A boutique ship gets Harriet Upjohn to the heart of the action, be it in cultural capitals or surprise beach resorts.
"I THINK this calls for a Carlsberg," my sister said as we emerged from the plane into Copenhagen's early morning light. We wouldn't normally have a beer before breakfast but this was a Thelma & Louise moment - Maz and I had left our families behind and were about to cut loose on the high seas of northern Europe in a style to which we were not accustomed.
Perhaps harshly, I've always thought of cruise ships as floating holiday camps, the kind of thing favoured by a certain type of elderly American tourist (think George Costanza's parents from Seinfeld). But a voyage around the Baltic with Azamara Club Cruises has made me view cruising in a different light.
Azamara's itineraries are a culture vulture's dream, with longer than average "immersive" stays in many ports - for example, the Scandinavia and Russia cruise includes two nights and three days in St Petersburg.
The small size of Azamara's two ships is a big drawcard, too, allowing passengers to be transported right to the heart of some incredible destinations on the floating equivalent of a boutique hotel. Compared with some of the cruise giants plying the world's oceans, our 30,000-tonne vessel, Azamara Journey, seemed almost petite. Having said that, it was more than big enough for its maximum capacity of 694 passengers and 404 crew and never felt crowded.
Maz and I don't exactly pack lightly and, within minutes of embarking, our stateroom looked as though a bomb had hit it. Our room attendants watched helplessly as we struggled with an explosion of clothes, shoes and make-up. Thankfully, with more than 16 sq m to play with and a bathroom big enough in which to swing a ship's cat, there was plenty of room for two women and half their worldly goods.
Taking a spin around to get our bearings, we made a beeline for the pool, spa and gym to check out the health and fitness facilities. We were all for a bit of culinary indulgence but, having heard horror stories about cruise passengers stacking on half a kilo a day, decided a daily visit to the gym was a must. At the other end of the ship, we discovered a drawing room and library, which, like much of the ship, had the air of a grand country house, with wood panelling and sumptuous furnishings. The emphasis on service, with a shared butler-concierge for all staterooms and dedicated English-trained butlers for the suites, further added to the feeling of gracious living.
Back in our stateroom, our combined wardrobe exploded over the beds and floor once again as we agonised over what to wear for dinner. The evening dress code was "casual elegance" and we were having a problem with the elegance.
Our next challenge was the a la carte menu in the main dining room, which we were relieved to find had open seating. A team of eager-to-please waiters swarmed around us as we stared in delight at the choices: baked brie with pinot noir-poached pear, charred halibut on a crab mille-feuille, grilled deboned quail ... this was looking seriously good. As a waiter poured a glass of a fabulous house white (tonight's selection was French), any preconceived ideas I'd had about shipboard dining being canteen-style tucker quickly evaporated.
Of course, there are less formal dining options, including a snack-style cafe, the pool grill and a larger cafe extending into a deck area at the back of the ship that became our favourite spot for alfresco breakfast. For those who want a really top-notch experience, there are two specialty restaurants where, for a cover charge of $US15 ($15.20), you can satisfy a craving for delicacies such as foie gras and lobster. Unlike the ship's main restaurant, bookings for these are essential.
Many of our fellow passengers were cruising aficionados, so it was interesting to hear their thoughts on Azamara, now in its fourth year. All thought the guest-staff ratio, all-inclusive rates, small ship size and itineraries set it apart from the rest. They also loved the uncrowded feel and the nothing's-too-much-trouble attitude of the crew. Azamara is clearly targeting discerning, adventurous types who expect first-class service and want to do more than scratch the surface at ports of call. The imaginative range of tours (not included in the rate) reflected this. For example, in St Petersburg options included a behind-the-scenes tour of the State Hermitage Museum, an imperial Russian court evening at the Catherine Palace and a day trip to Moscow.
