A tale of three cities
Part one: Stockholm to Turku
Penny Bunting and family take the slow route from Stockholm to Helsinki, with a stop off at vibrant Finnish city, Turku
Gamla Stan, Stockholm
Travelling through the Nordic countries is a rewarding experience. But in this northern European region there's a lot to see – and a lot of ground to cover – if you plan to visit more than one country.
The temptation may be to get from A to B as quickly as possible. But if you take this approach when travelling from Sweden to Finland, you'll be missing out on a treat – a boat journey that could well become one of the highlights of your trip.
Although you can fly from Stockholm to Helsinki in just a couple of hours, it's far more rewarding to arrive in Finland by boat – the crossing from Stockholm is an adventure in itself, and this must be one of the most scenic ferry journeys in the world.
Much of the journey weaves through the 30,000 islands, islets, rocks and skerries of the Stockholm Archipelago.
This unique, rugged landscape can be experienced on a day cruise from Stockholm – but if you're planning to continue your Nordic adventures by visiting Finland, taking the ferry offers equally fantastic views of the archipelago.
We made the crossing across the Baltic Sea on board Viking Line's ship Viking Grace, and were heading to Turku – Finland's fifth largest city, and just two hours by train from the capital, Helsinki.
Although we had no plans to sleep during the daytime crossing, we booked two adjoining cabins for our family of four. This gave us a quiet place to rest or read if we got tired of being out on deck.
This wasn't an expensive option – accommodation during day crossings is heavily discounted, and the entire crossing, including cabins, cost just 84 euros for the four of us.
The extra cost for the cabins was well worth it – they were superb. One was made up with a comfortable double bed, complete with duvets and pillows, and the other (accessed through a door which could be left open to create a large space) had two single sofa beds, with plenty of space to stretch out. They were both stylishly decorated with calming Scandinavian décor: wooden floors and cream, grey and lime green furnishings. Each cabin also had a surprisingly spacious shower room and loo, complete with towels and soap.
The best bit, though, were the huge, circular porthole windows offering sweeping views of the archipelago as we glided through the islands. The sea was calm and still, and throughout the voyage there was barely any movement on the boat – except forwards, of course. It was like being on a floating hotel, and lying on the bed, gazing through the porthole at the ever-changing scenery, gave new meaning to the phrase “room with a view”.
Within minutes of leaving the ferry terminal in Stockholm's city centre we were immersed in the natural beauty of the archipelago. We passed island after island – some big, some tiny, but all green and wooded.
Some islands had little red cabins, in some cases the only dwelling on a little patch of forest in the sea. Other islands had small settlements, with boat moorings, and sandy beaches, and children fishing off jetties or jumping into the water.
The waterways were busy with passing cruise ships, other ferries, sailing yachts, and speed boats – and there was plenty of wildlife too, including swans drifting elegantly and cormorants diving down for food.
We were struck by the colours that surrounded us. Luckily, the sun shone brightly that day and the blue sky contrasted with the multi-shaded greens of the islands.
Viking Grace has large sundecks to enjoy all these views, and this is where we spent much of the voyage. On-deck bars mean you can enjoy a coffee or beer while watching the archipelago slip by. There's also a self-service café/restaurant for more substantial fare, offering a good range of reasonably priced hot meals as well as salads, sandwiches, coffees and cakes.
After four hours of sailing, the islands gradually became flatter, smaller and further apart – then we were in open sea.
The open stretch didn't last long though, and soon enough land was in sight ahead. This was not the coast of mainland Finland, though, but the Åland Islands.
Åland is an archipelago at the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia, in the Baltic Sea. The islands belong to Finland, but speak Swedish, and have their own parliament and flag.
Åland is a popular holiday spot – it's one of the sunniest places in northern Europe, and visitors flock here for the sweeping white sand beaches, extensive network of cycle paths and laid-back vibe.
The ferry docks here, at the main port of Mariehamn, and we watched the bustle of happy holiday-makers disembarking onto the pretty harbourside.
Then we were back out to sea, and almost immediately in the midst of another archipelago – this one the Turku Archipelago, an area of some 20,000 islands arching towards the Finnish city of Turku.
By the time we had docked in Turku, it was hard to believe that we'd been at sea for almost 12 hours – the journey had gone by so quickly.
From Turku, you can whizz into the capital city by train in less than two hours – but it's worth spending a day or two in this historic city first. And, especially with children in tow, it makes sense to break your journey here to avoid a late night arrival in the capital.
Bisected by the River Aura – which offers attractive riverside paths for walking and cycling – Turku is a compact city with a number of outstanding sights and a youthful vibe, thanks to being the home to Finland's second largest university.
Many visitors head straight to the cathedral, which has been rebuilt many times since its consecration in 1300, a result of fire damage. Upstairs, you'll find the Cathedral Museum with sculptures of saints, and church silverware from the Middle Ages.
A 3.5 km walk along the river from the cathedral will take you to Turku Castle, passing many points of interest on the way.
The castle was founded in 1280, and is Finland's largest, with dungeons, banqueting halls and a historic museum,
For us, the sea voyage to Turku was a wonderful way to arrive in Finland – and the city was a great introduction to the country.
But this was just the beginning of our Finnish adventure. Next on our itinerary was the vibrant, colourful capital of Helsinki – and beyond that a unique, exciting country of vast tracts of wilderness, forested national parks, remarkable wildlife, and ample opportunities for outdoor adventures.
Way to go
The best way to get into Stockholm city centre is by using the excellent, efficient and speedy Arlanda Express train service from Stockholm Arlanda Airport. Just a short walk from Arrivals, the train whisks you into the city centre in just 20 minutes – it's the fastest way to get into town. It's also an eco-friendly option: running on 100 per cent green electricity, with very low emissions, it's the second most environmentally-friendly way to travel after cycling.
Ferry tickets, cabins and restaurant meals can be booked on the Viking Line website.
Book train tickets from Turku to Helsinki on the VR website.
Where to stay
Quality Hotel Nacka offers spacious, stylish rooms as well as an on-site relaxation area, with swimming pool, hot tub and sauna. Just a few minutes taxi ride from the Viking Line ferry terminal, this eco-friendly hotel is a great place to base yourself if you have an early morning departure. The delights of Stockholm's Gamla Stan are only 20 minutes away by bus, and there's a large shopping centre with shops, supermarket and restaurants just across the road.
Omena Hotel Turku is perfectly situated in the city centre. It's an easy bus ride from the ferry terminal, and just five minutes walk to the train station for connections to Helsinki. The functional, no-nonsense rooms are ideal for families – sleeping four in comfortable beds and sofa beds, with an en-suite shower room and microwave, fridge and kettle for preparing basic meals. This is a non-staffed hotel, which means costs are kept low – so rooms are great value. There's also no need to worry about queuing for check in or check out – guests are sent a check-in code by text and email, which remains valid until check out at noon the following day.
Green Adventures January 2018