Join MaritimeMatters’ Helsinki correspondent Kalle Id on a short ferry cruise from Helsinki to Tallinn and back with the last traditional day ferry on the route, Eckerö Line’s soon-to-be-withdrawn NORDLANDIA.
The Finnish shipping company Eckerö Line, based in the municipality of Eckerö on the Åland Islands (hence, of course, the name) has been operating a ferry service between Helsinki and Tallinn since 1994 (originally it traded under the name Eestin Linjat, rought “Estonia’s Lines”). For the last four years the company has been the only one offering a service with what was once the dominant mode of transport on the route: a medium-speed second-hand ferry – in this case, the NORDLANDIA (ex-OLAU HOLLANDIA, NORD GOTLANDIA). Last February Eckerö Line reported, somewhat as a surprise, that they had entered into an agreement to buy the fast cruise ferry MOBY FREEDOM from Italy’s Moby Lines as a replacement for the NORDLANDIA, to enter service in late 2012.
I had never sailed on Eckerö Line’s ships before. Mainly this was simply because of the inconvenient timetables with very early morning departures, but also the fact that the company has a reputation of catering for the elderly demographic. Never the less, on learning that the NORDLANDIA would soon disappear from these waters, I decided I had to sail on her, while I still had a chance. By a random stroke of luck I got two free tickets for the ship from my friend Jaakko Ahti (who, fascinatingly, works for the competing Viking Line). Not that the ordinary ticket prices would be that high to start with, mind you. In any case, armed with the free tickets, together with my wife we booked a Sunday departure (with the more humane departure time of 10.30 from Helsinki) and set out to experience the NORDLANDIA.
Sunday, March 4, 2012
The NORDLANDIA – as well as the ships of the competing operator Tallink – depart from Helsinki’s West Harbour. Across a narrow inlet from the ferry terminal is the Arctech Helsinki Shipyard (perhaps better known as the Wärtsilä Helsinki Shipyard), responsible for building such classic cruise ships as Royal Caribbean’s SONG OF NORWAY -class, Royal Viking Line’s ROYAL VIKING STAR -class and Carnival Cruise Line’s FANTASY- and SPIRIT-classes. Today, with cruise ships grown too large for the narrow confines of the yard, it specialises in building icebreakers. Moored at the fitting-out quay of the yard were the Finnish icebreakers FENNICA and NORDICA, visiting the yard for installation of Sulfur oxide (SOx) scrubbers in preparation for the emission regulations coming into effect in 2015.
Environmental regulations aside, we boarded the NORDLANDIA after a very quick and effective check-in, to be greeted by one of the friendliest welcomes either of us had ever encountered on any ship from the smiling staff. As this was to be only a very short nine-hour cruise, we had not booked a cabin, but chose instead to spend our six-and-a-half hours onboard enjoying the public rooms the ship has to offer.
Built in 1981, the NORDLANDIA follows the then-fashionable layout of having passenger cabins forward (furthest from the engine noise) and public rooms aft. While the basic layout remains the same, the interiors of the ship today are almost completely different from those of the OLAU HOLLANDIA back in 1981, reflecting changes in the operational area. Originally built for Olau Line’s Sheerness (UK)-Vlissingen (Netherlands) -route, the OLAU HOLLANDIA was replaced in 1989 by a larger ship (also named OLAU HOLLANDIA) and sold to Nordström & Thulin (N&T), an up-and-coming Swedish passenger shipping company who renamed the ship NORD GOTLANDIA for service with their Gotlandslinjen subsidiary operating state-subsidized routes between the island of Gotland and the Swedish mainland. N&T had originally also purchased the OLAU HOLLANDIA’s sister OLAU BRITANNIA with the intention of using her on their EstLine service between Stockholm and Tallinn, but in the end resold her to Fred. Olsen Lines before she even left the Olau Line fleet. The NORD GOTLANDIA, meanwhile, sailed for Gotlandslinjen until the end 1997, when N&T decided to give up their passenger service in the aftermath of the ESTONIA-disaster. Eckerö Line had at the time been in the market for a second-hand ship for some time, and the NORD GOTLANDIA was perfect for their needs. Eckerö bought the ship, amended her name to NORDLANDIA and placed her on the Helsinki-Tallinn -route, where she has remained since.
