The Daily Telegraph - Travel

Set sail for vintage charm

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Sally Howard enjoys a stately cruise along Sweden’s most celebrated and scenic canal

It might be the world’s oldest registered passenger ship, but some aspects of sailing Sweden’s Gota Canal on the MS Juno are surprising­ly modern. We were watching from on deck in the waterside sunshine as 33-year-old lady officer Corin Risenberg navigated Juno through the first of seven interconne­cted locks on the Johan Staircase; a spectacula­r feat of 19th-century engineerin­g that connects the glassy expanse of Lake Vattern to the inland waterway on whose length we would travel over the next three days – Sweden’s fabled Gota Canal.

MS Juno’s cruise-manager Ingmar Binken told me what happened the last time a Briton noticed that the ship we were sailing on is skippered by a woman. “He wrote a letter to British Waterways telling them to raise their standards!” Binken twinkles.

Today Risenberg heads an eightstron­g crew aboard the Juno, six of whom – remarkably to my eyes – are able seawomen. So it’s appropriat­e that Juno is named after the most powerful goddess in the Roman pantheon. Purpose-built in 1874 for the Gota’s seven-metre width, Juno is the world’s oldest registered passenger ship with overnight accommodat­ion. She is, as you might expect, compact: her capacity limited to the 44 passengers she can seat With a cruising speed of 10mph, a journey on MS Juno is ‘deliciousl­y restful’ to dine and her staterooms – which owe more in their dimensions to oldfashion­ed train sleeper compartmen­ts – raising eyebrows among the portliest of my fellow cruise-goers.

Livia and Bengt, two Swedes among Juno’s predominat­ely Scandinavi­an and German passenger list, were happy with their cosy quarters. I chatted to the 60-something couple over the second of many gourmet meals in Juno’s small dining room: elk with horseradis­h sauce, followed by cloudberry parfait.

The Gota Canal, Bengt explained, tops many Scandinavi­ans’ trips-of-alifetime list.

“It’s a national treasure to us Swedes,” Bengt says, “So it was natural to make this the first trip after we retired.” Livia smiled. “It’s a qualified treasure,” she said. “After all, Swedes nickname Gota the ‘divorce ditch’ for the number of couples who fall out trying to navigate its locks!”

I sailed just as the ship marked the 500-year anniversar­y of the first proposal for a man-made canal linking the Baltic Sea at Stockholm to the Kattegat – an area of sea bound by the Jutlandic peninsula – at Gothenburg. It took another 300 years for Bishop Hans Brask’s vision of the “joining of the seas” to be realised; by German-born Swedish navy admiral Baltzar von Platen and the sweat of 600 conscripte­d Swedish soldiers. Unveiled in 1832, the Gota Canal was an important trade route up until and during the world wars, yet by the late Fifties it had fallen into disuse. In the Eighties the Swedish government invested £85million to refit the canal for leisure boating. These days it’s Sweden’s largest recreation ground: a 100-mile-long ribbon cutting through farmland and forestland dotted with traditiona­l country houses.

We had taken the east-west route along the Gota, which begins at Stockholm and disembarks passengers three days later at the industrial port of Gothenburg. After the bustle of Stockholm, Juno’s pace – the rhythmic thump-plup of the ship at our cruising speed of 10mph – was deliciousl­y restful. Each day brought opportunit­ies to leave the ship for a stroll beside the locks, take a lake swim or head off on excursions which included visits to a medieval convent and the impressive Karlsborg Fortress, a vast fortificat­ion built in the aftermath Napoleonic Wars. Many of Juno’s passengers, however, preferred to stay on-board to pore over canal history books in the Shelter Deck library, or snooze in the late-summer sunshine on the Bridge Deck.

At the small village of Hajstorp we negotiated the final lock of our cruise, in front of an audience of dog-walkers. I found Livia and Bengt on the Bridge Deck, indulging in a post-schnapps nap (a Swedish tradition, they told me).

“Beautiful isn’t it?” remarked Bengt, drowsily. I nodded. As we pulled out of the locks a heron cast a figure-of-eight in Baltic-blue skies and a red deer overtook our lazy pace, bounding exuberantl­y through ears of wheat. Juno is one of five converted antique steamers that ply the Gota Canal, with a three-day cruise costing more than double the amount of Mediterran­ean cruises of a similar duration. Yet the experience – luxurious yet so intimate you get to know all of your fellow cruise-goers and crew by name – is the antithesis of the anonymity offered by the large cruise ships.

Next day we departed the somnolent world of the Gota, heading into Gothenburg on the cargo-ship-cluttered Trollhatta­n Canal. I popped into the engine room to chat to Risenberg as she manoeuvred Juno between ships laden with Scandinavi­an timber. Soon, she told me, she would conclude her training to captain container ships, joining the growing ranks of Swedish “water women” (the Swedish Maritime Administra­tion reports that 60 per cent of candidates for captaincy qualificat­ions are now female) before rejoining Juno for this, the Gota’s anniversar­y year.

“Some people are surprised to see a young lady in charge of this old lady of the Gota,” she said, as an exuberant cry of “skol!” rang out from the Bridge Deck. “I say it’s great there are now so many women in charge of our ships. Swedish girl power has reached the waves!”

We had strolls beside locks and swims in lakes

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