Finding Family Bliss in the Baltic
By Ralph Grizzle
It is near midnight, or at least that is what my watch tells me. The sun and sky suggest otherwise. The bright orange orb hovers over the watery horizon, casting a reddish-yellow glow on a cloudless sky.
My kids are asleep, and I stand on our stateroom balcony waiting for the sun to dip below the horizon. My body clock is out of sync, six time zones east of my home (we’ll lose another two hours as the clock moves forward one hour on each of the first two nights of our cruise from Copenhagen).
The sun seems like it will never set, even as the clock ticks — and ticks.
What a mysterious and enchanting region of the world. I am cruising with my two kids at the same latitude as the Alaska Panhandle, yet aside from the midsummer sky that hardly darkens, the Baltic Sea’s similarities to Alaska are few.
For starters, we will visit not one but six countries during our cruise. Our ship will disgorge us in some of the world’s most fabled cities.
On the Baltic Sea’s eastern edge, at the head of the Gulf of Finland, we will explore Peter the Great’s St. Petersburg — for two days. No less impressive is the Baltic Sea’s western edge, marked by Elsinore, Denmark, which lays claim to Kronborg Castle, the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
In between and along the shores of the Baltic are fairy tale lands. Copenhagen gave the world Hans Christian Andersen; Stockholm gave us Astrid Lindgren, creator of Pippi Longstocking.
Our days were sunny and hot (not once would we pull out the fleece we had packed). And though we had not a single day of rain on our cruise, precipitation throughout the Baltic averages 24 inches annually. By contrast, Ketchikan receives 150 inches of rain yearly.
While we would see no snow-capped mountains or glaciers, we would stroll wide pedestrian streets free of cars, sip coffee at charming outdoor cafes, enjoy nearly 20 hours of sunshine each day, marvel at world class museums, stand among opulent palaces and walk next to well-preserved medieval town walls.
For two weeks (a 10-night cruise combined with four nights in Copenhagen), we would live a fairy tale life in these enchanting lands.
Our tale began in Copenhagen, where we would visit Tivoli, a delightful diversion for the kids, rent bikes and lay our eyes on the Little Mermaid, made famous by the father of fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen.
One day during our visit, we popped out the front door of our hotel (D’Angleterre, near colorful Nyhavn) and smack into a procession of toy-soldier-like sentries making their way to the Royal Palace for the changing of the guard at noon. Here, I told my children, lives a real queen. They looked up at me with mouths agape. It was the first of many surprises for them during our blissful Baltic cruise.
I’m not sure what we expected of Tallinn, but we were awed by what we saw. Our ship approached a cityscape that might have been familiar to those seafarers of long ago: red-tiled rooftops, church spires and the onion domes of Russian Orthodox churches.
We docked within walking distance of the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With its miles of winding cobblestone streets and quaint medieval houses, Tallinn is the best-preserved Old Town in Northern Europe and, like Copenhagen, a fun place for the kids, who appreciated the town’s Medieval atmosphere.
We climbed the vertigo-inducing circular stairs at St. Olav’s church for a view that was worth the challenge. Only 50 miles across the sea (18 minutes by helicopter from city center to city center) we could see Helsinki. We would be there soon, after our next stop: Peter the Great’s city.
St. Petersburg, Russia
Founded by Peter the Great in 1703 and shortly thereafter becoming the capital of Russia, St. Petersburg accumulated all the grandeur of the Russian Imperial Court, and in two days, we saw quite a lot of it with our private car and guide. We began our tour at Peterhof palace, about an hour’s drive from the pier.
There, we wandered the formal gardens and grounds, with 62 cascading fountains and 142 water jets that shower gilded statues. I was glad I had my camera — not only for the grounds but also for actors in period costumes who posed with the kids for photographs. The kids also enjoyed the many fountains, especially a section of the gardens offering opportunities to cool off under water sprays.
Tour guides recommend combining Peterhof with the lavishly baroque Catherine Palace, where the Amber Room opened in 2003. The 18th-century hall’s amber panels vanished during WWII and took decades to replicate requiring six tons of amber.
St. Petersburg’s museums are among the world’s most famous. The Hermitage boasts some 400 rooms containing more than 3 million exhibits. Don’t plan on spending too much time there with the kids unless yours are extremely patient.
Founded in 1550 by Sweden’s King Gustav, Helsinki was developed as a harbor town to compete for Baltic trade with Tallinn. The Finnish capital developed around the port.
Situated in the city center, South Harbor is the cruise passenger traffic hub. Cruise ships dock within walking distance of the city center and Helsinki’s famous Kauppatori Market Square, a colorful way to begin exploration of Helsinki. We dined on fresh berries, tried on fur hats and browsed such specialties as reindeer and canned bear meat.
We hopped the ferry to Suomenlinna Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site founded in 1748 and built on six islands off the coast of Helsinki. Aside from the garrison and museums, we found charming cafes and cozy restaurants.
With too little time to see more of the “pocket-size” metropolis, we took the ferry back after only a couple of hours and boarded the ship, departing for Stockholm.
In Stockholm, we began our tour in Djurgarden, the lush island park that is home to the city’s most popular museums. There, the kids enjoyed Junibacken, the Pippi Longstocking-inspired amusement park and children’s museum.
Next door, we visited the Vasa Museum, which houses a warship that in 1628 sank in the harbor on its maiden voyage and was brought up from the depths in 1961. We were awed by the scale of what we saw in the city’s most popular museum. We had expected a model, not the ship itself.
Afterward, we walked to Skansen, an open-air museum and exhibit that features five centuries of Swedish history and a great zoo that the kids enjoyed quite a lot. We had an outdoor lunch, then boarded a ferry to make our way back to Gamla Stan, the city’s old town.
On the last day of our cruise, we chose to visit Legoland, about an hour away from the Arhus by motorcoach.
The Danish toy company operates only four Legolands worldwide. The kids had been to Legoland near San Diego. The Danish park, however, was superior, in their expert opinion.
Legoland seemed an appropriate end to our cruise. The kids were wide-eyed, just as they had been back at the Royal Palace in Copenhagen. Indeed, we had experienced Baltic bliss during those 10 long days when it seemed the sun would never set and our summer would never end.