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23rd April, 2020

Baltic treasure: Why overnight calls are such precious gems

By Lesley Bellew

When it comes to cruising, I like to make every minute count and always look for sailings with overnight calls, especially in ports where there are so many cultural gems to unearth.

The Baltic is a treasure trove of delights; its cities awash with galleries, museums, grand palaces and gardens, as well as wonderful concert halls and hipster hang outs – so time is always of the essence!

Spirit of Adventure’s 2021 Baltic cruises have caught my eye, not only because there is a choice of four sailings from May to September but three cruises include three overnighters – in St Petersburg, Oslo and Stockholm – which add so much to a 15-night sailing. Each cruise also includes five free excursions which can prove a real saving.

The stunning Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg

The stunning Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg

In St Petersburg, two days in this elegant city is so rewarding and a behind-the-scenes tour of the Hermitage Museum means viewing works of art in the state archive that are not on display in the main museum. Queues usually wind round the block at the world’s second-largest museum (after the Louvre, in Paris) so beating the crowds is a serious privilege.

It’s also always fascinating to meet locals while ashore and the chance to visit a family home in St Petersburg is a rare opportunity to learn about everyday life in Russia and enjoy some home-made cooking washed down by vodka. Saga also puts on a ‘local life’ excursion which features a ride on the metro to see its unique, beautiful architecture. I’m definitely up for both tours.

If you prefer to see the city highlights as part of a smaller group, consider the Grand Tour of St Petersburg where Saga guarantee no more than 10 guests for each guide. The two-day exploration includes Catherine Palace, Peterhof and the Hermitage.

Sailing into Stockholm, weaving through thousands of tiny islands into the city is another Baltic cruise delight. Sit on your balcony to take in the peaceful, natural beauty and admire little wooden holiday homes and simple rowing boats at the water’s edge.

Make the most of the rest and dreamy sail in because Stockholm calls for plenty of energy whether you go it alone, join free tours or exclusive excursions.

The Royal Opera House in Stockholm

The Royal Opera House in Stockholm

A behind-the-scenes tour of Stockholm’s Royal Opera House is bound to be popular. It goes backstage for guests to learn about modern-day performances and the venue’s colourful history; King Gustav III was assassinated here at a masked ball in 1792, an event explored in Verdi’s opera, A Masked Ball.

There’s a sophisticated coffee culture in Stockholm and going for a ‘fika’ is a fine Swedish habit. Fika means ‘meet up for a coffee and a pastry’ and you’ll find funky cafés and cake shops every step of the way. In the evening , stroll along the cobbled streets of Gamla Stan with a local guide and stop at one of the best bars for a beer or glass of wine. You can also raise a glass of bubbly on a sunset cruise on Stockholm’s waterways because there’s no rush to get back to the ship.

And then you have another day! Book tours to the Vasa Museum to see the magnificent Vasa warship which sank in Stockholm Harbour on her maiden voyage in 1628. The ship was raised in 1961 and is now back to heavily ornate glory and presents an authoritative insight into 17th-century maritime life.

If you prefer to go off-piste, the ship’s shuttlebus (Saga provides a free shuttlebus berthed at least 500 yards away from the nearest town centre) stops at the waterfront so it’s easy to take a water taxi to the ABBA The Museum for some dancing and singing on a disco dancefloor while another great stop is Fotografiska, is funky photo gallery which has a superb restaurant that overlooks the water.

Scandi Noir crime book lovers should ask the Explore Ashore team to arrange private tours or give directions to the Millennium Trilogy walking tour’s meeting point. Fans of Stieg Larsson's novel The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo can join the walk which takes in Bellmansgatan, identified as the home of Mikael Blomkvist, the site of his Millennium magazine office and Lisbeth Salander’s apartment, as well as many more locations mentioned in Larsson’s best-selling books.

Radhuset, Oslo's City Hall

Radhuset, Oslo's City Hall

In Norway’s capital, Oslo, ships moor close to the city so it’s an easy walk to Radhuset, the City Hall which is well worth a visit, and Bygdøynesveien on the Bygdøy peninsula, which is home to a group of museums including the Norwegian Maritime Museum, the Fram Museum, the Kon-Tiki Museum (celebrating Thor Heyerdahl’s amazing journey?), the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History and the Viking Ship Museum. Day One, job done!

So, with an extra day at your disposal don’t miss Saga’s special tour to the new National Museum which opens in spring 2021 and be one of the first to join an in-depth tour and view the collection of works by Edvard Munch.

Do take a walk on the sloping roof of the Oslo Opera House (really!) and do check out before you sail to see if there’s a concert that takes your fancy. Either way, make an early arrival to explore inside, too. This modern architectural giant’s auditorium is a triumph of curving wood and the central chandelier, made of hand-cast glass bars behind LED lights, creates a full moon experience. It’s rather wonderful.

So three cheers for the overnighters – but that’s not all – look out for wacky tours throughout the cruise from taking a vintage bus ride for a Soviet-style picnic in Tallinn; join the managing director of the Volvo Museum in Gothenburg to see the backstage garage and revel in the painters’ paradise of Skagen and enjoy a beginners’ painting workshop.

15-night Grandeur of the Baltic features two overnight calls, in Stockholm and St Petersburg, plus calls to Skagen and Kristiansand.

Three cruises featuring overnight calls in St Petersburg, Stockholm and Oslo:

Baltic Symphony

Postcards from the Baltic

Aspects of the Baltic

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.