Cruising the Baltic Sea, there are plenty of fascinating – if not downright surprising – shore excursions to enjoy across Scandinavia and eastern Europe.
While some travellers postpone their plans to take a Baltic cruise, others book a shore excursion to a Soviet nuclear missile base.
On another tour, when an F-16 flies overhead, the guide says it “shows Russia we’re watching them”, and we carry on tasting Danish wines. The next day, in a Swedish village, a man with a crossbow walks toward a crowd of people brandishing swords, and everyone cheers.
Oceania Marina’s 10-night cruise from Copenhagen is full of surprises. For a start, the itinerary has changed since Saint Petersburg was scrapped, but the revised line-up is exceptional.
The ship calls at seven countries, so each morning delivers a different culture, cuisine, language and landscape.
Ports of call include Kiel, Germany; the small island of Bornholm, Denmark; Klaipéda, a harbour town in Lithuania; Riga, the architectural and cultural capital of Latvia; the cobblestoned beauties of Tallinn, Estonia, and Visby, Sweden; Helsinki and Kotka, in Finland; and an overnight stay in Stockholm.
The optional shore excursions are as diverse as the destinations. There are visits to farms, palaces, breweries, a former concentration camp, a Nordic sauna and an ice bar. Activities range from extreme rafting and forest hiking to a speedboat adventure around the Finnish archipelago. A selection of Oceania Exclusive tours is limited to 16 guests sightseeing by bus, or small groups on guided bike tours.
For travellers who don’t want to be tourists, on Go Local outings you’ll spend the day walking, catching public transport, grabbing snacks in cafes and shopping in supermarkets.
Our trip to the Plokstine Missile Base and Cold War Museum, in north-west Lithuania, is fascinating but also entertaining, as we have a local guide with a great sense of humour and “the most sober driver in Lithuania”. The former launch site is a labyrinth of tunnels, command rooms, exhibits of military items and propaganda posters, and the huge shaft where ballistic missiles were stored around 30 metres underground for almost two decades (1962–1978).
On the day we visit Visby, it happens to be Medieval Week, which explains the hundreds of people with weapons. Dressed up in costumes, they re-enact battle scenes, complete with jousting and music, or parade around the streets as knights, queens and peasants. Every other week of the year, the walled Old Town is an enchanting place to explore Gothic church ruins, the impressive Saint Mary’s Cathedral and wooden cottages covered in roses, enclosed within 13th-century stone fortifications.
The Danish winery is one of the stops on the Taste of Bornholm tour. Peacocks wander around the vines as the quirky owner, Jasper, introduces us to his 500-kilogram, cola-guzzling pig, before we sample strawberry wine and honey schnapps. Afterwards, we go to a sausage factory and a smoked-fish café to try the local delicacies with a beer.
Food and wine tours are popular on Oceania, which is renowned for its fine cuisine, drawing epicureans from Australia, the US, UK and Europe. A new Latvian cooking class is held in the ship’s Culinary Center, after guests go shopping for ingredients with the chef in a local market ashore. Another lunch excursion is held in a photography museum’s zero-waste restaurant, Fotografiska, in Tallinn recently awarded a Michelin green star.
Dining onboard is an absolute highlight. Dinner at the four specialty restaurants – Jacques (French), Toscana (Italian), Red Ginger (Asian) and Polo Grill (American steakhouse) – is included in fares, making it possible to enjoy each one twice. The buffet, poolside grill and 24-hour room service are complimentary, too.
In the two years since Australians have cruised overseas, many improvements have been made, as the executive team kept working to finesse the food and beverages.
“We have not rested on our laurels,” said Howard Sherman, president and CEO of Oceania Cruises. “Throughout the pandemic we have continued to innovate and to challenge ourselves to raise the bar to delight our guests. We announced the second phase of culinary enhancements rolling out across the fleet. Together with thoughtfully crafted dining experiences, menus and elevated service levels, this next phase brings new wine-tasting programs, expanded in-room dining offerings and a soufflé of the day in the Grand Dining Room.”
The souffles certainly deserve special mention: green apple martini, chestnut and pear, pistachio and cherry, lime and limoncello, and Grand Marnier, to name a few.
When sitting down to four or five courses seems too much, Marina has plenty of peaceful hideaways. On select evenings, local wines, spirits and market-fresh tapas are served in Baristas, a quiet venue next to the library. The poolside grill is also handy for a gourmet burger or salad from an extensive menu.
Room service is the obvious alternative to restaurants. Among the new dishes available for in-room dining are an Alaskan salmon burger, Hawaiian poké bowl, Thai coconut red curry, miso ramen soup, and chocolate mousse cake. Hot breakfasts can also be delivered, free of charge, to cabins and suites.
