I could have taken an airplane from Stockholm to St. Petersburg, but instead I find myself in the middle of the Baltic Sea. The ship lurches sometime after midnight and, abruptly wide awake, I rush to my cabin window and pull back the curtain. Outside, the sky is licorice black, and the Big Dipper hangs low, as if deliberately speckled with silver leaf on a planetarium map. The ship churns forward on dazzling, star-sprinkled waters, and I quickly fall back asleep.
St. Peter Line—what I call a cruise-ship-slash-ferry—hops around the Baltic Sea, connecting St. Petersburg with Stockholm, Sweden; Helsinki, Finland; and Tallinn, Estonia on overnight journeys. You can buy a round-trip fare or depart from one port to St. Petersburg and return to another. There are two unique, amazing things about this operation. One, you can stay in a hotel in each city you visit, meaning you can explore the city long after most normal cruise passengers would have been obliged to return to the ship. And two, you can stay for 72 hours in St. Petersburg visa free. That’s right, visa free! Trust me, given the horrendous difficulties (and expense) involved in obtaining a Russian visa these days, this possibility is a godsend. St. Peter Line, which has negotiated a deal with the Russian government, has several different (and relatively inexpensive) packages that will help you out with hotel options and shuttling back and forth, if you desire.
I’m not surprised that a bit of Baltic flair comes with this Finnish-owned enterprise, including the shipload of Russians, Swedes, and Finns (you won’t find many Americans on board). There’s caviar, champagne, and other delicacies in the restaurants (check out how inexpensive the vodka is in the duty-free shop). You can get a Soviet-style massage, the masseuse very businesslike in her presentation—no burning incense or zen music here. Of course there’s a sauna. And every evening there’s a glittery stage show with both contemporary and Russian folk dancing, including some authentic Cossack squats.
Among several different restaurant offerings, my favorite is the smorgasbord –Swedish table– at the Seven Seas restaurant. As I sit by the floor-to-ceiling window, watching the pine-dotted isles of Stockholm’s archipelago sail past, the chef explains how to attack this long, intriguing buffet—start with the cold dishes: first fish (including herring prepared in a myriad of ways), then meat and poultry cold cuts, then salads of mushroom, seafood, and cheese. Then come the hot dishes, including roast beef, chicken, salmon, vegetables, lots of different kinds of potatoes, and the like. Dessert includes cheese followed by cakes, berry and fruit salads, and ice cream. All is accompanied with vodka, of course.
The ship’s decor isn’t the most up-to-date that you’ve ever seen, though there are plans to renovate. The point is, I could have flown from place to place—it certainly would have taken less time. But if I had, I wouldn’t have woken in my berth in the morning to look out the window and see the gleaming gold spires of St. Petersburg greeting me as we sail into one of the world’s greatest cities. Now that’s a tribute to the age-old glory of travel.
Photo: Grazia Pezzini/My Shot