Peter Morrell and his wife enjoy a relaxing holiday packed with lots of interesting cultural shore excursions with Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines
My wife and I have always wanted to visit the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg but one major hurdle is the hoops you need to jump through to get a Russian visa. The solution was actually quite simple, enter the country as a cruise ship passenger on an official shore excursion.
Fred. Olsen offered the perfect cruise itinerary, a Baltic adventure, sailing from Southampton to our dream destination, St Petersburg, calling in at Copenhagen, Tallinn, Riga and Warnemunde in Germany en route.
Cruising offers lots of benefits, such as going ex UK meant we didn’t have any luggage restrictions. At the dock, our bags were taken from our car which was then valet parked and our luggage was in our cabin when we boarded. You only unpack and repack your bag at the beginning and end of the cruise so the entire holiday experience, excursions, entertainment and eating, is relaxing and fun.
We sailed on on the very well appointed MS Balmoral. Our cabin was roomy with lots of storage space and comfortable beds. Our first port of call was Copenhagen, a three day sail away, and it was surprisingly easy to slip into the comfortable routine of life at sea. The first day was one of discovery, finding the bars and restaurants and being royally entertained by the ship’s resident singers and dancers.
Good food is an essential part of any cruise and on MS Balmoral it was first class. There are a number of restaurants on board from one serving haute cuisine for a small supplement to three formal dining spaces and an informal cafe style buffet.
The large Ballindalloch restaurant is a big, open and lively space while on the upper deck the Spey and Avon rooms are for those who prefer a quieter, more intimate, dining experience. For breakfast and lunch you can choose where you sit but in the evening you are allocated a place with a choice of either the 6:30 or 8:30 sittings. You can share a table, ideal for singles, or sit with your partner.
The food itself is superb with the full English at breakfast and a multi-choice five course lunch and dinner. On our two week cruise there were different dishes every day and the multi-national chefs on board each produced their own specialities. The Indian buffet at lunch one day proved highly popular as did the lobster, crab and prawn feast on another. The big hit at dinner was Beef Wellington.
I spoke with Corporate Executive Chef Dirk Helsig who is very much on trend with food tastes. As well as creating imaginative dishes he ensures all dietary requirements are catered for including gluten and dairy free food and all meals are healthy with minimum fat and salt content.
The unlimited drinks option we chose at a cost of £15 per person per day proved to be very good value and, this year, on many Fred. Olsen sailings, the same package is a free upgrade. This gave us the opportunity to try the many bars on board for pre-dinner drinks or an evening digestif.
Life on Board
Life on board Balmoral is one long round of activities which were listed in The Daily Times news-sheet, delivered to our cabin every evening You can do an much or as little as you like. There are port lectures, dance classes, live music sessions, quizzes, yoga, a bridge room and the Atlantis spa facility where my wife was thoroughly indulged. In the evening the live music continues in the bars and every night there is a West End quality show featuring singers, dancers and comedians.
After three days at sea we arrived at Copenhagen. The ship was moored close enough to the city for a stroll to see the Little Mermaid, the Amalienborg Palace and the popular Nyhavn dock. We took an excursion covering all these sites and many more including Tivoli Gardens and one of Europe’s longest pedestrian streets, the Strøget. The city was its usual buzzy self where design and culture walk hand in hand.
After Copenhagen we settled back into marine life before arriving at our next destination Tallinn. The charming capital of Estonia which has one of the best preserved medieval centres in the world hence its UNESCO listing.
We started in the Upper Town at the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with its impressive trinity of onion shaped domes, thought to resemble burning candles. Going to the Lower Town we indulged in a little retail therapy before watching a traditional Estonian dance performance. We re-emerged into the charming Raekoja Plats, the town square, searching for a spot where the five most prominent churches in Tallinn are all visible. Again, although we had taken the organised tour, the ship was only a stroll from the town centre.
From Tallinn it was a short hop to St Petersburg and there was a real sense of excitement as we arrived with dawn breaking over the city. Here you must go on an official tour as a condition of visa-free entry. Driving out of the dock the rows of grim Soviet style blocks of flats soon gave way to reveal the elegance of the city. The layout had been commissioned by Peter the Great who had been heavily influenced by his visits to the west.
Our tour took us an hour outside the city to Peterhof, the Summer Palace of Peter the Great. This breathtaking building, although destroyed by the Nazis has been expertly restored. The lavish gardens and terraces of fountains are quite stunning. If you want to buy a Russian Matryoshka doll, there is a shop and stalls at Peterhof and a well stocked shop back at the port.
Back in the the city centre we had a good lunch with an obligatory shot of vodka before fulfilling one of our life’s ambitions, a visit to the Hermitage which far exceeded our expectations. The exhibits are an eclectic world-class mix from their collection of more than three million artworks. There were works by Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Renoir together with statuary, clothing and time pieces Our time was limited but we could have stayed there hours longer.
Next stop was Riga in Latvia, where we took another coach tour. The architecture is particularly notable as the city has the largest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in the world. The newer part of town is well laid out and formal gardens provide an elegant setting for grand edifices like the opera house. The old town has lots of atmosphere with interesting little streets and it’s also the location for Riga Cathedral where we listened to a captivating recital played on the magnificent organ.
A Day in Berlin
Our last port of call was Warnemunde in northern Germany, the port for Rostock. We could have visited local towns but for us an early start saw us on the road for a day trip to Berlin, well worth the three hour drive. We had last been in Berlin in 1989 and returned to find a far different city. It was a busy day taking in the Reichstag building, the Brandenburg Gate, the Memorial to the Nazi Book Burning ceremony on Unter der Linden, the Holocaust Memorial and Checkpoint Charlie, a left over from the Cold War. Along the way we had a hearty lunch of pork knuckle in a Bavarian restaurant, saw the remaining parts of the Wall and visited the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on Kurfürstendamm.
The Kiel Canal
We were homeward bound and the next day traversed the 100 kilometre Kiel Canal in daylight. Chatting to the Captain Lars Kjeldsen he told me that MS Balmoral is one of the largest ships to pass through the canal. It certainly created much excitement on the canal banks with people waving from the balconies of their houses as our ship was distinctly different from the usual convoys of container ships.
With three days leisure ahead we chatted with some of the other passengers who had enjoyed the cruise as much as we had. Remarkably more than half had been on a Fred. Olsen cruise before and for one it was his tenth cruise this year which is a tribute to the quality of the onboard experience.
For us the cruise ticked every box for the ideal holiday. The service was excellent, the food was of a very high standard, the cabin and public areas were comfortable, the activities and entertainment were all enjoyable, the destinations had a lot of cultural appeal and overall it was relaxing. We would both do it again in a heartbeat.
A similar cruise in 2018 with Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines will be a 14-night ‘Cruising to the Heart of the Baltic’ cruise (M1823) on board Braemar, departing from Southampton on 14th September 2018. Ports of call include: Copenhagen, Helsinki, an overnight stay in St. Petersburg, Riga, Travemünde and cruising the Kiel Canal, arriving back in Southampton on 28th September 2018.
Prices currently start from £1,879 per person, based on an interior twin-bedded room, subject to availability, and includes all food and entertainment on board, and port taxes.
Further details on this cruise can be found by following this link. http://www.fredolsencruises.com/places-we-visit/cruise-holiday/cruising-to-the-heart-of-the-baltic-m1823?referrer=7&isback=1
For further information on Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, visit the website at www.fredolsencruises.com or call Reservations on 0800 0355 242 (Monday – Friday, 8am – 8pm; Saturday, 9am – 5pm; Sunday, 10am – 4pm).