We made a list of the places we wanted to visit and this destination was in the top five. Exploring this region, medieval towns, churches, history, fairy tales and towns where time has stopped, would just be surreal.
Regent had a very special deal and here is the diary of a trip of a lifetime...Scandinavia, Russia and cruising on the Baltic Sea.
We flew on Scandinavian Air Service (SAS) from Chicago (10pm departure, 1 pm arrival, 9 hour flight) non-stop to Copenhagen, arriving at an unusual airport with all- wood floors. It appeared to be Brazilian teak throughout the entire airport.
Traveling through Copenhagen by water
Copenhagen is a very pretty port city. The economy here looks thriving (our driver confirmed there was virtually no unemployment) and the city is packed with natives and tourists. The streets are filled with small cars and twenty and thirty-something's riding bicycles. We checked into Hotel D'Angeleterre, Kongens, Nytorv 34 in the middle of the downtown square. The hotel is more than likely on a historical register, lively and lovely, with gorgeous paintings, exquisite flowers (orchids & roses everywhere) Old World charm and plenty of unusual characters milling around on the street and in the hotel. The beds and pillows are heavenly and quite European. Electricity only works here in your room if you have your key card inserted, a nice way to conserve energy. Other guests here have included former Presidents (Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower) and entertainers (Cher, Mariah Carey, Bon Jovi), plus many more.
After some rest and a shower, we had a late breakfast at the little cafe which is part of the hotel on the street. Absolutely delicious roast beef hash with Eggs Benedict. Now time to see Copenhagen! We took a historical harbor tour on a little tourist boat and it was lovely. There were canals with sailboats, both old and new, apartments overlooking the canals and restaurants everywhere. Also, some historical sites, including a red fort (used only once to protect the city) and the Little Mermaid, a famous harbor statue known to all citizens of Copenhagen. The mermaid's creator was also a resident of the city - we saw Hans Christian Anderson's residence for nine years of his life. And, since it was Friday night all of the restaurants are filled with fun, beer and people. The shops are packed- quaint stores are everywhere, but you'll also find LaPearla, LaCosta and the same high-end types form the USA.
It's evening, and everyone has recommended we see the Tivoli Gardens, the carnival that inspired Walt Disney to make Disneyland. It's a very unusual place, a massive garden that costs $20 US to get in. It's basically a flower field, well-cared for, with hundreds of restaurants and a few carnival-type rides. The floating ponds and water lilies were the most beautiful.
The beautiful architecture of Cophenhagen
Despite its beauty, we left as it was far too crowded and commercial for us. We ended up at a bar / restaurant (?lan) near our hotel and had an impressive red wine with pate' and cheeses for dinner (Note: Copenhagen can be an expensive place to dine.)
Both our hotel concierge and taxi driver told us that if you had only one day in Copenhagen, the things to see were the Tivoli Garden and the harbor (cruise). In retrospect, we'd take the harbor cruise again in a heartbeat, but would pass on the Tivoli Garden.
Day 2 - Saturday - Playing in Copenhagen and on to board the Beautiful Regent Seven Seas Voyager
Saturday afternoon: after a refreshing walk through the city and a swim at the hotel, it was time to depart for the ship. What an interesting drive though the city: 5-story apartments, little outdoor cafes, tons of little shops...within 20 minutes we are at the Pier.
The embarkation was perhaps the easiest we have ever encountered. There was a little tent under the sun with 5 Regent employees earnestly waiting to check us in, then 10 stairs to the ship and we are onboard a most stunning vessel. Our cabin was impressive from the marble tub to the 200 square feet deck overlooking the harbor. Of course the ship offered lunch, but we decided to wait. At 6pm cocktails were served, and then on to dinner. Beef Wellington, lobster - almost anything you could ask for including an extensive spa menu.
Day 3 - Sunday - Little town called Visby, on an island (Gotland) off the coast of Sweden
The side streets of Visby
We awoke just in time for lunch. We're not normally keen on pool buffets, but who can resist- jumbo grilled prawns and salmon, bratwurst, potato salad and other delicacies from the sea. After a lovely lunch on the aft deck off the Portofino Grill, we left to check out the village. We encounter winding, hilly, narrow cobblestone street, the ruins of a 12th Century medieval church (St. Catherine's, whose ceiling had been lost centuries ago and now opens up to the blue sky), and a street bazaar with treasures like woolen slippers (we bought three pair for our children). (If you want to check it out on the 'Net, try www.akantusvisby.se.)
After this wonderful sojourn around the city, we were ready for massages upon our return to the ship. The spa's variation on a Swedish massage had the masseuses actually straddling our backs while they (blissfully) dug their fingers into our torsos. One of the best massages we ever experienced.
And then, off to another sumptuous dinner which included lobster and soft shell crabs, followed by a chocolate souffl?. Surely this is what the Italians had in mind when they coined the phrase "La Dolce Vita" (the Good Life.)
St. Catherine's Church
I found I couldn't sleep and lingered in the Internet Cafe till 3 am- then gave our 24 hour cabin service (with the tablecloth and waiter) a run for their money. The pizza I had was exceptional.
Day 4 - Monday - Tallinn, the "Danish City" in the little country of Estonia
There were so many tours to choose from, such as bike riding around the countryside with a tour guide, visiting a farm where lunch was served by the owners, and viewing palaces and concerts everywhere. We elected to simply sightsee by walking the quaint cobblestone streets found everywhere in the city. Aside from some souvenir purchases, we entered an old church (St. Nicholas') where my husband took a couple of photos before being told that picture-taking was forbidden in the church. We also found a charming cafe with local delicacies and locally-brewed beer. To our surprise, this centuries-old cafe boasted Wifi Internet connectivity in addition to first-rate hospitality. It appears that the old meets the new in the charming city of Tallinn.
Day 5 - Tuesday - St. Petersburg, Russia - The lovely Navigator docks right in the midst of the city, as only a small ship is able to do.
We arrived at this very picturesque city in early morning. Our first shore excursion, departing at 9:30 am, was shopping. The city is similar to a miniature NYC - action everywhere and best of all, fabulous architecture from centuries gone by. The shopping is unusual - we went to several shops on the embankment of the Krukov Canal near the St. Nicholas Cathedral. Little painted lacquer boxes and Matyoshka dolls are among the most popular souvenir offerings. We also found a little marketplace selling prints and paintings from local artists. We visited a grocery store which had very similar items to those in the USA (although many more varieties of vodka for you, comrade.) From Pepsi, baby oil and powder to yogurt ...they seem to have it all, including some items we have never seen, such a pickled this-and-that. One of the highlights (being in this business) was a visit to the "Grand Hotel. The entrance is truly grand, the hotel filled with flowers and marble and beautiful furniture.
Evening in St. Petersburg, Russia
A quick nap after the shopping expedition, and we finished reading the wonderful Romanov Prophecy by Steve Berry, (it really fills you in on Russian history around the time of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, with accurate details throughout most of the book). We then had room service (twin fillets with a creme' sauce with peppercorns on toast points, absolutely scrumptious) up next was a spectacular evening at the Yussupov Palace located on the banks of the Moika River. The Yussupovs were the wealthiest family in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century.
This is the home where Grigori Rasputin was assassinated. After climbing down a very narrow staircase to the basement of the home, we heard the amazing story surrounding the night of his assassination. The situation has been re-created and there is a very lifelike wax figure of Rasputin himself, sitting at the table at which he was first poisoned, then shot.
Exquisite ladies-in-waiting and gentlemen in ornate costumes greet you as you enter the palace. Small groups are guided through the museum and you observe some rooms that are unbelievably decorated. The "wow" factor (a lot of precious metals and jewels, and ornate wood) is certainly present here. Russian champagne and black caviar are served in the music room while a classical balalaika orchestra played beautiful music.
Following the reception we were invited into Yussopov private theatre, which was used for entertaining international guests. We enjoyed a gala performance of the St. Petersburg Opera Company which featured highlighted arias from some world-famous operas including the Marriage of Figaro, Magic Flute, Don Juan, Giannio Schicchi and Eugene Onegin. It was truly a night to remember.
The Kremlin, which means "fortress" is surrounded by a high wall.
Day 6 - Wednesday - A side trip to Moscow
This offered us the unique opportunity to explore the Russian capital in one day. Indeed, we were going from one capital - St. Petersburg, the capital for 200 years - to the historical capital of Moscow, which was founded back in the 11th Century, and restored as the capital by the Bolsheviks in 1917. We were taken by air in a one-hour flight to Moscow, where waiting coaches, escorted by a police car took us directly to the Kremlin. As we transferred to a bus and saw the countryside surrounding Moscow, we were struck by how clean and cosmopolitan the city was.
