As much as it embarrasses me, I am going to make this admission. About 10 years ago, I was asked to join friends on a Baltic cruise, and I declined. I did so because (and this is the embarrassing part) I didn't hear "Baltic." I heard "Balkans." Balkans? Slobodan Milosevic was being hunted by Interpol, Sarajevo was in ruins, Kosovo was still in the news as a location of terrible war crimes. Why on earth would I want to cruise to the Balkans? How would you cruise into Bosnia, anyway?
I mention this as a cautionary tale. It wasn't that I was geographically ignorant, really, but I wasn't paying attention. My friend had said "Baltic," and I just wasn't listening. If I had understood that he meant the sea upon which sit some of the most incredible cruise ports this great earth has to offer -- if I had known he was referring to Stockholm, Copenhagen, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Tallinn, Warnemunde (the gateway to Berlin) or Rostock, Gdansk, Riga and Oslo -- I might not have waited nearly a decade for the experience.
My chance finally came when I booked a "Scandinavian Splendors" cruise on Oceania's Regatta. I wanted the Regatta cruise for several reasons, not the least of which was the ship itself. Apart from Regatta's small-ship ambiance and size (allowing it, for example, to berth right in the historic Polish city of Gdansk -- rather than in Gdynia, half an hour and lots of traffic away -- or to creep further up the Neva River in St. Petersburg than its larger counterparts), the itinerary was incomparable and offered a full three days in Russia, compared to most lines' two-day offerings.
Regatta left from Dover, U.K., and made two stops in Western Europe (Zeebrugge and Amsterdam) before transiting the Kiel Canal into the Baltic Sea. Since I'd been to both of those cities before, the real excitement started with the entry from the North Sea into the canal that would bring us across the upper northwest "thumb" of Germany and into the Baltic. This was uncharted territory for me; one can read up and plan, plan, plan, but there is nothing like experiencing a new region with your own eyes.
Preparing to Go
Before I left home, I got books from the library and, of course, made good use of the boards and forums at Cruise Critic and Trip Advisor. One thing I learned was that, even though I was traveling in deep summer, the weather in northern Europe could be fickle. It could rain, or it could be sunny, or it could be both within an hour's time. It could be sweltering, or it could be really, really cold. So, taking the advice of the guidebooks and the experienced travelers on Cruise Critic's Northern Europe boards, I brought layers and purchased a rain poncho in a lozenge-shaped packet that fit nicely into my tote bag, as well as a similarly sized umbrella, which turned out to be too small to have any value. I brought a denim jacket, a couple of sweaters and some long- and short-sleeved T-shirts. I brought thick socks, closed-toe walking shoes, lightweight Reebok sneakers and sandals, too. I wore the entire wardrobe range on the same day, several times.
Another thing I discovered before I left was that Scandinavian cities -- which are very, very expensive for Americans -- slow down in the summer, and hotel rates that are prohibitive much of the time are discounted by about two-thirds during July and August. I was able to find that several good hotels in Stockholm -- which, during the rest of the year, might range from USD $250 to USD $350 -- were available for as low as USD $65 per night, including breakfast. Cruisers who originate or end in Oslo or Copenhagen would find the same thing during the summer months. It's an ideal way to extend your time and to visit a city more deeply than a shore excursion would allow.
Into the Baltic Sea
I had been looking forward to the trip through the Kiel Canal, not just because it was one of only two sea days on this voyage, but also because, at the same time, we would not exactly be "at sea." Under usual conditions, the staff of Regatta puts on a top-rate deck barbecue, but on my trip, the weather didn't cooperate. It was stormy and rainy through the entire canal until nearly sundown -- which, in that part of the world during the summer, is close to 11 p.m. Just as we were adjacent to the city of Kiel, just as we ended our trip through the canal and were about to enter the Baltic Sea, the sun decided to treat us to glorious streaks of pinks and golds. It was too late to enjoy the transit, but it did portend lovely weather for the following day.
Northern Germany's Warnemunde and Rostock are co-cities on the Baltic Sea and, for cruisers, are the gateways to Berlin. Warnemunde, a charming seaside village that's basically a vacation spot for Germans and Danes, is about six miles from the more commercial and historically Hanseatic Rostock. Baltic ferries weave in and out of the channel into Warnemunde all day long, stopping in Copenhagen, Malmo and Stockholm, as well as other, more far-flung Baltic destinations.
