Bothnia & Baltic Cruise

22 June 2023

From Skuleberget, looking out at Swedish pine forests and deep blue bays near Örnsköldsvik.
This itinerary was the most "off-the-beaten path" I'd ever seen for a European cruise. Except for the Helsinki start and the Hamburg finish, I confess I'd never heard of any of the dozen destinations. (See map below.)

Why did I take this unusual cruise?  
I got a bargain, especially for upscale Silversea.
I wanted to see more of the northern part of Scandinavia.
I like to visit obscure "undiscovered" destinations.
It was a smooth way to tour here without DIY hassles.

My big geography lesson was the Gulf of Bothnia to the west of Finland. I love geography but forgot, if I ever knew, about this big body of water.

The north part is the Bay of Bothnia and the south part is the Sea of Bothnia. Taken together = Gulf of Bothnia.

Some sources call the Gulf of Bothnia "part of" or "an arm of" the Baltic Sea. So maybe the whole expanse of water is the Baltic, and the Gulfs of Bothnia and Finland are just subdivisions of the Baltic?

In dissent: Nobody living near the Gulf of Mexico calls it the Atlantic Ocean. Most online sources say it is "connected to" the Atlantic Ocean, although I was surprised to see a few do equate the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. Alas, the ontological ambiguities of geography!


"Lovely," to use a word I picked up from Brits, describes this cruise. It did not have jaw-dropping sights like the epic cliffs in the Faroe Islands or the King George Waterfall in the Kimberley, but I was not expecting to be blown away. Instead, we saw, as you will see in the highlight photos that follow:

pretty, interesting, neat Nordic towns and
pretty, pristine, serene Nordic nature.

Helsinki, Finland 

This time people in Helsinki seemed friendlier than those I met twenty years ago. I had to spend time shopping for another warm layer, but even that went well. Above is part of Esplanadi Park in front of our hotel, with a pigeon perched on the head of Johan Ludvig Runeberg, a poet who authored Finland's national anthem.

Finland is famous for its odd obsession with heavy metal. Sunday afternoon these young Finnish soldiers offered a free concert in the park. Not extreme heavy metal, more like hard rock classics. And not bad.

Ulko Island, Finland

Our first stop was little Ulko Island (aka Ulko-Tammio) in the Gulf of Finland — less than six miles (10 km) from Russia! I enjoy exploring solo instead of walking with a group and this island was perfect for meandering around on your own.

During the wars against the Russians in the early 1940s, a Finnish outpost here had anti-aircraft stations, searchlights, and watch towers, along with cannons and other ammunition. 

Loved the parts that were overgrown with moss and the entrance to the cave used to protect the Finnish military against Russian bombing in 1943-44.

Örö Island, Finland

Small Örö Island was an even more important military island than Ulko. For one hundred years, Örö was closed to civilians. It opened as a national park in 2015 and you can now see the old barracks, heavy guns, and fortifications. Above is the old naval observation tower as well as a photo to remember my walk around part of the island.

Rauma, Finland

Our first visit to a Finnish town (beyond Helsinki) was to Rauma (pop. 38,000). Its old town had hundreds of wood structures built in medieval times and a historic Church of the Holy Cross dating from 1512. 

I especially liked the sculptures created by local resident Kerttu Horila of the woman worshipping in church and a woman waiting on a bench. Also, after a large sample, Rauma may win my award for the best pastries in Finland.

Kalajoki, Finland

Farther north we next stopped at Kalajoki, a small town (pop. 12,000) that is a popular tourist destination for Finns.

With the man who showed me how to use an electric bike. I'd been curious what they were like and — despite the uncomfortable narrow seat — it was fun once I got the hang of it.

We biked through pine forests and some slightly sandy ground but when we arrived at the sand dunes, happily, we stayed on the boardwalk.

That evening we got to hear Riikka Ylivieskalainen beautifully play the kantele (or kannel), a traditional instrument for folk music in Finland. She is shown above with one of her students.

Oulu, Finland

Near the top of the Gulf of Bothnia, Oulu (pop. 200,000) is the most northern city in Finland. (See map above.) Oulu is the largest city in the world (outside Russia) at this high latitude. Conditions are often harsh: Five months a year the average daily temperature is below freezing with little or no sunshine! But on our sunny day in June, all I needed was a jacket.