Today, the Nordlandia’s fifth deck contains the entrance, reception and a large supermarket (not a tax-free supermarket however, as there are no tax-free sales on the intra-EU routes between Finland and Estonia). Deck 6 is dedicated to food with a traditional Scandinavian buffet restaurant, an à la carte -restaurant and a cafeteria. Deck 7 is the entertainment deck with a pub and a dance bar. The highest passenger-accessible deck, Deck 9, has a array of stylishly decorated conference rooms. Alas, we did not venture up there, which I later came to regret upon seeing how fantastic the interior fittings of these spaces were.
On departure we headed to the outer deck to enjoy the delightfully sunny weather late-winter weather and a little bit of ship photography with the NORDICA, the tug ATLAS and the laid-up freighter GLOBAL CARRIER (which was sold for scrap soon afterwards). Once we had passed so far to the open sea there was nothing left to see, we headed indoors to sample the delights of the NORDLANDIA in the form of breakfast (sandwiches) at Café Arkad on deck 6.
One thing that was particularly evident from early onboard the NORDLANDIA was how clean and well-maintained the ship was, particularly for a 21-year-sold soon-to-be-retired ferry on a punishing high-density route. I have seen many newer ships with much lower maintenance standards.
After our breakfast – a leisurely affair as the NORDLANDIA’s crossing takes three hours – we headed one deck above to sample the trip’s entertainment. In Pub Compass the unavoidable plight on all ships with Finnish passengers, the karaoke, was in full swing. We quickly passed onwards Dance Bar Horisont, where the main event of the trip, a performance by the Finnish 2008 Tango King Jukka Hallikainen, was about to start. For those unfamiliar with the stranger Finnish events, every year a male and a female singer are chosen as the Tango King and Tango Queen at the “Tango Fair” in Seinäjoki. Finnish tango is much more downbeat and less passionate than it’s South American cousin.
I cannot claim to be a big fan Finnish tango, but the other passengers seemed to rather enjoy the performance. Mr Hallikainen even had some avid fans onboard who apparently followed him to every performance.
However, we decided to skip a part of the Tango King’s performance as the ship was nearing Tallinn, which would mean chances for ship spotting on the outer deck. As we were inbound, Tallink’s Helsinki-Tallinn 22-hour cruise ship BALTIC PRINCESS was just leaving to return to Helsinki and another load of partying passengers. Tallinn being a busy harbour, this still left four ships in the harbour: Eckerö Line’s freight ferry TRANSLANDIA, Tallink’s Tallinn-Stockholm overnight ferry VICTORIA I, Tallink’s Helsinki-Tallinn fast ferry SUPERSTAR and St. Peter Line’s Baltic Sea cruise ship SPL PRINCESS ANASTASIA (ex-OLYMPIA, PRIDE OF BILBAO). The latter is technically a ferry, but she is used on a four-night cruise service from St. Petersburg to Helsinki, Stockholm and Tallinn.
Just as we were making our way to the NORDLANDIA’s quay, the unusually-painted SUPERSTAR was departing. Next year, it is possible to experience two ships of the SUPERSTAR’s class on the Helsinki-Tallinn route, as the NORDLANDIA’s replacement FINLANDIA (ex MOBY FREEDOM) is an older sister of the SUPERSTAR.
