ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – An elegant reception is underway as Gail Pipal, 61, of Arroyo Grande, California, arrives at a gilded hall within Yusupov Palace.
The retired architect and her companions on Tauck’s St. Petersburg and the Baltic Sea cruise already have explored the famed St. Petersburg attraction’s outrageously ornate public rooms on a private after-hours tour. They also got a peek at its crypt-like basement, which notably was the scene of the 1916 assassination of Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin. Now they’ll kick back with a glass of champagne while awaiting a private ballet performance in the palace’s stunning, gold- and fresco-lined home theater.
For this one evening, at least, the normally crowded site is their own private playground.
“This is amazing,” says Pipal, taking in soaring spaces once gazed upon by Russian czars. “This sort of exclusivity is why we chose Tauck.”
Long known for its upscale land tours in Europe and other destinations around the world, New England-based Tauck in recent years has been carving out a position at the top of small-ship ocean cruising, too, with combination-land-and-sea trips that are more intimate, exclusive and all-inclusive than those offered by most other companies.
In addition to private events such as the evening at Yusupov Palace, Tauck cruise tours are chock full of highly choreographed excursions that often include special access to sites and unexpected touches.
Kicking off with a two-night hotel stay in Stockholm, the 11-night Baltic trip includes a private, behind-the-scenes tour of the city’s majestic Royal Swedish Opera House led by an opera singer. In St. Petersburg, Tauck guides take passengers into the famed Hermitage Museum a full 90 minutes before regular visitors are allowed to enter. The visit includes a private display of the museum’s exquisite Peacock Clock in operation – something few people ever get to see.
“They’re always doing things like that,” says Skip Mixson, 74, a retiree from Lakemont, Georgia, who is on his ninth Tauck trip.
Pausing to talk near the Hermitage’s ground-floor cafe, Mixson and his wife, Betsy, 71, bring up another hallmark of Tauck tours: the fact the company arranges every detail of the experience from the moment you land until you depart – something that is rare at even the highest-end cruise lines. Private transfers from the airport, pre-cruise hotels, post-cruise hotels, guided tours and almost all meals on and off the ship –it’s all part of the package.
As Betsy puts it, “They greet you at the airport, and then you don’t have to worry about a thing.”
Among the unusual aspects of a Tauck cruise tour is the presence of several full-time tour directors who serve as always-present guides, problem solvers, organizers and traveling companions.
Like other cruise operators, Tauck contracts with local guides to lead tours during most port stops. But the tour directors also accompany passengers on outings, backing up the local guides and assuring a seamless experience.
During a walking tour of the historic old town of Tallinn, Estonia (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), one of the directors interrupts the local guide to offer everyone a taste of locally roasted almonds, which he had just bought from a local stall. After a morning tour of Copenhagen, Denmark, the same director offers to pay admission to the National Museum for any tourgoers who want to visit it during afternoon free time. He also offers to walk them there.
As is the case with most of Tauck’s small-ship cruise tours, the cruise portion of its Baltic trips takes place on a vessel operated by Ponant, an upscale French line. Tauck doesn’t own its own cruise ships but instead fully or partially charters vessels for departures from Ponant (or in a few cases, Silversea and Windstar). On this sailing, the cruise portion of the trip is on Ponant’s Le Soleal, a relatively new, stylish vessel that holds up to 265 passengers.
In partnership with Ponant, Tauck is in the midst of a major expansion of its small-ship cruise offerings. The company is increasing its capacity in the niche by 40% for 2019 and adding five new itineraries. More expansion is planned the following year with capacity ultimately doubling over several years.
A key differentiator for Tauck is its all-inclusiveness. Every excursion and special event on Tauck trips is included in the fare. Tauck also includes unlimited complimentary beverages including wine, beer and even name-brand spirits in its fares – a relative rarity in the cruise world. In addition, gratuities and airport transfers also are included. So much is included, in fact, that the line doesn’t even bother to swipe credit cards when passengers arrive. Many leave without a bill.
All of the extra perks and all-inclusiveness come at a price. Fares for Tauck’s Baltic trips start around $750 per person, per day — notably higher than the Baltic itineraries offered by many of its competitors. Similar 11-day trips from Viking Cruises start at around $400 per day, while Princess Cruises offers 11-day Baltic sailings starting for as little as $144 per day.
Still, few passengers are complaining.
“It’s on the expensive side. But you get what you pay for,” says Alan Readinger, 80, an estate lawyer from Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, who is on his first Tauck trip along with his wife.
Speaking during a visit to the historic Danish town of Roskilde, on the final day of the itinerary, Readinger says he’s already thinking about where he might go next with the company.
“They just have everything so well planned out and organized,” he says. “It’s going to be a good family discussion on which Tauck trip we do next.”
If you go …
Tauck’s 11-night St. Petersburg and the Baltic Sea tour combines seven nights of sailing the Baltic on a small cruise ship with two-night hotel stays in Stockholm and Copenhagen, Denmark. Offered in June and July, the itinerary starts at $8,990 per person, based on double occupancy, including almost all meals; tours; airport transfers; unlimited on-board drinks while cruising including wine, beer and spirits; port charges and gratuities.
For 2018, Tauck also is offering eight other ocean cruise-related itineraries in Europe as well as several small-ship cruise tours in the Americas, Asia and Antarctica. Tauck is adding five additional ocean cruise itineraries in 2019 including 19-night trips to Australia and New Zealand; 11-night trips around the Great Lakes; and nine-night trips to Spitsbergen, Norway, in the Arctic.
Information: 800-468-2825; tauck.com.
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