THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JAMES A. BONDOUX

ST. PETERSBURG AND THE BALTIC

St. Petersburg, with its imperial history, its fabled setting, its great palaces and churches, and its phenomenal art collections had been on our "Bucket List" for a while. The "GO" decision was a foregone conclusion when we received a brochure offering a two–for–one deal aboard the SS VOYAGER … a Baltic cruise including three full days dockside in St. Petersburg.

Having very fond memories of our earlier experience with the Regent Seven Seas outfit (that was the 2001 circumnavigation of New Zealand aboard the SONG OF FLOWER, long departed from their fleet), we expected good things from the VOYAGER. The vessel, at 700 passenger capacity, is quite a bit larger than our preferred vessel size, but her deluxe style provided ample compensation. We took a large suite with balcony overlooking the stern, with butler service yet, and enjoyed the hassle-free atmosphere that comes from an all-inclusive fare structure (featuring open bar, all tips included, mostly complimentary shore excursions and very rare extra charges). So, no disappointments, and Mitchel was quick to accept our invitation to come along.

Our June, 2010 itinerary read England–Holland–Germany–Sweden–Finland–Russia–Estonia–Latvia and Denmark, with a couple of sea days so we could catch up with ourselves following daily shore excursions.

St. Petersburg proved to be as extraordinary as expected – but the number of sights to see was a bit overwhelming. Kathryn had arranged for a private guide, an inspired decision as we were then able to skip the long waiting lines of high-season tourists and also gain access to a number of restricted sites. The latter included the Gold Room of the Hermitage, where visitor numbers are sharply limited. Oksana was an energetic, cheerful and informed guide, while Anatoliy, her gruff and stolid driver, somehow got our roomy Mercedes van around without mishap. Oksana guided us to a couple of trendy places for our lunches, including Terrassa, atop a department store. We stayed indoors because it was cool and breezy, but the locals were served on the outside terrasse, huddled under the blankets provided at each seat – one gets the idea that summer is short in those parts.

The highlights for were Peterhof, the spectacular Imperial Palace out in the Gulf of Finland, including its annex, the small but elegant Monplaisir summer retreat, the Amber room at Catherineís Palace, and the cellar of the Yasupov family palace where Rasputin was murdered. The sheer scale of the Hermitage was difficult to grasp, even for a Frenchman raised in the vicinity of the Louvre and Versailles!

St. Petersburg was the centerpiece of the trip, but a number of other sights made strong impressions as well. One fascinating highlight was the incredible restored 17th century warship VASA in Sweden, a ship which has spent 350 years or so preserved in the mud on the bottom of Stockholm harbor, having sunk on its maiden voyage. It is a trove of information about life and technology of those days, and a case study of human imperfection that brought to mind the tragedy of the Challenger space shuttle.

Another treat was a return visit to Visby, the "Town of Roses and Ruins" (on an island I had first explored in 1954 with my grandparents – triggering a rush of memories!). Also, a stroll along Berlinís Unter der Linden avenue (which I have read about for so many years), and the discovery of the extreme charm of old town Talinn, the capital of Estonia.

Going by cruise ship minimizes most of the aggravations that come with travel, at the price of limiting the time available to visit each interesting place. Having three days in St. Petersburg was a thoughtful departure from most cruise itineraries, and was a key element in our decision to go. I find life aboard comfortable, and I very much enjoyed the time spent on the VOYAGER. We learned early to avoid the main dining room, where service was delivered at a snailís pace, in favor of the upper deck buffet restaurant or the two specialty rooms (French gourmet and steakhouse).

We were pleased to observe Mitchel join the shipís hospitality staff and entertainment troupe for some congenial socializing while we were at sea.


The ship The VOYAGER with one of the highest space/guest ratios in the cruise business.

Church of Spilled Blood

Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood on the site of the assassination of Tzar Alexander II.

Market

Farmer's Market stall. Certainly much superior to its counterpart during the Soviet era.

Tent Restaurant

Lunch with Oksana in an unusual restaurant inside a tent.

Edam

The dollhouse cute streets of Edam: Old Holland.

Cheese Factory

One of the delights of our Holland tour: cheese tasting.

Isidor church

Domes of Isidor Church viewed from our Neva River tour boat.

Summer Palace hideaway

Monplaisir, the Tsar's hideaway at Peterhof. The human scale of the pavilion makes it much more liveable than the nearby great palace.

Talinn Brew Pub

Celebrated Brew Pub in Talinn, Estonia. "Hell Hunt" means "Gentle Wolf".

Duma Square

Memorial in the central square of old Riga, capital of Latvia. The display protests 50 years of occupation by the Germans and then by the Soviets.

Talinn Taxis

Innovative, "Green" taxis in downtown Talinn.