We have recently taken a 13 night cruise aboard the MV Aurora to the Baltic, visiting a total of 7 ports.
We are pretty independent travellers and do not usually book tours with the Cruise company, preferring to explore on our own. Shopping does not feature high on our list of priorities, preferring to see more of the actual cities and their architecture.
The Aurora is a lovely ship, typically old style P&O I'm led to believe with a "comfortable" air about her. She has a lovely teak promenade deck, great for keeping fit or just trying to keep the weight down because the food on board is some of the best I have experienced on a cruise ship.
It is incredibly easy to find your way around. The forward, mid-ship and aft stairs are all carpeted in different colour carpet making locating your position very easy.
The bars on board are really good, particularly "The Crow's Nest" and a close second is "Anderson's". Dining each evening (on second sitting) in The Alexandra Restaurant was wonderful. The food was exceptional, with both the food and service being better than "Cafe Bordeaux" the Marco Pierre White inspired restaurant. Afternoon tea was somewhat of a let down. The food itself was lovely but the ambiance of afternoon tea was ruined by some older people moaning constantly about everything. You do wonder why these people cruise if all they can do is moan about the ship, its staff and the ports they are visiting.
I would cruise aboard the ship again, but I would warn any potential passenger, choose your cabin wisely. The cabin walls are extremely thin and if you are unlucky enough to have the "wrong" neighbours, you may have to endure sleep deprived nights. Overall, the ship is good, not the best I've ever been on and not the worst.
Our trip took in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia and Belgium, with varying stays in each country. Luckily for us we had the most glorious weather for the trip which made exploring each of these cities all the more pleasurable. We walked around most of the cities visited, being keen hikers as well made this easy but needed the help of a tour company in Russia. This we booked through the Internet prior to our departure.
OSLO in Norway was very easy to walk around and we berthed close to the Akershus Fortress.
COPENHAGEN in Denmark was also very easy to walk around, being berthed not too far from The Little Mermaid statue. Lovely architecture.
STOCKHOLM in Sweden, again very easy to walk around with plenty to see.
HELSINKI in Finland, courtesy shuttle bus provided throughout the day by P&O running to and from the town centre. Very efficient but necessary. Once in town very easy to find your way around with some lovely sites. Also there appeared to be a fair amount of construction so some popular tourist sites not at their best.
ST PETERSBURG in Russia - this really was the jewel of our trip. We had pre-booked a two day deluxe tour via the internet prior to leaving with a Russian company called SPb Tours, operated by Company Director, Viktoria Rother. We have nothing but praise for this company, they were fantastic. We had efficient and regular correspondence with Viktoria during the booking process. She ensured we had all the necessary documentation to leave the ship and gave us confidence that you can independently see Russia, unlike P&O who give a strong impression that you have to go on excursions with them or risk being on the ship for two days! Our tour party was for six people only (our request) and we were greeted by our tour guide, Ekaterina, once through customs. Contrary to popular belief, this was actually a very easy process. Viktoria joined us shortly afterwards to welcome us to the city and Petr was our fantastic driver. We had the most comfortable air conditioned Mercedes vehicle and having a local driver ensured we avoided the dreaded St Petersburg traffic hold ups and actually returned to the ship on time unlike the P&O organised trips which had all been held up and some were well over an hour late back. Our trip included all the major sites of St Petersburg, local lunches which were delicious and Ekaterinas knowledge was amazing. She ensured we had efficient entrance to all the visitor attractions and guided us around avoiding the crowds that developed during the day. We would strongly recommend the use of SPb Tours.
TALLINN in Estonia, again P&O supplied a courtesy shuttle bus, which was again necessary and worked like clockwork. Once in the town, we walked around the old city which was lovely, but sadly after St Petersburg, nothing quite compared.
BRUGES in Belgium, from Zeebrugge - Zeebrugge is a working container port and you really need to arrange an excursion as there is very little to see in the immediate vicinity. We booked a P&O bus trip into Bruges that then allowed us to explore as we wished. Bruges itself is a most beautiful city with plenty to see and do. If you are feeling fit, a walk up the 366 winding steps of 260foot Belfry in The Markt gives fantastic views of the city.
Our return to Southampton was as expected. We arrived as scheduled and using self help disembarkation we disembarked effortlessly.
Visiting the Baltic cities is a must for any city loving cruise fan, made better by fantastic weather and using the right tour companies when needed.