From Surrey to Scandinavia…
- Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto
The Nordic countries have been voted some of the freest places on earth. Along with her mother, Rebecca Younger climbed aboard a cruise ship to discover the sights of Scandinavia
Stereotypically, cruises are the holiday of choice for the silver-haired generation; retirees with time on their hands to enjoy this slow-paced style of travel. However, with more people than ever jumping aboard (35.8 million last year according to Cruise Lines International Association) cruises are appealing to a wider audience and mother-daughter trips are one of the growing trends.
While my mother does happen to be a member of the retired population (only just) she had not yet experienced a cruise and so our recent trip, aboard the Viking Sea, was a first for both of us.
The adult-only Viking Homelands itinerary travels from Stockolm to Bergen, taking in the sights of 11 cities along the way. We however were only aboard for a portion of the trip, embarking at Stockholm and stopping at Helsinki in Finland and St Petersburg in Russia.
An avid city breaker, I was excited about the prospect of visiting a number of different European cities in one week although I did have some reservations about the mode of transport. Would I feel claustrophobic? Would the on-board facilities be enough to keep me entertained? What if I didn’t like the food on offer?
One of the attractions of cruise travel is that, generally, everything is taken care of and on Viking ships that literally means everything. All your food and drinks at mealtimes are included in the price, as well as 24-hour room service and an in-room mini bar that is restocked daily.
One of the things I hate most about all-inclusive holidays is that there can be a lack of choice when it comes to mealtimes but this vessel has a plethora of dining options, from buffet-style dining in the World Café to authentic Italian at Manfredi, burgers and steaks at the Pool Grill or a five-course taster menu at The Chef’s Table (more on that later).
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I needn’t have worried about cabin fever either as every single state room – no matter what size – has a veranda style balcony, there’s no pokey porthole in sight. The amount of storage space was also phenomenal; the frustrating part of city-breaking is that you generally end up living out of your suitcase but with a cruise, you simply unpack on your first day and forget about it until you disembark. There’s a laundry service as well as on-board laundrettes on each passenger deck if you’d rather do it yourself.
Each day, there are a number of superbly-organised free shore excursions, details of which are listed in the Viking Daily newsletter delivered to your state room the night before. You can book these excursions from your TV, which keeps a note of all your bookable activities, including dinner and spa reservations, on a calendar along with a running total of your bill should you have any extras to pay for.
Our first port of call was Sweden’s capital city of Stockholm, where we left the ship and boarded one of the Viking buses for a whistle-stop tour of the city, which is in fact a collection of 14 islands and 57 bridges on an extensive Baltic Sea archipelago. Each island has its own personality and sights of interest to explore but if like us you have limited time before your boat embarks for its next stop then first head to Kungsholmen Island where you’ll find Stockholm’s City Hall, a Venetian-inspired building that is home to the Nobel Prize banquet each December. Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm and carried out much of his explosives work there including his most famous invention, dynamite, which was in fact trialled for the first time at a quarry in Redhill.
Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town, is a must see and is where you will find Sweden’s national cathedral and the Royal Palace. If you can, time your visit for around midday and you’ll catch the horse parade of soldiers and changing of the guard.
Another of the islands worth visiting is Djurgården often referred to as ‘museum island’ as it houses most of the city’s museums including Vasa Museum (in honour of the ship that sunk just 1,300 metres into its maiden voyage in 1628) and the Abba museum, as well as the city’s amusement park, which can be seen from the water as you come into port.
Talking of amusements and back on board the ship there is plenty to keep one amused – or indeed recharged – after a busy city tour. There are three pools beside which to lounge: an infinity at the back of the boat, the main pool, which sits under a retractable roof in case of bad weather, and a thermapool in the Living Nordic Spa. The spa also has a hot tub, plunge pool steam room and sauna as well as a snow grotto – the first of its kind on a ship. Of course, there’s a team of therapists on hand too, offering a host of treatments (I’d recommend the Restart Treatment, which includes a full body scrub, deep tissue massage and scalp treatment) as well as talks on various wellness techniques, such as reflexology.
While it will take you quite a few laps of the main pool to build up a decent distance, there is a gym on board and daily classes on offer, as well as a dedicated open-air sports deck complete with shuffleboard, a putting green, bocce ball green and walking track to keep you fit.
