It wasn’t so long ago that I turned my nose up at cruises and people who liked them, haughtily declaring obnoxious things like, “I’ll take a cruise when I can’t walk anymore!” and “Cruises are for tourists; I’m not a tourist I’m a traveller.” Clearly, I’ve reformed my views, as three weeks ago I boarded an ocean liner with Allan and my parents to sail the North and Baltic Seas.
A not-too-shabby place to eat our breakfasts.
Sunset through a porthole.
Here’s what you won’t get from a cruise: You will not come away with a deep and personal understanding of a place’s culture or history. You will not have much time to interact with locals, or figure what day-to-day life is in this foreign place. At the end of it, you will not be able to regale your wide-eyed friends with stories of how you were mugged at knife-point, scaled the continent’s highest peak or stayed in the filthiest hostel imaginable (all of which have happened, at one point or another, to Allan or me). You will not feel a great sense of accomplishment at how far you pushed yourself beyond your physical or cultural comfort zone.
Towel animals: super kitsch, but somehow so delightful.
But if you can resist succumbing (much) to the overpriced booze, cruise-organized tours (I’ll sign up for one of those when I can’t walk anymore) and gambling opportunities, and if you can be courteous and kind and genuinely friendly to the ship staff who – though grateful for their jobs – work long hours with low pay and wait on you hand and foot, and if you can recognize the privilege of such luxurious travel then you might just find, as we did, that a cruise can be a surprisingly cost-effective way to see seven new cities in six new countries, albeit in a whistle-stop way.
One of many mahjong tournaments
There were obvious benefits to the cruise like the ship travelling while you slept (no pesky commutes to and from city centers to airports, nor long lines to stand in, nor hours to kill before boarding), not needing to lug your bags around or pack and unpack at each new city, the calming effect of watching endless miles of ocean roll by, and eating remarkably well. But those aside, our cruise was formidable for one reason: the itinerary was phenomenal. By this I mean that I would have independently chosen to travel to every city that we visited, even if it wasn’t part of a package deal on the cruise. Most of the cities were also only a 10-30 minute walk from where the ship docked, which is not normal for ports in Europe.
Anyway, if it sounds like I’m being a bit defensive, it’s probably because I am; I still feel a little abashed telling you I went on (and thoroughly enjoyed) a cruise. Once off the boat at each new city, Allan and I quickly shed our cruise-passenger identities and set about exploring far and wide by foot, armed with pages torn out of The Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget, which helped us ease our traveler consciences. Some highlights:
We did some research beforehand and found a local free walking tour in Copenhagen, Denmark.
The Sydney Opera House was designed by a man from Copenhagen. Copenhagen instead ended up with…this (woh-wah).
We had no expectations for Helsinki, Finland but were pleasantly surprised. I’m standing in front of the massive Helsinki Cathedral (armed with a self-guided walking tour I printed off from the Internet).
A second beautiful cathedral in Helsinki.
We joined another guided free walking tour in Stockholm, Sweden.
Allan in a food market, which normally we would have gone nuts for, except we had already raided the cruise ship’s breakfast buffet for items we could pack for lunch. This turned out to be a very successful strategy for saving money while travelling in pricey Scandinavia.
We spent two days in our favourite city of the trip, St. Petersburg. I can’t believe we went to Russia!.
By the Neva River in St. Petersburg.
At the Peterhof fountains in St. Petersburg.
A lookout at St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress.
Tallinn, Estonia is a very lovely and well-preserved Medieval walled city. It reminded us a bit of Tuscany. Its also the birthplace of Skype! We had another free walking tour here, naturally.
We wandered onto a bustling cobblestoned street lined with cute cafes and shops in Gothenburg, Sweden. Allan is happy anytime there is a pedestrian-only path to walk along.
We had fun climbing (literally) all over the opera house in Oslo, Norway.
Another view of Oslo’s Opera House. What an ingenious way to create more public space.
Colourful cottages dot the Norwegian archipelagos, seen as we sailed away from our last port and headed home to London.