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Scandinavia Review (very long and detailed!)

12 May 2008 Ashley said

Ashley
Hey travelers! I took the Scandinavia Contiki tour in June 2007. The company has since drastically changed and cut back on the route, but they still visit a few of the same cities, though not likely the exact same accommodation as they have upgraded the tour from budget (hostels and cabins) to superior (hotels). Still I hope this review will help you if you are considering the new version(s) of the Scandinavia and Russia tours, or traveling the region independently.

“Scandi” as I now affectionately call it, was my first Contiki tour. I had no idea what to expect, as I had never heard of the company until only a few weeks before I booked the trip, and I didn’t have any referrals from friends. But I had always wanted to see Denmark, and as an inexperienced traveler, I wasn’t sure I would be willing to do it without the help of a tour company. The tour only spent two days in Copenhagen, the capital city, and I knew nothing about Sweden, Norway, or Finland, but this quickly became very appealing as they were places nobody I knew had ever been before, and I was looking for some adventure before settling into a four-year university program.

The best time of year to travel to northern Europe is June through August. In fact, many of the roads in Norway are closed or otherwise inaccessible the rest of the year. The weather can be beautiful in the southern and urban areas. When I was there in early June, it was sunny and temperatures ranged from 25°-30°C (75°-85°F). In the northern parts of the country however, it can be very cold. Since I knew no one who had been, I looked up the average temperature for each country online and packed accordingly. Don’t make that mistake! I packed for 15°C/60°F weather, taking only a few sweaters and one light shell jacket, but it was actually much colder than this up north, especially early mornings and at night, often dipping below 5°C/40°F. I found myself wearing layers often. On more than one occasion, I wore more than two sweaters. If you’re planning on traveling much farther north than Oslo, you will need a warm jacket, hat, gloves, etc. The new Contiki tours don’t visit the northern regions that my tour did, but you can expect cooler temperatures on the Geiranger Fjord cruise and possibly a few other west coast spots like Voss.

One of my main concerns arriving alone in Copenhagen was that I would not understand anyone. This isn’t a problem though. While Danish is the only official language, virtually everyone understands and speaks almost perfect English as well. As in any country, it’s polite to learn some simple phrases like hello (“gooddag”) and thank you (“tak”). Most public signs and restaurant menus are printed in Danish, but friendly locals and staff will be happy to help you translate.

I arrived in Copenhagen a day early so I’d have time to sleep off the jet lag. Contiki will book you in for extra days at the same hotel you meet your tour group at, but I chose to find something closer to the city so I could do some pre-tour sightseeing. On the budget tour, the hostel was at a former army barracks a good distance from the city centre. I highly recommend the Adina Apartment Hotel if your budget allows, it was only a short subway ride from the city centre and offered spacious, modern European rooms complete with kitchenette.

I took public transport to the Contiki hostel out of town the next day. Not easy with a 25kg suitcase, but cabs are expensive in Europe and I’ve always been a subway enthusiast anyway, so I didn’t mind. The Copenhagen subway is clean, cheap, safe, and relatively easy to navigate if you have a general knowledge of urban rapid transport. It’s best if you know what stop you’re going to beforehand so you can easily find it on the system map. Contiki’s former hostel, Belaegningen Youth Hostel, was located near Avedøre station. From there, you take a short bus ride that will drop you off right outside the main entrance. Hostel Belaegningen was very unique. It got mixed reviews from my fellow travelers, but I was just excited to be there, and didn’t have any expectations going in, so I enjoyed it for the two nights we were there in the beginning and one night at the end of the tour.

I should pause here to provide some general Contiki info, as budget adventure tours are not for everyone. Prior to my Scandi trip, all of my travel experience had been within the US, Canada, and England, always with family or friends, and in relatively nice hotels in urban areas and a few highway motels. Quite comfortable, to say the least. I’d had only one hostel experience a few years prior when my best friend and I took a budget weekend trip to New York City, and I had never been camping. When I found out that the Scandi Contiki tour was “budget” level and that I would be required to bring a sleeping bag, I hesitated, but ultimately decided it was time for an adventure and booked the trip. The Scandi tour has since been upgraded to “superior” class and they now stay in hotels, but Contiki still offers plenty of budget hostel tours through western Europe.

