FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Night crossing to Helsinki

Posted in Finland, Helsinki, Stockholm, Sweden by folkestonejack on June 7, 2017

The thought of nearly 17 hours on a ferry to get from Stockholm to Helsinki might not be everyone’s idea of a good way to spend time on holiday but I knew from the outset that it would be one of the highlights for me, just as it had been 33 years ago.

The debate about whether the Viking Line or Silja line is the better option for the crossing has been going for years and has found a new lease of life online. I ploughed my way through pages and pages of opinion but the thrust seemed to be that there is very little difference these days, though I gleaned that perhaps the Silja Line ships were better for regular travelers who value the on-board shopping experience and that the Viking Line ships are possibly better for tourists who want to admire the changing scenery. No matter, the choice of shipping line was never in doubt as far as I was concerned – my brand loyalty had been won at the age of 12!

The Viking Line super-ferry M/S Gabriella

Our ship, the M/S Gabriella (1991) for the crossing, is not the largest operating the route but at 35,492 tons was still substantially larger than the ship we boarded in 1984 (the 15,179 ton M/S Viking Saga). The Silja Line ships that ply the route come in at 58,377 tons by comparison.

The Viking Line adventure began in the city centre, checking in at Cityterminalen to get our bus transfer tickets, cabin keys and meal cards. It seemed hard to comprehend how the bus transfer could take as long as 20 minutes, given that we could easily see the terminal from our walks around the old city. However, we soon discovered that the bus looped back and forth in all directions before depositing its passengers at the Stadsgården ferry terminal. I suspect the extensive roadworks around Slussen have some part in this strange routing.

Boarding was a relatively leisurely affair and soon enough we were up on the ninth deck (we opted for the extra space and views offered by a LYX Seaside Premium cabin, one of the mid-priced options available). If you didn’t know that you were on board a ship you could easily have mistaken our smart cabin for a hotel room, complete with complimentary mini bar and television.

It was lucky that we had such a beautiful afternoon for our departure as the route offers wonderful views of Stockholm, Djurgården and the archipelago of 30,000+ islands that stretches along the eastern coast for many miles. There were plenty of viewing spots on this ship, ranging from the vast open deck at the top of the ship to the balcony at the prow, all offering a great view of the Swedish coastline.

One of many tall ships seen in the early stages of our voyage

I had a vague memory of a continuous landscape of green forests from thirty-three years ago, but probably hadn’t appreciated the variety of striking sights lurking amongst that.

Early sights on our voyage included two stunning residences designed by the Swedish architect Ferdinand Boberg – the Italian Embassy, originally built in 1910 as a palace for Prince Wilhelm and the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia, and the mansion of Waldemarsudde built for Prince Eugen, now the rather beautiful setting for an art museum. Next to Prince Eugen’s Waldemarsudde is a rare 18th century oil mill dating to 1784. Other sights included the Skansen; the distinctive Danvikshem retirement home and the Kaknäs Tower.

Later, the fortresses of Oskar-Fredriksborg and Fredriksborg on either side of the channel proved fascinating. The fortresses were intended to defend the approach to Stockholm from the Russians at different stages in Swedish history, though never in tandem. Fredriksborg was constructed in 1735, but was superseded by an upgraded Vaxholm Fort in the early 19th century. Oskar-Fredriksborg was constructed in the 1870s and looks strikingly different, built into the rock and today blending rather well with the natural landscape.

The Viking Line ship M/S Amorella (1987) passes Fredriksborg fortress around 5.45pm on the final leg of her journey from Turku to Stockholm

Between all of these sights we got glimpses of the many small communities that lie on the archipelago, inter-linked by ferries. All the while a seemingly endless supply of pleasure-boats headed to and from the small islands that surrounded us. It probably helped that it was a national holiday – everyone seemed to be out on the water or basking in the sun.

We gave up on our sightseeing at 8pm, heading inside to the curiously titled ‘No name restaurant’ for a nine course tasting dinner. The setting was superb, at a table with a stunning view of the changing coastline, but the 9 dishes of Finnish flavours were quite something else.

The next two hours saw us taste asparagus with dried egg yolk; salsify served in many ways; marinated herring with pickled cucumber; a stunning garlic millet porridge with snails; pike perch with vegetables; duck parfait with rhubarb and pickled red onion; a beautifully cooked lamb medallion, served with a lamb’s tongue croquette and charred turnip; sorrel sorbet and diced apple; carrot cake and butter ice cream on a hazelnut crumb; and last, but not least, a rhubarb and meringue tartlet with an exquisite elder-flower sorbet.

The expense of eating out in Sweden and Finland might have limited our culinary ambitions for the trip but the tasting menu proved to be a pretty amazing experience from start to finish and very reasonably priced. The bottle of Black Cottage Sauvignon Blanc that accompanied it was lovely too. I was more than a little relieved that it proved to be a terrific distraction for my ship-phobic prone better half, rather than a calamitous prelude to a night of seasickness!

As the light faded our ship made it into the open waters east of Kapellskär, crossing the Baltic sea to Mariehamn, the capital of the Åland Islands (where we found another Viking Line ship, the M/S Rosella). Our ship only made a very short stop here, around 10.45pm (Swedish Time), with time enough only for foot passengers to embark or disembark. The night ferries used to sail from Stockholm to Helsinki without interruption but a stop at Mariehamn was added in 1999 to use a loophole that allowed the lines to continue offering tax free sales on board.

Once our ship vacated the berth at Mariehamn our fellow tax dodger, the M/S Silja Serenade, prepared to take it over. This ship had followed us out of Stockholm from a point just beyond Fjäderholmarna island (where the Silja line and Viking Line routes converge) but was scheduled to overtake us during the early hours and arrive in Helsinki first.

The Viking Line ship M/S Rosella (1985) in her berth at Mariehamn, capital of the Åland Islands

After our ship left the Åland Islands behind we decided it was time to turn our clocks forward an hour to Finnish time (British Summer Time + 2 hours) and hit the sack. Strange as it seemed, we knew that it wouldn’t be that long before the sun started to rise.

Sure enough, the light was streaming through the gap in the curtains before long and it was time to grab a buffet breakfast and prepare ourselves for the morning ahead. As arrivals go, it’s hard to imagine that anything could beat the approach to Helsinki with the passage between the fortress islands of Suomenlinna and Vallisaari or the view of the market square straight ahead.

The crossing had been incredibly smooth and tucked up in our cabin there was little to give away the fact that we were moving (assuming you hadn’t tuned in to the live TV feed from the prow of the ship available through the television!).

M/S Gabriella at her berth in Helsinki

Our arrival, at 10.10am, was perfectly on schedule. It didn’t take long for us to disembark and make the relatively short walk through the compact city centre to our hotel. Refreshed and ready for some sightseeing, where better to begin than with another ferry…

Gallery

Tagged with:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: