With the seat of the cruise industry firmly entrenched in europe, it was only a matter of time before northern europe, particularly scandinavia, would become a hotbed for cruise vacations. Americans long have associated Scandinavia—which consists of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden—with its exports, from Ikea to herring, rather than considering it as a cruising option. But Scandinavia provides an array of differing travel experiences, all depending on the country you are visiting.
The great part about taking a Scandinavian cruise is that, instead of settling on one area, you'll have the chance to visit many destinations that make up the region, such as Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki and Oslo.
Land of the Midnight Sun
From a cruising standpoint, perhaps no place better captures the essence of Scandinavia cruising than Norway, a progenitor of modern cruising that has a sailing heritage dating back to the Vikings. Due to the country's high latitude, from late May to late July the sun never completely descends beneath the horizon in areas north of the Arctic Circle, which is why the country has the moniker "Land of the Midnight Sun." Conversely, from late November to late January, daylight hours are very short. Luckily, Scandinavia's cruise season runs mainly from May through September.
The Norwegian coast is known for an ever-changing landscape of fjords and snow-capped peaks, along with the quaintness of small fishing villages. Some of the cruise lines operating along the Norwegian coast will go up as far as Kirkenes and Nordkapp—the North Cape—both well above the Arctic Circle, where you might get a glimpse of the famous Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis, the light phenomena seen in the sky that display dazzling colors from green to red.
The exhilarating feeling travelers experience at the awesome natural spectacle that is Scandinavia carries over into the magnificent cities. Take Copenhagen, for instance. The Danes are a cheerful bunch, so much so that Denmark consistently ranks as the happiest country in the world.
One of Copenhagen's most popular attractions is Tivoli Gardens, a famous amusement park that opened in 1843. An adult ticket costs 85 Danish kroner, which translates to about $18. Copenhagen, albeit a happy city, is also an expensive one. (Think $10 beers and $7 cappuccinos.)
When your ship slips into port, however, it's well worth it to splurge on a nice meal, seeing how the cuisine of Scandinavia has come a long way. Copenhagen, for instance, boasts the 10th best restaurant in the world—Noma—according to the London-based magazine Restaurant London.
While a meal might cost a little extra on land, think of all the money saved by visiting Scandinavia via cruise ship. The lousy exchange rate is common knowledge now, and it's even worse in places like Norway and Denmark where one kroner equals around two U.S. dollars. However, U.S. travelers will get a kick out of Sweden and Iceland where the U.S. dollar still goes a long way. (As of March 2008, one U.S. dollar bought 75 kroner, a 20 percent increase in buying power from where the Icelandic kroner was just a short time ago. )
If Iceland's currency isn't enough to attract Americans, the unspoiled landscape seals the deal. In 2007, the United Nations ranked Iceland the world's best place to live—bumping Norway out of the top spot. For a country as cold as Iceland, the somewhat surprising favorite activity is outdoor swimming and bathing, and any tourist will want to take a dip in the geothermally heated Blue Lagoon, with its smoky blue waters that are said to be beneficial for the skin.
Venice of the North
One of the more spectacular Scandinavian cities is Stockholm, Sweden's capital, which is so beautiful and alluring that it's often called the "Venice of the North." A must is a visit to the Nordic Light Hotel's Absolut Icebar, which, as the name might suggest, is a bar in which everything is made out of ice, from the chairs to the glasses. (The vodka still comes in liquid form.)
It used to be that only a few cruise lines operated in Scandinavia, and most of those were lines unfamiliar to Americans. The advent of Europe as the hottest cruising region changed all that. Just eight years ago, Royal Caribbean based one ship in Europe with a capacity of 1,800 passengers. Next year, by comparison, Royal Caribbean will have eight ships plying European waters, with capacity to carry 19,600 passengers.
The mix of ships has also changed. Now, luxury, premium and mass-market ships are operating Scandinavian itineraries because of heightened demand. But with any region that has such a wealth of natural land beauty, it's best explored on small ships that have the ability to get passengers up close and personal.