First-time cruiser Jools Stone embarks on an NCL cruise around the Baltic and discovers the delights of freestyling at sea
Standing in the Svedka Ice Bar on Norwegian Breakaway, admiring an ice sculpture of the Statue of Liberty as we sail towards Copenhagen, and chatting to the Venezuelan bartender, it’s dawning on me that this geographically muddled situation is possibly the natural state of being on this, my first, large-scale cruise. Or maybe the vodka is kicking in.
One constant is our balcony stateroom, which is surprisingly spacious and pleasingly serene, with a double wardrobe, mahogany effect furnishings and an incredibly soft double bed, all in line with what you might expect from a decent European four-star hotel room. You seldom feel the motion of the ocean, perhaps the occasional purr of the engine.
At times, there seem to be almost as many staff as there are passengers. Within minutes of boarding, we’re greeted by at least 20 cheerful and faultlessly polite crew members.
Like the late, great Anthony Bourdain, a hefty chunk of mine and Mrs Stone’s yen to travel is driven by our appetite. We weren’t sure what to expect from cruise dining, but we were willing to dive in with gusto.
There are 17 onboard restaurants to choose from and all but one have waiter service. We tried more than half of them. Menus are generally geared towards American tastes, but there are a number of speciality restaurants serving cuisine from Italy, France, Japan and China.
The best of the inclusive ones are Taste and Savor; it’s well worth hustling for a window seat, as the scenery often puts on a show. Leaving St Petersburg we found ourselves waltzing past rusty old Soviet warships and tiny lighthouse stations. Another night we passed under the awe-inspiring 8km-long Øresund Bridge, famous from TV crime series The Bridge.
The ship’s fine dining option is seafood-centric Ocean Blue. Booking is advised here as there are only a small clutch of low-lit half-moon booths. My meal of scallops and pork belly with grapefruit, followed by a perfectly crisped grouper wing, was comfortably the best meal we enjoyed on board.
Norwegian Breakaway is proud of its casual ‘freestyle dining’ concept. We riffed on this theme by creating our own ‘freestyle excursions’. So in Warnemünde, Germany, instead of taking the excursion to Berlin, we saw what the port had to offer. Quite a bit, it turns out.
We followed our nose along the river past the mackerel smokers and vending machines selling miniature artworks, down to the sand dunes and white sandy beach busy with volleyball players and kite flyers. For lunch, a simple, tasty sausage with potato salad at an unfussy street-side butchers was a no-brainer.
Then it was on to Estonia’s capital, Tallinn. The Old Town is festooned with decorative two-tone doors, stout towers with conical roofs and beautiful Art Nouveau buildings. In the cellar of one of these lurks a sobering history. The KGB Prison Cells museum opened in 2017. The claustrophobic and starkly presented space housed political prisoners for most of the Soviet reign, with cupboards used for solitary confinement which looked scarcely
big enough to store a coat, let alone a human being.
Another day, another capital. Is it strange to take a tourist cruise when in port? Maybe so, but that’s precisely how we spent a few hours in Helsinki. The two-hour boat trip skirted us leisurely around the archipelago, past the historic fortified island of Suomenlinna, the beaches along the Herttoniemi shoreline and through the narrow canals of DegerÖ.
Afterwards there was time enough for a quick stroll around the harbour market, heaving with huge trays of berries and the tempting aromas of dill and fried salmon filling the air. Back on board our favourite spot on the ship was the quarter-mile Oceanfront promenade on Deck 6. We frequently had the place to ourselves and whiled away many an hour sitting on the panoramic terrace, cocktails in hand, perhaps a jammy Rum Cake (essentially Black Forest gâteau in a glass) or a cooling Elderflower Collins. We simply looked out at sea and wondered whether the strip of amber haze on the horizon had a special nautical name.
One night, returning to the ship after an excursion, we were greeted by an 11pm sunset, the sea rippling an electric blue beneath a ribbon of slowly smouldering peach. Across the water we hear Faithless’s Insomnia blaring out from the deck of an Aida cruise ship and wonder if the rival firm is taunting our quieter vessel.
The ship docks in St Petersburg for two days, but stringent Russian visa policies mean that you can leave the port only if you’re on an authorised excursion (unless you have paid for a Russian visa). This gave us the motivation to sample two excursions: an evening folklore show and a half-day tour of the city centre.
The show at the opulent Officers’ Club with its candy-striped interior is an exuberant affair of brightly coloured, billowy silk costumes and tongue-in-cheek flourishes. This is an evening of pure entertainment, and best enjoyed for what it is.
Early the following morning we head out for our bus tour, with photo stops at the Hermitage and various gilt-domed edifices, including St Isaac’s Cathedral. A pregnant sky looms over the Neva River, and as we’re disgorged onto the city’s grand thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt, right on cue, the heavens open. We shelter in café Abrikosov, a beautiful former confectionery from 1906 decked out like a Chinese tearoom.
Having seen Stockholm before, we freestyle it again and explore the port town of Nynäshamn, which reveals itself to be an utterly charming little place, its pretty harbour lined with rows of red wooden food huts and boutiques. There’s even a little green path painted on the road directing you towards town so you can’t get lost.
We’re too late to catch a boat to Utö, an island where seals and sea eagles reside, so instead we splurge on a smorgasbord lunch before tackling an 8km hike around the craggy coastline fringed by forest. We barely see another soul and wonder why this magical place gets so overlooked.
A sea day provides the perfect pretext to explore the mind-bogglingly vast ship and its many facilities. Families who like to be active will find no shortage of diversions, from giant chess to bowling, Pac-Man, football nets, a running track, an aqua park with a corkscrew waterslide and a zip line which crosses the ship from port to starboard.
You have to admire the organisation of these spaces and the surreal juxtapositions they bring. Outdoor diner Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville finds itself wedged between the amusement arcade and the rope course. And where else would you find an art gallery beside a comedy club and a casino?
In the Atrium, there’s a massive 30-foot screen showing The Theory of Everything. The space hosts a constant stream of activities, from Champagne art auctions to salsa lessons, trivia quizzes and dollar bill folding.
But there are quieter spaces to discover too, such as a very tastefully furnished library well stocked with foreign and young adult fiction and a card room.
Karaoke is a regular fixture in Syd Norman’s Pour House (soup of the day: beer), but with the drink flowing, thanks to our premium all-inclusive package and the general ‘school’s out’ atmosphere on board, impromptu singalongs spring up elsewhere, too. So it happens that 4 Non Blondes’ What’s Up enjoys countless refrains in the Maltings Bar. “OK, OK, OK, just one last one!” promises amiable guitar-toting troubadour Roberto at least 20 times.
We all scream in unison: “And I say:/ Hey yeah yeah!/ Hey yeah yeah./ I said hey/What’s going on?”
The international language of song uniting a disparate bunch of sozzled cruisers from all corners of the globe is a fitting finale to a slightly surreal week at sea.