MaritimeMatters’ Helsinki correspondent Kalle Id revisited the Silja Line Helsinki-Stockholm ferry SILJA SYMPHONY last May, after the ship had received a multi-million-euro refit the previous Autumn. Due to scheduling problems, the Ferry Tale from this trip is finally out for reading now.
If the previous day had been gloomy and overcast, our day in Stockholm dawned bright and sunny. For once, we were not only up before the ship’s 9.30 AM arrival, but already eating breakfast in the recently-rebuilt Grande Buffet. The space in question was thoroughly rebuilt in the most recent refit, with both the servery areas and eating areas refurnished. Despite the fact the space is the exact same size as before, new seating arrangements mean there are now more seats than before. Which is a good thing, as here in the North – and Finland in particular – the onboard buffets are considered high-quality restaurants par with the waiter-service venues, and hence the buffet is usually the most popular restaurant on the ships sailing on northern Baltic Sea waters.
As usual, the breakfast buffet was excellent, with a varied selection of dishes offering more choice than I’ve encountered on any proper cruise ship so far. In the name of all fairness it must also be admitted that the SILJA SYMPHONY’s breakfast buffet caters to my own cultural background, which undoubtedly colours my judgement. Also, at 12,50 € the breakfast is not exactly cheap.
Our plan for visiting Stockholm was to bypass the impressive city center entirely, as both of us have visited times beyond counting. Instead we decided to head to the northern parts of the city and the Swedish Museum of Natural History (Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet). The permanent exhibits of the museum were recently renewed, and shortly before our trip I came across paintings of prehistoric animals made for the new exhibit while browsing in the net. These alone were enough to pique my interest, and Maria – being a veterinarian – did not need additional convincing.
Originally, the plan was to take the Tunnelbana (Underground) to the museum, but due to the excellent weather and the fact route from the Värtan ferry terminal to the museum is entirely within the extensive Norra Djurgården park, we ended up walking the entire way instead.
The Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet’s new exhibits turned out to be superb. The paintings that originally attracted us only played a minor role to fossils and three-dimensional recreations of what prehistoric animals looked like according to current scientific knowledge. A second part of the permanent exhibition, detailing the evolution of humans, was equally impressive – but these two also created a strong contrast to the part of the permanent exhibition that had not been redone. This featured stuffed animals and curios preserved in formaldehyde, presented in a far less appealing and interesting way.
There are enough exhibits in the museum to spend several days if one has the time, but since we didn’t, we headed to the exhibit on Arctic areas as our final stop of the tour. Standing next to whale skeletons was an impressive experience to say at least.
For the way back to the ship, I indulged in rail transport enthusiasm and we took the Roslagsbanan narrow-gauge railway part of the way. Roslagsbanan is a narrow-gauge railway originally opened in 1885, which connects Stockholm Östra (Stockholm East Station) to suburban areas to the north and north west of the city.
From Stockholm Östra we walked through the delightful functionalist-architecture neighbourhoods back to Värtan, stopping at a local supermarket to buy a salad lunch, which was then enjoyed in a sunlit park. Places of interest passed along the route was the sports stadium that hosted the 1912 Summer Olympics, which – being smart – I neglected to photograph.
Once back onboard, we headed to the Atlantis Palace to secure tickets for the night’s show. Normally there are two relatively short shows every night at Atlantis Palace, but last spring Silja Line had a special arrangement, having secured the rights to feature two broadway musicals, Saturday Night Fever and Fame, on the SILJA SERENADE and SILJA SYMPHONY. During the early evening, Atlantis Palace was open only to those who had reserved a (free) ticket for the musical. After securing tickets for the night’s second showing, we headed out to the vast open deck on deck 12, to spectate our passing through the impressive Stockholm archipelago.
A combination of cool spring weather and hunger eventually chased us inside and to the Tavolata italian restaurant on deck six. Prior to the 2014 refit, deck six housed a large waiter-service restaurant, named Bistro Maxime in its last incarnation. However, in the most recent refit parts of Bistro Maxime were sacrificed to enlarge the main tax-free shop. The remaining restaurant space was entirely rebuilt.
Now I admit, when I first heard of the upcoming Tavolata restaurant my reaction was something along the lines of “I’m sure they could have come up with something more boring, but I sure as hell can’t think what”. I could not have been more wrong. The tasters offered at SILJA SERENADE’s press showing were very good, but the meal at SILJA SYMPHONY’s Tavolata finally convinced me that this was not your average Italian eatery. The starters – roasted arctic char for me, tomato and mozzarella for Maria – were superb, and the main courses even more so. My herb-marinated salmon topped the superb italian fare of the MSC SINFONIA (which thus far has set the bar for italian food on sea), while Maria’s dish managed to perfect the delicate balance between spinach-mozzarella ravioli and arrabiata sauce.
The only thing that didn’t quite work was the dessert: the tiramisu canneloni turned out to be tiramisu inside a dry and sweet bisquit tube. A fun way to present the food, for sure, but the bisquit and the tiramisu didn’t work together at all. A simple traditional tiramisu would have worked much better. Still, even with the somewhat disappointing dessert Tavolata definitely took the top spot as far as shipboard italian restaurants are concerned. (For those interested, the total price for my three-course meal was 44,50 €. Somewhat on the expensive side, but definitely worth it).
Having accomplished dinner, we gravitated towards Atlantis Palace and the upcoming showing of Saturday Night Fever. The venue is one of the few areas onboard that still remains largely in the original 1991 appearance, with the exception of reupholstering the surfaces. The difference to the newer areas in more modernist style is quite notable. Still, Atlantis Palace is – to the best of my knowledge – the last remaining essentially intact onboard space designed by the late, great Finnish interior designer Vuokko Laakso, who was responsible for the interiors of many ferries and cruise ships during the period from the 1960s to the early 1990s.
As for the musical itself… I must admit to not being a fan of musicals (the Rocky Horror Show notwithstanding) and I had never seen Saturday Night Fever before. Thus I cannot really comment on how good or bad the performance was. Regardless, I’m glad we went. Although to be fair, entertainment on other venues onboard felt somewhat neglected due to the heavy focus on the musical.
The rest of the evening was spent in various lounges onboard, and included a tour of the onboard shops – most notably including the purchase of a faux-Lego model of the ship, made by the Polish toy maker Cobi.
Monday, 4th May 2015
On the last night of the cruise, we most certainly did not wake up before arrival. Partial blame can be put on the time difference between Finland and Sweden – in other words, we simply reverted to our normal “late to rise” -sleep schedule. After a shower, we packed our bags and dropped in the Mundo cafeteria on the Promenade for a cup of coffee before getting off the ship. Sailing from our home city, the trip home was a blessedly short and comfortable half and hour tram (streetcar for the Americans) ride.
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.