Qantas - - CRUISE -

The cash­mere scarf I’d packed for “cool evenings” on the ship is hid­ing, em­bar­rassed by its woolly self, at the bot­tom of my suit­case, along with an all-weather jacket. It’s not as if I’d been ex­pect­ing snow and ice in July but we were head­ing for Scan­di­navia, where “high sum­mer” tends to be largely the­o­ret­i­cal. Last sum­mer, it rained al­most daily and only the hardi­est Danes, Swedes and Finns broke out their swim­mers. This year, with a record-break­ing heat­wave across Europe, it’s a dif­fer­ent story.

I’d had vi­sions of my­self rugged up and bravely fac­ing into a fierce wind on a tilt­ing deck, like some Nordic Cap­tain Ahab. A yacht­ing friend had warned me that there are two things a ship can do in rough seas – roll and pitch – then help­fully texted to say she’d for­got­ten the third – yaw – which is when a boat twists on its ver­ti­cal axis. “On the upside,” she wrote, “you’ll be able to get into any of the in-de­mand restau­rants if that hap­pens.”

She hadn’t men­tioned “glide like a swan”, which is what Sil­versea’s Sil­ver Spirit does when we set off from Copen­hagen on this 10-day cruise to Stock­holm. The weather is hot and cloud­less, the sea a glassy turquoise. We could be in the Ba­hamas and not the Gulf of Both­nia, the fin­ger of wa­ter that runs be­tween Swe­den and Fin­land up to south­ern La­p­land. It’s so dry, even the mos­qui­toes that usu­ally swarm here in sum­mer have shut up shop.

It’s the first time that Sil­versea (sil­versea.com) has trav­elled this route, criss­cross­ing the ar­chi­pel­ago-dot­ted gulf that ex­tends north from the Baltic Sea. In this re­gion that’s not as well known as Nor­way’s fjords or the Santa-and-rein­deer coun­try of north­ern La­p­land, the nine sched­uled stopovers are at places most of us have never heard of. They in­clude lit­tle me­dieval walled towns, such as Visby on Swe­den’s Got­land is­land, sum­mer hol­i­day spots, like Borgholm on the Swedish is­land of Öland, and a cou­ple of larger towns, some with fine 19th-cen­tury architecture, such as Turku, Fin­land’s for­mer cap­i­tal.

Al­though we’re in a suite on a lower deck – one of a hand­ful with­out a ve­ran­dah, just a big, fixed win­dow – we’re not ex­actly slum­ming it, given the mar­ble bath­room with a bath­tub, queen­size bed with de­li­ciously smooth sheets, sofa, large flatscreen TV and desk area. Each suite also comes with what Sil­versea calls a but­ler. It isn’t the same as hav­ing Car­son on hand but these valets will do ev­ery­thing from un­pack and pack lug­gage, de­liver room ser­vice (course by course) or take dusty shoes away to be cleaned. The but­ler ser­vice is part of Sil­versea’s up­scale badg­ing, along with the pil­low menu, nat­u­rally, and choice of toi­letries. I’ve ended up with two full sets of ameni­ties, hav­ing thor­oughly con­fused our stew­ard, Ar­ri­anne, with my we-don’t-have-ser­vants-in-Aus­tralia dither­ing. Oh well. I’ll just have to get through the Or­ti­gia and the Bul­gari.

As Copen­hagen grows dis­tant, we sink into deep arm­chairs on the deck to catch the breeze off the wa­ter on this balmy night and sip our first cel­e­bra­tory cock­tail. Get­ting hold of a sec­ond proves easy. I need only whis­per the words “Gin Gim­let” and one mag­i­cally ap­pears.

As the days pass, if the weather is all wrong – mean­ing it’s stun­ningly per­fect every day – it’s the light and long hours that re­mind us we’re at the pointy end of the world, about 150 kilo­me­tres from the Arc­tic Cir­cle at our north­ern­most point, Luleå. It’s twi­light un­til al­most mid­night, as if the world has de­cided to snooze rather than fall fast asleep. Half-hearted dark­ness makes a brief ap­pear­ance for a few hours be­fore call­ing it a day.

