A cruise wasn’t even a contender when my 8-year-old daughter, Meenakshi, and I were planning our summer vacation. The two cruises I had taken more than 15 years ago had left me certain that I would never go on another. I craved the freedom to explore a destination untethered by time constraints, but how do you do that on a cruise when you have a deadline to be onboard by late afternoon before the ship departs for the next port?
Yet there we were on a 13-day voyage from Stockholm to Hamburg on Crystal Cruises’s Crystal Symphony, then a 922-passenger vessel (it now accommodates 848 after a renovation). Through my work as a travel writer, I had learned about an increasingly popular style of cruising where boats spend longer days and overnights in ports. They’re for travelers who want the conveniences and amenities of a ship, but are more interested in spending time onshore than they are onboard.
Who knew that Meenakshi and I would be those travelers? We had two weeks off and wanted to take a fun mother-daughter trip to Europe but didn’t want to grapple with the slew of flights we’d have to take to visit multiple cities or the constant unpacking and packing involved on such a trip.
On the other hand, using a ship as a mode of transport to see several cities at a relaxed pace was a vacation that sounded appealing, and just like that, I was on a cruise again.
I picked an itinerary that I thought would satisfy us both: Two-day stops in Stockholm and Copenhagen, which are known for their child-friendly attractions, and three days in St. Petersburg, a city I had wanted to visit ever since I had learned Russian history in college almost two decades ago. Helsinki wasn’t of particular interest, but we would only be there for a day after Stockholm.
The 51,000-ton Symphony wasn’t a mega ship in the vein of those akin to mini cities, but with eight levels open to passengers (an additional five levels are for staff and storage), it had all the amenities that are often a draw of big boats. There was a pool to entertain us, and a library, nightclub, movie theater, casino, several restaurants and a spa.
Never mind these frills. There would be upward of 18 hours of daylight at Symphony’s ports of call, a fortunate happenstance coinciding with our trip, and the plan was to seize the long days to explore these destinations to the fullest.
The trip began in Stockholm. Symphony was docked a 15-minute drive from the city’s downtown, and we boarded around noon, having flown in from New York a few hours earlier. After a bevy of greetings from smiling crew members, a porter ushered us to our light-filled stateroom.
Instead of getting acquainted with our surroundings, we hurried to grab lunch in the main dining room so that we could head out for an afternoon of sightseeing. Although Crystal offers group excursions at every port, I was fairly certain that most weren’t likely to keep a fidgety 8-year-old engaged for long, and so I booked private guides for portions of our journey; we explored on our own the rest of the time. I arranged these guides about a month before the cruise — I went through Crystal’s online planning center for the ones in Stockholm and Copenhagen and used a reference from a friend for our guide in St. Petersburg. The guides cost up to a few hundred dollars more than group tours, but given that they could accommodate our specific interests, I didn’t mind.
Our Stockholm guide, Linda Naslund, gave us a sense of the city’s geography of 14 islands connected by more than 50 bridges with a leisurely drive. We stopped at Junibacken, a museum devoted to Swedish children’s literature, namely works by Astrid Lindgren, who wrote one of Meenakshi’s favorite books, “Pippi Longstocking.” From there, we walked to the Vasa Museum to see the nearly intact 17th-century Vasa, a massive ship that sank early in her maiden voyage.
Symphony’s proximity to the city gave us the flexibility to go quickly back and forth between the two, and we recovered from the jet lag that was starting to set in with a nap in our stateroom.
Later, we made traditional Swedish peppermint sticks at Gamla Stans Polkagriskokeri, a family-run candy store in the city’s medieval center, Gamla Stan (the shop is temporarily closed and is scheduled to reopen this fall). In a state of mint-and-sugar euphoria, we walked through the neighborhood’s streets, which were crowded with locals finding their way into restaurants and bars for a sun-filled night out.
A flurry of activity ensued the next morning and afternoon, but the best parts were seeing the wild Nordic animals such as moose and lynx cubs at Skansen, a sprawling open-air museum and zoo covering five centuries of Swedish history, and our bike ride underneath the bright sun along the city’s canals.
