Cruising to St. Petersburg

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.

Photo: Barbara Noe

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.

Stockholm City Guide

Estonia Country Guide

Finland Country Guide

St. Petersburg City Guide

 Photo: Grazia Pezzini/My Shot

 

Comments

  1. Mohan
    California
    August 4, 5:32 pm

    We plan to be in Stockholm in mid-September. What kind of weather should one expect in the second hlf of September in the St. Petersburg, etc.?

  2. Alecia
    Minneapolis, MN
    June 29, 8:31 pm

    Thank you, what a great article! I second the Karen’s question, I saw a trip from Helsinki to St Petersburg, is there anyone who traveled from Stockholm recently? I will be travelling late July/early August as well.

  3. Karen
    USA
    April 1, 9:25 pm

    Has anyone taken the St. Peter line from Stockholm to St. Petersburg recently? I tried to find them on the web and it’s not clear that they are operating.

    I will be traveling in early August and would like to figure out the best way to cruise from Stockholm and end up in St. P.
    Karen

  4. Fawad Asif Rana
    Pakistan
    March 23, 2013, 11:24 am

    The best ever Experience I had ever.

  5. Sigrid Egan
    Scottsdale, Arizona
    January 27, 2013, 9:56 pm

    Barbara, I went back to check out St. Peter Line Ferry and notice the durantion of the crossing from Helsinki to St. Petersburg is 14 hours and 30 minutes and St. Petersburg /Talinn more than that. Is the reason that I have to pick a different routing? I am aware that for instance the cruises that they offer go from Stockholm to St. Petersburg to Talinn and Helsinki.
    Did you book your trip with St. Peter Line directly ?
    Thank you!

  6. Sigrid Egan
    Scottsdale, Arizona
    January 27, 2013, 9:35 pm

    I was thrilled to find this site with all the information on a Baltic cruise or ferry line that we are looking for this summer. What is especially great is the visa-free travel to St. Petersburg. A few days ago, I read in the Fodor travel forum about an American traveller to St. Petersburg and what he had go through to obtain a visa. It took apparently 75 days and the online-application is not easy. As soon as one omits any line or info one has to start over again.

    One thing that may be a bit of a concern is that the Sea could be rough and boat travel delayed or totally cancelled in which case there is no refund. I guess to minimize the risk, a travel insurance is definitely a Must. Happy Travel to everyone!
    Sigrid in Scottsdale, Arizona

  7. Jeff
    United States
    December 4, 2012, 5:41 pm

    Enjoyed the great article – very helpful. Is the nightlife on the ship lively at all? I’m in my mid-20’s and was concerned that the cruise would be more “family-friendly” than anything else and my age demographic would not represented. Thanks!

    • Barbara A. Noe
      December 4, 2012, 11:03 pm

      Hi Jeff–thanks for your note! You’ll find plenty of nightlife on the ship. There’s an English-style pub, a Havana-esque dance club, and a casino. I wouldn’t be concerned about the ship being “family-friendly,” which it is–but it offers much, much more!
      –Barbara