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The Sky's The Limit On The Baltic




          ON THE NORWEGIAN SEA---I’m beginning to feel a bit sorry for those taking their first cruise, because the Viking Sky will be a very tough act to follow.


           During our 17-day, 9-country tour, the ship---also fresh off its maiden voyage---stole the show, beating out such heavy contenders as Stockholm, St. Petersburg.  Berlin  and Copenhagen.



           Oh, it did have an assist from the weather, as rain-filled clouds sailed along overhead for a good part of the journey, but the Viking Sky would have held its own under any conditions.


           Now if that sounds too much like a shameless plug for a cruise line, it certainly is.  And in my estimation, a well-deserved one.  


            When’s the last time you cruised with about a thousand other passengers and didn’t regularly hear gripes about one thing or another on the ship? Or saw so many faces smiling in the rain?  


            While the weather wasn’t up to ship standards, the sun did manage to break through almost on cue at some ports, allowing us to shoot fast and photo-shop later.  (More on the port stops later.)


             Long a major player on river cruises, Viking took to the open seas a couple of years ago and now has 5 midsize ships in its fleet.  The Viking Sky, built in Italy at a cost of about a half-billion dollars (and worth every last million) hit the waters in early 2017.


             It has 8 decks, carries nearly 1000 passengers and half as many crew.  Dining choices range from casual cafes and poolside grills to 7-course, wine-pairing menus.  The main dining room, The Restaurant, is big enough to handle half the ship at one sitting.


             There are 2 pools, a spa, fitness center, sports deck, theater, shops and several elegant but simple lounges scattered about for those who seek  silence.  I enjoy an occasional cigar, and even the smokers’ area is nicely situated and appointed, far enough away from disturbing other passengers,  and  large enough so you don’t feel like you’re in a lepers’ cubicle about the size of a prison cell.


             Whoever designed the Sky was a master.  It’s all there, elegantly simple, all blended in and pleasing to the eye.  No long lines at reception, but private sit-down areas with staff members where your issues are settled quietly and quickly.


            Cabin space is larger than on most other cruise lines.  At first glance, you wonder if there’s enough storage space, but quickly discover that there are nooks and crannies everywhere---again, nicely blended in---and you suddenly have room left over.


              And would you believe heated bathroom floors?  Almost makes it a pleasure for those mid-sleep calls.


                                                  RED-HOT ICELAND




                We began our tour with a 3-night stay in Reykjavik. Iceland.  Frankly, I was curious as to why Iceland has suddenly become one of the hottest tourist spots on the planet.


                 But high winds and heavy rain hounded us, so we couldn’t get out to the volcanoes and glaciers but were hotel-bound for the most part.  On the upside, we had a memorable dinner at the Hilton Reykjavik  restaurant,  Vox, a 5-course set menu (pricey but delicious).


                 It never gets fully dark in Iceland between mid-May and August, so as we headed for the airport and Sweden at 4:30 am to join our cruise, the Iceland sun was trying to shine out the rain.


                  After a seamless entry aboard the Viking Sky (suitcases were delivered to our room within 30 minutes), we spent the rest of the day touring Stockholm.  And had the first of what would be many culinary surprises.


                   The dish is called “surstromming” and is arguably the world’s foulest smelling fish. Locals swear you need a broomstick to keep the drooling cats away.


                     Surstromming  is fermented herring---really fermented, sometimes for as long as a year---covered in salt and brine and stacked in barrels, leaving a little air space so it doesn’t (yuck!) explode.  I’ve heard it’s as bad as it smells, but many Swedes have acquired the taste and wash it down with a shot or two of aquavit.


                       We passed, and toured the incredibly preserved 13th-Century Old Town (Gamla Stan),

featuring  architectural styles ranging from gabled merchant houses to the enormous baroque Stockholm Palace.  Final stop was a museum dedicated to ABBA, the internationally acclaimed pop/rock singing group.


                         Helsinki was our next stop and the Finns also had a few surprises on their plates. While their favorite meal is sautéed reindeer with lingonberries, they’re also fond of moose and a desert called “mammi,” a combination of water, rye, flour and molasses.  It didn’t look good and I have no idea what it tastes like.


                           Main Helsinki attractions include the sparkling white Lutheran Cathedral, largest in all of Europe, the Rock Church carved into a hill and a market/restaurant area on the waterfront.


                                                          BORSCH AND BEAR




                            The Russian sites in St. Petersburg were spectacular---Peterhof Palace,  Church of Spilled Blood, the Hermitage, Peter and Paul Fortess.  We took a canal ride through the so-called “Venice of the North” to view these architectural wonders.




                             Culinary wise, the Russians are big on borsch, the cold beet soup that comes in 12 flavors, pig fat and “stooden,” the broth of cooked meat that’s refrigerated, hardened into a gel and eaten cold.  (We were also told some butchers sell bear meet “under the counter” labeled as pork or chicken).


                               Our next two stops---Talinn, Estonia and Gdansk, Poland---were brief and relatively tame on the food front.  Elk soup was a staple for Estonians and pierogi (dumplings) on just about every Polish table.


                                Tallin ranks as one of Northern Europe’s finest medieval Old Towns.  It’s easily covered in a couple of hours.  Gdansk has a remarkably restored Old Town.  It was one of the most prosperous cities in the Hanseatic League, once the mercantile powerhouse of the Baltics.


                                 Having been to Berlin a few times, we opted for an off-the-beaten-track city tour.  And we got it, a section known as New Cologne, so far off the beaten track that there wasn’t a bratwurst in sight.  In fact, surprise, no German food.


                                  But instead, kabobs, couscous, and a wide assortment of African and Middle East dishes at tiny sidewalk restaurants stretching up and down both sides of the street.  This was worlds apart from the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag  and Checkpoint Charley.


                                    The next port, Copenhagen, charms visitors like a Danish fairytale.  But not today.  It’s rainy and damp.  Many recent surveys claim the Danes are the happiest people on earth, rain or shine.  Must  be something in  those pastries.


                                                           WHALE FOR TWO




                                      And now, our final destination, Norway.  Our first stop was the beautiful port of Stavanger containing the continent’s highest concentration (250) of wooden buildings dating to the 17th and 18th Centuries.  Offshore  drilling fuels the economy, making the city one of the most expensive in the world.



                                        Then to  Eidfjord, a charming mountain hamlet in the heart of one of Norway’s most scenic regions.  Eidfjord embodies the Norway of every traveller’s dream, gateway to Hardangervidda,  Europe’s largest mountain plateau of soaring beauty.  I spent the afternoon aboard the ship, drinking in this beauty.



                                        Finally,  Bergen, an ancient city with deep Viking roots, founded in 1070.  We walked along its UNESCO-listed wharf, containing a gathering of quaint, historic wooden buildings, then through the fish market where the fresh catch of the sea awaits.



                                          Our final meal was at Bergen’s oldest restaurant,  Bryggen Tracteursted (1708).  Everything was tasty, but the whale could have used a little more salt.




                                          ( Dominick and Susan Merle are Montreal-based travel writers.  Dominick is Co-Founder of the international Food, Wine & Travel Writers Assn. Email: dmerle@videotron.ca.) 

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