Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Baltic Cruise: My day in Helsinki

I booked a half-day city tour of Helsinki through Crystal Cruises, which was a nice introduction. The city is celebrating its 200th anniversary as the capital of Finland, so there isn’t a preserved medieval quarter here (like Stockholm and Tallinn); instead new buildings and old blend together to create a fascinating cityscape. It's no wonder Helsinki was named the 2012 Design Capital of the World. 
Monument to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius
I enjoyed seeing the Sibelius Monument at the waterfront park named for the composer. The monument was created by the Finnish sculptress Eila Hiltunen in 1961 (apparently, it caused quite a stir as the first abstract public monument in Finland). The famous Rock Church (also called Temppeliaukio Church) was special, but I think the Post Office thrilled me more with it's clean lines.  
The Post Office in Helsinki
After the tour, I stayed in town walking all along the narrow, cobblestone streets. Each block has such a variety of architectural styles (art deco office building next to a Soviet apartment building) that my eyes were delighted by the contrasts.  Esplanade Park offered a charming greenway between two boulevards lined with lots of shops and cafes in the heart of the city. Market Square is at the bottom of the park, on the water, with city views of Uspensky Cathedral above. Farmers, fish mongers, food vendors and craftsmen sell their wares in a lively setting, which was a perfect spot to end a wonderful day.

Here's a link to my photos.
Fish Monger at Market Square

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Baltic Cruise: An afternoon in Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn from Dome Hill
First stop on my Baltic Cruise aboard Crystal Cruises' Crystal Symphony was Tallinn, Estonia. This charming medieval walled city on the sea could call itself the Dubrovnik-of-the-North: narrow, winding, pedestrian-only streets with adorable cafes and shops,  and plenty of sea views to engage your camera. You could do a short walking tour of the old town so you notice all the highlights (an inexpensive shore excursion option), but it's fun to just wander aimlessly too. Architectural details catch your eye like a 17th century clock on the side of Holy Spirit Church and a dragon gargoyle. 

Unfortunately, I was not the only tourist here; the streets were crowded. Corny tourist traps abound and vendors in period costumes sell everything from spiced nuts, elk soup and elf shoes. And there are an awful lot of burlesque clubs and 'adult' entertainment on offer. But the history is interesting (I loved the story of their singing revolution), the people were friendly (unless you're Russian) and they make really good chocolate (dark chocolate with ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, clove and black pepper- so delicious). Click here to see my photos from Tallinn.

" Worthy Elk Soup, full of taste"

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Baltic Cruise: Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm's charming harbor
My Baltic Cruise aboard Crystal Cruises' Crystal Symphony began in Stockholm, Sweden. Departed from Newark on SAS’ non-stop flight to Stockholm. The trans-Atlantic flight leaves early (around 5pm) and arrives early the next morning. Plane was reasonably comfortable (2-4-2 configuration) and there was a personal entertainment system for each seat in all classes (but no plugs or internet access). The meal was OK (chicken in red wine sauce both coming and going) served with complimentary wine. It was an 8-hour flight made painless by taking a 4-hour Ambien immediately upon being seated, so I slept most of the way there and arrived feeling halfway decent.

While the Arlanda Express is an easy way to get into the heart of the city (and there are even less-expensive buses available), I do prefer to arrive as effortlessly as possible, so I took a taxi ($60, 30-minute ride). Happily, the Scandic Grand Central had the room ready so I could settle in and jump into the shower immediately.  I liked the room’s modern vibe and eco-features (finally — recycle bins in a hotel room!). Wandered out into the city center on a self-guided walking tour and visited Strindberg’s apartment. Had dinner at Den Glydene Freden in Gamla Stan (the restaurant was established in 1722, and their herring was amazing).
Gamla Stan, Stockholm's medieval center
Traveled by tram to the island park called Djurgärden. It’s most famous attraction is the Vasa Museum, which has a 17th-century sailing galleon with fascinating exhibits.  They said “Stench, Disease and Tedium” summed up life at sea in those days. Good for me that life at sea has greatly improved, especially on Crystal Cruises! Couldn’t resist stopping in to the Spirit Museum to see their Absolut Art Collection (Warhol, Keith Haring, etc), since I had a Stockholm Card granting me free entry to all museums, public transportation and more.  The obligatory canal cruise was a very pleasant way to experience the archipelago (Royal Canal Tour is free with Stockholm Card). The Nobel Museum was a yawn. Enjoyed a traditional smörgåsbord dinner at the Grand Hotel's Veranda Restaurant, especially the cured cod. 
Grand Hotel Stockholm
I was charmed by Stockholm. The ubiquitous lion statues evoked Venice more than their canals and bridges; but all the boats were beautiful, moored on every shore. Wandering around Gamla Stan (which was mobbed with tourists) and the city center (which was crowded with shopping Swedes) was a pleasure.  I was also surprised by the Swedish sense  of humor (a tapas place called Bar Celona, Primo Ciao Ciao serving Italian food, and a Scottish restaurant on the harbor called Loch & Quay). Last stop was for coffee and cake in the courtyard of Vete-Katten (the name of the pastry was Mjölnargårdsbulle, — see, I’m not making it up) before setting sail on the Crystal Symphony.  Click here for my photos of Stockholm.
How would you pronounce it?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Baltic Cruise 2012

St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia
Cruising the Baltic Sea was as wonderful as I expected.  Every destination was special, but by visiting so many in one trip I really experienced the region and learned about their relationships with each other and the sea. Here’s a quick summary of my trip:

Crystal Cruises' "Journey of the Czars" itinerary included these ports of call:
  • Tallinn, Estonia
  • 3 full days in St. Petersburg, Russia!
  • Helsinki, Finland
  • Warnemünde, Germany

St. Petersburg was as amazing as I expected, but the Amber Room at Catherine's Palace was mind blowing. I knew I'd love Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen and wandering the Old Town of Tallinn, but was surprised how much I liked the canals of Stockholm and the architecture of Helsinki. All the Scandinavian ports were clean and charming (most of them claiming to be The Venice-of-the-North).  The people spoke English, were friendly and extremely blond.  The politeness extended to pedestrian etiquette too — folks would stand at a red light with no cars coming from any direction and still not cross until the light changed to green.  It’s really hard to do (tick, t-i-c-k, t…i…c…k), but I got better at it as the trip progressed.
A magical evening at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark
The weather was bizarrely excellent — 60-75 degrees and mostly sunny every day. All the guides swore it was cold and raining all summer until I arrived. The trip definitely challenged my linguistic skills, which are notoriously terrible even in the few languages I studied in school. By the end, I was the Great Pronouncer — confidently reading street signs with phonetic American-English, give or take a few letters. Or syllables. 

FYI: I won the flights on SAS Airlines and the Scandic Hotel stays from Cruise Baltic while attending a CLIA cruise conference in April 2011. I took several of the Cruise Baltic educational seminars at the conference, but this trip taught me so much more about this beautiful and fascinating region. And I was hosting a Signature Travel Network group of 83 guests on the Crystal Symphony. Don't I have the best job?!