Still considered a relatively off-the-grid cruise destination -- and certainly overshadowed by the popularity of the Mediterranean -- Northern Europe has charms of its own. Even more than the Mediterranean, where ports are largely dominated by calls at three primary countries (Spain, Italy and France with a nod to Greece), Europe's northern region boasts a kaleidoscope of cultures, languages, currencies, artistic traditions and ancient histories.
Cruise lines large and small, adult-oriented and family-friendly, are definitely expanding outreach into this part of the world, which means good things for travelers. Though you'll rarely see the cheap-cheap-cheap fares that are beginning to crop up in the Mediterranean, these days there are more choices. There are big ships, luxury vessels and expedition trekkers. Itineraries range from Northern Europe's more exotic ports to a capital cities greatest hits tour and even country-exclusive trips in Norway, for example.
One developing trend is the expansion of itinerary lengths. The traditional Northern Europe trek on a classic ship typically required a multi-week commitment and so was potentially out of reach of younger travelers with less vacation time. Now, some cruise lines have created alternatives. MSC, for instance, offers a range of seven-night Baltic trips and, if you only have a week, Fred. Olsen can get you to the Norwegian fjords -- and back. Princess Cruises will be offering Scandinavian ventures for a week next year to incorporate Brussels, Copenhagen and Oslo. Royal Caribbean even offers a handful of really short trips -- four-night "taster" sailings out of Oslo or Stockholm.
As well, the opportunity to expand awareness of this region beyond its well-known fjords and capitals is increasing. Entry into the European Union by countries like Estonia and Latvia has put them on the cruise map. Estonia's Tallinn is a staple of itineraries now, and Latvia's Riga is enjoying increasing popularity. Other ports -- not necessarily on the Baltic but still close enough -- such as Poland's Gdansk and Germany's Warnemunde (for Berlin), are other additions.
As a result of these evolutions, many cruise travelers who once considered a Baltic voyage to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, are coming back for another go. Still, others who have visited Europe's better-known port playgrounds in the Mediterranean and are interested in fresh destinations are flocking to the Baltic.
Typically, Northern Europe itineraries focus on the following:
Baltic Cruises: Ports of call generally include Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg and Tallinn.
Norwegian Fjords: Bergen is the big city on this itinerary; other itineraries feature smaller ports like Stavanger, Geiranger (with its picture-perfect fjord), Tromso, Alesund, Flam and Trondheim, among others.
Exotic Sailings: For an intra-Baltic exotic foray, a few lines that operate smaller ships are trekking to the Gulf of Bothnia -- a body of water that lies between Sweden and Finland; ports include Finland's Rauma and Pori and Sweden's Sundsvall and Lulea. Turku, the original Finnish capital and one of Europe's most delightful small cities, may also be included, and a voyage through the Finnish archipelago is another treat.
The Arctic, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Iceland: Most often offered by small-ship expedition cruise lines, this region of the far north is probably the, er, hottest part of Northern Europe for trend-setters. Lines like Hurtigruten, Cruise North Expedition, Quark, Lindblad and Travel Dynamics offer a variety of "warm weather" itineraries. In terms of mainstream lines, Princess Cruises takes a dip into the Arctic (Honninsvag and Tromso) with some of its 12-night sailings from the U.K. New this year is the entry of Silversea's Prince Albert, its first ship geared toward adventure cruising. Like most of the expedition lines, it will spend summers in the Arctic and winters down in the Antarctic.
Any Kind of Ship
It used to be that most ships trawling the Baltic were older mid-sized members of cruise fleets (or small, high-end luxury vessels). Over the past couple of years, however, cruise lines like Princess and Norwegian Cruise Line have seasonally deployed their newer, bigger and more contemporary vessels -- next year is a sure example of this -- Grand Princess will replace its smaller sibling, Sea Princess, to offer both Mediterranean and Baltic trips from Southampton. In the process, they're attracting a wider demographic of passengers. Another major sign of a shift is the fact that this summer, Carnival is basing its new Carnival Splendor in the Baltic, at least for part of the summer. That line has claimed a serious stake on family travel -- and the nice thing is that aside from St. Petersburg, the major ports of call are exceedingly family-friendly destinations with fantastical amusement parks, nature activities and the like.
