Have you dreamed of a cruise in the Baltic Sea and Norwegian Fjords? I did, and this year I decided to make the dream a reality. So my hairy biker husband and I found the cruise that fitted our schedule, and booked a nice balcony cabin about six months ahead. We’re not new to travelling, or to cruising, but this one, with back-to-back cruises totalling sixteen days, would be our longest cruise yet. We don’t like “at sea” days (I know some people love them) so with only three of the sixteen days in that category we decided we could cope.
Of course, what you pay for the cruise is just the beginning. There’s also the obligatory gratuities, which are charged per person per day, and unless you’re planning to have a “dry July” and really love bad coffee and watered-down cordial – well, there’ll be the drinks bill. Oh, and did I mention the outrageously expensive excursions which are available from every port? Let’s not even think of the airfares to the other side of the world to start with ….
But that’s what cruising is all about – giving yourself a treat while you see some new places. We knew all that, and we were still keen.
The cruise started in Copenhagen, quite a nice place as a destination on its own. We’d been there before and could find our way around fairly well, but it wasn’t fair of the port authority to move the cruise terminal way way out of the city, without consulting us, since our last cruise from there. Public transport to the new terminal is still a bit sketchy, so we ended up taking a taxi – and nothing’s cheap in Copenhagen.
Zoomed on board without fuss, and settled in to our cabin – oops, they’re called staterooms to make them feel bigger. Our steward was from the Philippines, and told us 90% of the crew were from the Philippines and the other 10% are still there. To become a steward, they all have to learn to fold towels into animal shapes, and our guy must have aced the class!
But of course the main agenda was visiting all the ports we’d been dreaming of – Warnemunde/Rostock in Germany, Tallinn in Estonia, St Petersburg in Russia, Helsinki in Finland, Stockholm in Sweden, then back to Copenhagen in Denmark before the second leg taking in Alesund, Geiranger Fjord, Flam and Bergen in Norway and ending in Copenhagen.
With our cruise starting in late May, we came prepared for cool (but not freezing) weather, and that’s what we got.
Each of the ports has its own special charm, and we prefer to discover new places on our own rather than being shuffled around in a tour bus. The major ship’s excursion for the first port (Warnemunde) was a train trip to Berlin (3 hours each way) and a bus tour of the city, at a cost of US$300 per person. We wondered why, but the train was packed. We explored fascinating Warnemunde and Rostock, which were part of East Germany when that was a place.
Next stop, Tallinn, would be one of our all-time favourite places. An easy walk from the ship to the old town, and with the aid of our walking tour instructions and map, we went exploring.
The city has been tidied up after regaining independence from Russia, and has lots of historic buildings which have had makeovers, without losing their old-world charm. Even the former KGB headquarters has been redeveloped as luxury apartments. Although it is overshadowed by the spires of the churches and other tall buildings, it had been known as the tallest building in Tallinn, because “from the basement you can already see Siberia”. There are several impressive churches, apparently little-used because the Estonians are the least church-going people in Europe.
The town square is a great place surrounded by bars and restaurants, including, of course, an Irish bar. We made the most of the perfect sunny warm day, and sampled the local food and beer at the outdoor tables in the square.
St Petersburg, birthplace of Vladimir Putin, was the port high on everyone’s list.
We docked about 7 am, then waited while the customs officials took their sweet time about letting us disembark. Then there was the long wait in the queue as a few thousand people tried to proceed through three or four checkpoints, carefully scrutinised by sombre officials. Unless you have a visa for Russia (which costs a few hundred dollars) you can’t go through unless you have a day-tour ticket and passport, so you are released into the custody of the tour guide. So on this occasion we had to go with an organised tour.
Our tour – under the watchful eye of Elena who spoke almost perfect English with that Russian “clang” (more than a “twang”) – went to the Hermitage Museum (with an impressive collection housed in very grand buildings decorated with lots of gold – former palaces of the Romanovs, with “muriels” on the walls),
the Church on Spilled Blood (the pretty one with the multi-coloured onion domes, which is almost entirely glass mosaic inside),
the Summer Palace of Catherine the Great at Pushkin (seriously huge, with room after room covered in gold leaf, painted ceilings, parquet floors, one room even “wallpapered” with amber),
and the Peter and Paul cathedral (which seems to be covered in gold, inside and out).
Most of these buildings, and others, had been looted and almost destroyed during WWII, but rebuilding started immediately, and is continuing. So while the Romanovs suffered the ultimate fate for their excesses in building grand palaces and churches while the people starved, it seems now all is forgiven and the people are very committed to putting it all back as it was (at even greater expense now). The remaining Romanov descendants are also being allowed to be buried in the Peter and Paul cathedral along with their forefathers (but not until they die).
