x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Going with the flow on a Baltic cruise

Feature A 12-day voyage on the giant Norwegian Jewel is an ideal way to see a host of eastern European cities in a short space of time.

The Norwegian Jewel stops at six ports in 12 days.
The Norwegian Jewel stops at six ports in 12 days.

It's lunchtime in Tallinn, and I've stopped at a cafe in the capital's old town for a meal. My day so far has involved a visit to a Lutheran church, the floors of which once doubled as a multilayered graveyard, and a meander through a dilapidated old house that legend says was witness to a riotous party hosted by the devil. After lunch I intend to visit a museum housing medieval tools of torture, following which I shall board the 13-story, 281 metre-long ship that is my home for 12 days. As far as random holidays go, this one could give most a run for their money.

Cruising is new to me because in travel, as in life, I'm a romantic: I don't like quick flings. This is not to say that I am a one-city woman - I fall in love with places often, but rarely do I eschew the requisite courtship for a fast track relationship. Nonetheless, this is exactly what I must do if I am to enjoy my time on the Norwegian Jewel while on a cruise through the Baltic Sea, stopping at six ports in 12 days.

As well as being my first cruise, this is my first time in eastern Europe and I decide to explore each city as much as I can. With its predominantly intact old town, exquisite views and sunny disposition, it's easy to give in to the charms of Estonia's capital city. Tallinn's city centre is not like most European city centres: its large houses, which look like miniature palaces, wide avenues and babbling brooks run through the centre much as they did centuries ago. The intact old town still functions as a business and residential district, with government offices still functioning out of ancient buildings and cars driving over cobbled roads.

Its surrounding landscapes, too, look like scenes from a fairy tale; at the same time, Estonia, like many countries in eastern Europe, seems to be revelling in its newly-found independence from Russia. Yet just as I'm beginning to experience love's first bloom, it's time to head back to the ship. Dinner awaits at one of the on-board restaurants. As with all Norwegian Cruise Line holidays, this is a "freestyle" cruise, which means that guests can eat where, when and with whom they like, wearing what they like (within reason). While I wait to be seated, I notice that the ship doesn't feel crowded, which is impressive considering that there are more than 2,000 guests and 1,300 crew members on board.

Arriving in Copenhagen the next morning, I make my way to the famous statue of the Little Mermaid from the tale by Hans Christian Andersen. I haven't researched it prior to my visit and don't know what to expect, so I am rather disappointed when all I see is a forlorn woman hunched over a rock. Far more worthy of adulation are the many copper statues that line the walkway from the port to the city. There is one in particular that captures my attention, an angel mounted on a basilisk with its face turned to the heavens. There's not much to see up there on this nippy morning, but as I walk past the sculpture the woolly clouds swiftly part and a ray of light shines down, bathing the angel's face in radiance. The sculptor knew what he was doing. I've only been here 15 minutes and I'm enamoured. I spend the rest of the day peering through store windows displaying amber jewellery and sampling rides at Tivoli, a 19th-century amusement park that still features wooden roller coasters.

I'm beginning to enjoy alternating a day of exploring new locales with a day onboard the ship. There is a certain charm to eating breakfast while contemplating endless swathes of sea, being transported from city to city on a floating resort complete with hot tubs, theatres and a personal concierge. I start to think that spending just a day in each city isn't too bad either, until I arrive in St Petersburg.

My first view of the city, from the ship, was uninteresting - grey shipyards covered in mist - yet driving into the city from the port we saw opulent palaces alongside rows of uniform blocks of buildings, painted in hues of pink and green in an effort to hide the grey underneath, an indelible remnant of their communist past. We dock in St Petersburg for two days and I see more limousines - and Ladas - than I have in my life. I visit the Hermitage, originally Queen Catherine's summer palace which, like many others in Russia, survived numerous attacks in the early 20th century by communists attempting to erase all reminders of their fallen rulers. The Hermitage is an art enthusiast's playground - masterpieces by Matisse, Rembrandt and Picasso frame the walls, as well as an extensive array of Renaissance art. Experts estimate that it would take 11 years to view the exhibits in their entirety. Pulling out of the port I know that I haven't spent nearly enough time in the city and contemplate the ironic relationship Russia has with its history. From 20th century revolutionaries trying to snuff out the scent of their imperial past to modern-day citizens painting over their communist memories, Russia seems to be looking over its shoulder in a constant attempt to validate the present. It's an intriguing country and I know I will find myself here again one day.

When the ship docks in the German port of Warnemünde, I decide against making the four-hour train ride inland to visit Berlin and spend the day pampering myself at the ship's spa instead. There's plenty to choose from on the menu, from hot stone massages to facials. Berlin's sights are best viewed at leisure, so I decide to save them for another trip. Helsinki, the next port, is relatively small and after a day at sea, I'm ready to put my walking shoes on again. Late spring in Helsinki sees the city burst into life and there's a sense of exuberance in the air. I arrive on the eve of graduation for the city's high schools and the parks are filled with high-spirited teenagers celebrating the start of summer, sharing the rays with office workers on their lunch break. I visit the Uspensky, the city's Russian Orthodox church, but it seems almost Spartan after the grandeur of St Petersburg despite being the largest Orthodox cathedral in Europe. I soon give in to the celebratory spirit and claim a spot in the sun in the park. I stop by the Temppeliaukio Church on my way back to the dock, a favourite of design and architecture aficionados the world over. Opened in 1969, the interior of the church was excavated from the granite that now forms the exterior and is topped by a dome-like structure through which natural light shines. There is little religious imagery save a tiny cross at the entrance and the church welcomes people of all faiths. In spite of the teeming tourists, there's a sense of peace inside. The Temppeliaukio is a wonderful experience to leave Helsinki on and I'm left with a feeling that it isn't the last time I'll set foot in the city.

It has been 10 days since the ship set sail from Dover, which makes it just as long since I've shopped. I am proud of myself, but know I will fall of the wagon once I arrive in Stockholm, the home of one of my favourite high street brands, H&M. The ship docks on a Sunday when most shops are closed but H&M opens for a few hours in the afternoon, a testament to its popularity. Sidestepping Stockholm's famous design museums, something I have a feeling I'll regret later, I make a beeline for the town square. Prices are significantly lower here than at some of the brand's other European locations and I emerge two hours later just in time to embark on the ship as it sets sail for the UK once again, bringing the cruise to its end.

I imagined going on this cruise would be a bit like speed dating, with too many options and not enough time to make an informed decision. Instead it was a useful and luxurious starting point for future, in-depth, travels. travel@thenational.ae