For three months of the year, by and large, the Baltic Sea is the best cruising ground in Europe. The winter ice melts off the fresh-water sea in spring and by late May this frozen carapace has become a distant memory. The Scandinavian land mass breaks the Atlantic weather systems meaning the area enjoys more than its share of warm sunshine, especially as the days are so long they never seem to end. To cap it all, the cruising grounds are, literally, an endless maze of islands, creating a wonderland for motor yachts.
The route I’ve always favoured to Sweden and the archipelagos from the UK is via the Kiel Canal. Built for the Kaiser’s battleships before WWI, this joins the River Elbe with the Baltic, crossing northern Germany with 50 miles of surprisingly pretty waterway. The canal is only about 350 miles from Dover, with the option of breaking the journey in Holland, for a night or two spent amongst the siren-like bright lights and picture-postcard waterways of Amsterdam.
On a busy day, the queue for entering the canal presents the shrewd observer with a lesson in international diplomacy. The Dutch manoeuvre uncompromisingly at the front. Danes and Swedes cleverly insinuate their yachts among the Netherlanders, while Germans shoulder their way through everybody, leaving only the Brits and a bemused Pole or two hanging back politely. The trick for a biggish boat is to understand that nobody will want you rafted up to them inside the lock, so if you press on positively but politely, you can often squeeze into the guinea seats by the time the lights turn green.
Idling out of the huge lock at the other end you enter a different dimension. After the windy, bustling madness of the Elbe and Kaiser Bill’s ditch, the Baltic seems positively tranquil. Tanned, smiling yacht crews wave you welcome as you exit Kiel Fjord after refuelling at Strande Marina. From here, you either square away for distant Stockholm and Helsinki, or make a 140-mile dash to Copenhagen.
A number of shorter hops are nicely spaced out for those who enjoy breaking their journeys frequently, but the first major stop on the road to Stockholm is Ystad, six hours or so at 25 knots from the Kiel Canal. Ystad features a modern marina with a fun little restaurant, overlooking a white-sand beach. It also boasts an 18th-Century opera house where I once grabbed the last two tickets for an evening of Mozart. The music was sparkling, the old gentleman next to us in his white tux and pink bow tie was charming, and the Champagne bubbled over. As we strolled back home through the medieval buildings in the evening shadows, three ladies dressed in ball gowns for the performance sauntered down the cobbled streets ahead of us. The young woman, her mother and her grandmother completed the turning of the wheel Mozart had set spinning. Sweden can be a cameo of civilisation.
so even if you are cruising at 25 knots it’s a long haul in a single day. Fortunately, when the Almighty designed Sweden, he dropped the skerry of Utklippan at the halfway point off the south-eastern corner, just before the long island of Öland. Utklippan on a sunny afternoon is about as good as life in nature gets. In the days when the sea still teemed with herring, the local fishermen built a refuge here, not quite out of sight of the mainland. These honest sons of the sea have been overtaken by history, but their deep-water harbour remains as a haven for yachts. Bird life is so unbothered by the ecologically aware Northlanders that you have to dodge the nests on an afternoon stroll. On my last visit, the midsummer sunset, after a day of intense blue and gold, was a kaleidoscope that went on until it melted into dawn. We carried our supper out onto the rocks with a group of Swedes who had rafted up to us. Someone produced a bottle of malt and, as the evening breeze died away, we drank to Nature and then to the sun itself, as it rose again in splendour over the distant land to the north.
Sail on a few hours more and Kalmar Castle appears ahead, impossibly exotic with its turquoise towers and domes. Like Ystad, Kalmar Guest Harbour is clean, has its own sauna and is virtually in the centre of town. After exploring the perfectly intact castle, a stroll through the old town will reward your efforts with a spot of lunch. The food here is terrific, especially if you like fish. I love my marinated herring, and the charming Postgatan restaurant serves a deliciously creamy rendition combined with capers, chives and egg yolk, atop a traditional open-faced sandwich. For dessert, sample the handmade pralines and truffles from local chocolatiers Johannas, paired with a strong coffee, and you’ll be pepped up for an afternoon stroll around the town. Old wooden houses painted in brave colours crowd together while roses pour over garden fences and hollyhocks stand riotous sentinel in the quiet streets. The sun seems always to shine on the old town.
Half a day north of Kalmar, you steer into paradise. The archipelago you are entering will take you hundreds of miles without your bow having to lift to a wave
Less traditionally, Scandinavia’s cities are rightly renowned for their very contemporary restaurants and some very fine hotels. Copenhagen’s Noma sparked a culinary wildfire in the form of new, extraordinary eateries that adhere to the peculiarly Nordic notion that dining out should stimulate every sense, and vigorously. Stockholm’s Grand Hôtel is a case in point, with its much-applauded Mathias Dahlgren restaurant. Here, you can choose from three dining experiences depending on your persuasion – Matbaren for a hands-off, informal bistro-style supper; Matsalen for smart, seasonal fine dining with drinks paired up, or Matbordet where you and up to nine friends can get more closely acquainted by cooking your meal together, around a communal table. Who needs a celebrity chef, after all?
Also worth a visit in Stockholm is the excellent Oaxen Krog, which was recently awarded a second Michelin star. Its exciting tasting menus perform some balletic culinary twists on traditional dishes with surprising results, such as reindeer in roasted red cabbage broth, and squid with parsley grilled fir cream and green strawberries.
