Viking’s Homelands cruise is a true celebration of all things Scandi and a brilliant introduction to Russia and the Baltic. Josh Stephenson reports.
The fourth day of my cruise aboard Viking Sea brings us to St Petersburg, the port I’d most looked forward to before embarkation. And, judging by first impressions, it’s everything I’d hoped for – the architecture, the atmosphere and the feeling of history.
At this stage, we are waiting to pass customs – travellers to Russia usually require a visa, but cruise ship passengers are allowed to stay three days visa-free, as long as they are accompanied by a guide.
The real delights are still to come, however, and soon I find myself in the shadow of St Petersburg’s most celebrated sight – The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood – so named because this was the spot where Tsar Alexander II was murdered by political activists in 1881. The interior is every bit as jaw-dropping, with more than 7,500 square metres of mosaics depicting religious scenes, and a jewel-encrusted shrine built on the very spot where the Tsar met his death.
A refined ship
Often referred to as the Venice of the North, St Petersburg is a city laced with waterways and, while the experience may be a little touristy, a boat ride offers the chance to see it from a unique perspective. Visitors can visit the Winter Palace and the Hermitage Museum – home to countless pieces of art – as well as the Summer Palace of Peter the Great (Tsar from 1682 to 1725). An excursion can also include the Mariinsky Theatre and the Fabergé Museum.
However, before our arrival in St Petersburg, my Viking Homelands itinerary had already provided many wonders, not least the ship, Viking Sea.
With accommodation for just 930 guests, this is refined small-ship cruising at its best. The decor is Scandi-chic: clean, elegant and uncluttered, from the public areas to the cabins, every one of which has a balcony. There’s also plenty to keep people occupied around the ship, from the infinity pool to daily talks held in The Theatre on Deck 2 to Scrabble in the Viking Living Room.
There’s also a range of entertainment, from a pianist in the top-deck panoramic lounge, or the resident band, whose old-school soul classics got the dancefloor jumping in nightclub Torshavn.
In terms of restaurants, Viking Sea has some of the finest afloat. The main dining room is superb, and the option to turn up at any time during service without a reservation is a nice touch.
The two speciality restaurants, The Chef’s Table and Manfredi’s, are also sublime and – better still – are included in the fare. Manfredi’s steaks tick the box but for me The Chef’s Table steals the show, offering a five-course fine-dining exploration of each country we visit. Best of all is a bowl of tender lamb fårikål (lamb and steamed cabbage, essentially) to celebrate the cuisine of our first port of call, Stockholm.
After leaving Stockholm, the ship sails through the Swedish Archipelago – which has to be one of the majestic moments in cruising.
With 30,000 islands, skerries and rocks making up 80km of picturesque seascape, it is a joy to sit on the top deck and pick out the small, brightly coloured summer houses of the people lucky enough to have a home here.
A local delicacy
Next comes Helsinki – the gleaming Finnish capital quickly wins me over. I love the Moomin cafés, celebrating the children’s characters of local author and artist Tove Jansson, and I am mightily impressed by the huge Art Nouveau railway station and the Byzantine architectural styling of the dramatic Uspenski Cathedral.
I can also recommend a stroll along the Esplanadi – think of it as a Finnish version of Manhattan’s Central Park – where cafés and boutique shops mix with a welcome splash of greenery.
Our tour guide explains that an authentic slice of Finland can be found in the Old Market Hall, where locals and visitors tuck into slices of reindeer. This is a delicacy in Finland and is served in a range of styles. And, with that, Viking Sea turns east across the Gulf of Finland for my final destination and hoped-for highlight, the city of St Petersburg.