For us, 2019 was the “Year of the Canal”. We spent much of the year cruising the Baltic Sea, and passed through an incredible 98 locks while transiting several major and minor canal systems, including the Kiel Canal across Germany, the Saimaa Canal through Russia to Finland’s Great Lake Saimaa system, and the Gota and Trollhatte canals across Sweden from Stockholm to Gothenburg.
In an unusual choice for us, we began and ended the year in the same city: Amsterdam. We enjoyed our time here so much last year, with the city’s great restaurants, cultural attractions and easy travel connections, that we decided to stay a second winter. In between, we travelled only 3,475 miles, which is low for us but shows how much there is to see in the Baltic region. And we have now covered 73,450 miles in Dirona.
During the first two months of this year in Amsterdam, we visited several local attractions, including the Rijksmuseum art and history museum, the Amsterdam Light Festival, and Ann Frank House, and made day trips to Haarlem, Delft, Zaanse Schans, Rotterdam and The Hague, plus a return trip to Seattle. The weather finally cleared in mid-March for us to make a 200nm overnight run from Amsterdam through the German Bight to the Kiel Canal, and then on to the Baltic Sea where we would spend much of the year cruising Sweden, Finland and Denmark. We first spent a few days in Denmark, visiting the famous Mont Klint chalk cliffs and the Danish island of Bornholm, the eighth largest in the Baltic Sea and a territory fought over for centuries by Denmark, Germany, and Sweden.
We were the first visitors of the season on March 27th when we made Swedish landfall at Utklippan, a beautiful and remote island at the southeast extreme of the country that we had all to ourselves. Two Swedish submarines “escorted” us in from sea as we approached mainland Sweden at Karlskrona, a Swedish Navy base since 1679 and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site as an outstanding example of a late-17th-century European planned naval city. Continuing north, we stopped for several nights in Kalmar, one of Sweden’s most important cities between the 13th and 17th centuries and the site of one of Sweden’s best-preserved renaissance castles. We also rented a car and made a day trip to Oland, the second largest island in Sweden with a history of settlement dating back to at least 8000 BC and a wide array of attractions ranging from Iron Age ring forts to the extensive ruins of a 13th-century castle.
Much of April was spent cruising the complex island groups along the Swedish east coast, particularly the exceptional Stockholm Archipelago. Being so early in the year, we rarely shared an anchorage or even saw another boat underway. The weather was often cold, but mostly clear and sunny, and we had a fabulous time. Highlights of the cruise included a visit to the exclusive pub “The Thirsty Winterswan“, open only in the fall, winter and spring for 3 hours a week; Huvudskar, a wonderful anchorage on the outer edge of the Stockholm Archipelago; and Visby, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995 for its well-preserved medieval structures, include a mostly intact 2.1m (3.4 km) 12th-century wall.
Six weeks into our Baltic cruise, we departed Sweden at the end of April for Aland, an autonomous region of Finland at the southern end of the Gulf of Bothnia. We made landfall at the capital, Mariehamn, where we spent a great few days exploring the town and visiting their excellent maritime museum. But the highlight of our visit was a day spent at the Aland Maritime Safety Center, a commercial mariner training facility, to tour the facility and take on the wave pool. Also in Aland we visited the ruins of two-mile-wide Bomarsund Fortress that the Russians began building in 1830 as a western outpost when Aland and mainland Finland were part of the Russian Empire. Our final Aland stop was the Kokar island group where we visited Kallskar, a small island where a wealthy landowner spent 18 years building extensive gardens and a villa to create a beautiful little oasis on the edge of the windswept Baltic.
From Aland we travelled almost directly to Helsinki, where we moored for two weeks while exploring this world-class city and also made two major trips by ferry. The first was a 2-hour trip to Tallin, the capital of Estonia, with one of the best preserved Old Towns in Europe. Tallin also has some interesting, and sobering, remnants of the period from 1940 through 1991 when Estonia was under Soviet control. We overnighted there and spent an excellent two days touring the town. The second ferry trip was an overnight run to St. Petersburg, Russia where we spent three days exploring this spectacular city, including touring the vast Hermitage art museum housed in the opulent 18th-century 360-room Winter Palace and a visit to Peterhof Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a succession of opulent and lavish rooms.
Some of the best places we have travelled to our cruise around the world were destinations we hadn’t heard of before arriving in the area and locals encouraged us to visit. A great example is the Great Saimaa Lake system in eastern Finland, a massive inland series of 120 lakes and over 14,000 islands. The lakes are interconnected by canals and locks that allow travel over 200 nautical miles north, with a coastline of 8,000 nm miles to explore. If that’s not exciting enough, to get there we had to clear into Russia and traverse the eight-lock Saimaa Canal system before reaching the lakes back in Finland. We spent a fabulous three weeks touring the lakes, enjoying the spectacular scenery and visiting several towns and historic sites, and could have easily spent the entire summer there.
In late June we travelled westbound to Stockholm where we moored for five weeks, partly to make a return trip to Seattle, but also to explore the capitol of Sweden. Highlights included the 13th-century old town Gamla Stan, the Round Gotland Race, the remarkably well-preserved warship Vasa that sank in 1628, and Drottningholm Palace. We also made a site visit to the nearby Scania manufacturing plant where we drove over-the-road buses and trucks and visited the engine plant.
Over half of the 98 locks we passed through this year were along the 58-lock, 48-bridge Gota Canal, pictured at the top of this post. Together with the Trolhhatte Canal, the Gota Canal forms a 382-mile (614km) waterway stretching across southern Sweden, connecting Stockholm on the east coast of Sweden and Gothenburg on the west. We had an exceptional 12-day cruise through the scenic and intimate Gota Canal, anchoring or mooring along the way and making several side-trips on foot, by bicycle or in the tender.
We took nearly as much time transiting the six-lock Trollhatte Canal, spending nearly a week at Trollhattan where highlights included the Trollhattan Falls, the Saab Museum, the extraordinary Dalsland Canal aqueduct, the Trollhattan locks, and the Motocross GP of Sweden.
Exiting the Trollhatte Canal, we stopped for several nights in Gothenburg, the second-largest city in Sweden and an important ice-free port since its founding in 1621. Today the city of nearly a half-million is the largest port in the Nordic countries, supports two universities, is the world-wide headquarters of the car manufacturer Volvo and the bearing and seal producer SKF, and is one of the three world-wide R&D sites for British pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. The city also is known for its many museums, pubs, and cafes.
We spent much of September cruising the west coast of Sweden north from Gothenburg. While the Stockholm Archipelago on the east coast is more well-known, we found the west coast an equally appealing cruising area, with excellent anchorages and diversions. Our cruise started off with a unique opportunity to tour two 400-ft oil tankers and a 200-ft commercial fishing trawler at the island of Donso. Continuing north, we visited 17th-century Carlsten Fortress; the remarkable Pilane Sculpture Park; the beautiful island of Karingon; the spectacular light festival at Smogen; the Nordens Ark endangered species zoo, and finally the wonderful Kosterhavet National Park, just south of the Swedish border with Norway.
Turning south, we returned to Denmark at Skagen, at the country’s northern tip. There we toured through the commercial port, full of large pelagic trawlers, and rode our bikes to Grenen, a long spit off the northern tip of the Jutland peninsula where you can stand with one foot in the North Sea and the other in the Baltic. From Skagen we island-hopped south through the Kattegat via Laeso and Anholt to Helsingor, where we visited Frederiksborg Castle, a Dutch-Renaissance palace built in the early 1600s and one of the most impressive buildings in Denmark; toured Kronborg Castle, immortalized as Elsinore, the setting for William Shakespeare’s Hamlet; and made a return trip to Sweden on the unique electric ferries that cross the narrow Oresund between the two countries.
Copenhagen was our last major stop in Denmark, where we moored right downtown and spent a week exploring this historic city of spectacular modern architecture with its excellent restaurants and museums. One of several notable buildings there is the recently-opened Amager Bakke, a cutting-edge waste-to-energy plant with a year-round, no-snow ski hill and walking and running paths built onto the roof. We were lucky to be there for the city’s annual culture night, where over 250 museums, churches, theatres, libraries, city buildings and businesses host a public open-house. Our favourite events included a tour of the world-wide headquarters of Danish shipping company A.P. Moller-Maersk and the Copenhagen Opera House.
From Copenhagen we ran 250-miles in three big days to pass through the Kiel Canal and reach Helgoland, a dramatic archipelago thirty miles offshore from mainland Germany with incredible natural beauty, extensive seabird life, seal colonies, naval ruins and many excellent restaurants. It was our third visit there to purchase fuel duty-free, but the first where we stopped for a few days to explore.
We returned to The Netherlands in late October, landing at Vlieland and cruising slowly inland towards Amsterdam. We particularly enjoyed Den Helder, the main naval base for the Royal Netherlands Navy and home of the Dutch Navy Museum. The city also is the gateway to the popular tourist island of Texel, that we toured by bicycle on a day trip by ferry.
Since arriving back in Amsterdam on November 1st, we’ve revisited some of our favourite restaurants, found some new ones, stocked up on supplies and parts from known vendors, completed a fair number of larger boat projects and attended the three-day METS (Marine Equipment Trade Show), the world’s largest boats and marine equipment trade show held annually in Amsterdam. And we’ve just returned from a couple of weeks back in the US where James spent a week at the AWS re:Invent conference in Las Vegas and a couple of days at the AWS data centers on the east coast. On the weekends surrounding those two stops, we attended an NFL game in Miami, toured the Metal Shark Boats shipyards in Louisiana and Alabama, and visited the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.
We’ve spent Christmas aboard a boat named Dirona every year since 1999, but 2019 was different. This Christmas we were on a week-long Rhine River cruise from Switzerland back to Amsterdam. Next year we plan to travel south and spend the year in warmer weather than the past few, cruising the Mediterranean Sea. You can always see where we are at mvdirona.com.
Click below to view previous annual summaries: