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Cruising: Scandinavia

Ferry Tale

What these skeptics fear is a bare-bones car-ferry trip turns out to be a luxury cruise

June 23, 1996|KEN BARON | Baron is a freelance writer based in New York City

OSLO — Sitting in our rented Ford Escort beneath the indifferent eye of Oslo's royal palace, my wife, Anja, and I were studying our dog-eared Baedeker's for answers.

We had a decision to make. Drive 170 miles to Goteborg, Sweden, then hop a three-hour ferry to Denmark, or take a 13-hour ferry ride from Oslo through the Skagerrak, a broad arm of the North Sea, directly to Hirtshals, Denmark.

For me--landlubber extraordinaire--a boat is like a dentist's chair. The less time you're there, the better. I voted for Goteborg. Anja, while more inclined to sea travel, had little desire to spend 13 hours on a car ferry, glued to a wooden bench eating snack-bar food.

We folded up the map and aimed the car south. Five minutes later we succumbed to logic (and rush-hour traffic). A long ferry trip was preferable to a nighttime drive that would wear us out for days.

Anja called the travel agent, a perky-sounding woman named Sonja who was only too happy to outline our sailing options. It turned out that there were three boats departing from Oslo that fit our schedule. The cheapest fare Sonja could find was $140 for the two of us, the car, and a sleeping compartment.

"What about without the sleeper?" I asked, eyeing the Escort's back seat. "No go," Anja relayed. "You have to take a sleeper." It was a racket, to be sure, but we were too tired to fight. Anja surrendered up the credit card number. "Well, at least we'll sleep," she said, smiling. I said nothing, my mind already envisioning car-ferry accommodations: a large room filled with bunk beds and Finnish fishermen.

Our boat was called the Color Festival. It was part of the Oslo-based Color Line fleet and roughly the size of one of Jupiter's moons. Anja took one look at the floating leviathan and got excited. I pointed out the huge line of trucks waiting to board and told her to calm down. Suffering awaited.

After driving onto the boat and parking in that maniacal "Closer! Closer! Closer!" manner that so typifies car ferries and their captains' desire to maximize every inch of cargo space, we set off to find our "room." For $20 extra we had chosen to sleep above the car park level. I couldn't imagine the carbon monoxide dungeons that awaited those who decided to save money.

As we walked down carpeted hallways following a uniformed maid, I had to admit that things looked far better than I expected. But, then, my hopes were low. The maid inserted an electronic key, then two distinct sounds could be heard. The first was the door clicking open; the second was our jaws dropping to the floor. There before us was not just a "sleeping compartment" but a room. A real hotel room! A hotel room with a giant double bed, a bathroom with a shower, a stereo, a window the size of a small movie screen and an unrestricted private view of the passing fiords.

Anja and I looked at each other, dumbfounded. Then it hit us. We were on a cruise ship!

Now, we weren't what you'd call cruise people. We didn't believe in the Love Boat. We weren't British. And we weren't octogenarians. (All preconceptions we had regarding the cruising set.)

Furthermore, we hadn't signed on to a cruise; we were simply in transit, going from point A to point B. What had happened? Dropping her bag, Anja immediately set off to find out. Determined to be miserable, I sulked a good 30 seconds before following in hot pursuit.

Our first stop was the elevators. With nine floors to cover--six with entertainment possibilities (not counting one's sleeping level)--we quickly discovered that elevators are indispensable to cruising. Before too long we found ourselves in a restaurant--no difficult task because, as we would shortly learn, the Color Festival had seven of them. And this was no snack bar. Rather, it was an elegant 450-seat dining room nestled in the rear of the ship where, through a wall of windows, one could watch the sun dip behind the receding Norwegian coast.

In addition to the other restaurants, we found four bars, three nightclubs, two stores, a small casino, a couple of saunas, a live floor show, and what could only be described as a large bar mitzvah room. There seemed to be so much to see that we began to wonder if 13 hours would be enough time.

The Color Festival was a floating country club. And, as we later learned, it is the norm in ferry travel in these parts, rather than the exception. There are dozens of cruise lines offering overnight excursions through the Baltic and the North seas. And this not only includes intra-Scandinavian travel, but also trips to and from England, the Netherlands, Iceland and Russia.

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