Motley crew of 12 pals cruises Baltic ports

COPENHAGEN - The sightseeing boat was halfway down the cafe-lined canal when the pilot started back toward the pier. "We have to pick up more people," the guide said. As we neared the mooring, we started yelling. "It's Sam!"

In a city of a million people, the latecomers turned out to be companions on our 10-day Baltic cruise.

That free-wheeling ability to come and go as you please had convinced our motley crew of 12 that a cruise vacation just might work.

It's not as though we're best friends since childhood, after all. We just met at a bagel shop.

The Baltic cruise was ringleader John's idea, broached a year before the sailing date. There were demurrers: Bad economy, been there before, didn't like cruising. Eventually, only one regular couple bowed out.

Now here we were, wandering amid pastel rowhouses and the Danish royal treasury, chowing down on $20 burgers and $10 beers - the exchange rate is vicious - before we embarked on our voyage to the port cities of northern Europe.

We sailed aboard the Crown Princess. Our 10-night itinerary would take us to Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Tallinn, Gdansk and Warnemünde (about 21/2 hours from Berlin), then back to Copenhagen.

Before our trip, we'd traded research on ports and devised a plan. In most cities, we'd each wander at will. In the two most complicated destinations, St. Petersburg and Berlin, we maximized our time and group buying power by arranging private tours. In Gdansk, we opted for a ship-arranged walking tour. By night, we'd meet for dinner and recap the day.

In Stockholm, we split up, some taking off for the Vasa Museum, with its intact 17th-century warship, others for the colorful Gamla Stan (Old Town) and the fantastic interiors of the City Hall, home to the annual Nobel Prize dinner.

In Helsinki, Donna and John toured the city with a guide they raved about, while Bob and Lori opted for a reindeer lunch. Others hit arts sites - the remarkable underground Rock Church, the Kiasma contemporary art museum, and Emil Wikstrom's striking art deco statues at the entrance to the train station, designed by Eliel Saarinen.

Tallinn proved a medieval treasure box of long views across terra-cotta roofs and a sky pierced by spires. In our few hours in port, we scurried into Europe's oldest Gothic town hall, bargained for sweaters and shawls, and slipped beneath the fanciful domes of the imposing St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

We caught Gdansk on the first day of the annual St. Dominic's Fair, a 700-plus-year-old street festival with craft and food stalls and a parade of medieval knights and damsels.

But the trip's highlights clearly were St. Petersburg and Berlin, where we'd arranged private tours for our longer-than-usual port stops. Not that either was nearly long enough. We dashed from site to site, strolling at some, simply driving by others.

Our two days in St. Petersburg were barely enough to make it to the most famous czarist haunts. At the spectacular Easter-egg-blue Catherine Palace, we marveled at the majesty of the gilt interior, restored from rubble after World War II. Nearby, Paul's Palace was a delicate jewel box of Wedgwood-like ceilings and inlaid floors. The sprawling gilded fountains of Peterhof, the elaborately painted vaults of St. Isaac's Cathedral, the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, and the tombs of the czars - all went by in a whirl.

The 21/2-hour ride from the ship to Berlin proved well worth it, thanks to guide Richard Campbell. For decades, Campbell worked there for the U.S. government in jobs he never quite explained. His "back stories" added perspective to the smart modern architecture, the historic Reichstag building and Brandenburg Gate, the new Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the remnants of the Wall, and the policies that built and sustained it.

Given the exchange rate, a cruise was the only reasonable way to see Europe - at least in high season. With modest hotels priced $150 and up and an unremarkable dinner more than $50 without beer or wine, a similar trip on our own would have cost a small fortune.

Cruising the Baltic

Baltic cruises typically are offered April-September; prime time is July. Details below are for July departures from Copenhagen. Prices are per person, double occupancy; taxes and fees add $150 per person.

Princess Cruises. Our 10-day cruise aboard the Crown Princess (about 3,100 passengers) sailed from Copenhagen and included stops in Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg (2 days), Tallinn, Gdansk and Warnemünde (for Berlin). A similar Princess cruise in July starts around $2,000.

Azamara: Our pick for best itinerary - 12 days, with two days in Stockholm and three days in St. Petersburg on the line's Journey (about 700 passengers). July prices from $2,499.

- Jane Wooldridge