Helsinki is a harbour city with very good travel connections to other places around the Baltic Sea, mainly Tallinn, Stockholm and St Petersburg. Recently, we went on a short cruise to Stockholm. Viking Line offers those cruises daily: The ship leaves Helsinki in the late afternoon and crosses to Stockholm over night, with a short stop at Åland in the middle of the night. It stays in Stockholm for 6 1/2 hours, before going back again overnight. Of course, you can also take this cruise the other way round, starting and ending in Stockholm. These cruises are usually not very pricey (especially if you can travel on a date with a special offer), and with an extra voucher we only paid 6€ per person for the two nights on board.
I had heard many rumours about the cruise, which comes with various nicknames:
The booze cruise, because there is a duty free shop on board, where you can buy alcohol at lower prices than in Sweden and Finland. Many people take the cruise solely for the reason to stock up on alcohol – although not so many anymore these days, since Tallinn has joined the EU and is even cheaper and closer to Helsinki. But trade still seems to be good, as the shop even sells trolleys for those who want to buy larger quantities than they can carry in their suitcases.
The party boat, known for its lively nightclubs with karaoke, tango and other dancing and, after all official entertainment options on board have closed, countless cabin parties. Apparently many people even leave the doors to their cabins open, so that friendless strangers can join their parties. That’s how social the Nordics can get once they had a bit of alcohol! The party crowd uses the cruise mainly for this reason, and sleeps during the day rather than getting off and exploring the town.
The love boat: Numbers 1 and 2 of this list apparently lead to many new connections being made on board that are followed up immediately, which gave it this nickname.
So understandably my expectations when going on board were high. Drunk Finns indulging in karaoke, elderly passengers enjoying passionate tango sessions, roaring parties below deck and drunks stumbling from wall to wall while trying to get tons of freshly bought alcohol safely to their cabins. Oh, how disappointed I was! I don’t know if it was the time of year – it can’t have been the day, as we actually left on a Saturday, so at least the first night could have been wild – or if all the rumours are just plain wrong, but there was nothing happening that justified any of them.
We did observe people buying alcohol, and while the shop was busy throughout it was still less than I would have expected. The nightclub first hosted a children’s programme with a visit from Snoopy himself, then some bands played – but not even the slightest hint of the famous Finnish tango. There was some audience in the club, but it all seemed rather civilized. The next door bar only had a handful of people in it, there was recorded music the first day and an Elvis tribute act the second. And that was it! Across the ship, we could see people sitting around tables and chatting quietly – no wild snogging and indecency or signs of anyone being overly intoxicated. On our deck everything was quiet too. Next door, a few young Russians apparently prepared for party – they managed to fit 8 people into the small cabin – but after about half an hour of chatting at low volume that seemed to subside as well and the guests left.
Apart from the disappointing lack of cliches and some awfully grey weather, our trip was rather enjoyable. Upon arrival on board we were greeted by the ship’s mascot, a giant plushie cat named Ville. We settled into our cabin, which offered a permanently good, but fake, view. We had a type B cabin, which luckily was on the very quiet deck 6, far away from the noisy machine decks. It wasn’t terribly spacious, but we managed to play card games with 4 people in it, and it even had a bathroom which was larger than some I have come across in the UK. The ship has various restaurants, but all of them are on the pricey side. There is a large buffet, which costs 36€, the “budget” option on board. As it includes alcohol, this might be an ok price for people who eat and drink a lot, but for vegetarian non-drinkers like me it didn’t seem an attractive offer. The other restaurants were of the fine dining category, and the cafe only served sandwiches and meatballs. The breakfast buffet at 10€, on the other hand, was quite a good deal with the wide choice on offer.
We docked in Stockholm at 10am and disembarked straight away. It’s about 20 minutes brisk walk from the terminal to Gamla Stan, the pretty old town of Stockholm. I had never been before, so we had a lot to explore. On a grey, wintery Sunday morning, there wasn’t much going on around the streets of Gamla Stan, as most shops were closed until lunchtime. The weather wasn’t ideal for photography, and in general the cityscape of this part reminded me of many German cities (where I grew up), and therefore didn’t appeal as something particularly out of the ordinary to me. So we decided to visit the Vasa Museum instead. It took us another about half hour to walk there, taking us through some other pretty parts of Stockholm.
The Vasa was a warship built in the 1600s. She was meant to be a strikingly beautiful ship, demonstrating Sweden’s strength at sea. She was decorated with more than 700 statues, painted in bright colours and carrying 64 cannons, a proud masterpiece. Sadly, she was also more decorative than a working warship, not very stable, and sank 1000 metres into her maiden voyage thanks to a light breeze. She then lay buried in the mud of Stockholm’s harbour for more than 300 years. Luckily the mud preserved the ship so well, that upon her recovery in 1961 she was basically a time capsule to the 17th century. The entire ship has been restored, the largest such project until now, and can now be viewed in the Vasa Museum. The ship is still made up 98% of its original parts. Visitors are not allowed to access the ship, but can view it from all sides, and there are replicas of two of the rooms on board. There is also a very good exhibition, detailing life of the sailors in the days of the Vasa, and a video about the recovery and restoration of the ship. I particularly liked the old diving bell, which we of course immediately climbed into – I can tell you, it’s pretty dark in there! All signage is in Swedish, Finnish and English. We spent around 2 hours in the museum, and I cannot recommend it enough.
We then walked back to Gamla Stan and browsed the now open shops before going back to the ship. On our way back from the museum, we saw some intrepid kayakers battling currents in the river and snowfall, and came past the opera, the back of which looks a bit like a child played with building blocks of various architectural styles and combined them to one building. 6 1/2 hours aren’t terribly much time to visit a city the size of Stockholm, so my recommendation would be to tuck in at breakfast on the ship so you can keep going without another food break until back on board. This approach at least worked for us, but we are also fast walkers and speedy sightseers, so this approach won’t work for everyone.