On a journey in the Baltic region with Viking Cruises, long summer days bring everything from royal follies to awe-inspiring fjords – and a great backing track besides.
Queuing outside ABBA The Museum in Stockholm, I suspect I’m the only one of Viking Sky’s 873 passengers paying homage to the soundtrack of my youth. “There’s another four-letter word besides Ikea that became a big Swedish export,” says our guide on Viking Cruises’ bus tour of Sweden’s capital as we pass the museum. Though time is tight, how can I resist seeing Agnetha and Anni-Frid’s cat dresses, the thrill of sitting in the helicopter from the cover of Arrival or watching a fellow tourist perform on stage with holograms as ABBA’s “fifth member”?
On this 15-day Viking Homelands cruise from Stockholm to Bergen, there aren’t many children of the ’70s on board (or any children, for that matter) – but perhaps enough to notice that among the ship’s original artworks, Edvard Munch is rubbing shoulders with artist Magne Furuholmen, the keyboardist from ’80s Norwegian pop sensation A-ha.
My fellow passengers on Viking Sky are largely baby boomers, mostly American, catered to with high tea served daily in the Wintergarden and a ballroom dance class in the Explorers’ Lounge on an unscheduled day at sea. While a Beatles cover band rocks the pool deck, the ship’s Torshavn nightclub attracts just a handful of “all-nighters” with ’80s hits performed by the Synchrony band. But there’s also something to be said for being greeted on board, after hours of sightseeing, with the tinkling of a Steinway piano or the ethereal notes of the Viking Classical Trio – all against an understated backdrop of light, airy spaces and modern Scandinavian décor.
Sailing solo, I’m something of a fish out of water on this cruise. But I rarely find myself dining alone, as I’m quickly adopted by kind older couples, a Texan family of four who love a good yarn and two friends from New Mexico.
Shore excursions with local guides reveal Viking Cruises’ well-oiled machine. In Helsinki, I sign up for a tour to Winter World. Sure, this indoor attraction, with a constant temperature of -3˚C, has a “Disney on ice” feel with its perfectly formed igloos and husky sled rides around a circuit. But I love the novelty of crunching snow underfoot in summer as I walk up to a sculpted ice bar and order a shot of vodka in a glass made of ice.
Summer days are long in the northern reaches of the Baltic region (the sun sets at 11pm). That means extended socialising on the Sun Deck as we pull out of port – “Make sure you have the Silver Spirits Beverage Package,” the Texans advise me – or enjoying those famous “white nights” on the balcony of my stateroom on this all-verandah ship. We even wear sunglasses at night as we sip champagne on the colonnade of the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St Petersburg during an intermission of Swan Lake. I’m in my element, unable to imagine returning to winter in Sydney when the sun dips at 5pm.
A laconic “Welcome to Russia” from a po-faced immigration officer at the port is my introduction to this exotic land I’d long dreamt of visiting. The mood lifts in Pushkin when a jaunty brass band ushers us into the tsars’ summer residence, Catherine Palace. This right royal folly is capped off with golden onion domes, its Rococo façade lined with an army of Atlases groaning under the weight of royal excess, its interiors glutted with cherubs entangled in festoons. And then there’s Peterhof, Peter the Great’s “pleasure palace” in St Petersburg, with its too-gold-it-hurts-to-look Grand Cascade of fountains gleaming in the sun. Who knew there was so much gold leaf behind the Iron Curtain?
Our guide in Russia has her work cut out for her at The State Hermitage Museum. “The Hermitage has a collection of cats and an official day devoted to these felines that protect its treasures from rodents,” she announces, perhaps anticipating that keeping our large group together will be like herding the same through the hordes of tourists. But we’re wearing our audio sets to ensure we don’t stray, lest we become distracted by the huge chandeliers, elaborate wall reliefs and over-the-top gilding that sets off the collection founded by “art shopaholic” Catherine the Great. With one eye on our guide’s red lollipop sign, we shuffle and gawp, shuffle and gawp...
Unlike some smaller cities close to port, Berlin is a day’s undertaking involving six hours of travel to and from the ship. After doing a bus tour that slices through Checkpoint Charlie with ease, I take a cab to the beginning of the East Side Gallery and walk along 1.3 kilometres of extant Berlin Wall painted in 1990 with murals, including Dmitri Vrubel’s famous depiction of the socialist fraternal kiss.
At the end is The Wall Museum, where I pay the entry fee and unexpectedly receive a small piece of the Wall. I eye it suspiciously, imagining someone out back spray-painting chunks of who-would-know concrete, but then decide it may well be the real thing. This small museum with just 13 rooms conveys the horrors of the Wall through multimedia and a re-created living room in an apartment on the border, its window bricked up to prevent escape into West Berlin. The final room captures the other side of the story just as poignantly – the celebratory mood when the Wall came down in 1989 – with projected footage of The Wall rock opera staged in Berlin by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters.
On an evening cruise of Copenhagen’s canals, it’s the jazz quartet Scandinavian Rhythm Boys that gets the party started with Riverboat Shuffle, followed by other Great American Songbook standards. A little drizzle doesn’t stop us from taking the party outside to the stern, ducking, weaving and balancing glasses of champagne as our canal boat clears the bridges by mere centimetres.
But nothing can prepare us for the other-worldly scale and sheer remoteness of the Norwegian fjords. On a cruise from Stavanger, rousing classical music plays through a loudspeaker as our boat sidles up to a glorious waterfall cascading down Lysefjord’s huge vertical cliffs. I keep my eyes peeled for goats clinging to grazing land between the granite walls, tethered to prevent them from falling into the inky depths. But there are no such precautions at the Pulpit Rock lookout, 600 metres up, where the absence of a guardrail compounds the sense of drama.
Towards the end of the cruise, I book a treatment at the luxurious onboard spa. Forgoing the Snow Grotto and Cold Bucket Shower (those crazy Nords), I opt for the supremely relaxing 80-minute Nordic Classic Facial that transports me, like the shore excursions, to another place. Before I know it, I’m having farewell drinks on the deck, swapping addresses with my new friends.
“Prosecco, Liani?” asks the bartender, who had memorised my name and drink of choice from day one. “No, thanks,” I reply. “My spa therapist said I have to drink more water. Let’s make it a gin and tonic.” ￼
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