At our first port of call, Warnemunde, a German fishing village and beach resort, many passengers signed up for tours to Berlin, a three-hour trip by road. But still feeling jet-lagged, we decided to stick to the local area and rented a couple of bikes for the day. It wasn't until Maz started taking photographs from the dunes at the beach that I noticed a naked man waving angrily at us. "Step away from the camera, Maz," I said. "There are hundreds of nudists looking this way and they don't look happy." So, away went the camera and off came our clothes as we realised the only way to avoid being hounded from the beach by a mob of naked Germans was to blend in. OK, we missed out on Berlin but we wouldn't have missed swimming nude in the Baltic for anything. Our adventure also provided some lively conversation at dinner that night.
In Helsinki we took to the saddle again, this time on traditional Finnish bikes (think no-frills design, foot brakes, no gears - lucky Helsinki's pretty flat) for a 20-kilometre guided tour. We followed a route, much of it around the water's edge, that gave us a really good feel of the city, including what Helsinkians do when the mercury tops 30 degrees: they hit the beach.
On most days, when we returned to the ship we would adjourn for a couple of hours to the chairs by the pool. There, hiding behind our sunglasses and sipping fresh lemonade, we indulged in a bit of people-watching. First impressions of our fellow passengers were of a cultured lot, average age about 55, and more Dostoyevsky than Dan Brown, judging by their reading habits. Interestingly, though, this intellectual mob weren't averse to letting their hair down at night - it was often standing room only at the after-dinner shows.
While the culture-rich European cities of Copenhagen, Berlin, Helsinki, Tallinn (Estonia) and Stockholm were on our itinerary, the highlight was always going to be Russia's cultural capital, St Petersburg. Our ship's small size gave it the advantage of being able to dock close to the centre of the city - just three bridges down the Neva River from the Winter Palace, which houses the Hermitage Museum.
Without a visa, you can enter Russia only as part of a tour group. However, if like Maz and me, you want to do your own thing, you'll need to arrange Russian visas well in advance of the cruise. For us, the Hermitage and Russian Museum were the priorities and we devoted a day to each, even then only seeing a fraction of what's there. With 3 million artworks spread through more than 1000 rooms, the Hermitage alone would take years to see in its entirety.
On our last day in St Petersburg, we spent the morning cruising the canals and touring the Yusupov Palace, where Rasputin met his fate. It was baking hot and I was struggling to keep the heat off my prized souvenir, a large chocolate grand piano, as Maz dragged me up and down Nevsky Prospekt in search of the perfect Russian doll. I couldn't buy anything because my bank, suspicious about the sudden appearance of transactions in roubles, had frozen my credit card.
Thankfully, the Azamara Journey was waiting just up the river. Later, with the chocolate piano safely stowed in the fridge, the Russian doll by Maz's bed and the two of us back at our spot by the pool, we raised a glass of vodka to St Petersburg as our ship headed away.
When we disembarked in Copenhagen, there wasn't a dry eye as we gave all our new friends, including the crew, a farewell hug. It was like saying goodbye to family. But the tears soon turned to laughter when Maz observed a couple getting off a massive cruise ship further along the dock and said: "Hey, look, it's the Costanzas!"
The writer was a guest of Azamara Club Cruises.
Azamara Club Cruises is a boutique line owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises. It has been operating since May 2007. Its two ships, Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest, were formerly part of the Renaissance fleet.
Between April and October, Azamara's ships are based in Europe, with cruise itineraries including the eastern and western Mediterranean, and northern Europe's Baltic and Norwegian fjords. Between October and March, the ships ply the waters of the Caribbean, Mexican Riviera, Panama Canal, South America (including the Amazon River), Asia and the Middle East.
A seven-night Scandinavia and Russia Baltic voyage, departing Stockholm in July, 2011, is priced from $2459 inclusive of taxes, meals, house wine, soft drinks and gratuities. 10- and 12-night itineraries, also departing in July, are priced from $3409 and $4079 respectively.
Flights to Stockholm with SAS in conjunction with Qantas or Thai Airways are priced from $2030. 1300 727 707, flysas.com.au.
Azamara Club Cruises, 1800 754 500, azamaraclubcruises.com.
For Russian visas, see sydneyrussianconsulate.com/visa.html.