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The Göta Canal

During Sweden's summers, everyone seems to take to the water to enjoy the precious few days of sunshine before the long, cold winter. If you have only a few days to spare, do the same and take in a Göta Canal cruise. Each cruise covers a distance of 560km (348 miles) from Gothenburg in the west to Stockholm in the east or vice versa, traveling by way of the canal and other related lakes and rivers. To break up the 4-day journey, captains wisely stop four or five times along the way, but only at the most scenic or intriguing destinations. Day trips and cruises also are offered.

Boats depart Gothenburg heading east along the Göta älv River. About 30 minutes outside Gothenburg, you'll see the 14th-century Bohus Fortress (Bohus Fästning). This bastion played a leading role in the battles among Sweden, Norway, and Denmark to establish supremacy. The castle was built by order of Norway's Haakon V on Norwegian territory. After the territory was ceded to Sweden in 1658, Bohus Fortress was used as a prison. Climb the tower, "Father's Hat," for what we consider the finest panoramic view on the entire trip. Farther down the river, the boat will pass the town of Kungälv, known by the Vikings as Kongahälla, whose traditions are 1,000 years old.

As the boat proceeds eastward on the Göta's clear water, the landscape becomes wilder. About 5 hours into the journey, you'll reach the town of Trollhättan , home of one of Europe's largest power stations. The once-renowned Trollhättan Falls, now almost dry, can be seen at their full capacity only in July. Today most of the water is diverted to a series of underground channels to the power station.

After passing through a succession of locks, boats enter Lake Vänern, Sweden's largest lake. The trip across Lake Vänern takes about 8 hours. Along the way you'll pass Lidköping, home of the famous Rörstrand porcelain. Lidköping received its charter in 1446. North of Lidköping, on the island of Kållandsö, stands Läckö Slott, a castle dating from 1298. Originally home of the bishops of Skara, the castle was given to King Gustavus Vasa in 1528 and later presented to Sweden's great hero, Gen. Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie.

Having crossed Lake Vänern, the boats once again enter the canal. A progression of locks, including the canal's oldest at Forsvik, then carry the steamers to Sweden's second largest lake, Lake Vättern. This lake is famous for its beauty and translucent water, and we think it's even more alluring and scenic than noble Vänern. At some points, visibility reaches a depth of 15m (49 ft.).

The medieval town of Vadstena on the eastern shore of Lake Vättern is our favorite stopover on the Göta Canal trip because it is the most atmospheric and evocative -- it's a regular journey back to the Middle Ages. Within the town are old narrow streets and frame buildings. It's known throughout Sweden for its delicate handmade lace, which you can find in storefronts while walking along Stora Gatan, the main street. Also worth a visit is the Klosterkyrkan (Abbey Church). Built between the mid-14th and the 15th centuries to specifications outlined by its founder, St. Birgitta (Bridget) of Sweden, this Gothic church is rich in medieval art. Parts of the abbey date from 1250; the abbey sheltered the nuns of St. Birgitta's Order until they were expelled in 1595.

Another major sight is Vadstena Castle. Construction began under Gustavus Vasa, king of Sweden, in 1545, but was not completed until 1620. This splendid Renaissance castle, erected during a period of national expansion, dominates the town from its moated position on the lake, just behind the old courthouse on the south end. The caretaker told us that the last royalty seen living here was back in 1715. Since those days, the castle has been restored, but with respect for its original architecture.

Boats bound for Stockholm depart Lake Vättern and pass through two small lakes, Boren and Roxen. Just south of Lake Roxen, you'll find the university town of Linköping, site of a battle between Roman Catholic King Sigismund of Poland and Duke Charles of Södermanland (later Charles IX). Charles won the battle and established Linköping as part of Sweden rather than a province of Rome. In the town's main square stands the Folkung Fountain, one of sculptor Carl Milles's most popular works. Northwest of the main square you'll find the cathedral, a not-quite-harmonious blend of Romanesque and Gothic architecture.

From Linköping, boats enter Lake Roxen and continue their journey northeast by canal to Slätbaken, a fjord that stretches to the sea. Steamers then continue along the coast to Stockholm.

The Göta Canal Steamship Company offers turn-of-the-20th-century steamers, including its 1874 Juno, possibly the world's oldest passenger vessel offering overnight accommodations. The line also operates the 1912 Wilhelm Tham and the newer -- that is, from 1931 -- Diana. Passengers can walk, jog, or bike along the canal path, and there are organized shore excursions at many stops along the way.

A lot of hawkers will try to sell you these Göta Canal cruises, but we think the most reliable and affordable company is Cruise Scandinavia (tel. 800/334-6544 or 212/480-4521; www.cruisescandinavia.com). North Americans can book these tours before leaving home. Cruises cost all sorts of prices, but count on spending 8,195SEK to 11,995SEK ($1,639-$2,399/£820-£1,200) per person, based on double occupancy, for a 6-day package. Discounts are given for early reservations.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.