Dmitry Lovetsky  /  AP
An aerial view of downtown St. Petersburg shown with city landmarks, the Spit of Vasilyevsky Island and the Neva River. With its orderly planning, understated grandeur and rich contribution to European culture, St. Petersburg, Russia's former imperial capital and President Vladimir Putin's hometown, is not a typical Russian city.
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updated 8/30/2006 1:30:16 PM ET 2006-08-30T17:30:16

For Baltic cruise travelers, history's biggest-ever expansion of the European Union is a big boon. Ten countries joined the 15-member organization and, in conjunction with that, cruise lines looking for more variety on the standard Baltic itinerary added cities in three of the EU's picks -- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- as ports of call.

Estonia, whose Tallinn is so charmingly restored it's easy to feel like you're on a Hollywood film set, has already become a Baltic itinerary staple. There's a renewed interest in Riga and in Lithuania as well (although ports in Lithuania are limited to cruises with more exotic itineraries).

Other relatively new additions to Baltic cruises include Poland's Gdansk and Gdynia. Warnemunde, in Germany, is becoming a staple because the port town offers direct train transportation to Berlin (though it's a long day).

Additional changes are afoot, too, even on the Baltic's cornerstone "capital highlights" itineraries (the Stockholm-Copenhagen-Oslo-Helsinki run). St. Petersburg, which is always a major port of call on these journeys, is more glorious than ever before as a result of a massive restoration that preceded last year's 300th birthday celebration.

As a result of these evolutions, cruise travelers who once considered a Baltic voyage to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, are coming back for another go.

In other Northern Europe regions -- the Norwegian fjords and islands of the North Atlantic -- changes may not be quite so revolutionary, but passengers, whether first-time visitors or veterans, will see some differences.

Read on for our take on the most prominent trends impacting the Northern Europe/Baltic cruise experience.

Longer Stays in St. Petersburg
While most cruise lines feature one-night, two-day visits to St. Petersburg, some are adding a second night and a third day.

Longer Season
Prime Northern Europe/Baltic season was once pretty much limited to July and August (save for September transatlantic crossings); voyages now begin in May and run well into September.

Emergence of Shorter Itineraries
Used to be -- and mostly still is -- that a Baltic cruise required a 10- to 14-night commitment. Now a handful of lines, such as Regent Seven Seas Cruises, are offering seven-night voyages.

Introduction of Mega Ships
Princess Cruises has put its mid-sized vessels in this region for years; over the past few years, however, its mammoth Grand-class ships, such as Grand Princess and Star Princess, have served the region.

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Offbeat itineraries
Smaller-ship luxury lines are getting more adventurous (if not slightly wacky). Iceland and Greenland are among those in great demand as are the more offbeat ports in the Bay of Bothnia, which lines the coasts of Sweden and Finland.

When to Go
This region's cruising season is quite similar to that of Alaska. You'll find the greatest choice of itineraries occurs during the prime months of July and August, but intrepid cruisers can also take advantage of early- and late-season deals during May and June and then again in September. The benefits of off-peak cruising here go beyond financial incentives -- you'll also bypass crowds in some of the region's major European capitals.

Choose A Cruise
For first-timers, a big-ship "Baltic capitals" voyage is a great way to get a first-glance overview. Lines like Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Princess, Holland America, Cunard, P&O, Oceania, Seabourn, Silversea and Crystal offer "highlights" voyages, which typically last from 12 nights to two weeks. Itineraries rarely vary -- expect to spend a couple of days in St. Petersburg, and then a day apiece at Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki and Tallinn. Some do venture to Warnemunde (for Berlin) and Gdansk as well.

Two cruise lines are bucking the longer-itinerary-trend. CostaAtlantica features a seven-night Baltic voyage that calls at Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg and Tallinn. The prime disadvantage is that the ship's stop at St. Petersburg lasts a mere four hours. RSSC's Voyager also offers the Baltic itinerary within a week's time frame; its trip, in contrast, spends three days in St. Petersburg and full days in Tallinn and Helsinki. Both cruise lines offer a handful of similarly port-intensive week-long voyages to the Norwegian fjords.

Beyond the Basics
Where ships once incorporated calls at North Atlantic isles like the Faroe Islands -- Greenland and Iceland as necessary diversions on a seasonal transatlantic repositioning -- some lines are now offering more in-depth itineraries, and they're not limited to crossings.

Intriguing this year is Intrav's 19-day Arctic Odyssey that calls in ports in Greenland, Norway and Iceland. Even if Hapag-Lloyd's Europa includes marquee ports in its Hamburg to Kiel 15-night trip, it also adds some more offbeat places, such as Sweden's Goteborg and Poland's Danzig, along with Latvia's Riga.

Another big plus on some Baltic itineraries is overnights -- Europa for instance overnights in both Copenhagen and Stockholm, which allows passengers to explore the night life.
Regent Seven Seas, one of the few lines to offer seven-nighters in the Baltic, offers two full nights -- and three full days -- in St. Petersburg.

Norwegian Fjords (Mostly) Maintain Tradition
While most major cruise lines make a cursory couple-times-a-year effort to visit the fjords, big ships are naturally limited. That's because the towns and villages that fall along one of the world's most stunningly dramatic waterways are far removed from the historic culture centers of big Baltic cities like Stockholm, Copenhagen, Helsinki and even Norway's own Oslo (which lies on the Baltic rather than the fjord side of the country). So big ships might make an appearance at Bergen or Trondheim as part of a larger Northern European cruise, but generally travel no further. The fjords are not as accommodating to larger vessels as is Alaska's Inside Passage.

Because of this, travelers who embark on Norwegian fjords cruises tend to be veteran cruisers with an adventurous spirit. These folks want to get-up-close-and-personal with the fjords themselves and visit the small villages (and these have plenty of charm to spare) along the way.

Norwegian Coastal Voyages -- which was founded in 1893 -- has long been quietly dominant in this arena for a number of reasons. It offers port-intensive (how about a 35-port seven-night cruise?) via ships that serve cargo as well as passenger vessels. Think you'll be roughing it? Not so. NCV's three newest ships -- the line's Millennium class -- feature Internet cafes, suites with balconies and whirlpools, and advanced propulsion systems. One (Finnmarken) even has a swimming pool.

Cruise Critic, which launched in 1995, is a comprehensive cruise vacation planning guide providing objective cruise ship reviews, cruise line profiles, destination content on 125+ worldwide ports, cruise bargains, tips, industry news, and cruise message boards.

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