Belting out "All By Myself" in a private karaoke room isn't my idea of a fun Tuesday afternoon at sea. As practically the only single parent on the ship, it did seem a little melodramatic, too. But, my children -- Lauren (11) and Joel (9) -- had discovered the Whatever rooms in Norwegian Jewel's Fyzz Lounge, where you can enjoy free, private karaoke or Nintendo Wii for an hour at a time. I got to know those rooms very well.
I booked a 12-day Baltic Capitals cruise on Norwegian Jewel for a number of reasons. The children were well overdue for some culture; last year we did a week in the Med and went to four water parks and a football stadium. I thought the cooler climate in northern Europe would inspire us to explore, rather than slump by a pool. Finally, from past experience, we all love NCL for its variety of dining options and its evening entertainment.
Oddly, despite its family-friendliness, NCL doesn't offer particularly kid-oriented excursions in the Baltic. So I did a lot of preparation before we left, planning independent sightseeing in each port -- Copenhagen, Tallinn, Warnemunde, Helsinki and Stockholm. The only tour I booked was in St. Petersburg, where I thought we'd benefit from the knowledge of a ship-organised guide.
There were some things I hadn't planned for. The Baltic is more complex, in terms of practicality, than the Med. For a start, there are so many currencies: British pound (since the ship departs from Dover), Danish kroner, Euros in Germany and Finland, kroons in Estonia, more kroner in Sweden and roubles in Russia. You can offer dollars or Euros in any country, but you will get change in the local currency, which is completely useless once you've left port.
The other challenge is in packing. Weather widely varies with blazing sunshine in Copenhagen, dampness and drizzle in Tallinn two days later, and thunderstorms and ferocious humidity in Russia. You definitely need walking shoes for the uneven, cobbled streets and warm clothes for windy days crossing the North Sea. Thank goodness for the friendly porters at Dover.
Then there were the time zones! We crossed three on the way up to St. Petersburg and three on the way back. With the late nights -- we went to most of the shows -- the children were practically catatonic by the time we got to Russia, gradually regaining their energy on the journey back west and getting up unspeakably early by the last day.
Touring Independently, Mostly
By the end of the cruise, there were a lot of very crumpled maps at the bottom of my bag, and I felt we'd mastered Scandinavian buses, despite a few tussles with ticket machines and an unexpected detour through a housing estate in Stockholm. Because Helsinki and Stockholm are surrounded by water, public transport on boats and buses is all part of the fun. Local people were always chatty and helpful, and we saw a bit of each city as well.
Copenhagen was an easy start. We disembarked in brilliant sunshine and took a number 26 bus from the port to the Town Hall Square, where we walked right into Tivoli Gardens -- the historic amusement park, said to have inspired Walt Disney to create Disneyland. Compared to the garish theme parks my children have been raised on in England, it was paradise, featuring ornamental trees, lakes, Chinese lanterns, restaurants serving food from all over the world and sweet touches of Hans Christian Andersen and his fairytales everywhere. There were also some seriously good rides, with no waiting in line. But it was expensive; on top of the entrance, you pay DK160 ($32) per child and DK200 ($39) per adult for unlimited rides, which is why I found myself grimly clinging to a roller coaster -- which plummeted beyond my comfort zone -- determined to get my money's worth.
Estonia's Tallinn – a well-preserved medieval city, like something out of a period flick -- is so beautiful that even a grey mist and drizzle didn't put us off. Fairytale spires were beckoning through the gloom, so we walked into the centre of town and explored the cobbled streets, ending up in Molly Malone's bar on the main square for steaming hot chocolate -- in August! Later, we mooched around town, looking for Faberge-style eggs (beautiful but too expensive) and peering into the marzipan museum and the many amber shops.
