The love boat of the Baltic is the MS Nordlink. There may be brighter, louder ships that cruise this sea, but the Nordlink sails 19 long, lonely hours from Gdynia, Poland to Helsinki, Finland. If love is on your mind, this is the ship for you.
Captain Merrill Stubing, who steered the Love Boat across televisions in the 1970s and 80s, was forever encouraging holidaymakers to find romance on board. I expect Captain Kjell-Arne Svensson of the Nordlink would encourage you to bring a partner with you. There were only 100 other passengers on my sailing and most of them were lorry drivers.
For tourists not in love, there aren’t many other distractions. As we sailed out through the sea defences of Gdynia, the cormorants basking on the breakwater were the last signs of life till we reached Helsinki. This is a utilitarian freight route.
The operator, Finnlines, has begun marketing it to tourists, too, but we sailed with only a fifth of our capacity of 500 passengers. The fault may have been in the season, late September, and the destination, Helsinki. The port of departure is certainly convenient.
TRI-CITY AREA Gdynia itself is little more than a harbour but the resort of Sopot and historic Gdansk are only 20 and 40 minutes away by electric train. This part of Poland is also a short drive from Germany, which provides the commercial logic for this route. Gdynia-Helsinki is the fast way to the north, and saves a drive of 1000 kilometres (600 miles) through the Baltic States.
Non-motorists are just an afterthought on this route, especially at the Helsinki end, where you arrive early in the morning at Vuosaari freight harbour. It's 16 kilometres from the town centre and not well served by public transport.
It's a shame that even fewer people use the route from Germany to Gdynia. The tri-city area of Gdansk, Sopot and Gdynia has rich connections with Germany.
On board, you see what makes these ships special. They are big, and so is the accommodation. For once, cabins deserve to be called staterooms. There are no balconies but I had a full-size window and the real double bed. The shower room had space to swing several cats. There was a television and even a trouser press.
The television was the least useful. Although the Poles buy lots of British and American tv programmes, they dub them all into Polish. To save money, the same gravelly-voiced actor reads all the parts, from torrid temptresses to wise old grandmothers. It stops being funny fast and you don’t mind when the ship moves away from land and the signal peters out.
PEACE & QUIET At the same time, GSM signals from land cease, but my phone didn’t stop working. These ships have their own satellite connections so you can continue to make and receive calls. It’s expensive – nearly 3 euros a minute to and from Europe and the States, and 70 cents just to send an SMS – but you just have to ration yourself.
The real joy of these ships is what they lack: noise. There are no constant announcements in the cabins, no piped music in the cabins or corridors, no disco in the restaurant or bar. It’s glorious to be able to hear what your companion is saying without straining. A real love boat.
In other respects the restaurant and bar were less wonderful. You can’t order à la carte so all the food is buffet. It is predominantly heavy stuff. The Baltic cruise ferry lines are far ahead with their cuisine and variety.
It’s in hardware that the Nordlink excels. Enormous saunas, jacuzzis and a modern gym are available at no extra charge, and the journey went rather quickly. If the food had been lighter, I’d have arrived in Finland in better health than when I left Poland.
Pat Humphreys, 25 September 2009