Baltic Sea cruise: Stunning architecture offers a voyeuristic thrill

The Baltic is a watery kingdom. Its myriad coastlines, islands and sea-gazing cities have for centuries been bound together by trading vessels and warships. The Vikings, Renaissance princes and Hanseatic merchants plied its waters. Like the Mediterranean, this is a sea rich in maritime lore and dense in culture. Admittedly, good weather is something of a gamble, but around the Baltic's waterways sit some of Europe's loveliest cities. I find myself easily seduced by their handsome architecture, design flair and cloud-scudded northern skies.

My cruise doesn't begin in the Baltic but in Amsterdam, appropriately another salty city with a long sea-trading tradition. Celebrity Silhouette is docked within sight of the train station. From the ship's Solstice Deck 16 floors above the waterline I get a Dutch Master panorama of churches and leaning spires slashed through with canals. As we set sail, I sit behind the giant windows of the ship's Oceanview Cafe, forking up carrot cake as warehouses and silvery apartments glide by.

Amsterdam is so close to the ship that I can see people tapping at computer terminals in their offices. This voyeuristic thrill is repeated again and again in the Baltic cities on Celebrity Silhouette's itinerary over the next fortnight. This is an intimate cruise, and our ports of call are well-behaved cities: safe, compact and easily accessible from their harbours. There could hardly be a better place to cruise.

In Oslo, we tie up under Akershus Castle, eyeballing locals sunning themselves in their underpants on the ramparts. I only have to stroll down the gangplank and around the harbour to find myself in the centre of town, near the red-brick City Hall and parks crammed with flowerbeds and cafes. Later, a short public ferry ride takes me to Bygdoy Peninsula and its excellent maritime museums, which display Viking ships, polar-exploration vessel Fram and the original Kon Tiki. We sail away past Aker Brygge, a former shipbuilding district transformed into upmarket residential neighbourhood, filled with people slurping ice creams and beers.

It's a scenic 100-kilometre ride down the watery finger of Oslofjord to the open sea, past the beaches of Huk and island cottages bright as Lego blocks. The sea is as pale blue as the cocktails served up in the glamorous Martini Bar, a good place to start the evening on Celebrity Silhouette before I slope off for some herb-crusted Norwegian fish in the Grand Cuvee main restaurant, where chandeliers shimmer like icicles.

Next day I'm pinned to the deck again. I could almost stretch out my arms and touch Sweden on one side and Denmark on the other. Silhouette dodges past wind farms and an island fortress and docks in Copenhagen just a short walk from its perky, rock-bound Little Mermaid. You could save shore-excursion money on a Baltic cruise: Copenhagen, like most Baltic ports, is easily walkable and has excellent public transport.

With a thought to working off the gelato and afternoon teas I've been devouring on board, I head on foot along flowery promenades and past Amalienborg palace to Nyhavn, Copenhagen's "new harbour" of colourful half-timbered houses. Maybe it's the unexpected springtime warmth, but Copenhagen seems a cheerful, chirpy city that blends delightful old things – like cathedrals and cobblestones – with just as attractive new things such as jazz bars, designer furniture and eccentric contemporary architecture. I end up at Rosenborg Castle, where schoolchildren chirp and lilac blossoms.

The delight of cruising is that you get not a long love affair but a series of quick seductions. I expect to fall in love with Copenhagen, but next day Rostock is an unexpectedly delightful encounter. Most passengers opt for a gruelling shore excursion to Berlin a 2.5-hour journey away, but I'm thankful I've hopped on the local bus into town instead. Rostock is a pleasant, lively university town with some attractive gabled architecture and atmospheric, shadowy churches that would have inspired the Brothers Grimm. In its seaside suburb Warnemunde, once a favoured beach destination for East Germans, flags flutter and barmaids haul beer tankards.

