Testing the Waters of a New Era on a Voyage to the Baltic States : The Kristina Regina takes 140 passengers on a first run to Tallinn, Riga and other ports of the former Soviet Union.

Kalosh is a Miami Beach-based free-lance writer

There's something extraordinary about an inaugural voyage--the first time a ship runs a new itinerary--particularly when it explores an exotic part of the globe. During a decade of cruising, first as a shipboard newspaper editor and later as a reporter covering the travel industry, I have generally been delighted by the passengers I've met on inaugural sailings. While most folks are content to sit back and wait until a new cruise offering is tried and true, there is always a small, daring group who seek out new adventures. Last summer was the first time the little Finnish vessel Kristina Regina offered its Baltic States cruise, bringing together such unlikely seafarers as Arthur, a Navy man turned theatrical producer; Ned, a professor of African politics who collects chess sets, and Elias and Lorraine, a retired Greek shipping tycoon and his chic wife. Also on board were Edythe, a cigar-smoking romance novelist from New York, several other authors and a Florida Cadillac salesman who was a dead ringer (no pun intended) for Robert Maxwell.

An 11-day cruise-tour promoted by New York-based EuroCruises, this Baltic sailing also was quite possibly the year's most dramatic itinerary because it featured some cities in the former Soviet Union that had not been visited by Western passenger ships since World War II. Our ports of call included Kaliningrad, which had been the East Prussian capital of Koningsberg up until the war, after which it was absorbed into the U.S.S.R. and isolated as a top-secret Russian naval base. We also sailed to the newly independent Baltic capitals of Tallinn, Estonia, and Riga, Latvia, just as they threw out the welcome mat to cruise ships, and we journeyed overland to Vilnius, Lithuania. Other ports were St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) in Russia, Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland, and Stockholm.

Last year, only one other cruise ship, Special Expeditions' Polaris, offered a similarly extensive itinerary. In 1993, more and bigger cruise vessels will be following Kristina Regina's and Polaris's pioneering lead. But to my mind, Kristina Regina features the most intriguing itinerary.

At a time when the tourism infrastructure of the Baltic lands is still developing, a cruise may be the ideal way to see these exotic "new" places without the risks of vanishing hotel reservations, inferior rooms and uncertain rail and bus connections.

I went alone but soon forged shipboard friendships with my quirky fellow passengers, each with his or her own delightful story. There was the Milwaukee man who discovered his family name, Wessels, on a street sign that had been dug from the bombed-out rubble of old Koningsberg--where his father had lived--and preserved in a new history museum housed in one of the city wall's ancient gates; the married couple whose Lithuanian dads had crossed paths decades ago on an ocean liner while emigrating to America; the trendy college student with pierced ear who was going to meet his Old World Latvian relatives; the Princeton languages professor who came to hear some new tongues.

I, too, had personal reasons for joining the cruise. I wanted to revisit Russia, my family's homeland. My previous trip to this part of the world had been with my father, a first-generation U.S. citizen who had revealed little of his heritage until we went to Leningrad, where he astounded me by conversing fluently with the little old ladies in babushkas.

We boarded the gleaming white Kristina Regina, the tiniest ship in Helsinki's bustling harbor, on a sparkling June afternoon. I was immediately charmed by the crew's friendly welcome and the old-fashioned feeling of the converted steam vessel, which was built in 1960 and fully refurbished in 1990.

The real beauty of the Kristina Regina is its compact size. Not only was it small enough for the passengers to develop esprit de corps , it was able to dock in the very heart of each port city--a big plus.

Although the Kristina Regina normally carries up to 400 European passengers on mini-cruises between Helsinki and Tallinn, occupancy is limited to 220 for the longer Baltic States itinerary, which is promoted mainly in the U.S., and operates summers only. (The cruise I went on had about 140 passengers.) Fewer passengers meant that cabins with two lower berths were available to each guest, and the dining room served everyone in one sitting.

One of the world's few family-run cruise operations, the Kristina Regina proved to be a refreshingly intimate vessel where the passengers dressed casually and Captain Mikko Partanen personally conducted the lifeboat drill. Partanen's brother, Esa-Pekka, is chief engineer and their sister, Anu, works in cruise sales.

"It's not our idea to grow into a big cruise line," the captain told me as we stood on the polished wood and brass bridge during an "open bridge" afternoon for the passengers. "There are already so many big cruise lines in the world. Anyway, we carry a different type of people. If you really want to be with 1,000 to 2,000 other passengers, you should choose another line."

