One of the striking advantages of ocean cruising, if you pick the right itinerary, is the unrivalled ability to hop-scotch your way around a vast array of destinations, eagerly sampling the respective ports of a call.
Consider it like window-shopping on an epic scale. Not only can tick off a spree of countries in a few short days, but it gives you the opportunity to size up what destinations particularly pique your interest and warrant a more extended foray on a future trip.
A star specimen is Princess Cruises' 11 day Scandinavia and Russia cruise.
Plying the storied Baltic Sea, this wonderful ocean adventure strings together a glittering necklace of storied capitals in seven countries, some more riveting than others.
I embarked on this sublime voyage on-board one of Princess Cruises' Royal-class ships that was christened by the original Love Boat cast. Offering a range of activities, multiple swimming pools and hot tubs along with incredible on-board dining and entertainment, the salivating selection of ports of call all combine to produce a supreme ocean cruise experience.
It is unquestionably one of the best Scandinavian cruises on the market with just right mix of port days and sea days to stimulate you and relax you, in equal measure.
Departing from instantly seductive Copenhagen, this masterly itinerary threads together Stockholm, Helsinki, Warnemunde (Berlin), Tallinn, St. Petersburg and disembarks in Oslo.
They're all such walkable and compact city centres, packed with eye-catching sights and an infectious atmosphere. Two days are spent at sea, but the runaway highlight for me was St. Petersburg, where the ship docks for two entire days.
Best of all, despite sleeping overnight in Russian waters, I didn't need a visa to visit Russia as a Princess Cruise passenger. You've probably heard horror stories about the lengthy, cumbersome red-tape process independent travellers to Russia frequently encounter, which is why venturing to St. Petersburg with Princess Cruises' is such a blissfully winning proposition. No pesky bureaucracy to worry about!
To maximise the two days in Russia, I opted for two fabulous shore excursions, one which encompassed the breath-taking Hermitage Museum and Church of the Spilled Blood, while on the second day, the radiant splendour of Peterhof Palace & Gardens. If your itching to visit Vladimir Putin, another option is to take a day-trip to Moscow.
Showcasing the very best of Scandi culture, Baltic charm and Russian grandeur, this itinerary truly is a blockbuster Princess Cruises' experience. In 2020, the route will be serviced by the newest ship in the Royal-class fleet, Sky Princess.
There's more pool, hot tub and lounge space on the ship than on any of the earlier Royal Class stablemates.
The configuration to the main public decks is in keeping with other Royal Class vessels, albeit with a lighter colour scheme palette of neutral creams, browns and blues, and a few pops of yellow and orange. thrown in for good measure. As is Princess tradition, nothing is too gaudy or flashy – it is class personified.
A new addition to the dining arsenal, and its plethora of venues, is the French eatery, Bistro Sur La Mer, with dishes by chef Emmanuel Renaut (whose French Alps restaurant sports three Michelin stars). In a location that had been a lounge on earlier Royal Class ships, it comes with a $29 per person cover charge, just like the signature Crown Grill steakhouse. The Wheelhouse Bar has been renamed the Crown Grill Bar with a daring new line-up of mixology concoctions.
Other innovations include the addition of a jazz venue next to the casino; a revamped Gelato outlet and refreshed menu at the line's extra-charge Italian restaurant, Sabatini's. Princess is also joining the escape room craze with its first escape room on a ship, although in keeping with its classy ethos, you won't find a floating theme park laced with roller-coasters on Princess vessels. What a blessing.
Much as we may virtuously yearn for a digital detox, it's hard to stay off the grid for long. Princess has radically enhanced its wifi offering, with super-fast and stable speeds now allowing you to even stream Netflix, in your stateroom.
Sky Princess is an ultra tech-savvy ship, purpose-built to work with the line's cutting-edge suite of Ocean Medallion features, which includes the ability to order a vast array of food and drinks to any place you happen to be on the vessel via the app. It's like Uber Eats at sea. Plus the medallion app acts like a beacon, enabling you to find and chat with friends and family, wherever they happen to be hanging out on the ship.
More than 7000 sensors embedded around the vessel pick up the signals emitted by the poker chip-sized medallions, that you wear on your wrist. They'll open your cabin door as you approach it, you can book excursions on the app and can settle your bills with seamless transactions.
Many more tech-smart innovations are in the pipeline. Sky Princess boasts giant twin Sky Suites, the biggest ever suites equipped on a Princess ship, lording over the main pool, with sweeping wraparound balconies. Standard-sized suites have increased in popularity, too.
I plumped for a balcony cabin, well-appointed and generously equipped with a desk, mini-fridge, shower room and good-sized wardrobe.
Sailing out of such wondrous watery worlds, flecked in craggy islets, like Oslo, Stockholm and Helsinki felt all the more intimate soaking up the panorama from my private balcony.
A signature pastime on Princess Cruises is Movies Under The Stars. Staged on the Lido Deck, the giant outdoor movie screen stares down on the pool area, as waiters whisk around with drinks and hot popcorn. What a way to salute the end of day.
Equally, I've always been impressed by the live productions staged nighty at Princess Theatre. These all singing and dancing crowd-pleasers are pitch- perfect in length, beautifully choreographed and a class act.
Another head-turning titillation is the Water Colour Fantasy Show, that spangles the Lido Deck. Brightly coloured lights illuminate the water, with fountains shooting water up to 33 feet high, artfully choreographed to music.
It's very Bellagio. Sea days are the ideal inflexion point for exploring some of the on-board havens of indulgence. Who doesn't like a good massage or spa treatment?
The Lotus Spa soothed all of my aches and pains, with an expansive menu of spa treatments. Similarly, for even more pampering, The Retreat is the adult's only section at the back on the ship located on Deck 16.
They have sunbeds and cabanas, which can be rented for half a day and include a personal picnic. Now that's my kind of indulgence!
If ever there was a dream cruise, studded with a world-class medley of port calls and captivating sights, all while embraced by the warmth, elegance and sparkling hospitality of the Princess experience, their Scandinavia & Russia cruise is a tour de force. www.princesscruises.com