Review/Gallery: Baltics’ beauty bridges cruise generation gap

The Church of the Spilled Blood in St Petersburg

The Church of the Spilled Blood in St Petersburg - Credit: Archant

Cruises are just for pensioners, aren’t they? MARK HEATH sets sails with Fred. Olsen to find out for himself.

With a sense of adventure in our veins, slight reservations in our heads and sea air in our nostrils, my wife and I duly found ourselves in Dover, waiting for the off.

Ahead lay two weeks of cruising, exploring and rather too much eating as guests of Fred. Olsen Cruises on its ever-popular “Baltic with Norway” voyage.

Set to sail aboard the venerable Black Watch, it’s fair to say we were impressed with our first impressions.

With cruising, there’s none of the unpleasant airport experience which can so sour the first part of your holiday.

We gave our numerous bags – one has to cruise in style, after all – to our driver after dropping our car off down the road from the port, and we didn’t see them again until we reached our cabin a few hours later.

And that was it. The ship had yet to move, and we were already on holiday. Perfect.

Most Read

So, to the boat, our home for the next two weeks. First things first, Black Watch is not one of those uber giant vessels that the likes of Royal Carribean boast in its fleet.

It houses 724 passengers in 421 cabins, along with 340 crew, fairly comfortably. It would be wrong for me to suggest it was the height of luxury, however.

Rather, it’s a little shabby in parts, but very welcoming. Think of it as a large floating Travelodge, at least accommodation-wise, and you’re not far off.

But back to the voyage. We set sail first for Kiel in Germany, which would take us a couple of days.

Again, we quickly found that one of the joys of cruising is one can actually enjoy the travelling part.

Sit on deck and stare out to sea, have a drink in the observation lounge, play a little short tennis on the top deck, head to the gym. You can do it all, and it’s all good fun.

And so we found ourselves floating serenely down the Kiel Canal, beer in hand, watching the world go by. Very civilised.

The Kiel Canal is the busiest in the world, with 2,000 ships using it every month. Impressive – but unfortunately that’s the best thing one can say about Kiel.

En route to Tallinn, Estonia, we enjoyed a day at sea. There’s a lot to do aboard the Black Watch, from a cinema to lectures, numerous organised activities and much more beyond.

We chose to hit the gym, soak in a hot tub on deck and generally unwind. At least until the evening, when there was dinner to be had.

One of the most unexpected things about our trip was the level of formality to conform to. There were three ‘formal’ evenings – dinner suits, posh frocks – along with the likes of ‘informal’, ‘smart casual’ and ‘themed’.

Essentially though, you were expected to be suited and booted at all times in the evenings. And mix endlessly with your fellow passengers, who in our case tended to be at least 40-50 years older than us!

While that was fun and novel at first, I would have happily paid to be allowed to dine in jeans and a shirt, while enjoying our own company, towards the end of the trip.

But I digress. We were in Tallinn, and what a place to be. Simply put, the old town is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited

And our good fortune continued at our next stop, the ridiculously opulent St Petersburg in Russia.

This is a place that everyone should visit at least once. We were pretty much in a constant state of awe, mouths agape as we marvelled at the decadent palaces and churches which are peppered around the city.

The Hermitage, one of the biggest museums in the world and available as a tour from the boat, is easily among the most remarkable places I have ever been, even without the unexpected sighting of Hilary Clinton, on a visit ahead of talks with Vladimir Putin.

One word of warning though – get yourself some roubles. We were wrongly advised that Euros and US dollars were the way to go, and duly found ourselves trapped in a bar after sinking a couple of vodkas as we tried to explain that we needed to pay on credit card!

Nevertheless, we made it back to the Black Watch and were soon on our way to the first of our two stops in Finland – Helsinki.

Once again, we were blown away. Aside from the ego-crushingly attractive people, Helsinki is again a destination to be highly recommended.

And you MUST get yourself to the Unique Lapland Experience, on the outskirts of the city, where you can take a husky-sled ride, visit an ice hotel and bar, and generally indulge your inner child.

Glossing over Turku, our next stop – see Kiel earlier on – we had but two destinations left.

First up was Copenhagen in Denmark, and a whistle-stop tour which saw us visit the Royal Palaces, Tivoli Gardens and Carlsberg Brewery. All can be wholeheartedly endorsed.

And so finally we reached our last stop, Kristiansand in Norway. In many ways, it proved the perfect cap to our break, boasting a beautiful dockside array of restaurants and bars.

Again though, be warned – Norway is famously expensive, as we discovered to our cost, literally, after enjoying what surely must have been a gold-plated prawn platter with a bottle of white wine.

A day later, and we were back in Dover. Seven stops, six countries and our adventure was over.

So, what did we make of it all? Well, cruising is certainly a fantastic way of meeting new people, visiting numerous new places and unwinding, all without the usual hassle that travel brings with it.

The staff aboard the Black Watch were universally excellent, the food was mostly good, the entertainment was entertaining – though not always intentionally – and we had a lot of fun.

But we simply were not in the demographic that Fred.Olsen mainly caters to – retired folks with interests suited to their advanced years.

They do that very well, and should be commended as such.

Would I go on another cruise? Perhaps – but I’ll give it 30 years or so.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter