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Having just returned from my first Norwegian fjords cruise, I was (and still am) blown away by the scenery. I've been around the block a few times, but the landscape there was truly stunning. And I'm not the only one who thinks this way. Below you'll find my impressions, followed by those of four more travel experts.

All the great stuff was relatively close to port, so there were no monotonous three-hour drives before spotting something worthwhile -- better yet, roads are good, but not crowded (only 4 million people inhabit the entire country of Norway!). I'm typically not a big fan of cruise ship bus tours, but the two I took when aboard the Costa Atlantica a few weeks back were excellent. The guides were good, the buses comfortable and the views out the large windows amazing as we weaved along winding switchback-y roads (even my pair of six year olds was mesmerized). I've been to Alaska a bunch of times, but for me the Norwegian scenery was even more impressive. No comparison.

Our seven-night cruise round-trip out of Copenhagen (we stayed a night at The Square Hotel, www.thesquarecopenhagen.com, just a few blocks from Tivoli Gardens, that endearing 19th century amusement park) included five days of port calls and one sea day at the very beginning of the cruise, a great way to settle in and have time to choose your excursions (which can also be pre-booked online from home months before departure). After chatting with several ship employees we settled on two tours -- in Flam and Helsylt/Geiranger -- and opted to tour solo in Bergen, Stavanger and Oslo. A caveat, Scandinavia is expensive, so the tours weren't cheap (about $600 for the four of us for each 6- to 7-hour tour), but the two we did were excellent.

For us, highlights were an amazing scenic 10-km hike as part of a group excursion from Hellesylt, and from Flam, an excursion that included transport by both bus and train. The entire time, majestic fjords, wild flowers, waterfalls, shiny lakes and postcard-y fishing villages made us gasp again and again. From lovely Oslo we took the local hop on/hop off bus around the entire city and hopped off to stroll around the beautiful statues of Vigeland Sculpture Park and to tour the Viking Ship and Kon-Tiki museums (the later a tribute to explorer Thor Heyerhdahl). Stravanger had a charming harbor to walk around and a good maritime museum near the dock. From Bergen, we could stroll right over to the 16th-century Rosenkrantz Tower at the Bergen Castle, where we spent several hours.

Hey, don't just take my word for it, here's what four travel agent experts also have to say about cruises to Northern Europe.

Eric Maryanov, president, All-Travel (tel. 866/565-3214; www.all-travel.com/cruises)

Q: What is your current best deal to the region for this summer or next?

A: Regent Seven Seas is once again offering free airfare, free shore excursions, and (for a limited time) 2-for-1 pricing and bonus savings up to $1,000 per person. Holland America Line also has some great values, offering free air in some cases and free shore excursions in ports such as St. Petersburg.

Q: Compared to Alaska, what makes a Norwegian fjords cruise special?

A: The fjords are narrow passages through the steep mountains versus Alaska's glaciers.

Q: What are your favorite ports in these two regions?

A: I have always enjoyed Warnemunde, the starting point for an excursion to Berlin, which has some amazing historic sightseeing. The Hermitage in St. Petersburg is one of the best museums in the world and relatively close to that is Peterhoff - Peter the Great's Summer Palace which has fabulous gardens and fountains. However, Tallinn, Estonia tops the list. There, we took the Rocca Mare & Upper Town excursion offered by the cruise line. It began with a narrative about the history of the region while we drove out to the "open air museum," which was set up like a 17th century village where we could walk around and see how they lived and worked and socialized back then. We were treated to a local snack of cake and caraway tea then watched a fascinating folk dance presentation in one of the courtyards, which included audience participation. After the museum we went to Upper Town for a guided walking tour of this fortressed city with cobbled streets, and time for shopping.

Q: What organized shore excursions would you most recommend? And where do you think it's a great idea to explore solo?

A: St. Petersburg definitely needs to be done on a tour. Since the Russian alphabet is so different than ours, it would be almost impossible to tour the more popular attractions without an English-speaking guide. I'm pretty good at maps and getting my bearings in a city, but unable to read and understand what I was seeing made it much more enjoyable to have a guide.

Stockholm, on the other hand, is very easy to get around on our own as nearly everything transportation- and tourist-related is bi-lingual Swedish and English. In Talinn, an ancient walled city just a short walk from the dock, a self-guided walking tour here is all you need. Helsinki is also a city you can easily explore on your own.

Q: Any inside tips on touring St. Petersburg?

A: Definitely take advantage of the group visa offered by the cruise line. Even though you will travel with the group on the city tour, they do allow you to travel alone and walk the streets (however they do not advertise this). I highly recommend walking down Nevsky Prospect to St. Isaac's Cathedral and seeing the Bronze Horseman. Also, the evening performance at the Yusopov Palace is exquisite. I was also very impressed with the efficiency of our tours in St. Petersburg. We took four tours and all of them gave us comfortable earphones and receivers so we could hear the guides talking to us without us having to stand right in front of them to hear. This was especially important when we were in the buildings. Instead of the constant chatter of people talking over each other, we were able to wander a bit to actually see what was being described and only hear our guides? voices. Very well done.

Q: Northern Europe is super expensive, any money-saving tips?

A: Use the local trains; they?re very efficient and much cheaper than taxis.

Steven Gelfuso, President & CEO, CruiseBrothers.com (tel. 800/827-7779; www.cruisebrothers.com)

Q: What is your current best deal to this region for this summer or next?

A: The Europe cruise season is May to September with the most expensive time being July and August. This year I have seen some 10-night Europe cruises in September for as low as $699 -- that's a steal.

Q: Compared to Alaska, what makes a Norwegian fjords cruise special?

A: Both cruises are entirely different. The history in Norway is much older than in Alaska. Unless you are doing a coastal cruise in Norway up to the Arctic Circle, you will not see glaciers like in Alaska. I also feel that in Alaska you will see much more wildlife.

Q: What are your favorite ports in these two regions?

A: St. Petersburg, Russia, for all of the history; from the Hermitage Museum to the Peter & Paul Fortress, and the Peterhof and Pushkin palaces. It is also great to take a river cruise of the city, and at night, you will want to see a Russian Ballet. If your cruise offers an option to fly to Moscow that is a must-see.

In Copenhagen, Denmark, the Little Mermaid statue is a relatively short walk from most of the piers, and also definitely check out Tivoli Gardens, the 19th century fairytale amusement park in the heart of the city. Also worthwhile are The National Museum and the Amalienborg Palace, the royal couple's winter residence in the city center.

In Oslo, Norway, don't miss the Viking Ship museum and Vigeland Sculpture Park, which showcases the life work of the sculptor Gustav Vigeland with more than 200 sculptures in bronze, granite and cast iron.

Q: What organized shore excursions would you most recommend? And where do you think it's a great idea to explore solo?

A: I would suggest taking the Grand Tour of St. Petersburg. There is so much to see and do and this is a fabulous tour for those who don't want to miss a thing.

Visby, on Gotland Island in Sweden, is a beautiful place to rent a bike and tour on your own. Visby is one of the best preserved, if not the very best, of medieval towns, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Q: Any inside tips on touring St. Petersburg?

A: The way to usually avoid the crowds is by using a private tour guide. For the slightly higher price you can usually avoid the long lines.

Q: Northern Europe is super expensive, any money-saving tips?

A: I would suggest doing some research ahead of time and when you get off the ship make a deal with one of the taxi drivers to give you a guided tour. Better yet, Europe has great public transportation -- makes it easy to get around to museums and all of the great tourist spots.

Q: On what ship did you travel aboard on your most recent Northern Europe cruise?

A: Regent Seven Seas Voyager in 2007. Even though it was only a seven-night cruise we spent three full days in St. Petersburg. Also the smaller ship was able to dock right in the city within walking distance to the Hermitage. We were able to do a flight to Moscow because of the extra time in St. Petersburg.

David Shields, Vice President, Cruise Members Only (tel. 800/999-3543; www.cruisemembersonly.com)

Q: What is your current best deal to this region for this summer or next?

A: Our best deal is this seven-night trip to Russia and the Baltics.

Q: Compared to Alaska, what makes a Norwegian fjords cruise special?

