At this unearthly hour, St Petersburg looks like Narnia. The pilot's dawn coupling with our ship has juddered me awake and now I'm pressed against the glass of the balcony door, mesmerised by the sight of an ethereal city. Russia's northern metropolis is veiled in bleakly beautiful mist that shrouds her aristocratic lines and blurs neighbouring vessels into ghostly shadow hulks. All is magical silence on the Neva River.
The city is still sleeping as Crystal Serenity glides into port. St Petersburg has a big weekend ahead, with massive street celebrations planned to mark its 308th birthday. And here we are, about 1800 passengers and crew, arriving just before the party starts. Nice timing.
We have three days in the city Nabokov crowned the Queen of the North. As our local guide Ludmilla accurately predicts on day one, "We are going to see many places which are glorious."
The first day will be spent getting soaked to the bone on a walking tour of the historic centre. The second will be spent on a country outing to the gardens, cascades and gilded palaces of Peterhof. Day three will see us swooning through the hallowed halls of the State Hermitage, the world's most exquisite art museum. Elsewhere on our adventure we will eat reindeer in Finland, encounter medieval madness in Tallinn, Estonia, and marvel at the drop-dead gorgeous inhabitants of Stockholm. Whoever thinks cruising sounds dull clearly hasn't sailed the Baltic Sea aboard one of the ocean's finer liners.
The youthful Serenity, christened in 2003 by Dame Julie Andrews, emerged from a Hamburg dry-dock in 2011 cosmetically enhanced to the tune of $25 million to keep her looking chic and contemporary and worth a minimum $400-a-day price tag per passenger.
Besides a spruced-up pool area of pod beds and mango sofas, and glittering new boutiques peddling Dior (exclusive at sea to Crystal Cruises) and Marc Jacobs, all of Serenity's 535 staterooms have been freshly elevated to "Fifth Avenue" elegance - according to the design gurus behind the transformation. Blu-Rays and flatscreens now come as standard, as do refined interiors of silk and velvet, stone and leather.
My penthouse stateroom on deck 10 rates as some of the best accommodation I've experienced in a short seagoing career. There is texture everywhere, from the beige wallpaper overlaid with cream timber panels to an armchair clad in sleek velvet the colour of fur seals.
The king-size bed with soaring leather headboard is dressed in high-calibre cotton and down-filled duvets, while a "pillow menu" runs the gamut from side-sleeper to tapered body. Sweet dreams are guaranteed. The walk-in robe has three hanging spaces, ample drawers and is stocked with such essentials as a shoehorn, umbrella, clothes brush, winter and summer robes by Frette, two mohair wool blankets and, most essential of all, life jackets. The bathroom has a separate shower, a spa bath and salts. Mirrors and lighting are flattering - bright enough to see what you're doing but not so bright as to illuminate every year of your life.
All this is as you'd expect from a high-end cruise company. Crystal's points of difference are in the deluxe details that make life at sea feel like luxury. Thoughtful things such as personalised stationery, free garment pressing and a grog allowance for guests on the penthouse decks.
Neil the butler solemnly informs me that I'm entitled to four complimentary bottles - two wines, a chilled Louis Roederer and one spirit or liqueur of my liking. This news makes the bottle of Hendrick's I smuggled onboard suddenly seem superfluous.
Neil will also deliver daily canapés (lobster, prawns, finger sandwiches) and be at my service throughout the cruise. He proves his worth when I realise there's been a mix-up and we've missed out on the Hermitage tour. He whips out his mobile phone and wrangles tickets in 10 minutes flat.
But more on the shipboard experience later - it's party time in St Petersburg.
Despite arriving on such an auspicious day, the city's famously sullen weather is refusing to rise to the occasion. On the tour bus we peer out dreary windows at cheerless drizzle and the smudgy pastels of Italianate streetscapes.
The virtue of St Petersburg is that, come rain, hail, sleet or (more rarely) shine, the city's splendour does not dim. After a sopping stroll along chestnut-lined avenues, we come upon the kaleidoscopic wonder of the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, a fantastic arrangement of Byzantine bling and onion domes that makes Disney's Cinderella Castle look like a log cabin. Inside, even the floors are fabulous, adorned with Florentine mosaics cut from 50 semiprecious stones and marbles.
There's more rain-soaked awe after we leave the Onegin souvenir shop - where exotic sales staff tempt cashed-up customers with $10,000 lacquer boxes - to find the streets awash in gold-painted carnival characters, skipping towards main thoroughfare Nevsky Prospekt to play their parts in the celebrations.
