Posted on Wednesday, February 22, 2012 by Martin Cox
Join MaritimeMatters’ Helsinki correspondent Kalle Id for the second part of the ferry cruise from Helsinki to Stockholm and back again through the icy winter Baltic Sea.
Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are copyright 2012 Kalle Id.
Friday, February 10, 2012
In the evening we left Helsinki sailing behind the SILJA SYMPHONY of the competing Silja Line. In the morning, when we were making our way through the twists and turns of the Stockholm Archipelago, our convoy of two ships had grown into four ships. Sailing behind us was Tallink’s Tallinn-Stockholm ship VICTORIA I, followed by the same company’s Riga-Stockholm ship SILJA FESTIVAL (Tallink have owned Silja Line since 2006 and in a typically inconsistent approach the SILJA FESTIVAL kept her Silja Line name when moved to the fleet of Tallink in 2008). While our four-ship convoy was inbound, we would pass the outbound Turku-Stockholm ships ISABELLA (Viking Line) and SILJA EUROPA (Silja Line). I must admit that at this time I was still fast asleep in our cabin, so no photographs of these ships, at least not from this trip.
As neither of us was in the mood for the abundant buffet breakfast following the excesses of Food Garden the previous night, we decided on a small-scale breakfast of coffee and croissants in the cafeteria on deck 6. I have fond memories of the cafeteria on the MARIELLA, as I remember dancing there with my 60-year-old grandmother back in 1992. When I was a kid most of my other relatives were not too keen on ferry cruising, but my grandmother humoured me and for many years we had a tradition of taking one ferry trip (sometimes two) together every year. She is still a keen traveler, making several trips to Tallinn with her friends every year.
After finishing our breakfasts and reminiscing, it was time to suit up for the cold weather again and head out to Stockholm. In terms of harbour facilities, Viking Line have the advantage as their Stockholm terminal is located at Tegelvikshamnen, just a short walk away from the old town. Silja Line and Tallink use the Värtan and Frihamnen harbours in north-eastern Stockholm, from which it takes approximately an hour to reach the city center by foot (although the much faster option of the Tunnelbana – Underground – is also available).
For several hours we wandered around Stockholm, visiting the historical Gamla Stan (old town) dating from the 13th century and newer areas in Södermalm and Norrmalm. While we did not visit any of the numerous museums and other attractions of the city this time around, I feel I should mention the one place every ship-enthusiast should visit if they ever are in Stockholm: The Vasa Museum in Djurgården (accessible by tram line number 7). The VASA was a 17th-century Swedish warship that sunk due to a design defect not far from where Viking Line’s terminal is today after only sailing less than a nautical mile. The wreck was located by an amateur archeologist in the 1950s and raised in 1961, treated to stop the wood from deforming as it dries and eventually placed in the museum where it can be viewed today.
After several hours of walking and a lunch at what is probably my favourite oriental restaurant in the world, Panda Wok just outside Stockholm’s main railway station, we made our way back to the ship. We were walking by the shore towards Viking Line’s terminal just as the evening’s cruise ship parade was starting. In addition to the daily or twice-daily cruiseferry serviced from Stockholm to Turku, Helsinki, Tallinn and Riga (plus a twice-weekly service to St. Petersburg), there are also three ships making short 22-hour cruises from Stockholm to Mariehamn.
The first cruise ship to arrive was Ånedin Linjen’s delightful BIRGER JARL (ex-BIRGER JARL, BORE NORD, BALTIC STAR), a 59-year old pocket liner originally built for the Helsinki-Stockholm run in 1953. The ship has been deemed culturally important by the Swedish authorities and manages to avoid the requirements of SOLAS 2010 by a special exemption.
Following soon afterward the BIRGER JARL was the MARIELLA’s Viking Line fleetmate VIKING CINDERELLA (ex-CINDERELLA). Built in 1989, the CINDERELLA is essentially an improved version of the MARIELLA, with much superior facilities. Unlike the other ships making short cruises to Mariehamn from Stockholm the VIKING CINDERELLA has a car deck, which allows passengers to park their cars onboard for the duration of the cruise. While this arrangement is a bit unusual, it is apparently quite popular amongst the ship’s passengers.
Wrapping up the cruise ship parade is arguably the most impressive of the three, Birka Cruise’s 2004-built cruise ship BIRKA PARADISE. While the BIRKA PARADISE is smaller than the VIKING CINDERELLA (or indeed the MARIELLA), she is a delightfully appointed modern cruise ship with all the amenities you would expect from a cruise ship in warmer waters – even magrodome-covered sun deck.
Once we were back onboard, my traveling companion Maria opted to take a nap, while I had a look around the ship to take some photographs while there were still relatively few people onboard (or at least up and about). Even so, taking photographs of some of the public spaces proved to be a challenge as the MARIELLA is a high-density ship and there are always some people around.
Soon the clock was quarter to five and it was time to depart again. Again we spectated the departure from the arcade, whilst waiting for our seating in the buffet restaurant to open. In Scandinavia the buffet is in general considered a form of fine dining. Most cruise ship buffets I have seen are an insult to the proper buffet and it is the buffets on ships such as the MARIELLA that set the benchmark. What follows can only be described as a rant, but bear with me.
