Red, White and Blue – Viking Line

The dark blue waters of the Baltic are brightened up by the red and white of Viking Line’s many crossings to Tallinn and Stockholm this summer. To liven up their regular timetable, they’ve gone as far as renting a catamaran which will be in operation until the end of October 2017. Besides FSTR or ‘Faster’, the aptly named aforementioned vessel, two of their other cruisers viz. the Mariella and Gabriella will also be called on to ply the heavy traffic between Helsinki and Tallinn together with their regular ship XPRS.

While there’s plenty of competition out there, Viking Line has always tried to stay ahead of the game with their friendly service, good food and cheap prices. The FSTR catamaran gets you from Helsinki to Tallinn in an hour and 45 minutes and is big enough to carry 835 passengers and 120 cars making it operational in all kinds of weather. The focus is on seating with airline-type loungers for everyone. The bar and cafeteria on board make sure that no one goes hungry or thirsty and for an extra fee, a hot breakfast or supper with beer and wine are available in the Club Lounge where the standard of service and products are of exceptional quality.

Viking XPRS is a little bigger with a 2500 passenger capacity taking a little longer. The two and a half hours on board can be spent singing karaoke, dancing to a live band, dining in one of the many restaurants, shopping at reduced prices or watching your kids play in the designated area. The Bistro Buffet is the most popular choice since the selection is vast and even pernickety eaters can find something they like here. Beer and wine are on tap. But for something a little more upmarket, Wine & Dine has white linen on the tables and service with lots of smiles is effortless. A 3-course meal sets you back around €38. Get into celebratory mood with a glass of Charles Heidsieck champagne at €8, a steal anywhere on the planet.

Kumu Art Museum in Kadriorg Park, Tallinn

Some hours in Tallinn can be combined with the Viking Line ticket and there are all kinds of options for all ages to keep the group happy. The Old Town always presents a photo opportunity with its architecture and colourful buildings. The Seaplane Harbour is a mecca for anyone interested in boats and sea craft, a real hands-on place where the most reluctant of museum-goer will dive into the activities. The Tele Tower is a futuristic experience with a 3-D movie to start your journey before your snappy elevator ride to the top floor where the view literally takes your breath away looking out over the city and down through the ‘hole’ in the floor. Kumu Art Museum is housed in a spectacular modern building with art treasures covering the period from the beginning of the 18thC until the end of World War II. Temporary exhibitions showcase Estonian and international artists and the performance schedule is choc-a-bloc. Besides, the walk through the immaculate Kadriorg Park to get there is a treat all on its own and there are many other museums to visit on the way.

Dinner aboard Viking Line’s XPRS at the Wine and Dine Restaurant

If time is not at a premium, staying overnight in Tallinn is reasonably priced especially when you book it with your Viking Line crossing. Budget to luxury are all within a price range that won’t bring tears to your eyes.

Here are the links to Viking Line’s timetables and ways you can spend your day in Tallinn:

https://www.sales.vikingline.com/

https://www.visittallinn.ee/eng

Finland on My Mind – a culinary journey

Competition in the Baltic Sea is fierce. Not only do the cruise ships vie for best entertainment or comfort with style. Food is paramount and there are few shipping companies that do it as well as Silja Line does. This year is no exception. Their Bon Vivant Restaurant on both Serenade and Symphony, steps up to the fine culinary plate every time.

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A formidable team: Matti Jämsen, Miikka Manninen, Eero Vottonen, Heidi Mäkinen

Hard to go wrong when you’ve got Chef Eero Vottonen, whose been there and done that in the glittering Michelin star world of Helsinki, and Heidi Mäkinen, Finland’s best sommelier in 2015 and 8th in the world, at the helm. With the internationally well-known Matti Jämsen overseeing it all and the bright, young, fastidious Miikka Manninen as the sous-chef, you’re all set for a flavour expedition through the Finnish countryside at the highest possible standards.

 

Lavaret (white fish) and sour cream
Lavaret (white fish) and sour cream

No bigger than an amuse bouche comes the Lavaret or white fish as most of know it, served with smooth sour cream, a little crunch of cucumber and a subtle flavouring of dill. Swill it back with a Blanc de Blanc from Jacques Lassaigne in all its glorious minerality and you can’t wait for what’s next. The hot, crispy barley blini-like pancake is served with mushroom butter, so good you want to lick your hand where it slowly sidles its way down. Another gulp of that champers, thank you!

Lamb and caramelised onion with friend parsley root
Lamb and caramelised onion with friend parsley root

Put one and one together and you the resulting richness is much more than a mere two. The liver mousse is a combination of duck and chicken liver, delicate and powerful all at once with the forest mushrooms adding the oomph. This time it’s the earthy Yealands Estate Land Made Pinot Noir that carries the flavours through to the last mouthful.

