Northern light: White Nights season in the Baltic States
Bringing a teenage son on a cruise mightn't sound like a good idea, but for Michelle Jackson and her son it was a brilliant holiday together
Michelle and Mark at the Sibelius sculpture in Helsinki.
Our ship, aptly named Silhouette, casts a tall, faint shadow on the dockside as we pull away from Stockholm. It is White Night season, as darkness barely descends on the Baltic States for the months of June and July. We’ve spent two days exploring the sights of Sweden’s capital city – divining inspiration at the Nobel Museum and flexing our vocal chords at the Abba museum. I’m joined by my 16-year-old son, Mark, who is on his third cruise. He’s a fan but makes it quite clear that there had better be a good crew of teens on board. Our fellow passengers are a healthy mix of empty nesters, couples, grown-up families and a small number of well-behaved kiddies who seem used to travel.
At dinner we glide through the picturesque Stockholm Archipelago, observing tiny islands filled with birds and pretty villages that hug the coast. Our waiter Brian fusses over me, putting a linen napkin on my lap. Sitting close by are Susan and Iris, two university lecturers from Florida. They’ve cruised before; whale-watching in Alaska, and exploring the exotic wildlife of the Galapagos Islands. Meeting new people is one of the joys of cruising but a ship this size (with more than 2,000 passengers) also offers spaces on the different decks to hide away and be quiet.
Mark leaves me to find new friends in the Teen Zone, while I return to our cabin at the aft of the ship. A balcony cabin has a couch and dressing table, with ample room to sit or lie outside with a glass of wine and enjoy the long white nights.
Our itinerary takes us to Helsinki for our first stop, so we breakfast at the Oceanview Café. Buffet-style is a delight for my ever-hungry-son who opts for a personalised omelette. The enormous American breakfasts, and Indian and Chinese curries offer too much choice at such an early hour, so I settle for fresh fruit.
Our planned excursion is a guided tour of Helsinki by jopo, a traditional bicycle without handbrakes or gears, popular in Finland. It takes a bit of getting used to but our group of 12 takes a pace that doesn’t bore my son and it is easy for me to keep up. First stop is at the Sibelius Monument, sculpted by Eila Hiltunen, and erected in 1967 to commemorate the composer of The Finladia Suite. The beauty of cruising is that we enjoy an amuse-bouche of each destination and can decide if we want to come back for a main course another time.
Helsinki is buzzing during the White Night season, with numerous concerts and marquees, stag parties on boats and locals enjoying outdoor pursuits. It’s a chilly 16 degrees with a sharp wind, but our guide makes the trip interesting and stops off at a store to buy some liquorice chocolate to give us a taste of his city . . . It’s disgusting so we discreetly bin it.
Back on the ship, Mark makes a new pal at the gym while I nurse my saddle-soreness in a hot tub on deck. After dinner, our new Floridian friends accompany us to the Abba-sing-along, where my son spots a group of teenagers from North Carolina, throwing themselves into Dancing Queen. They spot Mark too – at 6ft 4ins he’s difficult to miss – so I know it’s time to make my exit and sleep soundly in the knowledge that he can’t wander off and get lost as he might on terra firma.
Next day we wake on one of the 14 sunny days enjoyed by St Petersburg per year. Booking our excursion on board saves a timely wait to get off the ship as security is tight and requires a visa – which is costly if you’re not joining an excursion.
Mark snoozes while we travel the hour-long drive by coach to Pushkin, to see the gold-domed ice-blue Catherine Palace. Destroyed during the second World War, it is now impeccably restored, complete with a replica of the Amber Room. The walls are encrusted with amber, gold-coloured resin, not to be confused with a gemstone but formed from fossilised trees over thousands of years. Our guide relays many anecdotes about Catherine the Great, notably her passion for young men – at 60, her lover was in his 20s – I laugh as my son squirms. After lunch we pack in a drive by the Hermitage and stop at the Sarcophagi of Peter the Great and the Tzars and Tzarinas of Russia at The Peter and Paul Cathedral.
After a late night at the Silent Disco (where music is streamed via personalised headsets while dancers bop around to the song of their choice), we opt for a lie-in the next day before exploring Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. It’s nice to take a break from a guided tour and the old town is only a short 15-minute stroll from our ship. There, we stumble upon Olde Hansa Restaurant and Shop, where medieval ladies tempt us with aphrodisiacs and traditional fare.
Port day specials
Those who choose to stay on board the ship on port days can capitalise on special prices in the ship’s spa. Lolling around at the poolside or taking a dip in one of the hot tubs is a good way to spend time on board during port days, so hectic sightseeing isn’t necessary every day.
We take it easy in Riga with a short tour of the city’s Art Nouveau architecture and pop into the National Art Gallery. Mark indulges my culture fix as a trade-off for the freedom to enjoy Motown Night later that evening with his new friends.
Before the music starts, we eat at the Lawn Grill, a speciality restaurant – one of eight on board. Mark takes a lesson in baking flatbread which we eat for starters and no matter how hard I fight it I order a steak for the third night in a row.
Our last day is at sea and the spa beckons before some wine tasting. Extras including speciality dining are charged to our room but it’s possible to keep tabs on the bill via the TV display in our cabin.
Playing with food
We eat our way around the world in Qsine Restaurant, picking from the menu displayed on an iPad. Sushi lollipops and disco shrimp dishes are delivered on novelty sharing platters and playing with our food is encouraged – to think of all the wasted years I spent training my son to eat properly.
It’s our last night and Mark joins me at the theatre. Entertainment runs concurrently around the ship each evening offering a variety of movies, comedy and, of course, the casino, for those who like a flutter. The ship’s band boasts accomplished musicians, such as trombonist Big Mike, who’s played with the likes of Stevie Wonder.
As he ends the evening with Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World, I look at my son and feel privileged to have enjoyed such a variety of experiences with him. Although I’ll lose him to the the disco on Deck 14 in a bit, for the moment it’s a wonderful world.
Mark and Michelle Jackson travelled as guests of Celebrity Cruises.
Celebrity Cruises’s “Celebrity Eclipse” 12-night Scandinavia and Russia fly/cruise departs August 18th, 2018. Prices from €3,484 for the first guest staying in an Oceanview Stateroom, with the second guest paying half-price.
Price includes return flights from Dublin, transfers, a 12-night cruise departing Amsterdam and calling at Berlin (Rostock, Germany), Tallinn (Estonia), St Petersburg (Russia) for an overnight stay, Helsinki (Finland), Stockholm (Sweden) and Copenhagen (Denmark) before returning to Amsterdam for flights home; meals and entertainment on-board the ship and all relevant cruise taxes/fees. Call 1800 932 611, visit celebritycruises.ie or talk to your travel agent.