From MaritimeMatters Helsinki correspondent Kalle Id:
In 1990-1991 the Finnish-Swedish Silja Line built two superb cruise ferries for the Helsinki (Finland)-Stockholm (Sweden) service. The SILJA SERENADE and SILJA SYMPHONY were the largest ferries of the time and the first ships of any kind to feature a large horizontal atrium (or promenades as they were branded by the company). Twenty years later the same ships still sail on the same route. I invite all of you to join me on a two-night cruise on the SILJA SYMPHONY, a ship my traveling companion called ”possibly the world’s greatest cruise ferry of all time”.
Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are copyright 2012 Kalle Id.
Saturday, February 25, 2012
I must admit that usually when I do ferry cruising to Sweden, my company of choice is Viking Line. Their ships are not as grand as those of Silja Line, but their fares are cheaper and – at least in my personal experience – their service better. This despite that fact Silja Line is at least on paper the more high-class of the two companies. However, this time around I was traveling with my friend the maritime historian Bruce Peter, who wished to travel on Silja Line. And it was a good thing too, as this time around Silja Line definitely did live up to it’s image as the superior of the two Finland-Sweden ferry operators.
In Helsinki, the SILJA SYMPHONY docks at the Olympia Terminal, just a short walk from the city center. The terminal itself is a testimony to the development of Baltic Sea ferry services: it was built for the 1952 Summer Olympics (hence the name), designed for the traffic demands of the so-called ”olympic ships”, the pocket liners AALLOTAR (1952), BORE III (1952) and BIRGER JARL (1953), each carrying around a thousand passengers in their 3,000 GRT hulls. Since 1990-1991 the exact same terminal has served the 58,000 GT, 2,800-passenger SILJA SERENADE and SILJA SYMPHONY. Every afternoon (except around Christmas time), one of the sisters departs Helsinki for Stockholm (and vice versa).
It does show that the Olympia Terminal was designed for much smaller passenger numbers – on a Saturday departure the terminal was definitely crowded. Never the less, we checked in smoothly and soon found ourselves stepping onboard the SILJA SYMPHONY. All passengers enter on deck 7, walking directly into the ship’s by far most impressive feature: the horizontal atrium (promenade), spanning over two thirds of the ship’s length. When the ships were being designed and built in the late 1980s, this feature was a closely-guarded secret – and for obvious reasons, nothing like this had ever been built on a ship.
When introduced in the early 1990s, the SILJA SERENADE and SILJA SYMPHONY became an immediate success. The passengers had half a dozen restaurants to choose from, there was a array of bars, a two-deck spanning dance bar/show lounge, an observation lounge/night club at the base of the funnel and even a relatively large number of cabins with private balconies. The popularity of the ships was a good thing too, as bankruptcy of the original builders, Wärtsilä Marine, had almost doubled the price of the ships. Despite the success of these ships, due to their high price and other failed investments Silja Line never recovered. In 1999 the company was sold to Sea Containers, who in turn had to sell the line in 2006, when it passed to the Estonia-based Baltic Sea operator Tallink. Since 2006 the Silja Line brand has existed in something of a flux: in some territories it is marketed as it’s own separate brand, in others together with Tallink as Tallink Silja Line.
But let us get back to the present and onboard the SILJA SYMPHONY. On boarding we were greeted by various members of the crew, a string quartet and Moomintroll (as Silja Line is the official sea carrier of the Moomin). We carried our bags to our cabin, a standard two-berth outside on deck nine, and proceeded to take a look around the ship while it was still (relatively) empty.
While the SYMPHONY is larger and modern, there are a multitude of delightful traditional nautical touches, such as round portholes and even a teak-covered full wrap-around promenade on deck 7. After doing a quick tour around the (outdoor) promenade, we planned to settle on the forward observation bar on deck eight to watch our departure civilizedly with drinks in hand. However, the sun was coming up outside and we decided on a change of plans. After quickly getting outdoors clothes from our cabin, we made it to the outer deck on deck 12 and proceeded to take some rather attractive photographs of Viking Line’s MARIELLA moored on the opposite side of the harbour and later also Tallink’s Helsinki-Tallinn ferry SUPERSTAR that had departed Helsinki’s West Harbour around the same time as we departed from the South Harbour.
