Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Baltic beauty

Ports of call: Copenhagen, Helsinki, Stockholm, Tallin,. St. Petersberg

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Cruises in the Caribbean are proven winners with children. Each port offers a new beach, with perhaps a bit of souvenir shopping on the side.

But as we wrapped up our two-year stay in London, we proposed a more challenging family adventure: 10 days on the Baltic, where there may be fine seashores but the water temperature is more suitable to seals. This was to be a tour of stately cities, with plenty of, gulp, old-world culture.

"You're torturing me!" moaned eight-year-old Julia at the mid-point. But she was pulling our legs because she had already described it as our best cruise ever.

I had read Crystal Cruises had a reputation for keeping children entertained while their parents can enjoy grown-up activities, so when they offered us a penthouse room on the Crystal Serenity for an August sailing, we jumped at it.

We hopped aboard in Copenhagen, where a visit to the National Gallery and a walk through the elegant downtown was leavened for the little girl with an afternoon at the Tivoli Gardens, one of the world's first amusement parks. If only the many that followed could be so gorgeous -- a true garden, with the emphasis on fun and beauty rather than marketing opportunities.

On board the Serenity, we quickly found we could scarcely take five steps without a crew member smiling, saying hello and asking if we needed anything. Moments after our arrival our butler Kivanc (yes this room came with a butler) was at the door offering canap}s and drinks.

As you may have gathered by this point, Crystal is a more upscale line than the rest, with prices that reflect the service, and food that surpasses anything we've had on past cruises.

The ship was at about 90 per cent capacity, but never felt crowded. It has a capacity of only about 1000 -- dwarfed by some of the monster ships that ply the Caribbean.

"Even when we're full, passengers can always find a quiet spot to sit and read," said the Serenity's "hotel director" Josef Lumetsburger.

The key development for us, though, was our daughter's new-found interest in going to the ship's kid's club, something she had always resisted in past trips. Where before she would look as us with streaming eyes and quivering lip whenever we broached the idea of her playing with other children at a resort or on a ship, she was now demanding that we take her to the Serenity's club. And then to get lost.

It may have been a child's developing independence, or it may have been the quality of the programs. For whatever reasons it made everything go much more smoothly.

We set the routine in Helsinki, where a morning of sightseeing and shopping in the handsome downtown was traded for an afternoon of dodgeball and face-painting aboard.

The 10 days were made all the more pleasurable by unusually fine weather for the Baltic. Warned about the need for rain gear, we had only a couple of showers and actually needed sunscreen most days.

St. Petersburg was the single biggest attraction for us but there was no way we would try dragging an eight-year-old through the massive and endless opulence of the Hermitage. My wife and I took turns going, choosing to buy the Crystal tours, which were pricey, but which saved us the headache of obtaining tourist visas. The Soviet era is long gone, but Russian bureaucracy remains a thing to behold.

Julia was also taken to the ballet. We were sure she would thank us in later life. Our tickets were to a mixed program at the new Mariinsky II theatre, designed by Torontonian Jack Diamond, which had opened only a couple of months earlier.

Having heard the modernist building was controversial among residents, I asked the opinion of my guide at the Hermitage.

"You mean the New Mariinsky supermarket?" she said. Clearly she was not an admirer.

Despite mixed local opinions on the building, the ballet was utterly spectacular. In spite of herself, I caught Julia practising her own dance moves at intermission.

In Tallinn, we all enjoyed exploring the medieval old town, which richly deserves its classification as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It also had the benefit of the best prices of any of our ports of call, with a fine selection of locally made Estonian crafts -- a nice departure from the touristy kitsch found elsewhere.

The captain advised everyone it would be worth getting up early on the second last day to watch the approach to Stockholm. I was happy I set my alarm because when I opened the curtains I thought I was cruising through Muskoka. It was a series of small islands dotted with Swedes' summer homes, not unlike central Ontario's cottage country.

The Swedish capital was a revelation: compact, stately, welcoming and gorgeous, despite the rain. The only regret was that we did not have more time to explore it.

All in all, a grand tour to say farewell to Europe.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2013 E4

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