Delicate as a flower - braised apple with buttermilk ice cream
Delicate as a flower – braised apple with buttermilk ice cream

While the lamb could do with a bit more salt and pepper, easily added of course, the herbs from the dish fall in side by side with the unmistakeable garrigue, or wild Mediterranean herb taste, present in the Maison Nicolas Perrin Cornas, worthy of a swoon.

Heidi Mäkinen has taken Eero Vottonen’s story of Finnish ingredients, one step further to turn this dining experience into an unforgettable journey.

5-course menu including wine selection: €118/person or €109 for Club One customers.

Menu available from 1 September 2016 – 10 January 2017.

Silja Line

A Symphony for the Small Ones – Cruises for children

Cruises are an adult thing, or so you thought until you step on board one of Silja Line‘s cruise ships plying the waters between Helsinki and Stockholm. This stretch of the Baltic is a busy one with two operators departing daily from both cities. These are party boats but Silja Line has taken the plunge to focus their attention on families with children. The Symphony has been newly renovated to accommodate this new all-encompassing concept.

DSC02577Silja Land was the brain child of experts, who else but kids and their parents alike, put into workshops with bright design and architecture students from Aalto University. The question under consideration? How can we make this cruise an unforgettable one from your point of view? The answers came flooding in: ice cream parlour, Lego, sea of balls, Play Station, doll’s house, colour everywhere, drawing on the walls, climbing frame, fun places to sit. They asked for ideas, they got them and the result was a whole section of the ferry transformed into a paradise for those young ones. There are no baby sitters, you have to watch your own kids, but there are young, energetic supervisors who keep the older ones from hurting themselves and do a spot of cleaning up when the ice cream drops. There’s also the Moomin-like Harry the friendly seal who wanders about hugging and fooling around. And in the summer months when numbers hit record highs, even the conference centre turns into an additional play area.

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This doesn’t mean that the adults’ playground has disappeared. On the contrary, the Sunflower Oasis is a spa area with several pools to relax in and a sauna and steambath to ease away those aches and pains. Again, kids are welcome in their own pool with their own water slide and waterfall to keep them from getting bored.

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Some changes have been made to the choice of dining on board. A sushi bar has been added with some  innovative sushi. Bon Vivant is still there for the fine diners while Tavolàta is the new cosy Italian restaurant. Shopping has taken on a whole new meaning with their extended Tax Free Superstore and there are corroborated rumours that West End musicals, straight from London, will be shown in the spring of 2015. In the meanwhile there’s an atmospheric jazz band playing on the Promenade and the band and cabaret at midnight if you’re still awake.

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For Finns this cruise is something you just do. It’s popular and relatively inexpensive since the ships call in at the Åland Islands which gives them the right to sell goods at tax-free prices. Deals abound, especially in the low season. Take a break, spend the day in Stockholm, return in the same cabin you had, pamper yourself and come back refreshed.

Silver Whisper came to town – cruising the Baltic Sea

There’s cruising and then there’s cruising. None of the garish bright colours of orange and turquoise, no waterslide pools and no buffet with cheap food that extends for miles. Not on Silver Whisper, one of the ships in the fleet of Silversea.

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This elegant 6-star vessel with capacity for 382 passengers and 302 crew members stands out along the Helsinki shoreline, its stopover for a day on its voyage through the Baltic Sea. You saw right, the figures are correct, the ratio is more than 1:3, every butler, waiter, cleaner as friendly as the next one. Butler? Oh yes, and it’s surprising how quickly you can get used to this service albeit strange at the beginning. Every suite (no cabins on this boat), has a seaside view, many have private balconies. The minibar is stocked with your favourite drinks and the choice of toiletries in the bathroom are top of the line.

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Let’s start with a glass of champagne and once again, you saw right, champagne and of course some high-class Prosecco if you prefer, it is an Italian ship after all. All drinks are included and there’s nothing shabby about the selection of wine, cognac, port, whiskey whatever you like and not a single tap wine to be spied anywhere. What do you fancy today? Italian with freshly made pasta at La Terazza, a steak prepared by yourself on a hot stone at the Grill or the classy table service of a multi-course meal at the Restaurant? Of course the option of Le Champagne with a menu designed by Michelin star chef Jacques Thorell and prepared with precision by the capable chef, can also be savoured at a surcharge.

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At the end of the day there’s a lot more to life than just food and drink, or so some of us think, and it’s exactly this fine attention to detail that makes this cruise line stand out amongst the rest. You find yourself on the way to a port with a rich, historical background, you’re chomping at the bit to know more and then there’s a local expert waiting to give you a lecture in the multi-tiered lounge that doubles as a movie cinema and a cabaret spot. Starting to feel that nervous twitch from too much food and drink and not enough exercise? There’s a jogging track! There’s a fitness centre! There’s a spa and a swimming pool. Calm your nerves in the leather-bound settees of The Humidor, the only indoor place on board where smoking is allowed or do your own research in the well-stocked library.

I talked to some American passengers on shore just to make sure that my own perceptions hadn’t been too clouded by the overall awesomeness of the experience on board. They could not stop praising the service, the friendliness of the staff, the food, the …., the …., but above all:

“It’s the size of the boat! You can get so close to the heart of the city which other large cruise liners simply cannot do. It’s been the same in St. Petersburg, in Helsinki now, in Stockholm. We step off the boat and there’s no need for buses or public transport to cart us around. We’re right there where the action is.”

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Attention to detail is not only about luxury. It’s experiences like the above mentioned that make for return customers, it’s the green aspects of waste disposal that are morally ethical, it’s the specialist that tells us about his/her own country that puts the dot on the i. It doesn’t come cheap – at €500/person/day, for most of us it’s a once in a lifetime, never-to-be-forgotten experience. Where’s that piggy bank….

Amazing M/S Grace – cruising the Baltic

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Gracing the Seas

Ice hockey, Formula 1, classical music, computer games, the Finns have a knack for fostering talent among its 5 million inhabitants. The shipping industry has not been left behind in this quest for excellence and indeed, has reached new heights of achievement in the ferries that are cutting their way through the Baltic Sea in 2013.

Green Groundbreaker

Viking Line’s brand new M/S Grace, in all its majestic stature, is a groundbreaking vessel from the STX Finland boatyard.  Project leader Kari Granberg reports, “Our goal has been to find the best possible environmental solutions and that has lead other leaders in the field such as Royal Carribbean Lines and Carnival Lines, to visit the boatyard during construction and book another meeting in the near future.” It’s the first passenger ship that uses liquefied natural gas (LNG) for fuel, thereby reducing nitrogen exhausts and particles by 85% and greenhouse gases by 15% while the sulphur exhaust level is practically zero. The Baltic Sea is a heavily trafficked stretch of water and hence, is in a highly delicate state. Grace moves quietly and gently through this sensitive archipelago minimizing wave and noise formation by means of its hydrodynamic hull and STX Finland’s patented Wave Damping Afterbody technology. Seawater is purified and recycled while windows with high insulation capacity contain heat and create energy efficiency. The restaurants and the kitchens utilize a GEM system that lowers energy by 20% and no aspect of recycling, reusing and optimization of resources has been left out.

Cruising without Conscience

‘Grace’ does her name justice. In keeping with its Scandinavian roots, it’s a gracious vessel with not a hint of garishness or vulgarity, using clean, natural colours on floors and walls while emphasis has been placed on mood lighting that changes colour according to the time of day and features that are reminiscent of the spectacular Finnish archipelago outside. The light and scenery pour in through the profusion of large windows and one can only muse at the genius of designers Vertti Kivi & Co. “We chose them because they came with fresh ideas, new ways of looking at the interiors of ships, inviting the view to come inside,” Taru Kauppinen, product manager, explains.

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All palates and wallet sizes have been catered for. From the cosy Frank’s Casual Diningto the elegance and splendor of Oscar’s and everything in between, it’s all there for the gourmet, wine connoisseur, burger lover and famished family. Locally produced ingredients are used and bottled water comes in recyclable plastic.  Nightclubs and dance venues abound with sound and light technology that is the best in the field. You can practice your moves to the schlager sounds at Café Retro, get in step with the talented Elixir Show Band from Hungary at Club Vogue, jiggle your hips at the Rockmore Bar where they invite you to dance on the tables if the mood should take you! And when it’s time to take a break and have a quiet glass of champagne in the Seamore Bar, you’ll be soothed by the soft tones of piano music.

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Pampering yourself is what cruising’s all about and the spa and wellness area realigns your body and mood by offering a huge range of treatments using biodynamic products. Jacuzzis are flush with the windows, once again pulling in that jaw-dropping view of the islands. Since you’re in Finland, you can’t miss out on the special snow cave for just a taste of what winter might be like. And if it’s the kids you’re worrying about, don’t! They have thought of everything and provide 3 play areas for babies to teenagers, all well equipped with baby-sitters and cutting edge games. To round off the entire luscious experience, the biggest floating duty-free shopping mall is at your service, sporting brand-name clothing, booze, food, candy and yes, you’ve guessed it, cosmetics and perfumes galore.

This is unequivocally the greenest, most eco-friendly passenger ship on the seas to date. Revive your spirit in full knowledge of the fact that everything’s been done to maintain your sustainable lifestyle. Viking Line’s Grace operates between Turku Harbour and Stockholm with crossings departing every evening at 9 pm returning at 7.50 pm. Bookings can be made