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Testing the Waters of a New Era on a Voyage to the Baltic States : The Kristina Regina takes 140 passengers on a first run to Tallinn, Riga and other ports of the former Soviet Union.

March 28, 1993|ANNE KALOSH | Kalosh is a Miami Beach-based free-lance writer

ABOARD THE KRISTINA REGINA — There's something extraordinary about an inaugural voyage--the first time a ship runs a new itinerary--particularly when it explores an exotic part of the globe. During a decade of cruising, first as a shipboard newspaper editor and later as a reporter covering the travel industry, I have generally been delighted by the passengers I've met on inaugural sailings. While most folks are content to sit back and wait until a new cruise offering is tried and true, there is always a small, daring group who seek out new adventures. Last summer was the first time the little Finnish vessel Kristina Regina offered its Baltic States cruise, bringing together such unlikely seafarers as Arthur, a Navy man turned theatrical producer; Ned, a professor of African politics who collects chess sets, and Elias and Lorraine, a retired Greek shipping tycoon and his chic wife. Also on board were Edythe, a cigar-smoking romance novelist from New York, several other authors and a Florida Cadillac salesman who was a dead ringer (no pun intended) for Robert Maxwell.

An 11-day cruise-tour promoted by New York-based EuroCruises, this Baltic sailing also was quite possibly the year's most dramatic itinerary because it featured some cities in the former Soviet Union that had not been visited by Western passenger ships since World War II. Our ports of call included Kaliningrad, which had been the East Prussian capital of Koningsberg up until the war, after which it was absorbed into the U.S.S.R. and isolated as a top-secret Russian naval base. We also sailed to the newly independent Baltic capitals of Tallinn, Estonia, and Riga, Latvia, just as they threw out the welcome mat to cruise ships, and we journeyed overland to Vilnius, Lithuania. Other ports were St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) in Russia, Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland, and Stockholm.

Last year, only one other cruise ship, Special Expeditions' Polaris, offered a similarly extensive itinerary. In 1993, more and bigger cruise vessels will be following Kristina Regina's and Polaris's pioneering lead. But to my mind, Kristina Regina features the most intriguing itinerary.

At a time when the tourism infrastructure of the Baltic lands is still developing, a cruise may be the ideal way to see these exotic "new" places without the risks of vanishing hotel reservations, inferior rooms and uncertain rail and bus connections.

I went alone but soon forged shipboard friendships with my quirky fellow passengers, each with his or her own delightful story. There was the Milwaukee man who discovered his family name, Wessels, on a street sign that had been dug from the bombed-out rubble of old Koningsberg--where his father had lived--and preserved in a new history museum housed in one of the city wall's ancient gates; the married couple whose Lithuanian dads had crossed paths decades ago on an ocean liner while emigrating to America; the trendy college student with pierced ear who was going to meet his Old World Latvian relatives; the Princeton languages professor who came to hear some new tongues.

I, too, had personal reasons for joining the cruise. I wanted to revisit Russia, my family's homeland. My previous trip to this part of the world had been with my father, a first-generation U.S. citizen who had revealed little of his heritage until we went to Leningrad, where he astounded me by conversing fluently with the little old ladies in babushkas.

We boarded the gleaming white Kristina Regina, the tiniest ship in Helsinki's bustling harbor, on a sparkling June afternoon. I was immediately charmed by the crew's friendly welcome and the old-fashioned feeling of the converted steam vessel, which was built in 1960 and fully refurbished in 1990.

The real beauty of the Kristina Regina is its compact size. Not only was it small enough for the passengers to develop esprit de corps , it was able to dock in the very heart of each port city--a big plus.

Although the Kristina Regina normally carries up to 400 European passengers on mini-cruises between Helsinki and Tallinn, occupancy is limited to 220 for the longer Baltic States itinerary, which is promoted mainly in the U.S., and operates summers only. (The cruise I went on had about 140 passengers.) Fewer passengers meant that cabins with two lower berths were available to each guest, and the dining room served everyone in one sitting.

One of the world's few family-run cruise operations, the Kristina Regina proved to be a refreshingly intimate vessel where the passengers dressed casually and Captain Mikko Partanen personally conducted the lifeboat drill. Partanen's brother, Esa-Pekka, is chief engineer and their sister, Anu, works in cruise sales.

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