On July 4th, we sailed out of Copenhagen, the beginning of our 9 night Baltic cruise. We were treated to sunny days the entire cruise, and though I rarely let weather hinder my experience, I must admit that not having even one drop of rain was quite special.
A Baltic cruise had been on our wish list for a number of years, and this itinerary and timing fit perfectly into an already planned visit to Germany. In all honestly I would have preferred a smaller ship (a much smaller ship!) as it would have reduced some of the transfer time, but none the less, we packed in a lot of experiences.
A Baltic itinerary is not one I would describe as relaxing. It is however, incredibly interesting, very rich in history, with each port offering unique experiences. Following are the highlights.
The port of Warnemunde is primarily a gateway to Berlin, approximately 2.5 hours by train. The station is a short walk from the ship, making it very convenient for anyone going to Berlin on a tour or on their own. Trains were also available to Rostock and Lubeck if one wanted to venture a bit out of town.
In addition to the tours to Berlin, tours highlighting Warnemunde, Rostock and the area were also available. Not wanting to spend that amount of time on a train (or bus), we chose to explore the town on our own.
The main part of Warnemunde is a short distance just beyond the train station . There are a number of restaurants, cafes and food boats (like food trucks just on a boat) along the canal. If you like fresh fish, the food boats are the way to go. Our calamari was quite good, but I just couldn't get myself to eat the herring sandwiches that most locals were enjoying. Being a small summer resort town, I'm sure Warnemunde is nice when no ships are in town, but I found it quite crowded and touristy with so many people around.
Here we took a guided tour with a SPB Tours that included a one hour bus tour of the city and surrounding area, a visit to the President's home and office and a popular music venue that has drawn many popular artists from around the world. We then embarked on a 3 hour walking tour through the Old Town. This started at the top of the hill with a most beautiful view and had us winding our way down the cobblestoned streets, ending with a coffee and pastry (meat or apple stuffed) stop in a local cafe. Loved the entire experience. As a small country, Estonia has such an interesting history, and our guide Trinn was truly exceptional and made the tour a special experience. A word of caution here though. Cobblestone streets everywhere which challenged even the best walkers.
St. Petersburg, Russia
St. Petersburg - another exceptional stop and the highlight of the itinerary. A minimum of two days is a must in this port unless one has been here before and seen all the major sites. You can get off the ship, but you must have a visa in order to leave the port area. Visas are part of your organized tour when ships are in town for 3 days or less. Note - you do not have to go on a ship tour. You can book a private tour like we did with SPB. Some ship websites say you must book through them, but this is not accurate.
The first day of getting through the passport control is lengthy and somewhat nerve wracking, put mildly. One lady apparently had grayer hair than when her passport photo was taken, and this didn't sit well with the customs agent. After about 10 minutes they finally stamped her passport. Other individuals were taken into other lines.... not sure if they were ever allowed through! However, once we were out and in the van, everything was good to go. The second day of passport control was a breeze - less than a minute.
I highly suggest a private or small group tour. We had 9 people on our 2 day deluxe tour, which gave us a lot of flexibility versus trying to herd a larger group. Our tour included all the major sites (Catherine's Palace and the Amber Room, Peterhof Gardens, the Hermitage, the Church on the Spilled Blood and Peter and Paul Fortress) and the Faberge Museum, plus lunch where the locals ate.
Well preserved, Catherine's Palace was just amazing. Unbelievable amounts of gold. And the Amber Room - WOW. No photos are allowed to be taken in the Amber Room, so you'll just have to believe me or better yet, go visit yourself! I also loved the Peterhof Gardens and the fountains. Just beautiful. I could have easily spent several hours there. I can't say enough about the Faberge Museum either. Most tours did not include it, yet it was one of my top experiences.
Here too, a lot of walking on uneven cobblestone streets. St. Petersburg is a fascinating place to see. I'd gladly go back.
In Helsinki we opted for the Hop On Hop Off bus. It picked up right at the port which made it convenient. We had the least amount of time in port here, so we got off only at the main sites, including the Temppeliaukio Church (Rock Church), the Sibelius monument and Senate Square. I chose not to go into the church as the crowds were massive at the time. Best to go later in the day when all the tours are completed.
As is tradition for me, if there is a local farmer's market nearby, I'm there! I love seeing what locals shop for. This market also had a lot of lovely hand crafted items. We also ran into a very nice couple from Colorado (not from the cruise) who had gone to Arizona State University, Since she was wearing an ASU shirt, I of course had to stop and chat! What a small world.
Due to the ship size, we actually docked an hour from downtown Stockholm. If you see Nyanshamn on the itinerary, be aware of the distance. Transfers to town were extra.
I would have loved the two extra hours, but aside from that, I loved Stockholm, and I would go back to explore the areas I didn't get to see.
A site not to miss is the Vasa Museum that houses the Swedish warship that took 2 years to build and sank 20 minutes into its maiden voyage. A massive structure 5-6 stories high, it's quite something to see. Before leaving the museum spend 15-20 minutes listening to the movie about how the ship was excavated.
I was determined to find my fish market here too. While I didn't exactly find a fish market per se, I did find a market with fresh meats, fish, cheeses, coffees, etc. which of course I had to check out. I find it interesting to see what types of foods people eat around the world. Aside from some strange looking fish, you could get venison, reindeer, moose and wild boar in a variety of cuts.
The one thing I really wanted to see and had to skip were the subways. Stockholm's subway stations are known for their art. However, the art isn't at every station, and the one I found near the the market happened to be one that was artless. Next time!
The Baltics make for a wonderful cruise itinerary. Highly recommended, especially if you enjoy cities, history and culture. This trip is made for you!
And while the tours we were on required a lot of walking over uneven cobblestone streets, if you are mobility challenged, don't let this deter you. Tour options are available that can accommodate. You just need to plan.
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