The cashmere scarf I’d packed for “cool evenings” on the ship is hiding, embarrassed by its woolly self, at the bottom of my suitcase, along with an all-weather jacket. It’s not as if I’d been expecting snow and ice in July but we were heading for Scandinavia, where “high summer” tends to be largely theoretical. Last summer, it rained almost daily and only the hardiest Danes, Swedes and Finns broke out their swimmers. This year, with a record-breaking heatwave across Europe, it’s a different story.
I’d had visions of myself rugged up and bravely facing into a fierce wind on a tilting deck, like some Nordic Captain Ahab. A yachting friend had warned me that there are two things a ship can do in rough seas – roll and pitch – then helpfully texted to say she’d forgotten the third – yaw – which is when a boat twists on its vertical axis. “On the upside,” she wrote, “you’ll be able to get into any of the in-demand restaurants if that happens.”
She hadn’t mentioned “glide like a swan”, which is what Silversea’s Silver Spirit does when we set off from Copenhagen on this 10-day cruise to Stockholm. The weather is hot and cloudless, the sea a glassy turquoise. We could be in the Bahamas and not the Gulf of Bothnia, the finger of water that runs between Sweden and Finland up to southern Lapland. It’s so dry, even the mosquitoes that usually swarm here in summer have shut up shop.
It’s the first time that Silversea has travelled this route, crisscrossing the archipelago-dotted gulf that extends north from the Baltic Sea. In this region that’s not as well known as Norway’s fjords or the Santa-and-reindeer country of northern Lapland, the nine scheduled stopovers are at places most of us have never heard of. They include little medieval walled towns, such as Visby on Sweden’s Gotland island, summer holiday spots, like Borgholm on the Swedish island of Öland, and a couple of larger towns, some with fine 19th-century architecture, such as Turku, Finland’s former capital.
Although we’re in a suite on a lower deck – one of a handful without a verandah, just a big, fixed window – we’re not exactly slumming it, given the marble bathroom with a bathtub, queen-size bed with deliciously smooth sheets, sofa, large flatscreen TV and desk area. Each suite also comes with what Silversea calls a butler. It isn’t the same as having Carson on hand but these valets will do everything from unpack and pack luggage, deliver room service (course by course) or take dusty shoes away to be cleaned. The butler service is part of Silversea’s upscale badging, along with the pillow menu, naturally, and choice of toiletries. I’ve ended up with two full sets of amenities, having thoroughly confused our steward, Arrianne, with my we-don’t-have-servants-in-Australia dithering. Oh well. I’ll just have to get through the Ortigia and the Bulgari.
As Copenhagen grows distant, we sink into deep armchairs on the deck to catch the breeze off the water on this balmy night and sip our first celebratory cocktail. Getting hold of a second proves easy. I need only whisper the words “Gin Gimlet” and one magically appears.
As the days pass, if the weather is all wrong – meaning it’s stunningly perfect every day – it’s the light and long hours that remind us we’re at the pointy end of the world, about 150 kilometres from the Arctic Circle at our northernmost point, Luleå. It’s twilight until almost midnight, as if the world has decided to snooze rather than fall fast asleep. Half-hearted darkness makes a brief appearance for a few hours before calling it a day.
I wake one morning around 3.30am with some crazy idea to stargaze, only to find myself dazzled by a sunrise stretching golden rays over pale blue water. Another evening, we admire the sun setting from one side of the ship then turn to find, confusingly, the full moon dropping bright lozenges of light onto the dark water on the other. I don’t think it’s the Gimlets.
“Romantic, yes?” a passing waiter asks us with a sly smile. Very romantic – and impossible not to be enchanted by its loveliness, even if, at first glance, most passengers appear to be past the traditional age for a heedless shipboard romance. Tellingly, the ship’s fitness and beauty program includes seminars such as “Wrinkle Remedy with Dr Aury” and “Walking Pain Free”. The only infant I spy on board could be starring in one of those apocalyptic movies where she’s the sole hope for the future on a dying planet and the rest of us have to worship her. (Curiously, younger people start to appear as the cruise goes on. The wrinkle remedy?)
Silver Spirit, which was lengthened by 15 metres earlier this year in an amazing feat of add-on engineering, now has eight restaurants, a café and two lounges. Food and service are two of its selling points. Day and night, squadrons of staff hover nearby in case any of the 582 passengers should be overcome by an idle whim that requires urgent attention. The food ranges from lava-stone grills and pizza to Japanese fusion and Relais & Châteaux-inspired French. We make a good fist of working our way through all of them, which is why, by day six, I’m thinking of going to “Secrets to a Flatter Stomach” instead of the improving destination lecture on the rise of Sweden as a great power.
Fortunately, we get to walk some of it off at our ports of call. And what I’m learning, even without a lecture, is that this corner of the world is not all pretty painted timber houses, shimmering birch forests and locals ambling about in convincing traditional costume (Scandinavia seems to have a thing for living museums). It’s also an industrial heartland – paper and steel mills, timber, containers. The otherwise unremarkable Luleå is famous for two things: Sweden’s biggest and best-preserved “church town”, the World Heritage-listed Gammelstad; and Facebook’s most energy-efficient data centre, smack bang next to a forest. Keen to keep cool, literally, Facebook has friended Luleå’s usually low temperatures and hydro-electric power, although it might decide to unfriend if this heat keeps up.
There were once 71 church towns in Lutheran Sweden. Now there are 16 and Gammelstad is the jewel, its soaring 15th-century stone church surrounded by some 400 humble wooden cottages, all painted red with white trim. (That characteristically Swedish red pigment is a by-product of copper mining and has been used for centuries.) The cottages were built by parishioners who lived too far from the church to make the return trip for festivals or worship in a single day. Many are still owned by churchgoers and passed down through families – the original spirit lives on.
Leaving the small towns in our wake, we spend the penultimate day cruising into stately Stockholm. It’s a beautiful way to arrive in Sweden’s capital, leisurely picking our way through a glittering archipelago of almost 30,000 rocky skerries and small islands discreetly dotted with holiday homes and dark with pine forests.
Rain is predicted for tomorrow when we disembark. I might need to hunt through my suitcase and dig out that anorak, after all. Where’s a butler when you need one?