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COLUMN ONE : Ferry Rides a Practical and Posh Way of Life : Scandinavia's floating palaces offer transportation and a place to party. But Estonia sinking raises concern over the design that sparked the trend.


TURKU, Finland — Gunborg Staffas, a white-haired day-tripper from Stockholm, didn't think twice this week about boarding a Finnish car ferry just hours after the Estonia sank in Europe's worst maritime disaster this century.

"I go three times a year, maybe more," said Staffas, matter-of-factly describing her itinerary--an all-day ride from Stockholm to Turku, a bit of shopping in this well-kept former Finnish capital, then an overnight ride back.

A couple of search helicopters were cutting through the darkening sky over Turku's harbor as Staffas spoke; the wind was whipping flags to and fro.

Somewhere far out on the water, south of the Finnish coast, Coast Guard vessels were then searching for the wreck of the Estonia, and about 800 missing passengers, now presumed dead. The hunt was being hampered by high winds and rough seas.

News reports, meantime, were homing in on the design of the passenger ferries--the so-called "Ro-Ros"--that ply these routes, and on persistent and deeply troubling questions about their safety.

Still, Staffas and the 2,200 others waiting to catch the huge Serenade--a ferry grander than the Estonia but similarly designed--were unperturbed.

"It was the first accident on this route," Staffas said. "I think these ferries are safe enough."

The Germans have their autobahns, New Yorkers their subway. Many cultures have their distinctive ways of getting from here to there, and for the sea-girded and island-rich Scandinavians, the way to go is unquestionably the passenger ferry.

Ferries in this part of the world are nothing like the clanging, utilitarian tubs that haul people and cars in North America.

They are luxurious, ubiquitous and often cheaper than the lowly inter-city bus. More like cruise ships than common-carrier barges, they constitute a unique way of life in the Baltic and North sea regions, giving people the simple sensations of freedom and pleasure that an American weekend road warrior might get, say, from a Harley-Davidson.

Which is why, last year, more than 12 million Finns and Swedes sailed the treacherous Baltic aboard passenger ferries--almost enough to constitute one trip for every man, woman and child in the two countries. Another 1.4 million traveled the narrow strait between Helsinki and Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. That figure is expected to swell to 2 million in 1994.

A quick glance at a map helps explain the draw of the sea for Nordic peoples: Norway and Sweden, for instance, are essentially a peninsula, with thousands of miles of coast that have beckoned since ancient times, forging a permanent bond with the water.

"There is a true love of the sea here," said Jaan Kross, 74, the leading novelist in Estonia, a nation that considers itself culturally a part of Scandinavia. "The sea is part of (the) Estonian identity."

The region's long, natural affinity for water has, since the 1950s, been cannily exploited by shipping company executives who have turned what were once simple conveyances into extravagant pleasure palaces where five-star facilities are offered at bargain-basement prices, subsidized by sales of duty-free alcohol and cigarettes.

"These ferries are the most luxurious in the world, I can assure you," said Per Forsskahl, managing director of the Finnish Ship Owners Assn. "They have games and shows and shops and dance floors and 15 restaurants. They are the biggest hotels in the world."

Indeed, the Serenade, owned by Silja Line, Finland's largest ferry operator, is to a typical American-style car ferry what the Concorde might be to a Cessna.

The ship towered majestically over Turku's harbor Thursday evening, white and gleaming, its silhouette evoking images of the grand old days of ocean travel, of furs, champagne and elbow-length gloves. Up and down its boarding ramps, however, moved ordinary, middle-class Scandinavians, clad in leisure wear and pushing baby strollers.

The interior of the ferry more than measured up to the high expectations: There were a four-story, glass-roofed atrium; glass-bubble elevators; luxury shops; tropical-hardwood floors; colorful banners, and an assortment of sidewalk-style cafes.

There were two saunas--the larger done in the style of a Roman bath, the smaller set amid the palm trees, pools, fake rocks and waterfalls of a mock forest grotto.

The tables in the main discotheque were handmade of blue Italian marble. Four of five cabins had that most prized shipboard luxury: a window.

One of the most surprising things about this opulence is how cheaply it can be had.

While an American might save all year for a Caribbean cruise aboard such a ship, a Scandinavian traveler can bask the hours away for as little as $20 for a simple deck ticket.

Cabins cost more, and the big ferry operators require overnight travelers to pay for sleeping accommodations. But even then, prices are startlingly low. Forsskahl said cabins normally start at about $32 and range to $219 for five-star luxury.

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