As we were walking off the ship and into Tallinn, I could not help but remember the first time I was in the city back in 1994. Travelling – as it happens – on the CORBIERÉ (ex-APOLLO, OLAU KENT, BENODET), a ship owned by Eckerö Line’s parent company Rederi Ab Eckerö but at the time under charter to Tallink (the ship later on went to become Eckerö Line’s Helsinki-Tallinn ferry APOLLO and today sails in Canada, still under the name APOLLO). Back in 1994 it was only a few years since the fall of the Soviet Union and Tallinn was frankly a dismal, run-down place, particularly in the eyes of an 11-year-old kid grown up in wealthy Finland. Yet Tallinn also had (and of course, still has) a delightful medieval old town and an international history befitting one of the oldest cities in Northern Europe: Tallinn has been ruled by a German monastic order, Denmark (literally “Tallinn” is Estonian for “Danish Town”), Sweden, Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union, and of course the Estonians themselves.
Today Tallinn is – for the most part – a wealthy city, but we decided to head to one of the last notable remaining vestiges of the Soviet Union, the Linnahall (literally “city hall”, though it’s function is not that of a city hall) located near the passenger port. Part of the reason for heading there was also the simple fact that we only had 2½ hours in port.
Linnahall was built for the Moscow Olympics in 1980, as Tallinn hosted the sailing events of the games. The building was originally known as the V. I. Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport, holding inside it a 5,000-seat concert hall and a 3,000-seat ice skating rink. The building was designed by the Estonian architects Raine Karp and Riina Altmäe and essentially resembles a modernised, lower-elevation version of a Mesoamerican ziggurat. The original construction quality of the building was poor and today the building is badly dilapidated. Sadly, the interiors have not been open to the public since 2009. However, the walkways around and atop Linnahall are open and provide fascinating views of the building itself, the surrounding city and the harbour (including good photo opportunities of in- and outbound ships).
After a long wander around snow-covered Linnahall, we headed to our other destination in Tallinn: a supermarket near the harbour. Prices is Estonia are so much lower than in Finland that it’s sensible to do grocery shopping in Tallinn – at least if you have a free ticket or are able to transport several day’s needs across on the ferry.
Having had our short time in Tallinn we headed back onboard the NORDLANDIA. Having stored out groceries in the ship’s storage room, we headed to the outer deck to spectate the departure. Tallinn’s harbour is never dull, and in our short absence both Viking Line’s ferry VIKING XPRS and her Tallink competitor STAR had arrived from Helsinki. On the NORDLANDIA, on the other hand, we left sunny Tallinn behind and headed back to Helsinki.
As if our “retail therapy” in Tallinn had not been enough, Maria and I headed next to the Nordlandia’s supermarket – although to be fair we only bought a large bar of the ship’s chocolate and a postcard featuring the ship in her older Eckerö Line livery.
An hour or so later it was time to head to dinner at the buffet restaurant (which we had booked during the crossing to the other direction). Here the NORDLANDIA again surprised me. The selection in the buffet was not as large as on other ferries (or on cruise ships, although they too tend to lose to the Baltic Ferries when it comes to the selection) but the food was, without exaggeration, amongst the best I have ever eated onboard any ship. All the items I tasted were just perfectly cooked and beautifully seasoned to bring out the natural taste of the ingredients. A special mention must go to the mushroom sauce, that was just about perfect as far as sauces go.
As we dined, night was slowly falling outside. The VIKING XPRS passed us, bound to Helsinki with her 25-knot service speed, looking splendid in the setting sun. Alas, taking good photographs through the ship’s windows was too much of a challenge for my camera.
After finishing with our superb dinner, the ship was almost back in Helsinki and it was now pitch dark outside. We retrieved our bags from the storage room and joined the mass exodus out of the NORDLANDIA for a tram ride home after what had been a frankly delightful short cruise. I will probably not sail on the NORDLANDIA again before she is withdrawn, having been to Tallinn frankly too many times, but after this experience I will certainly want to sample her successor FINLANDIA as soon as she is in service.
End of Day Tripping on the NORDLANDIA.
Special thanks to Maria Id, Jaakko Ahti 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.