The Baltics Via Cruise
The Baltics. When someone hears those words, they may think of Russian palaces, Norwegian Fjords, Finnish fish markets, cute as a button seaside towns with names so long only the locals know how to pronounce them. All of which are correct. The Baltics are a jewel, and are great to explore on a first time visit to Europe, or on the one-hundredth visit, whether by ship or over land.
I have such a love-hate relationship with cruising. When my family travels, we jet off for extended periods of time. We love nesting down in a region or city, and getting to know the culture and quirks, its people, the country’s way of life, and its food. It opens the door to meeting other vagabonds, becoming friends with locals, and experiencing rich, cultural moments. You don’t get that as readily on a cruise. It’s different.
We are Amsterdam
With cruising though, I can get what we call a taster. I learn about areas I wouldn’t have otherwise thought interesting, and discover yes, I’d love to go back there. I love that while aboard the ship, I can just relax. There’s no worrying about going to and from airports, schlepping bags through the terminal, having to cook or find a café every night. For us, we had just come off of two months of hardcore traveling. All of us were whooped, ready to not have to think for a while. On a cruise, the hardest decision you have to make is whether or not you want to suntan, read your book and then eat, or eat, read your book, and then work on the tan.
But, cruising attracts a whole different crowd from the traveling we do. It’s usually the nervous Americans who might feel timid traveling solo otherwise. And depending on which line you cruise with, and time of year, your age demographic is going to vary. We were booked on Holland America’s Baltic Collector’s Voyage, a 17-day Stockholm to Amsterdam transit, with time in the Norwegian Fjords, aboard the Eurodam. Cruising is designed for the newlywed, over-fed, and nearly dead. On Holland America, expect the latter of that statement.
Delft, the Netherlands
Overall, I’d recommend this cruise to anyone. The itinerary was to die for, departing Stockholm, which is one of my new favorite cities, and sailing to Tallinn, Estonia, an overnight in St. Petersburg, Russia, Helsinki, Finland, the port towns to Berlin and Hamburg, and finally, Copenhagen and Amsterdam. We booked a back-to-back cruise; meaning Holland America sold two cruises as one, at a slightly reduced rate. From Amsterdam, we sailed through Norway and its fjords, to the ports of Ålesund, Geiranger and Geirangerfjord, Bergen, and Eikfjord. Waking up in the mist-indulged Geirangerfjord was something out a dream - an eerie, yet beautiful moment.
All of the ports are dreamy. Wandering the streets of Norwegian fishing villages is like walking into a fairy tale. I always had an eye peeled for trolls. Sadly, none were spotted. The fjords are out of this world, and are well viewed from the water. They’re amazing and breath-taking and beautiful. The views you get of the magical fjords are intoxicating. Kayaking adventures, hiking, and an array of other activities are available for exploring these amazing, natural jewels. If you can, find cruise itineraries with stops in Norway. It was a real surprise to me, how much I ended up liking this country. The vastly forested mountains seem to be home to fairies.
kayaking Eikfjord, Norway
The downside to Norway: it’s insanely expensive. We bought a couple of sodas, a candy bar, and some postcards. Take a guess at how much we paid. 25 US dollars! Going out for meals in Norway meant we’d be spending a small fortune. It got to the point where we’d eat meals onboard the ship, and then go out and explore. Ålesund, in southern Norway, remains to be one of my favorite places from the cruise leg of our trip. There, we did a sea safari. In a high speed, and I mean high speed, ten person boat, we zipped across the bay and saw a seal colony, flew over the sight of a shipwreck, and went into the caves of Puffins. Zooming across the cloud covered bay and exploring the mist induced caves of the famously cute puffin is something I’ll never forget.
scenic cruising geirangerfjord
That Baltic triangle, Stockholm, Tallinn, and Helsinki, I really enjoyed. Stockholm is an interesting, eclectic, happening city. If your cruise embarks or disembarks in Stockholm, I highly recommend staying a few days. Or if you’re traveling overland and reading this article to get a feel for the area, spend a few nights in town. You won’t regret it! The old town is beautiful…old cobblestoned streets, quaint northern European feel.
chilling in Stockholm
Tallinn is similar, in a way. The old town is the best preserved Nordic town in the Baltics, and is inscribed in UNESCO’S World Heritage List. Cute, quaint, cobblestoned streets surrounded by a wall. Old town Tallinn is something out of a fairytale. Ivy growing on old guard towers, flower vendors. It’s an interesting fusion of past meets modern. The modern, new Tallinn is a thriving place, trendy, hip, and well, modern. I highly recommend getting out of the old town at some point and wandering around new Tallinn. You’ll be surprised with what you see.
