November 24, 2017

Taking a Baltic Cruise

Northern EuropeA Baltic cruise is one of the best voyages available for travelers as this trip takes you to some of the great cities of the western world. Most of the cruise lines offer itineraries to this destination and the major lines have been here for many years with an excellent selection of shore excursions.
Scandinavia, Russia and mainland Europe border the Baltic Sea. Most of the capitals, such as Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo and Helsinki, are sea ports where cruise passengers disembark near the city center and, with English widely spoken and efficient public transportation, are easy to explore on your own.

The highlight of a Baltic cruise, however, is the overnight stay in St. Petersburg. This former capital of Imperial Russia is one of the world’s most beautiful cities – the images of canal-woven streets, glittering palaces and golden-domed churches linger in one’s thoughts long after the cruise is over.

Ships depart from a number of ports for this cruise including Dover, Southampton, Harwich, Copenhagen and Amsterdam. Some even depart from ports in Scandinavia. On a recent cruise on Celebrity’s Constellation, we departed from Dover, which has a few attractions of its own the highlight being the stunning Dover Castle. It was a short cab ride from the rental drop off (we picked up a car at Heathrow) to the cruise terminal and in short order were on the ship and enjoying a glass of wine on our balcony. We watched the white cliffs of Dover fade astern as we headed up the North Sea bound for Oslo.

Oslo, the capital of Norway, was our first port of call and we woke to find the Constellation nestled close to the town center beneath the ramparts of a medieval fortress. Founded a thousand years ago by a Norse king, the city is scenically poised at the head of island-dotted Oslofjord. A short tram ride away is Vigeland Sculpture Park, its manicured grounds containing the colossal nude sculptures of Gustav Vigeland.

Oslo’s maritime heritage is showcased in a cluster of museums which can be reached by passenger ferry from the downtown harbourfront. On display is Kon-Tiki (the wooden raft used by Thor Heyerdahl), the Fram (a wooden schooner used by the Arctic explorers Nansen and Amundsen) and two of the best-preserved Viking ships ever found. Interestingly, Oslo is mostly free of cars as the main freeway runs under the city centre.

Our next port was Stockholm and it’s little wonder the Swedish capital rarely suffered foreign attacks over the centuries, being situated as it is at the end of an extensive maze of islands and peninsulas where Lake Malaren flows into the Baltic Sea. The city’s historic core is a medieval warren of narrow, winding streets, and a hop-on, hop-off ferry boat can be taken from the cruise dock to various stops around the harbour. Many of the city’s famous landmarks are situated at the water’s edge, including City Hall (where the annual Nobel Banquet is held in the Blue Hall) and the Royal Dramatic Theatre where the careers of Ingmar Bergman, Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman were launched.

The highlight of our day in Stockholm was the changing of the guard at the Royal Palace. Sweden, Norway and Denmark have all retained a constitutional monarchy and their royal guards, in dress uniform, can be seen standing at attention outside each city’s palace. In Stockholm, the mid-day Parade of Guards (held daily throughout the summer in the palace’s outer courtyard) attracts crowds of tourists and locals alike.

There is no royal palace in Helsinki, the Finnish capital, but there are outstanding examples of functionalist and modernist architecture. The city’s neo-classical cathedral looms over Senate Square, which posed as a Russian square in such movies as The Kremlin Letter and Reds.

The next morning we were in the real Russia, our ship docking on the Neva River near the outskirts of St. Petersburg. This city is unique in that it went from being just a pretty river delta in 1703 to a major political center in less than a decade. This was all due to the determination of Czar Peter the Great to build a Baltic seaport that would rival the great capitals of Europe. An admirer of western culture, he hired Italian and French architects to design a city of spacious classical beauty. His daughter Empress Elizabeth commissioned the magnificent Winter Palace, home to the Hermitage – a premier attraction in St. Petersburg. Other must-see sights are Senate Square; St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood and the royal estate at Peterhof – famous for its fountains, gardens and ornate palaces.

To make full use of your two days in St. Petersburg, an escorted tour ashore is the best way to go. (If you want to explore independently, you must obtain a visa beforehand and this is something very few cruisers do.) The cruise lines offer an array of shore excursions, but there are also several excellent independent tour companies that are licensed to provide tours to cruise passengers. The one we can personally recommend is the two-day group tour by Denrus which covers all of the major attractions as well as some less-visited sites. Lunch and vodka are included.

After the immense grandeur and bustle of St. Petersburg, our stop at the Estonian capital of Tallinn was a welcome change of pace. Here a stroll along the cobbled lanes of the walled Old Town is like stepping back into the Middle Ages. Our boys enjoyed exploring the ramparts and watch-towers that dot the medieval wall. Then it was on to the German port of Warnemunde, which provides access to Berlin (a three-hour train ride away) or to nearby Rostock, its Gothic brick buildings bombed during WWII but since rebuilt.

Our final port was Copenhagen, where the ship docked a short distance from the famous Little Mermaid statue, perched on a foreshore rock near the waterfront promenade. Copenhagen is a pedestrian-friendly city and the main shopping street – free of car traffic – winds past outdoor cafes and shops selling product lines created by Danish designers. We were ready for lunch when we emerged at City Hall Square opposite Tivoli Gardens, so we opted for some light fare in the elegant Winter Garden cafe of Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, an art museum founded a century ago by the brewing magnate Carl Jacobsen.

© Ocean Cruise Guides 2012