Cruise guide: Why the Baltic can still make waves with Oceania Cruise Company
Seven countries and nine magical invitations in just ten days – both the beauty and the rollercoaster ride will take your breath away. Oceania Cruises proves that cruising the Baltic Sea is still a great option, even if its flagship – the elegant Russian city of St. Petersburg – is likely to disappear for years to come.
Nine countries have coastlines on the Baltic Sea, and our Northern Kingdoms cruise visited Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Apart from Russia, only Poland was missing: Gdansk was canceled without explanation a week before our departure.
Oceania is a high-end cruise line with a large American clientele, but while our ship, a 1,250-passenger marina, was not full, guests did not hesitate to explore destinations where life was normally busy.
The onboard lifestyle – it’s almost impossible to finish a meal without lobster in some form and steaks are plentiful – was equally relaxed.
Unlike many cruise lines, the specialty restaurants: Polo Grill for steaks (and whole lobsters!), Toscana for Italian (half lobster tagliatelli), Jacques for French (lobster thermidor), and Red Ginger for Asian (lobster pad Thai) have it all. Free.
Oceania prides itself on an East Coast country club atmosphere, centered on the marina, featuring a pale wood-colored swimming pool, spotless white lounge chairs covered in towels, and the Waves Grill, featuring a selection of Alaskan or salmon dishes cooked to order. Soy-ginger marinated Ahi tuna burgers, plus a variety of beef options for a late afternoon lunch.
The hallways are lined with original artwork and the bars are elegantly understated. The entertainment included an English couple: singer Philippa Healey, a former London Les Mis star who composed songs from the shows, and Tim Abel, a spirited and chatty pianist who competed in musical styles.
The ship is relaxed and elegant – no shorts for dinner, but no bow ties for the evening either – and the perfect place to recharge on your cruise as you try to make the most of each day’s different destinations.
Day 1 – From Copenhagen
We fly to Copenhagen and see the city as you make your way to the cruise terminal. Have lunch at the open-air Horizons buffet restaurant – a classic bouillabaisse with appropriate seafood – before departure. During dinner we sat on the Juutinrauma Bridge, which connects Denmark to Malmö in Sweden and is the star of Scandi’s crime thriller The Bridge. Only we don’t go under it: part of the 10-mile crossing goes through a tunnel, then we go over the bridge where it dives onto a small island.
Day 2 – Kiel, Germany
Kiel in Germany, the entrance to the Baltic Sea, where the Kiel Canal cuts across the country from the North Sea. We visit the locks and see the container ships come and go quietly. Next up the coast is the Laboe Naval Memorial, a staggering 236-foot brick tower with a curved back that honors sailors who lost their lives at sea. The view from the top is a beautiful mix of forest and water, but the underground is just as impressive, with a walkway under the parade ground that passes through the underground memorial hall before emerging into the modern museum, which tells of German and British heroes between models. Of ships.
Day 3 – Bornholm, Denmark
This should have been Gdansk Day when we visit the benevolent Danish island of Bornholm; The number of cruise invitations in 2022 has doubled from the usual 60. The peace is broken by a pair of F-16 fighter jets recently stationed here, we are told, so they can stop the harassment. However, all is quiet when we visit the Lille Gadegård vineyard, the largest in Denmark.
Telling jokes among the merry peacocks, owner Jesper Paulsen’s mighty pig seems momentarily oblivious to the rest of the world as he feeds it a bottle of Coke. We taste red, white, sparkling strawberry and honey, a divine combination of grapes and products from our beehives.
Our Taste of Bornholm tour continues to the sausage kitchens of Hallegaard, where we sit in the sun and enjoy salami-style treats on crusty rye bread.
Day 4 – Visby, Sweden
Visby, a medieval walled port city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, on the central Swedish Baltic Sea island of Gotland. Filled with cobbled streets and church ruins, we’re in the middle of a medieval festival, all roast pigs and dressed up: It’s a spooky summer afternoon, like an early episode of Dr Who, folk, all leggings and white caps, all solemn on foot.
Day 5 – Klaipeda, Lithuania
Klaipeda, an ancient Lithuanian port city that has spent its history juggling between Russians, Swedes and Germans. On the other side of the harbor is the Kuuri Knänna, a 60-mile UNESCO-protected beach, dunes, pine forests and small towns that enters Russia’s autonomous Kaliningrad province halfway.
Our e-bike tour takes us on a ferry, full of vacationers, to a cape, a place where you can walk, lie on sands that feel as free as the California coast, historical sites and the Lithuanian Maritime Museum with its aquariums and families. Pelicans live in the canal.
Day 6 – Riga, Latvia
Riga, the capital of Latvia, is full of Art Nouveau buildings from the beginning of the 20th century, many of which were built by the Russian architect Mikhail Eisenstein. Our lively guide Zana takes us down the beauty-lined Albert Street, around the corner to more treasures and through the National Museum of Art. On our minibus ride, we see an ominous building on the other side of the Daugava river, and according to Zana, it’s the Victory Monument, the 80-meter heartbeat of the Soviet Union.
Even more excited than before, he says that the locals call it a monument to the occupation and that the city will soon demolish it. He asks if we want a close-up, and our driver – who gives him an ineffable Putin-related name – makes a hasty U-turn to go around the police-guarded obstacle course.
Next, we walk along the city canal between gardens and elegant buildings and the Freedom Monument, a truly beautiful sight, an impressive column topped by a statue of a woman with arms raised, in honor of those who died in the War of Independence. In Russia in 1918.
The monument was gone within two weeks, and the BBC’s website showed stunning footage showing it falling to the ground.
Day 7 – Tallinn, Estonia
In the Estonian capital, Tallinn, restaurants lining the idyllic medieval market square are imitating Putin, presenting rude messages that make happy tourists, usually from the ship’s group, laugh. The country, which shares a 180-mile border with Russia, has known rulers from Denmark, Sweden and Prussia.
The city walls are high as I walk below Kiek, the largest medieval tower in the Baltic Sea, through delightful earthwork tunnels, some 50 feet deep that began in the 16th century to allow troops to move safely.
Here again the modern world is intruding, our young guide tells us how in 1944 1000 civilian lives were saved by shelters when 300 Russian bombers destroyed a large part of the city to anger the German invaders – similar to Russia’s “revenge” attacks on Ukraine.
Driving through a busy shopping district (and past the Russian embassy on a cobbled street, fenced off behind anti-war posters), we’re kindly told that Estonia didn’t become independent in 1991, but re-established it. After spending 1918. -1940 democracy before Russian rule.
Day 8 – Helsinki, Finland
Finland’s capital Helsinki is lively and cheerful, its beach market is full of visitors, a world of reindeer steaks and salmon burgers. I walk the historic streets, admire the grand Central Station, surrounded by sturdy stone statues, and arrive at the Oodi, an architectural wonder of a library of glass, steel and wood. It’s Sunday afternoon, but there’s a female gymnastics/dance duo upstairs (no one turns the music down), restaurants and cafes are booming, and the front desk lends balls to youngsters for the outdoors.
Day 9 – Hamina, Finland
The closest place to St. Pete is Hamina, a sweet Finnish town with a New England feel 25 miles from the Russian border; St. Pete is 150 miles away, but close enough to road signs. And our tour takes us to Langinkoski, a beautiful place on the rocky rapids of Kymijoki. The Imperial Fishing Lodge, now a museum, was the holiday home of the Russian Emperor Alexander III. Fittingly, he and his family sailed from St. Pete on the steam yacht Tsarvenna in the late 19th century, enjoying salmon fishing and simple meals.