Most of the cruise ships that stop in Rostock/Warnemunde stay until very late in the evening (usually between 8 and 10 p.m.) because the journey to Berlin, the highlight of this port of call, takes three hours each way.
I chose not to go to Berlin because it was a Sunday, and Germany is fairly rigid about its Sunday laws; in other words, there would be no shopping, no beer and limited dining options I anticipated a quiet day onboard, perhaps with a walk around the seaside village of Warnemunde or a train ride into Rostock to gawk at the Hanseatic architecture. But, I found out that seaside resorts are exempt from the Sunday laws of Germany. In Warnemunde, I could shop and have a beer; if I had gone into the city of Rostock, I could even have gone on a brewery tour. As it was, I enjoyed wandering around, weaving in between families walking with their dogs and kids, going into boutiques and shops along the way and sitting down for a big, steaming cup of coffee and a herring sandwich on brown bread.
Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen; Crowded Gdansk
While most of the Baltic seaports visited by cruise ships are easy to negotiate for independent types, Copenhagen is probably the most cruiser-friendly. The cruise ship dock, Langelinie Pier, is located within walking distance of almost all of the tourist attractions -- the Little Mermaid, Nyhavn, Tivoli Gardens and Stroget, the long, narrow, pedestrian shopping street that winds through the city. If you don't feel like walking, for very, very little money (about USD $10 to $12), you can get a hop-on, hop-off bus pass and catch the bus right at Langelinie. That will allow you to make the circuit of touristy sights. You have to change routes, though, if you want to go to the Carlsberg Brewery, Christiana or the Ice Bar, and you'll have to pay again for the different route. Or, you can pay approximately USD $40 to get an all-lines pass (the only way you can get to Christiana, named for Hans Christian Anderson and set up as a kind of hippie enclave). That also includes a two-hour canal boat tour.
I grew up in southern California and spent most of my formative-years birthdays with my family at Disneyland. Going to an amusement park (even one in Denmark) isn't at the top of my "must-do" list, but I did learn two things about Tivoli Gardens. Our cruise stop was the usual 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but people who had been to Copenhagen before said that Tivoli was really not terribly enjoyable unless you were there in the evening, when they had light shows and fireworks. The second thing I discovered was that Tivoli Gardens, which originally opened in 1843, was, in fact, Walt Disney's inspiration for Disneyland. He'd paid a visit in 1949.
If it wasn't for the fact that the weather had turned again -- it was pouring and windy and really cold -- I think Copenhagen might have been my favorite one-day stop on this cruise. While many of us were shivering, cheerful Danes seemed perfectly happy in their shorts and T-shirts; it was summer, and nothing -- certainly not a little rain or wind -- would ruin that for them. I stopped at a colorful pub in Nyhavn, an ancient little harbor with colorful historic houses and shops, where you can usually sit outside and commune with vendors, other tourists and street performers. But, it was pretty dead because of the rain. I had a beer (every glass of Carlsberg beer that is purchased, world-wide, results in a donation to several Danish and international charities) and then went off in search of a "polser" cart before heading back to the ship. Polser carts are hot-dog carts, and the cost-benefit and sentiment about them are the same for Danes as they are for New Yorkers with their kraut dogs or Chicagoans with their "all-dressed" dogs. The most popular in Denmark is a bunless sausage, dipped in ketchup on a piece of wax paper on the cart shelf. You can stand and watch businessmen, elbow-to-elbow with tourists, dipping and munching.
I knew two things about Gdansk before I arrived: it is the purported center of Baltic amber bargains, and it had been the site of the Polish Solidarity movement and the home of Lech Walesa, the hero of the movement, who later became the President of Poland.
