Cruising the Baltic

Norwegian Star Cruise Ship

By Jack O'Connell 2015-03-17 17:53:52

(Article originally published in Jan/Feb 2015 edition.)

***From Jan-Feb 2015 Edition of The Maritime Executive magazine***

From the Amber Coast to the “Paris of Russia,” the Baltic is not to be missed. 

It was a toss-up – Baltic Sea or Panama Canal? We wanted to do both, but that was not in the cards. The Canal had the advantage of being closer (we live in Florida), but we had been to the Caribbean many times and the Canal itself (at least the new one) was still a year away from completion. It could wait.

So we opted for the Baltic, and why not? It’s the third most popular cruise destination in the world, behind the Caribbean and Mediterranean. We had never been to northern Europe or Scandinavia, nevermind Russia, all of which were part of our nine-day tour of “Baltic Capitals,” so what was not to like? We settled on a late August-early September cruise, the next-to-last of the season. The weather gets rough after that. The winds kick up and the waves get high. In November there’s ice, and there’s no more cruising till the following May.

What’s in a Name?

The name itself fascinated me. Baltic. It had an air of mystery about it. I had visions of Cold War countries and spies everywhere. Overcast skies and gloomy cities. People in trench coats with downcast eyes and expressions. And I wasn’t that far from the truth. And where exactly is it anyway? And what does it mean?

Like the word itself, its meaning is shrouded in mystery. It has been variously translated as “belt” or “girdle” because of its shape (from the Latin “balticus”), or as “white” and “fair” (from the Indo-European “beht”), hence “Balts” as a generic term for the peoples of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the so-called Baltic States.

But there’s more to the Baltic than the Baltic States. There’s Denmark and Sweden and Finland and the northern coasts of Germany and Poland and a small sliver of Russia as well. Denmark is the dividing line between the Baltic and North Seas, and in medieval times the Danes would collect a toll from ships passing from one to the other.

I used to confuse “Baltic” with “Balkan.” They sound alike, and they’re both mysterious. A European would never make that mistake, of course, but we parochial Yanks are prone to such gaffes. The Balkans, as you savvy MarEx readers no doubt know, are countries like Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Greece. They are about as far away from the Baltic as you can get and still be in Europe. Because of the many conflicts in the region between warring ethnic and religious groups, the terms “Balkanized” and “Balkanization” have become synonymous with “division into small, warring factions.” Think of the former Yugoslavia and you get the idea. Or even Czechoslovakia.

The Norwegian Star

We set sail from Copenhagen. Our ship was the Norwegian Star – small enough to be almost intimate, big enough to have all the amenities of larger vessels. She carries 2,300 passengers with a crew of 1,100 and alternates between the Baltic in summer and the Caribbean in winter (the Panama Canal, actually, hmm). Built in 2001 at the Meyer Werft shipyard in Papenberg, Germany, she received a complete makeover in 2010 to keep her up to date.

 I was curious about the makeup of the passenger list because most cruisers are from America. As it turned out, about 40 percent were from the U.S., another 40 percent from Europe (mainly Germany, Spain and the U.K.), and the rest from Canada, Asia and South America. They were mainly families on holiday but also a large dose of older, retired couples. Norwegian is renowned for what it calls Freestyle Cruising, and there is no set time to eat and no real dress code (at least not one that’s enforced), so you can pretty much eat whenever you want and wear whatever you want.

And eat we did. From the moment we stepped on the ship we knew we were in for a treat. We were ushered to Deck 12, to Cagney’s, one of the ship’s five specialty restaurants, and treated to a sumptuous lunch of flounder Milanese and vegetables jubilee accompanied by a delicious chardonnay. When we got to our room our bags were already there. At one of the two main dining rooms that night we had poached cod.

You’re supposed to gain weight on a cruise, and it’s easy to see why. The food is free (unless you opt for one of the specialty restaurants), and it’s ubiquitous. The rule of thumb is a pound a day, and we were on a nine-day cruise. I was determined to eat as much fish as possible, not because I was worried about gaining weight (and I’m not a vegan) but because I like fish and get plenty of meat at home. And that’s what I did.

Our first stop was Warnemunde, Germany, which is really Rostock. We took a long train ride to Berlin, the first of our “Baltic Capitals,” sharing a compartment with a British couple living in Spain and an older American couple from Texas. Part of the adventure of cruising is meeting new people, especially people from different countries. Some you like, some you don’t. But most you do, and some of the best memories come from incidental encounters like on a train ride to Berlin. And all cruisers have one thing in common: a thirst for adventure and a desire to see new things. That makes for a strong common bond.

