You can’t beat the Baltic

In this week’s travel article, Stuart Green travels the Baltic by sea and ends with a visit to Amsterdam.

Many Chronicle readers have extensive cruise experience and will have many of their own stories to tell. But, with only a handful of vacations at sea behind us, my wife Annie and I have just returned from our first vacation with the Azamara cruise line – a 12-night cruise on the Baltic Sea, ending with a transit of the Kiel and a visit to Amsterdam.

Azamara’s Pursuit
In the world of cruise ships, the Azamara Pursuit has to be one of the smallest. At 30,000 tons, it is totally eclipsed by ships such as Wonder of the Seas (230,000 tons) or MSC World Europa (205,000 tons), both of which carry over 6,000 passengers.

Being so small, the Azamara Pursuit has few amenities, only one theater which is used for daytime lectures by specialist speakers and for the evening entertainment program. On board the Pursuit, there is a small swimming pool, a gym and a spa but no discos, casinos, go-karts, zip lines, etc.

And there is absolutely nothing to entertain the children. However, while there were few places for entertainment, the same could not be said for food and drink. From 7 a.m. to midnight, incredibly good food is available somewhere on board – perhaps in the ship’s four restaurants, grand cafe, cafe and six bars, most of which serve the most sumptuous food. Quite simply, the food on board the ship was absolutely superb.

We were spoiled for choice at each meal: Where to eat? What to choose from the fabulous menus? All my good dietary intentions vanished as soon as we sat down to each meal as all the options on the menu seemed irresistible. Every time we stopped for a cup of tea or coffee we were always offered the most wonderful tapas or cakes.

The captain
Born on an island in southern Finland with an apartment in Stockholm, Captain Mikael Palmroos is the perfect man to circumnavigate the Baltic.

The son of a businessman in the yachting industry, Mikael learned to sail when he was six years old.

After national service in the Finnish Navy, he worked in the hotel industry before graduating as a sea captain. His first cruise ship was the huge Sovereign of the Seas before being transferred to the Azamara fleet.

In response to my questions, Captain Palmroos said:
“The best thing about being the captain of an Azamara vessel is the collaboration between teams on board and ashore to deliver the most authentic experience for our guests.”

But wouldn’t he rather be on one of the huge cruise ships, like the Sovereign of the Seas?
“I have sailed on different sizes of ships, including some of the largest cruise ships in the world.

My preference, however, is to be on one of the smaller ships so that we can dock at prime locations and provide the best experience for our customers. Moreover, the family atmosphere and the close interaction between me, the crew and our guests are priceless.

Is the Baltic his favorite part of the world?
“The Scandinavian archipelago will always remain in my heart and I feel privileged to sail as Captain in these waters. That being said, there are many destinations around the world with their own unique beauty, such as the stunning clear waters around Fiji and the islands of French Polynesia and the pristine destinations of the Seychelles, Maldives and St. Barthelemy. But I’m happy to sail anywhere.

The stars of the cruise – the staff
During the cruise I often wished we could have been joined by some of Gibraltar’s restaurant owners and managers so they could watch the ship’s excellent staff at work – and learn from them. There is no doubt that the crew was the star of the cruise.

No matter how often we encountered bar staff, stewards or waiters, they greeted us with a big smile, welcoming us if we had left the ship, wishing us a good day – often remembering our names – and ask if they could help us in any way. They often seemed to know what we wanted before we knew it ourselves. No matter what their multinational and multicultural guests asked of them, nothing was ever too much trouble and every request was met with a smile. Quite simply, the level of service was at least five stars but probably better.

The passengers
When fully booked the ship can carry around 700 passengers, but on our voyage we were only 407 and to meet all our needs there were 400 crew – a ratio of almost exactly 1 :1.
About half of the passengers were Americans, with most of the rest coming from countries in Europe. On different nights we dined with Trump supporters from Nashville, Tennessee, with a Brazilian couple who now lived in Italy, a Scottish policeman and his very successful wife and with a Dutch couple who lived a 15 minute cab ride from our last port. – stopover in Amsterdam.

At this point, I must point out that, while there were a few young people on board, their number was matched by very old people. I would say the average passenger age was definitely 60+.

The route
Annie and I had chosen to arrive in Copenhagen a day before the ship departed and it turned out to be a smart choice as we had a great time wandering around this busiest city – especially the Nyhaven area .

Our first day aboard the Azamara Pursuit was spent at sea as the ship crossed the Baltic before visiting three capitals in three days – Tallinn (Estonia), Helsinki (Finland) and Stockholm (Sweden). All three were fascinating in their own way, but our favorite was Stockholm where the ship was moored for 48 hours so we could make the most of the city’s history, royal palaces and gardens – and shopping.

After finding our way in the Swedish capital, we then sailed to the small island of Gotland where we wandered around the charming fortified town of Visby, before, the following day, September 1, meeting in the port of Gdańsk, our ship moored exactly where the first shots of World War II were fired. It gave us a perfect view of a flyover of the monument and the Polish Navy ships marking the 83rd anniversary of the outbreak of WWII.

After our day of converting the cost of everything into Polish zlotis, we sailed to the smallest town on our itinerary, the town of Ronne on the Danish island of Bornholm, where we were converting the Danish krone again. It might have been the smallest port of call, but Ronne had the best tourist office, the best maps, a small orchestra to welcome us ashore, and free WiFi.

But, of the smaller ports, the best was a place I had never heard of before the cruise – Warnemunde on the northern coast of Germany. This pretty little town was teeming with holidaymakers, many strolling around the open-air pottery market and along one of the longest beaches I’ve ever seen.

After a morning in Warnemünde, we took the train to the nearby university town of Rostock, which was again full of shoppers and tourists on Saturday. After a long day ashore, we were finally welcomed on board by a local Oompa Band with plenty of German beer and sausages to enjoy.

The cruise ended with a fascinating transit through the Kiel Canal and a visit to Amsterdam where we had a lovely canal cruise through the city.

Shore excursions
Every time we arrived in a new port there was a luxury coach shuttle service to take us downtown. The coaches ran every half hour and of course they were available to take us back to the ship when we had had enough of sightseeing or shopping. But, instead of walking around the city center, many people would opt for a guided tour, usually by coach, to a place of interest. Throughout the cruise, 42 circuits were available. Obviously, in some places there would be several options available – in Stockholm there were eight circuits, while in Gdańsk there were only three.

If I had a complaint about the cruise, it would be the exorbitant prices of many of these excursions. The average price of the 8 alternative tours in Stockholm was 117 euros per person and in Amsterdam 115 euros per person. If Annie and I had done a typical visit to each port, we would have spent around 2000 euros on visits. Maybe we’re a little cost conscious, but in most places we did our own research and, armed with a local map, set off to see the sights on our own, using transport premises if necessary.

If you want a floating theme park or a wonderland for kids, then Azamara Pursuit is definitely not for you. If you want to dress in formal clothes for every meal, Azamara’s more casual style isn’t for you. If, however, you want to eat delicious food, be served by the most wonderful staff, and visit fascinating places, then I suggest you consider a cruise on Azamara Pursuit. We enjoyed every moment.
By the way, there has been absolutely no sponsorship from Azamara at the time of writing this article.

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