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Northern European ferries: these innovative vessels offer enticing point-to-point cruises for independent travelers. (Cruise Roundup).

The world "ferry" rarely conjures up happy thoughts of gourmet meals, comfy cabins, lots of daytime activities and evening entertainment. Instead, we think of something plain and mundane, shuttling back and forth across a harbor or river.

But those seafaring Scandinavians, whose lands are widely separated by saltwater, have taken the utilitarian and turned it into an enticing travel experience well beyond merely getting there. Recent cruise-ship innovations such as multiple dining venues, soaring atriums, and vast indoor promenades actually got their start on the huge overnight cruise ferries operating between Sweden and Finland. Naval architects and interior designers work on both types of ships, so it is natural there would eventually be a cross-fertilization.

For independent travelers who like creating their own itineraries, Northern Europe's ferry network, when integrated with car, motorcoach, or rail travel, provides a joyful way to tour and travel from England to Estonia, France to Finland. When buying one of the many European rail passes, there is often a discount and sometimes even free ferry travel included.

The major sea routes radiate from Britain across the North Sea to Holland, Germany, and three Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden) and also between Scandinavian capitals, with routes such as Copenhagen-Oslo and Stockholm-Helsinki. All services provide dinner, bed and breakfast, entertainment, and often some pretty sensational scenery leaving and arriving port. On some routes you can spend two continuous nights aboard, bracketing a full day of city sightseeing in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, or Helsinki.

My most recent voyage was aboard the Danish-owned Prince of Scandinavia sailing from Newcastle-on-Tyne in northeast England overnight through the North Sea to Ijmuiden, a port near Amsterdam. The line, DFDS Seaways, has operated European ferry services for 137 years, and I have used them a half-dozen times, including my very first overnight crossing in 1960 between Copenhagen and Oslo. (DFDS translated means "The United Steamship Company.")

The journey began in Scotland aboard the Great Northeastern Railway's Flying Scotsman from Edinburgh along the North Sea coast to Newcastle Central Station, where a dedicated connecting bus ran down to the Tyne River dock. The Prince of Scandanavia, a sleek 22,578-gross-register-ton ship with a white Maltese cross in a blue circle emblazoned on her impressive funnel, was ready for boarding both passengers (1,519 in cabins) and vehicles (up to 379 cars).

Traveling Commodore Class, I was shown to a windowed cabin high up and forward on deck 7, a double arranged for single occupancy, with one bed made up and the other for use as a couch. The complimentary mini-bar contained two whisky and two gin miniatures, two beers, soft drinks, and bottled water; on the table top was a basket of fresh fruit.

The Filipino cabin steward arrived with afternoon tea and dinner menus. The choices were the a la carte Blue Riband Restaurant; the Scandinavian-style buffet Seven Seas, at a fixed price and set starting times to avoid queues; the Jolly Roger, a cafe with hot and cold items; and a snack bar out ondeck. I opted for the Blue Riband, and the steward made my table reservation. The restaurant's name came from the fact that this ship and her sister were, until the arrival of the Superfast Ferries in 2002, the fastest ships on the North Sea, with service speeds of 26 knots.

Sailing at 6 p.m., the Prince of Scandinavia first headed up the Tyne to a turning basin and then sailed downriver past a former Danish State Railway ferry undergoing a refit into a medical missionary ship. The Tyne was once second only to the Clyde as a British shipbuilding center, completing great liners such as Cunard's record-breaking Mauretania of 1907 and several Canadian Pacific Empresses. Now the work is mostly ship repair.

Soon after the 180-degree turn the captain opened the bridge wings to passengers so they could enjoy 270-degree viewing of the residential and commercial architecture ranging up the north bank and the strategic locations at the river mouth for substantial fortifications. Soon the Prince of Scandinavia reached the North Sea, picked up speed, and took on a gentle movement in a slight head sea.