In Helsinki, we were on a mission to see the snow leopards at the zoo and invited some new friends from the ship to join us. We took the shuttle to the city centre's market square and weaved our way through stalls piled high with raspberries, blueberries, yellow chanterelle mushrooms and elusive yellow cloudberries, grown in the Arctic. The zoo boat was a bargain at only 12 Euros for me -- half price for the children -- and included entry and a spot of sightseeing from the water. The zoo is on an island and, although it wouldn't stack up against attractions like the Sibelius monument for adults, it's perfect for children -- an easy half-day visit with ample opportunity to run around and see snow leopards aplenty.
Food, Glorious Food
Food always plays a starring role in our family holidays. The only rule I imposed on Lauren and Joel was compulsory fruit and vegetables daily, so they embraced Norwegian Jewel's decadence to the full -- pancakes for breakfast, three kinds of pizza for lunch, and ice cream and sprinkles on demand. They also forayed into new culinary territory, including the Teppanyaki restaurant, which offers hibachi-style preparation of spicy prawns and succulent steak. The juggling, lightning-fast chefs with their endless patter and the ability to catch flying eggs their hats were well worth the $25 cover charge. Then there was chocolate fondue at Le Bistro, sizzling fajitas at the Blue Lagoon and giant, garlicky shrimps at Cagney's. I love the choices NCL offers, and the cover charges for each of these alternative restaurants were worth every cent.
The system works so well, too. We got bookings in every specialty restaurant we requested, and although we rarely had the same server twice, most of them were fantastic. I bought a bottle of wine and made it last two or three days, being the only wine-drinker in our trio. It followed me around the ship, materialising wherever I happened to be eating that night.
Best of all, though, was the tiramisu. The children were lusting after it in Mama's -- Norwegian Jewel's Italian trattoria -- but as it contained alcohol, I had to say no. The following night, even though we were in a different restaurant, the maitre d' from Mama's sent down two huge, delicious, creamy bowls of booze-free tiramisu, specially for my kids. Touches like that really make the difference.
From Russia with Love
St. Petersburg, for families, can be the biggest challenge as, for the most part, few cruise tours venture beyond the city's cultural icons. Though I longed to see the Hermitage again, I didn't think Joel and Lauren would get as much from it as I would, so we joined "St. Petersburg Through The Eyes of the Russians" for an inside track on daily life.
The first stop was a privately owned Russian supermarket, presumably swankier than the state-run outfits. We were allocated ten minutes, so I set the children a task: find out what Russians eat and drink. Quite a lot of meat, we concluded, and not many fresh vegetables. They also consume a lot of lurid coleslaw, smoked fish, elaborate cakes and plenty of tinned stuff. A whole aisle, about one-eighth of the entire supermarket, was dedicated to vodka, starting at the rouble equivalent of about $5 a bottle. No wonder alcoholism is a problem.
Speaking of roubles, it was a mistake not to get any. Russians aren't nearly as keen as they used to be to get their hands on dollars and Euros. The temperature shot up to 30 degrees, and the children demanded water -- but none of the street vendors would take even a five-Euro bill for one bottle. In the end, I did a deal with the guide, who bought us some water and made a healthy profit in the process.
Next, we rode around on the Metro, marvelling at the spotless, palatial stations, complete with elaborate marble tiling and chandeliers. I realised how obsessed Russians are with time and precision. Exactly ten minutes here, five minutes there. A digital display in the metro tells you how many seconds since the last train left -- not until the next train arrives -- and traffic lights count down until the lights change.
Joel took a photograph in one of the stations and was immediately yelled at by an official. It was our first encounter of several with grumpy Russians. A woman at a drinks stall screeched at us when we tried to open her chiller cabinet, and even a small dog snarled and growled when the kids approached it. Nobody seemed interested in children, and people on the streets looked grim, despite the glorious summer day with the church domes glinting gold in the sunshine and tour boats buzzing up and down the Neva River. On the other hand, our guide and driver were charming and full of famously melancholic Russian humour and love of anecdotes.
