Time to breathe:
From Kiel to St. Petersburg Across the Baltic Sea
The perfect vacation. Who doesn’t dream of one! Especially if you live in America and have to be content with two weeks of vacation a year. This makes it even more important to consider your destination carefully. A cruise for many is thus the ideal solution: You can relax while traveling from destination to destination, have to unpack your suitcase only once, quickly become acquainted with new people, and see many interesting cities and different scenery in the shortest possible time without having to organize much on your own. Not individualized enough or something only for the elderly, you think? On my Baltic Sea cruise with the MS Columbus from Kiel to St. Petersburg this summer I was convinced otherwise.
My cruise started on July 9, a day with beautiful summer weather. The port of Kiel and my cruise ship’s landing bridge were not far from the main train station, so I walked to my swimming hotel, which I soon saw anchored offshore. With a maximum of 420 passengers and only five cabin decks the MS Columbus is a relatively small ship, especially from the perspective of American guests who know cruise ships as swimming mini-cities with casinos and skating rinks as well as 3,000 passengers. But, as the travel brochure promised, I quickly felt at home thanks to the 170-member staff who provide for much more than 3-star comfort. Our cabin of the middle price category was quite small, but cleverly arranged and comfortable. Two round cabin windows provided for maritime flair. The evening menu left us speechless, as I had not expected a 3-star ship to offer a seven-course meal with a choice of three starters, three soups and five main dishes. Lars Fumic, the chef, recently worked as sous chef on the MS Europa and we thoroughly enjoyed his culinary finesse.
Our first stop was Copenhagen, where I headed off alone on a city and canal excursion to discover the city. With a port information sheet in my hand that included tips on currency, store opening hours, and a city map that I discovered the evening before in my cabin, I easily found my way around and was back on board at the recommended time.
The magnificent summer weather with 80˚F continued while we headed on calm seas toward the Swedish island of Gotland and then onward to Stockholm. Because of its compact size the MS Columbus can anchor very close to each city center. Thus, in Stockholm we found ourselves directly in the Old City, the “Gamla Stan,” right across from the Royal Palace and the Stockholm Cathedral, in which Princess Victoria married her Daniel. A visit to the Drottningholm Palace, residence of Queen Silvia, a native German, and her family, is definitely a must. The part of the palace open to the public is adjacent to the private rooms of the royal family and is always open to visitors, even when the family is at home. We left Stockholm early in the evening, gliding through Sweden’s picturesque archipelago landscape, long enjoying the view in the stunning midnight sun from the palm garden deck.
After an interesting stop in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital city, with its well-preserved old city, we approached the highlight of our trip: St. Petersburg. The home town of Russian prime minster Putin celebrated its 300-year anniversary in 2003 and many palaces and churches as well as the most important buildings and streets had been renovated for the occasion. The golden splendor of Catharine Palace with its memorable Amber Room, the Hermitage Museum and Peterhof Palace with its famous fountains and vast garden were an unexpected sight in Communist-influenced Russia. Instead the ambience of the city was more reminiscent of Paris and not of gray Soviet culture. Upscale cocktail lounges and salsa discos lined the banks of the Neva and everywhere people were enjoying the White Nights.
It is no surprise that the fact that all bridges spanning the Neva River are drawn up between 1:30 and 4:30 in the morning is always used as a good excuse not to go home at night, for two things are never in shortage in St. Petersburg: Crimean vodka and sparkling wine. Two days in what is often referred to as Russia’s “Gate to the Western World” were much too short, but thanks to a very competent guide book and the MS Columbus tour guide I felt I received a good overview.
Soon after a stay in Lithuania’s Klaipedia, the former East Prussian Memel, and Denmark’s Mediterranean island Bornholm our cruise came to an end. Thanks to many hours of rest on deck with warm sunshine, balanced meals, and intensive sightseeing tours I felt as rested as if I had taken twice as much vacation. Particularly the unobtrusively friendly manner of the staff, the moderate prices for drinks and excursions, and above all the interesting groups of fellow travelers of all ages turned me into a new fan of the MS Columbus. Here you can actually at long last take a deep breath.
Especially high in demand are the bilingual or “international cruises,” ideal for German-American families, as everything on board and on land is communicated in German and English.