A: The most immediate visual difference are the countless sailboats we saw everywhere in the fjords. You can also view centuries-old fortifications on some fjords that have no counterpart in Alaska. Also, the fjords convey a greater sense of calm and tranquility than their Alaskan peers. Sitting on the deck of the Regent Seven Seas Navigator watching the fjords as we floated by was one of the highlights of this cruise.

Q: What are your favorite ports in these two regions?

A: Our favorite ports were Copenhagen, Visby, and St. Petersburg. In Copenhagen, we took a historical harbor tour on a little tourist boat and it was lovely. You view canals with sailboats, and apartments overlooking the canals with restaurants everywhere.

Visby has winding, hilly, narrow cobblestone streets and the ruins of a 12th-century medieval church (St. Catherine's, whose ceiling had been lost centuries ago and now opens up to the blue sky), and a street bazaar with treasures like woolen slippers (we bought three pair for our children). Very quaint and memorable.

And then there was St. Petersburg, truly one of the great cultural cities of the world. From the Heritage/Gold Room Museums to the classical Yussupov Palace and the canal-like rivers that run through the city, this former capital of old Russia is a must-see locale for any Baltic cruise.

Q: What organized shore excursions would you most recommend? And where do you think it's a great idea to explore solo?

A: Tivoli Gardens, in the heart of Copenhagen, can certainly be explored solo. Another leisurely walking paradise is Tallinn -- it's fun to simply sightsee by walking the quaint cobblestone streets found everywhere in the city.

Petropavlosk, Russia, was a time warp into the old world and it's best done on a group tour. We visited a dacha, a summer/weekend cottage for Russians, and had tea with some locals there. In the past, people built dachas themselves; today, those wealthy enough can afford to have dachas built for them.

Q: Any inside tips on touring St. Petersburg?

A: If you sail with Regent Seven Seas, they have a special arrangement with the world-famous Gold Room Museum which is privately opened for Regent guests (not the general public). This is one of the most important museums in Europe -- together with the larger Hermitage Museum, it boasts a collection of art that is second to none in the world (possibly excepting the Louvre). Founded by Catherine the Great in 1764, the Hermitage Museum boasts 2.7 million objects of magnificent art. Even our 6-hour tour was not enough to take in the entire art offering, however our special status as Regent cruisers enabled us to walk to the head of every line and so avoid the long lines present for many of the city's artistic attractions. There are artists sitting in the museums painting which was a lovely addition.

Q: Northern Europe is super expensive, any money-saving tips?

A: Dine on board the cruise ship before you disembark for your shore excursions. Cruise line food is first-rate and you've already paid for it. Dining in Europe can be a pricey proposition.

Q: On what ship did you travel aboard on your most recent Northern Europe cruise?

A: Aboard the small Regent Seven Seas Navigator in St. Petersburg, we could embark right into the midst of the city, where we took a tour of the Yussupov Palace. Small groups are guided through the museum and we observed some rooms that were unbelievably decorated with beautiful old Russian treasures. Russian champagne and black caviar were served in the music room while a classical balalaika orchestra played beautiful music for us.

Following the reception we were invited into the Yussupov private theatre which was used for entertaining international guests. We enjoyed a gala performance of the St. Petersburg Opera Company which featured highlighted arias from some world-famous operas including the Marriage of Figaro, Magic Flute, Don Juan, Gianni Schicchi, and Eugene Onegin. This was truly a magical night to remember.

Sherry Laskin Kennedy, President, Vacation Shoppe (tel. 866/7-CRUISE; www.vacationshoppe.com)

Q: What is your current best deal to this region for this summer or next?

A: Best deal in a long cruise (+21 days): Star Princess, 28 nights Ft. Lauderdale to Copenhagen. From $3,980, April 24 sailing. Includes overnight in St. Petersburg and Gdansk, Poland.

Best deal in a mid-length cruise: Celebrity Constellation, 12 nights round-trip from Amsterdam. From $1,599, May 16 sailing. Includes overnight in St. Petersburg.

Best deal in 7-8 night cruise: Holland America Eurodam, 8-night Norwegian Fjords, round-trip from London. From $1,299, June 21 sailing.

Best upper-premium cruise line deal: Oceania Regatta, 14 night Southampton to Stockholm. From $3,584, Aug 22 sailing. Includes three overnights in St. Petersburg and one overnight in Stockholm.