Half a day north of Kalmar, you steer into paradise. The archipelago you are entering will take you hundreds of miles, all the way to Saint Petersburg and Mother Russia without your bow having to lift to a wave. There are so many islands with anchorages yet to be discovered that the pilot books have given up trying to describe them all. Simply drop the anchor, lower the tender, take a long line ashore and secure to a convenient rock or pine tree. Step ashore with the barbecue to stroll in primeval woodland, or to chum up with the ever-friendly Swedes and Finns whose numbers increase as you work north. If it’s solitude you want, you can find it on the small, outer skerries in company with only the eagles.
Once in the archipelago, Stockholm, with all the benefits of a capital city built on the sea, is only a few hours away. After a few days savouring the finest of northern culture, cast off, head out east to the yacht club at Sandhamn, then onwards through the Åland Islands to Helsinki. For the best accommodation in town, check into the iconic Hotel Kämp. Constructed by restaurateur Carl Kämp in 1887, the hotel soon established itself at the epicentre of Helsinki’s cultural and social scene, and it has never looked back. It would be a mistake to stay here without a visit to the spa, where you can experience a traditional Finnish sauna, a eucalyptus-fragranced steam room and a Turkish Hammam (vigorous stimulation is on the menu, yet again!), all of which guarantees you’ll leave feeling refreshed, revitalised and raring to go on to continue your trip.
The Finns invented the sauna, and for all the glossy glory of the latest smart hotel’s interpretations, nothing beats sitting on a wooden balcony on a private island at midnight with the sun dipping briefly below the pines on the next skerry, sipping a beer after a plunge into the cool Baltic as the birch fire crackles in the sauna oven of a log cabin. You can’t buy that in the basement of a five-star hotel, and you have to cruise there on your own boat.
For three months of the year, the Baltic Sea is the best cruising ground in Europe — an endless maze of islands, creating a wonderland for motor yachts
Scandinavia is not short on hotels of grandeur and restaurants serving up the latest gourmet delights. You won’t have to venture far from your mooring to discover the delights of the Nordic capitals
ROYAL SWEDISH YACHT CLUB
The Royal Swedish Yacht Club runs the Sandhamn Guest Harbour, on Sandön Island on the outskirts of Stockholm’s archipelago. There are guest berths for 180 boats on the Sandhamn side, and a further 200 at the adjacent Lökholmen, in addition to temporary moorings. Amenities include electricity, showers, saunas and summer camp activities for children and youths.
Tel: +46 70 213 2068
Stockholm’s Grand Hôtel has occupied a prime position on the Norrmalm waterfront since 1874. In addition to being the residence of choice for elite visitors to the city, the hotel’s views across to Gamla Stan (the picturesque old town) make it a popular lunch spot, with a range of dining options including the two-Michelin-starred Mathias Dahlgren restaurant.
Tel: +46 (0)8 679 3500
Also boasting two Michelin stars, the superb Oaxen Krog restaurant takes inspiration from the culinary traditions of its namesake island, Oaxen, in Stockholm’s archipelago. The deliciously inventive dishes feature locally and sustainably sourced ingredients, flavoured with wild herbs from Djurgården. Choose from a six- or 10-course tasting menu, with optional wine pairings.
Tel: +46 (0)8 5515 3105
Once the commercial harbour for Tuborg brewery, as alluded to by the giant beer bottles marking the end of each pier, Tuborg Havn has been developed into a full facility marina with all the amenities you’d expect, including electricity, Wi-Fi, laundry and refueling. A part of Copenhagen’s affluent Hellerup region, Tuborg Havn is also home to the Royal Danish Yacht Club and Waterfront Shopping centre.
Tel: +45 2013 3787
Located within walking distance of Nyhavn harbour, Copenhagen’s most luxurious residence exudes elegance throughout its 90 rooms and suites. Start the day with a spectacular breakfast spread, which is served in the palatial glass-ceilinged Palm Court, spend the day in the tranquil spa, and be sure to stop off for an aperitif at the in-house Champagne bar before enjoying dinner at the French-inspired Marchal restaurant.
Tel: +45 3312 0095
No trip to Copenhagen would be complete without a visit to the world-renowned Noma restaurant. Responsible for turning the spotlight onto the Scandinavian food scene with its inventive dishes, exciting presentation and inspired philosophy, Noma has become a must-visit destination for foodie enthusiasts across the globe. Be sure to book your table in advance, and you won’t be disappointed.
Tel: +45 3296 3297
NJK YACHT CLUB
Finland’s largest and oldest yacht club, the NJK clubhouse on Blekholmen island is one of Helsinki’s iconic buildings — its cream-coloured wooden veneer and green turrets imparting an inviting welcome to the city as you cruise into South Harbour. Fifty berths are reserved for visiting yachts, and amenities include a restaurant, private dining rooms, showers, sauna and washing facilities.
Tel: +358 (0)9 675 007
The iconic Hotel Kämp offers a range of rooms and suites, with rates starting from £130 for a deluxe king-sized room. The recently refurbished rooms feature lavish interiors with marble bathrooms and mahogany furniture, befitting of the notable clientele who have stayed here throughout its 125-year history. Enhance your stay with a visit to the spa to experience a traditional Finnish sauna.
Tel: +358 (0)9 576 111
The intimate Ask restaurant is situated less than 10-minutes walk from Helsinki’s delightful Pohjoissatama North Harbour, making it perfectly situated for a spot of lunch after browsing the local craft markets. A daily set menu is served alongside carefully selected beverages. Ingredients include game, wild fish, foraged goods and products from small, local, organic and biodynamic farms.
Tel: +358 40 581 8100
Veneentekijäntie 7, 00211 Helsinki
T: +358 (0)20 510 10
SUNDAL YACHTS, NORWAY
Kalvetangveien 89 A, 3132 Husoysund
T: +47 4144 4000