Europe's Atlantic, Baltic and River Cruises

| 06.08.12

A guide for people considering a European cruise: The Baltic and Atlantic cruise ports and river cruises.

In part one, we focused on Mediterranean options for first-time Europe cruisers. Click here to read part 1. In this article, we will discuss the Baltic Sea, the Atlantic Ocean and river cruising.

Highlights of the Baltic Sea The Baltic Sea connects to the North Sea and the Atlantic through the Danish Straits, with Denmark and Germany to the south and Norway in the north. Inside the Baltic Sea to the south are Poland; the "Baltic States" of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia; and Russia. To the north are Sweden and Finland. The typical Baltic cruise usually ends or begins in Copenhagen, Denmark or Stockholm, Sweden. The highlight of a Baltic cruise for most people is St. Petersburg, Russia, once known as Leningrad, the "Jewel of the Soviet Union."

Although the Baltic Sea is as far north as the major cities of Alaska, the weather can be surprisingly temperate and even hot in summer. Winter can come quickly, however, and you probably don't want to cruise there past mid-September. The area is certainly far more populated and rich in history than Alaska. With some 85 million people living within the Baltic Sea drainage basin, the history of the region goes back thousands of years. Some of the region's cruising highlights incude:

Kiel Canal: The mainland of Denmark (named Jutland) juts north like a tall finger attached to the coast of Germany on the southern shore of the Baltic. To give ships a shortcut from sailing around Denmark, Germany's Kiel Canal traverses this peninsula just below the border. Both shores of the Kiel Canal are covered in greenery with bike trails, roads and traditional homes.

Denmark: Known as the home of Hans Christian Andersen, Denmark has some 250 cruise ship visits each year. The capital, Copenhagen -- on the island of Zealand east of Jutland -- was founded in 1167. With 1.2 million inhabitants, it is a major trading center. Highlights for visitors include the Tivoli Gardens amusement park and the Stroget, a pedestrian street with buskers and souvenir shops. The Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen (1606) is open for guided tours and contains the Danish Crown Jewels. Kronborg Castle, south of the city, was built in 1420 and is also known as "Elsinore," the setting for William Shakespeare's Hamlet.

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Brandenburg Gate   Tivoli Gardens   Checkpoint Charlie

Germany: The second stop on a typical Baltic cruise is Warnemunde, Germany. This former Eastern Block beach town is the gateway to Berlin. The ship dock is just a five-minute walk to the train station, where the Warnemünde-Express offers hourly trains all day long between the port and Berlin.

The train is primarily for Berliners who want to spend a day at the beach, but it is also handy for cruise tourists going the other way. One can disembark early and take the train to Berlin for a reasonable cost. The ride is almost two hours, however, so plan to make it a full day and see as much of Berlin as you can in a short time.

Berlin is big and sprawling city, so you might choose the ship's excursion to guarantee you will get back in time. Most cold war vestiges of this once-divided city are gone, including Checkpoint Charlie, but the Brandenburg Gate and a recently renovated Reichstag (once again the seat of Germany's government) still stand. The TV tower offers an awesome view of the city.

Poland: Gdansk, the fourth largest city in Poland, is usually the next port. The city's shipyard is famous for spawning the Solidarity Union, the organized movement credited with destroying the Communist Party and leading to the election of Lech Walesa as president of Poland. The main attraction is Old Town. This long public square is full of shops selling locally derived amber jewelry and other arts and crafts. There are concerts, shops, outdoor restaurants, puppet shows and beautiful, historic Orthodox churches. A taxi from the pier to Old Town should cost under $15.

Baltic States: Your cruise may stop in Riga (Latvia), Tallinn (Estonia) or both. By this time you will start to notice a sameness in the region's architecture, which is attributed to the Hanseatic League, a centuries-old trading partnership that linked many cities along the Baltic shore. This generally means tall, four-story buildings with elaborate facades, but somewhat plain and cramped on the inside. The lowest floor is for commercial purposes, with the upper floors built as apartments. The three Baltic States (add Lithuania) are famous for being the first former Soviet satellites to withdraw from the USSR, but capitalism has not exactly flourished since then. The highlights are their Orthodox churches and antique shops.

