From colourful cafes and quiet canals to the opulent splendour of Russian palaces, the Baltic offers a treasure trove of cities for you to explore.
Words Deborah Stone.
At first glance, the concrete-built museum didn’t look promising. Then, out of the gloom, came the startling sight of a 17th-century wooden warship soaring above me, fully rigged, with a double row of cannon holes, hundreds of intricate carvings and a sloping deck that was impossibly steep at both ends. Any minute now, I thought, a pirate with a cutlass between his teeth will swing down and sweep me off to adventure on the high seas… That’s how good Stockholm’s Vasa Museum is – and this museum is only one of the reasons why the Baltic should be near the top of your must-visit cruise list.
I was visiting on the 16-day Gems of the Baltic cruise on Saga’s Pearl II, calling at some of the most fascinating cities in northern Europe. Stops at Copenhagen in Denmark, Helsinki in Finland and the big one – St Petersburg, Russia – were just a few of the reasons why this Baltic cruise is perfect for people who like to wake up in a different country every day.
We also visited less well-known places such as Travemunde, a jolly seaside resort in Germany; Tallinn, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Estonia; the medieval port of Visby, in Sweden; the rarely visited Klaipeda in Lithuania, where the Teutonic Knights of the Livonian Order built Memelburg castle in 1252; and the fishing port of Gydnia, the gateway to Poland’s Gdansk and the birthplace of famous 1980s trade union Solidarity.
Back at the Vasa Museum, I found myself transported into to a golden age of swashbuckling adventure, as if in the presence of a ghost ship. The Vasa, however, is very real. It sank immediately after being launched because the untried double row of cannons was too heavy. It was raised 333 years later, in 1961, but then required 27 years of conservation and reconstruction before it could be exhibited. The concrete and timber-clad building was constructed around the magnificent ship, which still stands in a dry dock.
Stockholm is built on a series of interconnected islands, and a hop-on hop-off tourist boat stops near the museum and other Stockholm sights – such as City Hall, where the annual Nobel Prize banquet is held in an exquisitely decorated room. There’s also a stop near the cruise terminal so you can easily make your own way around the city, although I opted to take the ship’s excursion.
A pearl of a ship
This was my first trip on the Saga Pearl II, relaunched last March after a £20 million refit. Although it’s now 30 years old, the beautifully furnished cabins have state-of-the-art bathrooms and stylish décor. The rest of the ship has a yacht-like feel. It’s all pale wood furniture and contemporary design in the casual Veranda Restaurant, while there’s a smart, starchedlinen look in the formal Dining Room.
Most of the 446 passengers love the fact that Pearl II looks like a traditional cruise ship and yet is small enough to dock in harbours close to historic city centres. It didn’t seem to bother anybody that there was no full promenade deck, few cabins have balconies, and those with sliding doors onto the deck had views obscured by lifeboats. They were more interested in the packed itinerary, and the largely 60-80 age range meant they were quite content with the evening entertainment from various musical guests – especially after enjoying some of the best meals I’ve ever had on a cruise ship.
Most Baltic cruises aimed at the UK market leave from a UK port – in our case Dover – then spend two days heading north. This gives you the chance to find your sea legs, explore the ship and relax into the cruise. Our first stop was the seaside resort of Travemunde, in Germany, where we moored near the mouth of the River Trave right next to the shops and cafés lining the promenade.
Culture in Copenhagen
A stroll around Travemunde, with its antique shops and seafood restaurants, is a lovely, gentle introduction to the Baltic. Serious sightseers went off to see UNESCOlisted Lübeck, a medieval town with acres of perfectly preserved Gothic architecture, but I saved my first cultural experience for Copenhagen, joining the ship’s guided walk around Denmark’s wonderful capital.
The highlight for me was Nyhaven – New Harbour – lined with restaurants and cafés painted mustard, ochre and dark red. You can take canal boat excursions from Nyhaven, or just sit at a pavement café and watch the world go by.
Frederiksgade, a square with four handsome royal mansions near the copper-domed Frederiks Church (popularly known as The Marble Church) is particularly lovely, and it’s worth the walk to Hans Christian Andersen Boulevard to see the seated statue of the man who wrote so many well-known fairytales.
The Tivoli Gardens, opposite, are more of a theme park than a landscaped haven; and there is wonderful shopping to be had in the little crafts and antiques shops down pedestrianised Kompagnistræde, not too far away. You can pick up free tourist maps at many of the souvenir shops and cafés, so there’s no need to sign up for an expensive tour.
We reached Stockholm after another day at sea, then it was on to Helsinki, the most northerly of Europe’s capitals, reached through a sea route littered with tiny islands and craggy rocks.
East to Russia
In Helsinki, we moored just a 20-minute walk from the market square, where the stalls were piled high with strawberries, blueberries, cherries and a colourful array of other fruits and veg. The craft stalls were fabulous too, selling hand-knitted gloves, hats and scarves, jewellery, fur hats and lots of wooden toys and ornaments.
The tourist office is right near the market in Pohjoisesplanadi, where you can pick up a free guide to the town and its many quirky sights. My favourite was Temppeliaukio Kirkko, or Temple Church, which appears to be hewn out of rock and is almost unnoticeable from the outside. Inside it’s all natural colours and textures, with rock walls, plain wooden benches and a spectacular burnished copper ceiling.
And then there were our two full days in St Petersburg. Any cruise line’s excursions are recommended here, and Saga’s were superb. Most people went off to see the Hermitage, the world’s largest museum, with more than a thousand rooms packed with treasures from Catherine the Great’s collections. You could also take a canal boat ride, or gawp at the glorious technicolour of the onion-domed Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood. For me, the most jaw-dropping sights were at the Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer palace, and the Catherine Palace.
If there were ever such a thing as a ‘desert island’ choice for cruises, I’d have to pick the Baltic for its sheer range of amazing cities. It truly is a gem.