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Travel: A cruise taking in the highlights of the Baltic states is made even more breathtaking by an unforgettable two days in St Petersburg

Rastrelli Winter Palace

Rastrelli Winter Palace

  • by LOUISE CAHILL
 

FIVE minutes more, and my partner Ron might have been squatting, arms folded and dancing the 
Kalinka, in front of an appreciative audience of fellow cruise passengers.

After an intensive two days in St Petersburg, we just wanted to 
relax and watch the Russian Sudarushka local show. From front row seats, we clapped and feet-stomped. Then a young dancer named Ron took him 
by the hand to join the whizzing, dancing circle.

St Petersburg was the highlight port of our ten-night Baltic White Nights’ Festival Cruise aboard the Azamara Journey. We sailed from Amsterdam, transiting the Kiel Canal to Copenhagen where we stayed overnight, then paid a debut visit to Ronne, and on to Helsinki, St Petersburg, Tallinn and Stockholm.

Sailing on a smaller ship of 30,277 tons was advantageous. Captain 
Jason Ikiadis could navigate her, easily and speedily, closer to the action and with only 667 other guests, it never felt crowded. There was no problem finding a Windows Cafe seat or a padded sun lounger, and space to enjoy it.

Despite less entertainment space than on larger ships, the quality didn’t suffer. Eric de Gray, cruise director, was exceptional, notably for his Phantom of the Opera and when he appeared in drag, skating joyously to Abba’s Dancing Queen. But mostly the joy was in the ship’s refinement and tranquillity. No large screens by the swimming pool. No intrusive announcements. No thumping bass beat. Compared to the larger ships, she was like a cosy dolls’ house. But though small, she had 
elegance and class.

Aqualina was a classy, Mediterranean speciality restaurant with cover charge, where we dined after a walking tour in Ronne. We watched the wash, sailing towards Helsinki, on a perfect ‘white night’. Service and food were top rate with almost-rare tuna, asparagus and berries contrasting with a plate made of blue, green and yellow sugar, chocolate brownies and an unfinishable pot of melted chocolate, washed down with a choice of two wines.

Azamara Club Cruises prides itself on being a ‘destination, immersion’ line, offering many overnights, and longer stays in ports. As the shore excursion manager Annette Daniels says, “Destination helps, but guides can make or break it. If you have a fantastic guide, they can make anything wonderful. You reme

mber those stories, those guides.”

Inna, our Russian guide, made our 
excursion memorable, effortlessly guiding us on both days. Her continual catchphrase was, “Look at ...”. And we did. All of us.

Day one’s ten-hour stint began with St Petersburg. We learned about Peter the Great, who moved the capital from Moscow in 1712, about the fact there are 200 museums and 35 theatres, then we passed 900 birch trees, each signifying a day in the Siege of Leningrad.

The city was like one huge wedding with brides and grooms popping up for photos and hugging everywhere, enjoying celebrations that last at least two days. St Petersburg is also known as the city of writers and poets and the town of Pushkin, just outside, is named after the poet, who was said to have been in love 100 times. There we struggled to take in all the splendour and grandeur of Catherine’s Palace, a gift from Peter the Great to his wife, and one of 500 palaces and mansions in and around St 
Petersburg.

There was more history at the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, with its 7,000 square metres of mosaic. Shuddering, we thought of Tsar Alexander II’s 
assassination there in 1881. Cameras went crazy to capture the enamelled cupolas – these are the same shape as soldiers’ helmets, for protection.

Fuelled by lunchtime vodka shots and borscht, it was time to tackle the State Hermitage. Calmly, Inna said, of its 2.7m exhibits, “If you spent one minute on each, eight hours a day with no stops, you’ll need 11 years.”

Overwhelmed, we joined some of its 20,000 visitors per day – its cloakroom caters for 3,700 people. Our group, in obligatory shoe covers, padded up the red-carpeted staircase and past gilt, chandeliers, the Peacock Clock, and works by Rembrandt, Matisse and Michelangelo.

By day two, we were no closer to grasping Russian history and politics at Peterhof Grand Palace and Gardens, founded in 1710 as Peter the Great’s summer residence, and known as the Russian Versailles.

Matching the yellow and white 
facade in our yellow ponchos, we sheltered from rain at the Grand Cascade – 64 fountains and more than 200 bronze statues and decorations – waiting with hundreds of umbrella’d visitors for the music and fountains to begin.

From beginning to end, we had to agree with Captain Ikiadis, who said of the Baltic itinerary, “One of my favourites – clean air, lots of history.”

Which only left our flight home with our ten-piece, fully nested matryoshka doll. Sadly, Ron’s Kalinka would have to wait. n

 

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