Friday, March 30, 2012

Viking Ship Cruise: Stockholm to Helsinki

When it comes to traveling, there are two types of people: those who cruise, and those who do not. The people who go on cruises are distinct for a number of reasons. Primarily, they don’t seem to find anything embarrassing about being a tourist. They have no shame in proudly dawning their fanny packs, sun hats, maps, cameras, and souvenir T-shirts. It even amazes me that they will wear a souvenir T-shirt from one trip, while they are vacationing on another trip. They are the type of people that want to go abroad, but don’t want any of the mess and stress that typically accompany foreign travel. They don’t want to worry about how to get around on the local transportation, what sights they will see, and where or what they will eat. A cruise provides them with all of the planned and packaged excitement, with none of the headache. 

I, on the other hand, find myself in the latter group: the non-cruisers. Among me are people who hate looking like tourists; we don’t linger around the hotel, we don’t go into souvenir shops, we memorize the subway map in our rooms before heading out, so as not to have to look at it at the station. No matter where we are, we always walk in briskly in a straight path, with that have that “I know exactly where I am going” look on our faces.

So why did I end up on a cruise? Me, of all people. Goddam Rick Steves is why. I hadn’t originally planned to go to Helsinki, but his guide to Scandinavia was full of praise for this tiny town, and after reading about it I wanted to go soooooo bad. I mean, when else am I going to be anywhere near Finland? Who knows. And out of all the options to get there, the cruise looked by far the coolest. The more I read about the ship, the more it sounded like a great interjection between trains and luggage-totting in the rest of Scandinavia. Casino, nightclub, duty-free shop, a handful of restaurants including a Smörgåsbord, and my own private hotel room on board the ship. Yep, no sleeping on the deck bench for me.

So I ended up on a two night cruise from Stockholm to Helsinki, and back. I booked with Viking, after comparing them to Sijia and finding that they were slightly cheaper and had a better dock location in Stockholm.

As the time drew nearer to cruise-city, I got more and more excited. This is going to be so romantic! Like that hand-on-the-steamy window scene from Titanic. Oh, if only I knew. 

Upon first impression our room was quite nice. I booked  an extra-large room in the center of the ship, because I didn't care to spend the extra money on a window cabin (nor was it even worth it, because it was pitch black outside for most of the time). However, finding that we were located on the 11th floor of the ship (the highest floor) was somewhat of a surprise. My thinking: at least if the ship sinks we’ll have the longest time above water, and thus the best chance of surviving. I know it sounds morbid, but I can’t help myself.

Then we head to the main deck for some drinks while watching the ship embark. Those were by far the cheapest cocktails in Scandinavia, and everyone knew it. The place was packed. I had never been so glad to spend $8 on a cocktail in my life. After $15-25 for a single drink in most bars around Scandinavia, you would be glad to spend $8 too.  Apparently the duty free policy extended beyond the souvenir shop, and included duty free cocktails in every bar.

drinks on the deck

strawberry daquiris 
complimentary champaign

After the deck party we washed up in the room and it was Smoreorg time! I booked the 7:30 seating because 5:30 seemed to damn early. As I piled five different kinds of caviar onto my plate, I thought, so this is must be the origin of the great and wonderful thing we know as all-you-can-eat dining. This is where it all began…ahhh…food coma. This is also where and how we met our spiritual guide to all things Scandinavia, the wonderful and mysterious John from  San Francisco. John sat across from us at our buffet table. Of course, it was assigned seating, so perhaps it was a carefully planned move by the host to group the only three Americans on this ship at one table….And speaking of being one of the only Americans, Rick Steves was right: it was about 40% Swedish, 50% Finnish, and 10% everyone else, mostly Chinese (in fact, Helsinki was loaded with Chinese…more on that later…)

round 1

round 2

cheese place

Everything was going well, until we got up to our rooms, by that point the boat was well into the Baltic Sea, and the sea was doing what it does best: rocking the shit out of our boat. 

From the 11th floor it was hard to stand without swaying violently from one side to the other. If the police had come up to the 11th floor and made me walk in straight line to test for alcohol intoxication, I would have surely failed due to the damn Baltic Sea. 

We tried to sit on the bed and watch some bad British made-for-TV movie, but the TV, which was bolted to the wall, began to sway back and forth so much that I felt like I was being hypnotized. That’s when we decided to just lay down and try to sleep. About twenty minutes later my partner starts puking like it’s someone's 21st birthday. So much for the hand-on-the-steamy-window scene from Titanic.

Well, we made up for the last night’s Titanic-fail with SWEDISH MEATBALLS! By that time at least both of us had regained our appetites. 

We also tried the beef stew...mmmm...

The next morning we had the breakfast buffet, which was pleasant, but no where near as extravagant as dinner. 

My advice to all future travelers. Do the cruise. It’s wonderful. You’ll love it. But for the love of god, get a room on the lower level.

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