Tired of long flights and train rides? FTF recommends a comfortable ferry tour through Scandinavia.
In February 2000, my family toured Scandinavia under the aegis of Norvista Tours, beginning our itinerary in Sweden before proceeding to our ultimate goal, Finland’s Ice Hotel.
Stockholm’s hospitable Hotel Sergel Plaza (+46 (0) 8 517 26 300) made it possible to walk everywhere and enjoy the crisp, sunny and unusually warm (33° F/2° C) weather.
By day we toured the Skansen Zoo (+46 8 442 80 00), fabric shops, Royal Palace and National Museum (+46 08 5195 4300), pausing often to admire streets of futuristic or Art Nouveau architecture. By night we watched hockey at the Globen and dined at Sir Terence Conran’s new eaterie, Bern. Strolling along the snow-crusted Strand in view of the first of Stockholm’s 24,000 islands whetted our appetite for the sea. A visit to the Vasa, a complete 17th-century Viking man-of-war ship dredged from Stockholm’s harbor and suspended in its own museum, made us hunger for it.
I’d booked an overnight crossing from Sweden to Finland because my 8-year-old son loves ships, not because I realized how deeply the Baltic Sea flowed beneath the Scandinavian soul. Since Swedish and Finnish families often take to the sea for short holidays, the gleaming white Silja Symphony, which ferries business people and cargo between Stockholm and Helsinki, was much more sophisticated and kid-friendly than any ordinary ferry.
A Ferry’s Family Facilities
On boarding the atrium-style ship, a nattily-dressed sailor handed our son a small present and a printed schedule for “Silja Spurt”, the kids’ activity club. We took a glass elevator past a promenade with ‘outdoor’ cafes, several levels of shops, sparkling cabins and seaview lounges with plush armchairs. Our spacious 11th floor interior cabin contained a double bed and built-in single window seat, facing across and down into the lively atrium.
On Deck 12, while our son joined a game of ‘bandy’ — ship-style field hockey — we went out for a stroll and discovered the Arctic winds made it challenging to appreciate the Swedish archipelago zooming by. Inside, dozens of kids were practicing gymnastics on the ship’s rails, deck bowling, playing tennis on a make-shift court, and shooting hoops with the inflatable souvenir balls they’d been given. As soon as the ship’s young counselors opened the 20-meter-long track of bristle brushes, others strapped on skis, grabbed poles and began Nordic ‘skiing’.
At 7pm, we took a break and found the large main dining room, where we feasted on an extraordinarily long and varied buffet. There was plenty of fresh fish (including an artistic display of poached, baked, smoked, grilled, pickled, stuffed and sushi salmon), several varieties of caviar, assorted cuts of meat, and beer and wine on tap.
In Scandinavia, children are considered the responsibility of the entire community, so it was no surprise to find a complimentary supervised play area (for ages 4-16, no infant childcare available) open 8am until 10pm. After we dropped off our son, my husband and I spent our ‘date’ shopping in the enormous duty-free zone and enjoying a beer at a cafÃ© overlooking the bustling passengers and slot machines. After our own ship’s tour, we decided to wake up early so we could try the health club before breakfast, when there’s no admission.
As well designed as everything else in the hub of Ikea and Nokia, the Silja Symphony’s natural wood saunas and plunge pools were housed under a heated greenhouse with steamy vistas of icebergs and snowfields. What a way to start the day!
I ended up owing our son SEK 10 because I’d bet him the small play pools, cave-like hot tubs and frigid waterfalls would make sitting in the dry heat sauna itself fun, but he hated every minute of it! Reaffirming another of the world’s cultural divides, the uniformed attendant (Liv Ullman’s twin?) confided, “Finnish children are more cultured and are raised to appreciate the SAU-n-ah.” She sighed. “Our Swedish children also think it’s too hot.”
We regained our humor at an elegant breakfast in the fine dining room. We imagined the many announcements were related to our impending disembarkation, so we went out to Deck 7, leaned against the wind and driving snow, and watched the ship churn through ice floes to the sheltered harbor.
… To Helsinki
Helsinki (or Helsingfors as it’s known to Swedes) is marked by Slavic onion-domed churches which were bathed in a wintry light. At sea, the temperature hovered at an unseasonably warm 26° F (-4° C). At the port, we were near the Old City‘s market full of reindeer vendors, and within a 10-minute walk of the historic Hotel KÃ¤mp. After reviewing our luxurious room, and the variety of water treatments available at its rooftop Balance Club, our son promptly declared it “the fanciest hotel we’ve ever been in!”
Because it was the beginning of the ‘wintersports break’ for local schoolchildren, families were out and about, layered in down and pile outerclothes. We regained our land legs by watching toddlers play hockey on frozen playgrounds, toured the luminescent Snow Church, and witnessed the Latvian team perform a water ballet in an icy fjord to win the first World Ice-Swimming Competition.
For many of our fellow cruisers, this evening would be spent aboard the Silja Symphony cruising back to sunny Stockholm, with new cell phones, vodka, Marimekko and Hugo Boss outfits, furs and, of course, a renewed respect for the sea.
For information and reservations on the Silja Lines’ Symphony and Serenade, contact Bergen Line Services ( 800/323-7436), or Silja Lines‘ Swedish office (+358 600 174 552). If you want to sleep well, advance bookings are highly recommended, particularly on summer or holiday weekends.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.