Russia: St. Petersburg, Russia, is the jewel of a Baltic cruise. Most ships stop there for at least two full days, some even for three. The city was the de facto capital of Russia until the Communists moved it to Moscow. It is famous for the first home of Peter the Great, and the Czarist Palaces -- including the Summer Palace and Catherine's Palace, both outside the city; and the Hermitage Museum/Winter Palace, in the heart of town. Other attractions include Lenin's office from which he ignited the Russian Revolution.

The more time you have there the more you will see. Other attractions include the Kirov Ballet, the onion-domed Church of the Spilt Blood, and the Yusopov Palace, an elaborate private residence where citizen friends of Tsar Nicholas plotted the murder of Rasputin.

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Peterhof in St Petersburg   Red Square - Moscow   The Back fountains Peterhof

This city is one of the highlights of Europe and the main reason to take a Baltic cruise. Whether you are interested in the Middle Ages, the Tsarist era, the Stalin era or World War II, you should find the city and surrounding area fascinating.

Helsinki, Finland: In truth, many ships do not stop at this stark Scandinavian city with few distinguishing sites. The Helsinki Cathedral is one of the main attractions.

Stockholm: One of the best things is the ship's long, meandering approach to the city through an archipelago of beautifully lush islands. Be out on deck or on your balcony to watch the scenery go by. When you finally reach the city, you'll see statues on the waterway alongside Gamla Stan, Stockholm's old town, where pedestrian streets are lined with shops selling art, glass and other unique crafts.

The city is the home of the Nobel Prize committee and museum. A nighttime attraction is the ice bar, a vodka bar constructed purely of ice blocks where the chairs, bar and drinking glasses are all made of ice. But Stockholm's must-see attraction is the Vasa Museum, built to house one of the largest and best-preserved wooden warships ever built (in 1612). The Vasa was rescued from the bottom of Stockholm's bay, where it sank immediately after being christened. The museum is a huge closed structure large enough to contain the entire ship, and to let visitors walk all the way around it from the keel to above the top deck. See

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The Ice Bar - Stockholm   Danish Crown Jewels   Norwgian Fjord

Norway: A starkly beautiful country, a special Norwegian cruise will go up the Atlantic coast to what is called the "North Cape," the top of the Scandinavian land mass above the Arc6tic Circle. Here are beautifull fjords cut from ancient glaciers. Ships can traverse the fjords a threading a needle.

Atlantic Cruises -- Portugal to Benelux and the British Isles Along the Atlantic coast of Europe are several areas of interest. This region includes the British Isles, Gibraltar (a British territory on the tip of the Iberian Peninsula); Lisbon (Portugal); Bordeaux, Cherbourg and Normandy (France); Brussels and Bruges (Belgium); Amsterdam (Netherlands) and on up to the North Sea.

Southern Islands: To the south of Gibraltar and the mouth of the Mediterranean are the Canary Islands (Spain) off the coast of Morocco. With a population of 2 million, these seven islands are jam-packed with timeshares and European sun worshipers. Madeira is a similar Portuguese island several hundred kilometers from the coast of Africa.

Britain and Ireland: Many cruises begin in London and head in various directions: south to the Canary Islands, east into the Mediterranean Sea or north towards the Baltic. Some cruises circumnavigate the U.K. and stop at Edinburgh and the Shetland Islands (Scotland), Belfast and Dublin (Ireland) and Liverpool and Dover.

Portugal: The capital of Portugal is Lisbon, a crowded city and not an affluent one. There are plenty of outdoor attractions like pedestrian shopping streets, parks and sidewalk cafes. Bargains abound in open markets for crafts and locally grown foods. Seafood restaurants offer lavish feasts for comparatively bargain prices. Sintra, a tourist destination with a Moorish royal palace, is 30 minutes from Lisbon by train.

