Appeared in the February 2016 issue as “Rocking the Boat Trip”.
Flaming yellows and reds of trees on the Finnish coast add colour to a scene otherwise dominated by a leaden autumn sky and dark sea. I’ve climbed up to the top deck of the M.S. Amorella as we pull out from the harbour. Sweden, my destination, is a day’s journey to the west. As I see Turku city, on the mouth of the Aura River, disappear and drop under the horizon, it strikes me that there’s something natural, almost inevitable, about the fact that I’m travelling from one Scandinavian country to another by ship across the Baltic Sea.
At least since the Viking Age, a thousand years ago, we Nordic people have had the travel bug built into our genetic makeup. In their heyday, our Viking ancestors sailed around the world, from Baghdad in the east to America in the west. In a historical museum in Stockholm, showcasing stuff from excavations of Viking settlements, there’s even a fifth-century, Gupta-era Buddha statuette from India on display. The Vikings truly were globetrotters.
There are two basic theories about Viking activities. One is that they were some of the first global traders, but the more prevalent view is that they were ruthless pirates out to pillage and plunder. Every spring, after having spent the winters drinking mead in their thatched huts, they went forth from Scandinavia with bad hangovers, in their primitive ships, and burnt down their annual quota of monasteries in Europe.
But we, their descendants, don’t do that anymore. I’m not about to burn down any monasteries today. Even so, standing there on the upper deck and braving the icy morning wind, I already feel weirdly connected with the ancestors. As a people, we still love to book ourselves on a ferry cruise, where the beer is flowing. And there’s no better ferry to take than one run by the Viking Line, Scandinavia’s most popular cruising company. When you travel by Viking Line, it’s not just to travel across the Baltic Sea; what you really are going for is the partaaay!!!
After watching the pretty islands of the Turku archipelago pass by, with dainty summer cottages perched on their cliffs, I’m ready to step indoors again, into the warmth. Hold on, a tiny alarm bell goes off. Through the corner of my eye, I spot a hefty guy with a shaved head, ambling zombie-like towards me. Despite the chilly air, he’s only wearing shorts and a T-shirt with puke stains, and carrying a tattered plastic bag.
Ingrained in my Viking mentality is a set of safety precautions. One: Check if there are other folks around. If they are alive, they can be called upon to help should this spiral out of control. (Note to self: If they are dead, then this has already spiralled.) Nope, nobody. What to expect at this hour when most passengers are busy settling into their cabins? Two: Where is the nearest emergency exit?
Too late! The ogre is right beside me. I acknowledge his presence, locking eyes with him. His breath reeks. He’s swaying. “My friends…”
“Yes, I’m so glad you have friends,” I hasten to say, to break the ice. “Tell them I said hi.”
“Is it so?”
He speaks to me in Swedish, so I figure that he travelled out from Stockholm the previous night—this ship travels back and forth between Sweden and Finland 24×7—had a ball, and somehow managed to misplace his travel companions en route. Man overboard? The night departures from either side do get rowdy, with people partying just a wee bit too hard for their livers and brains to survive intact. I feign sympathy.
“Asleep.” He burps softly. “They’re too boring.”
“I’m so sorry.”
He introduces himself as Benny. He digs into the plastic bag and for a fraction of a second I imagine various possible weapons that a bloke like him might lug to a party: dumb-bells, chainsaws. Instead, he pulls out two beer cans.
“Mate, won’t you have a last one with me?”
Afterwards Benny is sleepy and wants to curl up in foetal position on a bench on the deck. I drag him indoors, so that he won’t die of hypothermia, and leave him to rest in peace on the carpeted floor. There’s a time when every party has to end, and Benny has reached that point.
The ship I’m on is about 560 feet from end to end, and carries almost 2,500 passengers, accommodating them in 2,000 cabins ranging from tiny, 43 sq. ft., ultra-cheap, no-window cells with bunk beds, to rather luxurious, 350 sq. ft. suites with sea views. It’s a floating town, with eight floors, a couple of which are devoted to shops, eateries, and various other amusements, while the rest are cabins and car decks.
During the crossing to Sweden, I catch some of the feverish action in the pubs and nightclubs on board. Business is booming even before lunch is served. In the main ballroom, a gang of geriatrics are tangoing in wheelchairs. Some people gamble at a casino table, while off-key singers butcher pop anthems on the karaoke stage. In a British pub, a troubadour plays evergreen hits, to be replaced later by a German oompah band in black waistcoats (it is that time of year, global Oktoberfest). The event schedule also lists forthcoming jazz orchestras, a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover band, and various deejays.
Even though the ferry line is named after those hardy Vikings, the shipping company has only been around for about 50 years. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, when air travel was neither frequent nor affordable, these ships provided easy passage between the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea. With roots in both Finland and Sweden, I virtually grew up on passenger ferries, shuttling across the sea to visit relatives during the holidays, clocking in half a dozen journeys per year as a child. The thrill never wore off.
Whereas elsewhere in the world, cruising on the sea tends to be an expensive luxury activity, in the Baltic Sea travelling by a ferry like this one that I’m on remains cheaper than any other mode of transport, besides swimming. This time, my Turku-Stockholm ticket cost me less than ₹900, including a cabin bunk. This is why the Viking Line hosts a mind-boggling five to six million passengers annually (equalling the total population of Finland).
As air travel grew popular with the advent of low-cost carriers, the Viking Line cleverly reinvented itself as an entertainment destination, touting each ship as a “pleasure palace of the Baltic Sea;” the ferry cruise became a tourist experience rivalling even the cities where the ships docked. Benny, for example, never got off to sightsee in Turku; he just went and came back.
