Explore the Northern European countries by sea with Oceania Cruises, whose itineraries are replete with thoughtful tours, gourmet dining, and even discreet butler service.
Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia have always been on my bucket list. In a span of 10 days, I ticked them all off - and then some - on an Oceania Cruises voyage that was food and culture galore in spades.
Starting from Copenhagen and ending in Stockholm, Oceania’s Marina ship, built for 1,210 guests, glided through its Northern Realms itinerary on the Baltic Sea with ports of call at Kiel (Germany), Bornholm (Denmark), Visby (Sweden), Klaipeda (Lithuania), Riga (Latvia), Tallinn (Estonia), and Helsinki and Kotka in Finland.
Stylish and comfortable accommodation aside, there is the marvel of a 24/7 butler service, which, in my opinion, is the real tipping point for choosing a Penthouse suite like the one I had, or any of the other Vista, Oceania, and Owner’s Suite categories.
My butler Ankit was the humorous big brother constantly making sure that this overwhelmed long-cruise rookie was on track with her daily excursions and dinner reservations. After a long day out, I would come back to delectable surprises like cookies, chocolate covered strawberries, and energizing smoothies. His other magical powers include the ability to get dishes that were not on the official in-room dining menu, pick up luggage tags and excursion tickets outside of the reception’s opening hours, and immediately getting a booking for a specialty restaurant with one call.
Not that I would have gone hungry even if I had tried. Highlights at the specialty restaurants include delicious crispy chicken and miso-glazed black cod at pan-Asian diner Red Ginger; moreish lobster mac and cheese, juicy steaks, and tender lamb racks at Polo Grill steakhouse; hearty traditional Italian recipes of osso buco and pastas complemented by a trolley of olive oils to go with freshly baked bread at Toscano, just to name a few. Every dish is prepared with the freshest ingredients and cooked à la minute. Our seven-course La Cuisine Bourgeoise wine-pairing dinner at the La Reserve by Wine Spectator dining room was the icing on the gourmet cake. We tucked into French cuisine that epitomized traditional recipes passed down from grandmothers to mothers, such as the Maine lobster and cheese souffle and roasted beef tenderloin with stuffed mushrooms and chateau potatoes. Paired with characterful 90-pointer wines, it was an immensely satisfying meal.
In between all that I scarfed down lattes and bubbles post-breakfast, mini canapés and cakes at the daily afternoon tea, and “just one more” milkshake and Humphry Slocombe ice cream from the poolside Waves Grill minutes before its 4pm closing time. And did I mention the martinis? Simply superb as nightcaps.
Only the daily excursions at each port of call prevented too many pounds from being added (to my credit, I did go to the well-equipped gym once in the name of exercising to floor-to-ceiling sunset sea views). The ship happened to dock at Visby when the town was celebrating Medieval Week and I stepped onshore and back in time among people dressed to the theme. Kiel brought home the horrors of war via a walk through the Neuengamme Concentration Camp, where more than 100,000 World War Two prisoners of war had been kept under horrific conditions in a former brick factory.
In Latvia, a sprightly 77-year-old former teacher turned organic farm owner fed us sponge cake, honey-dipped cucumber sticks and tisane, all made with ingredients from her garden, chickens, and bees. Oceania’s new “Go Green” tour in Tallinn introduced us to sustainable fashion brands and a zero-waste rooftop restaurant in the Fotografiska photography museum that composted food scraps, grew herbs, and kept bees. I sat at the large steps integrated into the rooftop of the Tallinn Cruise Terminal and beheld a mesmerizing burnt orange-gold-purple sunset backdropping our ship. There were locals strolling along the 850-meter-long rooftop promenade and enjoying wine at the alfresco restaurant, and children frolicking at the playground - it was the most beautiful port etched in memory.
With the average age of Oceania’s passengers being 55 years, even excursions that were denoted as “Strenuous Activity” were not heart-stopping. A warmer than usual European summer ensured blue, cloudless skies to accompany the water sports, such as thrilling speed boat rides in Helsinki and Stockholm, kayaking on the Minija River in Klaipeda, and rafting in Kotka. Spa treatments were scheduled on such days to maximize the soothing massages by the skilled therapists and to bask on the private spa deck which had hot tubs, few people, and many loungers at my disposal.
Oceania’s Riviera and Marina ships will get a stem-to-stern refresh come December 2022 and Nove mber 2023 respectively. The public spaces will be re-furbished, the staterooms and suites given a lighter Parisian chic palette with modern USB outlets and pearlescent bathrooms containing oversized rainforest showers, and there will be a new trattoria and an alfresco pizzeria. New ship Vista will also debut in April 2023 with new wellness-focused and American dining concepts.
According to Oceania Cruises’ president and chief executive officer Howard Sherman, the demand for longer cruises among Asia-Pacific guests has increased. He explained: “Asian travelers are becoming more adventurous, possibly a result of the sustained travel restrictions over the past two years. Many are eager to make up for lost time by ticking off bucket list destinations, like Africa, Alaska, and the Antarctic, with our destination-rich itineraries and immersive shore experiences and land programs continuing to prove popular. Our Grand Voyages, spanning multiple weeks - many of them 80 to 100 days - and often to multiple continents, and our World Cruise sailings continue to sell out.” Now that is one adventure on the high seas that I cannot wait to go on.