On a recent trip to Riga, Latvia, I brought friends who wanted to see some of the region to make the most of our trip. Since there are many great cities along the Baltic Sea coast, Riga being one of them, we checked to see the ferry situation. Perhaps we could take a day trip to another city on the Baltic, such as Tallinn, Helsinki, Turku, or Gdańsk. Well, Riga offers no ferries to any of those destinations, or actually to any destination save Stockholm, Sweden; so Stockholm it was.
The company that offers the ferry service is the Tallink Group, operating out of Tallinn, Estonia; in addition to the Tallink line of Baltic ferries, they also own the Silja line, a Finnish company operating between Finland and Sweden.
I’d heard many stories and rumors regarding the Tallink ferry from Riga to Stockholm from some of my local friends. From it being a drunk Lithuanian seaborne haven to the crew perpetually dismissing calls of “man overboard!” – I must admit, I was intrigued.
My friends and I decided to leave on a Monday afternoon; since the ferry is an overnight ordeal, about 17 hours in length, we would arrive Tuesday morning in Stockholm. We are more budget travelers, so we opted for the most economical board we could find; the Tallink ferries have numerous room options, priced all the way up to €824 ($1105), but we split one B-class cabin on the interior of the ship (no windows) for the four of us, at a relative bargain – €131 ($175) to split 4 ways. Originally when we planned the trip, we were only going to be three people on this ferry, and we were happy to know that there are shared B-class cabins, where a single person could book a bed in a 4-person cabin for only €33 ($44), exactly a quarter of the cost.
Our friend Normunds took us from our hotel to the Riga Passenger Terminal located in the heart of the city, just north of the Old Town on the banks of the Daugava River. The ferry terminal is a simple affair, since this Tallink cruise is the most substantial option that docks there, I imagine. Inside about 45 minutes prior to departure, I went to a machine which gave me a numbered ticket, and then I waited about 10 minutes for my number to be called. Once it was my turn, the lady was able to validate my reservation by my passport, and I was given four boarding passes and four beer coupons, which gave us 50% off the price of one beer onboard. We then immediately turned around, took the nearby escalator to the mezzanine area, and went through an unmanned checkpoint which scanned our tickets and allowed us across the gangway onto the ship.
On the Tallink
Stepping off the ramp onto the ferry – which doesn’t seem to do it justice, as this ferry can hold up to 2,500 passengers – we found ourselves in a grand-looking atrium on the 5th level which had hallways leading to all over and a gold-plated staircase with mirrors all around; this is totally not the Staten Island ferry, that’s for sure. The ship was named the M/S Romantika, one of two ships that alternate each day providing daily service to and from Riga and Stockholm (the other ship being the M/S Isabelle). We got lost, certainly, but made it to our room – the very last one at the rear of the ship – eventually.
Upon opening the door, we were amused by how cramped it was, but weren’t bothered by it; coming from New York City, we’re more or less accustomed to shoebox-sized living quarters. The room was spartan, with a tiny wet-bathroom as soon as you enter, a coat rack opposite that, a lilliputian desk (I’m running out of adjectives for small), an overhead mounted television, and then the beds taking up the rest of the space. One bottom bed is fixed as a couch, and opposite that is a wall-mounted pull-down bed (what we in the U.S. call a Murphy bed), as well as two additional pull-down beds above, for a total of four. We put our stuff away, and then it was off to see the ship.
First, we went back to the entryway area where we initially boarded the ship so that we could get our bearings, as well as to understand where all the essential areas for us on the ship were (bars). This 17- or 18-hour cruise seemed like it would be spectacular with all the options we had on board the M/S Romantika: an outdoor Sun Bar, a sauna, conference center, the Space Disco & Sports Bar, the aptly-named Pub, the Starlight Palace Night Club & Casino, the duty-free supermarket, the duty-free parfumerie, a reception desk, currency exchange counter, the Tango Bar & Dancing area, a video games area, a children’s rec center, plenty of outdoor deck space to smoke and stare at the Baltic, and several dining options, including the Piazza, Café Promenade, Fast Food 25 H, the Aperitif Bar, Buffet Tallink, and Romantika à la Carte.
