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RUSSIA ..BY SEA; Sail on a Baltic cruise to o St Petersburg and beyond..


RUDI in the gift shop at the Hermitage reckoned it would take a year of viewing paintings in his lunch break before he would manage to see all the art the museum has to offer.

So how on earth was I going to see all THREE MILLION treasures housed in St Petersburg's Winter Palace in just two hours?

The city was unquestionably the highlight of our Fred Olsen Baltic cruise - which also took in Berlin, Gdansk in Poland, the tiny Danish island of Bornholm, Tallinn in Estonia and Copenhagen.

Our cruise began in Dover and I was joined by my brother Charles - who had never cruised before - and my old school friend Christine.

The sleek Balmoral ship was perfect for us - it takes around 900 passengers and cabins are comfortable with sizeable bathrooms, TVs and tea and coffee-making facilities.

We watched from the Observatory Lounge as the White Cliffs of Dover disappeared, and as we sailed up the North Sea we enjoyed great views of the coastline.

Next morning, we found ourselves travelling through the Kiel Canal, an artificial waterway in north-western Germany linking the North Sea to the Baltic Sea.

It's 338ft wide, but it still felt very narrow as our ship slowly eased its way through, encouraged by people who waved from the quayside.

After docking at Warnemunde in Germany, we opted to take the three-hour excursion to Berlin. It's 35 years since I've been to the city and was amazed at the changes - new buildings, classy shops and a lot of traffic!

Our first stop was Checkpoint Charlie - once the infamous crossing point between East and West Berlin and thankfully now demolished, along with the Berlin Wall which came down 22 years ago. Remaining bits of wall have poignant graffiti.

At the Reichstag - central Parliament - with its magnificent new glass extension built by Norman Foster, we sipped champagne from a balcony looking out over to the Brandenburg Gate. was in a typical Berlin restaurant with German sausage and sauerkraut, followed by a wander around the hectic city centre. A very different pace was adopted for our call at Bornholm - a tiny Danish island 45 miles off the coast of Sweden. A sedate bus ride took us around the coastal route, visiting the elegant Baltic Glass Company for a demonstration of glass-blowing, followed by a lunch of smoked herring.

Once a strong fishing island, Bornholm is now turning to tourism as the fish stock has virtually collapsed.

Back on board, we headed to the Atlantis Spa for massages and manicures.There is a fine array of place to eat on board - from buffet lunches and evening meals at the Palm Caf, to slightly smarter dining in the Ballindalloch Restaurant. There were also two small and friendly restaurants, the Spey and Avon. We especially enjoyed the Avon for its cosy atmosphere and terrific views.

Cruise shows can often be a painful experience, but the evening entertainment on the Balmoral was a pleasant surprise - especially the country and western evening and Oklahoma! musical night. Early evening lectures on our ports of call were brilliant - particularly the Russian one, delivered by a former British ambassador who gave us a fascinating insight into life there now.

The local guide on our Gdansk excursion really brought her home country to life. At first we felt a little apprehensive as we drove through depressing housing estates - but the scene changed as soon as we reached the town centre, where the houses had been beautifully restored after the devastation of the Second World War. Down by the docks there's a fascinating Solidarity Statue and museum, depicting the uprising against Russia during the war.

But the highlight of the cruise was yet to come - glittering St Petersburg. We had two days to explore this incredible city - but needed two weeks!

Nothing could prepare us for the sheer scale of the Grand Palace of Peterhof, just outside the city. From the gold leaf and frescoes on the ceilings to the walls dripping with paintings and chandeliers, every turn is a delight - and the magnificent gardens are crammed with stunning fountains.

After lunch (beetroot soup with vodka shots... well, when in Russia!) it was off to the Hermitage - arguably the world's best collection of art... and we only had two hours to whiz round it. We took in all the treasures we could, but barely had time to marvel at the ornate building, itself a work of art.

Our second day in St Petersburg I opted for a two-hour waterways trip passing houses, palaces and shops - a lovely tour finishing at the wonderfully mad Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, now a museum after a 25-year renovation.

Time for the ship to turn back for Dover - but we had two more stops to go, at Tallinn and Copenhagen.

A tour around the Estonian capital's Old Town gave us a great overview of this year's European Capital of Culture. Streets are all cobbled and there is a distinct air of prosperity here now with smart restaurants, bars and expensive cars.

Last stop was Copenhagen, where we enjoyed a boat ride along the city's waterways and a stroll around the lively centre. Unfortunately, the famous Little Mermaid was on "tour" in Shanghai and we had to make do with a replica in Tivoli Gardens.

Then it was time head back to those white cliffs - and as we docked at Dover, my two travelling companions agreed they had become converts to the world of cruises.

What's the deal?

BALMORAL has a 14-night cruise to the Baltic, leaving Southampton on June 24. Starting with a transit of the Kiel Canal, it calls in at Tallinn, and then Helsinki before docking for three days in St Petersburg. En route back to Southampton, ports of call will be Copenhagen and the Danish port of Elborg. Prices start at EUR1,700pp, based on two sharing an inside, twin cabin including all meals and entertainment on board, and port taxes. To book go to


Pure glass... Berlin's Reichstag building Water sight... the magnificent gardens at Peterhof Palace Head for heights... looking out over St Petersburg from the top of St Isaac's Cathedral Pole position... sailing into Gdansk For Pete's sake... Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood Ship ahoy... Balmoral at sea and one of her comfy cabins, above
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Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Apr 24, 2011
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