We had never been to Berlin. It’s a huge city. East Berlin is much bigger than West Berlin and still has many Stalin-era buildings, large and gray and foreboding. West Berlin is bustling and prosperous. I had my picture taken at the old Checkpoint Charlie (how corny is that?), and we visited the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag and saw the American Embassy and did some shopping on the Kurfürstendamm, the Fifth Avenue of Berlin, which was crowded with prosperous-looking tourists and office workers. Remnants of the Berlin Wall are still everywhere, adorned with striking graffiti and powerful political images. They’re a stark reminder of what once was, and of the joy of liberation.

We then sailed along the “Amber Coast” of Germany, Poland, Russia and Lithuania, so called because amber is often found lying on the beaches there. But there was no need to go hunting for it. We could buy it right on the ship. An enterprising Brit had set up shop and offered a free lecture on the subject, which turned out to be fascinating. It seems amber is the product of tree resin that oozes out of sick trees and was captured and frozen during the last Ice Age and subsequently washed up on beaches or is found in coastal deposits. Some pieces, which come in dazzling shades of orange, brown and yellow, contain small insects or even butterflies. But our expert explained that these were man-made, that you could not have a mosquito trapped in a piece of amber for thousands of years.

Amber is “the gold of the North” and the most porous of gemstones, renowned for its beauty and versatility. Best of all, it is relatively inexpensive, so it made an ideal gift for our friends back home. We loaded up on amber earrings, necklaces and pins.

From Sprats to Fabergé Eggs

In Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, we discovered sprats. Sprats are little sardines that go well on black bread with onions and leeks, or caviar even, if that’s more to your taste. They’re ubiquitous in the Baltic and widely considered the smelliest fish in the world. I found them quite tasty, actually, and didn’t notice the smell at all.

The big stop and highlight of the cruise was Saint Petersburg. To prepare us, our amber expert delivered lectures on matryoshka dolls (Russian nesting dolls) and Fabergé eggs. He also had a wide variety of both items for sale on the ship. Matryoshka (pronounced “muh-TROHSH-kuh”) dolls are the representative folk art of Russia, carved from wood and coming in all sizes. There are usually at least five in a set, and the art work is elaborate, representing everything from girls’ faces to political figures to seasonal themes like Christmas. The ingenuity is remarkable.

Fabergé eggs, of course, are the work of Carl Fabergé, the descendant of French Huguenots who came to Russia in the Seventeenth Century. The first egg was commissioned by Tsar Alexander III in 1885 as an Easter gift for his wife, and the tradition of the Imperial Easter Egg continued right up until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Like matryoshka dolls, the eggs are ingenious in design but infinitely more elaborate and expensive, made from gold and precious jewels and opening up to reveal a hidden surprise, and sometimes a surprise within a surprise.

The success of the House of Fabergé reflects the heavy French influence in tsarist Russia. St. Petersburg itself was modeled after Paris when it was laid out by Peter the Great in 1703. He employed French architects and French craftsmen. The broad “prospekts” that line the city are modeled after the grand boulevards of Paris, and the Nevsky Prospekt is the Champs Élysées of Saint Petersburg. When we visited Peter the Great’s Summer Palace in Peterhof, which is north of the city on the Gulf of Finland, we were reminded of Versailles.

Chef’s Table

On the seventh night out (which happened to be my wife’s birthday) we treated ourselves to the Chef’s Table, a special nine-course dinner with matching wines, presided over by the Executive Chef and Master Sommelier. There were twelve of us, including a Canadian diplomat based in Senegal, a software engineer from Austin, a retired haberdasher from New York City, and a charming German couple from Munich. The selections included, among other delicacies, an amuse bouche consisting of mango, vodka and jalapeno ravioli; ahi tuna tartare; pan-seared sea bass; a veal chop with anna potatoes and sautéed spinach; and yogurt mousse, spiced rum cake or cheese platter for dessert. Had enough?

Here were some of the wines: a Schramsberg blanc de blanc from California (my wife’s favorite), a Matua Valley sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, a Silverado chardonnay from Napa Valley and a Franciscan cabernet from Napa (my favorite). We didn’t eat for the remainder of the cruise.

Ferries and Windmills

No tour of the Baltic would be complete without mentioning windmills and ferries. Offshore windmills are everywhere, and they generate up to 30 percent of the electricity in countries like Denmark, the leader in offshore wind technology. As for ferries, they are the preferred mode of transportation throughout the region, hauling both passengers and freight. I watched an Eckerö Line ferry being offloaded and then reloaded in Helsinki and marveled at the efficiency and speed of the operation, with the waiting semis lined up as far as you could see.

“The reason first-timers take a cruise is because people tell them about it, whether it’s their friend, relative or co-worker,” stated Royal Caribbean Chairman & CEO Dick Fain at last year’s Miami cruise convention. So there, have I tempted you? Ready to set sail? Bon voyage! – MarEx

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The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.