The accommodation on budget tours is rustic, but not at all unbearable if you’re broadminded enough. Most of the rooms on both budget and superior class tours are triple- or quad-share. Generally, superior rooms will have ensuite bathrooms and provided linens, while budget rooms will not. You’ll need to bring a sleeping bag and your own towel (camping towels are great because they are usually made of quick-drying micro fiber and are more compact than big terry cloth towels) and the bathroom may be down the hall or in another building entirely. In Europe, it’s not uncommon to have to pay for hot water in the shower, usually with tokens you purchase from reception. The showers can range in quality and you often don’t have control over the pressure or temperature. If you pay for the hot water, it will be scalding, and it may also be operated with an annoying spring-loaded tap that only provides five seconds of intense water at a time. Let’s just say the showers are just as adventurous as the rest of the tour! But even with my inexperience, I was able to adapt quite easily to the conditions. If you go in with an open mind and are willing to leave the comforts of home for a little while, you will be fine. Isn’t that what traveling is all about?

The group aspect is another matter to consider. I’ve always been rather introverted, especially in new and unfamiliar situations. I also tend to be more of a listener and observer, holding back in conversations, preferring to hear other people’s stories and opinions. I was nervous about traveling with complete strangers for three weeks, but I realized that almost everyone else would be too, so we were all in the same situation. Being in a foreign country by yourself tends to compel you to socialize, even if you’re typically shy like me, and I managed to make some great friends from Day One, many of whom I still talk to on a regular basis, and I even managed to visit a few six months after the tour when I was in Australia. Social networks like Facebook had a lot to do with this, and I’ll take credit for getting all of Australia signed up on the site. It was already popular in North America when I went to Europe, but virtually unheard of Down Under. I convinced a few Aussie friends to join the site so we could swap pictures, and shortly after the tour, the Australian network boomed. Yep, that was all me.

The Tour Manager will be a great help in getting everyone oriented early in the tour. Formal introductions will be conducted on the bus between destinations, and one-on-one intros or “speed dating” will also likely be done, along with plenty of ice breaking games. There is a fair emphasis placed on casual sex on Contiki tours. Everyone is your age after all, and virtually everyone is traveling on their own and looking for companionship and fun. You most certainly don’t have to engage in any level of intimacy that you’re not comfortable with, but you should be aware that it is quite common on nearly all tours and Contiki has garnered itself a reputation. It has become the norm for the introductions on the bus to include a stop light analogy. If you are single and looking, you say you are a “green light.” If you are in a committed relationship or happily single and would like to keep it that way, you say you are a “red light.” If you want to remain vague, are unsure of your status, or want to play hard-to-get, you say you are a “yellow/orange/amber light.” The option is there for you either way, but I wouldn’t recommend Contiki if this sort of thing makes you uncomfortable.

Alright, back to Scandi. The first night in Copenhagen, you will be assigned a room randomly with two or three same-sex roommates, unless you paid for a single supplement or are traveling as a couple, where in most cases, you will be accommodated together. After Copenhagen, a rooming list will be passed around the bus regularly and you can sign up to share with whomever you like. On both my tours, I’ve managed to stay with the same roommates for pretty much the whole trip. You get to know each other’s routines this way, so it’s more convenient, and hopefully if you get along, you can share supplies and small appliances -- hair dryer anyone?

After dinner (prepared by the “Supercook” who will travel with you for the whole tour to make most your meals), there will be a group meeting with the Tour Manager to discuss dull but very important information. She’ll go over the basic itinerary, collecting passport information, and ensuring that those going to Russia have their visa paperwork in order. The Scandi/Russia tours are combined for part of the trip, and will split up later on in Helsinki. The rest of the night you are free to explore the barracks grounds (there is a really cool tank on the premises) and to get to know your travel mates.

The next day is a predominately free day in the city of Copenhagen. After a brief drive around some of the more remote sites like the Little Mermaid statue, there is an optional tour of Carlsberg Brewery. The admission is cheap, only US$5 or so, so be sure to check it out. The tour itself isn’t much, it’s self guided and I’ve been on better tours in the US (if you’re ever in Milwaukee, check out the Miller brewery tour), but at the end, you get two beers, included in your admission. These will be the cheapest drinks on your whole tour, so enjoy them!