What I found was, like Rostock, Gdansk was a city with Hanseatic origins. The Hanseatic League was formed in the 12th century to control commerce -- mostly the packing and shipping of dried fish in Northern Germany and the Baltic states -- and was administered by unmarried men, who lived together and managed the cities in which they formed societies. Waterways are graced with the typical burgher-style houses (the style dictated by the Hansas to be their warehouses, packing plants and residences) in cheerful colors. It's a beautiful little city, filled with old cathedrals, winding streets, charming and smiling residents, great coffee and lots of little places to stop for pierogi, sausage, borscht, and ice-cream. The riverfront area is particularly charming and is a lovely place to stroll.
Most cruise ships have to dock in Gdynia, about 17 miles away. But, because of traffic between the two cities, the distance is best measured in time. I've been told it can take more than an hour to get to the historic center of Gdansk from the port city of Gdynia. Once in Gdansk, it can take more than a half-hour to get from the port into the center of town by bus or car. Road construction is expected to continue into 2010; once it's finished, maybe the commute will be more comfortable. Those of us on Regatta considered ourselves very lucky, indeed; we were able to dock right at the port in Gdansk.
The Truth About Amber
One of the onboard enrichment lecturers during my cruise was an expert on Faberge eggs and Baltic amber. He told us that amber is the easiest of all stones to replicate in plastic; because it's made of prehistoric tree sap, it's pretty lightweight. He gave us three methods to spot fake amber: 1) Hold it. Real amber gets warm. 2) Lick it. Real amber has no taste, but plastic does. 3) If there's a whole bug in the amber, it's fake. As I wandered through the streets of old Gdansk, which is filled with stands and kiosks of amber jewelry, I didn't find a single piece that looked like it was real stone. Not one! Some even had very obvious mold-marks on them, and most just looked like plastic; I certainly didn't test them by licking them, though.
At the end of our free time in the city center, our guide took us to the Gdansk shipyards to see where Solidarity started and where the riots were -- those riots that helped with the dismantling of the old Soviet Union and its hold over the Polish people. And then, as we made our way back to Regatta, she told us that Lech Walesa, the head of the movement (who was later elected president of a free Poland), was perceived as a terrible president. She told us that only 1 percent of the population voted for him for a second term and that the rest of the world had a much higher opinion of him than did the Polish people.
One of the biggest challenges on a Baltic cruise is sorting out money. Our cruise started in the U.K., so it meant using British pounds. Then, we went to Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, which all use euros. In Denmark, we had to use Danish kroner. In Poland, it's zlotys, in Russia it's rubles, in Estonia it's kroon, and in Stockholm it's Swedish kroner. Only in Finland were we able to go back to the euro. We were lucky; Regatta's purser's desk sold and bought back local currency -- for a price. (We paid a 5 percent fee to buy the currency but nothing to change it back to United States dollars.) That was certainly a convenience for most of us, since bank ATM fees would have been similar, but the ATM's don't buy the money back.
Helsinki, Finland: Land of Beautiful Vistas, Cutting-Edge Design and 250,000 Saunas
To get to Helsinki by sea, ships wind in between the city's gorgeous archipelago, consisting of forested islands, before arriving at the harbor in the center of the city. By the time we approached Helsinki, the weather had turned absolutely beautiful. The little islands sparkled in the early morning sun as we wove our way past them and into the harbor, mooring right near the center of town.
Helsinki is infinitely walkable. It's pretty, it's mostly flat, and there is plenty of shade on the Esplanade -- the tree-lined pedestrian boulevard in the center of town. If you need to stop and cool off, the sidewalks are filled with little cafes. (In fact, it's said that Finns drink the most coffee in the world, although I also heard that about Norwegians.) It's a charming, welcoming city, and I loved being there.
At the top of the harbor is an open market, chock full of handicrafts and edibles. Everything from art-glass necklaces on leather laces to thick, heavy, colorful, wool-felt boots are on sale, side-by-side with beautiful and tempting fruit, sandwiches and sausages. Tented eating areas are scattered about; a smoked-salmon sandwich can be had for about 3 euros or a baked potato with filling for about 6.
I had chosen a short boat trip around the archipelago for my shore excursion, and on this gorgeous day, it proved to be the ideal little jaunt. Our guide pointed out the interesting aspects of the islands surrounding the city center -- the ones that are privately owned by wealthy families and the ones that had been developed as protective forts and are still administered by the Finnish military -- and she told us about the culture of saunas in Finland. I can still hear her cheery voice as she pointed out some of the saunas we passed along the shoreline. These elaborate little cottages looked like guest houses, but they were the saunas of wealthy island-villa owners.
