Taking a Baltic cruise came into our heads after we’d been to some of the more traditional sailing areas of the Mediterranean. Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia…there were so many places we wanted to see, but we had comparatively little time in which to get away. This was an opportunity to make the most of the time available. We agreed we could return to our favourites to explore them in more detail.
Baltic Cruise: The White Nights
We were fascinated at the thought of the White Nights. Between late May and early July at northerly latitudes, the sun does not set far enough below the horizon for the sky to grow dark. The main period for the White Nights is June 11th – July 2nd, and we would be in St Petersburg during that time to see its Beliye Nochi.
St Petersburg’s very northerly geographical location is roughly at the same latitude as Oslo, the southern tip of Greenland, and Seward, Alaska. Night becomes indistinguishable from day in St Petersburg, so much so that there is no need for streetlights in the city. We were excited to think of all the extra exploring potential this would give us.
Cruising on Celebrity Eclipse
We were sailing on the Celebrity Eclipse, which is a big beast among cruise ships. We’d been on the Eclipse before, and loved her clean lines, calming open spaces, and wonderful restaurants. We’d elected to travel Aqua Class, which gives access to the spa, and dining in a separate small restaurant: Blu. Our cabin was on what is known as a “hump”: two slightly protruding areas on each side of the ship. Being at the front of the hump meant that we had a massive triangular balcony from which we could see forward to the bridge, aft and out to sea. I was determined to enjoy the beautiful views during the White Nights.
Our First Call: Zeebrugge
You may have worked out that we’re keen Belgophiles. The opportunity to take in one of our favourite countries as our first stop on the trip was a great beginning. From Zeebrugge, we took a shuttle to Blankenberge. You can take a train onwards to Bruges, Ghent or Brussels but as we’d visited before a number of times, we elected instead to explore Blankenberge.
It’s a pretty coastal town with a long shopping street leading to a promenade by the sea and a rather beautiful historic town hall. Unusually, you have to go up a flight of steps to get to the sea front, so you’ll have to wait for those sea views. We enjoyed ourselves wandering around, buying some obligatory chocolate, reminding ourselves of the beauty that is Belgian beer, and in my husband’s case, replacing some rather important elements of his attire that he’d left on the bed at home.
It was still light at half past ten.
This was the absolute surprise of the trip. We’d thought that this would just be a small stopping off point, which would enable us to get the train to Berlin. However, it was so lovely that we ended up spending our day there and in Rostock instead.
Warnemunde is full of charm. There are lots of shops and restaurants alongside the river inlet. Boats moored alongside the river promenade were doing a brisk trade in fresh fish, while seagulls eyed them greedily. One gull in particular was hatching a – successful – plot for a snatch and grab. We walked for a long while, just enjoying the atmosphere and the sights. There were plenty of ferries on the move, and it seemed that this would be a fascinating place to linger longer.
Baltic Cruise: Rostock
We decided to stop here rather than Berlin, simply to have the opportunity to experience a new city. My travel journal notes that it was not nearly as “east” as we’d been imagining. There’s some beautiful post-war architecture, and some interesting public sculpture and fountains. I may have bought rather too much marzipan.
Sailing through Stockholm’s Archipelago
Our first impression of Stockholm was fascinating. Our ship berth saw us moored across from a giant sofa on the hillside. On arriving at the beautiful parliament buildings, we were astounded to see a man, clad in thigh waders, fishing off the weir to the front. We couldn’t quite imagine that happening on the Thames outside Parliament.
We walked into the city via a long and lovely park, complete with a fountain full of metal swans. A group of small and cheeky birds were taking the opportunity to indulge in one of the biggest bird baths ever at the fountain, and to pose for the cameras at the same time. I can’t say that we did anything other than what you would expect on a short visit: walked beautiful Gamla Stan and had fika. But I remember a city full of happy people, and to be frank, it was a city so beautiful that it exuded happies to all its visitors too.
We’d heard that sailing into and out of Stockholm was simply beautiful as it takes hours to pass through the archipelago. With that in mind, we’d booked ourselves in for dinner at the restaurant at the stern of the ship, envisaging that its big picture windows would allow us to enjoy the experience to the full.
I cannot convey to you just how jaw-dropping sailing through the Stockholm archipelago is. I’d started up on deck with an iced tea, watching us leave port and begin our slow and careful journey through the islands. Two hours later, when we’d relocated for dinner to the restaurant, the islands were still sliding past us in glorious procession. The food was delicious, but our eyes were on the little vignettes of life.
There were small ferries, a man in a boat with his dog and two bags of groceries, heading to an island cabin, groups of people enjoying the long summer evening on the islands, jet skiers playing in our wake. In short, it was a lifestyle seemingly so perfectly crafted, it moved us to silent appreciation. Maybe this is what prepares people for the long cold winters. It was incredibly, indescribably beautiful, and I want to return.