We raced back to Symphony before its 3 p.m. departure. In “Shipping Out,” a piece by the essayist and novelist David Foster Wallace about a luxury cruise he took, published in Harper’s Magazine in 1996, he described his ship’s departure as “a not untasteful affair of crepes and horns.” Ours, in contrast, was free of such fanfare: Following a safety briefing, we were off.
Up until now, our third day into the trip, we hadn’t familiarized ourselves with Symphony. We had also ignored the two newsletters placed outside our door each day — “Reflections” detailed the ship’s movies, classes, guest speakers, nightly shows and other happenings for adults; “Surf Runner” had the lineup for children. Although travelers over 50 are Crystal’s most popular cruisers, summer itineraries attract families with young children, and our trip had around 40 other children within a five-year age range of Meenakshi.
In the little downtime we had throughout our trip, Meenakshi raced to the kid’s club, Fantasia, for activities like jewelry-making, mural painting and scavenger hunts. I kept busy with work or by hitting the gym. I also used every last second of the hour of daily Wi-Fi included in the cost of the cruise — all of the line’s voyages now include unlimited Wi-Fi, and if this had been the case on my itinerary, I likely would have spent a lot more time on my computer and phone. (It’s a blessing that it wasn’t because enjoying my surroundings, and not being glued to a screen, was the point of going away in the first place.)
Crystal’s cruises are all-inclusive, and the food, drinks (including premium alcohol) and staff gratuities are included in the cruise price. This approach presented a conundrum: When we had to be on board, we enjoyed the freedom it afforded us — I could order as much wine or whiskey as I wanted, and, for Meenakshi, there were unlimited scoops of Ben Jerry’s from the ship’s ice cream stand. But when we were docked overnight in cities with fantastic restaurants, it was hard to justify paying to dine in them when we could easily head to the ship for sustenance. We ultimately ended up finding a balance between the two.
The meals we did have onboard were delicious and unstuffy. Though smart attire was suggested for dinner, dressing up wasn’t mandatory. And we could choose to be seated with others or dine alone (we picked the latter). The menu in the main dining room changed nightly. One evening was lobster night (two for me, thank you for very much), and on another occasion, we ate simple ravioli in a chunky tomato sauce and grilled sea bass on a bed of sautéed spinach.
The standout dinner on Symphony was at Silk Road, a Japanese restaurant from Nobu Matsuhisa, the chef behind the popular restaurant chain Nobu (Mr. Matsuhisa’s restaurant is now called Umi Uma Sushi Bar). I ordered three plates of the yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño, incredulous that this pricey appetizer at Nobu’s namesake restaurants was free for all here. Silk Road was one of the ship’s two so-called specialty restaurants; the other, Prego, served Italian food, and a meal at each was included in the cruise fare.
Oh, and those midnight buffets, a tradition on so many large cruise ships? They didn’t exist on Symphony. Meenakshi and I had midnight feasts, sure, but they were of our own design: warm chocolate chip and toffee cookies in our stateroom through room service while we watched movies borrowed from the ship’s DVD library.
In St. Petersburg
Following a stop in Helsinki, Symphony spent three days in St. Petersburg, and they were the heart of the trip. To me, the city matched Paris in both beauty and number of attractions, and we tried to take in as much of its majestic feel as we could. A hydrofoil ride down the Neva River took us to Peterhof Palace, often called the Russian Versailles because of its extensive gardens filled with ornate fountains. We also saw the ancient gold-filled rooms at the Treasury Gallery at the Hermitage Museum and the sparkly jewel-encased Easter eggs at the Faberge Museum.
At home, Meenakshi’s bookshelf was adorned with a bright red matryoshka or Russian nesting doll that a friend had given her; in St. Petersburg, we painted our own matryoshkas with a local artist, Tatyana, in her studio. We also toured the immaculately clean Metro stations and marveled at their gilded columns and frescoed walls, and caught a ballet performance of “Anna Karenina,” based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy, at Mariinsky II, a concert hall that opened a few years ago as an addition to the original 19th-century Mariinsky Theater. And with the light still bright, we pulled late-nighters with 11 p.m. dinners at local restaurants and 1 a.m. strolls along the Neva, ice cream cones in hand.
