The Baltic Cruise July 2010

Cities: Stockholm (Sweden), Helsinki (Finland), St. Petersburg (Russia), Tallinn (Estonia), Copenhagen (Denmark)

We land in Stockholm by way of Philadelphia and London, and make our way to the city and the Grand Hotel Stockholm with our informative transfer driver. The Grand Hotel is directly opposite the Palace and on one of the many canals of Stockholm.

There’s easy access to Old City with its cobblestone streets and quaint laneways – a perfect city to explore on foot. Linda and I walked over a couple of the small islands and ventured into areas that were intriguing to us both. The old boats that lined the docks, some dating back to 1890’s were a great surprise for me.

The next morning I watch Le Boreal dock right in town. Being only 466 ft long and drawing 15 ft, this small ship can dock and maneuver in small ports, where larger ships are unable. This is one of the charms of small ship cruising.

Le Ponant, a French shipping company which owns four small ships (soon to be 5) just launched Le Boreal in May of this year. With just over 200 passengers and 135 crew, it is a very intimate cruise. I eagerly boarded at the appropriate time and we were shown to our cabin on Deck 5. Our accommodations for the duration of our 7 night Baltic Sea cruise would be in a Prestige Suite, featuring a separate living area, two bathrooms and bedroom. A long balcony stretching the width of both living area and bedroom provided ample space to view the scenery as we sailed away from Stockholm.

That in itself is a wonderful and magical experience – through the hundreds of small islands Captain Garcia steered the ship perfectly giving us incredible 360 degree views and something I won’t forget.

Passing small boats as the locals enjoyed this particularly hot day made me think of what it would be like in the winter! With the sun setting at 10.30pm and rising again at 3am, I had many daylight hours to enjoy the view of the sea as we sailed at a comfortable speed of 15 knots.

Le Boreal is really a state of the art “green ship” from many perspectives. Its two electric engines resulted in the elimination of engine noise and the typical shuddering of propeller shafts as she churned through the Baltic Sea. With the open bridge policy, you can be on deck with the Captain at anytime and learn about what makes this ship so great! I was fortunate to be on the bridge as we docked in Tallinn, Estonia, which was an incredible highlight for me.

The main dining room is located on Deck 2 and can seat all guests simultaneously for French gastronomic cuisine each night. For a lighter option, there’s the Grill on Deck 6 where about 50 guests can enjoy dinner and with al fresco views. Deck 3 is where we found the main lounge – perfect for cocktails!

The theater is located on Deck 4 and is used for lectures when Le Boreal is on expedition cruising in Antarctica in the South and Iceland in the North (its next stop after our cruise).

Above the Grill on Deck 6 is the outside bar on Deck 7 which was prime position for watching as we pulled out of each port and sailed to our next destination. Also a great spot to grab burgers, chops and salads for a delicious quick lunch each day.

The Carita Spa is aft on Deck 5 and the team there offered massages, facials, reflexology and all the usual services from a spa. The nice thing is the view you get from each treatment room and the large aft deck space for reflection.

After an hour exploring the ship I was able to traverse the decks and learn the ins, outs and whereabouts of everything aboard. Boating is a passion of mine so I was clearly in a very happy place – with Le Boreal being home for the next 7 nights!

Linda and I venture to the top deck; we settle in at the bar, order a drink and await our departure from Stockholm.

Our first day aboard was great; we enjoyed a lovely dinner and a nightcap listening to the singers in the lounge. We met a couple from England, Catherine and Erik who sat with us during dinner and we became instant friends. The ship was a melting pot of cultures and backgrounds – Americans, French, some Swiss Austrians, Germans and even an Australian couple on board along with us.

Sleeping was easy onboard as there just was no noise at all! We wake up in Helsinki, Finland and we are docked right in town. We passed by the larger ships which were all docked several miles from the town, and again we all thought how lucky we were to be able to walk to the main areas right from the ship.

Helsinki was a short stop for a few hours so Linda and I walked around the city square, visited the two huge cathedrals, one Lutheran and one Orthodox. The Orthodox Cathedral was so ornate inside whereas the Lutheran very simple, but beautiful from the outside and one that is an icon to the city. The markets which have been on the docks for hundreds of years, sold everything from fruits and produce to souvenirs.

We sail away early afternoon bound for St Petersburg, Russia. The Captain’s Welcome dinner was on tonight so we all met Captain Garcia and enjoyed dinner downstairs again with our English friends. All meals are included while onboard (including 24 hour room service) and wine with meals. They also have a wonderful wine list featuring French wines and local wines from the previous ports that they have called at. The ship represents incredible value, with some great pricing available right now, and even the wines are half of what you might expect them to be!

I rose early to watch us sail into St Petersburg, which takes about 2 hours from the flood gates that keep the city safe, through the archipelago that surrounds and makes up this town that was created by Peter the Great hundreds of years ago! Quite a special arrival this morning and again we cruise past the larger ships and dock on the River Neva within half a mile from the famed Hermitage and Winter Palace.

Russian formalities completed (if you are on a cruise ship you can have 72 hours in port without having to obtain a Russian Visa, providing you take group shore excursions, otherwise you must obtain a visa to allow you to walk around yourselves – we didn’t have time to obtain so we signed up for the shore excursions) we then set out on our panoramic tour of the city. We drove in coaches and were shown all the highlights, including the Winter Palace, Hermitage Theater, Small Hermitage Museum, St Isaac and Peter Cathedral, the Resurrection Cathedral and the old fortress.

Back to the ship for lunch and then out again to return to the city and go inside the cathedrals, which was truly amazing. 210 ton granite columns cover the entrance of the Cathedral and amazing mosaics adorned the other.

Linda had convinced me we must see a Russian Ballet while here, so we set off after an early dinner to the Hermitage Theater (which in itself was worthwhile), and we saw a performance of Giselle. I really enjoyed it and the music and musicians great.

The Winter Palace was next morning’s stop (we were docking in St Petersburg for 2 nights), wow what a huge home for the winter that Catherine the Great built. She turned it into a museum and bought collections of art from all over the world. There are over 3 million works of art there which would take over 11 years to see them all! We concentrated on Picasso, Rembrandt, Monet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and the major masters of the last four hundred years – words cannot describe the collection housed here.

Linda with her Eastern European ancestry had always told me how she grew up doing Russian folk dances, and of course in St Petersburg there is a Russian Folkloric show that she just had to go to…it was a very entertaining 2 hour show and Linda loved it and expressed how she could do all those dance moves too…

The next day we took it easy and relaxed on the ship, in the pool, before we sailed at 5pm for Tallinn, Estonia. The sail away was more dramatic as the sailing in, as we had a beautiful afternoon, hot and balmy and perfect for watching the archipelago in the distance from the Top Deck.

Overnight we cruised to Tallinn and when we docked we had then covered almost 700 miles so far. As I mentioned, I helped the Captain dock Le Boreal in Tallinn. The local Tallinn pilot was telling me how the bay freezes during winter (which lasts almost 9 months here) and the ferries which connect Tallinn from Helsinki, Stockholm and St Petersburg act as Ice Breakers and keep going throughout.

Tallinn was an unexpected pleasure as Linda and I met our local guide as we left the ship. A walled city built in 1219 by the Danish Crusaders, is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, has a lot of the old buildings in place including the main wall. We spent 3 hours with Maria as we walked through the cobblestone streets and learned about the history of Tallinn. With the various countries occupying Estonia over the years really adds to the color of the country and city. The Russians and the Swedes had the most influence on the city and we were shown the KGB headquarters and interrogation house they used.

While some on the cruise thought Tallinn to be “contrived” I felt it was a wonderful city and one most should enjoy and experience for themselves as the history here is amazing.

We sail from Tallinn in the afternoon following other ships and turn to port and head out of the Baltic Sea towards Copenhagen. A small squall went over and around us shortly after leaving and Le Boreal just cruised on, remarkably with little movement.

Tonight was the Captain’s Farewell Dinner; some wore with jacket and tie, others jacket, and some just casual – but all enjoyed the dinner and entertainment.

My favorite days on a cruise are the sea days and today, our last day, is a sea day as we sail to the Danish capital. I wake up, sit on the verandah and watch the sea go by as we pass and are passed by other ships as they navigate toward other parts of the world.

I was up early on our last day to watch us sail into Copenhagen past the wind turbines, over the tunnel (reminds me of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge near Norfolk) and small islands.

We cruised 1,100 miles on this journey and we say farewell to our friends and crew onboard and disembark the Le Boreal, but we will return.

I thoroughly enjoyed Le Boreal, its crew and the sailing and will certainly return for more cruises in the future. Le Boreal is a beautifully appointed small ship and one I can certainly recommend to those looking for a more intimate cruise experience. They cruise all over the world and call in to ports that many larger cruise ships simply cannot access. You can see the difference in size (see images below) as she is docked behind the 900 passenger Regent ship. I’d be happy to provide further details – feel free to contact me for more information about my small ship cruising experience aboard Le Boreal.

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