Next Port of Call: Helsinki
We spent most of our time here at the seafront market and dockside. We were a bit scared to note that all the fruit stalls took credit cards, and indeed everything seemed much more expensive than in Stockholm. The day was memorable for getting into a long and deep conversation with a lovely guy whose son and daughter worked in London. It was a timely reminder that sometimes places are special not for the things you see or experience, but for the people you meet.
There was still light at midnight.
Taking a Tour in St Petersburg
It would be impossible to do St Petersburg justice in a paragraph or two. I’ve written about our experiences more fully here. We had looked into organising our own visas and exploring independently, but it seemed clear that with two days in the city, we’d be better served booking a tour.
If you do take a tour, be aware that it is full throttle and your head and senses will be absolutely full of everything you have seen and experienced. We arrived back each night exhilarated and exhausted, with just enough energy to shower, grab a quick dinner, and sleep. Some people were on evening tours too, but I’d have struggled to keep my eyes open.
My highlights? The gardens at Peterhof, reached by hydrofoil over the smooth and glassy Gulf of Finland. Spectacular extravaganzas of fountains, a horn band in which each man played a single note, more fountains playing tricks on visitors and a riot of plant life. Catherine’s Palace: royal life on a human scale, with stoves from Delft, walls of pictures and those glorious cerulean-blue striped columns at the gates. And, of course, our boat trip on the River Neva, simultaneously an amazing experience and ridiculously funny.
Medieval Charms: Tallin
The one disadvantage of our itinerary was that we arrived in Tallin the day after our stay in St Petersburg. You know how sometimes when you travel, your mind is blown by the intensity of the experience, and your body is weary? That was us by the time we arrived in Tallin. We couldn’t do justice to this stunning city and its glorious architecture.
There’s a marzipan museum to wander, atmospheric bars and cafes, and some rather beautiful shopping to be had (jewellery and clothes). It’s another place that needs a longer stay.
Harbour Trips: Copenhagen
We berthed in Copenhagen on a scorching day of cloudless skies, all the better to explore Nyhavn. Its beauty, captured in thousands of pictures, was indeed everything those pictures had promised. We found it a bit too busy on such a fine day in summer. Instead, we headed back to the docks and started exploring there. We found a not-so-little mermaid, plenty of shipping to plan our fantasy voyages, and pleasure in just wandering, taking in life at the docks.
Baltic Cruise: Life At Sea
A cruise to the Baltics involves some sea days when sailing from Southampton, so you may wander what you can do with yourself for that much time. I can honestly say that we were never bored. The Celebrity Eclipse has plenty to offer.
For a start, there’s a gym, to work off the food. There’s also a great pool. You can walk the decks (and with many sets of stairs to climb, the ship is its own stair master). There’s a programme of entertainment from lectures (chocolate tasting anyone?) to full scale production shows, a house band, a string quartet, a guitarist and other musicians. There’s a lawn for games on the top deck. You can go to the well-stocked library. You can even visit the glass blowing studio on the top deck, where you can watch the team from the Corning Museum of Glass at work.
Baltic Cruise: Celebrity Eclipse Ship
As cruise lines go, Celebrity is less ornate than a line like MSC, less traditional than Cunard, and less British in feel than P&O. I like its greater simplicity.
There are plenty of dining experiences to be had. On our night out of Stockholm, we dined in Tuscan Grille, an Italian venue. We also stopped off at Murano, which offers French cuisine. Finally there’s Qsine, a fascinating take on tapas with some amusing delivery mechanisms alongside some great food. Your spring rolls, for example, come on springs, and there are sneaky surprises all the way through, such as a wall of meze.
I’ve been asked for some more pictures of the ship itself, so here’s another collage of some of its features.
Baltic Cruise: Our Best ship Moments
Imagine that you’re sitting in a coffee bar, caffeinating, and ruminating on what you’ve seen that day. In the distance, a cello starts up, and suddenly you realise a string quartet is working its way into the Banshees’ Hong Kong Garden. Then the band kicks in, and you see movement at various levels of the atrium. It’s the theatre dancers, clad in wigs, frockcoats and buckled shoes, and they’re giving the masquerade ball a riotous start. There are glass sided lifts lining the atrium, and your eye catches more movement at different heights. Far above you, individual dancers are entering the lifts, and engaging unsuspecting passengers who were just heading to dinner or the gym. Some are frankly bewildered, while others are entranced as they’re offered a white gloved hand and taken into the dance.
Now it’s late at night. You’re up on deck, making the most of the novelty of daylight. There’s a background rumble of the kilns, and the witty and engaging team from the Corning Museum of Glass are working on another glassblowing demonstration. It seems slightly surreal, as you perch on a bench, and listen to the crew take you through the intricacies of their gorgeous work. You look up every now and again from the swirling of molten glass, and catch the sun, still vibrant over the sea, although it’s close to midnight.
If you enjoyed our voyage, why not pin it for later…?
If you want to read more about taking a cruise, you can check out our guide to choosing a cabin, or find some unexpected things cruises have to offer. For more life at sea, try our experiences on the Queen Mary 2, and on a mini-cruise. I’d also recommend taking a look at Cruise Critic for chatty message boards full of information, and a lot of reviews.