Nowhere is more likely to leave the visitor groaning from excessive glory than the State Hermitage Museum with its three million-strong stockpile of treasures accumulated over centuries by Catherine the Great and her successors.
Ideally, you would not visit on the city's birthday weekend, when it seems all five million citizens are thronging the Palace Embankment, and the queue for entry at opening time is hundreds long and lined with touts spruiking "Fabergé" eggs and Astrakhan hats pinned with shiny CCCP badges.
The bonus of cruising with Crystal is that, somehow, we always manage to leapfrog everyone else to gain express entry to landmarks. So it is at the Hermitage, where guide Natasha ushers us straight to the front of the queue, past a gaggle of Holland America passengers who clearly lack our VIP superpowers.
"Let's go!" she urges our group of 13. "Let's fight with the museum." And it is a battle of sorts. The museum receives almost 2.5 million visitors a year - the cloakroom crunch alone is reminiscent of a Moscow bread queue circa 1991.
We have a whole day here to tour parts of the Winter Palace, the Old Hermitage, the New Hermitage and the Gold Rooms, the last a chaperoned-only experience through a cache of riches dating back to the 7th century BC. Despite having six hours at our disposal, it will be impossible to do justice to the collection. According to local lore, it would take 11 years to spend one minute admiring each artwork in this palace complex.
The rhapsody begins the second you step onto the spectacular marble staircase of the Winter Palace that connects the foyer to the first-floor galleries. Lavished with rococo gilt detailing, it's crowned by an 18th-century ceiling fresco depicting the gods of Mount Olympus and a chorus of trumpeting angels. The effect is completely histrionic and utterly breathtaking.
Just beyond, the vast expanse of St George's Hall, also called the Large Throne Room, is bordered by fluted Corinthians caked in gold and lit by overblown chandeliers bearing the provincial coats of arms of the former Russian Federation. Commanding doors crafted from gilded brass and tortoiseshell guard the sanctuary housing two of Leonardo da Vinci's few surviving artworks. Elsewhere in this labyrinthine wonderland we find eight Titians, 23 Rembrandts, four van Goghs, 15 Gaugins, 31 Picassos and 37 by Matisse.
Standout moments are the huge urns and basins, some taller than me, crafted in jasper, porphyry or malachite for Catherine the Great's amusement; the 18th-century Raphael Loggias housing copies of original Vatican frescoes now revered as artworks in their own right; and Michelangelo's sublime sculpture of the Crouching Boy.
When finally I stumble out of the museum, my senses totally spent, I stand blinking into the unexpected sunlight on Palace Square as a spring gust lifts a pile of white feathers into the air and transforms them into a billowing spiral before my eyes. The episode only confirms my suspicion that this is a surreal dream.
It is almost a relief to be bussed back to the pampered unreality of life aboard Crystal Serenity, where the biggest challenge is surrendering yourself to a life of privilege. Back in my cabin, I am greeted by canapés (prosciutto and melon on mini focacce), two white suit bags containing newly laundered clothes, and a phone message to confirm my reservation that evening at Silk Road, the Nobu Matsuhisa concept restaurant. If only every day were this simple.
Eating sushi in St Petersburg feels odd but it's preferable, I suspect, to the "typical Russian fare" on offer at Tastes restaurant on Deck 12. There are seven dinner options onboard, ranging from the specialty offerings Silk Road (Japanese fusion) and Prego (Italian) to the signature Crystal Dining Room, a sea of Riedel glassware and Villeroy & Boch ceramics, and the poolside Trident Bar and Grill.
The Silk Road menu starts strongly - a dish of salmon tartare crowned with Sevruga caviar, served in a bath of wasabi and soy with yamamomo, Japanese mountain peach (or berry, to be precise) on the side. Tuna tataki with ponzu sauce is less amazing - the tuna's lightly seared at the edges but dry throughout. Juicy yellowtail sashimi topped with a sliver of jalapeño in a yuzu and soy sauce is a faithful rendition of the Matsuhisa staple found at his land-based restaurants from Beverly Hills to the Bahamas.
Prego is also enjoyable - the spaghetti al pesto is perfetto - but we like the freshness and energy of the Silk Road sushi bar so much we dine there three nights out of six. Of all Crystal's restaurants, it offers the most modern eating experience.
Almost every transaction aboard the ship seems to attract a tip, the worst the compulsory 15 per cent service charge added to every drink bought.
I mustn't have been the only customer frustrated by the constant tipping because Crystal has since scrapped the practice. The company's itineraries are now all-inclusive, with prepaid gratuities and complimentary fine wines and premium spirits. It's a smart move that brings Crystal in line with its premium competitors and leaves passengers with more money to spend seeing the world. (My shore excursions bill came to $530, mostly for the three St Petersburg outings. It's expensive but worth it for the unmissable experiences.)
