The Baltic is only just a sea. It could easily be the world’s largest lake. Its salinity is low, the tides are barely perceptible, and it’s almost completely land-locked. In fact you could, if you wanted to, drive right round it without ever boarding a ferry. But in order to truly appreciate a region like the Baltic, where water has been the main highway for millennia, the traveller must put to sea.
Cruising is not just a fine way to see the region; it is arguably the only way. Nine countries have a Baltic shoreline: Poland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and it’s no coincidence that five of them have their capitals on the Baltic too. Certainly there is no better, more fitting, way to arrive in Stockholm or Helsinki or Tallinn than by sea. Norway is included in this guide as well; though it is not strictly a Baltic nation, many cruises visit there as part of the Baltic cruise experience. Cruising, above all, reminds us that these nations are not separated by the waters of the Baltic, but joined.
If cruising is a great way to see the Baltic, it’s equally true that the Baltic is a great place to go cruising. Sea passages are short, often dispensed with overnight; if not, they are frequently enlivened by the sight of other shipping, or by seemingly innumerable islands. From Mariehamn to Turku is the definitive archipelago voyage. You will lose count. For the neophyte and the nervous, these short passages are not the only plus point. Even the worst sailor is rarely seasick in the Baltic; there may be waves, but never the great nausea-induing ocean swells.
Of the countries that surround the Baltic Sea, all have seen turbulent times. Borders and allegiances have changed frequently, up until less than two decades ago. History is fresh here, and vivid. If its vicissitudes are sometimes bewildering to contemplate, what’s easier to grasp is the outstanding cultural and architectural heritage they have left in their wake, from great fortresses such as Suomenlinna in Helsinki and the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg, to the great mercantile and domestic buildings of the Hanseatic period in ports such as Visby and Tallinn.
Historic cities may be the key ports of call, but the Baltic is not overall a highly urbanised region; many of its bounding lands are sparsely populated. Wild coasts and vast inland wildernesses are equally part of the story. Through most of the region, even city-dwellers retain a strong attachment to nature, and most of the Baltic nations are now in the forefront of environmental protection. Even in the great ports, the water is often clean enough to swim in.
Natural beauty and sumptuous history; a new nation after almost every passage; and, in summer, a sun that only sets for an hour or two: these are just a few of the many delightful surprises that the Baltic has to offer.