From MaritimeMatters’ Helsinki correspondent Kalle Id:
For me – and probably a large portion of the population of Northern Europe – cruises are not just about the cruise ships that sail on the Caribbean and other warm waters. In the Baltic Sea there is another, distinct type of cruising: cruises offered on ferries alongside their transport function. During the heyday of ferry cruising in the 1980s these ships rivaled cruise ships of the era. I invite all of you to join me on a two-night wintery ferry cruise on Viking Line’s 1985-built MARIELLA from Helsinki to Stockholm and back again.
Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are copyright 2012 Kalle Id.
Thursday, February 9, 2012
The phenomenon of ferry cruising seems to be largely unknown outside the Baltic Sea. Certainly there are many ferries sailing in other waters which are labelled as cruiseferries based on their cruise ship -like interiors, but on the Baltic Sea cruiseferries are labelled as such because a large portion of the passengers carried are actually on a cruise. Particularly during the winter season cruise passengers dominate the ships.
Starting the cruise from my home town meant that, for once, getting to the ship would be simple. A 15-minute tram ride from my home brought us to the Senate Square in central Helsinki, from where we decided to walk to our final destination, the Katajanokka ferry terminal. The Senate Square and the surrounding buildings date from the first half of the 19th century. In 1812 Alexander I, Tsar of Russia and Grand Duke of Finland, decided to move the Finnish capital from Turku to Helsinki. The rural town was restyled in neoclassical style reminiscent of St. Petersburg under guidance of the German architect C. L. Engel. The Senate Square is held to be once of the best surviving examples of neoclassical architecture in the world. As an interesting detail, due to the similar architecture Helsinki often played the part of Leningrad in Cold War -era Hollywood films (Finland, being neutral, was open to western filmmakers, while the Soviet Union of course was not).
Historical diversions aside, after a short walk we found ourselves facing a familiar sight: The MARIELLA moored at Viking Line’s terminal in Katajanokka. When the ship was built 1985, her designers probably did not think the ship would still be in service on the same route 27 years later. Indeed, when the MARIELLA was delivered, the ship she replaced on the Helsinki-Stockholm run, the VIKING SONG, was less than five years old. At the time ships built for services between Finland and Sweden run for their original owners for only seven years on average, before being replaced by larger and more luxurious ships and sold for further trading in other waters.
In the 1980s the cruiseferry business seemed to be experiencing perpetual growth, with ever-larger and more luxurious ships. Mickey Arison of Carnival Corporation is said to have been jealous of the success of Viking Line and during the era Baltic Sea ferries rivaled – at times even surpassed – cruise ships of the time. However, while the cruise business has grown steadily since the 1980s, the growth of the Finland-Sweden ferry routes stalled following three events that took place between 1989 and 1994.
First, in 1989 the Wärtsilä Marine shipyard went bankrupt. The yard had been building new ships for all major players in Finland-Sweden traffic (as well as the FANTASY-class for Carnival Cruise Lines) and as a result most of the Finland-Sweden ferry operators were left in a poor financial position. This in part led to the bankruptcy of Rederi AB Slite (one of the two owners of Viking Line) in 1993, leaving the MARIELLA’s owners SF Line as the sole owners of Viking Line. The final, and most serious, blow to came in 1994 when the EstLine ferry ESTONIA (ex-VIKING SALLY, SILJA STAR, WASA KING) sunk while en-route from Tallinn to Stockholm, taking 852 lives with her. The MARIELLA was one of the ship participating in the rescue effort. The sinking of the ESTONIA shattered public confidence in the formerly prestigious ferries, and while passenger numbers later recovered the growth levels of the 1980s have never been reached again. Hence there has never been a reason to replace the MARIELLA with a larger and better-equipped ship.
But let us get back to the present. While most of the passengers on the MARIELLA may be taking a two-night cruise, that does not mean all operations onboard and at the terminal would be like those on a cruise ship. For starters, there is none of the hassle with turning over your luggage to the staff to be transferred to the ship: you simply carry your own luggage onboard (an arrangement which I personally find vastly preferable). By the time we reached the terminal boarding had already started, so after checking in we could simply walk onboard. Once we found our cabin we settled in to what was to be our home for the next two days. The cabin classification system is rather simple. There are three categories of standard cabins: A-class (outside), B-class (inside above the car deck) and C-class (inside below the car deck), alongside three types of larger outside ”luxury cabins” and a number of suites.
After leaving our luggage at the cabin and getting rid of our winter clothes (it was well below -10 degrees Celsius/14 degrees Fahrenheit outside) we had a bit of time to look around the ship before departure. While the ship inevitably must seem small today, she must have been something in 1985. Back then passengers had four restaurants to choose from: a traditional Scandinavian buffet, three a la carte restaurants (with the seal of approval from Chaîne des Rôtisseurs) and a cafeteria. On the entertainment side there was a pub, a disco, a casino and a night club, for shopping a large tax-free supermarket, a gift shop and perfumery, a conference area with 16 meeting rooms (including a large auditorium doubling as a cinema), and of course a sauna with a swimming pool.
Today very little of the original interiors remain, apart from the three-deck high marble-clad atrium. Many public rooms have been re-purposed or at the very least redecorated in a more modern style during a series of a refits carried out since the year 2000. After checking that most of the public rooms are still where I left them the last time (this was my eight time onboard) we settled on the arcade on deck 7 to watch the departure from indoors warmth. It should be noted that early February is not the best time to travel on the Helsinki-Stockholm route if you actually want to see outside the ship. We departed at 5:30 PM at which time it was already rapidly getting dark outside.
In place of the four original restaurants there are today still four restaurants, but apart from the buffet the restaurants are now quite different. In the early 2000s Viking were faced with the problem that most of their passengers (Finns in particular) preferred serving themselves and the waiter-service restaurants were unpopular. To test a solution to this problem the MARIELLA was rebuilt in 2006 with new concept for the waiter-service restaurants: in addition to the traditional a la carte menu there was now an option of a buffet table for starters and desserts. The concept, labelled Food Garden, became so popular that not only was it adopted to other Viking Line ships but the competing Silja Line and Tallink also adopted a similar system.
In addition to the Food Garden there is a more casual waiter-service restaurant, Ella’s, serving Italo-American cuisine, and a Tapas and Wine bar serving various cheaper food options. For our part, for the first evening we decided to dine at the Food Garden. The restaurant space consists essentially of three intimate cabinets accessible from a main courtyard (where the buffet table is located). Like most Finns, we opted for starters and desserts from the buffet. For the main course I opted for a rather excellent duck, while my wife was tempted to vegetable hamburger plate that was actually from the menu selection of the neighbouring Ella’s restaurant.
With the abundance of food on offer it should come as no surprise that both of us ate far too much. In the end the price for the rather excellent (not to mention abundant) dinner for two was 66 € including (non-alcoholic) drinks, which I find to be quite reasonable, particularly when you remember what many cruise lines charge on their extra-charge restaurants on top of your all-inclusive cruise. (On a ferry meals are of course not included on the price of the trip).
After the (over-)indulgence in food, it was time to look at the entertainment for the evening. For many years I have been requesting the addition of piano bars onboard Viking Line’s ships in their customer feedback forms. Apparently I was not the only one making this request as now there was a pianist entertaining on the arcade on deck 7. Not a dedicated piano bar (there wouldn’t really be space for one), but the arcade with seaside views on one side and chance for people-spotting on the other proved a rather nice setting for a civilized evening for chatting. Drinks could be acquired from other the nearby pub (where they were showing a Finland-Russia ice hockey game on big screen) or the Tapas & Wine Bar.
When the rather skilled pianist went for his well-deserved break, we moved to the Fun Club, where a four-piece band was playing dancing music, mostly of the kind favoured by the older Finnish generation. I would very much like to compliment the band in this review, as the bands on Viking’s ships are usually rather good, but this band was not. The drummer could not even hold a ¾ rhythm, playing waltzes in 4/4 rhythm instead. I admit it was humorous to listen to the rest of the band struggling with the wrong tempo, but that does not change the fact the band was unacceptably poor.
An additional entertainment option would have been karaoke, to which the discotheque is dedicated during the early evening. However, if you have heard a Finn sing karaoke you know it is a form of torture rather than entertainment. If you have not heard it, I strongly recommend steering clear of the karaoke.
Blissfully the band-who-could-not-keep-tempo eventually yielded the stage to the evening’s show, which this time around was a small-scale circus act with jugglers, magicians and a clown. The show was quite entertaining, though certainly not up to the level of similar acts you see on real cruise ships. The Fun Club as a venue is sadly somewhat limited, being originally designed as a space for dancing, as a result of which the sight lines are not ideal and the single-deck ceiling height also poses challenges. As a nice bonus the circus performers did not limit their involvement onboard to the show but rather wandered around the public spaces for most the evening, with the jugglers providing entertainment and the clown making balloon animals for children (and adults brave enough to ask for one).
By the time the circus show had finished the clock was nearing midnight and we decided to retire to our cabin for the night to be up relatively early for a day in Stockholm.
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.