Spending an extended period on outer deck during Finnish winter does tend to make you very cold. Previously it had turned out that Bruce had never visited a sauna and as were were very cold and the ship has rather excellent saunas and pool facilities, I took it as my task to introduce him to the concept of a Finnish sauna (even though we were on a Swedish-flagged ship).
After a very relaxing hour in the sauna, we finally did go to the forward observation bar with drinks in hand. The bar is a delightful silent niche in the forward part of the two-story Atlantis Palace show lounge/dance bar/casino complex. Atlantis Palace is one of the very few places onboard that still retain their original early-90s appearance, in this case designed by the Finnish ship designer Vuokko Laakso, who in addition to designing the interiors of many ferries also worked on ships such as Royal Caribbean’s first-generation cruise ships. Unfortunately, this being wintertime in northern Europe, there was nothing except darkness to see outside at this point.
Having finished our drinks, it was time to head for dinner. The SILJA SYMPHONY has no less then six different restaurants to choose from, ranging from the cheap and casual to rather posh fine dining. Naturally there is also a Scandinavian-style self-serve buffet. For this first night of the cruise we decided to opt for the main waiter service restaurant, Bistro Maxime on deck 6 (one deck below the promenade).
Bistro Maxime operates on a similar principle as the Food Garden on Viking Line’s ships: for starters and desserts you can order from the menu and be served by a waiter or serve yourself from a buffet table. This time we opted not to utilize the buffet option and instead were served three delightful courses that could be described as a SYMPHONY of tastes… if that wasn’t such a lame pun.
Following dinner we headed up to deck 13 to see the New York Club & Lounge night club at base of the funnel, that neither of us had seen in it’s current guise (we would have checked out the space before already, but for some reason it only opened at 8 PM). Originally this space was named Stardust, but when Sea Containers was looking to sell Silja Line in 2006 the SILJA SYMPHONY and her sister were sent to drydock for a thorough overhaul of the interiors. One of the most radically altered spaces was Stardust, which now became Club Bali with a rather silly-looking tropical theme. Fortunately in late 2010 the sisters were docked again and now Club Bali transformed into the rather stylish New York Club & Lounge.
Unfortunately at the time when we visited New York Club, the event hosted there was karaoke. As I might have mentioned before, this is a plight of ships sailing to Finland as most Finns do not understand that they simply cannot sing and proceed to torture their fellow travelers regardless. Hence, Bruce and I mostly just photographed the space while listening to (an admittedly quite attractive) Finnish girl butcher the song ”Sweet Transvestite” from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, then escaped to the Atlantis Palace to listen to a band. Every night there is a midnight show in Atlantis Palace (the dance floor is hydraulically raised to offer better sight lines to the audience), but we opted to go to bed early in preparation for our day in Stockholm.
Sunday, February 26, 2012
The next morning we got up early to photograph the Turku-Stockholm ships SILJA EUROPA and ISABELLA that would pass us in the Stockholm archipelago as they were outbound from Stockholm to Turku. Whereas Helsinki had been quite icy and snowy, the Stockholm archipelago was almost completely free of ice and there was only a very little snow on the ground.
After photographing the SILJA EUROPA and ISABELLA we headed back the warmth of indoors for a while, only to return to the deck about an hour later when we had docked at Silja Line’s Stockholm terminal in Värtan for more photography. Tallink’s Tallinn-Stockholm ship VICTORIA I and Riga-Stockholm ship SILJA FESTIVAL (ex-WELLAMO) had sailed behind us through the archipelago and now came within photographing distance when entering the harbour.
