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Cruising with the locals in Scandinavia

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Written by editor

You can cover a lot of territory in Scandinavia without ever checking into a hotel.

You can cover a lot of territory in Scandinavia without ever checking into a hotel. Overnight luxury cruise liners stacked with saunas, smorgasbords, and duty-free shopping sail nightly between Stockholm and Helsinki. Imagine enjoying a Scandinavian feast with a vista of archipelago scenery. Budget travel rarely feels this hedonistic.

Two fine and fiercely competitive lines, Viking and Silja, connect the capitals of Sweden and Finland. Each line offers state-of-the-art ships with luxurious meals, reasonable cabins, plenty of entertainment (discos, saunas, gambling), and enough duty-free goodies to sink a ship. Of the two, Viking has the reputation as the party boat. Silja is considered more elegant (but still has its share of sometimes irritating and noisy passengers).

The Pepsi and Coke of the Scandinavian cruise industry vie to outdo each other with bigger and fancier boats. The ships are big โ€” nearly 200 yards long โ€” and with 2,700 beds they’re the largest (and cheapest) luxury hotels in Scandinavia.

Which line is best? You could count showers and compare smorgasbords, but both lines go overboard to win the loyalty of the 9 million duty-free-crazy Swedes and Finns who make the trip each year. Viking has an older, less luxurious fleet, but caters better to low-budget travelers, offering discounts to students, seniors, and railpass-holders; selling cheap “ekonomi” cabins (shower down the hall); and allowing passengers to pay for deck passage only and sleep for free on chairs, sofas, and under the stars or stairs.

Both Viking and Silja sail nightly from Stockholm and Helsinki. In both directions, the boats leave about 4:30 or 5:30 p.m. and arrive the next morning around 9:30 or 10 a.m. For exact schedules, see www.vikingline.fi or www.silja.com.

During the first few hours out of Stockholm, your ship passes through the Stockholm Archipelago. The third hour features the most exotic island scenery โ€” tiny islets with cute red huts and happy people. Going in this direction, have dinner at the first sitting (shortly after departure) and be on deck for sunset.

Fares vary by season, by day of the week, and by cabin class. Mid-June to mid-August is most crowded and expensive (with prices the same regardless of day). Fares drop about 25 percent offseason for departures Sunday through Wednesday.

In summer, a one-way ticket per person for the cheapest bed that has a private bath (in a below-sea-level, under-the-car-deck cabin) costs about $125. Couples will pay a total of about $375 for the cheapest double room (with bath) that’s above the car deck. If that sounds expensive, remember that you’re getting overnight lodging, a fun scenic cruise, and substantial transportation to boot.

The fares are reasonable because locals sail to shop and drink duty- and tax-free. It’s a huge operation โ€” mostly for locals. The boats are filled with about 45 percent Finns, 45 percent Swedes, and 10 percent cruisers from other countries. The average passenger spends as much on booze and duty-free items as for the boat fare. The boats now make a midnight stop in the Aland Islands, a part of Finland that’s exempt from European Union membership, to preserve the international nature of the trip and maintain the duty-free status.

While ships have cheap, fast cafeterias as well as classy, romantic restaurants, they are famous for their smorgasbord dinners. Board the ship hungry. Dinner is self-serve in two sittings, one at about 6 p.m., the other a couple hours later. If you pay for both the dinner buffet and breakfast buffet when you buy your ticket, you’ll save 10 percent. The price includes free beer, wine, soft drinks, and coffee. Make sure to reserve your table, not just your meal; window seats are highly sought after.

Smorgasbord translates to something like “bread and butter table.” It has evolved over the centuries to the elaborate spread seen today. The key is to take small portions and pace yourself. Begin with the herring dishes, along with boiled potatoes and knackebrod (Swedish crisp bread). Next, sample the other fish dishes (warm and cold) and more potatoes. Move on to salads, egg dishes, and various cold cuts. Don’t forget more potatoes and knackebrod. Now for the meat dishes โ€” it’s meatball time! Pour on some gravy as well as a spoonful of lingonberry sauce, and load up on more potatoes. Other roast meats and poultry may also tempt you. Still hungry? Load up on cheese, fruit, desserts, cakes, custards, and coffee.

Europe’s most enjoyable cruise, between Stockholm and Helsinki, features dramatic archipelago scenery, a setting sun, and a royal smorgasbord dinner. Dance until you drop and sauna until you drip. The next best thing to being in these Scandinavian capitals is cruising there.