England, Estonia, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, 2002
|This summer we decided to explore a completely different part of the world.
None of us had ever been to any of the ports on this 12 day cruise around the Baltic.We left Orlando Friday afternoon, August 2,
and arrived in London around noon on Saturday. This timing seems to work
better than the usual morning arrival, because the hotel room is likely
to be ready by the time we get to the city. Even though we were lugging nine(!) bags — including carry-ons — the
express train from Gatwick to Victoria Station was an easy connection, and
London cabs are big enough for almost anything. The Marble Arch Thistle hotel is a recently refurbished art deco
building on Oxford street, the main shopping drag. Although we’re not
shoppers, we were pleased with its convenient location. The Marble Arch
underground station is right beneath the building.
|Saturday night, after a refreshing nap, we
wandered around the neighborhood looking for a restaurant that didn’t
serve English food. Since Danielle is still wary of most ethnic cuisine
(the best bet in London) this provides a challenge. We happened upon a Marriott
hotel and had a delightful meal of broiled scallops, pasta and
salmon, and a mediocre Australian Cabernet by Wynn’s (a good
|Sunday we wanted to go to the food courts
at Harrods, but it was closed. Since it was our only full day in London
there wasn’t much we could do. Our contingency plan was Covent Garden.
Originally a “convent garden”, in the 1600s it became the main
produce market for London. Falling out of favor in the 1900s, it was
largely derelict before being converted to tourist shops and cafes. We had
a nice lunch of wine, cheese and pate in a cellar-turned restaurant, and
listened to an excellent quintet play spirited classical selections to an
appreciative crowd in the courtyard. Dodging raindrops, we walked down to the mall and took Linda to the
Cabinet War Rooms, which Danielle and I had enjoyed the previous summer.
This is the underground complex where Churchill and his cabinet operated
during the Blitz. It is virtually unchanged from the day it was vacated in
1946. Next year they plan to open a new section of it where Churchill’s
family lived. (Interesting: they had a collection box and it was full of
dollars…)Dinner was at the Sugar Club, an Asian fusion restaurant near Piccadilly.
An Australian Semillon went well with the lemon grass soup and Danielle’s
duck. Yes, Europeans aren’t hung up about serving a kid a taste of
|Sunday morning we survived a disorganized
crush of geriatric travelers and caught our transfer “coach” to
Dover. We heard that there were 186 rooms(!) of fellow cruisers booked at
out hotel for the two-night pre-stay option. That amounts to almost 25% of
the ship’s capacity. Average age of these guests appeared to be shy of
three digits, but barely. If there’s anything more disagreeable than a
tired American traveler. it’s a tired old biddy American traveler, so we
spent most of our time trying to look Belgian.
|It took the usual hour to find a way out of
London, and then another hour to reach Dover, where the cruise check-in
was fast and efficient. We were onboard by 1pm. Hey, the cliffs of Dover really are white, or at least ivory.
|By chance, our friends the Siegles were traveling
out of Dover just a few days later aboard a Radisson ship. You see it
here, docked behind our ship, the Norwegian Dream. And yes, Ron, size does
|The Norwegian Dream is a smaller and older
ship than most of the others we have taken, but it has a certain charm. It
was launched in the early 90s, then had a 160 foot section added to the
middle in 1998. It features NCL’s “freestyle” cruising, which
allows you to eat in any restaurant at any time and at any size table you
like. This feature is pretty unique, and works perfectly. While we
slightly missed the experience of meeting new friends at an assigned
table, it was great to have complete flexibility — and no schedule — every evening.We met our maid,
Madalina, our butler Karan, and concierge Carlos.
|Linda was lucky to book the cruise only a
couple months in advance, when a balcony stateroom cancellation opened up,
and was lucky again to upgrade to one of a dozen “owner’s
suites” just two weeks before sailing. That was a fortunate upgrade,
because our cabin was a lovely space, with a living room, bedroom, bath
with tub, and a large enough walk-in closet that we made Danielle sleep in
it (I’m not kidding). The room also came with free drinks, hors d’oevres,
a concierge and two butlers. The next level of accommodation down was a
shoebox with a pet door in comparison.The
cabin came with a DVD player and library, and an assortment of CDs.
