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Recent Complaints of Note
A Baltic Cruise

Cruising was not for me. An avid traveller, my interest has always been feet on the ground among the population, or seeing the sights. Standing at a ship’s rail looking at countless square miles of open water, effectively trapped, has never been my idea of a holiday. I always preferred to fly, completely eliminating the possibility of catching scurvy and certainly reducing the chances of ending up on a desert island with only ‘man Friday’ for company. Until last year that was.

Having been a Russophile for many years, the lure of St Petersburg was a major factor in my being persuaded to give up my ‘landlubber’ status, to join my wife and a couple of friends from the USA on a Fred Olsen cruise of the Baltic. Our companions, Gill & John - to use their real names - seeking to preserve their anonymity being a waste of time, given that they are better known and almost as feared on the high seas as was Blackbeard in days of yore. They are avid cruisers, having been on more than a dozen in diverse areas of the world and were more than a little persuasive about the delights of being corralled in a restricted space with 500 others, only a handful of whom are still trotting around on their own joints! A large magnet at the end of each corridor would certainly have been a major attraction and speeded up movement.

The dining facilities on the Black Watch offer great variety, are almost never closed, and the food quality, according to Gill and John, is as good as any they have experienced on any cruise anywhere in the world. Coming from the USA, they are not easily impressed! There is a very wide selection of dishes, all beautifully prepared and impeccably served. There is also an excellent selection of quality wines at reasonable prices. However, it was in the dining room that we experienced our first oddity when we were quick to notice the wine waiter writing table numbers on bottles of wine, but it took some time to fathom ( a good word in a cruise article) out that some people were not consuming their wine, which was being restored to their tables the following evening. It seems that if you leave wine in a bottle overnight it doesn’t go bad, although Gill and John still need to be convinced!

On board drinks prices are very reasonable and our mammoth bar account at the end of the cruise had less to do with the price of Champagne than Gill and John having an equal say in: “what shall we do now”? They were impressed by the reasonable prices, a significant factor given that they can instantly reel off the cost of Champagne at any one of a thousand venues around the world!

Cruise entertainment was bound to be naff (more recent experience with Holland America has proved this to be the case on some ships), comprising artists who are up-and-coming or on the way down from having never made it. But most of it wasn’t. Under the direction of cruise director Ronnie Finch, himself a talented musician, there was a wide variety of entertainers. The Black Watch Orchestra from Ukraine sounds distinctly dodgy, but fronted by Oksana, a very pretty and versatile singer, they provided tremendous music for dancing as well as backing for the dancers, singers and comedians who provided night after night of excellent shows. Included in the line-up was a female singer who was also an excellent swimmer. We worked out her "in the water" ability from the certainty that she must have been thrown overboard on several occasions and her continued presence must be due to ability to swim at in excess of 20 knots to catch and reboard the ship;



Practicing before the Show - Peterhof - St Petersburg




The Domes at Peterhof


The Winter Palace, St Petersburg, housing part of the spectacular Hermitage Museum


Realism! A painter at work on the Hermitage Gallery. This one is famous during her lifetime.


A Rural Dwelling on the outskirts of St Petersburg

St. Petersburg. Catherine the Greaits Palace

they certainly wouldn’t have put about to search for her ! The newly slim Ann Widdicombe was also aboard, promoting her new book, ‘An act of treachery’. Authors should consider this as a marketing tool; its rumoured that Ann sold both copies of her book on this trip! Lowlight of the entertainment was the presence of the cast of the Archers who are to farming what Nijinsky was to ballet; that’s Nijinsky the racehorse, not Nijinsky the dancer!

All ports of call were interesting in their own way, with a variety of excursions being available at each. Again, these were well guided and at a reasonable cost. Top of the list was St Petersburg, one of the great cities of the world, where the principal attractions on a short stay are The Hermitage Museum and a return visit to Peterhof, more famously known as Petrodvorets.

This is a city of wonderful architecture and one that comprehensively destroys the myth that the communists abhored and destroyed the luxuries that the Czars enjoyed: they may have denied these pleasures to the proletariat, but they certainly retained and enjoyed them!

The almost silent early morning passage up the mist shrouded Neva river, offers a sureal experience, passing through avenues of ships and warehouses, some continuing the decay of the Communist era, with others a vivid illustration of Russia’s new status as a trading nation. Also moored on the Neva were the larger cruise ships, and herein lies a message; if you are going to take a Baltic cruise, select one of the smaller ships that can get right to the heart of the cities visited and not be restricted by size, to the neck of the river. Arriving this way, it is strange to recall that fewer than 15 years ago, visitors to Russia were subject to so many restrictions that it could be compared to visiting a prison. Old habits die hard, but today there is a freedom that is really restricted only by language difficulties, with few signs in English, French, German or Spanish. Many Russian people speak English, but a few signs could make Russian cities, that in many respects have more to offer than many European capitals, a lot more user friendly and a far better tourist attraction that could bring in much needed tourist dollars.

The Hermitage Museum is one of the world’s greatest, occupying, among other buildings, the old Winter Palace,central scene of the 1917 Russian Revolution. The Hermitage houses many of the world’s greatest art treasures in splendid surroundings. If you have seen a reproduction of a painting by a famous artist and wondered where the original is: the Hermitage is probably the answer. It is said that spend just a few minutes viewing each exhibit, a complete tour of the Hermitage would take more than seven years. This is a must for anyone with even a remote interest in Art.

Petrodvorets (Peterhof), was conceived and built by Peter the Great and opened in 1723. A wonderland of fountains, this seaside palace has a magical aura, with the Great Palace dominating the natural terrace at the head of a canal that runs straight and true to the sea. Restored in the fifty years following world war II, the Great Palace holds a multitude of treasures. The coach journey to and from the palace is itself of considerable interest, passing through residential areas surrounding the city.

The magic of St Petersburg should not completely overshadow the other cities visited on this cruise. Every one of them is worth a visit in its own right.

Listing the ‘cons’ applicable to this cruise is a very short task. The only really annoying feature relates to the system of staff gratuities. Chambermaids, waiters etc. are poorly paid and their income is almost totally dependent upon the gratuities from passengers at the end of each trip. There are guidelines published by the cruise line, but the whole system is most unsatisfactory. Come on Mr Olsen, why not include the gratuities in the price of the cruise and free the passengers from the burden that really gets up their nose?

If you are anti-cruising or have never really considered it as a holiday, our recommendation is to give it a try and there is no better way to start than Dover-Dover, around the Baltic with Fred Olsen. We enjoyed it so much that we have since been on several more including The Amazon, The Caribbean and Orinoco, Black Sea etc. etc.








I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma - Sir Winston Churchill. 1874 - 1965

(It remains so today, but it is still one of the most beautiful and exciting destinations on earth)