We visited a Russian fruit market, which was like a smaller, grubbier version of a market at home. Again, we got dirty looks when the children photographed the spice stalls. Then, we stopped in a souvenir shop, where I made a hurried purchase of a jewelled egg. Finally came the inevitable vodka tasting. Three hefty shots of Siberian nut vodka, pepper vodka and the neat, unflavored house hooch sent most people to sleep on the motorcoach, clutching their bounty of chunky amber jewellery, soldier's hats and novelty Russian dolls.
Back onboard, between dinner and the late show each night, we'd squeeze in an hour of karaoke in a Whatever room, as you can't exactly sit around in a bar with two children. The shows were a big highlight for Lauren and Joel. Productions by the Jean Anne Ryan Company are, in my opinion, a cut above those on other ships. There are more elaborate sets, more dancers, more singers, more talent and, importantly, a live band; cruise ships play a significant role in keeping music live, and I'm always dismayed if a show uses taped music.
We loved all the entertainment, from the cheesy 1970's production (featuring a set of Queen songs) to the Country 'n' Western theme and Cirque Bijoux, an absolutely breathtaking and beautifully executed circus show with amazing trapeze and rope feats high above the audience.
In St. Petersburg, where the ship stayed overnight, most people went ashore to see Swan Lake, but as it's nearly three hours long, I decided against it. I didn't think Lauren and Joel would sit still. Instead, we enjoyed the more prosaic !Singalong Sound of Music" in the Stardust theatre. The sacrifices you make!
Culture at Last
Russia may have been the biggest eye-opener, but the best cultural hit on our cruise was Stockholm's amazing Vasa Museum on Djurgarden Island, close to the city centre. I could feel the grumbling begin as we lined up to pay our entry, but the minute we were through the door and confronted by the perfectly intact, 400-year-old wooden battleship, Lauren and Joel were wowed. The museum is brilliantly done; you can admire the Vasa -- which sank on its maiden voyage in Stockholm harbour in 1628 and was lifted from the seabed in 1961 -- from all angles, look at artefacts from the ship and skeletons of the crew (a big hit), and walk through a scale recreation of the gun deck.
We had huge fun playing a computer game to recreate your own version of the Vasa, adjusting the sail trim, wind speed, ballast and size of your own ship to achieve more success than the original did. All of our efforts sank, just like the real thing.
Afterwards, we nipped into the nearby aquarium, which is small but has a salmon ladder, a living coral reef, a walk-through rainforest and a sewer into which you can climb. We hopped on one of the many ferries circling the harbour, grabbed a pizza for lunch and found a 76 bus to take us back to the ship.
The sailaway from Stockholm has to be one of the world's most beautiful, as the ship weaves for two hours through the archipelago in the setting sun. We passed countless tiny, pine-clad rocky islands -- each one with a brightly coloured summer house and a small jetty -- the scent of pine smoke hanging in the air.
Days at Sea
Our cruise wound down with two days at sea, a long spell when it's not warm enough to lie on deck. We braved the children's pool and waterslide, and I sat shivering on a sun lounger in my wet bikini, as a woman walked past in ski pants, a padded white ski jacket and a newly acquired Russian hat of white fur.
I wonder if a cruise with so many sea days -- four in total -- is ideal for really active children when it's not quite warm enough to swim. Mine didn't take to the children's club at all, and I found myself shouting at them all the time for tearing up and down the corridors or playing endless Nintendo in the cabin. But we had a lot of fun together -- especially on the last day at a class in animal towel-making, held by room stewards, who left increasingly elaborate towel creatures on our beds at turn-down every night.
Lauren and Joel also entertained themselves by watching DVD's in the cabin or playing chess on the giant outdoor set, huddled against the ferocious North Sea wind. Meanwhile, I sweated through a course of spinning classes and fitted in a couple of treatments in the gorgeous Bora Bora Spa.
So did we feel culturally enriched by the end? I feel privileged to have been able to give my children a taste of six new countries. They still talk about Tivoli, the Vasa and the snow leopards. My singing has improved. And, we can all make crocodiles out of two bathroom towels and a facecloth.
--by Sue Bryant, a London-based journalist who also covers cruising for the Times, the Telegraph and the Daily Express.