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
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.
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.
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. silversea.com 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. fredolsencruises.com 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