Instead of heading out to Stockholm itself for our day in port, we opted to do something slightly more unusual and head to the neighbouring island municipality of Lidingö. The island is connected to Stockholm by tram line 21 (aka Lidingöbanan), one of the two tram lines that survived the mass closure of the city’s tram network in the 1960s. Until 2013 the line is still trafficked by old tramcars dating from 1940s.
After wandering around Lidingö for a few hours we headed to the tram line’s eastern terminus at Gåshaga to photograph the Stockholm-Mariehamn cruise ships VIKING CINDERELLA (ex-CINDERELLA), BIRKA PARADISE and BIRGER JARL (ex-BIRGER JARL, BORE NORD, BALTIC STAR). Annoyingly my camera battery ran out whilst photographing the first ship, and I had forgotten to recharge the spare, but fortunately Bruce let me borrow his number 2 camera.
After photographing the ships we headed back to Värtan and the awaiting SILJA SYMPHONY with the tram. Once onboard, Bruce opten for some more photography on deck, while I decided to stay inside as it had been surprisingly cold outdoors. Once Bruce was finished with the latest photography sessions and the ship was again underway, he suggested we head again to the sauna. Being both Finnish and quite cold I was not about to say no.
Having been thoroughly warmed up again it was time to head for dinner. We had already earlier decided to dine in one of the restaurants by the promenade on the second night, but there was still the question of which one? The budget option of Mundo (a cafeteria that morphs into a waiter service restaurant during the evening) and the most expensive option of the fine dining restaurant Bon Vivant we both out, but that still left the El Capitan steakhouse and Happy Lobster seafood restaurant to choose from.
In the end we went with El Capitan, but unfortunately were not the only ones with the same idea and actually had to wait for a fairly long time to get a table. Still, the wait was worth it as the food was (again) rather excellent. We decided not to order desserts which was an excellent decision as the larger portions meant that the starters and main courses were quite enough to fill one up. In my case the fact I was eating quite a lot of meat probably also had an effect, my stomach being used to much lighter and mostly vegetarian foods on land.
After dinner we decided to go and check out the various shops onboard. Along the promenade there is a perfumery, a gift shop and a store selling various design clothes and such, while on deck six is the main tax-free supermarket, selling mostly sweets, alcohol and tobacco, with the latter two being quite competitively priced compared to land-prices in Finland and Sweden where such harmful products are taxed heavily. I ended up acquiring two rather neat Silja Line mugs to go with my collection of cruise line mugs, as well as ”official Tallink Silja Line chocolates” to take home.
Being very tired after a long day, we decided to head to bed early. Which also meant that we missed the midnight show on both nights, but sometimes sleeping is important too.
Monday, February 27, 2012
On the final morning of the cruise we headed for breakfast at Mundo, with Bruce opting for porridge and me treating myself to the ultimate Scandinavian shipboard food item, the shrimp sandwich. Through-out the cruise the service onboard had been utterly excellent and while we were having our breakfast, Bruce pointed out the most important thing about service on cruise ferries compared to actual cruise ship: the latter usually sail under a flag of convenience and you sometimes get the feeling you are enjoying your cruise at the misery of the crew. Cruise ferries – at least the northern Baltic variant – on the other hand are usually flagged in one of the countries the ships sail into. In case of the Finland-Sweden ships this means using either the Finnish or Swedish flag, which in turn translates into the fact that the crew are extremely well paid and they are usually locals rather than hailing from former East Bloc countries or the Far East. The most interesting thing is of course the fact that despite the very high crew costs both Tallink/Silja Line and Viking Line manage to make a profit – without excessively high prices.
Having concluded our breakfasts we headed out on deck again, this time to photograph the arriving Helsinki-Tallinn ferry VIKING XPRS. Having concluded our photography it was time to pack our bags and head back home after what had been a truly excellent cruise. I only wish it had been longer.
End of Baltic Sea SYMPHONY.
Special thanks to Bruce Peter, Maria Id and Martin Cox.
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.