|I said I wasn’t kidding. This is the closet.
|The Kiel Canal cuts across the base of
Schleswig-Holstein, linking the North sea with the Baltic Sea and thus avoiding
the dangerous route via the Skaw and through the Danish Sound and Belts. (Interesting that they worded it that way, since that’s exactly the route
we’re taking on the way back…) Monday, after a lazy morning, we entered the Kiel Canal. I was somehow
expecting the locks to lift us up to cross the peninsula, but instead we
went down about three feet. Maybe it was high tide. This was the first day
of an uninterrupted string of perfect weather that would follow us
throughout or entire trip. At times the crew seemed amazed at the wonderfully
temperate days and absence of clouds, and when we crossed the North see,
it was apparent that even the captain was startled by the smooth sailing.
|While waiting in the lock a German band
boarded and played marching music for the rest of the afternoon. Built in 1887, the canal is 338 feet wide, 37 feet deep, and 61 miles
long. It takes eight hours to traverse it. The Norwegian Dream is the
largest ship to ever make the trip. To do so, it must collapse its funnel
and mast (seen here on the way down) to fit under the seven 140-foot high bridges that cross it.
|It’s quite an event for this ship to pass by.
All along the way townspeople stood along the bicycle paths, waving to us
and shouting greetings. Many waved handkerchiefs or American flags. It was
|In one village a brass band played as we
|And on this bridge a crowd of more than a
hundred who have “adopted” the ship display a different banner
for each passage.
|Wednesday we spent a relaxing day on the
Baltic Sea. The ship’s facilities are a bit modest compared to the Voyager
class of ships we’ve been on before, but our cabin is great, and the food
is substantially better than on Royal Caribbean. After lunch Linda and Danielle played a windy game of ping pong, and
Danielle and I went swimming. The day before, the aft pool had accidentally
been heated to over 100 degrees, and we felt like lobsters. Today is was a
much more pleasant 80 degrees. With cool air wafting past and the scenery
floating by it was quite pleasant.
|Around noon on Thursday we docked at Tallinn,
Estonia, a picturesque town on the southern Baltic near the entrance to
the Gulf of Finland. The country of Estonia is only 45,000 square km, and
has only 21 towns. Tallinn is the largest, and with a population of
500,000 represents about a third of the total Estonian population. It is
clear that Estonia is benefiting greatly from getting out from under the
thumb of the Soviets in 1991. Every evidence of the Russian language had been
erased from public signage, and the young people don’t even know what the
Soviet-era monuments symbolize. 30% of the buildings in Tallinn are less
than 10 years old; and unlike the Soviet buildings, they are attractive.
60% of the population are ethnic Estonians, with 35% Russians who,
according to our tour guide, “All work at McDonalds for $1 an
| The weather was beautiful — mid 60s and clear. We took a bus
ride around the city, then walked through the medieval town, looked at a
couple of churches, and bought a fabulous piece of amber containing a
|We awoke Friday morning in St. Petersburg. The
cruise ship dock is… well, rather industrial: coils of raw steel and
bags of fertilizer stacked between giant cranes. Considering this is the
main seaport for a country the size of the US, there is amazingly little
activity. Yes, our tour guide and bus driver really were named Olga and Vladimir.
All of the people we met were extremely friendly. They were well dressed
and drove reasonably nice cars (although not many could afford them). But
St. Petersburg is a city of 4.5 million people clearly struggling to
recover from the Soviet era. They’ve restored the city’s name (after
nearly a century as Petrograd and then Leningrad) and the streets’ names,
but restoring the city itself will take a lot more work. The entire
central city is comprised of buildings in various states of decay. The Soviet apartment blocks on the 1970s look worse than some demolition
zones I’ve seen. There wasn’t a single building that didn’t need work.
|25 kilometers from the pier we came to
Peterhof, the village and palace build by Peter the Great. Well behind Nazi
lines during three years of siege, there was little left of the area by
the time the Germans were forced out. But in
the past decade an incredible restoration is taking place. While we waited to enter, we listened to a brass and woodwind quintet play
traditional Russian songs, such as “I wish I was in Dixie”.
|Everywhere they are rebuilding things exactly
as they were before, and repopulating them with the treasures that were
removed to Siberia in advance of the German assault. What was lost they
are recreating. We were skeptical of the claim that the palace and
fountains were more beautiful than Versailles, but it was true. Only
thirty rooms have been completed inside the enormous palace, but they were
impressive. And it was quite interesting to see the rooms under reconstruction
— elaborate woodwork still without gilt, or bare walls waiting for 18th
century silk to be applied. It’s not hard to see why there was a Russian Revolution. Isolated in
their beautiful palaces, speaking French instead of Russian, the rulers
were completely out of touch with their subjects.
|We walked through Peter the Great’s throne
room, and the boudoir of Catherine the First.
|He may have been great, but I bet my rear end
is greater than the width of his throne.
Over 100 fountains are perhaps the most spectacular aspect of the
|This is where you buy your Kacca (tickets).
Letters in Cyrillic are pronounced differently. The Russians haven’t been able to shake off their penchant for bureaucracy.
It cost 100 rubles ($3) for a permit to take photographs inside the
palace, and 10 rubles to use the restroom. We also had to wear slippers
over our shoes to avoid damaging the parquet floors. Most amusing was the
requirement that we receive a temporary visa for the day, which consisted
of a red piece of cardboard. Lose it and you had to pay them 50 bucks.
Perhaps that was its point.Olga told us that 1/3 of the population of St. Petersburg consists of
retired people. The typical family has less than one child. The average
family lives in a one-room — not one-bedroom — apartment. And the
population is shrinking by 30,000 a year. It seems unlikely that the
careful immigration control is to prevent cruise ship passengers from
sneaking into the country permanently.
|There were some nice single-family homes being
built near Peterhof. These belong to the 1% of Russians who became wealthy
as a result of perestroika (restructuring) — often through illegal
means. On the way back to the ship we stopped for 60
seconds in front of the church of St. Peter and St. Paul to take pictures.
Danielle posed with the Eeyore we bought for Henry and Marjolaine’s
Nathaniel. For more about Eeyore’s travels with us, click here.
|Each day there is a new treat for us when we return to our cabin. Today
was hors d’ouvres of salmon, caviar and pate. We’ve also had chocolate
|The drive to The Hermitage on Saturday took us
through a completely different part of St. Petersburg. We were accompanied
by guide Natasha and bus driver Sasha. In this part of town nearly every
building’s exterior had either been restored or was surrounded by
scaffolding. The workers are rushing to finish in time for the city’s
300th anniversary next year. Along the river the pastel colored buildings
looked charming in the cool northern light.
|The Hermitage is comprised of five major
buildings, including Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace. The museum has over
3 million items in its collection, and is the world’s second largest behind
the Louvre. In two hours we rushed through as much as we could, seeing
countless Rembrandts, Van Dyks, Titians, and more. In the last twenty
minutes we tried to see a dozen rooms filled with Monets, Renoirs,
Picassos, and Van Goghs. Back on the ship we had a relaxing afternoon and wrote some postcards.
It’s funny to realize how close the time zones are this far north. We’ve
lost an hour almost every day since London, so now we’re three hours ahead
of GMT, 8 hours ahead of Orlando. This is our easternmost port, so we’re
about to starting getting some of those hours back.
|What a difference a day makes. Helsinki is a beautiful, clean, manicured and
well-maintained city. The Finns are fiercely proud of their independence
from Russia. Our tour guide, Tulla, kept emphasizing that they have nothing
in common with their Russian neighbors — not even the roots of their language,
which is related to that of Estonia and Hungary. Since they have one of
the highest standards of living in Europe, it’s hard to disagree. Our tour took us about 150km out of Helsinki (a beautiful city that it
would have been fun to explore) to the second oldest village in Finland,
Porvoo. But our first stop was at a cattle farm.
|With only 220 cows, a small gift shop, and
some sugar beets, I’m not sure I understand the economics of this farm.
|BWe enjoyed out hayride, coffee and pastries. It was great to get some
country air after two days in St. Petersburg’s very industrial harbor.
|They raise the cows to age 18 months, then
sell them for beef. During the winter they have to heat the watering
troughs to keep them from freezing in the -40 degree pens. Of
course, this only works in the warmer southern part of Finland that we
visited! Perhaps in the north the cows give ice cream.
|The Finnish constitution declares that all
signs and documents must be rendered in both Finnish and Swedish, even
though only 6% of the population speaks Swedish as their primary language.
This seems silly, as all Finnish Schoolchildren learn Finnish, Swedish,
English and a fourth language of their choice.
|Because the buildings in Finland are made
primarily of wood, not many of them are very old. But 59 have survived in
Provoo since the 16th century, and are now mostly tourist shops.
|The cathedral, constructed in 1418 is also
primarily wood. Needless to say it has been reconstructed a few times. It
is a tradition to hang a model of a ship in the church to protect those
who sail aboard it. Nearly the entire religious population of Finland is Lutheran. Other interesting facts:The Finns are shy, love solitary houses in the forest, and often have
remote summer houses where they can live a very primitive existence during
the temperate part of the year. The currency is the Euro. The accent is
always on the first syllable of every word, as in SOWna for Sauna. There
are eight vowel sounds. Education and healthcare is free. As a result
taxes range from 35-56%. Over 90% of Finns own their own homes. With a
population of only 5 million, all of Finland has only a few more residents
than the city of St. Petersburg.
|On the way in to Stockholm we passed the most
unbelievably beautiful archipelago. 24,000 thousand islands — really the
tops of rocky underwater mountain ranges — line the way, dotted
with houses and docks.
|An amusement park on one peninsula
(or island?), the Vasa museum on another, and downtown Stockholm on a
|Stockholm is one of the world’s most beautiful
cities. It is built on a collection of islands connected by short bridges,
and is located between a freshwater lake and the Baltic.
|Downtown Stockholm from across the harbor.|
|Our guide, Anika, showed us around the city
and took us to the Vasa Museum. The Vasa is a warship constructed in 1638
for King Gustav to use during the Thirty Years War. One thousand oak
trees, many selected for their specific shapes, went into its
construction. The masts were 150 feet tall, and it was covered with
elaborate carvings. A crowd gathered on a beautiful August day to watch
its launch. With four of its ten sails set, it left the dock, caught the
breeze and heeled over. Water poured into the open gunports and it sank in 110 feet of water.It was discovered in 1956. Over a period of four years divers carefully tunneled
under the hull, then raised it with cables. Because of the low salinity, it
was amazingly well preserved, to the point where — once drained of silt
could actually be floated to a temporary museum for restoration. It took
almost 30 years to complete the task. At the Vasa museum this enormous
ship is wonderfully displayed and interpreted, recapturing its very brief moment
|After our tour we caught a shuttle back to Old
Town and had lunch in what turned out to be a local hangout. Because it
was off of the main tourist street we had a delicious meal for less than
the price of a single entree at the restaurants one block away! Then we did some shopping. Danielle found a copy of Harry Potter in
Swedish and I bought some comics books, including Spindle Manne
(Spiderman).As the ship headed out we were treated to several more hours of the
beautiful Swedish Archipelago.
|After a restful day at sea, we arrived in Copenhagen
(which is really called Kobenhavn) in the evening, and took a bus to
Tivoli Gardens. Created in 1843 by George Carstensen, it is the world’s first theme park.
You enter through an area surrounded by charming bistros, interspersed
with bandstands and fountains. Farther into the park there are rides and
redemption games. It’s sort of a blend of World Showcase and Knott’s Berry
Farm.Danielle and I went on this boat ride where you could steer your own
boat, which proved challenging and fun.
|Pick up the fish, add up the numbers, and get
a $1 stuffed toy for $6. The park was quite expensive because there was a
charge of 1 to 5 tickets for each ride, at 10 Kroner per ticket ($1.40).
Not counting general admission, we dropped about $70 in two hours.
|Linda and Danielle enjoyed the small roller
|This is the ride where you pull yourselves to
the top. Danielle and I tried it at Legoland, and Linda got a chance here.
|Tivoli lives up to its fairyland billing after
dark, when the lights come one everywhere, Linda liked these tables.
|Wednesday morning we set out on a three hour
tour of Copenhagen. Our first stop was the statue of the Little Mermaid,
which is within walking distance of the dock. The city of Kobenhavn
regards her as their city symbol.
|I had thought the statue was “in the
harbor”, but you can walk right up to it. She’s lost her head twice,
but was wearing it the day we were there.
|We took a boat ride tour of the canals and
harbor. This is the best way to see the city, as the view of the more
interesting sites is unobstructed.
|The tour boats have been constructed to just
fit through the smaller tunnels, as evidenced by this picture of the
tightest spot. After going through this tunnel, the canal turns so sharply
that it took our captain about five minutes to jockey us around the
|Our tour bus stopped at a few somewhat
pointless locations, including this pretty courtyard, so we decided to
leave the tour and strike out on our own for lunch. We walked to the New
Harbor. It’s a canal lined with colorful buildings, sidewalk cafes and
shops. It used to be the red light district.
|We had a lovely lunch of Danish specialties,
then walked about a mile along the seaside back to the Norwegian Dream.
|Thursday morning we set off right after
docking (7:45 am) for our final — and longest — excursion of the trip, Oslo Highlights
and the Hadeland Glassworks. Guide Turidy and driver Odd took us first to
Vigeland Sculpture Park. For over 30 years prior to World War II Gustav
Vigeland, with the aid of stonecutters and the support of the government,
created 200 sculptures depicting the phases of life. I wasn’t really
expecting that much, but the statues really do capture the people they
depict, from birth to death.
|Next stop was the Holmenkollen Ski Jump high
above Oslo. Originally constructed in 1892, it has been lengthened 15
times and was used for the 1952 Olympics.
|Current record: 137 meters. Watch that first
step. Oslo is geographically one of the largest cities in Europe, with an
area equal to that of Los Angeles. But the population is only 500,000, and
the geographical center is in the middle of a forest.Many of the houses have extremely shiny roof tiles, to discourage the
snow from sticking.
|After an hour drive north we arrived at the
Hadeland Glassworks. In operation for almost 250 years, the glassworks
makes art glass, bowls, and stemware. We watched in fascination as three
glassworkers turned clear molten blobs into one beautiful piece after
another — all of the same design, but each unique.
|The bus struggled up 1100 feet of twisty
mountain road past beautiful chalets to reach this spectacular viewpoint
overlooking Tyrifjorden, Norway’s fifth largest lake.
|After a delicious lunch at a hotel near the
lake (a smorgasbord almost identical to that in Epcot’s Norway pavilion)
we headed back to Oslo. Our final stop was at the Viking Museum, where
we saw three 11th century Viking boats excavated from burial mounds over
one hundred years ago. The detail work and artifacts accompanying them
gave a much more elegant picture of the Vikings than I was expecting.
|Tomorrow we spend a day on the North Sea, arriving in Dover Saturday
morning. From there we transfer by bus to Gattwick for our flight home.
Notes for Baltic cruises:
Seven Countries, Seven Currencies:Trip highlights: