper level of the two-deck, forward-facing Explorers' Lounge, which is decorated with antique globes, displays of star constellations and a golden telescope.

During our cruise, three panoramic films – free of charge with seats available on a first-come-first-served basis – are beamed on the dome's ceiling screen. First up, for us, is Experience the Aurora, a film that follows a team of photographers to the Arctic Circle as they attempt to track down the Northern Lights in temperatures that drop to minus 50.

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For the other two films, Explore and Hidden Universe, we don 3D glasses and find ourselves drawn in by the mesmerising visuals and tales of space exploration, faraway stars and planets, and the potential for humans to settle on Mars.

In addition, talks about the night sky are led by a resident astronomer, on this voyage, the charismatic, ebullient David Mannion, a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and a British masters' weightlifting champion. He unfurls myriad, mind-boggling facts about everything from black holes to Arcturus, the brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere and reckoned to be 170 times more luminous than our sun.

It's certainly food for thought, especially of an evening, when you're out on deck, walking off your dinner, feeling the sea breeze and glancing, in wonder, at all those magical twinkles above.

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A 15-day cruise from Barcelona to Bergen (Norway) on Viking Jupiter, departing April 2020, is priced from $7295 a person, based on double occupancy. It includes 24-hour room service, wine with meals and use of the ship's spa. See vikingcruises.com.au

Steve McKenna travelled as a guest of Viking Cruises.

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