Baltic cruise provides multinational adventure 

click to flip through (4) PHOTO BY PAT WOODS - Tallnin, Estonia
  • Photo by Pat Woods
  • Tallnin, Estonia
     

While on a Norway Coastal Voyage, I fell in love with Scandinavian countries' gorgeous scenery. After reviewing Holland America Line's (HAL) six-country Baltic Gems cruise itinerary, I was hooked.

Stockholm's beautiful island scenery — Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens and canal cruises, Tallinn's cobbled streets and high-tech energy, Helsinki's park concerts, St. Petersburg's fine arts museums and Germany's bucolic countryside — sounded appealing.

My husband, Rob, and I spent two pre-cruise days in Copenhagen where we enjoyed a scenic canal cruise, a city tour and a Tivoli Gardens visit. With a little help from friendly English-speaking Danes, we took the train from the airport to Central Station then walked to Tivoli Hotel.

Embarkation on the Eurodam went smoothly. After a delightful dinner in the Pan-Asian Tamarind Restaurant ($15), we listened to classical music in the Explorer's Lounge. Next we enjoyed a performance by Eurodam singers and dancers. The grand finale was yet to come.

Leaving the theater at 10:15 p.m., everyone stopped to watch nature's finest performance. The western sky was filled with a glorious sunset unlike anything we had ever seen. That's why I love to cruise and will do so as long as I can.

Tallinn, Estonia, was our first port call. This small friendly city has a medieval appearance but is very technology savvy. Known for decadent chocolates, marzipan treats, plus knit scarves, hats and sweaters, Tallinn's cobbled Old Town streets are lined with beer gardens and charming cafes purveying coffee drinks and ethnic sweets.

The Eurodam spent two days in St. Petersburg, Russia. During "white nights" in June when the sun does not fully dip below the horizon and many ships are in port, this city of five million becomes congested.

Because Russia's stringent immigration discourages individual visits, we bought a SPB Tours package. A small bus took us to Saints Peter & Paul Cathedral, the onion-domed Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (on the site of Czar Alexander II's assassination) and the summer residence of the Russian Czars.

We rode a hydrofoil boat across the Gulf of Finland to the massive Peterhof summer palaces and surrounding gardens filled with lavish fountains and colourful flower gardens.

A highlight was the State Hermitage Museum, the world's second largest museum housing three million artifacts in five buildings. Founded by Catherine the Great for her personal art treasures, the Hermitage gets 18,000 visitors per day, six days a week during summer months. We saw only a small portion and had to stay close to our guide.

Most tour operators went to the same sites, creating huge crowds. At every stop, our English-speaking guide warned of highly skilled pickpockets.

In Helsinki, Finland's capital city of 590,000, we rode a bus to the City Center, then a tram for a self-directed city tour. On a sunny Saturday, streets were filled with Finns shopping. Many sat in outdoor cafes people watching while enjoying live music from nearby parks.

During summer months, Baltic countries can have up to 22 hours of daylight. At 2:45 a.m., I awoke to a gorgeous pastel sky. As I watched with awe, an early Baltic sunrise painted the sky delicate shades of yellow, gold and pink. Gradually some of the 30,000 islands and islets comprising the Stockholm archipelago appeared. Sweden's beautiful capital city is built on 14 islands connected by 57 bridges.

Stockholm is photogenic, clean and cruise friendly. As in other Scandinavian countries, English is taught in schools. Stockholm's Vasa Museum displays the restored warship Vasa which sank in 1628. Skansen is an open-air museum with costumed docents, folk dancers and a zoo.

We enjoyed a guided tour of city hall where the famous Nobel prizes are awarded every December. Our well-educated English-speaking guide made the annual event come alive as we toured the massive building. A canal boat cruise offered great photo ops. While strolling through Old Town, we passed the royal palace and briefly visited the Nobel museum.

Like other Eurodam guests, we were reluctant to leave Stockholm. As the ship sailed away into the afternoon sun, guests crowded the decks to photograph thousands of beautiful islands and islets, some of which are privately owned.

On the ship each morning, a smiling Filipino waiter delivered our room service breakfast. We ate most dinners in the Rembrandt dining room. "As-you-wish dining" enabled us to eat with interesting and articulate guests from the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. We also enjoyed perfectly prepared and elegantly presented dinners at the Pinnacle Grill ($25) and Canaletto Italian Restaurant ($10).

On a sea day I attended a SkyDrive Digital Media class, took a galley tour, watched a Culinary Arts Center demonstration and swam in the Sea View pool. Other guests hit the fitness center, relaxed in the spa, attended culinary or dance classes, and/or played casino games, bingo or trivia.

Berlin was our last excursion. During the relaxing three-hour bus ride drive through bucolic East Germany, we saw lush farm crops, wildflowers, grazing cattle and deer. Because U.S. President Barack Obama was due in Berlin later that day, tour guides worried about street closures. While workers scrambled to prepare for Obama's entourage, we managed to see the popular World War II memorial sites.

Our lunch stop at a trendy mall in Potsdam Platz contrasted with somber war sites. Fashionably dressed women, the business crowd and Secret Service agents provided interesting people watching. While returning to the ship, we met the incoming presidential motorcade.

The Baltic ports and people we met were interesting, stimulating and fun. Friendly English-speaking locals in Copenhagen, Helsinki, Stockholm and Tallinn were very helpful about giving directions. Only on a cruise could we unpack once and see, do and experience six countries in 10 days! We will review our passports next year.

IF YOU GO

Cruise information: hollandamerica.com or 1-877-932-4259

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