Recently my family and I went on a cruise. While my extended relations, who organized the trip, had gone on similar cruises for the immediate family, it was an all new experience. My parents and I once went on a Sierra Club boat expedition, but that was in a tiny vessel for no more than a dozen people. This however was a real cruise; on the Royal Caribbean vessel Serenade of the Seas with over 2,000 guests. The ship itself when I first saw it in port, looked to be the size of a city block. We are not talking about a floating hotel, but a floating resort with all the amenities.
We weren’t sure what to expect about the experience but we were pleasantly surprised by everything. As my father would comment, cruising when you’re doing an extended tour took much of the daily stress out of travel. The food was uniformly excellent and with a great variety; indeed our company included a vegan and someone on a gluten free diet both of whom reported eating much, MUCH better on the trip than they did at home. And thanks to my brother, we got involved in cruise activities like trivia nights, scattergories, and a dance-off competition. And no one was seasick! In fact my parents enjoyed it so much, they’re now considering future cruises as well especially if we can once again go with extended family outings.
But what really made this particular trip so special and memorable was the itinerary through Northern Europe and the Baltic region. Without further ado here it is.
Day 1-The Serenade of the Seas departs from Stockholm, Sweden, (where we had flown in the day before) in the afternoon, but we board the boat in the morning to get settled in and explore the twelve decks. You check your luggage before you board the ship, and they take it to your staterooms for you so you don’t have passengers trying to lug thousands of suitcases at once on the stairs and elevators. (Yep, the ship has glass walled elevators.) Once we do depart we’re treated to views of Sweden’s coastline and islands for hours on end into the night. We’re much closer to the Arctic circle here, so not only are temperatures much cooler than at home, but the days are far, far longer. The sun doesn’t set until quite late at night, and rises at four in the morning, so it’s a good idea to make sure your blinds are shut tight!
Helsinki Cathedral (Bigstock photo)
Day 2-We arrive and spend the day in Helsinki, Finland which sits on a peninsula. The first thing we see at port are vendors selling stuffed reindeer and the like to tourists. We walk around town, both modern sections scouting out local furniture stores with the classic minimalist Finnish design, and the older parts of the city as well, including the Helsinki Cathedral. Known as St. Nicholas’ Church until Finnish independence in 1917, the Cathedral with its large green dome surrounded by four smaller domes is an excellent example of neoclassical style. That night on the ship its formal attire in the main Dining room-most other nights on the boat we chose to eat in the more casual Windjammer Café on Deck 11 with its buffet style offerings.
Day 3-We arrive in St. Petersburg for an overnight stay. Because of the notorious difficulty in getting travel visas and the long lines for attractions in Russia’s second most populous city we signed up with a tour company; SPB tours to guide us through these two days of the trip as well. Our guide Svetlana and guide Igor meet us directly at the ship after crossing through customs security with special earphones for her to communicate with us. It is to say the least a busy day. We begin with a trip to the St. Petersburg Metro. Yep that’s right-St. Petersburg is famous for designing each and every single one of its Metro stops in a different style and theme. So we see one stop designed in mind of the Olympics and another celebrating the city’s namesake Peter the Great. From 9:30-12:00 we go on a special tour of the Hermitage museum where we’re granted early entrance. Since the Hermitage has the largest collection of paintings in the world and over three million items, we’re not exactly doing a thorough study but we see enough. From Egyptian artifacts, from Renaissance Art, to more gold leaf and precious jewels than I ever knew existed. Entire blocks and blocks of malachite and lapis lazuli and a carved Jasper bowl over six feel tall big enough for multiple people to bathe in at once weighing in at several tons. Yes it was indeed carved from a single block of jasper. The scale of opulence on display in the palaces of the Romanovs and other members of the Russian nobility defies all belief.
Heads reeling from the Hermitage we then visit the Church of our Savior on the Spilled Blood with its elaborate Baroque architecture and fantastic interior composed entirely of mosaics. Afterwards it’s lunch at a local restaurant, before checking out Peter and Paul’s Fortress and Cathedreal, Yusopv Palace where Rasputin was assassinated, and St. Isaac’s Cathedral the largest orthodox Basilica and fourth largest cathedral in the world. Then it’s back to the ship.
The Great Old and Small Hermitage buildings on the Palace embankment of Neva river and touristic sailboat floating on the water area in St Petersburg Russia. (Bigstock photo)
Day 4-First thing in the morning is a sightseeing tour by boat of St. Petersburg from the canals-which is indeed the way Peter the Great originally intended the city to be seen. Peter was heavily influenced by Amsterdam and Venice. The sheer number of bridges in the city is fantastic as are the size of the waterways-indeed the Neva River is large enough to accommodate a cruise ship only slightly smaller than the Serenade of the Seas. After getting off the boat tour we then immediately get on the Hydrofoil, which is actually another boat to visit Peterhof the palaces and gardens personally designed by Peter the Great. They’re known as the Russian Versailles and it’s not hard to see why with their gorgeous fountains and ostentatious palaces that Peter’s descendants kept building up. From Peterhof we drive to Tsar’s village to have lunch at a Russian café. Lunch is very Russian; borscht, pork, and of course vodka shots. Then it’s on to visit the palace of Catherine the Great, summer residence to the Tsars. Built in a rococo style more than a hundred kilograms of gold were used to gild the façade and statues on the roof alone. We pass through the Portrait room, the Blue Formal Dining Room, numerous ballrooms, each more startling than the last culminating in the Amber Room the famous chamber decorated in amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors once dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Day 5-Today we arrive in Tallinn, Estonia on the shore of the Gulf of Finland. Tallinn’s Old Town is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It literally feels like you’re walking through a storybook with its ancient stone walls and cobblestoned streets. It also seems like every other store is a souvenir shop. In the market square there are people in period dress. It’s all a little touristy but also fun and picturesque. That day for lunch we ended up eating at an excellent North African restaurant, (the new Globalized Age,) and sipping some local Estonian beer.
Day 6-We pull into Riga, Latvia. Founded in 1201 and a former member of the Hanseatic League, Riga is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and noticeably less touristy than Tallinn. The first thing we come across after leaving the boat is Riga Castle. We check out such local sights as the Freedom Monument and the Building of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads. We also walk along the Art Nouveau section of Riga. We go to lunch at a place called Key to Riga where the cuisines is traditional Latvian and the beer steins are huge.
Day 7-No cities this day but just cruising so guests can enjoy any of the multitudinous attractions on board from the indoor and outdoor pools/Jacuzzis, to the climbing wall, the shopping, the Spa, the fitness center and more. Or you can just stay in your room and read a good book.
Day 8-We arrive back in Stockholm early in the morning. Since our flight isn’t until the afternoon, we checked our bags at a hotel, and then did a walking tour of Stockholm’s Old Town known as Gamla Stan and some shopping in the downtown area before heading on to the airport.