As I write this, Tamera and I are seated in Seats E & F, Row 2 on SAS flight 2691 departing rainy Copenhagen for sunny Venice. We’ll spend a night at the Hilton Garden Hotel Mestre San Giuliano before meeting our Backroads team leaders tomorrow for a tour of Venice, after which we will board Ponant’s Le Lyrial.
Over the next week, Le Lyrial will take us throughout the Adriatic, and weather-permitting, we’ll cycle each day along the coast in Croatia and Montenegro. “It’s raining all week all over Europe,” a Danish friend told us over dinner last night at her home in Copenhagen. We’re hoping for the best. If not, it will be interesting to see how Backroads handles the weather. Luckily, we have the ship as our floating boutique hotel, so taking shelter from the storm won’t be miserable. We’ll enjoy the trip, no matter what.
Copenhagen may appear an odd choice for a pre-cruise, especially seeing that our cruise is departing Venice, a two-hour flight south of the Danish capital. In fact, we spent little time in Copenhagen, opting for the south of Sweden instead, which is even farther removed from Venice. Why did we choose to spend our pre-cruise days so far away from our port of departure? Here are five reasons:
1) A Business Class ‘Bargain.’ I wrote several weeks ago how booking our business class flights through Copenhagen instead of directly to Venice saved us enough money to pay for an entire week in Scandinavia. That included our hotels, meals and flights to Venice – and back.
2) The U.S. dollar flexes its muscle. Trading at nearly ten Swedish crowns to the dollar, Sweden was cheaper than it was for all of the nine years that I lived there, from 2007 to 2016. Yes, heavily-taxed alcohol was still pricey, almost $10 for a pint of beer, but hotel rates were cheaper than they are in Asheville, and with much better amenities included. Breakfast, for example, featured not the styrofoam eggs that we find on many buffets in America but real, honest-to-goodness eggs. We enjoyed fresh-baked breads, freshly-squeezed orange juice and quality, non-processed foods. In a nutshell, Sweden is about quality experiences, so although Sweden is perceived as being expensive (or was before the rapid rise of the dollar) the country also presents good value. A delicious lunch for four in the hamlet of Viken, for example, was less than $50, with fresh fish and local potatoes, red cabbage, salad bar, dessert and coffee. And that included a 10 percent tip. Tamera and I remarked how Sweden was comparable in price to Asheville, and in the case of lunch, probably 50 percent less than we would have paid back home.
3) Visiting Sweden gave us two vacations in one. We had five full days in Scandinavia. As I had lived for nearly a decade in Helsingborg, we based camped there in a city-center hotel, the Elite Mollberg. The classic hotel was beautiful, and so was our junior suite, with tall ceilings, large windows and elegant furnishing. The lobby was impressive, but the bar was stunning.
Just staying in the hotel was in itself an experience, but we were also within steps of the county of Skåne’s central transportation hub, where we could hop on busses or trains to explore the region. Sweden’s public transportation system should be a world model. We found it easy, and inexpensive, to get around without a rental car.
On some days, we’d head up the coast to a town and walk back. On one of those days we visited one of my favorite coastal towns, the aforementioned Viken, where we had the $50 lunch with friends, then walked 12 miles back to Helsingborg. It was a gorgeous day, not particularly sunny, but not cold or rainy either. After a few hours of walking, we stopped along the way at what many in the region consider the best ice cream shop, Sofierokiosken, and later at a converted barn for a fika (a Swedish social institution that is somewhat like a coffee break).
On another day, we headed out for an hour on the bus to Mölle, a small town that marks the entrance of a national reserve known as Kullaberg, a beautiful coastal mountain region that is often referred to as “Little New Zealand” for its biodiversity and landscape. There in Mölle we found a restaurant that a local “recommended extremely,” Mölle Krukmakeri. The restaurant was a combination of gourmet pizza parlor and ceramics gallery/workshop. We were fortunate to find a table for two in the busy restaurant. We ordered our pizza and asked to try a local beer. “You can try my father’s beer,” said the bartender/cashier with a smile. She held up two bottles, Miss Behave and Four Stroke, both IPAs. How often does that happen? They were delicious, as was the pizza – and the setting.
After dinner, we got back on the bus and made our way to a town called Lerberget, where we disembarked and walked along the coast as the sun was setting on the sea. The coastline was stunning. After about an hour we made it to the home of friends, where we shared a bottle of champagne that I had picked up at the Systembolaget, the Swedish-run liquor store, and the only establishment in Sweden where you can buy strong beer (over 3.5 percent alcohol), wine and spirits. I took to calling it the Green Church when I lived in Sweden, and like a church, its operating hours were limited, necessitating studied planning for what you might want to consume over the weekend.
During our time in Sweden, Tamera and I logged more than 40 miles of hiking. Probably the most beautiful hike was in a forest, named unpronounceably for those not Swedish, Pålsjö Skog. The forest is within easy walking distance from Helsingborg’s city center, and it presents the type of landscape that Frederick Law Olmsted would have appreciated. Olmsted was the famous landscape architect who designed Asheville’s Biltmore Estate and New York’s Central Park. Pålsjö Skog was the type of forest that seeped into the soul. It was restorative, exactly what you want when overcoming jet lag and the stress of a busy life back home. Scandinavia was one vacation. Venice, Croatia, Montenegro, Ponant and Backroads would be the other, which is what I will cover this week on Avid Cruiser.
4) Dependability, efficiency and quality. One comforting aspect of starting the trip in Scandinavia, instead of Italy, is the dependability and efficiency. Though Italy is full of life and I adore the country, I’m bracing myself for the chaos. Whereas in shops or institutions in Sweden, you typically take a number from a machine to queue up, in Italy, there is no such thing as a queue. It’s a free-for-all. Orderly Northern Europe versus frenetic Southern Europe. In Copenhagen, we could board a train at the airport and get to almost anyplace in Denmark or Sweden – and pay for it with a convenient app that also gave us timetables and delays, of which there were few. Mobile phone and data service was ubiquitous and dependable. After all, Sweden is the nation that gave us Skype and Spotify and much more – a digital kingdom. Sweden’s food also was of high quality. I have heard that Sweden prohibits the use of more than 1,000 ingredients that are legal, and commonly used, in the United States, where big food companies deliberately poison our population for profit. We ate no processed foods during our stay in Sweden, because there were little, if any, available. Being in Scandinavia was what I envision our forthcoming Ponant experience to be like, high quality and hassle-free. We’ll see.
5) To breathe in beauty and see old friends. Sweden, and the whole of Scandinavia, in fact, seeps into the soul. I find myself lacking the adequate skills to convey the emotion. You feel it, though, in the flicker of candles that are in nearly every restaurant and coffee shop. The overall feeling is one of soothing instead of sensory-overload. You feel it too in the forests where the flowers and songbirds make you think if heaven were like this, it would not be too bad a place to be. Being in Scandinavia also allowed me to connect with friends who I have not seen in more than three years, and seeing them left me feeling warm and welcomed.
As I conclude this piece, our flight is preparing to descend into Venice. Over my right shoulder, I look out the window and see the snow-capped Dolomites. With one adventure behind us, we are preparing for another, different in all regards. Tomorrow we board Le Lyrial, with rain in the forecast. I can’t wait to see how the week unfolds.
We flew American Airlines and Finnair Business Class from Asheville, North Carolina to Copenhagen, Denmark. Service was great, food was fantastic, and the drinks were memorable.