Finland, she told us, has a population of just more than five million people and a sauna population of approximately 2.1 million. Everyone has to have a sauna -- even those who buy the tiniest studio apartments immediately set about installing them.
I finished my day in Helsinki with a walk around the design district (where many of Finland's avant garde architects and designers have shops or studios) and an amble through the old mercantile building at the harbor's edge en route back to the ship, thinking all the while how much the area reminded me of Seattle and Puget Sound. It was easy for me to see why so many Scandinavians end up in the Pacific Northwest.
The following day was to be the piece de resistance for any Baltic cruise -- our arrival in St. Petersburg, Russia. In the long run, I decided that I had enjoyed my day in Helsinki more than any other on the entire voyage.
Czars, Balalaikas, White Nights and Onion Domes
To go into Russia, residents of the U.S., U.K., and most other countries need tourist visas, which can be difficult and costly to procure. Unless your intent is to wander the streets on your own, it is really no big deal -- certainly less of an issue than getting yourself into Brazil, for example. If you are going to use a certified tour operator like Alla Tours or Red October or take your own ship's excursions in St. Petersburg, you don't need to do anything; your cruise line or tour operator will do it for you under a blanket, 72-hour visa provision. This type of visa requires you to stay with your tour operator at all times. Except for the guides and the staff in stores that tourists frequent, English is not spoken, and there is no signage that is understandable, so I cannot imagine you'd want to go off on your own.
Most ships call here for one night and two full days, arriving in the morning on the first day and leaving on the evening of the second. Oceania's "Scandinavian Splendours" cruise, which the line considers its signature itinerary, adds a full day to that line-up by staying two nights and allowing for three full days in this city.
From everything I had heard and read, I pictured being kept on a very short leash while on tour in St. Petersburg. Tourists are required to stay with their guides, but the experience isn't as stifling as I expected it to be. Although I would have liked more time at the open market near the Church on Spilled Blood (the one that's always pictured, with the colorful onion domes), it came at the end of an excursion, and we only had a few minutes. In fact, we made it back to the ship with only 20 minutes until sailaway, so to say that everything is tightly controlled might be a slight understatement.
My expectations as a first-timer to St. Petersburg were certainly met and, in many ways, exceeded. It was exhilarating to be in the land of Peter the Great, Tolstoy, Lenin and Stalin and to see, first hand, the incredible architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries (and then, in contrast, the blocky, functionary architecture of the communist 20th century). The grounds of the Versailles-like palaces, the colorful gilded onion domes of the churches, the coffins of the Czars lined up in a church nave and the exquisite statuary around the city left me breathless. The exquisite statuary, which includes one of the castings of Rodin's Thinker, left me gawking in open-mouthed wonder. I have been to iconic cities before and have seen architecture that ranged from medieval to contemporary as well as statues and fountains that were even more impressive than these, and in those cities I could at least walk around freely to experience all that there is to enjoy. But, what caused my excitement -- my wonder, my pure delight -- was this: I grew up during the Cold War and never, ever thought I'd get to visit Russia.
Oceania Regatta, like most ships that visit St. Petersburg, docked quite a distance from the city in a fairly industrial area Now there is a new cruise terminal, and all ships will be docking at that facility; it opened shortly after my cruise to the region.
The only other negatives were well-known: crowds and heat. Buildings in St. Petersburg are not air-conditioned, and during the summer, it can get quite hot, especially with the crowds. Not every visitor comes by ship, but on one of the days that we were there, there were also potentially 10,000 other cruise passengers enjoying the touristy sights of this city. It was also a special holiday -- Navy Day -- so the Neva was filled with gray battleships, sailors and thousands of gawkers.
The disappointments were few, but the highlights were plentiful. I chose to take ship excursions, partly because I had booked late and partly because I was traveling alone and didn't feel 100 percent comfortable joining groups that had booked with Red October and the like. The Northern Europe boards on Cruise Critic are filled with helpful suggestions and groups looking for others to create a private tour, but I decided to stick with Oceania's offerings.
