Friday, August 1, 2008

Goodbye Helsinki (and Temptation Resisted)

For a map, see post for the outward bound trip

JenniferThe ship departed Helsinki at 17:30 local time (which is an hour earlier than Stockholm time, the various guides and brochures took pains to point out), and we got on board with plenty of time to spare. This time we headed straight up to deck 11 to get good view of the departure and the little islands dotting the harbor. Smoothly and with no fuss or drama, the ship left punctually. "Well, we wouldn't want to miss our tide," I said, deadpan. Joe sniffed at my attempt at naval humor.

We didn't have too much time to linger, though, because we had reservations for the evening's diner buffet at 20:00. On a ship this size (holds 2500 people), the evening buffet is done in some kind of overlapping shift system. A shower and a change of clothes (nothing fancy), and there we were, in line at 19:55. The doors opened at 20:00, the mob rushed in, and the feed was on! It really was a little maniacal at the start, with people rushing get in line for food before they had even found their table. We had a two-hour block reserved, as I assume most other people did, and it's not like they were going to run out of food... why the rush? Our advice to anyone attending one of these things is to saunter in 15 minutes late and miss the madness. Or do what we did, and sit back and watch the chaos in amazement.

Viking Line has been advertising their new and improved menu, responding to demands from customers for "lighter and healthier" and "exotic" food. I was a little concerned about that, because I had not gone to sea for an all-you-can-eat buffet of steamed vegetables. I need not have worried. The "lighter and healthier" was taken care of with a small salad bar, and all we could find that was easily identifiable as "exotic" (i.e., non-Baltic) was the stuffed grape leaves and marinated skewered pork at the appetizer table (pretty good, both of them). Otherwise, the fare was what you might expect: pork chops, meatballs, salmon, chicken, some kind of whitefish, a variety of sauces to go over them (the wild mushroom was particularly good), several kinds of potatoes (my favorite Engelska sign advertised "Gratinated potatoes"), and of course, a fish bar, pictured here. Herring, herring, salmon, salmon, mackerel, herring, salmon, salmon... thankfully, they also still had an old-fashioned dish called "Jansson's Temptation," a mixture of hashed potatoes and herring, seasoned with spices that make one think more of December than July. Drinks there were a-plenty, including light beer and red wine. Desserts included chocolate mousse, ice cream and toppings, various small cakes, crackers and cheese, and fresh and stewed fruit. We acquitted ourselves pretty well, I think, but left no room for post-dinner drinks. How was the food quality-wise? Pretty good overall, with the salmon being excellent, and we ate lots of it in various styles of preparation. I am glad to have had "Jansson's Temptation" at least once, but I do not feel an urgent need to repeat the experience.

The strategy of several of our fellow diners seemed to focus more on maximizing their beer and wine consumption. I may have mentioned before the large duty-free shop and the fact that people were buying bottles and bottles as fast as ever they could; earlier last week, when talking to co-workers about our plans, I had mentioned that we planned to spend lots of time up on deck, looking at scenery. "You will have the place to yourself then," laughed grad student B., "Everyone else will be in the bar or drinking in the casino or just in their room getting drunk." This wasn't too much of an exaggeration; the only time we couldn't sit exactly where we wanted was upon departure, when only the outdoor bar was open. The casino and bar were busy every night, and the lines at duty free lessened but did not cease. Despite this, we didn't ever see any bad behavior. I suppose that the ship turns a blind eye to everything that would interfere with their profit (which clearly comes mostly from alchohol sales) but at the same time I bet that everyone knows that they'd better behave, or they might never be able to come back.

After dinner, we hit the duty-free store ourselves (we're trying to fit in, after all, and to buy alcohol on a Baltic ferry seems almost as strong a Swedish tradition as the frog dance around the maypole) and bought our legal import limit of alcohol (2 liters), then we dragged our bloated carcasses upstairs again, to catch the sunset and loll about on deck and digest. Off to bed, where "long day of walking around" was apparently trumped by "too much food," and we slept rather fitfully, even though the engine thrumming was less than it had been Monday night.The 04:00 docking at Mariehamn woke us up both docking and departing, as the aft engines alternately fired up and quit. I had intended to go out on deck to see the town and the dawn, but somehow, when the time actually came, the idea didn't seem so attractive.

But we got up relatively early, and Joe fetched some breakfast from the cafe, but oddly, we weren't too hungry. We nibbled lazily and watched the Archipelago go by, with its charming houses and old buildings that line the coast as you approach Stockholm. This time we did see a couple places that looked like McMansions, as well as some older houses that better suit the surroundings. We decided that we could bear to live in the place pictured here, on the north shore, some 15 minutes shy of Stockholm, but we're not sure we could afford it. Anyone out there want to go halvsies with us?

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