Q: What are your favorite ports in these two regions?

A: St. Petersburg would take the prize for being my favorite port city in the Baltic region. Most obvious is the cultural heritage. When Peter the Great created his Venice of the North, St. Petersburg became a cultural extension of Europe. My reasons for making this my number one port city are the incredible architecture, the Hermitage Museum, the more than 500 palaces lining the banks of the Neva River and the exuberant night life.

Helsinki ranks number two on my list of Baltic ports. On first impression, it's another Scandinavian city. With a closer look, the Russian influence permeates right down to the currency. Helsinki is the only city that will accept Rubles. The famous onion-domed churches and buildings reflect the proximity to Russia. Watch out for the skinny electrified trolleys running through town; they're so narrow it's easy to nearly step blindly into their path. Downtown has an incredible farmer's market with fresh produce so large and colorful that it would even make a Texan envious.

My third favorite Baltic port would be Tallin, Estonia. Surrounded by a still-intact wall, the steep roads and footpaths make for an interesting walk. Definitely the place to buy amber.

Q: What organized shore excursions would you most recommend? And where do you think it's a great idea to explore solo?

A: One of the beautiful things about many ports on a Baltic cruise is the proximity to the city center and the readily available public transportation. Take along your guidebook, wear a comfortable pair of shoes and set out to walk and explore the medieval cities. You can easily explore almost all of the Baltic city centers on your own, except for St. Petersburg, Russia, of course. Even from where the ships dock in Copenhagen, it is only a 40-minute walk to Tivoli Gardens. In St. Petersburg, if you don't pre-arrange a tour with a state-sponsored company, you will have to take the ship's excursion if you want to set foot on Russian soil.

Q: Any inside tips on touring St. Petersburg?

A: To truly see St. Petersburg without all the hustle bustle and long lines, especially during a national holiday, hiring a private state-endorsed tour company is your best bet. On my two-day/two-night visit, I had arranged, through the internet, a tour of the Hermitage as well as a city tour for my first afternoon. With our tour guides, Julianna and Boris, we were able to scoot to the front of the around-the-block line at the Hermitage. I also pre-booked a private (only myself and five friends) tour of the Amber Room and the Gold Room. Once inside the Hermitage, Julianna met with a museum attendant who personally escorted us into the two exclusive rooms of glittering antique memorabilia that are not seen by the general public.

The next day we set out on a two-hour drive for a private tour of the summer home and palatial grounds of Catherine the Great. After telling us to wait at the entrance, our guide reappeared and we were ushered past the long line of tourists to tour the exquisite palace at our leisure. Two popular state-sponsored tour operators: Den-Rus and Red October.

Q: Northern Europe is super expensive, any money-saving tips?

A: One easy way to save money is to not use the ship's currency exchange to get the local currency. Either purchase foreign currency from your bank prior to your cruise or try to find a currency exchange nearby the port. If using a private shore excursion company you will have to pre-pay in full, long before you embark on your cruise; if the exchange rate increases, you win. With taxis, always negotiate the price before settling in. Dining ashore is not inexpensive, especially when you add in the cost of alcohol. You can easily save money by exploring on your own, with the aid of a good guide book and a little pre-cruise research.

Q: On what ship did you travel aboard on your most recent Northern Europe cruise?

A: May 2005 aboard Celebrity Century. By luck, the ship arrived in St. Petersburg on the night of Peter the Great's birthday, during the White Nights celebration. Den-Rus assigned Sasha, our guide and Mischa our driver to meet three of us at our ship at 10pm, the sun still high in the sky. We drove towards the Palace Bridge where we were told would be a gala celebration. At midnight, hundreds of Russians, in their small cars with loudspeakers on their roofs playing traditional Russian tunes, filled every street. Pedestrians lined the walkways along the river nearest to the bridge. The crowd eagerly awaited the traditional opening of the bridge which allows a replica of Peter the Great's war ship to sail past. With music blaring from boom-boxes and loudspeakers, the crowd cheered and applauded as the ship fired its cannons as it sailed down the Neva River. Afterwards, the three of us went clubbing, Russian-style to several discos and finished the night at the Cafe Metropole on Nevsky Prospekt.

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