The Tallink ferry was just getting underway as we left our room, so we headed up towards the top deck, to the Sun Bar located in the rear of the 9th level. The ship pushed off from the shore, and we spent the greater portion of the next hour staring backwards at a fading Riga as we cruised north out of the Daugava River towards the Baltic Sea. We passed dozens of factories and coal operations outside of Riga, which somehow looked beautiful in its own way; viewing it from above and away made it look like buildings that I would have liked to design for a model train set, when I was into that sort of thing.
It got rather chilly out on the open Sun Bar deck, so we went in to wander the maze that were the Romantika’s hallways. The first hour or two after leaving the terminal seems to be a good time to meander and explore anywhere on the interior of the ship, as most other passengers were apparently either on the deck, where they’d stay until land disappeared, or in their rooms until dinnertime. As such, we felt as if we had the ship to ourselves, and were able to check out the empty interiors of places we would hit later, like the bars, restaurants, and the massive, two-story Starlight Palace.
Well, sleep hadn’t happened for us much the previous night, since we were out hopping around from bar to bar in Vecrīga, Riga’s Old Town, until 6am, and we woke up that morning at around 9am; we were beat, so we decided to take a nap for several hours until it was time to have dinner and properly check out the live-performance areas. That nap lasted but an hour, as Aaron and I got rudely awakened by the other two of us, Gian and Joseph, who were excited as they had just found live music. I thought to myself, fuck it, why not? Let’s check this out.
Aaron and I joined Joseph and Gian down in the massive, two-floor Starlight Disco & Casino performance space, which had a stage where a cover band was performing a Lady Gaga song. It was great to see, as we seemed to be the only Americans onboard – the rest were Latvian, Lithuanian, Russian, and Swedish. We had drink after drink, along with some awfully-unchewable beef jerky. There was an intermission where an embarrassing-to-watch raffle was being held, with prizes that consisted of alcohol in all its embodiments. Behind us were several old folks trying their luck at a hand of poker. This was absolutely wonderful.
We started to get hungry, and before our gums began bleeding from our meager attempt at jerky mastication, it was decided that we would head off in search of sustenance. We went to look at the different options, such as the Piazza, Café Promenade, Fast Food 25 H, and Buffet Tallink, and we were shocked at their prices; some of them up to €28 ($38) for a plate. Well, this was a good way to brace ourselves and transition from Riga to the expectantly-exorbitant prices that awaited us in Scandinavia. We went back to the Fast Food 25 H place, which was a simple deli-style affair serving simple plates and cold sandwiches, and bought some food; Aaron brought out some dried meats and a smoked herring that he had purchased earlier that day at the market during our walk around Riga’s Old Town to supplement our meal.
After eating, we took showers in our little wet-bath, which was a bit of a chore, let me tell you. You are provided about 2 sq. feet in a triangle-shaped space in the corner. Water runs out and covers the entire bathroom floor, though it’s angled. There is a squeegee provided with which you can try to catch any runaway water, though it’s best to start after you turn off the shower. After we all were freshened up, we headed back out to check out the bar scene.
The ship has several bars and clubs, which I mentioned before. However, since it was a Monday night, and in a shoulder season, the ship was empty and some of the places were not open. We did spend most of our time in the Space Disco, which was a long bar that ran the length of a good portion of the ship’s 7th level. There is the bar on one side, seating on the other, and a dj booth and a gated dance area at the very back. We stayed there until 3am or so, and then hit the sack.
The next morning, Tuesday, the ship was scheduled to dock in Stockholm’s Frihamnen port at around 10:30am. We woke up and gathered up our belongings, and then we went out onto the deck about an hour or so before arrival. The ship was passing through the Stockholm Archipelago, the group of about 25,000 islands and islets east of Sweden’s capital city, and it was nice to see the holiday homes that some of these private islands host. It was a bit overcast that morning, and chilly as well, but it was refreshing and worth it to watch Stockholm come into view.
Soon we were there, the ship was punctual in a surprising way. What was even more surprising was the way in which we disembarked the ship – there was no frantic fighting or overcrowding by the doors. About 10 minutes prior to arriving, we stood out in our hallway, where everyone else was, with our luggage. When the doors opened, we quickly moved out, and it seemed faster to unload this ship than any plane with a quarter the passengers. Well, we’d made it to Stockholm, where we’d spend the next 2 and a half days before venturing on to Copenhagen and then back to Riga.