In another clever move, the shipping company has its registered office in the small port of Maarianhamina (population:10,000) in the Ahvenanmaa Autonomous Province of Finland, a remote archipelago that has managed to stay out of the European Union. Thus, as long as each ship docks briefly at Maarianhamina, it is allowed to have duty-free shops on board which peddle single malt whiskies and cheap beer by the cartload, wines in three-litre boxes, fancy make-up and perfumes, and giant packs of cut-rate candy.
These incentives draw people like Benny to the ferries. Offices take their employees on ferry cruises for kick-offs, conferences and, of course, to partaaay!!! If you’re getting married, you have your stag or hen partaaay on board. If you feel a bit down, you buy a ticket. And partaaay!!!
As I check out the bars on board, I walk past Benny, who has somehow sleepwalked to a chair, where he is slumped over and snoring blissfully while clutching a mug of beer. He is oblivious to the beautiful scenery outside the panorama windows as we cruise slowly through the Ahvenanmaa Archipelago. We pass forested islands with nice-looking villas on them, as well as some uninhabited rocky islets. As I stand there and look out, the ship passes a tiny island with a pretty, wooden sauna, painted red. For a moment, I wish I could live on such an island.
Being on the sea awakens one’s appetite, and one of the main draws of this journey is the sea buffet (other options on board include bistros, steakhouses, and cafeterias, with something to suit every budget). The grand buffet is an all you-can-eat, fixed rate feast which used to be my biggest childhood excitement. I’d go with my parents and stuff myself silly on meatballs, salmon, prawns, cheeses, refilling my plate as many times as possible. Until I had virtually doubled my weight. These days, I’m trying to get rid of my paunch, so at lunchtime, I visit the minor buffet restaurant where I choose from a help-yourself-display of fresh seafood and salads, and then pay by weight at the checkout cashier counter.
Eventually, in the late afternoon, the sun disperses the leaden cloud cover and the sky turns a sparkling blue. Passengers move onto the decks, where strategic “wind shields” divert the chilly breeze, and one can enjoy drinks from the outdoor bar, or just bask in a deck chair. If the Vikings had lived a thousand years later, and availed themselves of ships like these, they may perhaps never have gone ashore to burn down foreign ports.
Towards evening of the same day, the ship approaches the Stockholm harbour, picturesquely located in the centre of the city with the old town within walking distance. Meanwhile, we Viking descendants sip a last cocktail on board. I get the feeling that our ancestors would have been proud of us: civilised, modernised, but still cruising.
It is simple, cheap, and safe to travel by ferry companies like Viking Line (www.sales.vikingline.com) which connect ports in Sweden, Finland, and Estonia. Viking Line isn’t the only ferry company in Scandinavia, however, it remains the most iconic. Passengers are spoilt for choice—millions of people cruise in the Baltic Sea every year, with multiple companies.
Other reputable and affordable Scandinavian ferry companies worth checking out include:
Tallink, which connects the Baltic ports in Estonia and Latvia with Germany, Finland, and Sweden (www.tallink.com).
Silja Line, also owned by Tallink, is the main rival of Viking Line with popular ship routes between Sweden and Finland (www.tallinksilja.se).
DFDS runs a popular ferry line between Copenhagen in Denmark, and Oslo in Norway. It also offers trips to Tallinn in Estonia or from Amsterdam on the European mainland to Newcastle, UK (www.dfdsseaways.co.uk).
Gotlandsbolaget does short trips to and from the Baltic island of Gotland (gotlandsbolaget.se).
Scandlines connects Denmark with Germany and Sweden, all relatively short trips (www.scandlines.com).
Stena Line sails between Denmark, Norway, Germany, Poland, and Latvia. They also operate ships elsewhere in Europe such as between France, Netherlands, the UK, and Ireland (www.stenaline.com/stena-line).
Cost A basic one-way 10-hour ferry cruise from Finland to Sweden or vice versa, from morning to evening, or from evening to morning, starts at around ₹450 with a berth in an economy cabin for 4 people; food and drinks extra. About ₹3,000 will buy a two-night cruise between Helsinki and Stockholm, with one day ashore and a berth in an economy cabin; a more pleasant cabin for two people with a sea-view and attached bathroom will cost about ₹4,000 per night.
More elaborate cruise alternatives are found on the companies’ websites.
Book online and well in advance to avail yourself of the best discounts for cabins (if you plan to sleep). Last-minute sales occur, especially in low season. High season is during summer (July-August) and major Scandinavian holidays, when prices go up.
The fact that the basic ticket rate is very cheap is nothing to be suspicious of, because the ferry company makes its profit on selling food, beverages, and other add-ons. Average cost of a sea buffet meal will be in the range of ₹1,000-2,000; a large beer is about ₹500; soft drinks are cheaper.
• Safety is a priority on board these ferries. There are life jackets and rescue boats in sufficient numbers for all passengers, and evacuation maps that are worth studying, even though a passenger ship hasn’t sunk in the Baltic Sea for more than twenty years.
• Some passengers occasionally get rowdy when drunk (especially on the night ferries), and so unprovoked violence on board isn’t entirely unheard of. The ships have security staff and holding cells where aggressive passengers are put away to be later handed over to onshore authorities. If at any point you feel threatened, you may report it to the crew.
• Many families travel by the ferries, so it isn’t really just all about partying—especially if you travel by day. There are playrooms and activities for kids throughout the day, as well as sauna and spa facilities for grown-ups. Strolling on the decks and taking in the views is wonderful during the summer. Entertainment on board is usually free and many companies offer free (or subsidised) bus transfers from various cities to the harbour.
Appeared in the February 2016 issue as “Rocking the Boat Trip”.
Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).