A GRACEful Ferry Tale, Part One

A GRACEful Ferry Tale, Part One
by Kalle Id

MaritimeMatters’ Helsinki correspondent Kalle Id returns with another Ferry Tale from the Baltic Sea with a report from a ferry cruise onboard Viking Line’s new, futuristic Turku-Stockholm ferry VIKING GRACE that might – just might – define the future of passenger shipping.

All photographs are copyright © 2013 Kalle Id, except where otherwise noted.

The VIKING GRACE departing on a pre-service test cruise in January 2013. Photo © 2013 Jukka Huotari
The VIKING GRACE departing on a pre-service test cruise in January 2013. Photo © 2013 Jukka Huotari

VIKING GRACE: The first large passenger ship capable of operating with LNG (liquidised natural gas).
Specifications
IMO 9606900
Built 2013, STX Europe Turku, Finland
Tonnage 57 700 GT
Length 218,60 m
Width 31,80 m
Draught 6,80 m
Ice class 1 A Super
2 800 passengers
2 876 berths
530 lane metres of cars
1 275 lane metres of cargo
4 Wärtsilä dual fuel (LNG/diesel) engines, combined 30 400 kW
2 fixed-pitch propellers
2 bow thrusters
1 stern thruster
Service speed 21,8 knots
Maximum speed 25,6 knots

Thursday, 14 February 2013

I have to start by admitting that I have not been as excited about going onboard a ship in a long, long time as I was about the VIKING GRACE. In order to understand my excitement, you might need some background. The VIKING GRACE is the first new ship to be built for services between Finland and Sweden in twenty years. To add to this, in the twenty years before 1993 no less than 27 new ships were built for the same services. When I was a kid and first got interested in ships, new ships appeared on average at a rate of more than one per year.

And what ships they were! Although cruise lines like to ignore this fact, many features that are today associated with cruise ships started out onboard Baltic Sea cruiseferries of the 1980s and 1990s: tiered, multi-storey showlounges were first introduced onboard Sessanlinjen’s 1981 Sweden-Denmark ferry KRONPRINSESSAN VICTORIA; multiple alternate dining options were introduced the same year onboard Silja Line’s Finland-Sweden ferry FINLANDIA – and when this concept appeared on a cruise ship in 1993, it was onboard the STAR AQUARIUS, another former Baltic Sea ferry; and horizontal atria were introduced in 1990 onboard the Finland-Sweden ferry SILJA SERENADE – again several years before they appeared on cruise ships.

So when I was driving from Helsinki to Turku on this snowy February day with my wife Maria and our travelling companions for this trip – the eminent maritime historian and author Bruce Peter and his girlfriend Elspeth – I was extremely excited. But at the same time also dubious: Viking Line’s extensive marketing campaign for the new ship had set it up as being so innovative, that in reality it would be almost impossible to deliver all the expectations. Did the VIKING GRACE deliver? Read on and you shall see.

Due the fact that the ship fullfills a transport function and not just a leisure function, the timetable of the VIKING GRACE is  not exactly the most practival one if you wish to take a cruise: the ship departs Turku at 9 PM (or 21:00 as we say here in Finland) and arrives back in Turku at 8 PM the next day, having called at Långnäs, Stockholm and Mariehamn in the intervening 23 hours. Yet, despite this cumbersome sailing schedule, hundreds of people take a cruise on her every day. The route traverses no less than three different archipelagos (Turku, Åland and Stockholm) with only very short stretches of open-sea sailing between them.

The oldest surviving Turku-Stockholm ferry BORE makes quite a contrast to the VIKING GRACE. Photo © 2010 Kalle Id.
The oldest surviving Turku-Stockholm ferry BORE makes quite a contrast to the VIKING GRACE. Photo © 2010 Kalle Id.

However, the timetable also gave our little group time to arrive in Turku earlies in the day and actually have a short look around the city. We started out by visiting the preserved 1960-built Finland-Sweden pocket liner BORE (a subject of a previous MaritimeMatters report by yours truly). We enjoyed a tasty and affordable lunch from the BORE’s lunch buffet (still excellent, as it was when I last visited the ship in 2011) and next planned to visit the adjacent Forum Marinum maritime museum (also the subject of a previous MaritimeMatters report). However, it turned out that I had forgotten to pack an important part of my wardrobe – a hoodie, excellent for keeping yourself warm during the Finnish winter – and so our little group split up, with me and Maria heading into the city center to secure a new hoodie and the others visiting the museum.

