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Travel: Baltic cruise

The Silver Whisper cruise liner. Picture: Contributed

The Silver Whisper cruise liner. Picture: Contributed

  • by anthony nicholas
 

THOUSANDS of feet below the window of my British Airways flight, boats on the deep blue carpet of the ocean looked like so many insects, frozen in time. With chilled champagne at hand and a side order of plump, fluffy white clouds flitting past, it was a sublime, quite surreal overture to what promised to be a thrilling adventure.

Three hours later and the Silver Whisper swings effortlessly clear of her berth in the middle of Stockholm to begin the long passage out into the Baltic. Stewards circulate around the pool deck with canapes and drinks as a solitary sax player floods the evening air with cool, sultry jazz.

The backdrop of slender, green copper spires and domes slowly gives way to a warren of small, pine-shrouded islands. The Silver Whisper threads her way nimbly through the maze as the setting sun turns this densely packed, picturesque waterway into what resembles a sea of burning straw. In terms of how to start a trip, it doesn’t get any better than this.

We were taking a week-long, late summer swing through the highlights of northern Europe, including of a three-night stay in St Petersburg. And while the ancient tsarist capital was the stellar attraction of the voyage, there were more than enough additional highlights, both aboard and ashore, to make for a fascinating adventure.

One of the most enjoyable things about the trip was the Silver Whisper herself. With all-inclusive fares and a capacity of less than 400 passengers, the ship offered the best of all possible worlds. She is as finely crafted and highly styled as any five star boutique hotel. Every room is an outside suite, complete with marble walled bathrooms and huge, walk-in wardrobes. There is a sitting area with a plasma screen TV and the beds are incredibly comfortable.

Most suites have good-sized private balconies, ideal for a morning coffee as we cruised into bustling, beautiful Helsinki, or for champagne at sunset in the heart of St Petersburg, with the city centre traffic racing by just below you.

With all open seating, gourmet dining and a complete absence of queues for anything at all, sailing on the Silver Whisper was like putting to sea in the Ritz, but without getting a Ritz-sized bill at the end. And the relatively small size of the ship meant that she could get into the smaller, better locations in ports that the big ships had to bypass.

Tallinn, the Estonian capital, was a wonderful revelation, like a 14th-century theme park, bathed in brilliant sunshine. Winding, cobbled streets led on to ancient city squares thronged with cafes, bars and outdoor restaurants.

At the top of the town, the ancient medieval walls framed such evocatively named, squat grey monstrosities as the towers “Tall Hermann” and “Fat Margaret”; they can trace their ancestry back to the Hanseatic League in the 1400s.

Even when seen against a duck egg blue August sky, those ancient old ramparts still seem as inscrutable and sinister as they must have done to numerous occupying armies. The Communists and the Nazis came, went, and came again. Only now is the city – easily one of the most beautiful in Europe – finally shaking off the damp overcoat of decades of Russian occupation.

We sailed out that evening, slipping between a duo of hulking cruise ships. Their passengers gazed open-mouthed at the Silver Whisper as the stewards delivered mimosas and martinis to passengers, lounging on the terraces in their bathrobes. It was like being in a Rolls-Royce, purring smoothly past a couple of tourist coaches.

Rain thumped on the decks in vengeful torrents as we crept upstream to our berth in St Petersburg. We moved past a sombre backdrop of scrap heaps, graffiti-splattered, ancient Stalinist tower blocks and long since rusted-up railway box cars; past a brace of decommissioned nuclear submarines, all as grey as the skies that frowned on us.

Then, as if on cue, the sun came out as the domes and spires of the city centre splintered the skyline in front of us. The rain stopped and the passengers poured out on deck as we came to a gradual halt, eventually snuggling up to an embankment lined with Palladian buildings, framed by ranks of plane trees, ranged along a boulevard awash with traffic. It could have just as easily been Paris, but here we were, docked right in the heart of downtown St Petersburg.

St Petersburg was built by Peter the Great as his famous “Window on the West”, and the architecture here drew heavily on that of the western capitals he visited in search of inspiration. In its 300-year history it has changed its name four times; it was the birthplace of the Communist revolution, and the scene of the murder of Rasputin.

During the Second World War, it sustained and survived a horrific, three-year siege that saw a million of its citizens starve to death. It was also the key Soviet naval base during the Cold War, until Gorbachev and Perestroika heralded the death knell of the old guard.

Today, the city wears the ghosts of all that turmoil like so many spectral battle honours. The old cruiser Aurora is still here; one of her guns fired the shot that signalled the start of the 1917 revolution. Her squat silhouette stands like some ancient time capsule, tethered to the river bank.

There was time to see the hallowed glut of ancient masterpieces in the Winter Palace, as well as the amazing St Isaac’s cathedral, with its gold dome. But nothing came close to Petrodeverts for sheer, opulent diversion.

This summer palace of the tsars was built on the edge of the Baltic. With its Italianate façade and vast, interior brew of gold, gilt and frescoed ceilings, it was meant to rival Versailles.

Room after room showcases vast, asteroid-sized chandeliers holding sway above a sea of deep, rich oriental carpets. There are stunning, gilt-edged staircases and gardens with stepped terraces, flanked by lines of gold cherubs and fabulous, ornamental fountains. When you see this overblown palace, you understand just why the ordinary people revolted so violently.

Back at sea, there was time for a steak and champagne breakfast on my balcony as the Silver Whisper surged towards Helsinki. A city almost as wedded to the sea as Venice, it was a perfect final call.

There was time to savour the cool, white Lutheran cathedral, with its blue domes, and the vibrant quayside fish market before Silver Whisper headed out for our debarkation next morning in Copenhagen.

A week on Silver Whisper showcased the best of the summertime Baltic in what amounted to a fantastic voyage of discovery.

• A seven-night Baltic cruise on Silver Whisper costs from £2,450 per person per night at double occupancy based on a sailing on 2 June, 2015. Tel: 0844 251 0837 or see www.silversea.com

 

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