MS Birka Stockholm Old Town

Bounty on the Baltic

With fierce competition and discerning clients, just how does a cruise company make sure their guests keep coming back? We asked the crew on board the MS Birka Stockholm on one of its 22-hour cruises from Stockholm to Mariehamn on the Åland Islands. And the guests had a thing or two to say as well.

Text: Campbell Black Photo: Ann Törnkvist

As autumn edges toward winter, dusk is fast approaching already at 5pm, draping Stockholm’s Baltic seafront in a melancholy light. But the guests boarding the MS Birka Stockholm are anything but sad. Many are repeat customers, back for another spin on the dance floor, scrub in the spa, or sweep of the seafood buffet.

David Burchmore, 76, from Shanghai and his Stockholm-based son Mark, 47, are on their second trip with the ship, which will soon ferry its passengers through the expansive archipelago. It’s getting dark now, but on the return from Åland tomorrow, the bare spits of land in the outer archipelago will give way to an ever-denser cluster of verdant islands, revealing small communities, jetties and boats. Many of the houses are red with white gables – a picture-perfect trademark of Sweden.

David and Marc Burchmore
David Burchmore, 76, from Shanghai and his Stockholm-based son Mark, 47.

“Last time, I found my dad on a deck chair in the morning just watching the islands go by. We don’t have archipelagos in Britain,” says Mark. "I've never seen anything like it,” says his father. "On board, the scenery always changes, while in town you're limited by how far, and how fast, you walk.”

They also praise the food on board. Last summer, they travelled with David’s Chinese wife. In coastal China, seafood is a big deal. "The seafood platter is one of the reasons I’m back,” says David. "My wife loved it. Fresh lobster, in particular, is not easy to get in Shanghai.”

MS Birka Stockholm Panorama

Another person who gives the seafood a top grade is Ann-Sofi Nyman, 61. "The seafood platter's a highlight. I was born on the west coast, and I know good seafood,” she says, throwing her hands into the air in delight.

"Every year we say we can’t possibly add more seafood,” Chief Purser Chatarina Israelsson later tells me. "But every year we do add more, and it all gets eaten. Then we use the shells to boil stock.”

Nils-Erik Norberg and Ann-Sofi Nyman
Nils-Erik Norberg and Ann-Sofi Nyman

Eat, party, socialise

Apart from the shrimps and oysters, passenger Ann-Sofi says the cruise is a great way to meet up with friends who live in other parts of Sweden. She travelled down to Stockholm this morning with her live-in partner Nils-Erik Norberg, 63, from Sundsvall, with a smooth transfer on board upon arrival. With friends all over the country, going on a cruise is a way to rally the troops.

"It saves us meeting up one-by-one in different places,” she explains.

And they prefer the weekday cruises, with slightly older passengers on average. "We’ve been young, too, and we know what it is to party. But our partying days are over,” they say, enjoying pre-dinner drinks in the piano bar. As a couple next to them leaves to go eat, a staff member quickly clears their beer glasses. "And that,” Ann-Sofi says, "that’s one reason I like this ship. They really keep it tidy.”

Later that evening, Ann-Sofi pops into the smoking room to speak with two young men who’ve treated themselves to a cigar each. Sitting deep in cognac-coloured Chesterfield armchairs, they chat happily with her and take a 'welfie' à trois.

Terassen Bar on MS Birka Stockholm 

Emil Flisbäck, 25, from Stockholm, sips his whiskey and explains this could be his 30th cruise. He likes the MS Birka Stockholm for several reasons. It’s clean, and the deco feels updated. He enjoys shorter cruises, plus the staff make an effort. "Last summer I was vegan, and they tried to make me a meal. It could have been better, but they tried, whereas a lot of other places give you a green salad and go, ‘That's vegan, right?’” he says.

"Like, ‘Here’s a green salad with bacon,’ and then they tell you to just pick out the bacon,” interjects his friend Mauricio Jalife, 32, with a laugh. He’s originally from Mexico City, and it’s his first Baltic cruise. "I heard about Åland, that it's beautiful, but I also wanted to have a bit of fun and meet different people,” he says.

Mona Alnashu and Muntaha Sabah
Mona Alnashu and Muntaha Sabah

Downstairs by the café, Mona Alnashu, 52, from Stockholm sits with her group of some 25 female friends. Later that evening, they all cram into one cabin to sing songs in Arabic, then hit the tax-free like almost everyone else on board. "We take cruises as a way to spend time together,” explains Mona. "And we like this ship because there is peace and quiet, and it suits our age group.”

One of the youngest on board might be Leo Birn, 8, who the next morning sits in the café assembling Legos from the shop.  “I’m eight and a half,” he adds. He and his mother Corrine, 36, jumped aboard in Mariehamn and are doing an Åland-Stockholm-Åland version of the cruise.  "We do the opposite of what the Swedes do,” explains Corrine, who’s treating Leo to a cruise during his autumn break. “We just felt this was more fun than sitting at home in our pyjamas.”

So far, Leo’s a fan. He’d never seen key cards before, nor the fold-down bunks in the cabin. He’d happily spend a week on board. 

Customer service is king

From 76- to 8.5-year olds, how does the ship manage to cater to all the guests? The key, says Chatarina, is to make sure any age group feels at home on board by offering different spaces and activities. They not only tailor different days of the week to different needs, but they make sure there are enough restaurants and bars on board to allow customers to find their place.

For the children, there are activities during the winter, Christmas, February and Easter holidays – Leo’s out of luck though, his break’s a week earlier than the Swedish one – plus during the long summers. “You know, that first week after summer, I sometimes look around and think, ‘Where did they all go?’” says Chatarina, as she shows me around the ship.

Leo and Corinne Birn
Leo and Corinne Birn

She keeps in touch with what customers want, not just by being available to them during the cruises but also by analysing customer surveys. Many still want the cruise liners to offer them the chance to dance. And not just any dance but "disband.”  While the literal translation is "dance band,” it’s more than that. It’s a Swedish cultural tradition – country ’n’ western-inspired bands, often with legions of fans, that secure a steady income by playing on the cruise ships that ply the Baltic Sea. Tonight it’s Callinaz’s turn, a band whose blonde and tattooed lead singer woos the crowd. Her oldest fan is a 92-year-old man who’s not shy of a slow dance now and then.

But dancing’s not for everyone. Upstairs there’s refuge in the newly renovated Terrassen bar, with jungle-print sofas and olive-green arm chairs. Vines snake across the ceiling that opens up in summer, turning the light-flooded space into a slice of the Mediterranean. In winter, Chatarina refers to it more as a "winter garden” and notes that the music’s always low, as this is the quiet bar.

"We can welcome one-and-a-half thousand guests on board. They have expectations of the cruise. And there are as many expectations as there are guests, so we have to cater to them. Here in Terassen they can relax,” she says, looking around her as guests chomp Swedish tapas. That’s why there’s a bounty of options on the cruise ship.

To one side lies a new wine bar where guests can book tastings. With its opulent dark wood and ceramic flooring in a geometric black and white pattern, the area feels like a slice of up-scale London. Well-stocked champagne fridges. Sparkling glasses.

From there, after a quick walk to the bow, the customers find the spa, with its salt scrubs, facials and bubble baths. Next door lies the Panorama bar, which continues the spa’s health theme with raw food snacks and fresh fruit drinks. This, too, is a haven.

"There are times when I come in here, and it’s full, but everyone’s silent,” Chatarina reflects. "Watching the view is meditative.”

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