With onboard cookery lessons from Marco Pierre White and singalong sessions with Abba in Stockholm, Karen Pasquali Jones decides a family Britannia Baltic cruise is simply the best
Squeezing into the tiny recording booth, I knew exactly what to sing. There was a myriad of award-winning Abba songs to choose from but for my two children – Demetrio, aged 12 and seven-year-old Anais – and I there was only one that we all loved: Mamma Mia.
So stepping up to the microphone I waited for the soundtrack to start and joined in at full volume. The words came back so easily I hardly needed to glance at the lyrics on the screen in front of me.
But it was hard to concentrate with someone’s elbows digging into my sides and a small child trying to push me out of the way. “I can’t see,” my son complained. My daughter scowled. “You’re ruining it,” she hissed. “We want to sing too.”
There was no time for their sulks and silences now – we were taking part in the singing challenge at ABBA The Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, and I was desperate to win. So as my little girl’s bottom lip jutted out further I sang louder, harmonising as hard as I could. And it was worth it as the points flashed up – 2,000, the highest of the day. “You’re so embarrassing,” my children said in unison as we headed for the next exhibit – a performance ‘live’ with holograms of Abba.
“Sit down,” my husband muttered as I stood up to join Agnetha, Benny, Björn, and Anni-Frid on stage. It wasn’t fair – why couldn’t I sing Dancing Queen in ‘concert’ with Sweden’s greatest export of all time?
My family aren’t Abba fans like me, and didn’t really understand why I was so excited to be standing in front of the costumes the other fab four wore to perform Waterloo when they won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974. But they certainly started laughing as I pretended to be blonde bombshell Agnetha.
We had stopped off in Sweden as part of a two-week cruise around the Baltic on board Britain’s biggest ship, P&O’s Britannia. My daughter had named it the Frozen tour – after the hit Disney movie – and we’d already visited Oslo in Norway, and Copenhagen in Denmark (which was naturally wonderful) after leaving Southampton in a flurry of Union flag-waving.
A busy day in Stockholm over (we also had time to visit the excellent Vasa museum), it was good to head back to our ship to set sail for our next port of call – St Petersburg, Russia. We had two days at sea after Sweden, so we made the most of our time exploring Britannia. It was hot for the Baltic – in the early 20s – and while braver passengers went for a dip in one of the four pools or sunbathed on deck, my children insisted on going to the kids’ clubs.
In fact, we soon found out, every child on board insisted on going to the kids’ clubs, and that’s simply because they were excellent – possibly the best we’ve ever experienced at sea. The kids loved the packed and varied itineraries, with fun activities like Secret Agent Academy Training, Pirates Parties, Wizard Spells and a Golden Snitch Hunt for the younger ones and a cool club, in the real sense of the word, for tweens and teenagers. Along with the usual PS4, Wii and Air Hockey, there was a disco – with a light-up dance floor – jukebox, and karaoke (no Abba-mad mums allowed). For parents it was a well-devised edutainment programme where the kids were subconsciously learning and not sitting endlessly in front of a screen.
It meant that we could enjoy an adults-only dinner and go for a drink in The Crow’s Nest, a chic bar at the front of the ship with the most amazing view as Captain David Pembridge nudged the ship towards our next destination. We’d sip on a prosecco (or two) and sail towards a pink and orange sunset, laughing as the Midnight Sun meant it failed to get dark and paused instead at twilight.
We never ran out of things to do. Britannia is not only Britain’s biggest cruise ship, it’s also one of the smartest with a multi-million pound art collection, theatre, fine dining and speciality restaurants, a cinema, the largest spa at sea, state-of-the-art gym with steam room, spin and yoga classes and endless movies on demand in our cabin.
We’d booked the cruise because of two reasons: Marco Pierre White was on board giving lessons at the cookery club, and because I’ve always wanted to go to Russia. Now, finally, I was about to discover the city billed as the ‘jewel in the Baltic crown’. We had booked to see the Russian Ballet perform Swan Lake at the Palace Theatre in Arts Square the first evening of our two-day stay which ruled out a few of the major tours because of timings, and an excursion to the Fabergé Museum to see the famous eggs.
The children were enthralled by the collection of nine Imperial eggs German jeweler Carl Fabergé was commissioned to make by the Russian tsars. My favourite was the first – the ‘simple’ Hen Easter egg he made in 1885 for Emperor Alexander III’s wife Maria Feodorovna. Inside the ivory-lined egg is a golden chicken. Sadly two other surprises, a ruby pendant and tiny diamond and gold replica of the Imperial Crown were lost after the Revolution and never found.
My daughter loved the Coronation egg, complete with tiny 18th century-style coronation carriage inside and was ecstatic when our guide took us to Fabergé’s original workshop where a stern-looking assistant in the shop gave her a modern copy of the egg and carriage to play with. “Look, the wheels really move,” she said, racing it up and down the glass counter housing giant diamonds and gorgeous Fabergé jewels. “How much is it?” I asked and blinked at the £24,000 price tag. “Better put it back,” I said swiftly as my daughter asked to take it home.
Later, on our way to the ballet the guide, Kate – her Russian name was unpronounceable so she called herself after the Duchess of Cambridge – told us stomach-churning stories of the 900-day ‘Leningrad siege’ on the city by the Germans during World War II.
It put us in a sombre mood for the ballet but thanks to the theatre’s gilded ceiling and ornate décor we were soon lost in one of the most famous ballets of all time. My husband and son rolled their eyes at the men in tights while my daughter and I craned forward, eager to catch every wonderful step. Sipping Champagne at the interval, I could hardly wait for the next act while the boys were eager for the final curtain to fall.
After another day exploring the city’s hidden gems and spending our roubles on beautifully painted Russian dolls and vodka I was ready to leave Peter the Great’s city behind and meet the other great attraction of this cruise: Marco Pierre White.
He was taking a masterclass at the cookery club – where James Martin and Eric ‘Cake Boy’ Lanlard also teach during Food Hero cruises – and I dragged my son along to meet the man with three Michelin stars. “Is it going to be hard work?” he asked Marco, who laughed. “It will be fun young man,” Marco promised, and it was. We spent the class learning how to make seafood risotto and lobster macaroni which my son ate while talking to Marco about football as well as food. I usually burn baked beans on toast but Marco is such a good teacher that my son demolished the lot.
I was in luck as I’d been invited to dine with Marco that night, and feasted on his charm and wit along with the delicious mushroom and truffle risotto and zesty lemon tart. It was a magical evening where he made us laugh as well as sharing some handy cooking tips – “a cheese grater for finely chopping onions is my culinary secret”– and signing copies of his recipe book. My son must have made an impression as Marco collected some pictures of him from the official photographer and signed them as a present.
The rest of the cruise was spent in wonderful cities – Helsinki, Tallinn and Bruges, and as we sailed towards Southampton I joined my family on deck to wave a Union flag on deck along to Rod Stewart – what else? – and Tina Turner. It brought a tear to my eye and summed up our Baltic cruise on Britannia perfectly. As a family holiday it really was Simply the Best.
GETTING THERE: For more information visit pocruises.com.
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