Scan­di­navia: Cruis­ing off the beaten rack

As cruise pas­sen­gers seek new pas­tures, Maria Hard­ing dis­cov­ers the un­crowded wa­ters, con­tented folk and peace­ful charms of Fin­land, Den­mark and the lovely Swedish Ar­chi­pel­ago

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Not a lot of peo­ple know this, but if you want a happy life you should make your way to Fin­land. This rel­a­tively un­ex­plored coun­try has beaten 155 oth­ers to be named ‘world’s hap­pi­est’ in the United Na­tions’ World Hap­pi­ness Re­port 2018.

In­deed, Scan­di­navia as a whole scores highly in the hap­pi­ness stakes, with Nor­way, Den­mark and Ice­land tak­ing sec­ond, third and fourth place in the an­nual re­port, which mea­sures fac­tors like so­cial sup­port, health, life ex­pectancy, so­cial free­dom, gen­eros­ity, and ab­sence of cor­rup­tion.

Fin­land scored top this year, which makes a Gulf of Fin­land cruise an at­trac­tive prospect. It’s the gate­way to some of the most beau­ti­ful and least-trod­den and cruised parts of Scan­di­navia.

Not sur­pris­ingly – given that its high-end pas­sen­gers are al­ways on the look­out for some­thing new and un­usual – lux­ury op­er­a­tor Sil­versea Cruises led the way in ex­plor­ing this part of the world.

I en­counter some ‘un­usual’ ports on this 10-day sail­ing from Copen­hagen to Stockholm, on the newly-re­vamped Sil­ver

Spirit. But where Sil­versea is go­ing oth­ers are fol­low­ing, in­clud­ing Saga Cruises and the more af­ford­able Fred Olsen Cruises brand.

Great Dane

My first port of call af­ter leav­ing Copen­hagen is Rønne, on the Dan­ish is­land of Born­holm – very much a place for lovers of the great out­doors, with miles of wood­land hik­ing trails, spec­tac­u­lar cliffs and white-sand beaches.

Ronne it­self is a pretty me­dieval town

of cob­bled streets and gaily painted half­tim­bered houses. You’ll find it steeped in Born­holm’s rich mar­itime his­tory as a Baltic trad­ing port and thriv­ing fish­ing com­mu­nity.

Step in­side 700-year-old St Niko­lai’s church – a five-minute drive from the cruise ter­mi­nal – and you’ll see a large model of a sail­ing ship sus­pended from its arched ceil­ing and, above the al­tar, a paint­ing of a sea-storm so real­is­tic I can al­most taste the sea salt on my lips.

Sea­side Swe­den

Our next call, rather con­fus­ingly, is at Swe­den’s Oland is­land, a long, thin stretch of land rich in work­ing wind­mills and dom­i­nated by the im­pos­ing ru­ins of Borgholm Cas­tle, which was de­stroyed by fire 200 years ago.

The cas­tle is the high­light of a visit to this pretty sea­side re­sort is­land with a pop­u­lar sandy beach.

It’s a good place to watch the Swedes at play and has a main street lined with cafés and clothes shops. The hos­pitable main town wel­comes tourists with a mini-train ser­vice from the port to its com­pact but lively down­town.

Visby, on the Swedish is­land of Got­land, is the coun­try’s most pop­u­lar hol­i­day is­land, and it’s easy to see why. As well as broad sandy beaches it’s en­dowed with a long his­tory and has its own an­swer to the UK’s Juras­sic Coast, in the form of cliff for­ma­tions called raukar which date back more than 400 mil­lion years.

Many Got­landers earn their liv­ing as sheep farm­ers and their curly-horned woolly charges are cel­e­brated in life-size stat­ues along the wa­ter­front. Hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ists will also be fas­ci­nated by its flora: the is­land is home to 35 va­ri­eties of wild or­chid.

Fin­land and Santa

In ship­ping cir­cles, Turku is best known for its highly pro­duc­tive ship­yard. But Fin­land’s former cap­i­tal is also the coun­try’s old­est town – founded in the 13th cen­tury – and a de­light­ful place to spend a day (or more).

En­dowed with a 13th cen­tury cas­tle (Tu­run Linna) and cathe­dral (Tuomiokirkko), Turku grew up around the gen­tly flow­ing Au­ra­joki River and is a trea­sure trove, where I ex­plore con­tem­po­rary art gal­leries, mixed with stu­dents at trendy res­tau­rants and cafés, and step back in time with a visit to the Old Apothek Mu­seum, an his­toric apothe­cary’s house over­look­ing the river.

Turku is also the gate­way to spec­tac­u­lar Ruissalo Na­tional Park, where you can hike along forested lake­side trails and watch small boats at play on the sparkling wa­ters.

A happy place in­deed! And at Christ­mas time Turku gets even hap­pier, as it’s Fin­land’s ‘of­fi­cial Christ­mas City’. At noon each De­cem­ber 24 it hosts a tra­di­tional peace bless­ing in its town square.

The pretty Fin­nish re­sort of Rauma – the coun­try’s third old­est town – is de­ter­mined to give Turku a run for its money in the Santa stakes, as its seafront is home to ‘Santa’s work­shop’. One of his helper elves – in full rig – greets us at the quay­side.

Rauma it­self, though some­thing of a sleepy, one-deer town, has a quaint fairy­tale

“Turku is the gate­way to spec­tac­u­lar Ruissalo Na­tional Park, where you can hike along forested lake­side trails and watch small boats at play on the sparkling wa­ters”

charm, with its painted wooden houses and colour­ful win­dow boxes.

At Lulea, our next port of call, we re­turn to Swe­den or, more specif­i­cally, to Swedish La­p­land, a mag­i­cal place where you can watch rein­deer mi­grate, view the North­ern Nights in win­ter and swim in early morn­ing light dur­ing the ’white nights’ of the Arc­tic sum­mer.

This quiet but sur­pris­ingly so­phis­ti­cated city epit­o­mises the Nordic val­ues of com­mu­nity, play­ful­ness and ‘cul­ture-for-all’.

I’m par­tic­u­larly im­pressed at the adult play spa­ces which fill the main street, where you can loll on a gi­ant chair cov­ered in real grass and read a book from the free ex­change point.

The Kul­ture Cen­tre is worth ex­plor­ing for its ex­cel­lent art gallery, con­cert hall and very help­ful tourist of­fice.

Our last call be­fore dis­em­bark­ing in Stockholm is Sundsvall. The main town of North Swe­den’s Medel­pad re­gion boasts some of the coun­try’s most beau­ti­ful na­tional parks.

Much of that nat­u­ral beauty has been im­ported, in the shape of gor­geous flower dis­plays which com­ple­ment Sundsvall’s broad streets and fine ar­chi­tec­ture.

Again, the Swedish sense of fun is very much in ev­i­dence, in the shape of psychedelic dragon stat­ues on vir­tu­ally ev­ery down­town cor­ner, a legacy of the le­gend that an­cient Sundsvall was once de­stroyed by dragon fire.

In Stockholm, our fi­nal treat is a visit to the ABBA Mu­seum, whose motto – em­blazed across its en­trance, is ‘You’ll walk in and dance out’.

I think the same can be said for won­der­ful, won­der­ful Scan­di­navia.

Where to book it

SIL­VERSEA CRUISES – 0207 340 0700 A 10-day sail­ing from Stockholm to Copen­hagen aboard Sil­ver Spirit is from £5,400pp cruise only, drop­ping to £4,850 if booked and paid for by Oc­to­ber 31. It departs Au­gust 11, 2019. Calls in­clude St. Peters­burg, Visby, Tallinn and Copen­hagen. sil­ FRED.OLSEN CRUISES – 0800 035 5130 A no-fly 11-night Scan­di­na­vian Is­lands cruise on Boudicca is from £1,499pp. It departs Dover Septem­ber 15, 2019. Calls will in­clude Ronne, Visby, Stockholm, Mariehamn (Fin­land), Copen­hagen and back to Dover. fredolsen­ SAGA CRUISES – 0800 505030 A 15-night Nat­u­ral Scan­di­navia cruise on Spirit of Dis­cov­ery is from £4,384pp. It departs Dover on Au­gust 17, 2019. Calls will in­clude Stockholm and Lulea, Kemi and Pori (Fin­land) and Fredrik­stad (Nor­way), be­fore ar­riv­ing back in Dover on Septem­ber 1.

Left: Sun­set near Turku, Gulf of Fin­land. Above: Borgholm Church on the Swedish is­land of Öland

Clock­wise from top left: Cy­cling around Got­land, Swe­den; the pretty Fin­nish re­sort of Rauma; a Got­land wind­mill; Turku Cas­tle. Op­po­site page, clock­wise from top left: Rønne on the Dan­ish is­land of Born­holm; Me­dieval Visby on Got­land; Got­land’s lime­stone coast; a wel­com­ing elf in Rauma

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