When I was a kid, one of the best things you could think of was taking a trip with the ferries traveling between Helsinki and Stockholm. I don’t remember exactly what was the charm in it. I recall us sitting in the (kids) disco with fruity non-alcoholic cocktails and loitering around by the slot machines. When I was a kid, our parents gave us a pile of coins (marks at that time) and let us loose in the casino. We were allowed to buy all the candy we wanted with the profit. Somehow there was always profit. And it was the boat that was exciting, the day in Stockholm was more of an annoyance. Today the boats are a product of the past. Most of the ferries are in need of serious renovation and considered more as floating discos. But there is something of a comeback bubbling under the surface. Not only a cleanup of the “party boat” reputation, but also a call for the connoisseurs of food and drink. The wine lists have been revived with exciting products and service is extraordinarily good; and I think I detected at least sixty different small brewery beers in the boats pub. The best thing through is the tax free shopping that is actually tax free. I have given up on airports a long time ago – except for Oslo. The selection is very surprising including wines from small producers for prices for around 30% lower than anywhere on land. The transformation is at its early stages, but I can smell potential. Thus we took a chance and reserved a trip to Helsinki with one of these floating entertainment centers.
We made our trip with Silja Serenade, that was built in the 90’s. It is not the newest nor the oldest vessel sailing these seas, and at least when I was young Silja used to have a bit of a finer reputation than its rival Viking Line. The boat left the harbor in Stockholm around 5pm in the afternoon and arrived in Helsinki 10 am the next morning. So we had all evening and morning to look and shop around.
When we reserved the trip we also reserved a restaurant for dinner: Bon Vivant, which is a French kitchen in connection with the specialty wine shop. The interior was a bit old and passé in style, however, everything else was great. We ordered a bottle of champagne Agrapart & Fils Terroirs (and bought two bottles to take home) and main courses: lamb and duck. The portions were quite Finnish (= big), so we only had room to share one dessert. Quality was much better than expected and service was first class.
After dinner we walked around, trying to find a place to have a drink. There was a Spanish restaurant, Sushi place, Happy Lobster and the big buffet, but none of them felt very inviting (I would not be caught dead in a place called the Happy Lobster). The ships pub had a nice beer selection, however the loud karaoke steered us away. We ended up back at Bon Vivant as they had the only interesting wine list on the whole vessel. So the wine revolution was restricted to this small corner of the ship.
The buffet breakfast next morning was also a huge disappointment. The servings looked like someone had just bought huge batches of the cheapest ingredients ever and piled them up on long tables. I don’t think anything was actually made there and that was quite off putting. So regardless of the positive start at the French restaurant, I left the boat with no ambitions to make the trip again for a while by sea. Once in five years is enough. Although the tax free shopping might lure me back for a day cruise a bit sooner…