Starters from the BORE's very affordable lunch buffet.
Starters from the BORE’s very affordable lunch buffet.

Acquiring a pleasant and suitable hoodie took some time and hence I have less to report about our stay in Turku than I would have liked. This is unfortunate as Finland’s oldest city is fascinating in its own right, with its medieval castle and cathedral, vernacular wooden houses, museums, preserved sailing ships, and even a neat little preserved tram used as an ice cream kiosk. But this time we only had time to admire these things from afar before heading to the harbour and await the wonders of the VIKING GRACE.

The medieval Turku Castle overlooks the mouth of the River Aura and the Turku harbour – in fact, the official name of the harbour is Linnasatama, ”Castle Harbour”.
The medieval Turku Castle overlooks the mouth of the River Aura and the Turku harbour – in fact, the official name of the harbour is Linnasatama, ”Castle Harbour”.
Compared to the castle, Viking Line's Turku terminal looks decidedly modern. The architecture skillfully hides the fact the building was converted from a cargo magazine.
Compared to the castle, Viking Line’s Turku terminal looks decidedly modern. The architecture skillfully hides the fact the building was converted from a warehouse.

While we were waiting for boarding to begin we were sitting in the terminal and suddenly we were greeted by a group of Danish shipping enthusiasts known to Bruce – including to my delight one Søren Lund Hviid, the superb maritime photographer whom I hugely admire. To my delight it turned out Søren in turn admires my work as a ship photographer and as a result for the rest of the evening – and indeed much of the following days – I had a warm fuzzy feeling thanks to that chance meeting.

The terminal was almost empty when we got there, but it wouldn't remain that way for long, as the ship was fully booked.
The terminal was almost empty when we got there, but it wouldn’t remain that way for long, as the ship was fully booked.

Soon after this it was time to board the ship. Bruce distangled himself from our little group to go photographing the interiors while the ship was still relatively empty, while the rest of us headed to quickly check out our cabins – standard insides with double beds on deck 9. The location turned out to be eminently practical as all public rooms are on decks 9, 10 and 11 – the topmost decks – and our cabins were right next to them.

A first taste of the VIKING GRACE's imaginative interiors: the cabin corridors have carpeting resembling a wooden walkway across a rocky shore.
A first taste of the VIKING GRACE’s imaginative interiors: the cabin corridors have carpeting resembling a wooden walkway across a rocky shore.

The cabin itself was not large (about 9,5 square metres/100 square feet), but then again you don’t really need a large cabin for a cruise that’s only going to last 23 hours. The decor of the cabins and cabin corridors is designed by the Finnish interior decorators Korpi & Gordon, with elements of the decor inspired by the archipelagos the ships sail through with somesurprising elements, such as carpets patterned like wooden floor.

The cabins are – perhaps fortunately – the least adventurous of the VIKING GRACE's interiors. It's not big, sure, but how large a cabin do you need for a 23-hour trip?
The cabins are – perhaps fortunately – the least adventurous of the VIKING GRACE’s interiors. It’s not big, sure, but how large a cabin do you need for a 23-hour trip?
The VIKING GRACE's atrium spans three decks with large windows looking out into the archipelago. The large lit sculptures suspended in the air change colour and move up and down in a predetermined pattern.
The VIKING GRACE’s atrium spans three decks with large windows looking out into the archipelago. The large lit sculptures suspended in the air change colour and move up and down in a predetermined pattern.

After leaving our luggage in our cabin (like on any proper ferry, there was no silliness of dropping off your luggage before boarding and then having to wait for it), we headed two decks up and to Oscar, the ship’s waiter-service à la carte -restaurant with forward-facing views. Oscar, like all other public spaces onboard, has been designed by the hip Finnish interior design company dSign Vertti Kivi. The VIKING GRACE is dSign’s first time working on ship interiors, which has led to some unusual choices. I particularly liked the fact that all public rooms had, in addition to all the other parts that go with interior design, extremely interesting ceilings – an element often forgotten when styling ship interiors.

Oscar à la carte -restaurant photographed during the daytime. When we dined there it was of course dark, as the ship departed at 9 PM and the sun sets around 5 PM in Finland at this time of the winter.
Oscar à la carte -restaurant photographed during the daytime. When we dined there it was of course dark, as the ship departed at 9 PM and the sun sets around 5 PM in Finland at this time of the winter.

