Q – I have avoided cruises for most of my adult life, not wishing to attend any party I would be unable to leave at my choosing.  In February, my wife and I accepted an invitation to join her tennis group and their spouses on what seems to have been a stereotypical cruise of the Caribbean aboard what I would categorize as a “mass market” line.  The overall experience was good, despite the constant attempts to sell us wine tastings, overpriced aperitifs, gold and silver chains by the inch, photographs of every imaginable type and marked down tee shirts. The important outcome was that we grasped the concept far more positively than anticipated.  We very much enjoyed the relaxation, the comfort, the unpacking and packing but once, and would like to expand upon it.  Over the last few years we have planned vacations using travel agents from the Wendy Perrin list and were quite pleased.  At least one of them was affiliated with Virtuoso.  As we consider another cruise opportunity, it makes sense to follow suit, hence this email.

We are interested in a 2013 Baltic cruise utilizing one of the smaller ship cruise lines.  Of particular interest are Copenhagen, Stockholm, and St. Petersburg  food, comfort and unobtrusive service in a moderately casual setting are important factors, along with excellent shore excursions and compatible people.  We enjoy fine dining but don’t feel compelled to dress formally for the experience.  It is our hope that friends with whom we’ve traveled for over thirty years will join us.  We are very much open to your suggestions.

A – Well you’ve written a fairly accurate description of the hazards of mass market ships. They turn many sophisticated travelers off to the notion of cruising but you, to your credit, have picked up on the infinite possibilities of a vacation at sea ensconced in the bosom of a five star ship and crew. Based on your desire for quality, emphasis on relaxed dress, and our belief that any Baltic cruise ought to properly afford you three full days to enjoy the cultural treasures of St. Petersburg, all arrows in our quiver are pointing in the direction of Regent Seven Seas Cruises.

We should probably add one caveat. Cruise lines, even the better ones, almost never operate shore excursions. They contract with local operators in each port, a function of the Port Agent who represents their interests in each  port. Port agents usually work for several cruise lines. They negotiate and help select shore excursion offerings based on the criteria of each cruise line’s Shore Excursion Department. But if there is only one bus company in a city with the  number of air-conditioned buses and suitable guides to handle hundreds of guests at one time, that is the company the cruise line must use. So in many situations their hands are tied and it ends up that many cruise lines will offer the same basic history tours and overviews. The secret of enjoying a Baltic cruise is to have your days in St. Petersburg handled by a company that really knows what it is doing. We would suggest that you choose a cruise consultant for this particular cruise who is fully capable of making your time in Russia truly memorable.