After an overnight flight from New York on Finnair, our EuroCruises group had a day at leisure in the first-class Hotel Vaakuna in downtown Helsinki. The next day we toured the Finnish capital's historic Senate Square, the monument to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius and the Rock Church, a stunning Lutheran citadel carved from a hulk of granite. My favorite stop was Hvittrask Lake in the countryside and the lakeside museum-estate of a trio of noted Finnish architects.

That evening we sailed for Russia, navigating southeast across the Gulf of Finland. As we glided past the rocky, tree-lined islands of the Finnish archipelago, Captain Partanen threw a welcome-aboard cocktail party out on deck, with champagne and a live band.

He introduced us to Anneli Palokangas, a smiling, apple-cheeked Finnish tour guide fluent in five languages, who had been brought on as a hostess/cruise director to assist with the ship's first American contingent. Palokangas would be our mother hen for the next week--and a wonderfully witty and knowledgeable one at that. She had lived in St. Petersburg and in coming days we would marvel at how she navigated the city like a native.

Because of the Partanen family's long shipping ties with Russia, our vessel enjoyed special honors, such as a rousing welcome by a Russian Navy band as we docked at St. Petersburg. I had been at the rail for hours enjoying the navy yarns of Arthur, who had left the service to become 1629516904542274931rst clue as to how very much things had changed in Russia since my last visit in 1986.

We had two generous days to comb St. Petersburg, touring gold-domed St. Isaac's Cathedral and The Hermitage with its room after room of fabulous art treasures. Everywhere we went, Russian peddlers swarmed with nested dolls, lacquer boxes, fur hats, lapel pins, even military uniforms.

After nonstop days of sightseeing--we were in port nearly every day of this destination-intensive cruise--I was always glad to climb the gangway of the ship and be greeted with a huge grin from hostess Palokangas, who would leap from our tour bus to welcome us back on board. For dinner on the ship I would join Ned, the professor/chess set collector with whom I shared a table for two in the dining room. Being single travelers, Ned and I had been quite pleasantly matched up by the maitre d', Matti. Breakfast was served in the lower dining room, buffet-style. It was a bountiful Nordic cold board of cheeses, meats, jams, cereals and fresh-baked breads, plus hot eggs, sausages and porridge.

Lunch and dinner, in the upper dining room, were single seating. Although we had assigned tables, the casual atmosphere on board enabled Ned and me to occasionally invite new-found friends to join us and swap tales of the day's adventures. Four guests showing up at our table for two didn't seem to faze our efficient Finnish waiters who simply set extra places and grabbed more chairs. One noontime I arrived late to discover Ned had left me for the romance novelist at a nearby table.

The Finnish-accented cuisine earned high marks from passengers. Chef Veikko Honkasalo showcased Nordic specialties like smoked salmon and my personal favorite, a tart wild berry compote served with fresh whipped cream. For each meal we had a choice of two starters, two entrees, salads and desserts--not a vast selection compared to the seemingly endless menus of other ships, but I was satisfied and I never heard a complaint from my fellow passengers. Honkasalo easily accommodated my vegetarian diet by whipping up a new hot vegetable creation each night.

Our cabins were small and very basic with tiny private bathrooms with showers and no closets. The deluxe staterooms featured large windows and queen-sized beds (rather than berths), plus stocked mini-bars. Some passengers initially groused that their staterooms were too cramped, but with a busy itinerary keeping us ashore from sunrise to sunset, I found the accommodations adequate.

The ship had two saunas (his and hers), but no pool. I never found time to enjoy the sauna, but several passengers incorporated the Finnish custom into their daily routine. There also was a duty-free shop, a hairdresser, nurse, laundry and currency exchange (dollars were accepted on board).

One evening after dinner on the ship at St. Petersburg, we were whisked to a performance of "Swan Lake," by the Kirov Ballet at their theater downtown. Someone behind me was humming along to the music, and I was growing increasingly annoyed until I stole a glimpse of an ancient man with silver bristles on his chin, tapping his walking stick to the tune in a state of pure joy.

It was approaching midnight when the ballet let out, and we got a taste of the famous White Nights of St. Petersburg--balmy summer evenings when Russians swarm to the city's bridges and lose their cares in late-night revelry.

From St. Petersburg, Kristina Regina chugged southwest to Estonia, where we called at Tallinn, the capital. We strolled along the shady, cobblestone streets of the ancient Upper Town, where Lutheran and Russian Orthodox churches were being restored after a half-century of neglect.

Our visit coincided with a festival celebrating Tallinn's illustrious past as a member of the Hansa, the German merchant league which dominated Baltic trade in the Middle Ages. I wandered around the beer stands and met a woman in a richly embroidered gown and peaked red cap--her regional dress, she explained. We chatted in German, the second language for many Estonians.

