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By Margaret M. Johnson
One of the world's fastest-growing cruise destinations is the Baltic region, an area around the Baltic Sea that stretches from southern Denmark to near the Arctic Circle. Along its shore are some of the world's most fabled cities -- Copenhagen, Helsinki and Stockholm, to name a few -- and lands once inhabited by kings, czars and Viking warriors.
Geographically, the Baltic cruising region refers to any port destination located on the sea, an arm of the North Atlantic that separates the Scandinavian Peninsula from the rest of continental Europe. For cruise passengers, itineraries are port-intensive -- jargon that means visitors are able to see several cities by sea on a single sailing -- and typically cruise ships transit old trading routes and dock within walking distance of historic city centers. Personally, it's a region I found ideally suited to a cruising holiday, especially aboard Crystal Symphony, a ship that would make even the Vikings green with envy.
We began in Copenhagen, a "turnaround" city where many Baltic cruises either begin or end. A good plan is to arrive a day early, like we did, to enjoy the capital of Denmark, the only Scandinavian country connected to the European mainland. Think Little Mermaid, Tivoli Gardens, Hans Christian Andersen, and Stroget (pronounced "stroll"), the longest pedestrian shopping street in the world, and you've only begun to discover this terrific city.
Short-term visits require getting right to the point, and there's no better way than to hop on a sightseeing bus, or in the case of seaside Copenhagen, a canal cruise. We did both, starting with the land portion, and caught the tour at City Hall Square (Radhuspladsen) directly across from our hotel, appropriately called The Square (doubles start at 1800 Kroners/$403; www.arp-hansen.dk). In about two hours, we got a bird's-eye view of most of the major attractions, including the four lovely Danish palaces that make up Amalienborg Slot (Palace), where the royal family has lived since 1794.
If you visit, take a morning tour that coincides with the changing of the guard, a colorful ceremony that begins with a parade of the Royal Life Guards from their barracks near the Rosenborg Slot, the original royal residence. The guards march through the streets of Copenhagen and arrive at the palace square at noon to relieve their colleagues. Close by, the Little Mermaid, Copenhagen's city symbol, sits on a rocky perch on Langelinie Harbor, patiently enduring the hundreds of tourists a day who wade out to be photographed with her.
The water portion of the tour offers another perspective of the city, cruising you through trendy residential areas and past the monumental opera house that seats nearly 2,000 people. Canal tours begin and end along Nyhavn, a dead-end canal that's far from dead, especially during tourist season when the natives refer to it as "Copenhagen's longest bar." In 1671, soldiers dug out the canal to allow ships to sail up to Kongens Nytorv, a large square at one end of Stroget that's dominated by the Det Kongelige Teater (Royal Theater) and Magasin du Nord, Scandinavia's first and largest department store.
Once home to seafarers, Nyhavn now offers one of the liveliest and most colorful scenes in the city, with historic ships from the national museum's collection moored here; shops like House of Amber (2 Kongens Nytorv) selling amber jewelry known as "Nordic gold"; restaurants (try Cap Horn, 21 Nyhavn for local seafood); and bars galore lining both sides of the canal.
If you prefer to drink in cooler, quieter surroundings, try the Absolut Icebar in Hotel Twentyseven (27 Longangstraede), an all-ice (furniture, walls, stools, art) bar that seats only 50 guests at a time in a subzero temperature. Coats and gloves are provided upon request. For more details, visit www.visitcopenhagen.com.
Before arriving in the Finnish capital, our cruise made stops at Arhus, Denmark, and Gdansk, Poland, both with charming Old Towns to explore. A visit to Den Gamle, an open-air folk museum with more than 65 original half-timbered houses and shops in Arhus, and a stroll down the Long Street (Ulica Dluga) in Gdansk's old city are shore excursion "musts."
