Journey Log: Cruising Scandinavia & the Baltic Sea, July 15–24, 2023

Cruising Scandinavia & the Baltic Sea, July 15–24, 2023
August 2023

July 15, 2023 | Copenhagen, Denmark

Arriving from various corners of the world, we converged in the Scandi-chic city of Copenhagen, marking the start of a much-anticipated cruise through Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea.

As we gathered at our hotel, we saw hordes of bikers pedalling along the waterfront and intrepid Danes taking dips in the chilly harbor baths built alongside.

After a light, relaxing lunch, we set off on a city tour en route to ‘Le Champlain,’ our floating hotel for the next 10 days.

Among the highlights was the Gefion Fountain, depicting oxen driven by the Norse goddess; the bronze Little Mermaid statue, a gift from Danish brewer Carl Jacobsen to the City of Copenhagen; and the orbicular Royal Danish Opera House. Each sight was brought to life with insight from our knowledgeable, engaging guides.

Before long, our vessel came into view and we made our way up the gangway, greeted with warm smiles from our Captain and crew. Upon settling into our cabins, we enjoyed a glass of Champagne, knowing we were in the best of hands.

Our Expedition Leader Suzana Machado D’Oliveira then briefed us on what to expect on the voyage ahead and introduced us to our Expedition Team. Setting sail over the picturesque Baltic Sea, Cruise Director Paul Carter next acquainted us with our home away from home. Eager to enjoy our first night on board, we set off to explore the ship and enjoy dinner on deck.

July 16, 2023 | Day at Sea, Baltic Sea

Enjoying the comforts of life on board ‘Le Champlain,’ we welcomed the day with warm croissants and hot coffee. As the morning’s light drizzle tapered off, we sailed smoothly along in the Baltic Sea. Stretching from southern Denmark almost to the Arctic Circle, it’s the largest expanse of brackish water in the world. Thought to be the planet’s youngest sea, the shallow Baltic Sea is almost completely enclosed. Fed by various major rivers, it has a salinity gradient that supports an unusual mix of freshwater and marine species.

We began the day’s enrichment with an engaging talk by cultural geography expert Dr. Ron Wixman, learning about the movement of people throughout Europe, as well as the impact of the migration patterns on the area.

Passing the Danish island of Christianso — part of the Ertholmene archipelago — we took in vistas of the tiny, protected landmass with just 90 residents and a plethora of wildlife, watching as common guillemot and razorbill flew by the ship and grey seal hauled up on a rocky outcropping.

We later headed to the theatre to advance our photography skills, while our resident photo coach, Richard Harker, revealed techniques and tools to help capture the Baltic beauty. Never a dull moment, we indulged in crêpes Suzette in the afternoon before attending Dr. Susan Langley’s discussion on the maritime archaeology of the “other Mediterranean.”

We capped off our full day at sea with an elegant welcome cocktail party on the back deck, where Captain Malo Bessec introduced us to his team. We then sat down to a festive gala dinner.

July 17, 2023 | Gdansk, Poland

We arrived in the beautiful city of Gdansk this morning, recognized for its important — though turbulent — history. Set at the mouth of the Vistula River, connecting Warsaw and Krakow, it was the strategic site of several defining moments in Polish and world history.

After breakfast. we ventured off in different directions to explore the varied history of this intriguing city. For some, that meant a stroll through the Old Town — a captivating, painstaking reconstruction of Old-World architecture. We paused to admire the largest brick-built church in the world, St. Mary’s, before nestling into a quiet cafe for a lovely spread of cakes and lemonade.

Others opted to explore Poland’s sombre history during WWII, stopping at the Westerplatte Monument, where the first clash between Polish and German forces during the invasion of Poland occurred. After a traditional lunch at a local restaurant and a short walking tour, we drove to the former Stutthof concentration camp, a poignant reminder of this harrowing time in history.

Still others spent the day enjoyed the blue skies, serenaded by wheeling lark. Those among us explored the largest brick castle in the world — the Castle of the Teutonic Order in Marlboro, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After viewing the courtyards, apothecary garden, galleries, chapel, and dining and residential areas, we observed some of the Grand Masters, cast in bronze. Capping the day, we indulged in hearty Polish fare at an intimate local restaurant, with time to explore the historic heart of Gdansk.

A panoramic drive began our last group’s tour, dedicated to the history of Poland’s Solidarity movement. One of the most impressive social movements in the history of the Soviet Eastern Bloc, it was instrumental in the fall of the Soviet Union.

The evening ended with an incredible honour — a presentation by former president of Poland Lech Walesa. The esteemed Nobel Peace Prize laureate gave an exhilarating talk about his inspiring work with the Solidarity Movement, while sharing his thoughts on current world issues. After a photo opportunity, a short reception followed. The lounge was electric with the energy of this exceptional event, shots of Polish vodka and the mere presence of this iconic figure.

