An itinerary that takes you to the fairy tale capitals of Europe on one of Princess Cruises’ most glamorous ships, Regal Princess, is an enchanting experience, says Cruise International Editor Liz Jarvis
The bright orange of the midnight sun streams through the enormous windows of the Catherine Palace as we’re invited to make our way into the Grand Ballroom, with its opulent white and gold décor, chandeliers and mirrors. Waiters welcome us with glasses of Champagne as we take our seats for a performance of classical music by a superb string quartet.
Suddenly there’s a fanfare of trumpets and we rise to our feet. The Emperor and Empress have arrived, resplendent in their intricately embroidered evening attire. There is a respectful silence as they gesture for us to sit, and then the musicians start playing again and the dancing begins. For a few magical moments we can imagine what it was like to live in Imperial Russia and be invited to a ball in the presence of Catherine the Great; if we weren’t wearing brown paper slippers to protect the parquet floors and everyone wasn’t taking photos on their mobile phones and iPads, the fantasy would be complete.
With its glittering atrium and elegant, contemporary vibe, the ship – sister to Royal Princess, named by the Duchess of Cambridge – is the perfect vessel for a Baltic itinerary calling at the magical fairy tale capitals of Eastern Europe.
Although we don’t spend much time in our comfortable balcony stateroom it has everything we could possibly need, with ample outside space to admire the non-setting sun and superb scenery.
On our sea day we head to the Sanctuary, where everyone is made to feel like royalty. Every whim is catered for: cocktails, afternoon tea (complimentary, with a mouth-watering selection of sandwiches and cakes), iPods, blankets in case we feel a little chilly – although it’s actually exceptionally warm. If we want to take a dip in the adults-only Retreat pool and hot tubs they’re right next door; it’s incredibly difficult to tear ourselves away.
Throughout our cruise the food on board Regal Princess is excellent – not just in the speciality restaurants (although the Italian food at Sabatini’s and the steaks at the Crown Grill are superb) but in the main restaurants, too. Service is at all times impeccable – unobtrusive but also anticipatory.
The entertainment, too, is first class, and while we never quite make it into the Princess Live! TV studio or theatre, after dinner each evening we enjoy listening to the live music on offer at venues all round the ship, including the fabulous Ian Ross Jazz Trio at the Wheelhouse Bar who attract a very enthusiastic crowd.
Sailing from Warnemünde to Stockholm, we experience some of the Baltic’s most beautiful and memorable destinations; the beauty of this itinerary is that with the exception of St. Petersburg, where you have to join an escorted tour unless you’ve already applied for a visa, all the ports of call are very easy to explore on your own.
In tiny Tallinn, Estonia, we stroll around the medieval town with its cobbled streets and chocolate box cottages, and visit the museum, home to a moving exhibition on life under Soviet occupation.
It’s raining when we arrive in Helsinki, Finland, but we enjoy a coffee and traditional korvapuusti (cinnamon bun) in the 140-year- old Kappeli café, and a stroll to the harbour, past the Finnish capital’s palace and town hall. Even in the grey drizzle the vanilla, ochre and ice blue-painted architecture of this very chic city is stunning.
The real highlight of our cruise, though, is St. Petersburg, where we join a small private tour of the Hermitage in the company of a guide who is so knowledgeable and entertaining she brings every painting and sculpture to life. We see priceless works of art by the likes of Michelangelo, Canaletto, Goya and Rembrandt, and exquisite ceiling frescoes.
We also take an afternoon cruise along the Neva, arguably the most beautiful river in Europe. Someone had the foresight to decide that no one could build high rise buildings along its banks, so instead it’s still lined with the magnificent former homes of the Russian aristocracy as well as landmarks including the Winter Palace and Peter and Paul Cathedral, and on a sunny afternoon it’s absolutely glorious. We detour along the canals, giving us a closer view of the mansions and gardens, before disembarking at the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, with its intriguing brightly coloured onion-domed turrets.
The chance to spend our night in Russia exploring the incredible Catherine Palace after hours, however, with only guests from our ship, is really something very special.
As we arrive at the entrance with its magnificent rococo blue, white and gold stucco façade and red carpeted steps we’re welcomed with warm blinis and chilled vodka shots. Inside, after putting on our paper slippers, we take time to admire the glorious rooms of the palace. With no crowds we can take our time walking around, soaking up the atmosphere and every intricate detail. Many of the rooms have a different musician playing, including a violinist whose performance is absolutely mesmerising, and a young woman playing the harpsichord.
We enter the exquisite Amber Room in silence, marvelling at the incredible panels with their astounding intricate detail. While it’s not the original Amber Room – this was looted by the Germans during the Second World War and then disappeared without trace – it’s still an impressive sight.
After the beautiful display of ballroom dancing we’re taken outside for another rousing performance by the Royal Guards Orchestra. Although it’s late the palace grounds are lit by the sun, and everyone starts dancing to the brass band. It’s a wonderful finale to an unforgettable excursion and a memorable Baltic adventure.
GETTING THERE An 11-night Scandinavia & Russia cruise on Regal Princess departing from Copenhagen, Denmark on 1 May 2016 costs from £1,399pp round-trip, cruise only, based on two adults sharing an inside stateroom. Ports of call include Oslo, Norway; Berlin (Warnemünde), Germany; Tallinn, Estonia; St. Petersburg, Russia (overnight); Helsinki, Finland and Stockholm, Sweden. The Evening at Catherine Palace costs from £199.95pp. For more info visit princess.com/go or call 0843 374 2401.
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