In the long, glamorous history of ocean voyages, there has never been a better time to book a cruise. Today, it’s possible to visit exotic ports of call our grandparents could only read about. Holland America’s Baltic Cruise on the Eurodam explores the mystery and beauty of St. Petersburg, Russia, the charm of Tallinn, Estonia, and Scandinavian capitals.
From Copenhagen, the ship sails through narrow channels before heading out through the Baltic Sea to Estonia and Russia, circling back to Helsinki, Finland, Stockholm, Sweden, and finally to Rostock/Berlin and Kiel/Hamburg in Germany.
A cruise is the most efficient and convenient way to see these ports. Where else can you see the sun set at l0 p.m. in Denmark and ll:30 p.m. in Russia a few days later?
The 2,104-guest ship features a new Asian restaurant and bar, the Tamarind and Silk Den, as well as a casual Italian eatery, Canaletto. Other additions are the Explorer’s Lounge Bar, a new atrium bar area, and a show lounge with theatre-style seating. The dazzling Rembrandt dining room and Pinnacle Restaurant are upscale options.
Galley tours showcase the vast array of equipment and manpower that goes into producing 13,000 meals a day.
Themed dinners relate to the food of the country visited. A beer and bratwurst bash complete with Oompah band is held on deck when the ship is docked in Germany. A new Master Chef’s International Dinner showcases signature dishes from six continents along with regional wine pairings. This year a vegetarian-only menu adds 30 new dishes to the Rembrandt dining room menu.
Cruisers who never danced before get a chance to try on board. A new Dancing with the Stars at Sea experience features a dazzling production starring celebrities and dance pros. Cruisers can take dance lessons, meet the dancers, and take photos.
The ship is a sanctuary of rest and relaxation for weary passengers after long days of walking, climbing concrete steps, and waiting for buses. The Greenhouse Spa and Salon offers a full range of services from a customized bamboo massage to a pro-collagen facial lift. The thermal suite has a heated ceramic room with lounges that conform to the curvature of the spine. A Hydropool is enriched with mineralized bubbling water and powerful jets to melt away muscle tension.
My favorite spot on the ship was the Crows’s Nest and Internet library and bar. With its stunning panoramic view, this is the place to meet people and to hear the pre- excursion talks by travel experts. It’s also the best spot to view the unparalleled beauty of the Swedish archipelago—a waterway between Helsinki and Stockholm containing 24,000 islands. On the five-hour journey navigating the channel out of Russia, we passed by President Vladimir Putin’s summer residence, a former estate of the nobility.
The Eurodam is handicapped-accessible. Thirty staterooms are marked for the disabled, and the ship’s elevators make it easier to get around. I saw at least seven people with canes, six with walkers, and a few in wheelchairs who went on most of the excursions.
People cruise the Baltic to see exotic destinations they may never see otherwise. Going ashore in another country is one of the highlights of the cruising experience. Tours are organized by the cruise line and include all costs, lunches and snacks. They are booked in advance, but can be changed at the ship’s Shore Excursions Desk.
The ship’s tours are pricey. Some passengers opt to walk around the towns on their own, and shuttle busses are available for this purpose. Rostock and Kiel in Germany and Helsinki are walkable, but individual tours can be pre-arranged through travel agencies or the U.S. tourist offices of these countries.
The cruise begins and ends in Copenhagen. Pre- and post-cruise tours of the capital take in the highlights: Christianborg Palace, Tivoli, the fairytale amusement park, the Little Mermaid statue in the harbor, and the opera house. The beloved poet, Hans Christian Anderson, once lived in picturesque Nyhavn, now a hip, regentrified area on the harbor. Outdoor dining and lively bars draw crowds who stroll along the quay.
The elegant Palace Hotel is in the middle of the action directly across from historic city hall with its distinctive bell tower, and five minutes away from Tivoli. The Glyptotek Museum is also close to the hotel; it has an incredible Rodin sculpture exhibit and lush conservatory.
Holland America added a second night in St. Petersburg because there is so much to see. Russia was the highlight of the trip, by most accounts. On a canal cruise through the city, one passes under a few of the city’s 365 bridges for views of the Winter Palace and the Peter and Paul Fortress. Favorite tours go to the summer palace of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, plus the fabulous Church of the Spilled Blood in the center city, and the magnificent Hermitage Museum.
Evening tours of the Hermitage are set up exclusively for cruise passengers on Mondays when museums are usually closed. This is a good way to avoid the crowds, and the air is cooler. The sweet Matryoshka (nesting dolls) are popular souvenirs in Russia (about $10). The ship also sells them during Russian night on board.
In Tallinn, Estonia, you can embark on a bicycling adventure through the countryside or take a laidback panoramic bus tour of the main sights (for scenic viewing only.) I chose a Stroll through Tallinn’s Old Town, one of the finest medieval town centers in Europe. It meanders along narrow cobblestone streets past crafts shops and up to Palace Square and the stunning Baroque Toompea Palace now used by the Estonian Parliament.
On the itinerary was the great Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with its glorious mosaics and icons. Guests were treated to a medieval concert at St. Nicholas Church. Estonia, which gained its independence from the old Soviet Union in l991, is a wired nation. Skype was invented here, and 98% of the population is computer literate.
Stockholm’s splendid beauties can be best seen in the 7-hour Best of Stockholm tour, but a 3-hour stroll is also worthwhile. The city is built on a chain of islands. Highlights are the harbor and fabled city hall, where the Nobel festivities unfold each year.
The l7th century warship Vasa is on display at the Vasa Museum, highlighting Sweden’s inspired maritime heritage. Tours also take in the Royal Palace and Old Town, with its unique Bohemian atmosphere.
Helsinki’s famous Rock Church is a fascinating attraction. The church is built out of the side of a huge rock hill. It has l5 miles of copper wiring built into a frieze over the sanctuary. The acoustics are fabulous, and you may catch part of an organ concert. The movies Reds, Gorky Park and the last scene of Dr. Zhivago were filmed in Helsinki before the fall of the Soviet Union.
Designated as the 2012 World Design Capital, Helsinki’s Design District has 200 shops, galleries, museums and restaurants. The Tori Quarters, the neoclassical old city center, has been revitalized with restaurants and new design shops. A stroll around the harbor amid colorful produce stalls and outdoor cafes is a great way to experience the city in a short time period.
For fine dining, the stylish Salutorget bistro next to Market Square is ideal. It features locally-sourced fare, Finnish culinary treats, and is adorned in chic design.