I wake one morn­ing around 3.30am with some crazy idea to stargaze, only to

find my­self daz­zled by a sun­rise stretch­ing golden rays over pale blue wa­ter. An­other even­ing, we ad­mire the sun set­ting from one side of the ship then turn to find, con­fus­ingly, the full moon drop­ping bright lozenges of light onto the dark wa­ter on the other. I don’t think it’s the Gim­lets.

“Ro­man­tic, yes?” a pass­ing waiter asks us with a sly smile. Very ro­man­tic – and im­pos­si­ble not to be en­chanted by its love­li­ness, even if, at first glance, most pas­sen­gers ap­pear to be past the tra­di­tional age for a heed­less ship­board ro­mance. Tellingly, the ship’s fit­ness and beauty pro­gram in­cludes sem­i­nars such as “Wrin­kle Rem­edy with Dr Aury” and “Walk­ing Pain Free”. The only in­fant I spy on board could be star­ring in one of those apoc­a­lyp­tic movies where she’s the sole hope for the fu­ture on a dy­ing planet and the rest of us have to wor­ship her. (Cu­ri­ously, younger peo­ple start to ap­pear as the cruise goes on. The wrin­kle rem­edy?)

Sil­ver Spirit, which was length­ened by 15 me­tres ear­lier this year in an amaz­ing feat of add-on en­gi­neer­ing, now has eight restau­rants, a café and two lounges. Food and ser­vice are two of its sell­ing points. Day and night, squadrons of staff hover nearby in case any of the 582 pas­sen­gers should be over­come by an idle whim that re­quires ur­gent at­ten­tion. The food ranges from lava­s­tone grills and pizza to Ja­panese fu­sion and Re­lais & Châteaux in­spired French. We make a good fist of work­ing our way through all of them, which is why, by day six, I’m think­ing of go­ing to “Se­crets to a Flat­ter Stom­ach” in­stead of the im­prov­ing des­ti­na­tion lec­ture on the rise of Swe­den as a great power.

For­tu­nately, we get to walk some of it off at our ports of call. And what I’m learn­ing, even with­out a lec­ture, is that this cor­ner of the world is not all pretty painted tim­ber houses, shim­mer­ing birch forests and lo­cals am­bling about in con­vinc­ing tra­di­tional cos­tume (Scan­di­navia seems to have a thing for liv­ing mu­se­ums). It’s also an in­dus­trial heart­land – pa­per and steel mills, tim­ber, con­tain­ers. The oth­er­wise un­re­mark­able Luleå is fa­mous for two things: Swe­den’s big­gest and best-pre­served “church town”, the World Her­itage-listed Gam­mel­stad; and Face­book’s most en­ergy-ef­fi­cient data cen­tre, smack bang next to a for­est. Keen to keep cool, lit­er­ally, Face­book has friended Luleå’s usu­ally low tem­per­a­tures and hy­dro-elec­tric power, al­though it might de­cide to un­friend if this heat keeps up.

There were once 71 church towns in Lutheran Swe­den. Now there are 16 and Gam­mel­stad is the jewel, its soar­ing 15th-cen­tury stone church sur­rounded by some 400 hum­ble wooden cot­tages, all painted red with white trim. (That char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally Swedish red pig­ment is a by-prod­uct of cop­per min­ing and has been used for cen­turies.) The cot­tages were built by parish­ioners who lived too far from the church to make the re­turn trip for fes­ti­vals or wor­ship in a sin­gle day. Many are still owned by church­go­ers and passed down through fam­i­lies – the orig­i­nal spirit lives on.

Leav­ing the small towns in our wake, we spend the penul­ti­mate day cruis­ing into stately Stock­holm. It’s a beau­ti­ful way to ar­rive in Swe­den’s cap­i­tal, leisurely pick­ing our way through a glit­ter­ing ar­chi­pel­ago of al­most 30,000 rocky sk­er­ries and small is­lands dis­creetly dot­ted with hol­i­day homes and dark with pine forests.

Rain is pre­dicted for to­mor­row when we dis­em­bark. I might need to hunt through my suit­case and dig out that anorak, af­ter all. Where’s a but­ler when you need one?

A street near Drot­tens church ruin in Visby, on Swe­den’s Got­land is­land (left); the ter­race of Sil­ver Spirit’s Arts Café

Dis­tinc­tive cop­perred cot­tages dot the Stock­holm ar­chi­pel­ago (above); colour­ful build­ings flank Stock­holm’s old­est square, Stor­tor­get

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