July 18, 2023 | Klaipeda, Lithuania

We awoke to a welcomed shift in the weather, after yesterday’s unusual heat spell. Amid markedly cooler temperatures, heavy grey clouds and gusty wind, we observed colourful cargo ships as we pulled into the bustling port of Klaipėda. Lithuania’s oldest town, it is the country’s only port — and a typically ice-free one at that. Recognized for the 18th-century, German-style buildings in its Old Town, Klaipėda is also known for its complex past.

Historically part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Prussia and Germany until the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, Klaipėda gained its independence before coming under occupation of the French, Soviet Union and then, Nazi Germany.

As we set off on our morning excursions, the connoisseurs among us began the day at Svyturys Brewery, built in 1784. Destroyed during the war, it was later rebuilt into the vibrant, modern hall that stands today. After touring the facility, we enjoyed a tasting.

Others took an informative walking tour, paying a visit to the Remember Museum 39-45, dedicated to the history of World War II at a human scale. Located near the water where the historic castle once stood, this small, underground museum illuminated Lithuania's difficult position between two opposing superpowers, and the painful history of WWII in Klaipeda and the country as a whole.

We all finished the day with a walk through Klaipėda’s Old Town, viewing the charming “fachwerk” — half-timbered architecture — and river lined with wooden sailboats. We paused to view the Meridianas, one of Klaipeda’s most celebrated ships, before returning to ours.

Once onboard, we were encouraged to head outside, where traditional Lithuanian folk musicians in elaborate, traditional attire, serenaded us with a lively concert from the pier.

This afternoon, our resident cultural geography expert gave a fascinating talk on the rise of the Hanseatic League and its role in history. Then, our photo coach shared helpful smartphone photography tips.

Choppy seas had us dancing toward dinner, with a sky that turned from amber to pink. We capped the night with an entertaining game of trivia with our Cruise Director extraordinaire, Paul Carter.

July 19, 2023 | Riga, Latvia

Founded in 1201 and once part of the Hanseatic League, Riga’s historical centre is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is recognized for its spectacular architecture. With one of the largest collections of Art Nouveau buildings in the world, this beautiful city was an absolute treat to explore.

The epicureans among us embarked on a culinary experience, starting at the renowned Central Market. After gathering local ingredients, we proceeded to 3 Pavaru restaurant for a cooking class, during which we prepared and enjoyed soup, salad, trout and vegetables wrapped in parchment paper, and a creamy dessert with sour cherry sauce.

Others converged at the Riga “Dome” Cathedral — the largest medieval church in the Baltics — for a performance on one of the world’s oldest and largest pipe organs.

Another small group set off to explore the city by bicycle. Peddling down the cobblestone streets, we meandered through the Old Town; passed the Freedom Monument and lovely canal; intersected leafy parks and flower gardens; and took in the grand Art Nouveau architecture. Our efforts were rewarded with pastries, coffee and time to explore independently on foot.

Others set out on a walking tour of Riga's Old Town, starting near the House of the Black Heads, a guild of unmarried shipowners and merchants famous for their riotous parties. After attending an organ concert and visiting the Dome Cathedral, we learned about Riga's history; observed Latvian houses and the Art Nouveau buildings; and finished with a sampling of local delicacies.

The rest of us enjoyed an immersion in the Art Nouveau era. After viewing some of the city’s storied structures, we visited a local museum filled with fascinating artifacts used in daily life. We finished the day with a cup of cappuccino and traditional honey cake at a local cafe.

Back onboard, we attended a discussion on “The Hansa, the Queen and the Pirate,” followed by a lovely al fresco dinner.

July 20, 2023 | Stockholm, Sweden

This morning began with a spectacular, 45-nautical-mile transit through the Stockholm archipelago, a cluster of 30,000 islands, skerries and rocks. Sailing past pine forests fringed with rocky outcroppings that spilled into the sea, we observed red and white summer homes; watched yachts glide effortlessly over the shimmering water; and revelled in the morning’s tranquillity.

We then enjoyed a talk on the Baltic people before disembarking to explore the city, starting in the city’s preserved, 13th-century Gamla Stan, a medieval area teeming with activity. After touring the lavish, Baroque Royal Palace — the official residence and workplace of the Swedish monarch — we stepped inside the oldest cathedral in Stockholm, Storkyrkan, to see its wooden St. George and the Dragon sculpture.

Others took a Nordic food tour, sampling Swedish meatballs in a cavernous, subterranean restaurant; herring chased with fennel schnapps in a sunny courtyard; and coffee with seven types of cookies. We then strolled through the Östermalms Food Hall before returning to the pier.