We sailed from Tallinn to Riga by striking out in a wide western arc, beyond the large Estonian islands at the mouth of the Gulf of Riga, to avoid the channels which had not yet been swept of mines--a sad remnant of the Cold War. As we sailed up the narrow channel into Riga, bordered by freighters being unloaded, we heard singing from a trio of young women dressed in traditional long, embroidered Latvian gowns. They had come out to serenade the maiden call of the Kristina Regina.

Here, as with every other stop on our voyage (except Kaliningrad), we docked right downtown. Since all these cities were ancient capitals of Baltic shipping, it seemed fitting that we were getting our first glimpse of them from the sea--as they had been first sighted for centuries before.

Of all our ports of call, I was most charmed by the Latvian capital with its lavishly decorated buildings. One structure, flying the maroon and white Latvian flag, boasted an incredibly ornate art nouveau facade. A wrought iron black cat arched its back on the turret of a medieval guild building, while a statue of a boy reading a book perched on the roof of another. A crooked row of medieval merchants' houses called "Three Brothers" had narrow slits for windows and ugly stone faces to scare away the devil.

Our onshore guide, Nikolai, led us to a concrete wall his fellow Latvians had built the year before to protect their Parliament from the threat of Soviet troops. It was covered with graffiti such as "Red Army Go Home!"

I and the other passengers who chose the optional overland tour to Vilnius departed by bus from Riga for the five-hour drive across rolling green countryside dotted with haystacks where workers hoed the fields by hand.

Our group overnighted at two hotels in the Lithuanian capital, mine the Astoria. I went for an after-dinner stroll with Elizabeth, an American author married to a Finnish photographer. Just outside our hotel, a gang of drunken young thugs closed in--to intimidate rather than rob us. It was my only brush with street crime, although I had been warned of a rise in pick- pocketings throughout the Baltics.

The next day we visited several houses of worship in this "City of Churches." At a city cemetery in the Antakalnis area of Vilnius we stopped at the lovingly tended graves of patriots who had died the year before defending their homeland from Soviet troops, and a solemn mood spread through our group. We read the names and birthdates on the headstones and I choked back tears; some of the dead were in their 20s--younger than I.

Later we strolled the narrow streets of Vilnius' Old Town, licking 20-cent ice cream cones when Ned, the chess-set collector, was summoned to a "find." Ned, who owns chess pieces from around the world and is publishing a book on his hobby, constantly astounded us with his ability to sniff out a set. He picked up a dozen on this trip.

From Vilnius, our splinter group traveled west by bus across the Lithuanian border with Russia to rejoin the Kristina Regina at Kaliningrad (formerly Koningsberg), a city closed to outsiders until late 1991. For some older passengers, Kaliningrad--absorbed into the Soviet Union after World War II and subsequently forged into a naval stronghold--was the highlight of the cruise. Here we gazed at the city's cathedral ruins, which hold the tomb of native son Immanuel Kant, the philosopher, and visited a museum dedicated to Old Koningsberg, built in the remains of a city gate.

After the solemnity of Kaliningrad, the Swedish pleasure island of Gotland, situated about 200 miles northwest--smack in the middle of the Baltic--was a bright and colorful change. We sailed against a brisk headwind, across a bounding sea. In the afternoon we bundled up in sweaters and draped ourselves across deck chairs to tan our faces while the ship's band played jazz tunes in the brilliant sun. Visby's cheerful harbor was crammed with sporty yachts--quite a contrast to the gray steel of the Russian Navy ships and the drab hulls of the freighters we encountered in our earlier ports.

A day in the Swedish capital on the mainland followed. As we docked smack in Stockholm's Old Town, a Minnesota woman beamed at seeing her homeland for the first time since she was a child. It was a sort of homecoming for me, too, as I had lived in Sweden several years ago. I can't think of a more stunning place to come back to than the Swedish capital on a sunny day. I left the Kristina Regina in Stockholm, but the ship, and the cruise, continued back to Helsinki.

Since the cruise, I've heard from several passengers, an unexpected surprise since shipboard friendships often end at the gangway. This has reinforced my feelings about the special nature of our voyage.

"This type of cruise attracts the adventure-seeker," acknowledged Bjarne Mikkelsen, president of EuroCruises. Some of the passengers I got to know had come to collect countries, some to collect relatives, some to discover their past. One came to collect chess sets. Our common thread was we all came to see the Baltic lands as they should be seen--by sea.

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