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Home > Virtual Cruises > Birthday in the Baltic on Oceania's Regatta
Birthday in the Baltic on Oceania's Regatta
Day 1: Dover
Day 2: Brugge and Amsterdam
Day 3: Kiel Canal and Warnemunde
Day 4: Copenhagen
Day 5: Gdansk
Day 6: Helsinki
Day 7: St. Petersburg
Day 8: St. Petersburg, Day 2
Day 9: St. Petersburg, Day 3 and Tallinn
Day 10: Stockholm
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Day 6: Monday, Helsinki
HelsinkiSparkling blue skies, bright sun, the sea like glass -- if I had had a direct phone line to the weather gods and could put in an order for the perfect day, this would be it. Why would I choose to do anything but relax in my cabana?

Well, that was my frame of mind until I was once again beckoned by all of the activity choices available during a Regatta sea day. I declined the Needlepoint and Coffee Chat -- but Sybil, my friendly Social Host, was so charming and engaging that I did agree meet with her for Napkin Folding. I retreated to my cabana for some rest only after a strenuous Bishop's Hat creation with Sybil, not realizing that the moveable kitchen I had seen on The Patio the night before was now set up in the Regatta Lounge, where Executive Chef Pascal Lesueur was doing a culinary demo (a veal medallion with a mushroom coulis). Too many choices, too little time!

Speaking of choices, I looked through the cabana menu and had pretty much decided what I wanted Stanley to bring me for lunch. But before I ordered, I heard the faint strains of live music in the pool area and went to investigate. I love my cabana, don't get me wrong -- but the pool area looked incredibly inviting on this perfect sunny day. Not only were there plenty of padded and covered chaises scattered around, but there were also double Balinese beds with pillows and even bolsters for under the knees. And there, on the stage, was a jazz quartet filling the air with sophisticated sound. I made a compromise: I wandered over to Waves Grill and decided to set up shop there for a bit so I could better hear the jazz. I ordered a hamburger with mushrooms and chocolate malt made with real malt powder, and sat at a table in Waves on the pool deck. I enjoyed the music, the activity and the lunch.

I had gone to my room to return the tote bag and drop off my books, but found it so appealing that I dozed off while sitting on my forward-facing verandah, viewing other ships and ferries on the calm yet busy Baltic. From my verandah -- which, to remind, squelched any concerns about the location of my cabin -- I could experience the 180-degree views in front of me. It's a standard verandah room with 220 square ft. of space including the balcony (same as the Concierge Class verandah rooms). The room is smallish, but nicely laid out, with plenty of closet and drawer space. The bathrooms in this category are tiny, but again, conveniently configured and surprisingly comfortable for their small size.

The bed, which can be two twins or an oversized queen, is luxurious with Egyptian cotton linens, a down comforter and down pillows. The pale blues in the bedding and on the little sofa reflect the darker blue pattern in the carpet; the drapes are gold as are the throw pillows on the sofa. The walls are a pale neutral color. Overall, it's a very soothing palette, made even more so by the liberal use of dark walnut veneers. Most ship staterooms these days are filled with obvious laminate woodwork, and indeed, SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) protocols require that just a tiny percentage of a ship's construction be wood -- and understandably so, for fire safety reasons. On this ship, however, at least the veneer on the cabinetry and around the mirrors is real walnut. It adds an elegant, finished look to the staterooms.

One of the stateroom quirks is that the phone is in absolutely the wrong place. It isn't near the desk, where it might make sense. It isn't on the bedside table next to the little sofa, where it also might make sense. No, it's on the wall closest to the bathroom. (To be fair, it's also near the bed, but that's beside the point.) It's in a inconvenient location. Oceania didn't plan it that way, that's how the ships came to them, but it's still quirky. And if you get excited because there is Internet service for your laptop in your stateroom, you'd better bring a 25-foot cord with you because that's what you need to reach the phone from the desk.

The window wall that opens to the balcony is all glass, with a sliding door in the middle, making for a nice panorama. The decking of the verandah itself is teak, much nicer than the plastic composite used on many ships, which makes the choice of the pedestrian outdoor furniture seem out of sync with the overall sense of elegance. Two aluminum chairs with mesh fabric and a small, white composite stool with aluminum legs constitute the furnishings.

Continuing the overall theme of the day, supper in the Grand Dining Room was uber-relaxed. Celebrity chef Jacques Pepin is the culinary director for Oceania Cruises. He proclaims that a meal without friends is just not possible, so I joined new friends at a large table to truly enjoy my meal. I had a terrine of something and a feuillette of something and a salad and then broke from the offered menu to take advantage of M. Pepin's "anytime" New York strip with herb butter. It arrived perfectly prepared and surrounded with barely steamed vegetables. Heavenly! The late night show, The World's Worst Magicians starring the Great Desmondo and Cherry, provided the perfect belly laughs on which to fall asleep, the better to be rested for Helsinki, Finland.

Although I had never been there, I had already developed an affinity for Helsinki. For one thing, I love innovative design and creativity, and Finland stands at the forefront of what I see as design savvy. For another, I got a sense of place from Carolyn Spencer Brown, Cruise Critic's Editor in Chief, who's married to a Finn and spends her summers there. And add to that the fact that Melissa Baldwin, Cruise Critic's Managing Editor, had recently written an article about the Finn's sense of fun (otherwise known as Finnwacky) -- a delight to read, and I was hooked. As if that weren't enough, a week or so before my trip MSNBC broadcasted the Wife Carrying competition in Helsinki, mentioned in Baldwin's story. (Alas, a couple from Estonia won.) I couldn't wait.

