STOCKHOLM — I couldn’t believe it: Captain Klaus recognized us. The metal gangplank rattled beneath our feet as we boarded the clipper ship Star Flyer for the second time in nine months. Klaus spotted my husband and me first, and the corners of his eyes crinkled in a smile as we climbed toward him. On this 10-day trip from Stockholm through the Baltic region, our college-age daughter joined us. “Ah, queen of the boat,” Klaus said as we shook hands.
After unpacking we headed up on deck to make friends while the crew prepared for departure later that night. Life aboard the Star Flyer is casual and communal, with a maximum of 170 guests. By the time we descended to the plush dining room for dinner, we’d chatted with travelers from England, Scotland, Belgium, and Germany and had zeroed in on another American family with a college-age daughter. (Though the Star Flyer has no age limit, most kids are in their early teens or older.)
At 10 p.m. we went outside for the sail away. Stockholm glittered behind us as we pulled out of port, the captain shouting orders to the crew, men in royal blue coveralls hauling heavy ropes and cranking winches. We were happy to be back on board this ship, piloted by the same captain who had taken us from Spain to Morocco the previous autumn.
The four-masted Star Flyer and its two sister ships were commissioned by their Swedish owner to be built in the image of 19th-century tall ships, intended to carry travelers to destinations around the world. Tonight, after the Star Flyer navigated a dense archipelago to reach the open Baltic Sea, its sails would unfurl to catch the wind. The multinational crew on this ship trims the sails, not a computer. Passengers occasionally help hoist the sails. When the waters are calm, we might climb the mast rigging. But this is not a windjammer on which passengers work as crew. Guests of the Star Flyer enjoy service every bit as gracious as that of a boutique hotel.
Throughout the voyage, we’d consume seven-course dinners that might include lobster tail or smoked salmon, with good wine and new friends. When we returned to our cabin at night, the crisp white linens would be turned back, and the brass lanterns polished to a glow. But unlike a large cruise ship, the Star Flyer offers no cabaret shows or casinos. Evening entertainment is simple — maybe musical trivia games or a passenger talent show.
We stopped first at Visby, an ancient city on the Swedish island of Gotland, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We visited a village museum where our guide Jacob was intent on busting the usual myths about Vikings. “They weren’t marauders; they didn’t wear helmets with horns. They weren’t bigger than life, but they were taller than other Europeans and took better care of themselves,” he said.
That evening, the Star Flyer set its course toward Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, and wind slammed against the boat as it crossed the Baltic. All the next day, seasick passengers hung over the deck rail in misery. At lunch, the ship pitched, sending scores of dishes and glasses to the floor. The staff quickly replaced everything with plastic. Late afternoon, Klaus stood steady on deck, officiating as an English couple renewed their wedding vows. Then he played the bagpipes.
Daylight brought calm water as we pulled into Tallinn. I opted for a bicycle tour of the city. A dozen of us bumped along the cobblestones following our local guide Maris, an engineering student. Because of its strategic shipping and military location, Estonia has been ruled at various times by Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Germany, and the Soviet Union. Now independent, Estonians believe in peaceful resolution to conflict. At the outdoor amphitheater, Maris explained proudly that each year thousands of people from many countries gather here to sing. “We like to say we sang for our freedom,” she said. “We didn’t kill anyone, we just sang.”
Just after dawn two days later, the Star Flyer snaked its way up the Neva River to St. Petersburg. Early risers huddled quietly on deck, holding steaming mugs of coffee, as Klaus consulted with the harbor pilot to guide the boat into port. Along the banks of the river, submarine carcasses lolled like dinosaurs. Abandoned warehouses and rusted cranes sat idle amid mountains of scrap metal. Occasionally we glimpsed a faded hammer and sickle stamped on the side of a machine or building. Then sunlight torched a golden dome and we spotted St. Petersburg. With 5 million residents, the city is the second-largest in Russia, after Moscow. Tour boats crowded the canals and people bustled along the streets, but foreign access is strictly controlled. Without a separate visa, we couldn’t wander the city by ourselves; we disembarked, went through passport control, and boarded the tour bus immediately.
At 8 a.m., our guide Maria herded us through the massive doors of the State Hermitage Museum, founded by Catherine the Great in 1764 and home to more than 3 million pieces of art. Maria outlined the rules, which included never leaving the group to linger at a painting or sculpture. She led us through room after room of art spanning from the antiquities to modern times. Our visit ended with a quick walk through the “unofficial” Impressionist exhibit — unofficial because ownership of the paintings has not been established.
The Star Flyer remained docked at St. Petersburg for two days, giving us the chance to squeeze in multiple guided excursions. We toured Catherine’s magnificent summer palace outside the city; my husband and I relaxed on a twilight cruise along the canals while our daughter attended the ballet. When we put into Helsinki a day later, we wandered around freely, sampling fresh cherries and fried pastry at the farmer’s market sprawled along the pier. We bought local taffy and sipped beer at an outdoor cafe.
After Helsinki, we dropped anchor off the island of Hanko, one of our last stops, where we hopped onto a small wooden fishing craft. We motored across the glassy water, past the lighthouse, toward a cluster of sleek dark bodies crowded onto a boulder. One by one the seals peeled off their rock, barking and bobbing in the water, slowly swimming toward us, just as curious about us as we were about them.