Those with an interest in maritime history instead paid a visit to the Vasa Museum to explore the world’s best-preserved seventeenth-century ship, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1628. Upon entering the series of lock-like doors, which help control temperature and humidity, we stood in awe below a rearing lion figurehead as the ship’s prow towered above us. Touring multiple floors of this fascinating museum, we had free time to visit the conservation and forensics areas, as well as floors that brimmed with artifacts.

A final group proceeded to Stockholm’s City Hall. Constructed from eight million bricks, this fantastic building hosts the ceremony for Nobel Prize recipients. After a short walk through the picturesque gardens, we explored its Blue and Golden Halls before finishing the day over high tea at the Grand Hotel.

This evening, we were free to explore Stockholm’s narrow streets at leisure.

July 21, 2023 | Stockholm, Sweden

We awoke this morning to the picturesque views of Stockholm’s Gamla Stan. As large, cottony clouds floated above the rooftops, its multi-coloured buildings were bathed in the light of the morning sun. We gathered our belongings for another action-packed day.

Some of us headed to Drottningholm Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, seeing its perfectly preserved theatre, which to this day employs its original sets and stage machinery. We then boarded the historic Norwegian ship, the M/S ‘Blue Charm’ for a scenic cruise to the island of Lovön. Enroute to the Royal Domain, we took to the upper decks, enjoying homemade Swedish pastries and warm, freshly brewed coffee.

Others toured the Millesgarden museum, the former home of sculptor Carl Milles and his wife and artist Olga Milles. This spectacular museum features a modern gallery lined with rotating exhibits, as well as an exquisite outdoor sculpture garden.

This afternoon offered a second opportunity to explore Stockholm’s Old Town and Vasa Museum, take a Nordic food tour, or explore for a few hours on our own.

July 22, 2023 | Tallinn, Estonia

A morning at sea gave us time to catch up on sleep and enjoy a leisurely breakfast before our onboard education commenced. Susan Langley offered a riveting talk about bees. An avid apiarist herself, she shared how present-day beekeeping in Scandinavia has evolved over time. As we sailed into the Gulf of Finland, our resident historian discussed Russian and Soviet policies in the Baltic region.

Arriving at the port and capital city of Tallinn, the “Silicon Valley of Europe,” some of us set off on a walking tour of the well-preserved, medieval Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Wandering through its narrow cobblestone streets, we paused to see the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Town Hall Square; and bustling Viru Street, ending the day with an authentic meal of Hansa-era food and drink.

Others donned specially outfitted Wellington boots to explore one of the largest bogs in Estonia. Setting out across the spongy, marshy landscape, we encountered carnivorous plants and dwarf birch trees. Afterward, we sipped a fermented birch drink, feasting beneath pines on nettle pesto, spread atop dense, homemade rye bread.

Our final group toured Vihula Manor, traversing the grounds by golf cart. Seeing its former vodka distillery — now a museum — we learned about the history of spirits, followed by a tasting of rye, barley and wheat vodkas. Wrapping up the day, be visited Palmse Manor, seeing its beautifully manicured gardens, continuing through the beautiful countryside enroute back to our floating home.

July, 23 2023 | Helsinki, Finland

Despite the weather forecast, the day broke with vivid blue skies and sunshine, and we set out to enjoy our final day in Helsinki.

Part of our group embarked on a lovely morning boat ride to visit the sea fortress of Suomenlinna. Built in 1748, it stretches across a group of eight separate islands — six of which were fortified. Today, this idyllic locale is home to 850 inhabitants. We walked the tree-lined footpaths above the rocky coastline as wildflowers swayed in the wind and geese grazed in the grass.

Those who chose a panoramic city tour marvelled at Helsinki’s magnificent architecture. Our first stop was at the Sibelius Monument — an impressive, modern stainless-steel structure that resembles an organ. Next, we toured the unusual Temppeliaukio Church. Built into solid rock, it features skylights that flood the interior with natural light and rough rock walls that lend excellent acoustics. We finished our morning at the oldest coffee shop in Helsinki, where we enjoyed coffee and cake.

Others spent this sunny day driving through the countryside enroute to Porvoo, known for its white Lutheran church and iconic, red waterfront warehouses. After a walking tour, we boarded a private boat for a relaxing river cruise to Hotel Haikko Manor & Spa, where we sat down to a lunch of local specialties. On the way back to our ship, we took an informative, panoramic tour of Helsinki.

Back onboard, we gathered in the theatre for a beautifully crafted slideshow of our journey. Then, stories flowed as we sipped Champagne and mingled over an al fresco cocktail party and gala dinner, accompanied by local music.

As we tucked into our cabins on this final night, we reflected on this incredible voyage and all we had come to know and love about this beautiful region.

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