It was mid-afternoon in St Petersburg when my wife and I found some space on the benches along the bank of the river Neva and gazed across the water to the golden spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral.
Having just completed a tour of the Hermitage and all its grandeur, the river views were an excellent contrast between the old and new as mighty Russian commercial shipping headed downstream towards the Baltic Sea. We had bought ourselves two cans of kvass, a malt-flavoured soft drink, and a bar of Alyonka chocolate with a heart-warming image of a chubby-cheeked, blue-eyed infant in a headscarf. Two elderly babushkas looked on as I ripped open the chocolate wrapper and my wife took a sip of kvass. She wasn’t sure if it really was a soft drink after all. By now both ladies were becoming agitated with us. Thankfully our tour guide returned and explained. ‘The older generation grew up believing that the child on the wrapping was Stalin’s daughter. Back then no one would dare rip her face. Alyonka is such a cultural icon we still find ourselves opening the wrapper very gently.’
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Our cruise on board Saga Sapphire was to experience the cities on both the eastern and western shores of the Baltic Sea that were once on the front line during the Cold War. I know - it sounds a little bit downbeat, doesn’t it? But stay with me, because the cruise was far better than I could ever have imagined. The Cold War was just the backdrop: I discovered so much more.
Things to do in St Petersburg
The Sapphire set sail from Dover on its 15-night journey through Germany’s Kiel Canal to Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Lithuania and finally Denmark. Despite being fortunate enough to have travelled to more than 100 countries for both work and pleasure, my wife and I were still cruise virgins. We were a little apprehensive. Would we be told what to do and when to do it? Would the ship feel crowded and cramped? Would the food be dull and the restaurants formal?
Of course, we were completely wrong on all counts. Days could be spent exactly as you wanted, both onboard and onshore. Each day there was a news sheet listing the day’s options. Anything from fitness, spa treatments, dance classes, to the evening’s live entertainment.
Or you could choose to do nothing but drink coffee or have a glass of wine while reading a book. Our cabin was bigger and better furnished than many hotel rooms I have stayed in, with a flatscreen TV, fridge, a shower and a bath. Plus 24/7 room service from the most helpful and friendliest staff I have ever encountered. I could happily have spent the whole cruise in the cabin with a stack of DVDs from the library.
Our first port of call was Stockholm. I had worked in the city, plus we were feeling lazy, so we chose to stay on board. Why not try out all that the Sapphire had to offer instead? Besides, it was raining and the coffee on board was free. We had the swimming pool all to ourselves along with the ice-cream machine. My wife finished the day with a massage while I used the Wi-Fi to check my emails.
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The choice and quality of the food in all three of Sapphire’s restaurants was perfect. I always tried to just have fruit for breakfast but with so much to tempt me it never worked.
What I especially liked about mealtimes was that we could choose just to sit alone or join others, and we found ourselves joining other passengers most days because there were so many interesting people to talk to. Many passengers had been on more than ten cruises. They knew what they were talking about when it came to this kind of travel, and had chosen always to cruise with Saga.
They said their ships had the most friendly and efficient crews and, of course, the best food. We had to agree. Nothing else at sea could be better than this.
Next stop was Helsinki and we decided to go ashore to stop us eating so much ice cream. The morning was spent on a city tour to get our bearings. Other tour groups seemed to be wearing stickers and were led by a guide holding up an umbrella; thankfully there wasn’t a sticker or umbrella in sight on any of our Saga tours.
We spent the rest of the day by ourselves just walking and taking in the city. (All ports offered a shuttle service to and from the Sapphire if you just wanted to do your own thing.)
During our days at sea there were lectures you could attend or watch in your cabin. The Cold War lecturers were a fascinating bunch. A Rear Admiral who served on submarines in the Baltic and an expert on nuclear warfare; a naval officer and a diplomat who were both attached to our embassy in Moscow; and a former BBC Russia correspondent. These experts gave us not only the facts but also their personal experiences – and those were priceless.
Things to see on a Baltic cruise
My favourite story was from the diplomat who was arrested by the Soviet secret police (KGB) just outside Moscow. Once the Russian officer found the diplomat’s cheese and tomato sandwiches in his bag, he decided that all charges would be dropped, but only if the diplomat shared his lunch. (The officer had visited the UK and liked our mature cheddar.) But it wasn’t just the Cold War insights. Before we reached each destination, hugely entertaining experts talked to us about its history and people.
I found visiting Estonia and Lithuania the most interesting because these were supposed to have been our enemies until the late 1980s. In Tallinn we visited a KGB wiretapping office. They simply closed the doors and left when the USSR collapsed in 1991; even the ashtrays were still full.
In Lithuania we were taken on a tour of an underground Soviet missile launch site. It was quite eerie to know that right up until the 1980s, its nuclear warheads were aimed at seven UK cities.
Then, as we sailed to our last port of call – Skagen on the northern tip of Denmark – a Russian submarine surfaced alongside our ship. I’m not sure if Saga had organised this with the Russian Navy, but if I were Saga, I’d take the credit.
This article appeared in the December 2019 issue of Saga Magazine
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