From iconic architecture to intriguing history, cool culture and style, the Baltic and Scandinavia are magical cruise destinations just about any time of the year, says Deborah Stone
Once you’ve drunk Champagne at midnight in the golden glow of the midsummer sun, or stood in the dark mesmerised by the swirling curtains of the Northern Lights, you understand the timeless allure of Scandinavia and the Baltic.
Our Viking ancestors put the Northern Lights down to mythical Valkyrie shield maidens fighting, while at midsummer they celebrated the Earth’s annual rebirth. But we just thank our lucky stars we are living in an age when we can see these natural wonders from the deck of a cruise ship – as well as visiting the sparkling capital cities that wrap themselves around the Baltic Sea.
In Britain, we are doubly lucky: it’s just a short flight to Scandinavia to join a ship or we can sail to the Baltic from our home ports, often calling at lesser-known destinations on our way to the Baltic stars of Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki and – the highlight for many – St Petersburg.
These capital cities of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and imperial Russia are extraordinary in terms of architecture, culture – both historic and artistic – and contemporary style.
Nowhere on Earth – not even the Mediterranean – can beat Baltic itineraries for this magical mix of ancient and modern. You can see 1,000-year-old Viking ships in Oslo at The Viking Ship Museum and a 17th-century wooden warship at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, then buy designer homeware goods that you’d need a little black contacts book to find in London – let alone anywhere else in the UK.
You can follow in the footsteps of Hans Christian Andersen in Copenhagen – past The Little Mermaid statue on the waterfront to the writer’s statue opposite the famous Tivoli Gardens, then join locals at summer festivals such as the Photo Festival, Jazz Festival and Pride Festival that all have free street events.
And in Helsinki you can breathe in the freshest air of any city on Earth, buy freshly picked berries at the harbour market and visit the 1960s-built Temppeliaukio Church – carved from a rocky outcrop and often the venue for classical concerts. If there’s music by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius at ‘the rock church’ you’re particularly blessed.
But it’s St Petersburg most people want to see; not only to wander awe-struck through the galleries of the massive Hermitage gallery and museum in the imperial Winter Palace, but also to enjoy the buzz of its Parisian-like Nevsky Prospekt with the city’s most stylish shops, cafés and restaurants.
Overnight or two-night stops mean you can also visit Catherine the Great’s eggshell blue-and-white palace in the Tsar’s summer residence suburb of Pushkin or husband Peter the Great’s Peterhof Palace, known as the Russian Versailles, in the suburb of Peterhof.
And if you have already visited all these places before, cruise companies are devising ever-more enticing reasons to visit again and again. Silversea offers what UK & Ireland managing director Peter Shanks describes as an “immersive cultural experience” by flying passengers out to Stockholm or Copenhagen so they can start and finish their cruise with an add-on hotel stay before spending two nights in St Petersburg on the cruise.
“Our ships can dock right on the river in the heart of St Petersburg,” he says. “Some of our Scandinavian and Baltic cruises even depart from Tower Bridge in London.”
These cruises include Silver Wind’s London to Copenhagen trip in June 2019, which sails up into the Arctic Circle along the Norwegian coast to North Cape and Honningsvag before sailing all the way back down and into the Baltic, while three-day stays in St Petersburg are available on a series of seven-day cruises on Silver Spirit in July 2019 (0333 250 2373; silversea.com).
Seabourn’s Baltic cruises also start from Copenhagen or Stockholm for seven days, and because of the short itinerary passengers make the most of every minute in port. “Seabourn has compiled an extensive list of optional excursions including helicopter rides and a boat safari,” says Lynn Narraway, managing director (UK & Ireland).
Among Seabourn’s St Petersburg excursions there’s a three-day Extraordinary UNESCO Partner Tour that takes in the city’s major sites and includes a high-speed Sapsan train trip to Moscow to see the Kremlin, Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral, Lenin’s Tomb and the Armoury museum with its Fabergé eggs. The cruise line is offering a seven-day The Baltic & St Petersburg cruise in July 2019 that includes a three-day stopover in St Petersburg
(0344 338 8615; seabourn.com).
Another way to explore Russia is by river. “Seeing Russia safely and with expert guides is one of the main reasons for taking a river cruise along the Russian Waterways,” says Rob Stapley, cruise product manager at Titan. “It’s great for anyone who would prefer to travel to Russia with a group. The cruise offers extended stays in both Moscow and St Petersburg but also the chance to experience parts of Russia that are rarely visited by tourists and to gain an insight into rural Russia away from the big cities; seeing a calmer, slower, pace of life.”
Titan’s 11-night Russia’s Royal Riverways, running in May 2019, starts with an overnight stay in St Petersburg and finishes with two nights in Moscow, with included excursions to the open-air Museum of Architecture on the island of Kizhi, a tour of medieval Yaroslavl and its golden-domed Transfiguration Church and the restored fishing village of Mandrogi with gingerbread-style wooden buildings and popular Museum of Russian Vodka.
Viking has a 13-day Waterways of the Tsars cruise which “explores the real Russia”, starting with three nights in Moscow. Meanwhile its ocean cruise itineraries include an 11-day Russia & the Baltic Sea trip that starts with an overnight stay on the ship in Stockholm, to explore the city’s 14 islands connected by bridges and waterbus. The Stockholm archipelago consists of 24,000 islands and a scenic cruise through the waterways as the ship heads to St Petersburg for three days is an unforgettable experience.
This itinerary between Stockholm and Copenhagen, another overnight stop, is available regularly from April to July 2019.
These and less well-known ports, such as Riga in Latvia, known for its Art Nouveau architecture as well as its medieval and wooden buildings, are among the attractions of Oceania Cruises’ Route of Royalty cruise in June 2019, which also calls at Tallinn – Estonia’s fairytale medieval walled city (0345 505 1920; oceaniacruises.com).
This cruise also calls at the Danish island of Bornholm to see the historic town of RØnne, including 14th-century St Nicholas’ Church, and at Klaipeda in Lithuania you can get a ferry to the sands at Smiltyne to swim in the Baltic or visit the Lithuanian Sea Museum.
The best time to see the Northern Lights is in autumn and early spring when it’s dark at night but clearer than during winter storms. Holland America Line has a 14-day Jewels of the Baltic cruise from Amsterdam this September, when the lights might be visible if conditions are good. This itinerary also freshens up the Baltic trail with a stop at Kiel for excursions to Hamburg and at Warnemunde for trips to Berlin (hollandamerica.com).
But if the Northern Lights are top of your must-do list, you are best heading to Norway’s Arctic region. You may not see any Valkyrie shield maidens, but you’ll feel like you’re on top of the world.