By Barry Bassis and
Baltic cruises have become highly popular in recent years because they provide a convenient way to visit some of the world’s most picturesque ports. From the comfort of our suite on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager, we explored medieval ruins, modern architectural designs and art and history museums in four different countries, all without the necessity to pack and unpack.
In Stockholm, our embarkation city, we stayed for two days at Hotel Diplomat (diplomathotel.com), an elegant building on the harbor that once housed foreign embassies. The mansion was refurbished when it became a hotel during the 1960’s. The staff is accommodating and the antique passenger elevator is similar to the one in the Cary Grant movie Charade. The breakfast in the popular T-Bar contained pates, cheeses, fruits, vegetables and breads in addition to traditional American breakfast dishes.
Stockholm is known as “the city that floats on water” because it is built on 14 islands. The city houses about 100 art galleries and 75 museums. The Stockholm Card covers free admission to most cultural institutions and public transportation. (Copenhagen and Tallinn have similar cards.)
After visiting the Stadshuset (Town Hall) with its Blue Hall (the venue for the annual Nobel Prize dinner), we traveled to Millesgården (millesgarden.se). Carl Milles (1875-1955) was the leading Swedish sculptor and this outdoor museum is his former residence. His works (or copies of them) are on display amid the terraces and fountains. Milles relied on mythological themes and his house contains his collection of art from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance as well as ancient Rome and Greece.
Another favorite of ours is the Vasa Museum (vasamuseet.se). Vasa was a wooden warship built during the 30 Years War. The ship was the largest in the history of the Swedish fleet, with an extra cannon deck that the king himself had ordered during the Vasa's construction. The royal error caused the top-heavy ship, adorned with over 700 carved statues, to sink in Stockholm Harbor during its maiden voyage in 1628. More than 300 years later, it was found and raised to the surface, restored and finally moved to its own museum building. Vasa is considered the world’s only preserved 17th-century ship.
The Cruise Experience
The Regent Seven Seas Voyager (rssc.com), which departed from Stockholm, is an all-suite, all-balcony ship, with a maximum capacity of only 700 passengers. Our penthouse suite, complete with a butler and maid, was 320 square feet and the balcony was 50 square feet. The marble bathroom has a separate shower and tub with complimentary Aveda hair and skin care products. Each room contains a stereo and TV with a DVD player. Recent films are broadcast and DVDs as well as books are available from the ship’s library.
Virtually everything is included, except excursions and beauty/spa treatments at Carita (which Demetra enjoyed). Embarking guests are given their choice of two bottles of liquor and the refrigerator is stocked daily with water and soft drinks. A bowl of fruit is replenished each morning and snacks appear in the late afternoon. Wine is served with dinner in the four restaurants: the Compass Rose (serving all three meals), Signatures (operated under the auspices of the Cordon Bleu culinary academy in Paris), Latitudes Restaurant (which serves a set menu of French-inspired Asian cuisine) and La Veranda, which offers breakfast and lunch buffets and is converted into a Mediterranean bistro in the evening. During the one-week cruise, we dined on such delicacies as rack of lamb, lobster tails, soft-shell crabs, escargots, etc. but virtually all diets are accommodated, including low fat and vegetarian. The Pool Grill serves hot dogs, hamburgers and other casual fare. The ship also offers afternoon tea and, for those disinclined to budge, 24-hour room service is also available; each course is served separately on fine china. One night on board the Voyager, we were entertained by a Russian folkloric troupe in colorful costumes. The ship also provided musical revues by the accomplished Peter Grey Terhune singers and dancers.
St. Petersburg And Our Circle Of Interest
The name of the cruise line recently changed from Radisson to Regent. This was not a change of ownership but merely a recognition that the level of service is closer to the Regent Hotels, which the Carlson Company also operates. The most significant recent innovation is The Circles of Interest. Each is a cluster of activities geared to a different taste, such as “Active Exploration and Wellness,” “Photography” and “Performing Arts.” We signed on to “Art, Design and Museums,” which included meetings with Sandra Bowern, an expert on art, music and history, who also gave enlightening lectures for all passengers. The high point of our trip was a private tour, after hours, to the Hermitage Museum, opened just for Regent cruisers. We were escorted through the Gold Rooms and saw a performance of the second act of Giselle in the Hermitage Theater. The art collection contains works by Rembrandt, Renoir, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Gauguin, Picasso and Matisse, among others. It was immensely more pleasurable without the daytime crowds, especially since there is no air-conditioning. Our dessert afterward at the restaurant in the Stroganoff Palace was accompanied by classical violin music. This was truly a night to remember.