After Carlsberg, you’ll be dropped off in the City Centre with maps and plenty of suggested must-sees. I heard Tivoli Gardens and the Sex museum were fascinating, but I skipped both in favour of checking out Christiana, a neighbourhood that has partially claimed independent status from the rest of the country. Within it’s borders, cannabis is widely available and residents, mostly ex-cons and hippie types, tend to live by their own set of laws. Naturally, it is a very controversial area and has seen it’s share of violent riots, but if you’re up for a little adventure, I would highly recommend checking it out. There are some beautiful murals and graffiti on the sides of the buildings and some of the locals have amazing stories to tell. Don’t act too touristy, photographs are absolutely prohibited due to the drug trading, but if you appear friendly and non-threatening, they will openly share their home with visitors.

Also worth seeing is Nyhavn, “New Harbour,” probably the most photographed part of town. There are some great bars and restaurants here. On the way back to the drop-off/pick-up point outside Tivoli gardens, check out the Strøget, or “the Straight,” a car-free street with lots of great shopping.

I wish I’d seen more of Copenhagen when I was there, but I definitely plan on going back some day. Your TM and any guide book will offer plenty of other sites to see.

Day Four is the first of many long driving days. It’s about seven hours from Copenhagen to Stockholm. You will have a few washroom/meal stops, one likely being at the A6 Centre, a mall in Jönköping, Sweden. You will take the first of a number ferries to cross over into Sweden. Most ferry rides on the trip are short, about fifteen to thirty minutes. The whole bus will drive onto the boat, and then passengers get off and go upstairs where there’s usually a viewing deck (cold and windy, sometimes wet), indoor café and washrooms.

After the long day on the bus, you’ll have a free night at the campsite, again a fair distance from the city. Angby Camping is more rustic than the barracks in Copenhagen. The cabins are extremely tiny, possibly the smallest ones on the whole trip. Take bug repellent! There are lots of trees here and at the Oslo stop and you will be eaten alive. It’s mostly too cold north of Oslo for bugs to survive, but you will definitely want to have it here. The site, despite having small rooms, is very beautiful, with a beach on a small lake. Bring a bathing suit if you like, but be warned the water is very, very cold!

One of the few controversies surrounding Contiki seems to be about their apparent lack of advertising that optional activities cost extra. Personally, I knew this going in, it is clearly stated in the itinerary sent to you before the trip. I guess some people don’t read that, because they were upset to discover this when they arrived in Denmark and hadn’t budgeted for extra admissions. Be sure you do, because the options are what make the trip interesting and custom to your preferences. In Australia and New Zealand, many of the optionals are expensive because of the adventure and risk involved, like bungy jumping and skydiving. But in Europe, most of the activities are tours and admissions into museums, so they are quite affordable. I did every optional activity in Scandi, and I enjoyed every one of them.

Anyway, back to Stockholm. The first optional activity is a guided tour of City Hall. I highly recommend this tour, even though it wasn’t that popular with my travel mates. The building is gorgeous inside and out, and it has a fascinating history. You see the blue room where the Nobel prize ceremony is held annually, and the gold room, which is uncommonly tacky for Scandinavia, something you’d expect to see in Italy, Las Vegas, or Elvis Presley’s Graceland home. It’s exactly what it sounds like, a room made of gold. You have to see it to believe it.

After the City Hall tour, you’ll be dropped off in the Old Town area, lots of historic buildings to look at, plus a chance to see the changing of the guard ceremony, and more tacky souvenir shops than you can count. Be sure to get that ugly moose magnet with the googly eyes, you know you want to. You will have plenty of time and places to buy souvenirs over the course of the tour, but if you want something from each country specifically, this will be your only chance in Sweden, so stock up.

Following lunch in Old Town, you’ll get a chance to see the Vasa museum. I don’t think this is an “official” Contiki optional activity, but since it’s further away from the town centre and most of us wanted to see it, our TM offered to take us there for a short visit. The Vasa was a warship that sank on her maiden voyage in 1628. She was recovered and salvaged, almost completely intact, in 1961, and the entire museum is dedicated to her. It’s a fascinating place, definitely a must-see.

