We cast off from Stockholm’s Skeppsbron dock at 10pm and with the mid-summer sun still shining brightly, began the eight hour sail through the Swedish archipelago to the freedom of the Baltic Sea beyond. The itinerary was Visby, Saaremaa,Tallinn, St Petersburg, Helsinki, Hanko, Marienhamn and then back to Stockholm which with two days at sea, made for an 11 night cruise.
A stranger to the high latitudes in which we were sailing, I’d packed for a Mediterranean summer.
As a sharp edged Baltic breeze cut across the deck and I thrust my hands deeper into the pockets of my jacket, I realised that the six pairs of shorts I’d packed would be staying in the suitcase.
Sharing the suitcase with them was a small red box containing an engagement ring which, at some suitably romantic point in the cruise, I hoped to present to my partner.
Should she decline it, the temperature would very likely slip several more degrees but ever the optimist, I had no Plan B.
The ship was the Star Flyer, a steel-hulled replica of a clipper ship which sails when the winds permit and motors when they don’t. There are no casinos or night clubs, just one dining room, a lounge bar, library, open deck top bar and two small swimming pools.
It’s an intimate experience and a galaxy removed from the mega-liners encountered at some of our ports of call, the first of which was Visby, said to be the best preserved medieval city in Scandinavia and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We skipped the guided tour and walked up and through the gates in the protective walls that once ringed the city and which remain largely extant.
The view from the old city is across the bay, the cobblestoned streets lined with shops and restaurants pitched firmly at the tourist trade, Visby being part of Sweden and a popular holiday destination for its citizens.
Settled since the Stone Age, Visby has a violent past, having been plundered by pirates, the Danes,Teutonic knights and just about anyone else who happened to be passing by and in the mood for a spot of rape and pillage.
Our walk took us past St Mary’s Church where I lit a candle and prayed for fine weather for the next ten days.
The candle was well received by the weather gods and Star Flyer spent the next day at sea, sailing before a fair wind bound for Saaremaa, the largest island in Estonia.
We anchored at the opposite end of the island to the main township of Kuressaare. Rather than spend $40 on a cab ride to the town, we decided on a walk.
Armed with a tourist map, we strode off in bright sunshine through a fishing village and down a dirt track until we crossed to the other side of the island, past concrete shelters abandoned by the Russian military when it left in the early nineties, and along the low cliffs bordering the shoreline.
There we came across a monument marking the loss of the ferry Estonia, which sank off the island in rough weather in 1994.
We paused at the monument, spared a thought for the 852 people who had perished not far from where we stood and then walked on beneath a broad blue sky, past immaculately kept ox- blood red timber houses and fields full of wildflowers.
At the Estonian capital of Tallinn we went on a bicycle tour. There were no bicycles in medieval times but had there been, they might have dispensed with the cobblestones.
The bike tour through the old city then, was a teeth rattling experience compensated for by the impressive medieval buildings, parks and lakes and its overall charm.
The Russians may be gone but their presence lingers, “when the Russians were here’’ being a phrase which found its way into most of the conversations we had with locals.
It is, quite obviously, not a time they recall with any fondness.
My vertigo and I declined the opportunity to climb the tower of St Olaf ’s Church, at 159 metres the tallest building in the world in the 15th century.
The view from the top, I was told, was wonderful but the narrow, winding stairs challenging.
St Petersburg was one of the highlights of the cruise and we arrived beneath a grey, forbidding sky andmotored slowly up the Neva River, past long lines
of container ships from distant ports and the sleek, faintly menacing outline of a Russian Navy submarine.
We moored at the English Embankment in the heart of the city. Travel tip – get a Russian visa in advance, otherwise you will be limited to guided tours when ashore.
We’d organised a vodka degustation dinner at the Orient Express Grand Hotel, St Petersburg’s finest, but had to forego it because we didn’t have the correct visa.
We joined a bus tour to Peterhof where the fine weather conjured up by my candle expired and it poured, rain splashing off the white marble staircases and gold statues and ponding in the pathways that crisscross the gardens.
It was a miserable day and we longed for the comfort of the ship.
Mother Russia smiled upon us the next day, delivering a cloudless, warm day spent touring the city and its canals.
There was the striking Church of the Spilled Blood, the main thoroughfare of Nevsky Prospekt, the Palace Square, St Isaac’s Square and Cathedral and the endless palaces standing as monuments to the lavish excesses of the Russian aristocracy.
It all ended here in October, 1917, when the revolution began which was to lead to the creation of the Soviet Union.
After the somewhat somber mood of St Petersburg, Helsinki was almost lighthearted. A jazz band played in the park near the city centre, couples sunbaked in the afternoon warmth, stallholders did a brisk trade in the waterfront markets and on the sweeping steps of Helsinki Cathedral, tourists posed and lovers linked hands.
The departure from Helsinki was memorable. We sailed around 6pm, had an early dinner and went back on deck.
It was uncharacteristically warm so we ordered Champagne and with some guests with whom we’d made friends, enjoyed the soft, golden light of a lingering twilight as the ship headed once more out into the Baltic.
The last port was Mariehamn, a small town of 11,000 people built between two bays and an autonomous part of Finland. We hired bikes and spent three hours pedalling through an idyllic countryside of lakes, fields, boathouses and distant timber homes.
Star Flyer berthed back in Stockholm in the early morning of the following day, threading her way through the hundreds of islands that surround this impressive city, to tie up in the city centre.
The ring? Offered and accepted on deck one sunlit afternoon somewhere in the Baltic Sea as Star Flyer heeled gently before the wind and all seemed at peace with the world.
Need to Know
Star Clippers operates three of the world’s largest and tallest sailing ships, Royal Clipper, Star Clipper and Star Flyer, offering passengers the activities, amenities and ambience of a private yacht. The ships follow the sun year-round visiting ports often untouched by big cruise ships in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and Cuba. For reservations contact your travel agent or Star Clippers on 1300 362 599.