CHRIS HUTCHINSON visits great cities of the Baltic
WE had almost decided on a city holiday to Sweden and Denmark when we saw a Fred Olsen cruise which included those two countries, plus the bonus of Baltic Sea countries Estonia, Latvia and Russia - with St Petersburg as the highlight. The itinerary appealed and, with help from the tour staff, we booked a series of excursions well within our budget, proving to be an invaluable decision.
Leaving from a UK port has many benefits, including extra luggage allowance and speedy embarkation. After two sunny days’ sailing, we entered the Swedish Archipelago, a group of 30,000 islands; our ship Balmoral weaved through a four-hour scenic passage.
Arriving in Stockholm, a panoramic city tour took in the highlights. Strolling around the oldest district, Gamla Stan, you absorb the heart of the city.
Sailing back through the islands, a large group of swans simultaneously rose flapping their wings, a Swedish goodbye or a swan song! A day at sea allows you to enjoy Balmoral’s amenities and activities or be lazy like me, with a good book enjoying the tranquillity of open space.
Tallinn, a medieval town in Estonia, our walking tour was a great way to soak up sights and sounds of this enchanting place, with narrow cobbled streets, secret court yards and fairytale towers, entertained by Troubadours and Minstrels singing and playing traditional songs in authentic dress. Stalls selling hand-knitted clothing and amber (Baltic gold) are sold at keen prices. Lunch of pork, cooked Estonian style, is a culinary delight; including local beer.
Next morning, we arrived at St.Petersburg, Russia. Two names are synonymous with this extraordinary city, rulers Peter and Catherine the Great, whose influence dominated Imperial Russia and still evident today. We made the most of our first day, with tours of Peterhof Palace and the Hermitage.
Entering Peter the Great’s Palace, we visited state rooms, including the opulent throne room, oak study and grand ballrooms; you can’t fail to appreciate designs and workmanship. At 11am, the resounding anthem of St Petersburg is played; from the Palace terrace you see the stunning avenue leading to the Gulf of Finland. The grand cascade erupts with three waterfalls and 64 fountains fed by underground springs.
Lunch in a typical Russian restaurant started with vodka tasting; it was fun to see the faces in our group, ranging from surprise to delight!
The Hermitage, located imposingly on the river bank, houses over 2.8 million works of art; entering through the Winter Palace, you are immediately in awe of its exhibits, rooms full of Rubens, galleries of Goyas. You gaze at master pieces by da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and many more great artists.
In the evening, we were taken to the Nickolaevsky Palace, featuring a traditional folk show, entertained by musicians, singers and dancers, each routine reflecting different regions of Russia. During the interval, Russian Champagne, vodka, caviar and canapés were served generously. The show ended with a rousing Cossack theme.
Arriving at Catherine’s Palace, its turquoise, white and gold facade, adorned with sculptured figures, glistened in the sun. Room after room reflected Catherine’s passion for fine furniture and art, including the Hall of Light and the amazing Amber room, its tones ranging from lemon to dark red; afterwards, we enjoyed the beautiful gardens.
The city’s highlights tour captures the most significant sights of St. Petersburg, from the main thoroughfares, lined with palaces and statues, to Vasilievsky Island, where the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul is guarded by the fort. Dominated by the majestic St Isaac’s Cathedral, with its golden dome, St Petersburg is an unforgettable experience.
By now, we were half way through our cruise and were being totally spoilt on board - fabulous food and evening shows.
Riga, the ‘Pearl of Latvia’, is characterised by three distinct faces, from 14th Century medieval roots, quality Art Nouveau buildings and 19th century wooden architecture; not surprising it’s on the UNESCO list.
Meandering round the quaint old town, you become enthralled in its history. For lunch, I had three types of Baltic fish, my wife had meat dumplings, both cooked the Latvian way- delicious - with a choice of light or dark local beer.
Sailing to Denmark, we had unexpected entertainment, a pod of dolphins appeared either side of the ship, then met up.
On board, we indulged in a traditional afternoon tea, with white glove service, in the evening we dined at The Grill, where the speciality is steak and seafood, both highly recommended.
Balmoral birthed a short walk from Copenhagen’s iconic attraction, the Little Mermaid; she sits serenely on her bed of rocks. legend has it she will have to sit another 197 years before entering the world of humans, would she want to? After taking in Copenhagen’s highlights, we arrived at the old charming fishing village of Dragor. We strolled the narrow streets of yellow cottages with thatched roofs, gardens ablaze with Hollyhocks, ending with Danish pastry and coffee served at an old inn.
Our final night in Balmoral’s theatre featured all the artists and dancers in a spectacular show that left us clamouring for more.
This is a cruise offering sightseeing, culture, history, music and an excellent time on board; visiting Scandinavia and Baltic cities gives the best of both worlds.
* A similar 14-night cruise with Fred Olsen in 2017, ‘Scandinavian Capitals & St.Petersburg’ departs Newcastle on July 16, 2017, calling at: Copenhagen, Stockholm, cruising Stockholm Archipelago, Tallinn, overnight in St Petersburg, Riga, Klaipeda, Oslo and cruising Oslofjord, returning to Newcastle on July 30, 2017.
Prices currently start from £1,699 pp, based on an interior twin-bedded room, subject to availability. Visit fredolsencruises.com or call 0800 0355 242.