Back at Sea
The full day at sea en route to Copenhagen was a relief after the nonstop sightseeing, even for a restless personality like me. Onboard diversions were at their peak, and Meenakshi was in kid’s club heaven. I splurged on an aromatherapy massage and acupuncture session at the spa. And for the first time I canvassed the ship and chatted with other passengers.
While browsing through the library’s collection of more than 5,000 books, I saw a family from Vail, Colo., with two teenage boys who I recognized from our bus tour in Helsinki, the only group excursion we took. It turned out that they were on three consecutive cruises spanning a month. On the top deck while snapping pictures of the Baltic Sea, I bumped into a group of Indians from Australia who raved about Symphony’s vegan Indian cuisine. Over a lunch of burgers and fries at the ship’s burger bar, Trident, Meenakshi and I chatted with an older British couple from Manchester who told us that they were on their 25th cruise but new to Crystal.
The day was a chance to become a part of ship life, but with the extensive time we spent docked, getting too involved with Symphony’s rhythm, which is typical on most cruises, was optional. I viewed this as a positive: When I wanted to hang out with my fellow cruisers or enjoy a glass of pre-dinner Champagne without having to pay for it, I could; when I wanted to stay away and spend my time with Meenakshi at port, I was free to do so, too.
Our room attendant, Paulo, had informed us at the beginning of the trip that destination-focused itineraries like ours saw a mix of travelers. “Some hang out onboard and want to make new best friends, and others are never on the ship unless they need to be,” he said.
Copenhagen was Symphony’s last stop before the cruise ended in Hamburg, and, like Stockholm, the city seemed almost designed for children. Meenakshi and I were delighted by Tivoli Gardens, an amusement park dating to the 19th century. We rode the 1914 wooden roller coaster and also drove the bright red dragon boats on Tivoli Lake, the picturesque man-made body of water at the center of the park.
Meenakshi would tell you that her biggest thrill in Copenhagen was going to the National Aquarium and feeding the two sea otters, Mojoe and Agnes. Mine was the early-morning run I took right from our boat, which was docked near the city center. I ran past the famous Little Mermaid, a bronze mermaid statue by the Danish sculptor Edvard Eriksen, through a dense green public park and then by Noma, the restaurant that dazzles food fans around the world.
In one way, the trip was no different from others I had taken. In my urgency to see and do as much as possible, I never stopped to fully appreciate the journey as Meenakshi and I were living it. She, on the contrary, had squeezed my hand at various points along the way and said, “Can you believe, Mom, that we’re here? Isn’t it so awesome, Mom?”
In reflecting on his cruise, Mr. Wallace wrote, “I have seen 500 upscale Americans dance the Electric Slide. I have seen sunsets that looked computer-enhanced. I have (very briefly) joined a conga line.”
My reflection came when we got home, and in some ways, it evoked Mr. Wallace’s. We did see dancing, but it was at the ballet in St. Petersburg, and rather than catching sunsets, we reveled in long stretches of sunlight. We joined lines, but they were for attractions that we couldn’t wait to see. Yes, Meenakshi, it’s awesome that we were on that cruise. Given the chance, I would do it all over again.
If You Go
Crystal Cruises offers several voyages a year where boats spend multiple days at ports. Prices start at $2,500 a person, and include meals, alcohol and gratuities. Children 17 and under sail free on select voyages when traveling with two paid adults.
Azamara Club Cruises is focused on destination immersion, and most voyages include late-night and/or overnight port stops. Prices average $300 per person per day, and include alcohol, gratuities and shuttle transportation from the ships to city centers.
The French cruise line Ponant offers several voyages a year where boats spend multiple days at ports. Prices start at $1,350 a person, and include meals, alcohol and gratuities.
In St. Petersburg, Exeter International specializes in custom private tours. Prices per day for two people, including a car and driver, guide and admission to attractions, starts at $700.