Doing the Baltic cruise ports on your own

We enjoyed a wonderful 10-day cruise aboard the Regal Princess in May ’02, traveling round trip from Copenhagen. In addition to Denmark, we visited Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Poland and Norway. I would like to give some tips on doing the shore excursions on your own as we did.

The two major difficulties we encountered on this cruise were 1) the many different currencies that were necessary for public transportation and admissions and 2) traversing the long distances into the cities from where the ship docked.

Finland was the only country that used the euro. Money could be exchanged on the ship for all countries except Russia, Estonia and Poland.

Cruise Director John Lawrence seemed somewhat different from many we’ve met in the past. He has written a book on St. Petersburg and the Romanovs and was very informative. He did several lectures and all of the port talks, which later were broadcast into the cabins on TV. He was much more helpful in providing information for those people who were going on their own than anyone I’ve run into on 20-plus cruises.

The Lower Town of Tallinn, Estonia. Photos: Barbara DeMars

For the city of STOCKHOLM we docked at Nynashamn, about an hour away. We walked about 10 minutes from the ship into the town to access an ATM; ATMs were called Bankomats almost everywhere.

We bought our all-day transportation passes at a convenience store across from the train station. They did take credit cards, and senior tickets were about half price. We paid about $11 each for regular tickets, which also served as day passes for buses and ferries.

Our ride was quite pleasant but only slightly scenic. “Ho-ho” (hop on/hop off) bus tours were available from the station for about $20 (they took U.S. dollars), but armed with our day passes and Rick Steves’ guidebook we set off on our own.

The City Hall was a 10-minute walk away, and we just made the 10 a.m. tour, provided in English ($7). The City Hall is not a particularly old building, but the Nobel Prizes are presented there and it was a worthwhile tour. We hopped a bus to Gamla Stan, the Old Town, where we saw the Royal Palace (which was closed to visitors) and the Cathedral ($3).

After walking all the way through Gamla Stan we caught the ferry to the Djurgarden (Royal Park), where we visited the Vasa Museum ($8). The Vasa was a ship that sailed out into the harbor on her maiden voyage several hundred years ago and promptly rolled over and sank. In 1961 it was raised, and now it is housed in its own very interesting museum.

We enjoyed our warm, sunny day in Stockholm very much, especially since it cost us only about $28 apiece while the ship charged $59 just for the ride into the city and back.

The next day we were docked on the outskirts of HELSINKI. As we were eating breakfast on board we noticed what appeared to be a city bus turning around at the end of the line about one block from the ship. Having euros left from another trip, we didn’t need to change money. We were not able to buy a day pass on the bus, so we paid the $2 and bought a day pass later in the city for $3.60.

We walked through the farmers’ market to the Russian Orthodox Cathedral and then took the train to the Rock Church. There I got my thrill of the trip when I got to play the pipe organ. The sound was majestic as it reverberated off the rock walls.

Organ concerts are given daily at the cathedral in Oliwa, Poland.

From there we took a bus to the Sibelius Monument in a park along the water. It was a beautiful day and we enjoyed the snack we had taken along. We walked across the park and caught train T3, which takes the best route for seeing all the sights. We rode it all the way around and caught a free concert of medieval music at the Lutheran Cathedral. Before taking the bus back, we enjoyed walking along the Esplanade, basking in the warm spring sun. This day cost us about $6.

The money that we were saving by going on our own we put toward our tours in ST. PETERSBURG. In St. Petersburg, those not taking the ship’s tours needed a visa, which had to be prearranged at a cost of $129. Because of the cost and red tape, we decided to sign up for five of the ship’s tours ($280) for the two days we were there. We enjoyed all of them (although our guides tended to sound like robots). We visited the Hermitage and the Peterhof, took a city tour, went to a folklore show and had tea at a villa.

In TALLINN, Estonia, we were docked near the Old Town, so we could walk everywhere we wanted to go on our half day in port. Our Rick Steves book again led us on our walking tour. (His book certainly increased my popularity. I always had a list of people waiting to borrow it.) We did get a small amount of money at an ATM to sample some local brew at the Old Hansa Medieval Restaurant and do a little shopping. Prices were good in Tallinn.

The next day we docked at Gdynia, Poland, which was about a half-hour train ride from GDANSK. We got $14 worth of zlotys at an ATM, so it was another inexpensive day, but we did much walking, probably about four to five miles. A crew member told us the station was only a 10-minute walk away, but it turned out to be about 30 minutes. As we were walking, a cab driver offered to take us around for the day for $50. Looking back, we should have taken his offer since there were four of us.

About halfway to Gdansk (our round-trip tickets cost $2), we got off at Oliwa to attend a noon organ concert at the cathedral. This was about a 2-mile walk round trip but well worth it.

In Gdansk we enjoyed walking around the Old Town and visiting St. Mary’s church, supposedly the largest brick church, holding 25,000. Prices were quite low here, but ice cream cones were not the bargain they seemed at 25 cents a scoop. The scoops were about the size of melon balls. With the money we had left, we splurged on a cab from the station back to the ship for $5.

After a sunny and warm sea day, we arrived in OSLO for a half day. Of all the cities we visited, I was least impressed with Oslo, but we still enjoyed what we did there. Most places in the city were closed for Ascension Day. We got a small amount of money from an ATM and bought a round-trip ticket to Frogner Park to see the Vigeland statues.

We saved Akershus Fortress for last because it was right next to where the ship was docked. Entry to the fortress was free, but we had planned to take the tour for about $4; however, there were no tours until afternoon because an Ascension service was being held in the fortress church, so we went to that instead.

This was a wonderful trip and we had a great time, but we know that we barely scratched the surface of what there was to see in these countries. We do feel that we made the most of the time we had.

Princess Cruises (800/774-6237) again provided a quality cruise experience. Food and entertainment were very good. We paid $814 for an inside cabin with a Princess Captain’s Circle Special for the 10-day cruise including tax. Our air was $636 from Cleveland, which allowed us a stopover in London. We met many new friends on board.

Toledo, OH