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Travel: Turn your trip into a true Saga; Graeme Currie takes a memorable trip aboard the luxurious Saga Ruby.

Byline: Graeme Currie

SAMA bin Laden's face stared out from the cheap wooden Russian doll, one of hundreds being flogged to (un)suspecting tourists in front of St Isaac's Cathedral.

Yards from where James Bond crashed through the statue of Emperor Nicholas I in a tank, the traders of St Petersburg were falling over themselves to embrace the new opportunities offered by the downfall of Communism, and what better way to do that than with depictions of some of the most high-profile leaders of our time?

With a little force I managed to remove Osama (no-one else could) to reveal Yasser Arafat; inside him was Saddam Hussein, and last but not least a likeness of Warren Beatty - or possibly Tony Blair.

St Petersburg is the undoubted highlight of any tour of the Baltic. Peter the Great's dreams of a city to rival Venice - it is strewn with canals - were realised by Russian and German architects in spectacular style.

The Hermitage is the city's own Louvre. Monet and Leonardo are both represented among the three million works of art in a building which includes the stunning stairway of the Winter Palace, the official and private residence of the Tsars. See too the Peter and Paul fortress, originally the cradle of the city, later a political prison and since 1998 final resting place of the last emperors Nicholas and Alexandra, their daughters, doctor and servants.

Such a visit is only possible spread over two days, and a cruise ship is the way to do it. Now that Liverpool is gearing up for the arrival of a liner terminal in 2006 with the Baltic said to be one of the most likely itineraries, what better than to let a vessel like Saga Ruby take the strain - if you're over 50 of course.

This is cruising as it should be, splendidly old-fashioned and totally relaxing. Ruby maintains the levels of service and attention to detail which were mainstays of the great liners of the past. The second vessel owned by Saga, introduced this season, it's a British-run ship with a crew from the Philippines who are charming, gracious and famously remember the names of returning passengers. Then there's the choice of menu: three meals a day plus afternoon tea in the ballroom, not forgetting the buffet after your late return from the Kirov ballet or Russian folk night. I was getting more and more choosy as the champagne went down, pronouncing the red caviar better than the black (it's sweeter).

Saga is still a name which fills some travellers with trepidation - the second letter A in any of the countless puns usually stands for 'aged' - but the company aims to fence in those just over 50 in addition to those comfortably over the starting line. A third cruise ship will also address this.

In the end though, it's what you make of it. You don't need to be best pals with everyone on board and you can always hide from an unwanted new 'friend' by ducking into the card room, cinema, recital room, sauna or swimming pools, outdoor and indoor. Or simply relaxing in your well-appointed cabin; even those on the lower decks are roomy, with similar furnishings throughout the ship.

There has also been an attempt to make the entertainment less conservative. Sure, there are the usual songs from the shows but there are also classical recitals and lectures from luminaries including Jonathan Aitken. Then there was Pluck, veterans of the Edinburgh fringe and this year's Glastonbury festival, best described as mime violinists. An innovative departure much appreciated by the audience.

So what of the other destinations? We joined at Stockholm in time for a cursory tour of the capital. Then we popped the champagne and set sail, the three-hour journey to the open sea offering a passing panorama of beautiful little islets, some barely supporting a single house.

Next stop was Helsinki, a wealthy and chic city offering a chance to break from the coach tours and explore Finland's capital on foot. Regular shuttles for independent day-trippers run from the ship to the centres of all destinations except Russia. A remarkable church hewn from a lump of rock and the fabulous art-deco station, complete with roulette wheel and blackjack tables in the buffet, were two highlights.

A great dockside market too where, as at other stops, Ruby's executive chef hunts down the freshest produce.

For the next two days we witnessed the glory, contrasting with grinding, alien poverty, that was St Petersburg. We took the high-speed hydrofoil to Peterhof, whose remarkable gravity-driven fountains and water features ensure Peter the Great's summer residence competes with Versailles for sheer spectacle. But the surprise of the trip was Tallinn in Estonia. Understandably called the new Prague and not just because it attracts stag weekenders, this beautiful walled medieval city has really got its act together since the Iron Curtain was raised thanks to investment from Scandinavia. It is clean and well-presented with a plethora of good restaurants and an absence of tacky souvenir shops. The 13-day cruise also takes in Berlin (via Warnemunde), Copenhagen and Oslo. Ruby docks in a new port almost every day, mainly on the tide-free inland sea which is the Baltic. We could stand on the aft deck, taking in the sun as it descended over a placid Gulf of Finland, the outline of three countries in view and a fine New Zealand wine in hand. Even if you are nowhere near 'Saga age' this trip certainly puts down pointers for the future. Imagine departing the Pier Head for new, exotic destinations other than Seacombe. And the twist? At the dawn of its former incarnation in the late 90s, the Saga Ruby was christened with its previous name in this very city. How apt it would be if this luxurious vessel made return visits to its historical home under proud new owners. Chill the champers and bring forth the caviar. Only the red stuff, mind. p Graeme Currie travelled courtesy of Saga Holidays, which sells direct on www.saga.co.uk/travel or freephone 0800 096 0079. Saga Ruby's programme includes 13-night cruises departing Dover - ' Baltic Treasures', August 3 2005, and 'Baltic Capitals', July 12 and August 14, 2006.

Discounted fares for 2006 from pounds 1,499 per person for a J-grade two-bed inside cabin, subject to availability. A companion over the age of 40 may escort the lead traveller

CAPTION(S):

Whether you are in Tallinn (left) or enjoying the magnificent fountains of Peterhof you will be deeply impressed by every port of call on your voyage; From relaxing drinks served on the aft deck to lively cabaret, the Saga Ruby offers a wealth of pleasures for every taste as you cruise from one spectacular destination to another
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jul 9, 2005
Words:1128
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