France: From the Atlantic, ships can navigate up the Garonne River to Bordeaux, a major French city known for wine and for true French cuisine, including escargot and some other dishes most Americans wouldn't consider. Take a wine-tasting trip to the vineyard of Lafitt-Roschild, or visit the quaintly preserved village of Saint Emilion. River cruises along the Rhone or the Seine are both very satisfying and popular. The Seine voyage ends up at Normandy where you can see the famous D-Day beaches.

Mont Saint-Michel: One of France's major tourist destinations, this monastery is built on a tiny outcrop of rock on the Atlantic coast. It is cut off from the mainland at high tide and can only be reached at low tide.

Normandy: This is the dairy region of northern France where cheese, sausage and a bottle of wine make the perfect meal. You must stop at the beaches of the D-Day invasion. The museums and monuments to the fallen soldiers here are breathtaking and unforgettable.

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Lisbon Portugal   Canal Cruise - Bruges   Honfleur, Northern France

Bruges, Belgium: This quaint town is said to be one of the best preserved "pre-motorized" towns in Europe, although plenty of cars seem to get in for "special reasons." Cobblestone streets intersect the network of canals that run throughout the town. Boat tours of the town are quaint though crowded. Most ships dock about 20 miles from Bruges, so ship tours are recommended. Do not try to walk to the train station on the coast to get to Bruges on your own -- the walk along a high-speed rural highway takes over an hour.

Amsterdam, Netherlands: This city is famous for many things, from a legal red light district and cafes where you can buy marijuana over the counter to the home where Anne Frank hid from the Nazis. You can walk all day long and soak in the sights, take a water tour on the canals, or rent a bicycle. One day in this city is enough to exhaust most people, though members of the younger generation have been known to arrive here and have a hard time leaving.

River Cruises Dozens of river cruises are available in Europe, and many of them cater specifically to the U.S. market. Airfare and shore tours are generally included in the quoted price of the cruise -- which once again gives you even more benefit in prepaying for most of the vacation in U.S. dollars.

Riverboats in Europe are modern vessels with top-rated cuisine featuring local ingredients. The boats hold between 100-200 passengers, and the focus is on seeing the sights, with one or two tours scheduled every day. There are usually cruise managers who sleep onboard, coordinate and assist the guides on every tour, and give orientation lectures every day.

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River Boat on Seine   War Memorial - Normandy   River boat upper deck viewing

While the most famous river cruises are on the Rhine and Danube, others are offered in almost every country in Europe. Most are seven days. Prime port cities include Prague, Vienna and Cologne. French river cruises include the Seine River from Paris to Le Havre. The Russian journey from Moscow to St. Petersburg is highly recommended. There are even 21-day cruises that go all the way from Amsterdam through the Ukraine to the Black Sea.

One thing to watch for is making certain you have enough time to see the major cities where the cruises begin or end. It is best to arrive a few days early to see these cities. Usually the riverboats stay in the first city for just one night, which does not allow any real time for sightseeing.

Major European river cruise lines include Viking River, Avalon, AmaWaterways, Uniworld, Scenic Cruises and a few new ones.

Summing Up These are rough guidelines, and many European itineraries will cross the boundaries of the general cruising regions we discussed. Many Mediterranean cruises traverse the entire sea from Barcelona to Istanbul, while others start in London and go as far as Russia.

Europe is expensive compared to a few years ago, but it may not get any cheaper soon, and it might get even more expensive as time goes by. Fuel costs continue to inflate airfare and the value of the dollar has been on a downhill course for eight years now.

You aren't getting any younger, either!

On that note, keep in mind that young children are more likely to cause you consternation and expense on a European cruise than they will enhance your journey. Much of Europe is fascinating intellectually, but it isn't action oriented like a theme park.

If they do go, one advantage of a cruise ship is the general availability of onboard youth activities and babysitting. If the worst that happens is your child gets bored and cranky, you can always leave him in the hands of trained youth directors.

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