My grandfather was born in a huge white house on the Baltic coast of eastern Germany, and ever since I was a child I’ve been fascinated by this enigmatic tideless sea. I’ve travelled along its southern shore, from Germany to Estonia, but I’d always wanted to sail across it, and last month, at last, I did, aboard the Queen Victoria on Cunard’s Royal Viking Adventure.
I joined the cruise in Stockholm (the other passengers had sailed here from Southampton). Why had no one ever told me what a stunning city this is? Perched on a little island, the old town is perfectly preserved — a cluster of cobbled alleys, patrolled by blond, athletic Swedes. As we set sail, the view became even better. The shoreline splintered into a thousand islands, strewn across the water like petals on a pond. I stood on deck, lost in silent wonder, and watched them float past until the sun went down.
When I woke next morning, in my comfortable cabin, we were way out at sea. For a landlubber like me, this was quite a thrill. Before now, my longest voyage had been a brief crossing from Harwich to Hamburg. Our passage to St Petersburg would take two nights, and a whole day in between. I’d always thought it’d be boring spending an entire day at sea. I couldn’t have been more wrong. After breakfast I went for a wander, hoping to kill a few hours. I was still pottering round at teatime, and there were loads of things I hadn’t seen.
Launched in 2007, the Queen Victoria is a thoroughly modern cruise liner, with all mod cons (including a splendid spa), but Cunard has been around since 1840, and the enduring sense of history was what I liked best of all. The stairwells are hung with photos of famous guests from Cunard’s glory days: Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, David Niven… The decor is art deco. The theatre feels like an old-time music hall. From jazz to string quartets, the entertainment is meticulous.
And so is the food. The trainer in the snazzy gym said some cruisers put on a pound a day, but though I ate what I wanted whenever I wanted, I didn’t gain any weight at all. It wasn’t for want of trying. I ate French and Indian and Oriental (not all at the same sitting): faultless. The sommeliers really knew their stuff and the service was attentive but not intrusive. Yet despite the cosmopolitan cuisine (and staff) the house style is pure Home Counties. My favourite meal was high tea: scones and cucumber sandwiches, washed down with a pot of Earl Grey. It was easy to forget we were abroad at all until we docked in St Petersburg.
Unless you get a visa in advance, you’re only allowed to see the city on a guided tour, so I signed up for several coach trips — Cunard sort out the red tape. ‘You may start your day the Russian way,’ said our Russian guide, shepherding us towards the free vodka in the gift shop. We ticked off all the tourist sights (‘the fortress became a political prison,’ said our guide, as we drove past Burger King) but it was the incidentals that caught my eye: female cadets at a passing-out parade, wielding semi-automatic weapons; souvenir stalls selling busts of Putin, Lenin and Stalin (but no Yeltsin or Gorbachev). Putin used to be mayor of St Petersburg — no wonder the city centre’s so spruced up.
After the pomp of St Petersburg, Helsinki was a welcome break — no must-see sights, just a laid-back place you never want to leave. I strolled along the seafront, and stopped off for a beer, watching the pale sunlight dancing on the cold clear water.
After another night, day and night at sea, we arrived in Warnemünde. Last time I came here, this Teutonic seaside town was bruised and battered after 40 years behind the Iron Curtain. I couldn’t believe how much it has changed. The old fishing boats have become floating restaurants. The old fishermen’s huts have become smart cafés and boutiques.
I caught a train into Rostock, where my grandmother was born, and another train to Wismar, where my grandfather grew up. Unlike Warnemünde, this ancient Hanseatic port is still a sleepy backwater. I took a taxi to that huge white house where my family lived for 200 years, until the Russians came. Nowadays it’s a school. From a distance the house is beautiful, but when you get up close it looks dilapidated. The Red Army burned the contents. There’s nothing much inside. The leafy grounds are overgrown, full of wild flowers. There are horses in the fields beyond. The sea is half a mile away.
I disembarked the next morning, in Copenhagen. The ship was sailing on to Skagen, where the Baltic meets the North Sea. I wish I could have sailed with her, but I’d run out of time and money. In Copenhagen’s art museum, en route to the airport, I saw some paintings that seemed to capture the strange magic of the Baltic. I shut my eyes and imagined I was back at sea.
The 14-night Baltic Highlights cruise on the Queen Elizabeth departing from Southampton costs from £1,849pp. Visit cunard.co.uk or call 0843 374 2224.