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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 8: Wednesday, St. Petersburg, Day 2
St. Petersburg, Day 2Our first night in Russia featured two marquee shore tours -- the barely referenced "An Evening of Russian Song and Dance" and the much more hyped "A Night at the Russian Ballet." Almost everyone on the ship goes to one or another, and as much talk as there was about the ballet excursion (Russia being world renowned for its ballet), those of us on the "folklore" trip felt that we got the better deal in the end.

That's partly because by the time evening rolled around, people were exhausted (I heard from more than one ballet participant that the sonorous strains of Tchaikovsky's music had helped put them into a deep slumber during the ballet, jarred awake only by thunderous applause).

Indeed, most guests took full-day packages, were out all day, came back, rushed to shower and change, grabbed a bite to eat and were off again. And although I did only the half-day, it was tiring enough! That goes to show how important it is to carefully plan activities on a European cruise, alternating busy days or events with more laid-back ventures, so that you can avoid cruise vacation burnout.

It would have been difficult to sleep through our folkloric display. It was joyous, colorful and exuberant. We clapped and tapped our feet along with the singers and dancers, and marveled at their skill. The singing style was rustic and raw, and they had a very small "band" with diverse instruments like a balalaika and accordion, a wee little drum set and a Russian version of castanets consisting of several blocks of wood strung together. The costumes were lush and colorful, shimmering; the women swirled their skirts and the men leapt with gymnastic grace. Some of the tunes were familiar, Like "Kalinka" or "Those were the Days" (in the original Russian of course), and some weren't, but everyone on the bus going back to Regatta -- everyone, without exception -- spoke about how enthralling the entertainment was and several people, myself included, wished that there was another offering of this excursion so we could go again.

The Hermitage Museum -- like the Louvre and the Met, the Smithsonian and the Uffizi -- displays some of the world's most impressive artwork. The museum itself is housed in a series of palaces, the most important and interesting of which is known as The Winter Palace. It was commissioned in 1754 by Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great, to be used as an official royal residence. Unfortunately, Empress Elizabeth died before it was completed in 1762, but it was used as an official residence for Russian monarchs until the Romanovs were ousted in 1917.

The three exhibits that I relished were the contemporary collection of works by Picasso and Matisse; the classic collection of works by Rembrandt, Goya, Rubens, El Greco, Caravaggio, Gainsborough and Reynolds; and, finally, the treasure collection -- which includes jewels and treasure created for the royal families, notably those by Carl Faberge. The only way to enter the treasure galleries is with an organized tour; even if you have an individual visa, you can't see the exhibit unless you hook up with a tour operator.

Claustrophobics, beware: The crowds at the Hermitage are unbelievable. One of the advantages of Oceania's Premium Collection is that with so few people (10 to 16) sharing a van instead of packing into the big buses, we seemed to take off more quickly, arrive more quickly and get parked more quickly than participants on the "regular" tour. Again, it was well worth paying the additional $30 on top of the cost of the standard program. It didn't necessarily keep us out of the crowds once we got inside, but the Premium Collection guides are experienced and moved us along at a brisk pace.

There was a lot of walking. I didn't meet a soul who wasn't exhausted by the time we returned to Regatta. Just as the day before, there were some who had all-day tours or a second one after lunch. Those were either the people who needed very little rest or those who weren't participating in the evening extravaganza, the Grand Imperial Evening of the Tzars. Approximately 60 percent of Regatta's guests attend this special excursion on the second night of the St. Petersburg stay. If Scandinavian Splendors is Oceania Cruises' "signature" itinerary, the Grand Imperial Evening of the Tzars is its signature excursion.