There is a dress code onboard. Most nights are casual, so crisp resort wear works well. Informal nights require a jacket (tie optional) for gents and a cocktail dress for the ladies. Formal nights mean evening gowns and tuxes and a quartet of violinists seesawing its way through easy-listening classical in the Crystal Plaza lobby as guests madly browse the boutiques as if there's some sort of sale on. There's not. But the Crystal Collection boutique does have a "Russian bazaar" selling radioactive-bright babushka dolls. Just beyond, the casino claims to offer sophisticated gaming. Clearly that's an oxymoron but the crowds thronging its tables and slot machines don't seem to care.
Down the corridor there will likely be some cheesy, grinning Broadway-style performance under way in the Galaxy Lounge - not my thing, but we did stumble across a superb piano recital in the Stardust Club by guest artist Philip Wojciechowski one evening.
Life onboard is, for the most part, extremely pleasant and stress-free. But life offboard can be even more marvellous. Each of the Baltic ports we visit has a summery charm all its own.
Helsinki is furs and food. At the waterside Market Square, hardy Finns brave bracing winds to shop at produce stalls brimming with seasonal berries and morels, or browse locally harvested minks and precious pelts, including an excellent fox hat with a bushy tail at the back. (A small, juvenile voice inside me wants to cry out, "Wear the fox hat!") You can pick up a decorative antler here for 10 euros.
We fortify ourselves with a plate of fried potato balls and aïoli. A stallholder insists we also try her golden whitebait, while yet another offers us reindeer sausage. I sneak one of the deep crimson discs into my mouth and, at first, it tastes like a mild chorizo, but then the game kicks in, flooding the palate with heady, adult tones. It turns out that reindeer is quite delicious.
The Finnish capital is easily navigated by foot and tourist bus. It is home to some remarkable architecture - a modernist Christian temple known as Temppeliaukio Kirkko, the Rock Church, as well as imposing civic commissions like Alvar Aalto's marble-clad Finlandia Hall and Eliel Saarinen's art nouveau central railway station wrought in pink granite.
Unfortunately, Tallinn, just a short day's cruising away, has become a parody of itself. The charming lower or old town of the Estonian capital has succumbed to the rich temptations of tourism and mutated into a theme-park of jerkin-clad medieval characters and wall-to-wall gift shops, known as kinkepoods. Toompea Fort still impresses with its brute muscle, and there is rewarding sightseeing in the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the pointy-rooftop panorama from the 12th-century steeple of St Olaf's Church. But elsewhere, it's all wenches in medieval robes, elk soup, and a man dressed as Shrek with a toy donkey at his side. Seriously.
I almost screamed.
On a previous visit to Stockholm, I was gobsmacked by the beauty of the locals, so this time I was determined to investigate whether Stockholmers really are the best-looking citizens in the world. I duck into a local exchange bureau and find myself ogling the five bank tellers behind the counter. All are in their early 20s and all could walk straight into a Hilfiger ad. The two white-clad kids selling tickets to the city boat tour are pin-up perfect. Walking through trendy neighbourhoods like Södermalm and Östermalm, I keep asking myself, "What have they done with all the ugly people?"
Swedes, as we know from the success of Ikea and H&M, are blessed with a heightened sense of fashion and design, so the overall aesthetic of the place is extremely handsome. Hilltop neighbourhoods, shimmering waterways, momentous architecture and gothic streetscapes captivate at every turn. (If you're keen to know Stockholm more intimately, there's a terrific city museum, the Stadsmuseum, where my favourite display is a mock-up of the office where journalist Mikael Blomkvist fought corruption and evil in Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy.)
It is not only sexy Stockholmers who can take your breath away though. Some of the most stunning cruising of the trip is in the dawning light on the north Baltic Sea, gliding past the myriad little islands and inlets that make up the Swedish archipelago. On some, forests of spruce and birch and other Nordic-sounding timbers have been harvested to build picturesque holiday homes painted buttery yellow or bold red or minty green. There are marinas in every cove, some sparkling with pleasure boats and others lined with jaunty fishing vessels. Only the occasional burst of joyful birdsong breaks the dead calm. The sea is rippling like silk in our wake.
An officer descends from the deck above and breaks the spell. I wish him good morning. "This is a nice scene to wake up to," I say with a smile.
"Yes," he says. "It's my home country. I think it's some of the most beautiful sailing anywhere in the world."
I'm inclined to agree with him, but that first sight of St Petersburg veiled in mist was also thrilling. I'll have to come back and do it all again, just to be sure.