Chef Alexis Quaretti, director of culinary programs, has been busy developing new recipes for Oceania’s next ship, Vista, set to be launched in April 2023.
“We are not a cruise line to do molecular cuisine. What’s very important to me is simplicity: the taste, the ingredients and the execution of the dishes,” he said. “By the time we open Vista, we will have more than 400 new recipes, which will eventually align with the rest of the fleet.”
Vista will also introduce a fantastic new cocktail list in its Casino Mixology Bar and restaurants, which we previewed on our cruise on Marina. The crowd-pleaser was anything made with a ‘flavour blaster’ device, which produces a bubble that floats in the air before bursting into a puff of smoke when it lands on the drink. Other favourites include the Picante (tequila, apricot liqueur, honey syrup, chili and coriander), Monkey Business (whiskey, banana liqueur, egg white) and First Avenue (bourbon, Pimm’s, sweet vermouth, St-Germain elderflower liqueur).
In a partnership with Lyre’s, the non-alcoholic spirits company founded by two Australians, mocktails have also been perfected. No-Groni (a booze-free negroni) and Orchard Fizz (made with Lyre’s amaretti, fresh lemon juice, apple juice and maple syrup) are refreshingly delicious. Pierre Zéro, a French non-alcoholic wine, is also available.
Back on the Marina, I spend a silly amount of time in my Penthouse Suite, relaxing on the private balcony, and calling my fabulous butler. This accommodation category includes his services, assisting with spa appointments, shore excursion bookings, dinner reservations, collecting my laundry (three bags are complimentary), and delivering room service. One evening, I order from the main dining room menu, and he serves the three courses at my ocean-view table in the comfort of my room. Wearing a bathrobe, I watch a movie while I eat, then walk a few steps to the bathroom for a bath, before crawling into bed with a book.
Sometimes it’s the simple, solo things that feel most luxurious.
The ship itself is beautiful and spacious. The contemporary décor exudes a casual elegance, from the sparkling chandeliers to the Owner’s Suites furnished in Ralph Lauren Home. Marina is scheduled for a major refurbishment next year, which is set to be unveiled in November 2023. Every surface of every suite and stateroom will be new, and bathrooms will be upgraded with oversized showers. Public spaces, such as the theatre, bars and restaurants, will see new custom-made furniture, subtle lighting and plush carpets. For fans of al fresco dining, a new poolside trattoria will serve wood-fired pizzas, salads and desserts, and a standalone milkshake bar will scoop up ice-cream within a few steps of your sunlounge.
Oceania Cruises’s four 656-passenger ships – Regatta, Insignia, Nautica and Sirena – have already been revamped, while Marina’s 1,210-passenger sister ship, Riviera, will reveal its fresh look in December 2022.
Although this Baltic itinerary won’t operate next year, the fleet offers several voyages that visit many of the same places, including some departing from London. According to Sherman, passengers have enjoyed the replacement ports in stunning locations.
“We have had positive feedback from our loyal past guests who love to explore the beauty and wonder of Northern Europe in the summertime. From the striking natural beauty of the UNESCO-protected Curonian Spit, near Klaipeda, to the medieval charm of Old Town in Tallinn, and the cosmopolitan capital of Latvia, Riga, the destinations that we visit on this cruise are truly astounding,” Sherman said.
“At Oceania Cruises, we go to great lengths to ensure that we provide guests with a carefully curated mix of experiences designed for seasoned travellers seeking a slice of the local culture.”
Booking an Oceania Cruise
A similar 10-night cruise will be offered next year, departing from London on June 21, 2023. Ports of call include Kiel, Berlin (Warnemunde), Bornholm, Visby, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo. Fares start at AUD$4,180 per person, twin share.
A 10-night cruise departing London on July 16, 2024, calls at Kiel, Berlin, Bornholm, Visby, Stockholm, Klaipeda, Gdansk (Poland) and Copenhagen. Fares start at AUD$4,780 per person twin share.
No vaccination required
Oceania Cruises has dropped its requirements for COVID-19 vaccinations and testing. Vaccinated passengers no longer need to show negative test results pre-cruise. From September 2022, unvaccinated passengers can also sail, but they will need to take a test within 72 hours of boarding.
According to Howard Sherman, president and CEO, Oceania Cruises, the response to the relaxed rules has been overwhelmingly positive, with a spike in bookings the week after the announcement.
“We continue to navigate the pandemic as it evolves to keep people as safe as possible, and we think we’re striking the right balance,” he said. “Cruise was the only form of tourism that required vaccination, so there were people on the sidelines waiting for a further relaxation of the travel protocols, and now we can welcome them back to cruising.”