Browsing the Baltic

David Wicker

Good Housekeeping - November 1, 2019

Bookending a Scandinavian cruise with an added day or two in the gateway ports will put you in a maritime mood, as it did for travel editor David Wicker

The word ‘Baltic’ may well conjure up images of a grey, austere destination where, even in summer, a cruise would not hold nearly the same promise as one on the Med. Time for a rethink. Our week-long cruise in June aboard Seabourn Ovation was rich not only in Scandinavian waterfront capitals, but encompassed magnificent St Petersburg, Tallinn and Helsinki. We also basked in sunshine (mostly) and long hours of daylight.

We began in Stockholm. Built on 14 islands, with water at the end of almost every street and ferries and pleasure boats as frequent as buses, Stockholm is guaranteed to put you in a maritime mood. Our engagement with water included a room at the waterfront Radisson Collection Strand, a hotel that once hosted Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman (radissonhotels.com).

Stockholm’s number-one tourist attraction also happens to be a ship. Launched in 1628, the Vasa was so top heavy, with 700 figures carved into the black oak hull, that she turned turtle with the first puff of wind and sank minutes into her maiden voyage – not what anyone about to board a cruise may want to hear! She was raised from the seabed in the 1960s, pickled in polyethylene glycol and given her own museum.

You could easily spend a week just in Stockholm, but in the middle of day two we stepped on board Ovation and into an aura of calm and spaciousness, every crew member bidding us a smiling welcome.

We sailed first for Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, weaving between Swedish islands dotted with blood-red summer houses, before easing into the open silver-plated waters of the Baltic. With its Unesco-listed old town of cobbled streets, Gothic church spires, courtyards and merchants’ houses dating back to its role as a key trading port in the Hanseatic League, Tallinn looked more like inspiration for Disney than a city that spent years under the Soviet yoke.

On to St Petersburg, Russia’s ‘Window on the West’: a strikingly handsome city, built for show and imperial pomposity by Peter the Great on the banks of the river Neva. With more than 300 palaces, umpteen cathedrals and churches and elegant boulevards designed by European architects, there was more than enough to justify Ovation’s three days in town. Our highlights included a tour of the Hermitage museum, one of the world’s finest collections of art, with treasures spanning Egyptian mummies to Matisses and Monets. If you were you to spend just a second in front of each painting you’d emerge 10 years later!

With water on three sides, Helsinki, our next port of call, is almost an island. It’s the tiniest of the Nordic capitals, but one that punches well above its weight for things to do. As one aficionado put it: ‘Helsinki has beer that beats Amsterdam’s, boulevards that rival Paris, architecture to match Rome’s and street life you’d find on Barcelona’s La Rambla.

It’s tricky to relish all that in a single day, but we ticked lots of boxes including the elegant Eteläesplanadi with shops selling cool Finnish brands; the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art; and the Temppeliaukio church, hewn out of rock.

And so to Copenhagen. With its museums and galleries, cool bars and hot restaurants, the Danish capital warrants more than a transfer to the airport. We added a night at the Andersen hotel, a contemporary Danish design classic (andersen-hotel.dk). From here, we visited Tivoli (part funfair, part garden and part fairy tale); enjoyed a superb seafood meal in Kødbyens Fiskebar; went to the waterfront Louisiana gallery of modern art; and took a boat trip around the harbour from the historic Nyhavn quayside – a fitting finale to a week spent cruising.

SHIP SHAPE
Seabourn Ovation is smallish (600 people) and super-luxurious. All cabins are suites with a bath, walk-in closet and roomy balcony. The 400 crew were polished, reliable and very friendly, and the food genuinely surpassed all expectations. There are three restaurants: one by the three-star Michelin chef Thomas Keller, one serving sushi, and another where you can eat whenever you want, either à deux or with shipmates.

We loved the gym with its sweep of the ocean through the deck-wide picture windows; the hot tubs; the spa; the plush theatre; and the coffee-lounge-cum library.

Many passengers on board Ovation had cruised before with Seabourn. It’s really not hard to see why.

A seven-night Baltic cruise costs from £3,999pp, including gratuities, drinks (Champagne included) and meals in any of the restaurants. Excursions and flights are not included (seabourn.com).