The ship stayed in St Petersburg overnight, and we booked another tour for the afternoon of the second day. This time for a trip along some of the canals, and another visit to the Church on Spilled Blood. The weather was better on the second day, with blue sky and sunshine. Apparently St Petersburg has on average 30 days a year without rain, so we were lucky to strike two of them.
St Petersburg is called “Venice of the North” because of the canals through the city, but we thought it potentially looked more like Paris, with its wide avenues and grand buildings. Parts are still a bit rundown, but there’s a lot of effort going in to making improvements, so in a few years (and with a bit more user-friendliness) it could start to rival Paris. The churches we visited (and many more, I believe) are not functioning as churches. They are kept as museums, or used for other purposes, such as galleries or theatres, and one is an ice-skating rink.
Some quick trivia – There’s a shortage of men in St Petersburg – women outnumber men 10 to 6.
And there are still three original Faberge eggs which haven’t been accounted for – so check the flea markets, and maybe the henhouse just in case. If you find one, it’s worth about $30 million.
At Helsinki, we walked off the ship and straight on to the hop-on-hop-off bus (after running the gauntlet of the ticket sellers from the various operators).
The cruise terminal is quite a hike from the town, so we did the full circuit on the bus (about 1.5 hours) then hopped off in the city centre. Lots of grand old buildings, very clean and nicely kept.
At the waterfront markets,they were selling reindeer skins, and fox (I think) skins with heads still attached, and reindeer burgers! And reindeer hot dogs! So much for everyone paying out on us Aussies for eating kangaroos! What will Santa do if they eat all the reindeer?
Not Stockholm! The morning we were due to dock in Stockholm, the captain broke the news that we had not been allowed in to the Stockholm harbour because of high winds, and we were instead heading straight for Copenhagen. So instead of coolly sipping vodka in the world’s first Ice Bar, as we had planned, we had another sea day. Sad face.
With an extra half-day in Copenhagen, we initially docked at the old cruise port close to town, where we were at least able to walk past the Little Mermaid and into the city, and the ship ran a free shuttle bus to compensate for our missing Stockholm. By next morning we were docked again at the faraway terminal for disembarkation of those leaving the cruise. We were staying on, which gave us a day in Copenhagen to work out our exit strategy to get to the airport on public transport when we arrived back next time.
After a day at sea we arrived in Alesund a beautiful town destroyed by a devastating fire in 1904, and rebuilt in the style of the time – Art Nouveau. It’s built on three islands connected by bridges and tunnels, and a hill behind (accessible by a little train) gives a fabulous view over the town and the fjord.
Moving on from Alesund, our next stop was the Geiranger Fjord, at the little town of Geiranger. We walked from the ship along the shore and up many steps beside a waterfall, to join on to the road above the village, then walked down via a little church. Fabulous scenery.
We loved having a balcony cabin. It was only dark for a few hours a day’ and it was wonderful to watch the amazing scenery slide quietly by as we cruised in the fjords.
Norway is very expensive, so we were pleased to have our food and accommodation provided on the ship. At Geiranger we had a cup of coffee each, and it cost about AU$25.
Flam is a tiny village which exists purely to make money out of the tourists who come here. During winter the whole place is uninhabited. We settled in at the local brewery pub, which was great!
We also took a train ride up the mountain and had waffles at a hotel at the top. The train ride was amazing – described as one of the great scenic train rides of the world, and we agree. It goes up along the edge of the fjord, through several tunnels, past too many waterfalls to count. Expensive, like everything in Norway, but the experience of a lifetime.
Our final port of call was Bergen, which was pretty, but wet. We’d been really lucky with the weather (apart from not getting in to Stockholm because of the wind, which we didn’t feel anyway). But the weather trolls must have caught up with us because for our day in Bergen it rained – almost non-stop. I had brought one umbrella from home, and we were going to buy a second one until we did the conversion and worked out it would cost AU$35! (That’s Norway). So we got a throw-away poncho instead.
Then after another day at sea, we were back in Copenhagen, and off to the airport for our flight to Gatwick.
Summing up – we loved it! But if we had the opportunity to do it again we’d probably do things differently. At the last minute there were still staterooms left on the ship (even balcony ones) being offered on the web at about half what we paid. We found brochures in information centres for local tours and cruises and ferries which looked really interesting, at a fraction of the price. But the luxury of unpacking and settling into a stateroom that becomes “home” for a few weeks, constant access to included food and entertainment, and a steward to provide folded animal towels – that’s priceless!
We cruised on the Norwegian Star from Copenhagen on 27 May 2015.
Other cruise lines offer similar cruises.
The photos were all taken by Bonnie Elliott during the cruise