WHITE-ROBE BREAKFAST, VIKINGS, TEARFUL GOODBYES
I had read about going into and leaving from the port of Stockholm, through and around a series of islands that form an archipelago surrounding the city. Stockholm itself is built on a series of islands but the entry by sea is through pastoral channels of forested lands and I was looking forward to experiencing this. Leslie Jon, Regatta's Cruise Director, had told us during the last night's crew farewell show that we should set our alarms for 4:30 a.m. so we could get up and watch our arrival. He then conceded that 6 a.m. would probably suffice and told us that to make our early morning arrival special, Regatta had a “white robe” tradition. The Terrace Café would open at 6 a.m. for us, and we should come to breakfast wearing our in-cabin bathrobe. Then, he told us, when we passed other ships in the harbor, we should all stand out on the terrace at the fantail and wave.
“You won't believe the reaction we get from cruisers on those other ships,” he said.
I was certainly game, so at 6 the next morning, there I was, dressed in my white bathrobe, visiting with my fellow passengers to enjoy the last arrival of our cruise. It was a collegial way to end our adventure, and I admit that we must have presented quite a spectacle had anyone seen us crowding together on the aft terrace. For me, though, the most enjoyable aspect of the event came about an hour later, when passengers who had not attended the show and who had not read about the “white robe breakfast” in their final in-room Currents (Oceania's daily newsletter) showed up to dine at their usual breakfast time. They were confronted with a gaggle of otherwise sane folk standing around in their bathrobes, hundreds of us, and the looks on their faces were priceless.
The Port of Stockholm had just dedicated a new cruise terminal but for some reason, we were not assigned to that location, nor to any of the other locations close to the city. On the day of our arrival, Regatta berthed at a far-flung pier, the surrounding area of which was undergoing considerable construction. As a result, transportation issues caused problems for many of us since no one knew, exactly, how to get to a bus kiosk that sold tokens.
In Stockholm bus transportation is inexpensive and easily accessible. There are also hop-on, hop-off bus options available for tourists, some of which include water taxi hop-on, hop-off options as well. But the public transportation buses are easy to use for those who don't want the all-day tourist options. The problem is that in order to board one, you have to buy tokens at bus kiosks located at the bus stops, and the purchases have to be made in Swedish kroner. In ordinary circumstances that would not present a problem, especially when sailing with Oceania because you can get Swedish kroner from the purser's desk, but in our case, the ship was in an unusual location and no one seemed to know where a bus stop with a working kiosk was located.
After wandering around for awhile and finding a bus stop without a kiosk, many of us returned to the pier and shared a cab into town. And this is where our adventure started.
Gamla Stan, Stockholm
It was another glorious day, sunny but not too hot. The sun glinted off the many waterways surrounding the city, which is built on a series of connected islands. All of the islands of Stockholm are accessible by vehicle but some of the routes are less than direct; hence the water-taxis. I started my trek in Gamla Stan, the charming center of old Stockholm, with difficult-to-navigate cobbled streets and walkways that wind up and down and around. At the waterfront in front of Gamla Stan is the Royal Palace; at what seems to be the back of it, the Changing of the Guard takes place at noon. It's very pomp-and-circumstance-ish, which I found refreshing after the incongruity of the bathrobe breakfast. But also in this small little spot of the much larger city are a German church, a Finnish church and a cathedral, plus rows of Hanseatic burgher-style buildings in the main Gamla Stan square… in other words, an old-architecture-buff's dream location.
The Vasa Museum, located on the waterfront, is accessible by water-taxi or you can take one of the hop-on, hop-off boats. If you are going to go to just one cultural monument in this city, make it the Vasa. It houses a war ship that was built in 1628 and sank in the harbor after it had been in the water for merely twenty minutes. There it sat for over 330 years before it was lifted, housed, restored and preserved. It is viewable in a uniquely hung position, so you can walk under and around it. Look for the masts on top of the building, visible from a distance. They not only serve as a marker for the building, they also indicate the actual height of the masts when the ship originally set sail on its extremely short maiden voyage. Entrance is about 100 kroner, or USD $12 and worth every penny. If you're planning a visit, bring a sweater; the museum is kept fairly cool to preserve the ship.
Speaking of keeping cool, the Absolut Ice Bar is another touristy must-see in Stockholm. The bar, located on the ground floor of the Nordic Sea Hotel near the train station downtown, is made of ice. Everything is made of ice, including the bar itself, the shotglass, the barstools. You're given a parka and gloves as you enter; a glass of Absolut vodka is included in the USD $23 (195 SEK) entry fee. Hang onto your glass, a refill is only 95 SEK, or about USD $11.50. Alcoholic beverages are extremely expensive in Scandinavia; the point of going to the Absolut Ice Bar is to say that you've done it.
Near Stockholm's Palace
In the same way that the hotels are cheaper in the summer in Stockholm, it's value season in the stores and shops as well. Although it isn't as charming as Stroget in Copenhagen, Stockholm's pedestrian shopping street, Drottningsgaten (which starts just across the small bridge from Gamla Stan) makes for a sweet stroll of a summer's day, with lots of cafes along the way, ice cream and hot dog carts, and delis. The prices seemed very high for the American budget, even though items were marked way down. Food prices were high as well, although the hot dogs were reasonable and there are some burger stands too that had decent prices. If you want a really tasty and inexpensive snack though, and I know that this will sound like I am just a wee bit nuts, one of the best buys is a Danish pastry at any Seven-Eleven in the city. Yes, I am 100% serious.
Because it wasn't a typical last night -in other words, we weren't sailing-there was an almost surreal air on the ship as I was packing up. Nothing was planned for the evening, people just kind of congregated and exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses. Some of us met for a final drink in Horizons and fondly recounted the experiences we'd had over the past two weeks.
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