I had heard about the beauty of lower Finland and the archipelago of islands that ships have to negotiate to get to the capital. I was up early, coffee in hand, standing on my verandah for the views, and I was not disappointed. It was a gorgeous entrance into the port, helped too by the continuation of exceptional weather.

For Helsinki I chose the boat tour around the archipelago. I did this for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to see the area from that perspective. Second I knew that the tourist/shopping area I wanted to visit in the city afterwards was an easy walk away. And third, I just had no desire to sit in a bus or van for several hours. I was really happy with my choice. I got an overview of Helsinki itself and a terrific look at the city from the vantage point of the water. It was a pastoral way to start my day.

From our guide I learned that the city of Helsinki has approximately 500,000 inhabitants, that the country of Finland has just over 5 million, and that there are 2.1 million saunas.

"We are a country obsessed with saunas," she told us. "Everyone wants a sauna in their house; even those with the smallest of studio apartments want a sauna." As our tour boat glided around the little islands surrounding Helsinki, we could see large villas with what looked like cute little waterfront cottages at the sea's edge. Guest houses? No. Saunas! She also pointed out some apartment buildings in the trendy, expensive part of town, near the embassies. Apartments in Helsinki, in this neighborhood, she told us, with a nice waterview, sell for about 7,000 euros per square meter. By my estimation, that's nearly $1,200 per square ft.

The forested islands looked very similar to, and reminded me of, the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound, not far from Seattle. The whole area had kind of a Northwest U.S. feel to it. I suddenly understood why the Seattle area is filled with Finns, Swedes and Norwegians. It looks like home, but with a more temperate climate. I've yet to see the proliferation of saunas along the water's edge in the San Juans, though.

The end of the tour had the boat stopping at the Market Square at the top of the harbor. We had the opportunity to rejoin the bus and be taken back to the ship or to stay in town. I was armed with a walking tour and a couple of "don't miss" spots sent to me by Spencer Brown, so I chose the latter and was all set.

One of my goals was to seek out interesting items for my daughter, the designer, in this capital of design. My goals were bigger than my pocketbook, though, because Helsinki is very, very expensive for Americans. Here's a word of advice from a first-timer: If you are looking to make craft or souvenir purchases in Helsinki, don't rush through the wares in the open market. Look at them closely, and if you see something you like at a decent price, get it. You won't find anything less expensive in the downtown shops; save those for clothing or name-brand goods, and look for sales.

On this sunny day, the open market was teeming with vendors, tourists and locals. I was drawn to the stall of a designer working primarily with felt. The stall was filled with brightly colored hats, shawls, even necklaces -- none too delicate -- made with rainbow-dyed hunks of this compressed wool material. There was a pair of felt boots that I considered purchasing, but decided that they were too expensive. I later saw, in one of the shops along the Esplanade, slippers made of the same stiff felt, not nearly as pretty, and at close to twice the cost of the boots I had coveted. Other items in the market included wooden goods like coasters and pot trivets, knitted caps and scarves, jewelry made of glass and amber. And then there was food. Lots and lots of food, from fruit stalls with plump, juicy strawberries and apricots to fish-sellers with open-faced salmon sandwiches for sale for just 2.50 euros.

I followed the path that Spencer Brown had suggested, walking along the north Esplanade (the side with the shops) until I got to Stockmann's department store, turned left and continued on to the Design District. There I found what seemed like hundreds of small designer shops featuring everything from clothing to linens, artwork to tableware. I bought a set of coasters for my daughter -- they have a useful purpose and are design-worthy. I found my way back to the harbor and, while en route back to the ship, went inside and through the old merchant building with its indoor shops of both foodstuffs and crafts. Again, I was struck by how much it reminded me of the Pacific Northwest. This long building along the harbor, filled with fish stalls and sausages and flowers, could have been the model for Seattle's Pike Place Market.

Back onboard I watched our sailaway with (if it's possible) even more appreciation than I had going in through the archipelago. Now I had seen a lot of these islands up close, and I felt a kinship with them. My only real regret was that I never got to see the wife-carrying contest or any of the other Finnwacky things in that article. Maybe next time.

This was my night to dine at Polo Grill, one of two no-surcharge alternative restaurants on Regatta. It's a quiet, clubby, "steakhouse-y" restaurant with a menu that's a meat eater's dream. Guests in standard (non-suite) staterooms get a guaranteed one-night reservation in both Polo Grill and Toscana, the other no-surcharge alternative dining spot. If there's room on any given evening, and especially if you're willing to share a table, you can dine there again.

The chef recommended either the 2.5-pound whole Maine lobster or the veal Oscar. I chose the latter, not exactly knowing what it was. It came in a stack, a fabulous swirl of veal topped with a small lobster tail, sitting on a bed of mashed potato with truffles. Veal and lobster: Who ever would have thought that combo would work so well? Well, I can tell you it was unbelievable, with perfectly seasoned creamed spinach as a side. This restaurant has no surcharge, but if it did, I'd pay it simply for that fabulous spinach dish. I had no room for dessert, and since I had a very early St. Petersburg morning excursion, I decided to go to bed at as decent hour.

St. Petersburg. Russia. Stalingrad, Leningrad, Petersburg. Russia. I had to pinch myself ... no, I wasn't dreaming, I was really going to the land of the Czars.
Day 5: Gdansk red arrow Day 7: St. Petersburg

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