SMALL WONDER; Mark Ellis enjoys getting close to the action on a Fred Olsen cruise to the Baltic.
Cruise ships are getting bigger. Every year sees the launch of yet another floating skyscraper carrying 5,000-plus passengers and measuring more than 200,000 tons.
But these superliners have a huge drawback too. They are too big for many ports so are forced to drop anchor in deeper waters, often miles from resorts.
That's not the case for the 'Freds' as they are affectionately known.
Because the four ships in the Fred Olsen line reach the ports others cannot reach. All together they still don't make the tonnage of one of the newest mega-ships, and that's part of their appeal.
They are proud to be small while still doing what the big ships do - providing interesting itineraries, 'must do' excursions, excellent food and top-class entertainment.
And they excel at making every passenger feel special. Think of a favourite small hotel where you are welcomed back like an old friend by staff who remember your name.
Savvy cruisers keep returning to the 'Freds' - Braemar, Balmoral, Black Watch and Boudicca - time after time. So I wanted to discover the secret of the ships' charm.
I joined the smallest of the fleet, the 929-passenger Braemar, for its 14-night voyage from Dover to St Petersburg. It boasts two sea water swimming pools, two hot tubs and plenty of deck chairs for all. The top deck has an observatory bar with floor-to-ceiling windows for panoramic views. It's ideal for pre-dinner cocktails to watch the sunset while resident pianist Enrique plays popular classics.
There are two main restaurants and a more informal Palms cafe as well as the Neptune lounge for cabarets and shows, the Morning Light pub and a cafe Venus with chocolate treats and coffee.
Our first port of call was Aalborg in Denmark which meant sailing inland up the Limfjord, the long body of water that splits Jutland in two. A low bridge marked the limit of navigation and we were soon anchored opposite The John Bull, Aalborg's English pub, and two minutes from the city centre with cobbled streets and a half-timbered castle.
After a very pleasant three-pub tour of the Aalborg Beerwalk with genial guide Lars, it was back aboard for an overnight sailing to Copenhagen. We awoke to find ourselves in the heart of the harbour next to the Danish royal yacht.
Here, as in all ports on the cruise, the ship offered a wide range of interesting tours - at around PS50 a head - with various sightseeing trips, to take in the major attractions, as well as cycling, kayaking and walks.
One highlight was the trip to the remote wooden home of Finland's best known composer Jean Sibelius, 24 miles from Helsinki, to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth. Robert Bamberg, who has been captain of the ship for four years, explained why Braemar is so special as we left his native Finland. "Our first port of call in Denmark was very small but we could get very close - and in Copenhagen we were in a prime spot," he said. "Big ships are outside the harbours, and passengers have to go by bus into the ports.
"This is our advantage. With all Fred Olsen ships there is not a lot of the ship under the water and it means we can go to many more places." It means Braemar can go further up rivers in Mediterranean ports - and early next year it will sail up the Amazon in Brazil as far as Manaus, the gateway to the rainforest.
One thing that's never very small is your appetite after all these tours, and Braemar excels on the food front. Of the 370 crew, just over 70 are in the galley team, turning out superb dishes from dawn to midnight. After more than 30 years of cruising, I find your palate gets a little jaded after a week at sea - but not on Braemar. Just when you think the chefs can't come up with anything different, they do. There is something for everyone. Special themes include an amazing Asian buffet, Indian night and a gala night worthy of any five-star hotel.
A good tip is to buy the all-inclusive drinks package. For PS20 each a day you get unlimited selected drinks in any of the bars or restaurants. To work off all the treats there is a well-equipped fitness centre with regular yoga, pilates and exercise classes.
And for a more sedate day on board, there are bridge lessons, water colour painting classes, classical piano concerts and historical lectures themed to the trip.
Every night on board there are top-class shows. The jewel in the crown of this trip is the two-day stay in St Petersburg. This is Russia's window on the West, and the Hermitage in the Winter Palace has one of the world's most fabulous collections of art treasures, with around three million exhibits. The palace - famously stormed in the 1917 revolution - is the former home of tsars, and ranges over five glittering buildings, all marble, glass and gold. Once again, Braemar sailed up the River Neva until we were within walking distance of the Hermitage, mooring alongside an old Soviet-era submarine, now a museum.
Other cruise ships dock way down the estuary, a 20-minute coach drive away.
Later we went into St Petersburg for an evening at the ballet to see Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake - a PS55-a-head excursion that was worth every penny.
On the way home through the Baltic we had a day in Latvia's capital Riga, a charming city port with streets full of antique shops, bars and restaurants. Our last port is Travemunde in Germany, a classy seaside town.
To avoid sailing 200 miles around Denmark again, we use the 60-mile long Kiel Canal between the Baltic and North seas, enjoying the surrounding rolling countryside.
At one point, announcing the ship's position, the captain said: "From the bridge, all is well." And all was well elsewhere on board his little ship too.
Get on board
Fred Olsen's Balmoral sails a 13nt Scandinavia& St Petersburg cruise from Newcastle on July 30 with calls inc the Stockholm Archipelago, Tallinn and St Petersburg. Prices start at PS1,399pp. fredolsencruises.com 0800 0355 242
TIME ZONE UK +1/+2
CURRENCY Sterling on board
BEST TIME TO GO Try a close encounter with Scandinavia next summer
Proud to be small while doing what big ships do
BIG APPEAL Braemar. Inset: Captain Robert and Mark
JEWEL Winter Palace, St Petersburg
CHARMING Braemar called at Latvia's capital Riga