There's no time for the honeymoon period to fade. The ship sails and eventually Silhouette is gliding past pine-scented islands into Helsinki, providing a new love interest. The Finnish capital's Lutheran cathedral appears like an extravagant meringue dolloped atop the harbour. A short tram ride from the dock brings me into cafe-lined boulevards and a train station adorned with muscled Art Nouveau statues. Along the Esplanade, rich blondes sit at posh cafes and students lounge on the grass with picnics and beer. Greenery is everywhere. Helsinki isn't so much a city planted with trees as a forest dotted with buildings.

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Baltic cities are small. Maybe it's just as well we don't linger longer, as I might grow bored. As it is, the constantly changing countries and ports have me as thrilled as a serial philanderer who knows just when to move on. Up next Tallinn, just 60 kilometres across the gulf in Estonia. Founded in the twelfth century as Reval and ruled by Danes, Swedes, Germans and Soviets, you can read the city's history in its jumbled architecture, cuisine and inhabitants' faces.

From some angles, the old town looks as if it has scarcely changed since the Hanseatic League traded here: a medieval feast of pepper-pot towers, gingerbread houses and baroque intrusions like fat wedding cakes. Souvenir shops sell trolls, hand-knitted sweaters and sensible jams. Beyond its medieval core, Tallinn is a confident city of contemporary parks and apartment blocks and cheerful inhabitants.

Variety is what this Celebrity cruise is all about. Tallinn is small, homey and plump, St Petersburg extravagant and super-model beautiful. Its restored spires gleam with gold, its museums are crammed with world-class art, its cathedrals jostle with sloe-eyed saints. The baroque majesty of the city centre is encased in a grimy, workaday, Soviet-era carapace.

There's a lot to enjoy, and sensibly Celebrity Silhouette lingers three nights so as not to disappoint. I indulge in an orgy of shore-excursion sightseeing from palace to art museum to church, returning to the ship in late afternoon to slump in the library or on a lounger in the gorgeous glasshouse-humid indoor pool. Later the ship's restaurant choices have me dithering like a sultan in a harem. Modern Japanese? Another lobster tail flambéed by the waiter at Murano restaurant? Perhaps a sampler of Russian dishes from Oceanview Cafe suits the night.

This is the longest cruise I've been on, yet I'm surprised to realise that 14 days are coming to a close and I'd really rather not get off. Celebrity Silhouette is more than agreeable, and the Baltic flaunts one fine destination after another. Our final port Stockholm is another gem, approached on a long, slow sail through a mad confusion of islands and rocky promontories topped by red summerhouses. Seagulls shriek, clouds scud and I can smell salt in the air. The city sits on 14 islands and has cool Nordic beauty, and I prepare to be seduced all over again.

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CRUISE

Next year, Celebrity Cruises' Baltic itineraries operate between May and August, departing Southampton on Celebrity Silhouette and Amsterdam on Celebrity Eclipse. Itineraries may vary from the one described here. An example is the 14-night "Scandinavia and Russia" cruise on Celebrity Silhouette departing July 21, 2018, from $5009pp twin share in an Oceanview stateroom, including Classic beverage package. Phone 1800 754 500. See celebritycruises.com.au

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Celebrity Cruises.

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE

Many of Celebrity Cruises' shore excursions are worthwhile, and you should certainly book excursions in St Petersburg. Of all Baltic cities, it's the biggest and most difficult to get around, and only passengers booked on tours are allowed into Russia on its visa-waiver program. Australian citizens otherwise require a visa, which is expensive ($135) and dependent on sponsorship through a Russian travel agency.

Celebrity Silhouette's three-day package provides a comprehensive overview of the city's top attractions such as St Isaac's Cathedral, the fabulous Church on the Spilled Blood, and the Hermitage Museum inside the Winter Palace. It also includes a canal boat tour and forays beyond the city to the Catherine Palace and Peterhof.

Guides are informative, on-shore Russian lunches enjoyable, and your perch in the tour coach provides an outlook onto St Petersburg's ordinary streets as well as sights.

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