Guests leave the ship's dock near 6 p.m. and are transported to the town of Pushkin, just beyond the city of St. Petersburg. It used to be a country retreat, but now, with urban sprawl, it's really a suburb of the city. Our ride to Pushkin alone, at least on my bus, with my guide, was as great as any of the other tours I took in St. Petersburg. We went through the parts of the old city that were becoming familiar to us, the architecture of the 17th, 18th and 19th century, the Rococo palaces and Empire-style institutions, and into areas of 20th-century architecture, including Soviet-bloc behemoths, ugly and squat, and gray apartment buildings. We saw 20th-century monuments; Lenin, war memorials. And then we drove through areas of 21st-century architecture, namely humongous grocery and consumer-goods buildings, open 24-hours, all year, and gas station/restaurant complexes. Our guide, a marvelously wise and funny English teacher, seemed to know just what would intrigue and interest the Americans (and Brits) she was entertaining. She managed to keep it light and contemporary while also educating us.

Pushkin is the home of Catherine's Palace, a summer retreat for the wife of Alexander the Great. When we arrived, the entire house was closed to all but Regatta's guests, making for an easy and comfortable walk through the rooms with just the bare minimum of crowding. We were greeted in several of the rooms with a musician or two; here a flautist, there a harpsichordist. We were even allowed to photograph in the Amber Room, a rare and extraordinary privilege since photos are not allowed during a typical visit. (The Amber Room was recreated, using photographs of the original 16-foot panels and their perfectly fitted pieces of Baltic amber. The Nazis dismantled and removed the original panels, which have never been found. The whole room is covered in Baltic amber.) We ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the gilding on the Rococo and Baroque-style moldings, and admired the parquet flooring with its mother-of-pearl inlays. Even though I knew that about 80 percent of the interior had been reconstructed, it was still impressive.

After the tour of the main rooms of the house we gathered downstairs for Champagne and a concert by a quartet who played music from the Classical and Baroque periods. We were joined by a bewigged couple in period costume who danced a contretemps for us, and we followed them outside to the beautiful gardens as they danced a minuet in the park-like grounds.

A short walk through the gardens brought us to the Carriage Museum; entering it felt like walking through the looking glass and into just about every fairy tale we had learned as children. There were enormous carriages with red and gold, small carriages with few details, simple carriages, and the largest, most ornate vehicles possible. We saw what would today be the equivalent of the Smart Car all the way up to the Rolls Royce Corniche.

Our excursion was topped off with supper at a local restaurant. We sat at long tables, family style, and dined on a real feast of Russian fare. We started with smoked salmon and cold roast pork, pickles and bread, and a shrimp and rice salad. We were offered vodka, red wine, white wine and bottled water -- as much as we wanted of each. The main meal consisted of salmon, potatoes and steamed vegetables, with coffee and ice cream with strawberry sauce for dessert. At some point during our dinner the front of the restaurant turned into its own little folkloric show. Unfortunately, I was seated behind a huge pillar and could neither see nor hear the presentation, but I didn't mind all that much, feeling that nothing could top the extravaganza I had witnessed the night before. Still, a couple of the people near me felt that they were not getting "full value" since they couldn't see the entertainment -- and since the venue really made no effort to adjust seating to avoid that big (about two foot square) pillar, I can understand their anger and disappointment.

Our trip back was no less enthralling than the one going. It was nearly 11:30 p.m., but barely dusk as this time of year in the Baltic, which means sunlight well into the night. Our guide spoke about summer in St. Petersburg, and about mid-June, when there was virtually no sunset at all, and of this season called The White Nights. A summer with lovely weather such as what's being experienced now makes Russians smile -- a lot -- because it is so short a season and quite often rainy or cold. There is a saying in St. Petersburg, she told us, about summer: "Nine months of anticipation, three months of disappointment." A guide we had on the following day said the exact same thing.

We arrived back at Regatta just after midnight, the Neva a beautiful purple blue and the estuary where we were docked reflecting the commercial lights surrounding it. There were no late forays to Horizons or Martini's Bar or the Regatta Lounge: Most of us had to get up at the crack of dawn to get our excursions to Peterhof, the palace of Peter the Great!
Day 7: St. Petersburg red arrow Day 9: St. Petersburg, Day 3 and Tallinn

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