The two excursions that really, really stand out for me are the Russian folk-music experience, which literally had those of us in attendance bouncing in our seats, and the Imperial Night of the Czars -- Oceania's signature excursion. In the latter, there's a private tour of Catherine's Palace in Pushkin, followed by a little concert of Baroque music, a minuet display on the beautiful grounds, a walk through a museum of horse-drawn carriages from plain to ultra-elaborate and, finally, a sit-down Russian feast in a Pushkin restaurant. It takes hours and is costly, but I have never experienced anything like it. The entire Palace was ours to explore, closed to everyone but guests of Regatta. We even got to photograph the Amber Room, where every wall is covered with a mosaic of Baltic amber and which, during regular opening hours, is off-limits to photography. Amber can be damaged by light, so to ensure that no one takes flash photos, no photos are allowed at all during regular hours. The Amber Room's walls consist of 16-foot panels, covered with carefully placed pieces of amber; the room that's on display is a painstaking recreation of the original, which went missing during World War II and has yet to be found.
The included supper featured vodka and wine, potatoes, fish, caviar, pork chops, salad, vegetables, bread, coffee and dessert. During the meal, there was a folkloric show, particularly enjoyable by those who had not gone to the folk-music show of the previous night. The trip back to the ship afterwards was quiet as we relaxed after such a long evening. Even though it was almost midnight, it was barely dusk in St. Petersburg, and the Neva glinted with the purple sky and the lights on the bridge as we made our way back through the city to our ship.
Two Worlds Visible, One World Explored
The Estonian port city of Tallinn was a real eye-opener. I had heard that Tallinn was a powerhouse of contemporary design and a manufacturing center of electronic communications products, but most of the tourist information only speaks about the beauty and history of the old city. As Regatta got closer to the port, the two faces of Tallinn became visible: to the left as we approached were gleaming glass-and-metal skyscrapers, a city as contemporary-looking as any modern metropolitan port city in the world. To the right, we could see the brick walls and ancient towers of the medieval old town, the area most attractive to tourists.
Although the old town is not that far from where the ships dock, most people who set off on their own choose to hail a cab at the port. For USD $15, we were dropped off at the bottom of the hilly part of Tallinn that is the old city, with narrow cobbled streets and walkways. From there, we were free to wander up to the top of Toompea, the predominant hill in Old Tallinn, where we visited churches and admired the handiwork of the ancient towers and walls, constructed to keep the original city safe from invaders. We loved looking at some of the towers with their odd names: Margaret and Kiek in de Kok, which, roughly translated, means "Look in the Kitchen."
On our visit, the weather was magnificent, making the day completely enjoyable. I found a marvelous restaurant (Kompressor) that serves Estonian pancakes -- elaborate omelet-like items that are filled with chicken or shrimp or cheese. But, since it only accepted Estonian kroon (no debit or credit cards, no euros or dollars), and I had none, I had to move on. I ran into a friend from Regatta at the main square, and we went to a more touristy eatery for salad and coffee. Afterward, we shopped for some of the magnificent linens and woolen sweaters that are Estonia's best souvenirs.
White-Robe Breakfast, Vikings, Tearful Goodbyes
I had read about going into and leaving from the port of Stockholm, through and around a series of islands that form an archipelago that surrounds the city. Stockholm itself is built on a series of islands, but the entry by sea is through pastoral channels of forested lands, and I was looking forward to experiencing this. Leslie Jon, Regatta's Cruise Director, had told us during the last night's crew farewell show that we should set our alarms for 4:30 a.m. so we could get up and watch our arrival. He then conceded that 6 a.m. would probably suffice and told us that, to make our early morning arrival special, Regatta had a "white robe" tradition. The Terrace Cafe would open at 6 a.m. for us, and we should come to breakfast wearing our in-cabin bathrobes. Then, he told us, when we passed other ships in the harbor, we should all stand out on the terrace at the fantail and wave.
The Port of Stockholm had just dedicated a new cruise terminal, but for some reason, we were not assigned to that location, nor to any of the other locations close to the city. On the day of our arrival, Regatta berthed at a far-flung pier, the surrounding area of which was undergoing considerable construction. As a result, transportation issues caused problems for many of us, since no one onboard knew, exactly, how to get to a bus kiosk that sold tokens.
In Stockholm, bus transportation is inexpensive and is usually easily accessible. There are also hop-on, hop-off bus options -- some of which include water-taxi hop-on, hop-off options, as well -- available for tourists. But, the public transportation buses are easy to use for those who don't want the all-day tourist options. The problem is that, in order to board one, you have to buy tokens at bus kiosks located at the bus stops, and the purchases have to be made in Swedish kroner. In ordinary circumstances, that would not present a problem (especially when sailing with Oceania because you can get Swedish kroner from the purser's desk), but in our case, the ship was in an unusual location, and no one seemed to know where a bus stop with a working kiosk was located.If you only have a limited time in Stockholm, the two "must-dos" are a walk around the old city area of Gamla Stan and a visit to the Vasa Museum. Gamla Stan is cobbled, hilly, charming and ancient and is a lot of fun to wander. There are also several spots to sit down and enjoy a coffee or to shop.
The Vasa Museum is home to a war ship that was built in 1628, but it sank to the bottom of Stockholm Harbor just 20 minutes after its attempted maiden voyage. It took more than 330 years to pull it up, house it, restore it and present it to the public in a unique museum that allows you to walk under it and around it to admire its incredible carvings and to see the misled engineering that made it too top-heavy to sail.
One note of caution: Stockholm's taxi system is confusing since "regulated" cabs and "private" cabs look identical. Private cabs can charge whatever they want, but regulated cabs cannot. Protect yourself from aggravation by asking any cab you hail if it is regulated or private, and look inside the passenger door for the rates schedule, which must be posted. If the cab is private, if the rates seem outrageously high or if none are posted, wave goodbye, and wait for another.
At the end of my trip, I was exhausted, but it wasn't jetlag. It was the kind of exhilarating exhaustion you experience when you've achieved something significant. This cruise was incredibly port-intensive, but unlike many cruises with lots of port stops, every one of the destinations offers so much that you can't just blow it off. It's hardly "oh, another beach, another island." This itinerary requires you to go, go, go all the time, and even then you wish you had had more time to go, go, go.
As I contemplated the two weeks I spent on Regatta, I wondered if I would have done anything differently. Ultimately, I decided that the entire experience was as close to perfect as it could have been. I loved being on Regatta for many reasons, not least of which is that it's a relaxing ship, designed for port-intensive itineraries. I didn't get back onboard after a long day ashore and feel as though I had missed something by not joining megaphone-announced activities, because there are none.
My decision to stick with ship-based tours instead of joining outside organizations in St. Petersburg was spot-on; I took advantage of the Premium Collection, which costs $30 more per tour than the regular price but which limits participation to between 10 and 16 people. It's kind of a cross between a private tour and a shore excursion; you can choose to do it on a half-day St. Petersburg tour or a full-day tour and also on tours to The Hermitage, Peterhof and Catherine's Palace. I took the half-day tour in St. Petersburg and the half-day Peterhof and Hermitage tours. However, I avoided the one to Catherine's Palace because I also wanted to experience the Imperial Evening of the Czars, which is Oceania's private night at the palace and probably the most extraordinary shore excursion I have ever done.
Was it my favorite? As spectacular as it was, no. That honor belongs to the evening before -- the night of Russian music and dance. It was a toss-up between that one and the Russian ballet for me, but in the end, my choice could not have been better. It was the most thrilling, foot-stomping, hand-clapping pure enjoyment I had experienced in a long time, and had it been offered again, I might have gone a second time.
Except for the weather at the beginning of the trip and the transportation issues in Stockholm, everything was perfect. My biggest regret is that it was too cold to enjoy walking around Copenhagen. Instead, I ended up going back to Regatta earlier than I would have liked. And, I do wish that I had had some Estonian kroon when I found that restaurant, Kompressor, in Tallinn.
I wouldn't have done anything differently; but, if I have the opportunity again, I will do the exact same trip on the exact same ship.
--by Cruise Critic contributor Jana Jones, who has also written for a variety of publications, including Vacation Agent, U.K.'s Travel Holidays and Ocean Drive Magazine