On the Baltic Sea ferries you are assigned a table in the buffet when you book it. This has the advantage that you don’t have to keep an eye on your table – for the duration of the sitting it is yours. A proper buffet does not have trays nor nasty plastic plates or mugs. And most importantly, you are not supposed to take everything on your plate at a single go. Traditionally you start with fish starters, follow it up by cold cuts, then proceed to the main courses and finally desserts. In the more modern variant there’s also salad starters.
The main problem with the buffet is that there are simply too many dishes on offer for a normal human to be able to fit inside him- or herself. The starters in particular were excellent, but the main courses had the problem of the lack of side dishes. There were several different types of meat on offer, but the only side dish to go with them were gratinated potatoes and an indian-style vegetable dish. I solved the problem by taking another detour to the salad table, but even fairly simple items like boiled potatoes and rice would have been a nice addition.
If we ate too much the first night at the Food Garden, the buffet was even worse. It did not help that in addition to as much of food as you can eat, the 33 € price of the buffet (30 € if booked in advance) also gets you as much soft drinks, beer, wine (red or white), several kinds of fruit juice, milk, coffee and/or tea as you can drink.
After bravely making our way through the final bits of sorbet we rolled out of the buffet and decided to take a look into the tax-free shop on deck 6. The tax-free is a space that was radically reformed in 2006 – the original three separate shops, separated by a wide corridor running through the center of the ship, were replaced by one large shop combining the functions of all three. This, according to what I have heard, increased sales of particularly items from the former perfumery and gift shops, which passengers previously simply skipped. Adjacent to the tax-free is also a small Travel Spa operated by RVB.
Having stocked up on sweets to take to the folk back home, plus some fragrances and other little things it was time to look at the entertainment programme again. As the programme was pretty much the same as on the first night, we opted for more listening to the pianist combined with people-spotting on the arcade. (Sadly, it was again too dark to see much of the majestic Stockholm Archipelago that was passing by us outside of the window).
Looking at the variety of people onboard I was reminded by something my friend the author Bruce Peter said about traveling on these ferries. On a cruise ship the passengers are a fairly homogenous group and there is just a single onboard product for all of them. On a cruise ferry the onboard product can be very different depending on the choices you make onboard and hence the demographic the ships attract is much wider. Elderly people in suits who dine at the finest restaurant and spend their evening waltzing in the Fun Club will brush elbows with groups of twenty-somethings who eat at whichever restaurant is cheapest and “invest” most of their travel budget on alcohol while waiting for the DJ to start at disco. Sitting at the pub are businessmen who are onboard for a conference and watching all of these people is a historian onboard to write a travel report about it all, sitting together with his wife.
The final activity of the night for us was again the circus show at the Fun Club. Same performers as the previous night, but a different and arguably superior performance. While the show was going on the ship made it’s nocturnal call at Mariehamn in the Åland Islands. The islands are an autonomous part of Finland who, when Finland joined the EU in 1994, negotiated a special protocol that leaves the islands outside the EU’s taxation system. As a result, while tax-free sales ended in intra-EU traffic in 1999, ships calling at the Åland Islands can still sell tax-free goods. Hence all the ships sailing from Finland and Estonia to Stockholm call at Mariehamn or Långnäs to get the right to sell tax-free goods, which is one of the reasons why these ferries remain so popular to this day.
Normally I prefer to go on deck while we are in Mariehamn, if for no other reason than to see Viking Line’s 1980-built ferry ROSELLA that provides a shuttle service from Mariehamn to Kapellskär in Sweden, but this time the circus show inside and the cold weather outside tempted me to stay indoors.
Saturday, February 11, 2012
There is not much to say about our last day onboard the MARIELLA. In the morning, while Maria went for a coffee at the cafeteria I opted to go on deck and see if I could get any interesting photographs of the icy sea. Unfortunately the day was overcast so the images did not end up as good as they could have been. As we were inbound to Helsinki South Harbour, Eckerö Line’s Helsinki-Tallinn ferry NORDLANDIA (ex-OLAU HOLLANDIA, NORD GOTLANDIA) was outbound from the West Harbour, while Tallink’s Helsinki-Tallinn ferry SUPERSTAR was moored at the West Harbour. Normally we would have been trailing the SILJA SYMPHONY to Helsinki, but for winter Silja Line are operating on a slower timetable and as a result we were for once sailing ahead of the competition into Helsinki.
Passing through the narrows of the Kustaanmiekka strait next to the Suomenlinna sea fortress (a favourite location of ship photographers during the summer – and winter, only it’s a LOT colder) and made our way back to the terminal that we had left less than two days before. As we were walking out of the ship and towards the terminal, pulling into the quay aft of the MARIELLA was Viking Line’s (to date) newest ship, the Helsinki-Tallinn ferry VIKING XPRS (pronounced “Viking Express”). Had I had my wits about me we would have stayed onboard for a while longer and photographed the VIKING XPRS from the unusual vantage point of the MARIELLA’s aft sun deck. Well, maybe next time…
End of Cruise Yourself Chilly on the MARIELLA, Part Two.
Special thanks to Maria Id, Jaakko Ahti, Christa Blomqvist, Martin Cox and Kenny Leong.
For more ship photography by Kalle Id, please visit kships.blogspot.com