Evenings on board the ship, when it is usually sailing to its next destination, are generally centred on food at one of the seven restaurants, (it’s difficult to pick which of these was best as each offered a different style but equally fantastic quality of food) followed by drinks and music in one of the bars. Our favourite spots for a night cap were the two-deck Living Room with its impressive staircase leading to stylish seating with traditional games such as Scrabble and chess (as well as interactive touch pad games tables) and the Explorer’s Lounge, which is situated overlooking the bow of the ship and affords fantastic sunset views. However, the entertainment team puts on shows most evenings in the theatre (although beware, these can be a little cheesy) and there are also talks and lectures from the resident historian, as well as guest speakers, throughout the trip. Some evenings movies are played in the main pool area, where you can snuggle under blankets and listen through Bose speakers or, if intimate speakeasy-style entertainment is your thing, head to Torshavn for an evening of jazz and cocktails.
Waking up to a different view each morning is another plus side of cruising, although which side of the ship you are on will depend if it’s one that allows a glimpse of the next city you are about to explore. For us the view from the ship of Helsinki was unfortunately a rather industrial port but that gave us a good reason to disembark and see the sights.
Famed for its icebreakers (60 per cent of the world’s are made here), Finland is the sixth largest country in Europe but has the second least inhabitants (Iceland has less). Its capital city has 1.5 million inhabitants making up 25 per cent of the country’s population. Helsinki is a cosmopolitan capital leading the way in design (it was named World Design Capital in 2012) but it’s also renowned for its parks – a third of the city is covered in green areas.
Perhaps the most famous is Esplanadi, which sits between Erottaja Square and the Market Square. As well as families and city workers enjoying their lunch here, you’ll find the statue of Johan Ludvig Runeberg (the national poet of Finland) and one of Helsinki’s most famous – and expensive – cafés, Kappeli. At the nearby market square you can sample one of Finland’s signature dishes – smoked salmon soup – and you’ll also find one of the country’s famous public saunas and outdoor swimming pools here and, just few minute’s stroll away is Helsinki Catherdral.
One of Helsinki’s most striking modernist landmarks is however found slightly outside the city centre in the Töölö district. The Sibelius Monument by Eila Hiltunen is dedicated to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865–1957), who wrote the country’s national anthem, and features 600 stainless steel tubes of various diameters, welded together to form an abstract structure.
With so much to see in each city, you’re bound to build up an appetite but you don’t have to worry if city tours mean you miss lunch back on board as each day, at 4pm, afternoon tea is served in the Winter Garden, accompanied by one of the ship’s resident musicians – it’s the perfect way to sit and reflect on the day’s adventures on dry land.
Last but by no means least for us was a stop at St Petersburg, in Russia. The current climate may well put people off visiting here but group excursions mean no additional visa is required. If you want to experience something more than the panoramic city tours included in the cruise, there’s a whole itinerary of optional shore excursions to choose from. We booked one taking in St Petersburg’s canals, St Isaacs Church and the Church of our Saviour on Spilled Blood.
St Petersburg was constructed on 44 islands so seeing the city (often referred to as the Venice of the north) from its network of more than 70 canals is a great way to take in a number of its most notable landmarks including the Winter Palace, St Peter and St Paul’s Church with its gold spire, the Faberge Museum and Summer Garden. You’ll also catch a glimpse of the Church of our Saviour on Spilled Blood, which was built on the site Emperor Alexander II was executed by terrorists on March 1, 1881. But to really appreciate this fascinating building, it’s best to get up close. The church’s architecture is reminiscent of the celebrated St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow with its colourful ice cream swirl-like roof tops and features 7,000 sq ft of mosaics.
In contrast, St Isaacs Church is relatively underwhelming from the outside but inside its stunning mosaics, redolent of renaissance paintings, and huge gold gilded chandeliers are quite magnificent. The church took 40 years to build but its architect, Auguste de Montferrand, did not have long to appreciate his fine work, dying just a month after it was consecrated.
For our last night on board, we opted for an evening of fine dining with a tasting menu and wine flight at The Chef’s Table. Menus here are themed to a certain region, such as Chinese or Norwegian and change every two to three days so guests can enjoy the experience more than once. Ours was Xiang, a menu inspired by China’s Cantonese and Huaiyang cuisine. The set up is akin to a tasting experience at a top-end restaurant, the sommelier explains the wines he’s paired with each dish and you even get a beautifully-presented keepsake menu.
While these ships are big and have a multitude of activities to keep one busy, there’s an overriding sense of tranquillity. Despite there being more than 900 people onboard, we never had to fight for a sun lounger or wait for drinks at the bar. Being on the open water forces you to slow down and appreciate your surroundings – something that we could all benefit from doing more of, whatever our age.
Need to know
Prices for the Viking Homelands cruise start from £4,240. For more information visit vikingcruises.co.uk or call 0800 298 9700.