Ten years ago almost to the day, fresh out of a divorce with two tiny children, I fled Cape Town to my parents’ adopted home town of Prince Albert in a bid to garner some support for my decision. However, my mother’s friend Lisa Smith was a source of zero sympathy. ‘How lucky and how lovely,’ she exclaimed. ‘You get to focus entirely on your children now and, when they’re in their teens, you can go on cruises!’
A decade later I’m sitting in the exquisitely appointed Palm Deck of the Crystal Symphony, a glass of French champagne at my elbow, looking out at the picturesque harbour town Warnemünde, Germany, about to go cruising. Not unlike Hermanus, this pretty little port town was the embarkation point for what was to be the trip of a lifetime through the Baltic over European midsummer. There is simply nothing to compare to listening to the sound of Louis Armstrong’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ flooding a six-star luxury cruise liner as your dashing captain announces from the bridge that you have now set sail for St Petersburg, Russia.
Stepping on to the Crystal Symphony is about as breathtaking as the itinerary, and for a bunch of bedraggled South African journalists all trussed up in the ubiquitous K-Way puffy jackets after 24 hours of travelling, it was almost too much to bear as we were ushered onto the ship with its multiple-volume waterfall feature, transparent crystal grand piano and sweeping staircase.
We eased ourselves into it; we were breathlessly polite and ordered sparingly. But, finally we capitulated and leapt about from delight to delight. A sauna, a steam room, and restaurants on every level, from the casual bistro serving neverending platters of smoked salmon and perfectly ripened brie to the extraordinary Silk Road – A Nobu restaurant that literally had us weeping.
It took a day and a half of sailing to reach St Petersburg. We’d spent an afternoon in Warnemünde, a short walk from the ship, prior to leaving, where we had marvelled at the perfectly lined up beach huts and endless harbour-side restaurants serving the most delicious deep-fried fish burgers while taking in the sheer joy that is Europe in the summertime.
We arrived in St Petersburg early in the morning and dragged ourselves (in our K-Way jackets) away from the groaning breakfast buffets and beaming butlers to set off on a two-day tour of the sights of St Petersburg. We had pooh-poohed the idea of going on something organised, but I cannot recommend a guided tour highly enough. St Petersburg is vast, everything is quite obviously in Russian, and you can forget logging on to any Wi-Fi, anywhere.
We swept through St Petersburg’s dazzling array of palaces and museums. It was a whirlwind of beauty, of summer and winter palaces, churches, squares, bridges and history. A moment did not go past where we did not feel the pain of history, of the Siege of Leningrad, of love lost and won, and of people who died too young. It is remarkable in its beauty and somewhat strange in its darkness. On the evening we set sail from St Petersburg to Estonia, leaving the romances of the tsars and tsarinas behind us, I stood on the balcony of my state room, with Billy Joel’s ‘Leningrad’ on top volume on my iPhone and watched the sun not set behind me, feeling utterly ‘hashtag blessed’.
Dawn brought Estonia, and the exquisite town of Tallinn. it is completely mediaeval, but, according to Google, it is also among the top 10 digital cities in Europe with an eye-wateringly large number of start-ups per capita and home to the invention of Skype. It also has a Depeche Mode bar. Tallinn escapes being cutesy by virtue of the sheer sunniness of the people and the place. Everybody is cheerful – it’s like a little bubble of the Baltic where the inhabitants lack the darkness of Russia, but are not as ‘cool’ as the Swedes.
Back on the ship, our little on-board community included a colourful variety of wonderful people who I will go to great lengths to assure you, were not old. Couples in their 30s and 40s with small children and recalcitrant teenagers were not the exception, while the rest of the passengers ranged from a group of young women in their mid-twenties to a selection of wealthy Texans led by a lady named Trudy.
No detail is spared on board and the generosity is bountiful. Every single meal and the provenance of its ingredients is exquisite. You are not simply fed: you’re treated to a gastronomic experience at every meal. The temptation to be greedy is encouraged, and if you loved the little scallop and beluga caviar delight that you had seven starters ago and would like three more, you are welcome.
If formal dining is not your cup of tea, room service, a burger bar, a heaving buffet alongside the pool and an ice cream pop-up are all there for your delight. If getting up is too hard, someone will bring it to you. Feeling sporty? By all means, play tennis, take part in an aerobics class or go for a run on the best and most beautiful track in the world, the deck of the Crystal Symphony – the ship that provides the ultimate in luxury.
Visit crystalcruises.com for more information.