Northern lights

Louise Goldsbury is bowled over by the charms of the Baltic.

''I don't like fog," says Eurodam's Captain Henk Keijer. "It's like staring at a television that's not working." A tricky navigation through a narrow archipelago, however, is a challenge he thoroughly enjoys.

Today's sailing out of Stockholm, the prettiest port in Sweden, is a complicated route for a large cruise ship. "It's very technical, very busy, for five hours," says Keijer. "We get very close to the islands in Stockholm but our speed is low and I like the intensity."

For passengers watching from the ship's Lido deck, 10 storeys up, the breath-holding proximity to land is thrilling. Observing from a lower balcony cabin, you can almost peer in the windows of houses as we pass by.

Most of the arrivals and departures on a Baltic itinerary are not to be missed, even if it means a pre-dawn wake-up. At the next port, Helsinki, harbourside beaches are fringed with trees, multicoloured huts and old boat sheds. Finnish locals wave as they sunbathe (the nudists stick to the secluded coves, according to the commentary), while a couple jet-ski alongside the ship.

When we sail into St Petersburg, I'm like an excited puppy with my head out the car window. But the area around the dock is uninspiring; hundreds of grey Communist-style apartments form an unwelcoming wall. Yet somehow, it only increases one's curiosity to find out what lies beyond.

As we head off on buses to explore the city, it takes only minutes to see how starkly the dreary housing contrasts with St Petersburg's lavish landmarks. Grand statues, ornate churches and the turquoise-coloured State Hermitage Museum line the lively Neva River, which bustles with hydrofoils.

Most impressive is Holland America Line's after-hours access to the Hermitage. When the venue closes to the public, it opens in the evening exclusively for Eurodam passengers, allowing us an up-close experience of the largest known collection of paintings in the world.

Although the summer sun doesn't set until late, it's our own "night at the museum". We see works of gold and marble, and stand nose-to-canvas with paintings by Van Gogh, Michelangelo, Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse, Monet and Gauguin. The extravagant building is itself a work of art and it's a privilege to leisurely observe it.

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The following morning we cruise to Peterhof to visit the palaces built in 1710 for Peter the Great. Stretching to the Baltic Sea, the gardens and golden fountains are astonishing in their size and opulence. A couple of trick fountains, which randomly squirt water from the ground, also keep kids amused.

We return by hydrofoil to the city's most recognised sight, the Church on Spilled Blood. No longer used as a full-time place of worship, its colourful facade and onion-shaped domes are almost cartoonish. Inside, the walls and ceilings are covered in intricate biblical mosaics.

Back on the ship, the crew have set up a Russian-style bazaar of souvenirs, vodka samples and a presentation about Faberge eggs.

In every port, they try to capture the regional flavour on board.

The best effort is in Rostock, after a long day of sightseeing in Berlin, where passengers come "home" to whole suckling pigs spitroasting on the top deck, Bavarian sausages, German beers and an oompah band.

The Soviet theme is revived in Tallinn, capital of the Republic of Estonia. A remarkably preserved mediaeval treasure, the Old Town delivers excellent markets, a castle, cathedral, monastery, museums and breweries. Most people sit at the outdoor cafes or pubs and enjoy the local brew.

This is a trip recommended for adults, rather than families, as the cruise's destinations are focused on scenery, history, art and culture – and a few regional drinks. Three-quarters of Eurodam's 2000 passengers are American or Canadian, with Australians the next largest contingent, and only 50 are younger than 18.

The highlight of the nightlife on board, and by far my favourite of any cruise ship entertainment at sea, is the Eurodam's BB King Blues Club. This world-class band fills the dancefloor until closing five nights a week.

Sailing back to Denmark, I can barely believe the breadth of sights, sounds, tastes and experiences of the past 10 days. When I thank Captain Keijer, he replies: "I'm just the guy that gets you from A to B."

Australia to the Baltic is the best A to B in my seafarer's book.

The writer travelled as a guest of Holland America Line.

WHO ELSE CRUISES THE BALTIC

The Jewel of the Seas sails from England on 12-night round-trip Scandinavian and Russia itineraries that visit Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki and St Petersburg before cruising to Tallinn and Gothenburg enroute back to the United Kingdom. royalcaribbean.com.au.

The Celebrity Eclipse sails from Southampton on 14-night round-trip Scandinavia and Russia cruises; the Celebrity Constellation has 12-night round-trip cruises from Amsterdam. See celebritycruises.com.

The new Royal Princess undertakes a round-trip from Copenhagen or St Petersburg with an additional call at Oslo. princess.com.

With an optional three-day tour from St Petersburg, the 382-passenger Silver Whisper sails from Stockholm and adds Visby and Riga to the itinerary. silversea.com.au.

Starting with an overnight stay in Stockholm, followed by two nights in St Petersburg, Crystal Cruises' all-inclusive cruise on the Crystal Symphony skips Germany. wiltrans.com.au.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Airlines have highly competitive fares from Sydney to Europe for 2014. Phone 133 133, flightcentre.com.au.

CRUISING THERE

Eurodam's Baltic Gems itinerary will be extended to 12 days next year, allowing for overnight stays in Stockholm and Copenhagen as well as St Petersburg. Fares from $2148 a person twin-share.

STAYING THERE

For budget pre-cruise accommodation in Copenhagen, the Australian-owned and operated Adina is a short ride from the dock. See adina.eu.

MORE INFORMATION

hollandamerica.com.au.

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