Next, you’ll have time to look around New Town Stockholm. As you can tell from the name, this is the more modern portion of the town, with lots of mid-to-high-end shopping. Check out Åhléns, Sweden’s department store, about on par with Harrod’s in the UK, Saks in the US, or David Jones in Australia.

Our group happened to be in Stockholm on the last day of high school. The custom for graduates in Sweden is to rent a flatbed truck and driver, then dress up all in white and dance in the back with your friends to loud music as it drives around the city all day. There were dozens of trucks in the New Town when we arrived shortly after midday, it was quite a sight. Some of them were a lot more inebriated than others, spraying spiked drinks on our windows and flashing and mooning us. We did it right back, naturally. Have to act like the locals when you travel, right?

After this crazy day of touring the city, it’s back to the campsite for a quiet night. There is a group dinner option at Felix bar for a traditional Swedish smorgasbord, but it was cancelled on my tour due to lack of interest. I’ve read from other tour journals that it is good and bad. As a general rule, Contiki’s optional dinners are edible, but not fabulous, and often overpriced. Our TM also tried to book us into the Ice Bar, which is not an “official” Contiki option, but there was too much interest for that one and she couldn’t get us all in. She suggested we try making reservations on our own. I didn’t, but many others did and had a blast. We built a huge campfire on the beach on our second night in Stockholm, and mingled with another tour group who was staying at our site.

Day Six is another long driving day (seven hours). The campsite outside Oslo is rather unique. The guys are split into cabins like on the majority of the tour, but most of the girls (assuming the ratio of girls to guys is significant, as it has been on both of my Contikis) will share a large converted farmhouse. There is another opportunity for sitting around the campfire, drinking and chatting tonight, but alas, it is the last one. I had hoped it would become the norm so I could show my Aussie friends how to make smores, but we never had another campfire after Oslo, and the Aussies still don’t know what smores are. You’re missing out guys, be sure to ask a Canadian to show you how to make them.

Day Seven in Oslo begins with an optional trip to the Holmenkollen Ski Jump, which was used in the 1994 Winter Olympics. You take an elevator part way, then climb stairs the rest of the way. No, the option is not there to go down, and you’ll see why when you get to the top. Only crazy people do it! But don’t worry, you’ll get your Olympic thrill tomorrow…. The views are spectacular from the top, and it’s terrifying to look down the jump track. Next is a trip to Frogner Park, which famously houses hundreds of statues by sculptor Gustav Vigeland. There’s plenty of time for photo ops with the human statues before the group is dropped off for free time in the city centre. Highlights you should check out include the Nobel Peace Centre (the only prize given out in Oslo, the rest are awarded in Stockholm), and The Scream painting by Edvard Munch at the National Gallery.

Next day is another driving day (get used to it, and make sure you have a book, iPod, playing cards, etc.) to Andalsnes, with a lunch stop in the Olympic town of Lillehammer and an optional ride in an authentic bobsled. The trip is intense, much more so than your average roller coaster, but it’s piloted by a pro and you’re provided with safety gear, so hold on tight and you’ll survive. It’s well worth it!

Fight the urge to sleep on the bus starting today, because the scenery is about to get insanely beautiful as you start heading toward the coast. The mountains get bigger, you see more trees and fewer cars and buildings, and some really amazing waterfalls. Andalsnes was probably my favourite overnight stop on the whole trip as far as location was concerned. The campsite is in the base of a valley and you are completely surrounded by huge mountains. Early in the morning, the dense fog masks the peaks and it would almost feel claustrophobic if the air wasn’t so fresh and clean. There is a glacier-fed river on site, be sure to walk down to check out how blue the water is.

Andalsnes is a two-night stop, and there isn’t much to do except chill out. Be sure to stock up on alcohol and snacks on your washroom breaks during the long bus rides. Most rest stops as you head north will be at full service centres with grocery and liquor stores, as the Supercook has to stock up for meals every day. The drinks of choice on our trip were Carlsberg and pear cider.

