Travel: Baltic Cruise

The Casade at Peterhof. Picture: Fiona Laing
The Casade at Peterhof. Picture: Fiona Laing
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A cosseted cruise round the Baltic’s formidable maritime powerhouses with an unexpected stowaway proves illuminating and exhilarating, finds Fiona Laing

The Boudicca makes light work of crossing the Baltic. The deep grey churning sea with its white wavecrests and the sky’s infinite variations of tone from grey to silver have a mesmerising effect. Each circuit of the deck brings a new masterpiece and a different conversation with a fellow walker, until we all stop to watch the stowaway. There, in the middle of nowhere, is an exhausted tiny Meadow Pipit, valiantly making attempts to fly away, only to end back in the ship’s embrace.

The Baltic is both formidable and empowering: a sea that influenced the politics and culture of northern Europe and Scandinavia. A sea that was both a maritime barrier and a floating highway. On Fred Olsen’s Boudicca cruise of the Baltic, the ports of call are capital cities – Oslo, Helsinki, Copenhagen – or former capitals – St Petersburg and Turku. Seats of government right on the waterfront: power sources of maritime nations.

Empires flourished both in spite of and because of the Baltic. In the 17th century, in an era when travel was measured in days not hours, Christian IV managed to rule both Norway and Denmark even though they are separated by the treacherous waters of the Skagerrak-Kattegat, the key link between the Baltic and the North Sea.

Among the first to flex their maritime muscles were the Vikings. For more than 200 years, their power was down to their ships and sailing skills. Their explorers discovered “new” lands including the British Isles and Canada. Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum houses some of the longboats that these traders – and warriors – took on their incredible journeys. Boudicca had crossed the North Sea as we dined, drank and danced in comfort, so I can only try to imagine the effort of 70 Viking oarsmen powering a flimsy wooden boat across the same seas.

After a great fire in 1624, Christian IV outlawed wooden homes in Oslo, replacing its charred remains with the framework of today’s elegant city centre. Yet this is no time capsule. Boudicca’s berth is beside what looks like an ice-and-glass skateboard park. It certainly provided the morning’s icebreaker as we impatiently anticipated our first day ashore. More knowledgeable companions soon ended the debate: the futuristic building was the opera house.

The next morning, the Kattegat lives up to its forbidding reputation when we try to dock at Halmstad in Sweden. A storm had buffeted us after we left the protection of Oslo Fjord through the night and by dawn even the powerful Boudicca is no match for the combination of a Force Ten and the delicate approach required for the smallest port on our itinerary.

The unexpected day at sea lets us inspect the modern seascape. The armies of wind turbines marching through the waves salute the delicate bridge-tunnel which means Malmo is just 25-minutes’ ride from Copenhagen across the Öresund Sound. We quickly adjust to the extra day’s relaxation. Aboard the Boudicca we are cosseted at every turn. The dinner menu is imaginative and extensive, with an accent on seafood. Our waiters ensure our meals are more than excellent food and service: when we have a birthday at our table, their serenade makes ageing a happy pleasure.

As the next dawn brakes, my porthole reveals ethereal islands floating past. We are approaching Turku, Finland’s fifth city, through its 3,000-island archipelago. It takes a few hours and things turn quite surreal as the poolside is transformed into an “ice bar”, with ice sculptures, waiters serving cool drinks and a band rocking out catchy pop.

Turku was Finland’s capital until 1812, when it was replaced by Helsinki. A much grander city, the 19th-century capital was centred on the Senate Square, its imposing façade housing the government, university and cathedral. This neoclassical quarter is enveloped by decades of development which reward the explorer with architectural surprises like the 1960s Rock Church, a busy harbour and shops which major on effortless style.

Tsar Peter the Great understood the importance of the sea. He’d trained as a navigator and saw the international power that a Baltic port would give Russia. With the land on the Gulf of Finland won from Sweden in 1703, Peter drew up plans for St Petersburg. The city was in business in just 20 years. The new cruise terminal we wake up in gives us no clue as to what awaits us in St Petersburg. The extravagant baroque of Peter and his heirs has a shawl of industry layered with solid Communist-era housing blocks and laced with fleets of trams and buses. Then there’s a flurry of modern developments, great sculpted blocks of flats, with panoramic views and sky-high price tags, and somehow they all blend together, supporting a population of five million.

The headlines are in the 18th-century legacy and, like every first-time visitor, the Hermitage is high on my agenda. The outside is beautiful, but inside it welcomes you with breathtaking visual poetry. We whiz round with our dynamic guide, Margarita. Luckily the Romanovs are her passion and her English is great. We only see the Hermitage’s high points – a rollcall of European art. It would take 11 years to look at each item in the collection for just 30 seconds – but our introduction is enough to know it’s a place to revisit.

Margarita is our escort again for Peterhof, where she had worked as a guide. Peterhof is now my favourite place in the world. It’s so much more manageable than Versailles or Munich’s Nymphenburg, but Peter the Great’s creation is just as lavish. And, perfectly timed by Margarita, we are in position as its extravagant fountains come alive.

Copenhagen, our final port, owes much to Christian IV, the same “Great Builder” of Oslo. He enlarged the city, commissioning fine Renaissance buildings such as Rosenborg Castle and the Stock Exchange. However, he was only one of many VIPs to leave their mark on the pretty Danish capital. The iconic Little Mermaid exists thanks to the philanthropic Carlsberg brewing family, the Jacobsens, while the Mærsk shipping fortune is responsible for – among other things – the stunning recent opera house.

Copenhagen knows how to make an autumn cruise special and has laid on bright sunshine. But it has saved the best to last: everyone is on deck as we sail away and the sun drags a paintbox of colours across the city silhouette. n