The ship's public spaces offer several bars with entertainment, a nightclub with a band for dancing, two small cinemas, slot machines, children's playroom, and a sizable shop for reasonably priced but--since the European Community rules came into being--no longer duty-free food, beverages, clothing, jewelry, and souvenirs. Shortly after sailing, the public rooms were nearly all crowded with people having a fine time.

All ages and incomes travel on the ferries--couples, singles, families, student groups--and on this route, mostly British, Dutch, and German--hence announcements are made in three languages. The ship carries cars, camper vans, motorcycles, and trucks, and the commercial drivers have their own dining, lounge, and cabin facilities.

At 8 p.m., I took my seat at a window table in the Blue Riband Restaurant, nicely partitioned to make the 100-seat room even cozier. The service staff was European and Filipino. The menu offered entrees priced between $18 and $22, including pepper steak, breast of goose, roasted lamb-rack, monk fish, and steak of wild boar. I greatly enjoyed the wild boar--I started with carpaccio of beef with shredded sharp cheddar cheese on a bed of greens and finished with creme caramel. It was a splendid meal against the backdrop of a fading-light sea-view.

I had a brief look at the entertainment, then took a brisk walk out on the windy deck, peering into the gloom and picking out the lights of other ships and North Sea oil rigs. After a quiet night's sleep, I returned to the Blue Riband, and with breakfast included in Commodore Class, I had a full meal to lay in supplies for the long day ahead. All passengers may use this restaurant, which offers table service and a buffet at breakfast, or they may frequent the Seven Seas buffet.

By 8:30 a.m. we were approaching the Dutch coast and soon entered the very narrow channel leading to Ijmuiden, a smallish port at the entrance to the North Sea Canal giving access to Amsterdam. Docking at 9:30 a.m. sharp, within 15 minutes I was aboard the transfer coach to Amsterdam Central Station to catch an ICE train for southern Germany.

Following a week's Danube River cruise and a three-day stay in Hamburg, I returned to England from Hamburg to Harwich aboard the Admiral of Scandinavia, a ship that now uses the port of Cuxhaven at the mouth of the Elbe with a coach connection to Hamburg. At Harwich International, DFDS operates a boat train direct to London Liverpool Street Station.

There are several dozen highly attractive overnight cruise-ferry routes within Northern Europe, and below is a selection of the most popular. Most ports are well linked to local and intercity rail transportation.

* Copenhagen-Oslo (DFDS Seaways Flagship Route)

Both of these Scandinavian capital cities are worth several days' visit, and with daily overnight schedules, one can sail north from Copenhagen to Oslo, stay a few days then return at will. Or from Oslo, travel Norway's most scenic rail line to Bergen, the southern end of the Norwegian Coastal Voyage route that ranges north to the North Cape.

Departing at 5 p.m. from just opposite the DFDS Headquarters in the center of Copenhagen, the Pearl of Scandinavia or Crown of Scandinavia first pass the Danish Royal Family's palace, the statue of the Little Mermaid seated on the rocky shore, and the cruise terminal before sailing out through the breakwater into the Oresund, the body of water between Denmark and Sweden. Two hours later, the ship calls in at Helsingborg, Sweden, opposite Elsinor, the site of Hamlet's castle, then enters the wide Kattegat and Skaggerak en route to the Oslofjord for the scenic early morning passage up to Norway's capital for a 9 a.m. arrival.

The two ships have a very high standard of accommodations including balcony cabins, a variety of lounges, bars, table service, and Scandinavian-style buffet restaurants and saunas.

* Newcastle-Kristiansand-Goteborg (DFDS Seaways)

DFDS's Princess of Scandinavia--26-knot sister-ship to the Prince of Scandinavia--operates between Newcastle-on-Tyne, England, and Goteborg, Sweden, on an approximately 24-hour run; some sailings call at Kristiansand, a pretty port along the south coast of Norway. As Norway is not part of the European Community, the ship can operate duty-free shops selling clothes, jewelry, perfumes, cosmetics, wines and spirits, and souvenirs.

The Princess of Scandinavia offers an excellent a la carte restaurant and a buffet with a huge selection of fresh fish, shellfish, meats, salads, desserts, and Scandinavian appetizers such as pickled herring and smoked salmon. In the summer time, the lido area's outdoor swimming pool is a popular gathering spot. Swedish and Norwegian students use the ships for travel to and from English-language studies and family stays in England.

* Stockholm-Helsinki/-Turku (Silja and Viking lines)

The ships on both these routes are the world's largest cruise ferries with gross register tonnages approaching 60,000, and both Silja and Viking lines offer daily overnight departures from all three ports. Cruise ships such as those in Royal Caribbean's Voyager Class have borrowed the concept of the Royal Promenade and soaring atriums from the Silja Line ships. Multiple dining venues have been a part of European ferry travel for more than 20 years, but it is only in the last few years that the cruise ships have caught on to what the Scandinavians have been long used to.

These ships provide saunas, indoor swimming, Jacuzzis, delectable Scandinavian buffets, and a la carte restaurants featuring steaks and seafood. Try the whitebait roe and the roasted reindeer with pickled chanterelles and crushed lingonberries.

The red-hulled Viking Line ships leave from Stockholm's main harbor while the Silja Line pier is up an adjacent waterway and accessible by subway. When exiting the underground station at Gardet, a sign points "To Finland."

Both services follow the same route in tandem for a cruise of several hours though the Stockholm archipelago--heavily forested islands dotted with country residences and summer camps. In the warmer months, the small boat and ferry traffic is intense, and when the big ships meet their counterparts making the daylight run from Finland via the Aland Islands, it is a very tight squeeze in the narrow channels. In winter, there's the added thrill of breaking through the ice.

During the night, the ships call briefly at Mariehamn in the Aland Islands, and because the chain is not a part of the European Community, the ferries may operate their enormous duty-free supermarkets, equipped with shopping carts. After crossing the Baltic, it is an equally narrow, twisting passage in to Helsinki's inner harbor, where the ships dock adjacent to the city center and the main market place.

Finland's capital is architecturally rich and easy to tour on foot and by tram, including the transit loop that passes most of the important sites. English is widely spoken because so few non-Finns speak Finnish, a tongue that has no link to any other Scandinavian language, but is akin to Estonian and Hungarian, yet understood by neither.

* Helsinki-Tallinn-Rostock (Silja Line)

When the Finnjet entered service in 1977, she was a marvel of high speed--a 30-knot ferry that could link Finland with Germany in less than 24 hours while other ships took two nights and a day. Standing at the stem and watching her wide wake stretch to the horizon is a favorite pastime. The Finn jet offers nightclub cabaret, dancing, and karaoke, plus the same types of restaurants as the Finland-Sweden ships.

Today the Silja-owned speedster takes up to 1,781 passengers on a summer-only Baltic Sea run from Helsinki with a stop at Tallinn, the Estonian capital with an enchanting medieval center, then onto Rostock, a thriving German port on the Baltic Sea that offers rail access to Hamburg and Berlin.

When touring Northern Europe independently or prior to a deep-sea cruise, it is easy to fit a short sea adventure into any itinerary, making for a delightful and moderately priced alternative to routine intra-European air travel. For more information contact:

DFDS Seaways (USA) Inc./Silja Line/Sea Europe Holidays Inc. (Cruise Travel Magazine), 6801 Lake Worth Rd./Suite 103, Lake Worth, FL 33467: phone 800-533-3755; or log on to www.dfdsusa.com or www.silja.us or www.seaeurope.com.

Viking Line/Borton Overseas (Cruise Travel Magazine), 5412 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55419; phone 800-843-0602; or log on to www.vikingline.fi or www. bortonoverseas.com.
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Author:Scull, Theodore W.
Publication:Cruise Travel
Geographic Code:4E
Date:May 1, 2003
Words:2079
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