I stopped a crew member and asked her what language they were speaking. “Russian,” she said. She apologized that the passenger had not translated his proposal into English.
But he didn’t need to. For two days, I had been bobbing along in a sea of foreignness and unfamiliarity. The Romantika, which travels daily between Stockholm and Riga, Latvia, falls somewhere between cruise and ferry. I had a cabin but paid extra for meals and drinks, including such essential liquids as water, tea and coffee. I didn’t have an entourage of tip-collecting crew members ready to fulfill all my needs; I had to make up my Murphy bed myself, for instance. In the onboard supermarket, I could fill a full-size shopping cart with bottles of booze and cases of beer, Latvian and Swedish delicacies, and a tote bag that read, “I’ve crossed the Baltic Sea.” The sun deck didn’t have a pool, and sometimes not much sun, and the spa sold alcohol. I didn’t ask why; I just ordered a cold one after my steam and drank it under a moody Baltic sky.
Tallink Grupp, the Estonian operator , runs several seafaring excursions from Stockholm to destinations across the Baltic Sea, such as Riga; Tallinn, Estonia; and Helsinki and Turku in Finland. The Riga excursion takes about 40 hours. You board in the late afternoon, arrive at your destination the following morning, re-board later that day and wake up in your original port city. The trip was so quick, I didn’t bother switching to Latvian time, which is an hour ahead of Sweden.
The mini-cruises are a popular jaunt. Last year, more than 9.7 million passengers sailed with Tallink, one of two cruise lines run by the company of the same name. (The other is Silja, which covers a Nordic route.) In July, I was one of more than 1.2 million passengers who crossed the Baltic, including nearly 98,000 to Riga. The ships depart from Värtahamnen, a port that primarily handles ferries and not the leviathans that park closer to the city center. The terminal is modern and clean but has few diversions for someone who arrives eight hours early. I drank coffee in the cafeteria (15 minutes), browsed the gift shop (another 10 down) and stared at the docked ships (90 seconds), which resembled traditional cruise ships but without the deck toys. With more than seven hours to go, I stashed my luggage in a locker and ventured over the bridge to Millesgarden, the former home of Swedish sculptor Carl Milles and his artist wife, Olga . The museum provided several hours of distraction, plus a crucial vantage point: I could see the ship from the sculpture garden and make sure it wasn’t leaving without me.
Unlike the mayhem of U.S. cruise terminals, boarding in Stockholm was as easy as walking through a subway turnstile. No X-ray machines, lengthy check-ins or run-ins with overly enthusiastic crew members. Beyond a polite greeting, I was basically ignored, even by the ginger-haired character in the red swing dress and topknot (Pippi Longstocking with looser locks?) idling by the gangplank.
I had booked a B-class cabin, the least expensive category and probably one of the hardest to find on the 2,500-passenger ship. My interior stateroom was wedged deep in the center of the ship, like the smallest figure in a set of Russian nesting dolls. The 86-square-foot room was furnished with a red couch that faced a Murphy bed, a table and round stool, some storage, and a small Panasonic TV. On the back wall, a mirror created the illusion of space, though I did spook myself a few times with my reflection. The sliver of a bathroom was perfectly suited for a family of Flat Stanleys. For amenities, I had a shower squeegee and one towel folded in the shape of . . . a towel.
The captain didn’t hold a pre-departure safety drill, so I headed straight for the top deck to watch the Romantika cut loose from Sweden. Passengers bundled up in hoodies and leather jackets sat by the railing and on scattered chairs and benches. They ate Pringles from the can, drank beer and smoked downwind. I watched the shoreline deindustrialize from waterfront developments to pristine forests. Seagulls cried, the only familiar sound besides the crunch of potato chips.
Typically, I use the darkening sky as a prompt to go inside for dinner, but the late-setting sun threw off my internal clock. So instead, the chill in the air became my cue to go below deck. For meals, I could choose from grab-and-go at Fast Lane (open 24 hours), Russian cuisine at Romantika a la Carte, stick-to-your-ribs dishes at the Grill House and a global feast at the Grande Buffet. On the wall, a trilingual menu scrolled through nearly 100 items in the dinner buffet. I had to read fast or quickly learn the Swedish and Latvian words for, say, “cold smoked reindeer mousse on rye bread” and “pickled Baltic herring with juniper berries.”