Standing guard at the Market Square, this stylized statue of a stocky policeman (Toripolliisi) is a city symbol and obligatory photo op.

At the Oulu Cathedral (Lutheran), this youth choir was being photographed. Over two-thirds of all Finns are at least nominally members of the Lutheran Church, but church attendance is low and, like most of Europe, the country is increasingly secular.

Vaasa, Finland

Finland was part of Sweden for over 600 years until 1809 when it became part of the Russian Empire as the Grand Duchy of Finland. Some coastal cities and town across the Bothnia from Sweden have large Swedish-speaking populations. In Vaasa (pop. 68,000), for example, one out of four are native speakers of Swedish. Some nearby towns have large majorities who speak Swedish.  

When the transfer buses were delayed, I was able to slip off the ship and hitchhike into Vaasa. I explored the city center, especially around main square where musicians were playing and residents were out enjoying the fairly warm, sunny skies. 

In the bloody Finnish civil war of 1918 between the Marxist Red Guards and the anti-socialist White Guards, Vaasa was a stronghold of the winners who opposed Marxism. This "Statue of Freedom" honors those who fought against Marxism.

As we cruised along the coast, the captain threaded our route through the tens of thousands of islands (and the often-narrow ship channels) in the Finnish archipelago. Most islands are uninhabited.

I needed a drone for an aerial view to capture the vast sprinkling of islands and islets. This photo above does not convey that at all, but it offers a sample.

A friend wrote that they loved watching us weave through the archipelago in the late afternoon when the "white/silvery mid-summer sunlight" slowly gave way to sunset.

A majority of our stops were in Finland but, after Vaasa, we waived "good-bye" to the Finns and went across the Bothnia to Sweden.

Örnsköldsvik, Sweden

On Skule Mountain (Skuleberget), I was lazy and took the ski lift to the top for clear views of miles of pine forests and the Gulf of Bothnia.

Our ship, Silversea's Silver Wind, docked near the center of Örnsköldsvik.

This unique Örnsköldsvik apartment building is called Ting1 (Thing1). It won architecture awards for its innovations but was also called Sweden's "ugliest new construction" in 2013. I like it.

Gotska Sandön, Sweden

Out of the Gulf of Bothnia and near the center of the Baltic Sea, this little island is a Swedish national park. We had a nice afternoon hiking around the island. When I went off on my own to explore, I arrived at this very long beach but eventually made it back to the lighthouse and the nearby zodiacs.

Kuressaare, Saaremaa, Estonia

Saaremaa is Estonia's largest island by far, and the island's small but charming capital is Kuressaare (pop. 20,000).

This gate and watchtower are for Kuressaare Castle, dating from the 1300s. The castle houses the Saaremaa Museum which had a large, moving exhibition focusing on life during oppressive Soviet occupation and the rapid move to embrace democracy and free markets after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

 Christiansø Island, Denmark

I was surprised that Denmark owns Christiansø and two other small islands this far east in the Baltic Sea. (See map above.) For centuries, Christiansø (aka Christiansoe) was a military outpost but now it gets a steady flow of curious tourists. It totals 55 acres, with a nice cafe, a school, a church, the old fortress, and a maximum of 90 residents most of whom live in apartments in that long yellow building above.

Walking the entire perimeter of an island is strangely satisfying.

One canon at the old fortress was pointing at the Silver Wind.

Kiel Canal

On our way to Hamburg to conclude the cruise, we took the shortcut through the Kiel Canal (98 km; 61 mi). Here is a screenshot I took of the live online cam showing our ship in the first lock.

The day gliding along the Kiel Canal past farms and villages felt exactly like a leisurely European river cruise.

The next morning we disembarked in Hamburg and our pleasant, novel cruise came to an end. Our ship was only half full (which was wonderful for the passengers) and Silversea has no plans to offer this itinerary again in the next few years. But, I'm glad I signed up and got to see so many "lovely" and "out of the way" places that I'm sure I would never have seen otherwise.