Then the Kremlin, which means "fortress" in Russian. It's aptly named, as the entire facility (70 acres worth) is surrounded by a high wall. Once inside, our first stop was the Armory, the repository of famous artifacts stored their throughout the centuries. Old Bibles encrusted with jewels, magnificent carriages that once transported the Tsars, and 10 of the surviving jeweled eggs crafted by Carl Faberge as gifts for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his wife Alexandra.
Then we were off to visit some of the most beautiful churches in the world, including one of the most famous (St. Basel's, with its colored turrets reflecting the Ottoman Empire style) in the world. Also impressive was the world's largest cannon, commissioned centuries ago and but fired only a few times.
Then it was lunch time in the Alexandr Pushkin restaurant, one of the most famous eateries in the city; only a few blocks from the Kremlin, down the street from the old KGB headquarters. Lunch consisted of tomato and mozzarella salad, beet and beef soup, chicken and veal patties, sorbet for dessert, and an excellent Bordeaux.
After this tasty meal, it was back to the Kremlin for one more visit - this time to view the famous (and vast) Red Square, and some last-minute shopping at the G.U.M. department store on the corner of the Square.
Then it was back to the airport - again under police escort - for the one-hour flight back to St. Petersburg. We didn't get back to the ship until 11pm, but have no regrets for this exhausting but fascinating day. And...it was still light outside when we arrived at the ship, compliments of the famous "White Nights" representative of St. Petersburg at this time of year.
Day 7 - Thursday - Hermitage Museum and Gold rooms
Regent Seven Seas has a very special arrangement here. The Gold Museum is privately opened just for the guests of Regent. It is one of the most important museums in Europe (together with the larger Hermitage Museum); it boasts a collection of art that is second to none in the world (possibly excepting the Louvre.) Founded by Catherine the Great in 1764, it boasts 2.7 million objects of magnificent art.
The tour covers the masterpieces of Western art, including masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Monet. You could (and would have to) spend days to see the full extent of art treasures in these museums. Our tour was approximately 6 hours - not enough to see all of the wondrous art, but enough to tire one out from the constant walking involved. Absolutely no regrets, for sure!
Day 8- Friday - Stockholm, Sweden
One of the real bonuses of our trip was the relaxing, meandering entry by sea from St. Petersburg into Stockholm. As we came within about 2 hours of Stockholm, we began to slowly weave between the many islands and fjords which dot the Swedish coastline.
Sweden is a land consisting of no fewer than 127, 000 islands! Many of these islands are dotted with vacation homes, and we got more than a few waves from local residents either watching from their homes, or waving from the decks of the ubiquitous sailboats that seemed to blanket the many harbors. What a gorgeous sight!
Then into Stockholm. Like Copenhagen and Moscow, it's a cosmopolitan city that is both very scenic and pristine. Although it was getting late - and pouring rain - we nonetheless took a cab to the famous "Ice Bar" where patrons are obliged to wear parkas before entering the premises. The bar is made entirely from giant blocks of ice, and all drinks are served in miniature glasses literally carved from the ice. The average age of the crowd was about 20-something - clearly this was a "happening" place to be for the young Swedish set (and a few visitors to this lovely city.)
Day 9 - Saturday - Depart Stockholm 10:15, arrive home Saturday 6pm
Some interesting facts about our absolutely lovely home for 6 days, the beautiful Regent Navigator:
The ship only carries 400 + guests; there are absolutely no waiting or lines.
You dine whenever you wish. The dining room is spectacular, the food exquisite and the waiters are first-rate.
There is a separate restaurant (Italian Portofino) that requires a reservation (but there is not an extra charge).
Room service is the dining room food; they come with a tablecloth and set up your food as though you were in the dining room.
Wine (good quality, not mediocre house wine) is included at dinner and 2 bottles of a limited selection are presented to you when you board the ship. Beginning with the either the year-end holiday cruises or early 2007, all liquor became complimentary.
The shops are very nice and the shopkeepers, very helpful.
The swimming pool is very warm (not unlike bath water.) Our cabin was spacious and the decks are large and made of teak. There are countless rooms to explore and little coves and niches in which to get comfy. Our favorite area is aft on the ship, where they serve breakfast and lunch right outside the Portofino restaurant on a teak deck.
A little about the entire area:
This really is the "Land of the Midnight Sun". It gets dark around 11pm, and some days it was light again around 2am.
The weather was perfect, sunny and around 70 degrees. There is limited air conditioning and lots of walking. The streets are cobblestone so walking in high heels is somewhat difficult.
Visas are required in Russia. As long as you are on a tour, then there is a group visa.
The Russians are a nice people. They were very kind, especially considering what they have been through in recent decades.