Slow boat on the G"ota

IN these days of Concorde planes and bullet trains, it's nice to occasionally move out of the fast lane. Consider, for instance, a cruise on the G"ota Canal, Sweden's own modest answer to the slow boat to China.

Boarding one of the three original G"ota Canal Steamship Company's boats is indeed slipping back in time. Both in style and pace. These boats, originally built to haul cargo, have over the years been modernized and well appointed for passenger travel.

The G"ota (pronounced ``yota'') Canal is the name usually given to the entire watery blue ribbon. That's a bit of a misnomer. The actual canal is about 60 miles of man-made cuts connecting a series of rivers and lakes. Fifty miles of the route is on the open Baltic Sea.

It runs for about 347 miles between Sweden's two largest cities - Stockholm, the capital, in the east, and the major port city of G"oteborg to the west. About 65 locks along the way lift boats up to 300 feet above sea level and down again.

About 30 of us boarded the 112-year-old Juno - the oldest of the trio - as it lay moored in the mist outside Stockholm's stunning town hall. This was the first Stockholm-G"oteborg trip of the season. A cold drizzle dampened no one's spirits as soon as we were greeted by the cheery crew and the warm ambiance on board.

My cabin on the bridge was a snug, cozy affair. It held within its tight quarters a bed and an old-fashioned wooden wash commode and small storage space. The bridge deck is considered choice. Cabins here are a distance from the engines, so they are quieter. This uppermost deck also offers a splendid view. All cabins on board are ``outside,'' in that they have windows that open to the water.

The small, elegantly paneled dining room held six tables. Red- and-gold-flocked wallpaper and red velvet curtains gave a Victorian touch, while white linen tablecloths and napkins added a light crispness.

Our first meal was a luncheon smorgasbord served on an antique, mirrored, mahogany breakfront topped with white marble. It fairly buckled under the weight of six kinds of herring, hot and cold meat dishes, wonderful lingonberry preserves, gravlax (pickled salmon), eggs, shrimp, and two staples of the smorgas table: Jansson's Temptation - a creamy hot potato dish laced with diced anchovies, and the ubiquitous Swedish meatballs.

Food on board is billed as ``gourmet.'' That's almost an understatement. Superb meals were produced by a lovely blond 19-year-old woman down below in a cramped, sweltering galley. Her efforts were applauded by all. Well, almost all.

A sweet, rather demure, elderly woman from Illinois at our table was having a hard time of it. ``I don't really eat fish,'' she said rather sheepishly, sliding her poached fresh halibut with lobster sauce onto her son's platter. To be in Sweden and not eat fish is a bit like going to China and not liking rice.

Fish has a way of making an appearance here at every meal, including breakfast. Swedes eat more herring in a day than an Arctic seal, it seems.

Main activity is enjoying Swedish countryside

Keeping yourself entertained on board is pretty much up to you. There's not enough room for shuffleboard, or a piano, certainly no pool, or ping-pong table. But there's plenty to see.

The G"ota Canal slices through some of the most beautiful country in Sweden. And you move at a pace no faster than a trot. Joggers and bikers, in fact, passed us all along the way. Moving through the canals, you could literally reach out and touch birch trees. While stopping to go through the locks, many of us jumped ship and gathered wildflowers for our tables in the surrounding woods.

A salon is a quiet gathering spot to get a foursome together for bridge, or to read, or dash off a postcard. Or you could invent your own game.

One I had fun with was ``find the shower.'' Yes, there is one on board. Only one. For up to 60 passengers, plus 15 crew. It's tucked way below and takes a bit of looking to find.

``Somehow it never seems to be a problem,'' a deckhand said. ``You very seldom see anyone waiting. People get used to taking showers at odd times. It works out fine.'' It did. Just don't expect to take one every day before breakfast.

We moved from open sea, to lakes, up and down locks, past villages, through farm pastures, and into charming small towns. There's even a wonderful spot where the canal passes underneath a highway.

We made several stops on our 3-day trip to explore castles and churches along the way. In Nyk"oping, we were served a medieval dinner in a castle, while being entertained by music, a storyteller, and a court jester. We supped extravagantly on rare roast lamb grilled over an open spit.

Another time while Juno was slowly lifted up and down the locks at Berg, we had two hours for sightseeing and exploring the town's famous church.

Lush morning scene appears through the mist

But even this snail's pace is too fast for some. One morning I got up to shower at 5 o'clock. A lone man from Geneva standing by the rail searching the horizon with his binoculars was the only other soul on deck.

The soft, gray morning mist rose like a scrim and gave a theatrical beauty to the bucolic scene as we almost imperceptibly glided from a river into Lake V"anern, Sweden's largest lake.

``Marvelous, isn't it? Just marvelous,'' he said softly, never shifting his eyes from the lushness of the scene. Was he enjoying the trip so far?

``No. I must say no. It's rush, rush, rush. We should do it in five days,'' was his surprising response.

``I say no, but of course, yes,'' he continued, brightening up a bit. ``The food and crew are marvelous, really. But it should be five days and we should stop at night. Look how many people are sleeping through this beauty. It's a pity really. We have nothing like this in Central Europe. Nothing,'' he mused.

I quietly exited below to take my shower.

If you go

Four- and five-day cruises on the G"ota Canal run from mid-May through mid-September. Rates start at $592 per person, double occupancy, for cabins, meals, and sightseeing. For details, contact a travel agent or Bergen Line Inc., 505 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10017, or call (212) 986-2711 or (800) 3BERGEN.

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