If you’re any good at lolling on deckchairs, being plied unobtrusively with drinks at the swirl of a signature, mooching from meal to meal, chatting amiably to anyone who sits nearby, gazing at water and sky for long spells, and generally floating along becoming benignly institutionalized, then cruising is for you.
But when you’ve exhausted the possibilities of Crafty Corner, bean bag bowls, the bridge tournament and Scalphabet, and it’s a bit early to order cocktail of the day, you will need a good book. I can recommend Claire Tomalin’s wonderful biography of Charles Dickens, because even though the Baltic Sea is a far remove from the grimy streets of Shoreditch (not so grimy these days), I had no trouble imagining the master novelist charismatically cruising and schmoozing on board the MV Marco Polo.
And he wouldn’t have been lazing in his comfy cabin reading biographies of himself. Oh no. He would have been out there, charming everyone, hobnobbing with the captain, taking over the bridge, the Captain’s Club and no doubt guiding us single-handedly through the impossibly narrow Kiel Canal. Then in the evening, with the indefatigable energy and enthusiasm that apparently characterized his life, he’d be in the wings ready to take over from the sequin-laden entertainers (and, being partial to dress-ups, he wouldn’t mind donning a few sequins himself.) He’d be giving dramatic readings that would put the lecture on the Hanseatic League in the shade, and, better yet, eavesdropping on a cast of character ready made for his next novel: A Tale of Lots of Cities: Copenhagen, Helsinki, Tallin, St Petersburg and Stockholm.
The days “at sea” would have his quill sharpened and scratching overtime. He might start on the aft deck, where the early drinkers gather in convivial groups, around the bronze statue of an apparently gelded Nureyev – arms outstretched to welcome the smokers relegated to the chilly starboard side. Then there’s the enterprising widow who lives twenty minutes from Tilbury and hops on and off these cruises like a number 24 bus, holding court with a cuppa and a fag and dispensing investment advice to anyone who’ll listen. He’d meet be-jewelled older ladies with their young consorts, and mothers and sons who have come a long way just to sit opposite each other without talking.
But he’d also see lifelong friendships blossom among hitherto strangers who have streamed up the gangway from all walks of life. For a few days the campanologists leave the bells of Crowland Abbey, and the Bodleian archivist abandons his nineteenth century pamphlets. The teachers busy themselves figuring out how to make a trip to the Summer Palace tax deductable, and the florists, lawyers, builders and all their fellow workers submit gratefully to a comfortable captivity where hardest decision is to choose the smoothie of the day (Chocobanana or kiwi and almond anyone?) By far the largest demographic are the retirees, who have left all those grandkids unminded while they enjoy Mood lifting melodies from the Movies in the Show Lounge, and have a good old moan about the demise of the UK .
All this is to the accompaniment of food, food and more food…not so much booze and cruise, as float and bloat. Well, that was us. Plenty of fitter folk – from the tall and rangy to the small and tubby – walk the decks and pump the gym machines with enviable brio.
And Dickens wouldn’t be the first writer to see a ship as a metaphor for the voyage of life, most especially its hierarchical divisions. Clearly the poshies are up the top amid the swirling spas, and if status is indicated by the size of your window, the folk down on Deck Five, who need a ladder to peek though their porthole, are still a cut above the inside cabins. Even further below, the staff range from the humble squirter of hand-sanitiser, to the beautiful Ukranian dancers – at least seven foot tall on their black patent stilt shoes. But on board a ship, unless you’re festooned with buttons and braid, you’re not very important, and we did wonder if the lovely Edison, who kept our cabin spotless, saw much of the ocean until his annual trip home to his family in the Philippines.
So, on to the Baltic cities, and to quote our mutual friend Charles, it was the best of times, but it was also the worst of times.* Vodka in an ice glass at the Helsinki Ice Bar? It sounds cool (pun…sorry) and if you want to drive 30 miles from the city to see a huge shed with a bit of snow and a few sad huskies going round and round a track, maybe it is.
But that was only marginally worse than Sunday in Sassnitz. If I want to go to a quiet little town where everything is closed, I’ll go back to the nineteen fifties for a day out at the English seaside. And getting soaked in picturesque Tallin-in–the-rain detracts somewhat from its mediaeval charm, not fully redeemed by a bowl of elk soup at III Draakan. Back on board we were rather dismayed by our first night at dinner with a surly couple who barely spoke to each other. (No, it wasn’t us). But a fortuitous move to an earlier sitting found us joining a really lovely crew. Thank you, Jo and Roy and Joan and David, for our nightly dinner party…definitely the best of times.
And there were many, many more: sailing in the golden evening light through the innumerable islands of the Swedish Archipelago … red and yellow timber houses amid the trees, boats bobbing and kids fishing from pontoons…just idyllic!
And Stockholm is one of the most beautiful and livable (if not affordable) cities we’ve ever seen: miles and miles of gracious buildings on the prettiest of waterways, biked, sailed and jogged around appropriately enough by the prettiest of people. Even their politicians look like models!
And if you imagine, as I did, that the Vasa Museum housing a fully restored 17th century ship, or a building called the Rock Church in Helsinki would be a bit ho-hum, think again, they’re both splendid.
I can also recommend a boat ride along the charming canals of Copenhagen. You’ll join lots of hardy Danish families out picnicking on their unique floating tables, dangling their bare feet in the freezing water!
St Petersburg is a must, and if you’re as fortunate as we were, you’ll score as your guide the droll Tolstoian Anatoly whose cultured and witty commentary made all the other guides sound like a speak your weight machine. He also knows which souvenir shops give away the best vodka, and is prepared to offer his own version of Russian history. With a sad shake of his head he declared that the assassination of Czar Alexander 11, in whose memory his son built the wonderful Church on the Spilled Blood, lost Russia her chance of being a constitutional monarchy like Denmark, or even Britain.
The truly remarkable Summer Palace speaks for itself: white and gold and grand, with huge delft fireplaces in every room, each more splendidly ornamented, until we reach the stunning Amber Room.
And The Hermitage with its wonderful art and beautiful objets is on a scale that defeats the day-tourist, and needs more time.
And as for the gardens! A glance through the windows of both palaces offers stunning vistas and avenues on all sides.
All in all it was a really great trip, and if you want to take advantage of our distilled vodka, sorry, wisdom read on:
- If you can hold your nerve, and wait until the last minute to book, you will often get crazy reductions. We didn’t, but in future we’ll be ready if an interesting cheapie comes up.
- If you’re like us, and don’t mind gawking from the bus and seeing the greatest hits, book the shore trips. But if you do your homework, you can often just walk around yourself. It’s not in the brochures, but they frequently put on a free bus.
- While we’re on homework, cruising is a bit like school, with lists and reminders and announcements over the loudspeaker for the latecomers. But it’s very pleasant and efficient, and unlike school, there’s vodka. So, (pun alert) just go with the flow.
- Choose a smaller ship. The MV Marco Polo holds a mere 800 passengers and according to the seasoned cruisers, is very friendly. One snooty couple did complain there were no chocolates on the pillow! Just bring your own chocolates.
- Probably don’t read the essay on cruising by David Foster Wallace in his darkly witty collection entitled: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.
- You will see a bucket-load of stuff in a short time…not always what you expected, but so much the better for that.
- Did I mention the vodka…cranberry or cherry flavour, you choose.
*Famous beginning of Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities customised to fit my sentence (sorry, Charles)