Day Nine is a full day trip to nearby Geiranger for a fjord cruise. The trip is a good few hours there and back, but it is well worth it. The cruise itself is about an hour and a half long. Dress warmly as it’s quite windy out on the boat, but you’ll definitely want to stay out on the main deck to enjoy the view and get the best photo ops. There is an pre-recorded audio tour in both Norwegian and English that will identify and describe the various waterfalls and features around the fjord, including the famous Seven Sisters. There’s time for lunch and some souvenir shopping before leaving the touristy town. If you’re from a cold climate and your budget permits, I recommend purchasing a Dale sweater. They run around US$200, but they are ridiculously warm! You can go out in one without a coat in the middle of a snowy winter and still be quite comfortable. Also track down some fish and chips at any of the tourist cafes in town, they are ridiculously good.

Day Ten is a full day’s drive to Trondheim. This is one of the only stops on tour where you actually stay in the city in a hostel as opposed to cabins on the outskirts or way out in the country. The hostel here is fine, nothing special. One thing you should know is that the showers are made of clear glass, with no frosting, curtain, or partition for privacy. If this makes you uncomfortable, be sure to shower in Andalsnes the day before. Luckily, this is only a one-night stop. Trondheim is an ancient town with an enormous church and lots of college students. The optional at night, pizza and bowling, which seems a little out of place in Norway, but it’s a great night out. Dolly Dimple’s, the pizza joint, is casual with great slices. The bowling has a tragic playlist of 80s and 90s cheese, but on Contiki, you can make the most of bad music without much effort. After bowling, most head to a nearby club. We went to Downtown, and it had equally bad music, but someone grabbed a broomstick and we quickly started up a limbo game.

Day Eleven is yet another full eight-hour drive to Mo I Rana. The cabins at this site are luxurious compared to others on the trip. Each one has an ensuite bathroom with shower, so no freezing cold runs outside first thing in the morning! There is also a kitchenette and a TV (with two channels in Norwegian, but the gesture is nice at least). The one thing lacking however, are window covers. There are curtains on the lower windows for privacy of course, but on the windows above the door, there’s nothing, and this may cause a problem if you prefer darkness to sleep. It doesn’t get dark at all this far north in the summer, so a sleep mask is a good idea.

Day Twelve starts early with a hike to Svartisen glacier, Norway’s second largest. It is so isolated, you need to take a tiny boat to get there. The hike takes about an hour from where the boat drops you off. It’s mostly on loose and slippery rock, so be sure to wear shoes with good treads. The glacier is incredible if you haven’t seen one before (which I hadn’t at the time), but you don’t get to walk on it like you can other places like New Zealand (which I have done since). Do taste the water, it’s so pure and delicious.

Arriving back at the campsite, you’ll have a picnic lunch prepared by the Supercook – this is the only day on tour you have all three meals provided. The afternoon is free, with an option to go into the town of Mo I Rana. There isn’t much to see there, but if you need to stock up on snacks, alcohol, or just want a change of scenery, check it out.

Days Thirteen and Fourteen are very long driving days, totaling over sixteen hours. There isn’t much to see between Mo I Rana and Hammerfest, the northernmost overnight stop, so be sure to have your iPod charged. The scenery starts to become more barren, as not much grows north of the Arctic Circle. In fact, you cross over the Arctic Circle shortly after leaving Mo I Rana. There’s a visitor’s centre (you can’t go anywhere these days without a visitor’s centre). Be sure to get your passport stamped there. Don’t listen to the tour manager if she says it’s not a good idea, it’s a cool, harmless souvenir. The only other memorable stop on the first day is Narvik, a port with a unique history and World War II memorial. I have no idea where the overnight stop is between these two long driving days. I come up empty when searching on a map using the address Contiki provided in it’s documents. It’s an uneventful stop anyway, and you aren’t there very long, it’s pretty much just a place to sleep. You need to get up and go so early the next morning that the Supercook pre-makes breakfast the night before and you eat on the bus. The next day, there might be a stop in Alta, best known for Sami rock sculptures. I didn’t take the optional tour because it wasn’t part of the official Contiki itinerary, and I hadn’t budgeted it in. Apparently the tour guide is useless there, but the sculptures are worth seeing anyway.