The Oscar restaurant is finished in subdued shades of grey, with design elements that make it – to my eyes anyway – look like a nod to the bygone era of the 1930s. The menu, on the other hand, was rather modern and included unusual items such as reindeer fillet and crème brûlée made of beestings. For my dinner, I settled on pheasant breast for starters, reindeer for a main course and a combination of panna cotta and an apple muffin for dessert.

Starters: pheasant breast with Kastelholm cheese and nuts. Tasty for sure, but that's a very small portion I got in exchange for my 12€.
Starters: pheasant breast with Kastelholm cheese and nuts. Tasty for sure, but that’s a very small portion I got in exchange for my 12€.

While everything served was rather tasty it must be said that the portions were quite small, and there was also variance in the portion size that was not indicated in the menu. My pheasant breast, even though it was far from the cheapest item on the menu, was miniture. In comparison my wife, who had ordered mussels, was served a big pile of them. And perhaps it says something that I was hungry again just an hour after finishing an expensive three-course menu.

Main course: reindeer fillet flavoured with Mackmyra whiskey and lime-garlic hollandaise sauce. The side dish, not included in the photo, was caper roasted potatoes.
Main course: reindeer fillet flavoured with Mackmyra whiskey and lime-garlic hollandaise sauce. The side dish, not included in the photo, was caper roasted potatoes.

My overall impression from dining in Oscar was that Viking Line have tried a bit too hard in making this a fine dining experience that is clearly upmarket from the restaurants on their other ships. This is fine in itself, but problematic as Oscar is the only waiter-service restaurant onboard. The concept would work fine as a small, specialty restaurant but – in my opinion – it really doesn’t work as one of the main dining rooms and particularly not as the only waiter-service restaurant.

Dessert: a tahiti vanilla panna cotta and an apple muffin with cardamom. Utterly brilliant.
Dessert: a tahiti vanilla panna cotta and an apple muffin with cardamom. Utterly brilliant.

Even though it was already getting quite late in the evening once we were finished with our dinner, we decided to have a proper look around the ship, not having had time for boarding.

The Rockmore Bar on deck 10 is the space we visited least often on the ship. Even though it functions as a disco, it lacks a dance floor and furthermore it serves an access corridor to the Club Vogue night club at the aft of the ship.
The Rockmore Bar on deck 10 is the space we visited least often on the ship. Even though it functions as a disco, it lacks a dance floor and furthermore it serves an access corridor to the Club Vogue night club at the aft of the ship.

As said earlier, the public rooms are spread over the three topmost decks. The Oscar restaurant is located in the fore of deck 11. Adjacent to it is the Seamore champagne bar, while aft of them you find Frank’s Casual Dining, followed by the Spa and finally at the very aft of the ship the two-deck high Club Vogue, with a large dance floor and picture windows overlooking the stern. Indeed, there are large windows aplenty all over the public spaces, offering fabulous views over the three archipelagos the ship sails through. Deck 10 features, fore-to-aft, the Aurora buffet restaurant, Sweet & Salty cafeteria, Rockmore Bar, Retro Bar & Dancing, and the lower level of Club Vogue. Deck 9 had the navigation bridge forward, followed by a small number of cabins, the reception, a suite of conference rooms, and a very large tax-free supermarket filling almost half of the entire deck.

The retro-futuristic Club Vogue assumes a red-tinted colour pallette during the evening.
The retro-futuristic Club Vogue assumes a red-tinted colour pallette during the evening.

We ended up our crawl through the ship at Club Vogue, where the evening was in full swing, with the singer Pete Parkkonen (who rose to fame in Finland through the Idols reality TV series) due to perform in just a few moments. The promise of an Idols star did not particularly entice us to stay, and neither did the ear-splitting volume of the music. So, after snapping a few photographs we left to settle in for the night, as there was still another full day of the wonders of the VIKING GRACE ahead of us.

End of A GRACEful Ferry Tale, part 1. More to come… see A GRACEful Ferry Tale, part 2

Special thanks to Maria Id, Bruce Peter, Elspeth Hough and Martin Cox.

For more ship photography by Kalle Id, please visit kships.blogspot.com.

Kalle Id

Kalle Id

Kalle Id, MaritimeMatters' Helsinki correspondent, is a Finnish maritime historian, photographer and journalist, with a Master's Degree in history from the University of Helsinki. His early-age exposure to ferry travel led to a lifetime fascination with passenger ships, both the cruise ferries of his home waters and the cruise ships and ferries of further afield. Kalle maintains his own ship photography blog at kships.blogspot.com. Contrary to the popular belief, he writes under his real name.
Kalle Id
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