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Oct. 19, 2018
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Baltic Revisited: Seventeen years after that tragic day

By Pamela A. Keene 

Editor’s note:
Seventeen years ago, Lakeside’s Senior Reporter Pamela Keene filed a story about her experiences around the tragic events of September 11, 2001. For her, the events unfolded one-third of the way around the world, while she was cruising the Baltic Sea. 
On a German-registered ship, dealing with rough seas, a below-decks cabin, typical Baltic cuisine, plus seasickness, she took photos of flags at half-staff in cities along the Baltic Coast, bunches of flowers piled at American-associated monuments and received kind words from strangers along the way. The ship was met by a brass band playing the “Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful” at ports including St. Petersburg, Russia, and Stockholm, Sweden. “I remember very little about the ports we visited after September 11 except for the bands, the flags at half-staff and the outpouring of sympathy from native people as we traveled,” she says. “We were all in shock, as was the rest of the world. I was ready to go back and experience the trip as a vacation.”
  
 
You probably remember exactly where you were on September 11, 2001, right? On that day 17 years ago, I was on a cruise in the Baltic Sea with a small group of other Americans, just leaving Tallinn, Estonia, for an overnight cruise to St. Petersburg, Russia. We reached the ship from the day’s excursion just minutes after the second plane hit. For the rest of the trip, nothing much seemed to matter except being glued to televisions broadcasting the BBC’s version of the tragedy. 
 
Fast-forward to August 2018. My husband Rick and I were once again on a Baltic Cruise with our friends Terri and Cal Andrews, who also live in Flowery Branch. What a difference 17 years makes. We booked passage on the Norwegian Breakaway, a modern, well-appointed cruise ship known for its cuisine and diverse on-board entertainment. Our balcony rooms on the 10th deck far exceeded my journey from 17 years ago on a German-based ship where my friend college friend Lynda Kirker from St. Augustine and I shared a very cramped below-decks windowless cabin for the week.
 
My first trip with Norwegian proved to be a treat beyond my expectations. Although we traveled with nearly 4,000 passengers, the layout of the ship, the restaurants, the amenities from the pools to the show venues, created a feeling of being on a much more intimate voyage. 
 
Norwegian’s new “Free-style” dining has done away with time-assigned seating in the main dining rooms, allowing us the flexibility of accommodating show times and our returns from off-ship excursions. It’s evident that Norwegian knows its travelers; menus were heavily American-based, but several nights of themed dining added such treats as lobster, prime rib and seafood selections. We were also served food specialties from the ports we visited. 
 
With more than a dozen specialty dining choices, featuring Angus beef, Italian, a Brazilian steak house, French, sushi and even Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, guests could eat at a different dinner location every evening and never repeat their choices. Again, the food was excellent. 
 
The staterooms were roomy, the bathrooms offered good-sized showers, and our cabin steward surprised us nightly with charming towel monkeys, seals and elephants, a trademark of cruising.
 
The shows were first-class, from the complimentary “Burn the Floor” dance showcase and Broadway’s “Rock of Ages” to the Atrium Café & Bar and Syd Norman’s Pour House where the amazing house band played everything from Kansas to the Rolling Stones, Elton John to Grace Slick. We spent several evenings at Syd’s singing along at the tops of our lungs.
 
For a very reasonable upcharge, we took in Cirque Dreams & Dinner Jungle Fantasy, seated stage-side for a surf-and-turf dinner, followed by extraordinary acrobatics and breath-taking costumes.
 
The next day’s “news” delivered to our cabin tempted us with a full schedule of activities for all ages, plus details on shows, excursions, the upcoming port and promotional opportunities.
 
As we began our trip in Copenhagen, arriving a full day before embarkment, we opted for a Hop-on Hop-Off bus and boat pass that included a 90-minute tour of the city by water and the chance to visit sites along the way at our leisure. Brochures help visitors make the most of the service.
 
After boarding the ship, we traveled to the seaside town of Warnemunde, Germany, then on to Tallinn, visiting a Medieval castle and dining on traditional fare and tasting locally made vodkas.
 
The weather was unseasonably warm – in the high 80s in the daytime and into the high 60s, low 70s at night. And, contrary to what we’d heard, rain was scant. In fact it only rained one morning, the day we visited Catherine’s Palace at the village of Tsarskoe Selo, about a 30-minute bus ride from St. Petersburg. Even then, the skies cleared with plenty of time to walk the beautifully manicured gardens and little palaces and enclosed pavilions that dotted the estate.
 
During World War II, the Germans destroyed and plundered the buildings and monuments, leaving Catherine’s Palace in ruins. Many of the rooms, including the famed Amber Room, have been restored to their original grandeur over the past 20 years. 
 
By far, the highlight of the trip was St. Petersburg, with two days in port experiencing Peter the Great’s creation of a world-class European city in Russia. We chose ship-sponsored excursions for an overview of St. Petersburg by water and land the first day. The excursion included The Church on the Spilled Blood, built to memorialize the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. I was eager to see the interior on this trip, because we didn’t 17 years ago. I was nearly overwhelmed by the more than 23,000 square feet of intricate mosaics that covered the ceiling, the walls and floors. It is one of the largest collections of mosaics in Europe. 
 
Seventeen years ago, we entered the port at St. Petersburg on September 12 to the sounds of a brass band playing “America the Beautiful.” It’s one of the few memories I have of that trip 17 years ago, because after the tragedy of September 11, everything from that point forward was a blur. 
 
Because of this cruise I was able to actually experience the Baltic as a vacation and finally see the rest of what I missed 17 years ago. The Norwegian Breakaway’s itinerary included Helsinki, Finland, and Stockholm, Sweden before we returned to Copenhagen for our flight home. 
 
This time, everything – and I mean everything – was different and so much better. The ship was new; it focused on the American experience on-board, the food was excellent, and the international staff aboard was friendly, accommodating and personable.
 
Recently, the Breakaway relocated to New Orleans to cruise the Caribbean for the fall and winter.

Even if you’re not into traveling to the Baltic, you can still experience all that Norwegian has to offer at reasonable pricing close to home. Norwegian is known for its promotions and special offers, so you can visit the website at www.ncl.com to sign up for emails and explore for your next vacation.

Posted online 9/28/18
 
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