When you finally arrive at Hammerfest, you will be relieved! But there isn’t much time off the bus, as that night, after settling into the cabins and having dinner, there is the big trip up to Nordkapp to see the midnight sun. It’s about a three-hour trip one way, and to be honest there isn’t much to see once you get there. The chances of actually seeing the midnight sun are slim because it’s usually too cloudy or foggy. But you should see it later on in Finland, so don’t consider this a major drawback and go anyway. Nordkapp isn’t even really the northernmost place in mainland Europe. That title belongs to Knivskjellodden, which is 1.5km further north and only accessible by foot or sled. The big attraction at Nordkapp is the visitor’s centre (what else?) which has a viewing area in the back, which really doesn’t offer a view of anything, and overpriced cafes and souvenir shops. The real fun on this excursion is on the bus ride there and back. For the one night only, the “no alcohol on the bus” rule is relaxed, and the bus turns into a nightclub on wheels. In hindsight, this is actually very dangerous and illegal, where everyone is dancing in the aisles and mingling, while the driver is speeding along the curvy highway above the limit and talking on his cell phone. We hired a local to drive us there and back, so our regular driver could have the night off and join in the fun. At the time though, we were having a blast, and he just held on tight around sharp corners. It’s quite possible that this is the main reason the Scandi trip has been shortened and no longer includes the northern regions of Norway and Finland. I have to wonder if all the tours did this and if it was known to head office, or if it was just our Tour Manager that arranged it (who shall remain nameless for her protection).

The next day is a totally free day, which many tour mates needed for hangover recovery. There is a chance to sleep in, finally, do laundry, chill out, or walk to the town of Hammerfest (about 1.5km away). The campsite just outside Hammerfest is really cute, all the cabins are situated on a hill. The only drawback is the long walking distance to the bathrooms at the bottom of the hill. There’s a toilet block half way, but it’s freezing cold and doesn’t have showers, you’ll have to make the full trip at least once to bathe, so bundle up.

The other highlight on the last stop in Norway is the Polar Plunge. Hammerfest is your best chance to take a dip in the Arctic Ocean, if you so desire. Yes, it’s freezing cold, I was not crazy enough to try this. But at least a dozen from my tour did, and it’s definitely an experience you won’t forget. The TM may promise a certificate for those who successfully dunk their heads under water, but our group never actually got theirs.

Day Sixteen, you leave Norway for good. The final leg of the tour (for those not going on to Russia) is a southbound trip through Finland. I had an odd feeling after leaving Norway that the best part of the tour was over, and in many ways my instincts were right. The stop in Rovaniemi is mostly uneventful, as the optional excursions are now all over for the trip. The campsite is nice and offers the best showers on the tour, so take a nice long one and enjoy it! You should also be able to see the midnight sun for the last time before it starts getting dark again at night as you head south. At this campsite our Supercook prepared us a meal with reindeer meat. Try it if you get a chance, it’s delicious.

Day Seventeen we continue south to Keuruu, a lakeside campsite where you will need your bug spray again. But first, before leaving Rovaniemi, you get to visit Santa’s village, whish is located on the Arctic Circle. For European children, the legendary figure is believed to live here, not the North Pole in Canada where North American children are brought up to believe. You can get your picture taken, but I didn’t, the entire complex of Santa’s Village felt kind of hokey. I’ve never been a big fan of Christmas. I was also disturbed to find Reindeer on the menu at one of the cafés. Sure it’s good, but this is Santa’s house! Isn’t there a little something wrong with that?

The overnight stop in Keuruu is mostly uneventful, but my tour mates were able to change that. We celebrated a birthday at this stop, and then there was a wild night on the pier by the lake involving a beer bong and absinthe. Sorry to everyone, but this experience simply cannot be repeated by anyone. I dare you try, but you won’t have nearly as much fun as we did.

Day Eighteen involves only a short drive to Helsinki, you should arrive shortly after lunch and after a brief driven tour of some sights around town, you’re dropped off at the centrally-located hostel (civilization!) and have the rest of the day to explore on your own. Unfortunately I have bad memories of Helsinki. I decided to wander the city on my own for the afternoon, and wound up being fined on the subway for not having a ticket. It was an innocent mistake, I couldn’t figure out how to work the automated machines, and so I went down to the platform level to ask a uniformed employee. I approached him with a friendly smile and asked how and where to purchase a ticket, and when I failed to prove that I had already paid, he gave me an €80 fine. It was absolutely ridiculous and I couldn’t believe it was happening at the time. I tried to explain to him rationally that I was asking him how to buy a ticket, and clearly I was not making a mad dash for the trains for a free ride. But he wouldn’t have it, and wrote up an infraction anyway. I was freaked out at this point, as nothing like this had ever happened to me before, and so I offered him cash just so I could get out of there. In hindsight I realize this was a bad idea. It’s entirely possible that I could have walked away and not paid at all, since I was leaving the country the next day and they had no way of tracking me down. The officer may not even have been real, or likely was not authorized to accept cash payments, and he pocketed the money and the paperwork was ripped up and tossed in the garbage. But I was completely out of sorts at the time, and it definitely ruined my opinion of Finland, not to mention putting a damper on the whole trip. I know I shouldn’t judge a whole nation by the poor treatment I received from one person, but the officer understood perfectly well that I was tourist in need of assistance and he completely took advantage of me, and he was a horrible representation of his country.

Our TM had warned the group of corrupt cops in Russia and how they openly accepted bribes. But I was not part of the Russian tour and didn’t pay much attention, and I certainly didn’t think this could happen in Finland. What’s worse, when I told the TM about this, she didn’t provide any comfort whatsoever, and even had the nerve to say “I told you so.” I bet I’m a story she tells to other groups now. Which is fine, I hope people learn from my mistake as I did, and hopefully if I’m ever in a situation like this again I’ll be able to handle it better. Moral of the story: don’t take the subway in Helsinki!

Anyway, after that little fiasco, I decided I just wanted to go home, I was three days away from the end of my trip and ready to pack it in. So I spent the rest of the afternoon on the computer in the hostel, which sucks because I probably missed some great sightseeing in Helsinki. A couple of tour mates had invited me to take a helicopter ride with them to Tallin, Estonia, for the day, and I wish I had joined them and been able to cross another country off my list. Oh well.

The next morning is an early one for everyone, as the “Russians” depart first thing for St. Petersberg and those not going will want to say good-bye. Then early afternoon, what’s left of the group (now about half the size) board an overnight cruise that crosses the Baltic Sea and takes you back to Stockholm. The TM spends much of the earlier part of the trip playing up the “Love Boat” as a fantastically wild night, and tells stories of tour mates hooking up with locals. The cruise is fully loaded with sleeping cabins, multiple restaurants, shops, bars, a casino, disco, and spa. I wasn’t in the mood to enjoy any of it though, and even those in better spirits than me said it was a little underwhelming after all the stories we’d been told about it. The cabins are extremely tiny and below the waterline (dark and no window), and you’ll likely be sharing with people you haven’t with before, as the Russian group going their own way likely splits up a lot of the groups formed over the course of the tour and you don’t get a choice anyway. The rooms were booked long before you became friends with certain people. The all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffet comes highly recommended, but I found it extremely disappointing. If you can manage to drink your €33 away, then by all means check out this dinner, but the food is terrible. I spent some time in the bar, casino, and disco, but didn’t enjoy it. Most other people did have some fun, just less than they were expecting. Don’t listen to all the stories about how great the boat is! If you go in expecting little, you will probably enjoy yourself more than our group did. I checked out early that night to catch up on my rest – if I can say anything good about the boat, the rocking motion provides a great sleep. You’ll have to be up and ready to go by 9am, having already packed up and eaten breakfast --which was another buffet, but included this time, you didn’t have to pay extra. It was fine, nothing special. You will definitely miss the SuperCook’s meals after the last breakfast he prepares for you in Keuruu.

Back in Stockholm, the last day of the tour is spent driving back to Copenhagen. You should arrive in time to get some last-minute sightseeing done in the evening, and you stay at the same army barracks from the first two nights. The next morning, after one last breakfast, the tour breaks up. Most people fly out of Copenhagen that day, but I booked an extra night at Adina to rest up before going home. This probably wasn’t necessary, I would have loved to go home that day.

In all, despite my bad luck toward the end, it was an amazing trip. If Contiki still offered this tour, I would highly recommend it. If you’re traveling Scandinavia independently, Andalsnes/Geiranger, and Mo I Rana/Svartisen are must-dos. It’s a beautiful, clean, and safe region of the world with a great mix of unique culture and natural wonders, perfect for a tourist of any experience level.

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  • Ashley

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