Helsinki, oh Helsinki. I don’t know how to describe you. The Fins are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Shy at first, but if you get them talking, you’ll find a smart, funny new friend. By the water, in the old harbor, is a market selling everything from fresh berries and meat to mementos and other keepsakes. Somewhere amidst the fishy smelling stalls is a large tent with an industrial grill. Three little blondes behind the grill, cooking freshly caught Salmon, reindeer meatballs, and veggies. Oh. My. God. Amazing! The locals and fishermen were eating at the little place, a sure sign it had to be good. The Salmon was so fresh, meatballs juicy, and veggies full of taste and spices. It was one of the best meals we had in the Baltics. Helsinki is also great for shopping. If you need something, clothes, shoes, whatever, Helsinki has got it in five different colors, and six different designs.
market foods Helsinki
Every port your ship will visit is rich in either history or culture. Or both. We had two intensive days of exploring the sights and sounds of St. Petersburg. The only thing I can say is wow. Even to me, as a 15 year old, being in Russia seemed so cool. To my mom, she couldn’t believe it at all, and same with all the other passengers her age and older onboard. She was in Russia. Don’t be scared to get off. You’ll regret it later in life. It seems intimidating, but it’s not. St. Petersburg is a beautiful city.
Catherine's Palace, St. Petersburg
Peterhof Palace, St. Petersburg
Church of spilled blood, St. Petersburg
Here’s an urban legend busted. If your ship will be docking in St. Petersburg, the ship will advertise hard that you can only go ashore if you go on what we call sticker tours. Sticker tours are the shore excursions—you wear neon colored sticker and follow a flag around port with 50 of your closest friends. You also pay a small fortune per person to go on these tours. To get into Russia, you need a visa. It can be hard to get. Little tour groups such as SPd Tours will include a visa when you book with them. All you have to do is show passport control your tour ticket upon disembarking the ship. The tours are smaller in numbers, and cheaper than ship tours. And offer more personable experiences. The sights and sounds that are St. Petersburg are amazing. The rich, deep history makes for one or two intensive days of learning and sightseeing. History buffs and travelers alike will like St. Petersburg.
We also visited other ports: Warnemünde and Kiel, Germany, the port towns to Berlin and Hamburg. We were docked in both ports, and had plans to go into Berlin and Hamburg, two cities we felt we had to see. Upon discovering it’d be a six hour round trip from Warnemünde to Berlin and back, and we’d only have four hours in the city, we decided to bag the notion of going in. Berlin is a massive city, spread out over a lot of land. From what friends tell me, you have to ride the metro even just one stop because of the distance between each. My friends who went into Berlin came back exhausted. They all hated the trip in and out, but loved the city, and wished they had more time to spend to explore. Kiel is only an hour’s train from Hamburg, though tickets can range from 20 Euro to 80 per person. Both of the port towns are classically adorable seaside towns. You can easily take the train to surrounding towns, like Rostock and Lübeck. You don’t have to go in. It’s fine to only explore the port. And it’s not illegal to get not get off the ship!
Below is an interview I did with my friend Carly. I met her on the first night of the cruise, and we became pretty tight. This is what she has to say about her time aboard the Eurodam in the Baltics.
1) First off, did you enjoy this cruise?
Of course! I loved it because everyone working onboard was super friendly, the ports were ideal, and the ship herself was beautiful.
2) What was your favorite part, and not so favorite part?
A favorite part for me was the cooler weather; I got to wear pants and sweaters. Like I said, everyone was super friendly and interesting, both in port, and on the ship. A lowlight? Some of the ports we visited were kind of dreary and grey.
3) Would you recommend this cruise to others? If so, why?
Yes. Why? Because first of all, the countries were amazing! It kind of loops back to the previous question. The all the people I met were so friendly, and just nice.
4) Why did you love this cruise?
The food. Oh my, the food. It was memorable and tasty. Another reason I loved this cruise was because of the group we had. The teens onboard all became friends with each other. It was awesome, including the little old ladies I met.
5) Finally, how many anchors would you rate this cruise?
10, for out of this world greatness.
Thanks so much to Carly for letting me interview her! The Baltics really are a jewel, and are seen so well whether by ship or overland travel. Whichever you decide to do, just know that the Baltics are sure to impress. And be tenacious! Try new things! You may like them.
Austin Weihmiller is a member of the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program.
All photos courtesy and copyright Austin Weihmiller