When we booked a cruise around the Baltic Sea in order to see a few cities in Scandinavia, I felt a bit sheepish. After all, I'd done my share of poo-pooing the idea of cruises.
But I've come to realize that cruising isn't always totally uncool, and it's actually one of the best ways to see expensive places like Scandinavia on a budget.
There is a way to make a cruise feel a bit less "packaged" though. For one thing, we were determined to avoid the over-priced, giant-busload port excursions offered by the cruise line. We wanted to find more personalized, relaxed, and hopefully more authentic experiences in each city. Here's how we got the most out of each of our port days.
Warnemunde is billed as the port for Berlin, but in reality, it's a three-hour train ride to the city. When you've only got 10 hours, it's hard to justify spending six of them in transit. So as much as we would have liked visiting Berlin, we opted instead to explore areas closer to the port. We'll save the big city for a future trip to Germany.
We pre-booked online with Friends of Dave Tours, and Dave himself met us immediately after we disembarked. He led our small group of 10 travelers on a walking tour of the charming seaside town of Warnemunde. It included a stop for coffee and cake at a typical German café.
Part two of the itinerary was a 40-minute ride on the public train system to the nearby UNESCO World Heritage city of Wismar. After lunch at a historic brewery restaurant, Dave took us on another walk. He pointed out the city's Gothic buildings and explained Wismar's role as part of the medieval Hanseatic trading league.
We had some free time to look around before taking the train back to port. Riding on a small regional rail line was part of the experience and a chance to see a slice of local life that we would not have experienced on a giant bus tour.
The cruise ship terminal in Tallinn is just a few blocks walk from the historic city centre, so we decided to walk around town on our own. We stumbled across the Tallin City Museum and went inside for a well-presented overview of Estonia's history.
We knew from our guide book that the Traveller Info Tent in the city centre provided free walking tours, so we found our way there at the appointed time and joined the group.
Our English-speaking guide was a spirited college student with a great sense of humour. She regaled us with entertaining stories as she led us on a 2-hour walk. She pointed out various landmarks, including Gothic churches, medieval merchant's homes and Soviet era structures.
Afterwards we had time to circle back to spots that had piqued our interest before relaxing over a beer at an outdoor café in the main square.
On our way back to the ship, we stumbled across a mysterious crumbling concrete structure. It was overgrown with weeds and peppered with graffiti. A photographer was snapping shots of models posing in leather jackets.
We thought the place might be a decommissioned ferry terminal, but later research proved it to be an abandoned sports complex originally built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. It was fun to scramble around the site, a place we wouldn't have discovered on the cruise line's excursion.
All travellers to Russia require a visa. We could have secured our own visas in advance and found our way around the city independently. However, many of the main sites are quite far apart. We would have been forced to make some tough choices or spend a lot of time figuring out transportation logistics.
Instead, we opted for a tour with a local independent operator. Russian authorities allow St. Petersburg tour companies to provide visa-inclusive tours for cruise passengers, meaning we didn't have to worry about the paperwork.
TJ Tours offers multi-day combo tours for small groups (max. 15) that are great value, and they also have various evening excursions available. Although the cruise line offered similar multi-day itineraries, they were priced 30% higher, large group sizes of 50+, and presented few evening options (since they want you to dine and drink on the ship).
Our 2-day combo took us to the famous Hermitage, palaces, cathedrals and a farmers market. We traveled via minivan, hydrofoil and metro. The package also included a lunch stop on both days at small typical Russian restaurants. We packed a lot into the hours we spent onshore -- we never could have covered as much ground on our own.
Our 'Russian Experience' evening option proved more relaxing. Our small group of six started with a walk in a popular downtown park before settling in at a bar for food and vodka tastings. Our animated young guide shared her perspectives on trying to make a living in St. Petersburg and the challenges of Russia's evolving economic and political systems. It was an enlightening way to spend our only port evening.
Like Tallinn, Helsinki is a compact, walkable city with a well-connected port. It's a perfect setting for independent exploration.
Armed with an e-book walking tour, we did just that. We caught a public trolley from a platform just outside the port that whisked us downtown in a few minutes. We strayed off the path of the suggested walking route more than once, but always meandered back to it eventually. Our wandering took us all around the city, past parks, fountains, historic buildings and modern icons of Finnish design.
We had a surprisingly affordable smoked salmon lunch at a farmers market before walking out to a city beach. We sat there for a while, watching teenagers socializing in the warm early summer afternoon. Eventually, we wound our way back towards the trolley line through a beautiful shaded cemetery that seemed designed for strolling.
At one point we got a bit lost, but the GPS on a mobile phone soon got us back on track. We were quite happy with our completely independent day in Helsinki, accomplished at our own pace and including our own impulsive detours.
Cruising in and out of Stockholm involves some tricky navigating through its archipelago. That means ships tend to arrive late and depart early, making for a very short port day. We weren't able to disembark until 10 a.m. and we had to be back on-board by 3:30. Fortunately, there were some transportation options available right in port.
A couple of the hop-on / hop-off busy companies bring buses right to the dock to snag passengers as soon as they step off the gangway. It's actually the most efficient way to get into central Stockholm, and the buses stop at all of the major points of interest. We picked one and hopped aboard.
We rode through to the Vasa Museum stop to see the impressive reconstructed 17th century war ship and learn about Sweden's seafaring history. From there, we alternated hopping back on the bus with walking between some of the closer attractions. We saw the Swedish Parliament where Nobel Peace Prizes are awarded and strolled through Stockholm's bright and bustling old town.
A varied approach
To get the most bang for your buck and make the most of your cruise, take a mixed approach to port exploration. Factors to consider include:
size of the city
distance between sites or attractions
location of the cruise ship terminal
convenient transportation options available from port
amount of time in port.
One thing is certain: there is always an alternative to overpriced cruise-line cattle-herding excursions. With a little pre-trip research, you'll easily find options to suit your travel style.
Wishing you fair winds and following seas.