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Posts tagged Stockholm
by Nina Wright
After years of sailing our own 36 foot sailboat on Lake Huron’s North Channel we were sceptical about the pleasure of being guests on someone else’s boat. But, two new hips and a knee replacement urged us in that direction. If we were going to do it however it had to be to a new and exciting destination. The Baltic beckoned -with St. Petersburg, Russia as the big draw. After much investigation and conversations with other friends and travellers we selected the Oceania Cruise line and their 14 day Baltic itinerary which gave us ports such as Stockholm, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Bruges etc but allowed for a full three day stay in St. Petersburg. Our choice of cruise line was heavily influenced by size of ship as we could not imagine a boatload of 3000 plus tourists arriving en masse at any dockside terminal.
Insignia, is a 674 passenger ship which because of its size can dock at ship terminals in each city which some of the larger ships cannot use. In spite of its size, our ship still contained all the amenities one could hope for – spa, fitness room, swimming pool, casino, entertainment centre etc.- just on a modest scale. Perhaps most importantly it offered the irresistible combination of shipboard efficiency, coupled with warmth of service, comfort and safety.
Our cruise started in Stockholm and major photography exhibitions were on at both the Moderna Museet and Fotograsfiska (the Museum of Contemporary Photography). These shows, plus the enormous wealth of fabric, glass and wood design present in virtually every retail outlet made our two days in Stockholm well worth the visit. One of the real culinary highlights was Lux, a superb small waterside restaurant (one Michelin star) whose chef, Henrik Norstrom, created a fabulous summer tasting menu from locally-grown organic meats and vegetables.
Upon departure for Helsinki we spent four glorious hours as the ship sailed through the archipelago that surround Stockholm, the island landscape being evocative of the Lake Huron North Channel with its pink granite islands and multi varieties of pine where we had sailed our 36 ft. sloop for the previous thirty years.
Once docked in Helsinki we opted for a quiet walk around the bustling port market, through town to the quaint rock church, had a modest light lunch before winding our way back to the ship. In spite of the cobblestone streets, sturdy sneakers made the walking do-able. Those sneakers have now seen their best days as cobblestone was present in almost every destination and my lovely wardrobe of sandals never left the bottom of the closet floor!
As expected, the highlight of the experience was most certainly St. Petersburg and reaching it by boat in place of the usual airport hassle was a definite plus. We arrived at 8.00 am and from Toronto had arranged for a private car and driver with our own guide to meet us at the boat to get an early start. Tatiana, our elegant young guide, who had been provided by the Red October tour company, was waiting to whisk us off to The Hermitage for early admission. Early admission is pretty critical as hordes of impatient tourists followed us and we were fortunate to have been able to arrange this timing as it contributed to making the experience a much more intimate and powerful one.
An important aspect of our up-front planning was the reservation of a wheelchair, as they are in short supply and, without prior arrangement for the elevator to be in operation, of little use. We chose to view the living quarters of Czar Peter the Great and the Rembrandts -all on upper floors. As everyone knows this is a vast complex and could take days if you had it. We loved what we saw and determined to return one day. It is claimed that there are over 40 kilometers of corridors filled with treasures that reflect the wealth and tastes of the Czars .To see the unfolding of those historic times and the art and architecture collected is a not-to-be- missed experience.
The next morning our Mercedes took us to Catherine’s Palace, a drive of over 20 kms, during which we passed many memorials, parks and landmarks, all of which Tatiana was able to describe in detail and in fluent English. Again the early arrival and prior wheelchair arrangement were essential to the quality of our visit and the opportunity to see more of the Russian masterpieces.
On our final day in St Petersburg the weather stayed warm and sunny as it had been since Stockholm, so we decided to enjoy the gardens of Peterhof Palace. The estate, designed by Czar Peter the Great, was lush and filled with freshly planted flowers surrounding the hundreds of exquisite fountains and waterfalls (cascades) found throughout the grounds. It is a unique feat of engineering that all the fountains run without any mechanical power and depend on the gravity of spring-fed lakes and a complex series of valves and jets to produce eye-boggling multiple sprays of crystal clear water shooting high into the air. It was a perfect setting in which to take a long walk under a cloudless sky.
During the Second World War St Petersburg was surrounded by the heavily armed German army which kept the city under siege for over 900 days. Most of the historic buildings were destroyed and have all been perfectly restored to their original splendour, although many treasures were looted and have disappeared from sight. Like so much of Europe the visitor is not aware of this carnage and the Russian authorities have spared no effort in their restoration efforts.
On the night before leaving St Petersburg we learned that the Grand Hotel, which dates back to 1820, was having an evening of supper music featuring a Tchaikovsky ensemble with a little ballet and opera . We decided to add this evening of Russian theatrics to our itinerary as the Grand is also known for its excellent cuisine. We were not disappointed and during a superb dinner served in a stunningly beautiful Baroque-style dining room we experienced a delightful repertoire of classical Russian music.
We left the next morning heading for the ports of Tallinn, Riga, Visby, through the Kiel Canal to Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Bruges, each of which we would visit on our way back to the Port of Dover in England where the voyage would come to an end. Although the focus of our trip had been Russian splendour and history, the opportunity of being able to see first- hand all these picturesque smaller towns was a real bonus.
So while we had never expected to be devoted cruisers, the Insignia and the Baltic has converted us to looking for other exotic destinations where we can unpack once, experience many new and exciting countries, and enjoy the comfort and luxury of a floating home