In stark contrast, Helsinki smacks of modernism, although remnants of its old-world charm are everywhere. Its history has been closely tied with the other Scandinavian countries, as well as Russia, which occupied Helsinki in the early 19th century. During the Bolshevik Revolution, the Finnish parliament declared the country a sovereign state and freed itself from Russian rule.
A walking tour of Helsinki -- the best way to see it, I think -- provides a glimpse of both its old and new side. We started at the Esplanade, a popular park in the heart of the city center. During our visit, the main promenade served as exhibition space for "Las Meninas," a collection of bronze sculptures from Spanish artist Manolo Valdes, but its Espa Stage regularly hosts fashion shows by Finnish designers like
Next stop, harborside Market Square, a meeting place since 1889 for locals shopping for seafood being sold from open boats, and fresh fruits, flowers, and produce on offer from local farmers. Adjacent Kauppatori, an indoor market, is a great place for lunch. From the harbor, you can easily visit two Carl Engle-designed buildings -- neo-classical
A healthy walk (unfortunately in opposite directions) will also bring you to two stunning churches -- thoroughly modern
Wherever you walk, you'll pass crowded cafes and restaurants where al fresco eating and drinking is a much coveted activity when the sun shines for up to 19 hours a day in summer. For more tourist information, log on to www.visithelsinki.fi.
Arriving in Stockholm presents the classic "bad news/good news" scenario. The bad news is it's the last port-of-call for the cruise; the good news is they saved the best for last and we were going to extend our stay. The night before arriving, the cruise director strongly suggested passengers get up at least by 6 a.m. for the 50 mile "sail-in" through the archipelago, a stretch of thousands of islands, islets, and skerries dotted with red and white summer cottages with sail boats, row boats, and kayaks tied up outside. And if that spectacular view of Swedish country life wasn't enough, more than 150 of the world's largest sailing ships were docked in the harbor to compete in the "Tall Ships' 2007 Races."
I guess all this is to be expected in a capital sometimes called the "City That Floats on Water." Founded in 1200, Stockholm was built on 14 islands where the Baltic meets Lake Malaren, so the requisite canal cruise or ferry ride is also an expected tourist recommendation. We caught our boat at Nybroviken, in the heart of the city center and less than a 10-minute walk from our hotel, Scandic Anglais, 23 Humlegardsgatan (doubles start at 163 Euros/$231; www.scandic-hotels.com).
Walking over its 57 bridges is another scenic way to see Stockholm -- especially Gamla Stan (Old Town), a warren of winding, cobblestone streets and squares filled with cafes, antique shops, jewelers, handicrafts stores, and the Royal Palace; and City Hall, venue for the Nobel Prize banquet and Viking-inspired Council Chamber.
You can also bike through Royal Djurgarden, the city's best open landscape, and home to
A bit further afield (about 6 miles west of the city center), Drottningholm, the permanent residence of the Swedish royal family, is a delightful place to spend a summer day. Go by steamboat from Stadhusbron, near the City Hall, to put yourself in a 17th-century mood. Visitor information is available at www.stockholmtown.com.
DAYS AT SEA
Crystal Symphony recently underwent a $23 million dry dock, refurbishing an already luxurious floating hotel and making days
at sea as inviting as ports. With its incredible selection of activities -- you can brush up on your golf game, learn to speak Spanish or
Italian, find out how to needlepoint or fold napkins, be tutored on the fundamentals of Windows or Photoshop, attend a lecture, check
your e-mail at the
Although it's doubtful you'd ever tire of the more formal food options in the dining room, you will be impressed by three themed afternoon teas and elaborate luncheon buffets. Cuisine of the Sun is a gastronomic journey through the cuisines of 14 countries bordering the Mediterranean; Asia Cafe is a stunning assortment of Asian specialties; and the over-the-top Grand Gala Buffet has offerings ranging from Pacific lobster medallions and smoked Scottish salmon to Viennese torts and French pastries.
© Margaret M. Johnson
Travel | Scandinavia's Seaside Capitals - Baltic Sea Cruises