Luxury lines are a staple of the region -- particularly in the Baltic, with occasional forays to Norway's fjords and the Arctic. One of the big pluses, beyond the expected amenities, are expanded enrichment programs about ports of call here, as well as, occasionally, longer-than-usual stays at key cities. For instance, Regent Seven Seas offers its passengers three full days (and two nights) in St. Petersburg. Most lines stay for two days and one night. In addition, these lines have ramped up shore tours to offer fairly unprecedented access to cultural institutions and events.
The soft adventure lines not only offer in-depth cruises to the aforementioned exotic regions of Northern Europe but also focus on intense voyages to more mainstream places. Lindblad Expeditions, for instance, has a 16-night Norwegian fjords trip between Bergen and Oslo that literally explores every nook and cranny. Hurtigruten offers, among many choices, an intriguing trip between the U.K.'s Dover and Iceland's Reykjavik; stops along the way include Cork and Galway, the Aran Islands and Iona, and Scotland's Isle of Lewis.
For most cruises in Northern Europe, Stockholm and Copenhagen are popular ports of embarkation and debarkation. More options exist, however, from England's Dover, Southampton and Harwich. And Celebrity Cruises is one line that begins its trips in Amsterdam.
If you plan to take an exotic cruise, your ship's home port will most likely be just as unusual as the itinerary. Among these include Norway's Bergen, Iceland's Reykjavik, and Norway's Tromso.
In many cases, folks traveling during July and August (prime summer months here) will find that cruise lines' kids programs are in full swing, ranging from Royal Caribbean to the upscale Regent Seven Seas. Other cruise lines aiming for the family trade here include Costa, MSC, Princess and the aforementioned Royal Caribbean and Carnival.
The Marquee Port of St. Petersburg
One thing hasn't changed in the past 10 years: St. Petersburg, the only major port city on Russia's Baltic, is the marquee attraction for Baltic cruises. Most lines offer two full days (and one night) in the city; some stay for two nights (and offer 2 1/2 days in the port of call). St. Petersburg is no doubt a beautiful and intriguing city but it's also one of the trickiest in Europe to visit, not just because of the language barriers but also due to its visa restrictions (read our port profile and What to Expect: St. Petersburg, for more specifics).
Longer Cruise Season
Prime Northern Europe/Baltic season was once pretty much limited to July and August (save for September trans-Atlantic crossings), but voyages now begin in May and run into September. Temperatures may be a bit more brisk at these times but you'll avoid summer crowds, and cruise fares tend to be lower. Summer temperatures, by the way, are generally a marked improvement over the sultry clime of the Mediterranean; expect 60's and 70's most days.
Be forewarned: In the past few years the region's experienced unusual tropical heatwaves. Because this is a new phenomenon, many attractions, buses and shops are not equipped with air conditioning.
If you're as fond of the journey as of your arrival, consider a short hop on a Northern European cruise ferry. Essentially quite cruise ship-like (though most carry cars, too), lines like Silja, Viking, Tallink and Color Line travel between the big cities overnight. You can book a cabin (fully outfitted with bed, television and bathroom -- though they lack some of the more traditional cruise-style amenities like balconies and butler service) for the overnight trip and, along the way, have a massage, shop at a massive duty-free store and dine at a number of restaurants. Do note that beyond the cruise fare itself you'll pay extra for everything.
Best First Time Experience?
Try a big-ship "Baltic capitals" voyage to get a feel for the region. Lines like Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Princess, Holland America, Cunard, P&O, Oceania, Seabourn, Silversea, Costa, MSC and Crystal offer "highlights" itineraries, which typically last from 12 nights to two weeks. Itineraries rarely vary -- expect to spend a couple of days in St. Petersburg, and then a day apiece in Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki and Tallinn. Some do venture to Germany's Warnemunde (for Berlin) and Gdansk as well.
For more offbeat ports of call, check out smaller ship lines such as the U.K.'s Fred. Olsen, Germany's Hapag Lloyd, Hebridean, Azamara, Crystal, Oceania and Swan Hellenic, among others. These offer in-depth itineraries to ports of call not normally on a first-timer's list.
--updated by Kelly Ranson, U.K. Editor