Baltic delights: cruising northern Europe

Visiting five European capitals, including the opulent St Petersburg, our writer discovers why a cruise is the best way to get to the heart of the city


Gold leaf was everywhere, adorning St Petersburg’s pastel-washed Baroque architecture — quite a view to greet us from the veranda of our cruise ship suite.

For regular cruisers, including myself, the facilities on board can mean that choosing the itinerary is sometimes secondary to the line and dates. But not this time. Having sailed the Med, the Caribbean and South America, my heart was set on the Baltic.

And with Seabourn’s luxurious smaller ships, you can often sail right into the centre of the spectacular cities rather than docking at the larger terminals on the fringes.

On board the 650-foot Quest, that meant the jewel of Peter the Great’s empire was waiting to be explored as soon as we disembarked to St Petersburg’s English Embankment: with a pair of sturdy walking shoes, you could even visit many of the sights on foot if you wanted.

And what sights; the palaces and thoroughfares mark it out as one of Europe’s most beautiful cities.

Intended to rival Paris or London when the Tsar ordered its construction in the early 18th century, these days it’s a lively modern city as well as a treasure trove of historic buildings, its pavements thronged with well-dressed locals and its roads jammed with gleaming cars.

Our three full days gave us enough time to experience its highlights too. Starting at St Nicholas Cathedral with its exterior of powder-blue and gold leaf, we waited for the Grand Choral Synagogue nearby to open its doors, welcoming visitors after morning service. One of the largest synagogues in Europe, it was consecrated in 1893 to serve the growing Jewish community.

Restored and reopened in 2003 it is now an official city monument as well as holding daily services and serving as a hub for communal activities.

The beauty of its exquisite interior lies in its symmetry, its elegant simplicity, its intricate chandeliers and in the play of light. The view through side windows should be of a blank wall but, instead, is a witty mural depicting the Western Wall.

You can even buy Russian dolls in the form of plump rabbis at the gift shop, along with the usual Judaica, plus there’s a kosher restaurant in the synagogue precincts.

Claiming the title of “Venice of the North”, St Petersburg is built on rivers and canals criss-crossed by more than 300 bridges, some of which rival those of Paris for elegance.

The gilt trip continues at the Peter and Paul Fortress, with its Russian Orthodox cathedral. The burial place of Tsars, its interior is so heavily embellished with gold leaf you almost need sunglasses to avoid the dazzle.

The new Fabergé Museum housed in the Shuvalov Palace, is another treat. As well as being filled with exquisite artefacts, including nine of the famous eggs, every room in this dazzling former palace has been restored.

But the jewel in St Petersburg’s rich crown is the magnificent Hermitage Museum; actually five museums within the former Winter Palace. Behind its Baroque exterior, the opulent salons contain so many Old Masters that the Rembrandts and Da Vincis outshine even the gilding.

The city’s centre is only the start of the splendour, with yet more palaces to explore on the outskirts, including Catherine’s Palace and its famed Amber Room. With the Palace opening exclusively for Seabourn guests on an evening excursion, we didn’t need to battle the crowds as we drank it all in.

Started in 1717 when Catherine the Great hired a German architect to build her a summer palace, her daughter Empress Elizabeth then decided it was outdated and cramped, commissioning a new, much grander edifice in 1752. Her own court architect created the vast, elaborate Rococo palace that still astounds visitors today. A musical recital in the fairytale ballroom made a magical finishing touch to our visit.

Sipping cocktails in the glass-walled Observation Bar on Deck 10 as we sailed away from Russia, even the lashing rain couldn’t dampen our spirits.

Calling itself the “Ultra Luxury” line — with plenty of justification — we’d felt pampered since checking in in Copenhagen, where the Danish capital’s new cruise terminal came complete with plenty of charm and chilled drinks.

With a maximum of 458 guests, and a staff-to-guest ratio of one to one, our suite had a spacious bathroom with full-size bath plus separate shower.

Our fridge came stocked with our own alcohol preferences too in case we couldn’t wait to be served a drink while we lounged at the pool or relaxed in one of Quest’s many bars, courtesy of the open-bar policy. Or if we fancied relaxing on that veranda to make the most of the views of course.

First up was Estonia and the fairytale Old Town of Tallinn, where a free shuttle whisked us to the walled centre to wander the cobbled streets and work off some of the delicious meals which awaited us over the course of the week.

Seabourn is a cruise line more for foodies than fressers. Of course there’s no scarcity with sumptuous breakfasts and lunches as well as superb dinners and fine wines, all including plenty of vegetarian choices and fish, as well as some standard kosher options on board and the chance to pre-order additional kosher items.

Served in the main restaurant, guests can dine a deux or join others, as well as choosing another elegant option of The Grill; think the Savoy Grill in its heyday and you’ve got the right idea.

There is afternoon tea too, a daily fruit platter in your suite, and all-day snacks and drinks in Seabourn Square, the ship’s serene hub.

Luckily, food is not shoved at you 24/7, so for those with a little will-power, it is possible to disembark the same size as when you set out.

If one combined sensible eating with daily visits to the ship’s well-equipped gym, it’s even possible to disembark trimmer by the time you reach the final two ports: Helsinki, with its market, historic capital and smart shops just a short walk from the gangway, and beautiful Stockholm.

With leafy islands to access by ferry as well as the historic centre of the Swedish capital, I could have wished for three or four days here too rather than our 24 hours in this city — which, like St Petersburg, stakes its own claim to the title “Venice of the North”. Especially if I could have skipped those sky-high Scandinavian restaurant prices and stayed on board.


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