Our cruise spent three days in St. Petersburg, known as “the Venice of the North,” and we took an excursion each day. The tour guides were excellent, fully bilingual and often witty. Jokes about the KGB are now acceptable. We took a panoramic city bus tour as well as a boat ride along the Neva River and the canals to the accompaniment of a balalaika band. Excursions through the cruise line are recommended for St. Petersburg because, unlike the other ports on our trip, there is a crime problem. Also, traffic jams are common—we experienced several—and the ship will wait for a busload of its guests but not necessarily for those who wander off independently.
Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is a city that is remarkably well preserved considering that the country was conquered and occupied by foreign powers for much of its history. The medieval city center, with its winding, cobbled streets, can be explored on foot. Indeed, cars are not allowed in most of the area. Among the key sights are the St. Olav’s Church (the highest building in the world when it was constructed in 1500), the Dominican Monastery (built in 1246), the St. Nicholas Church (from the 13th century), St. Brigitta’s convent (1407) and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (a lavishly decorated Orthodox church). We also saw the huge Song Festival Ground, a tradition the Soviets allowed the Estonians to continue. Tallinn has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1997. The Town Hall Square, where we had a delicious lunch at restaurant Carl Friedrich, is filled with outdoor cafes.
In Helsinki, we took a guided tour of the city, including locations previously used to depict Russian government buildings during the Cold War for movies such as Reds and Gorky Park. Helsinki has been garnering praise as a food capital and the open and covered markets offer an impressive display of produce and cooked dishes. We had a first-class seafood lunch at Havis Restaurant (firstname.lastname@example.org). The Sibelius Monument, a steel structure that resembles organ pipes, is a fitting memorial to the great composer. Temppeliaukio Church, one of the most unusual concert venues anywhere, is hewn out of rock; a piano student was performing a concert when we arrived. We also attended a city sponsored Design Walk of Finnish design, which included exhibits in the Design Forum, Artek Furniture and the eye-catching Klaus K Boutique Hotel, whose look is inspired by the Finnish national epic Kalevala. The room categories, related to emotions in mythical literature, range from Mystical to Passion to Desire to Envy (no, it’s not green). Incidentally, the hotel’s architect and interior designer, Kajsa Krause, is a New Yorker.
Visby, the capital of Gotland, Sweden, has one of the best-preserved medieval city walls in Europe. Our visit fortunately fell during the annual medieval festival, when the inhabitants wear the clothes of their distant ancestors and take part in jousts, an open-air market, street theater and other activities to mark the invasion of the island by the Danish king in 1361.
A dry summer in Scandinavia provided us with exceptionally sunny and warm weather and we did not see rain until Copenhagen, where our cruise ended and we spent several days. Opting for indoor activities, we toured the Kobenhavns Bymuseum (City Historical Museum), featuring a room dedicated to Soren Kierkegaard (the father of existentialism), and the Tycho Brahe Planetarium, with its cylindrical architecture. Our modern high-rise hotel, the Scandic Copenhagen (scandic-hotels.com), is located next door to the Planetarium and faces a lake with flocks of ducks. This is a few blocks from Tivoli Gardens, which we visited in the afternoon when the rain stopped. The Stroget (the long pedestrian street) is filled with peddlers, street performers and boutiques. The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (founded by the Carlsberg Beer family) has an extraordinary collection with works by Degas, Monet, Gauguin as well as Roman portraits, Etruscan art and a modern wing. We had an outstanding lunch—guinea hen and fried fish—at Imperial Garden (the restaurant in the Imperial Hotel).
These Baltic cities and their surrounding areas are all destinations worthy of further exploration but we felt our luxurious cruise provided an enjoyable introduction. For additional information about Regent Cruises, go to rssc.com or call (877)505-5370.