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Bliss in the Baltic.

Byline: By PETER MASON

We'd been looking forward to our luxury cruise with the anticipation of a three-year-old on Christmas Eve. By definition, anybody who cruises the Baltic prefers the chic city culture and history of Eastern Europe to the sultry suntans of the western Med. And what better way to explore so many centres than onboard a recent addition to P&O's fleet, the Artemis.

To cruise virgins like ourselves, the name Artemis suggested something like the old Royal Yacht Britannia, all polished brass and oak-panelled cabins. P&O's brochure talks lyrically of the thrill of dressing for formal dinner, which sounds so much nicer than superliners pumping out grub around the clock.

Once on board, we soon discovered that Artemis is, in fact, the 20-year-old Princess Royal, revamped and rebranded for the UK market.

The company says its intimate, friendly atmosphere and 'child-free environment' appeals to both past passengers and experienced cruisers. At 46,000 tonnes, she's dwarfed by the superliners - a key part of her appeal.

Much care and attention to detail was lavished on spacious and well-thought-out public rooms, before Artemis re-launched onto the market in summer 2005.

Cabins still show traces of their 20-year legacy in the hands of another owner. But they are comfortable and cosy, more than adequate for the ship's 1,000-odd passengers.

There's also an excellent choice of activities on offer and the food was some of the best I've tasted anywhere. As for the lack of children - well, it might not suit everybody but it suited us this time.

Every time we landed, local parties were celebrating midsummer. From Latvia to Estonia to Finland to Sweden, celebrations erupt around June 21. Locals, intent on living it up, sometimes had more holiday spirit than us.

In Riga, Latvia's capital, we were greeted by girls in national dress, their hair garlanded with oak leaves and flowers, and the partying carried on from there.

In Tallinn, capital of neighbouring Estonia, it was more of the same 24 hours later. Midsummer day was over, but who were we to complain?

The Finns take midsummer even more to heart. In winter, the sun barely rises above the horizon for months on end - so the country throws off its winter mantle at first sign of a sunny day and celebrates like there's no tomorrow.

In Oslo, Midsummer Sunday meant almost the entire population had abandoned the city for weekend cottages and summer retreats. On our city tour, the Holmenkollen Hills gave us splendid views of the city and Oslofjord.

Looking up from the foot of the world's tallest ski jump was enough to turn my knees to jelly, and the other image which lingers in the mind was houses with grass growing on rooftops - great year-round insulation, and cheap to grow.

Hans Christian Andersen is a national treasure to the Danes, so at Aarhus, our next stop, we were greeted on the quayside by actor Torben Iversen and his troupe enacting scenes from the great author's best-known works.

Founded by the Vikings in 900AD, and an important trade, cultural and religious centre by the 13th Century, Aarhus is today both a pretty university town and one of Europe's largest container ports.

In Den Gamle By - the Old Town - a collection of 75 old houses from all over Denmark was re-assembled piece by piece to create a 'new' old town to depict Denmark in past centuries.

En route to Riga, we had our first glimpse of the legendary midnight sun. Though the sun dips low on the horizon, and the sky goes pink, for the most part the light remains. Sitting out on our balcony, lights out, reading a book at midnight, was eerily unforgettable.

Until recently all but closed to the outside world, Riga mixes old Baltic warmth and new Soviet starkness. Mile after mile of concrete monstrosities, a dismal legacy of Soviet occupation, give way to lush and verdant countryside.

Latvia, a tiny country of just two million, survived centuries of foreign occupation - Sweden, Germany and Tsarist Russia have been among the country's other rulers - but its dignified people take pride in showing off their forested countryside and capital city.

Estonia, one-third the size of England but boasting 800 islands and twice as many lakes, has a tiny population of just 1.5 million, a third of them in the capital, Tallinn.

Just 50 miles across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki, and within 500 miles of the Arctic Circle, Tallinn retains its medieval charm, with narrow cobbled streets, well-preserved architecture, delightful parks and gardens and still-intact city walls.

We marvelled at the Gothic architecture of the 14th Century Town Hall, showpiece of the Old Town and the only surviving medieval town hall throughout the Nordic countries. As you stroll around, the fragrant aroma of coffee wafts from centuries-old sidewalk cafes.

But the highlight of this voyage, at the eastern tip of the Baltic, is surely St Petersburg, old capital of Tsarist Russia.

The 'Venice of the north' is truly splendid - canals, Renaissance architecture, gilded palaces and magnificent onion-domed churches, all topped off by the jewel in the crown, the Hermitage Museum, with three million works of art.

There we managed, in a busy morning, to cram in two Leonardos, seven Cezannes, 14 Matisses, and a roomful of Renoirs and Gaugins, and even that left us exhausted.

The canal boat tour, however, was more relaxing, past waterfront palaces, grand houses, theatres, churches, museums, and of course, The Hermitage, a stunning sight from the River Neva.

In Helsinki, it rained for the first (and only) time on the cruise. But gentle rain hardly dampened our spirits as we sheltered under an umbrella beside the stunning Sibelius monument, its myriad stainless steel tubes looking like those of a giant church organ.

In Stockholm we tackled both the Vasa museum (for Sweden's answer to the Mary Rose) and the Stadshuset, or City Hall (which emulates the Doges Palace in Venice, and is home to the annual Nobel Prizegiving banquet).

The Old Town is a must-see for every visitor to this city of broad waterways, wide roads and countless bridges which today link the 14 islands on which it stands. Sailing into Stockholm as the dawn rises, weaving a precarious passage between islands and islets of the archipelago on which the city stands, is a stunning moment.

Nine cities and seven countries in 13 days is a test of any ship, its crew - and passengers. So we probably needed the day at sea en route to Copenhagen - our penultimate port of call before heading home.

We docked in Copenhagen just a stone's throw from the city centre and within walking distance of the city's most famous, and most photographed, figures - Hans Christian Anderson's tragic heroine, the Little Mermaid.

We chose the tour of Sealand - the island on which Copenhagen stands - and managed to cram in four of them, including Helsingor's Kronborg - the so-called Hamlet's Castle, replete with its bust of Shakespeare - and Fredensborg, the Queen's fabulous summer residence.

After that, it was time to relax on board, and to relish some of that country house party atmosphere of Artemis, complete with games of bridge which could turn quite competitive, on the voyage back to Southampton.: CHECK IN:Peter Mason sailed with P&O Cruises, which has sold out remaining Baltic voyages for 2006. In 2007, 14-night Baltic voyages starting from and returning to Southampton, currently start at pounds 1,319 per person sharing twin cabin, based on maximum early booking discount of 45%.

P&O Cruises reservations: 0845 678 0014/www.pocruises.co.uk
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Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Aug 13, 2006
Words:1265
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