KERRY BOTHA sets sail on the Azamara Quest
With the exception of the Norwegian fjords, South Africans tend to choose the warmer Mediterranean or Caribbean when it comes to cruising so I was keen to explore the Baltic for the first time, as a guest aboard the Azamara Quest.
The sunlight in this part of the world has a lilt to it, as though the air itself marvels at the wonder of warmth. Our departure port was Copenhagen and we explored this compact city on foot before sailing. The beautiful stores lining Copenhagen’s historic streets only deepened my love for Danish design, a talent honed by the long winters spent carving wood, or so a young Viking told me.
My daughter Rachel was drawn to the Tivoli Gardens, a pleasure park designed in the 18th Century featuring music festivals, Victorian pavilions, restaurants, rides, ice cream parlours and gardens.
With its capacity for 694 guests and 407 crew, the Azamara Quest is able to dock at many of the smaller, lesser-known ports, all fun to explore.
Our cruise took in the towns of Travemunde, Lubeck, Wismar, in Germany; Ronne, capital of the Danish island Bonholm; Gdansk in Poland; Tallinn, Estonia; St Petersburg, Russia; Helsinki, Finland; and ended in Stockholm. Barring St Petersburg, these Baltic port cities were once part of the Hanseatic League, an alliance formed in medieval times to protect trade and ward off pirates. The interdependence and trade connection accounts for many similarities in the regional architecture – red brick cathedrals, tiled gatehouse turrets and gingerbread houses. It is in the Baltic too, that there is still tangible evidence of World War II and the Cold War.
This was poignantly apparent in the medieval town of Lubeck, dominated by St Merien Church, with the tallest brick vault in the world. Allied bombing nearly destroyed it in 1942, and you can see the remains of broken bells in the south tower, which fell to the ground.
Each port allowed us to savour the atmosphere of every place we visited. Gdansk, razed by the Soviet army at the end of WW11 – though the old city centre has been restored – birthed the beginning of the Iron Curtain fall with Solidarity dockyard uprisings. Gdansk’s resilience is written in the streets, the hearts of the people and its music. Tallin delighted with its pristine medieval town square, home-brewed honey beer and Europe’s oldest apothecary shop. Helsinki was clean and friendly, as was affluent Stockholm, with its superb Vasa museum containing a 17th century galleon.
The three days in St Petersburg were a highlight. The Captain encouraged us to get up early to experience the Neva River and as we approached the dock, the ship slowed down to a reverential pace. This is a city majestic in every way – scale, grandeur, opulence and vision. We slid past the original Leningrad sign, thudded in Soviet cement, with numerous shipping cranes bowing in silent vigil.
Founder Peter the Great was a naval man so it was entirely apposite to enter St Petersburg by ship. The Quest’s size allowed us to berth 500 metres from the first bridge within sight of the Hermitage museum. Here, the art collection of some three million pieces is breathtaking. Around three million visitors flood the museum between May and September, and in August we caught the swell, having to dodge selfie sticks and the bobbing lollipops of tour leaders.
Visiting the magnificent Catherine’s Summer Palace sated my life long dream to see the Amber Room, a world-famous chamber decorated in amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors. Constructed in the 18th century in Prussia, the Amber Room was a gift to Peter the Great by Prussian King Frederick Willem. The Nazis looted the amber panels during WWI and the room was recreated in 2003.
A cruise is all about the convenience of only unpacking once, service, and superb food, but the distinctive charm of each destination, made for an unforgettable experience.
- Kerry Botha enjoyed Azamara Club Cruises’ 12-Nights Summer in the Romantic Cities of the Baltic & Russia Voyage. Similar cruises for 2016 include:
- 12-night London to Baltic
- 10 night Baltic Rendezvous
- Cruises International represents Azamara in South Africa. Those interested may book through them on 011 327-0327, or their nearest travel agent. The Azamara Quest will be completely refurbished in 2016.