While many passengers were dining in the first buffet seating, I visited the spa and handed over $5 for an hour-long pass. I had neglected to pack a bathing suit and was planning to wear gym clothes when I learned that I could rent a suit. The blue one-piece would never earn a spot in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, but it cost only $2.75.
I was the sole woman in the locker room, dry sauna and steam room, but a dad and his young son joined me in the hot tub, which sat in the middle of the lobby. The child behaved like a jumping fish, leaping from the water to the edge of the tub to the floor. Every few minutes, his father would attempt to catch his slippery body in the net of his hands. He apologized several times in broken English. The boy, meanwhile, flashed me an impish smile.
I didn’t last the full hour. I started to feel too hot, too puckered and too exposed. So, with damp hair and mushy muscles, I wended my way to the Starlight Palace for the first evening program: “Discover your destination city.” After more than a half-dozen cruises, I have grown wary of sightseeing talks. Typically, the expert hawks the ship’s pricey shore excursions and raves about the jewelry store that is semi-secretly affiliated with the cruise line. But on the Romantika, the hard sell never came. We watched a daffy video that featured a man dressed as a captain fishing for seafood in the supermarket and a woman searching for swans at the ballet. By the end of the film, I still didn’t know what to see or buy in Riga, but I would definitely purchase a ticket to a Latvian comedy show.
After the screening, two crew members — one Latvian, the other Swedish — appeared onstage and started shouting out the names of passengers celebrating birthdays.
“Where is Olga?” the Swede asked the crowd. “Olga?”
Olga never materialized and missed the flute of champagne and serenade of “Happy Birthday” in three languages.
“Hip, hip, hurray,” we shouted in unison.
The Baltic Dancers took the stage next. The troupe of women and men tumbled and twirled their way through a Latvian love story.
“If you want to marry a Latvian girl,” the Latvian crew member told the audience, “you have to go through her brothers.”
The break-dancing brothers eventually gave their blessing, and a white wedding ensued. And then we danced. To Abba and Elvis and Modern Talking, a 1980s throwback. Children with no bedtimes bounced alongside adults with no inhibitions. We formed a circle, hands interlocking, and spun around and around to “Mamma Mia.”
I dragged myself to bed, fumbling with the strap on the Murphy bed, and awoke to the voice of a crew member rattling off announcements. She informed us that we were arriving in Riga in 90 minutes. That breakfast was available. That bus drivers should head to their vehicles and passengers departing for good should leave their doors open. I shut mine tightly.
With only six hours on the ground, I needed to be efficient. I found a free walking tour that started at noon, an hour after our arrival, and left from St. Peter’s Church, a 20-minute walk from the port. The excursion was supposed to last for 2½ hours, but our guide, who declared that “Latvians don’t do small talk,” went into overtime. I spent the remainder of the afternoon at the central market, wishing I had euros so I could buy cherries and wool mittens.
For the return to Stockholm, I claimed a spot by the railing and watched the trip in reverse. I reconnected with a Swedish couple I had met at the pub the night before. Months earlier, they had taken the mini-cruise to Tallinn. I asked how Riga compared.
“Riga is more compact, and they have no money to take care of the buildings,” the husband told me. “You should go to Tallinn.”
“We are a bit tired,” the wife added, as she pushed away a half-finished pint of beer.
My floor was rowdier on the second night, but my cabin muted the hooting and hollering. I awoke to the same series of announcements as the previous morning. I went to the sun deck to watch the cars, trucks and people stream out of the ship and disappear into Stockholm. This time, I left my door open.
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If you go
Where to cruise
10 Hamnpirsvägen, Stockholm
The company’s two ships ply the Baltic Sea between Stockholm and Riga. With the Day in Riga cruise, spend two nights on the ship and one day in the Latvian capital. A cabin on the Isabelle starts at about $98 per person, round trip. For meals, you can pay a la carte (the buffet costs about $40 for dinner and $14 for breakfast; other dining venues charge per menu item) or add about $95 for a meal package with two breakfasts and two dinners. My July cruise on the Romantika cost about $186 round trip, plus meals.
What to do
Riga Free Tour
The tour outfitter leads three tours of Riga: Old Riga, Alternative and Art Nouveau (May 1-Sept. 30). The Alternative tour, which lasts up to three hours, meets at St. Peter’s Church at noon, perfect timing for Tallink cruise passengers. The group also offers bike tours for about $22. No charge for the walking tours, but tipping is encouraged.