Worse things happen at sea, or so the saying goes. James Goffin took a cruise around the Baltic and its famously picturesque cities, to see what a holiday on the high seas is really like.
WHEN I told my friends I was going on a cruise, their reactions were a little mixed.
While most thought the idea of travelling to Scandinavia, the former Eastern Bloc, and Germany all in one trip was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, there was also a little concern that at a tender 28-years-old I’m a little short of my pension to go on a cruise.
Those suspicions were somewhat confirmed when I arrived at Harwich to board the Ocean Majesty – my home for the next 11 nights.
Not only was there was a dedicated security queue for people with pacemakers, but the only people my age at the departure gate were dropping off their parents.
Still, with the promise of some fantastic destinations at the forefront of my mind I climbed the gangplank. I didn’t have much time to get my sea legs before we left port. We weren’t always blessed with the calmest of seas for the five days afloat, and, we were a bit buffeted by the waves.
The ship was subject to a £1m refurbishment last year, and now has 273 cabins.
Poor weather meant the first formal night of the cruise was postponed, to allow the seasickness to subside before we got to meet the captain, with a bit more dignity in our dinner suits and cocktail dresses.
The evenings have one of three dress codes – and although the service lives up to the formality, the food sadly doesn’t. The servings were plentiful and there’s a good choice, but the quality was more microwaved than Michelin.
The subject of food divided the guests I talked to, with as many praising it as avoiding it. The main problem for someone as picky and impulsive as me was that the set meal times and menus grew frustrating; whereas on a normal holiday you can pop down the road to find something you fancy, on a boat no-one can hear your stomach rumble but the waves.
By the third day we had arrived in Oslo.
I found myself on a coach heading to Vigeland Park – a sculpture park with hundreds of pieces created by Gustav Vigeland over 16 years.
Interesting though it was, the tour was overlong, and the next stops to the world’s first ski-jump, and a roundabout close to where Edward Munch was inspired to paint Scream, didn’t help. My advice (with the exception of Russia) would be to take either a walking tour with the option to abscond if necessary, or go it alone.
Prior to arrival in each port there is an informative talk on the city and the country. With free maps available and English speakers in most of the stops, it is easy enough and much more enjoyable to find things for yourself – not to mention cheaper. The excursions range from £19 for a two-hour bus tour to £89 for a fullday trip to Berlin, and can soon add up.
For Copenhagen I started off on a walking tour before splitting off to explore independently. The city is beautiful and so are the people, which makes relaxed people-watching a particular pleasure here.
The family behind the Carlsberg brewery funded two museums, a botanical garden and the famous Little Mermaid statue.
Next we headed to St Petersburg. Tourists in Russia need an £80 visa unless travelling in a tour group, which makes booking the organised trips crucial if you want to avoid two days stuck on the ship – and the city is far too good to miss.
The gaudy wealth on show in the gold-leafed roof caps, sits strangely with the obvious deprivation around the port.
The scale of the Hermitage Museum and Catherine’s palace at Pushkin serve as reminders of the extent of the Russian empire in years gone by.
Evening trips to the ballet and a folklore show went down well too.
I was doubly lucky to be able to team up Rebecca, a gorgeous and talented young lady the same age as me and a Russian speaker to boot.
Together we ditched the coach tour and explored St Petersburg on our own – risky but worth it and the definite highlight of the whole trip. But a strong word of warning: our plan to get the Metro back to the ship that evening descended into chaos when we found the station shut.
Without Rebecca to translate and help find an alternative way to the port I would have found it impossible to get back – and the Federation’s immigration officers aren’t known for their understanding.
Our next stop was Tallinn, capital of Estonia.
At its heart is a rambling connection of narrow cobblestoned streets, with churches and cafes nestling down alleyways. Its simplicity was a sharp contrast to St Petersburg, and if I hadn’t got food poisoning from my lunch there I could have easily fallen for its charms.
Warnemunde in Germany was our final destination, ostensibly as a gateway to Berlin – so long as you fancy 12-hours on a coach.
The town itself and nearby Rostock are pleasant, serving as small seaside resorts for natives and tourists alike.
There are plenty of boutiques and cafes that make for a relaxing day of strolling and shopping.
The question that remains for me at the end of the trip is whether a cruise with a few precious hours in each destination is worth it when city breaks by plane are so easy and affordable.