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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 9: Thursday, St. Petersburg, Day 3 and Tallinn
St. Petersburg, Day 3 and TallinnWhile most cruise lines spend just one overnight in St. Petersburg on Baltic itineraries, giving passengers two full days ashore, Oceania Cruises uniquely offers two overnights and three full days. Frankly, I can't see how anyone sees anything in just two days without collapsing! Three is tough enough.

My third day in St. Petersburg had me going to Peterhof, the Palace of Peter the Great, about 15 miles outside the city and along the Gulf of Finland. The palace was touted as magnificent, but the real draw for most visitors is the garden and its fountains. Peterhof is called The Versailles of Russia, and once on the grounds, it's easy to see why. Sweeping lawns punctuated with pools and fountains and geometric topiaries line the walkways to the palace itself, an enormous yellow confectionary of Franco-Russian Baroque architecture.

Well, the grounds do indeed have the potential to be fantastic -- but for some reason, on the day I visited, they were scruffy looking. Weeds peeked out of the plantings in the fountains, the grass looked unkempt, and the geometry of the topiaries was broken by stray surging greenery. And the worst: The fountains never came on, which my guide said was absolute heresy! (See above photo for the view with them on.)

The interior of the palace looked very similar to Catherine's Palace, which we had seen the night before. The biggest difference was that the crowd was huge, as Peterhof was not open exclusively to Regatta's guests. The walkways through the palace rooms themselves are quite narrow, so as each guide's group stopped to get an overview of what they were seeing, everyone else got backed up and crowded in.

The most intriguing part of Peterhof was the back of the palace, which had a canal built right into the Baltic Sea, just a short distance (maybe an eighth of a mile) away. Visitors could come by boat and debark right on the palace grounds. The back of the structure also had what looked like incredible water features; my guide said that originally they had all been gravity-driven, with the lowest fountains going the highest. The back of the property is quite a bit lower than the front; I'd bet the fountains were a beautiful greeting to arriving guests.

My final excursion in St. Petersburg was the canal cruise and shopping trip. This was bound to be exciting since it was Navy Day; the river was filled with military ships, and traffic was a mess because of all of the visitors downtown. We knew that the little canal boats also went into the Neva, and we hoped to get some up-close views of the holiday activities. My new solo friend Michelle was also on this trip, but we ended up on different boats. Yes, we went into the Neva, and yes, we went right past the military ships with the sailors standing at attention on the decks. We went past the bridge designed by Gustaf Eiffel and past the tiniest sculpture in St. Petersburg, a 5.1-inch bird called the Drunk Chizhik; if you can get a coin to land on its bracket over the Fontanka River, your wish will be granted.

After the cruise we were taken to a store that -- to me, at any rate -- was just an overpriced tourist trap. We were given 30 minutes inside and then moved to the open market near the Church on Spilled Blood, the spot where Czar Alexander II was assassinated by a bomb in 1881. This is the iconic church structure in St. Petersburg, the most photographed. Made to look old and to resemble St. Basil's in Moscow, it actually was completed in the early 1900's, three years after Alexander III, who had commissioned the building to commemorate his father, died.

Thanks to Navy Day traffic, we made it back to the ship with just 20 minutes to spare before setting sail for our next port: Tallinn. The sunset on the Baltic Sea this evening, even though it didn't take place until about 11:30 p.m., was glorious and a fitting goodbye to the sheer busy-ness of St. Petersburg. Going out into the wind on my forward-facing balcony, getting a full panorama of the sea, the ships in the distance, and the setting sun, made me appreciate the location of my stateroom all the more.



Tallinn is an incredible hybrid of a city; on one side there are gleaming glass and steel skyscrapers and a population known for its technical brilliance, and on the other, old Tallinn, with its Upper Town and Lower Town and medieval fortresses and cathedrals. I have yet to meet anyone who has ventured from a ship to explore the skyscrapers; everyone heads to Old Town. If you're in good physical shape or don't mind a long walk, it's actually fairly easy to access, but it isn't exactly next to the pier. I grabbed a cab at $15 USD, which dropped me at the bottom of the town, right near the flower market.

My intent was to walk and explore, walk and explore, walk and explore, and shop. Tallinn is known for its woven goods, linens and the ubiquitous Baltic amber. The currency here is Estonian kroon, which I found amusingly listed in pricing as EEK. (When I saw some of the prices, I thought it was a fitting comment. EEK.)

I climbed, up, up, up. The old city is paved with cobbles, so it is hard on the feet and legs, but there is a large square with plenty of dining spots to sit and recuperate while enjoying a coffee, a beer or a meal. I wanted to get away from the touristy restaurants so I wandered along some back streets to find the perfect spot for me to have lunch, a small creperie called Kompressor, located a few blocks above the main square at Rataskaevu 3. Actually, I had no idea at the time that I'd found a creperie, nor did I know that it was supposed to be "hip" (it is). I simply knew I'd found a restaurant that was kind of off the beaten track, not filled with tourists and which served what looked like enormous omelettes. Turns out they are huge Estonian pancakes filled with chicken, shrimp, cheese or a combination of the above. Kompressor is also inexpensive compared to the restaurants on the square that cater to the tourist trade: A meal here is about $5 to $6. On the square, a small salad might be $19.

One note: Kompressor only takes cash, and only kroons (EEK)! There's a "bancomat" (or ATM) down the hill. On the way down, I ran into my new friend Michelle, who convinced me to join her for a cup of coffee at one of the $19 salad spots. I never did make it back to Kompressor, alas, but I have something to look forward to on my next Baltic cruise!

I started my descent back to the flower market where I was to meet up with my cab driver at a pre-arranged time. I was heading down, so even if the streets didn't look too familiar I knew I was going in the right direction. Um, not exactly. I walked and walked, down and down, with little familiarity and no tourists. I felt good about it, like I had discovered the secret passage to return to civilization. And then suddenly I was no longer in Old Town, I was alongside a major traffic artery. I had no idea where I was but it sure as heck was nowhere near where I was to meet my cab driver. I also, for some odd reason, had not taken a map with me, which had been readily available from the tourism representatives who had boarded the ship earlier in order to assist us in our plans. So caveat emptor on that score: If you don't take the map that's freely offered and you get lost, you deserve it!

I saw Regatta off in the distance. As bad as I felt about leaving my driver waiting, I had no idea how to get back to him. And trust me, I felt even worse when I saw how far I'd have to walk to Regatta without the cab. But I gamely headed off across a major intersection and toward the ship, which was hidden behind some ferries going to Stockholm and Helsinki. Upon spotting cabs on the main roads I was crossing, I stuck my hand out and one of them swerved to get me. I couldn't believe my eyes! It was MY driver! MY cab! I know it was just happenstance that he left the flower market when he figured I was a no-show and happenstance that he ended up precisely where I was when I needed him -- but that day, he was my hero.



After enjoying the last sail away of this voyage on my verandah, I had supper with friends in the Grand Dining Room, a fancy one of Beef Wellington (some of us) and roast crispy duck (others). We all had an extraordinary appetizer of boiled new potatoes with caviar. Buttery bits of warm potato came in a martini glass with a heap of black caviar and a tiny drop of sour cream. It wasn't a large amount, it was just about ideal (as good as it was, we all knew it was just too rich to have it any larger or to have a second helping). But I made note: Look for it on subsequent Oceania cruises. Consider making it at home for a fancy dinner party.

Everything was just a little bit fancier on this night because even though it wasn't the last night of the voyage, it was the last night that people could just relax onboard. The following night we'd be moored in Stockholm; many guests would be dining ashore and the rest of us would be busy packing up. In keeping with the fanciness, we were offered an amuse bouche to start (the literal translation is "tease the mouth"; ours was a very small mushroom concoction) and sorbet (vodka-lemon, which was, excuse the cliche, to die for) between our salad and main meal. I finished off the night with the too-good-to-be-real creme brule that I had tried my best to resist for most of the cruise.

Supper wasn't the only area that was meant to create -- or solidify -- memories. This was the night of the gala staff show, always my favorite aboard any ship. Because Regatta is smaller than many ships, over the course of a 14-night cruise, you do get to know many more of the staff and entertainers than you do on larger ships. I was looking forward to seeing Leslie Jon, the various Chrises and Christophers, and our social dear host, Sybil, perform. The Regatta lounge isn't very big, and it's more like a club than a show lounge, with tables and chairs rather than seats.

Tonight it was jam-packed with a standing-room-only crowd. Chris Martin, the handsome, British assistant cruise director, told jokes. The other Chris and Christopher sang, as did Sybil. The bad magicians performed bad magic and made us all laugh out loud, and then Leslie performed "If I were a Rich Man" as Tevya, from the musical Fiddler on the Roof. He rolled up his sleeves, put on a cap, put a pillow under his shirt and my God, he looked just like Zero Mostel from Broadway, and his singing and performance was transportive. It wasn't just Broadway quality, it was Tony-worthy. When he finished there was a brief moment of silence and then a crack, a jolt, an earthquake of applause. The standing ovation lasted more than five minutes.

The staff was paraded in and introduced, a short speech and thank you from the very, very French General Manager Thierry Tholon, whose nametag amusingly states his home as Australia. Then everyone sang "Auld Lang Syne."

As we departed, Leslie made sure to advise us that sailing into Stockholm, through and around the little islands that form the archipelago surrounding the city, was spectacular viewing. He also said that we should all wake at 4:30 a.m. to experience it -- or, if we couldn't tolerate that early an arousing, 6 a.m. "at the very latest." To help the cause, the Terrace Cafe would open at 6 a.m. for a special "white robe" breakfast; all guests were invited to come to the terrace in their Oceania bathrobe. And after breakfast, as we approached the port at around 9 a.m., we'd congregate at the fantail and wave to passengers aboard other ships in the harbor.

Let's see first how I handle the 4:29 wake-up call....

Day 8: St. Petersburg, Day 2 red arrow Day 10: Stockholm

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