I WALKED along the red carpet, climbed the beautiful Jordan Staircase with its golden stucco and marble statues and looked back at the long grand entrance. There wasn't soul in sight. It was quite simply of those moments. Did I really have this fabulous, world famous museum to myself? Well, almost.

I then strolled into a gallery of priceless paintings quite alone, although a security guard hung around discreetly in the distance.

It was a beautiful sunny Saturday evening in August in St Petersburg, the magnificent city of Peter the Great. Earlier, thousands of people had been milling here. Now, at 8pm it was closed to the public and around 40 of us had been allowed in.

We were privileged to be in the elegant state apartments and magnificent halls of the Winter Palace, part of the Hermitage.

After two hours of marvelling at the exhibits there was a final treat in store.

In one of the galleries, a personal, one hour performance of Mozart, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Strauss by the St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra.

This private tour was entitled Exclusive Hermitage.

The chance to see this stunning museum when everyone else had gone home had been organised as a shore excursion from the Saga Pearl 11 on the 16-day White Nights of the Baltics cruise. It was an unforgettable experience.

You have to hand it to these Saga, they have style.

Life at sea is an acquired taste and a Saga cruise is probably not everyone's cup of tea. Indeed, you don't qualify unless you are 50 or over.

Saga passengers most definitely love it. They love the intimacy of a small ship, the superb cuisine, the attentiveness and friendliness of crew members who always remember their name, the fact that nothing is too much trouble and that they get picked up from home by chauffeur drive car and dropped back again at the end of the holiday - a huge selling point Saga cruises are for the over 50s but in truth the average age of the client on the two ships, Pearl 11 and Sapphire, is actually around 75.

So if you are 57 and hop aboard for a few days cruising the Gulf of Finland (in my case from Stockholm to Tallinn via Helsinki and St Petersburg) you can get away with feeling relatively youthful.

The safety, security and companionship of Saga cruise is exactly what people of a certain age, whether couples or single travellers, are looking for and while it's by no means the cheapest option, the Saga approach is a perfect fit.

More than 75 per cent of bookings are repeat business.

There are quite a lot of single passengers, especially women who tend to outlive their husbands and loneliness is one of the biggest social issues.

Saga deal with this as a a priority. There are gentlemen hosts on board for conversation, companionship and dancing in evening and all crew members keep a special eye out for those travelling alone.

There's even a chaplain on every cruise, available every day for pastoral care.

Clients appreciate the well-organised, wide-ranging and fully-escorted tours.

The 18,591-ton, seven passenger, Saga Pearl 11 has a lovely, relaxed and peaceful atmosphere and a yacht-like feel. Life on board is unhurried. It's a relativelysmall vessel with never more than 449 passengers and 252 officers and crew.

The heart of the ship is lovely library with 3000 books, maps. The restaurants offer both formal informal dining.

There's also a spa, two pools and a sauna, a small cinema, gymnasium, hair and beauty salon and card room.

While for some passengers the ports of call are almost incidental because the Saga Pearl is their home from home. For others they are very much the point.

And, with places like St Petersburg, it's easy to see why. You really have to blink to make sure you are not dreaming.


They call the capital of Sweden beauty on water and it has a stunning waterfront. The airy city lies on 14 islands and one third is water and one third parks and green space. The historic heart is the old town, Gamla Stan, a vibrant blend of splendid old building, cafes and shop. The huge natural park of Djurgarden is well worth a visit with the outdoor museum of Skansen. Plus: Vasa Shipwreck Museum to see the magnificent warship, the royal residence of Drottningholm Palace and the Abba Museum.


Finland is celebrating 100 years of independence in 2017 and Helsinki is the focal point. This small, beautiful city has wonderful, multi-coloured Jugendstil art nouveau buildings, a stunning, dazzling white cathedral sitting above the Senate Square, a lovely waterfront and excellent tram network (although you can easily walk the city centre). There are 3000 restaurants and many coffee shops. Finns drink more coffee than anyone else in Europe. Plus: Monument to composer and national hero Jean Sibelius.


Stunning almost beyond comprehension and by far Russia's most beautiful and magnificent city founded by Peter the Great founded on the Neva River in 1703 and the imperial capital until 1918.

Called the Venice of the North because of its canal network, it is beautiful by day, spellbinding by night.

The Romanov's Winter Palace forming part of the Hermitage Museum is the centrepiece with three million exhibits. But there's also the Church on the Spilled Blood where Alexander 11 was assassinated, St Isaac's Cathedral, Peterhof and the Catherine Palace. Plus: Russia's most famous street, the 4km long Nevsky Prospect, Peter and Paul Fortress and the grand Italianate mansions.


The capital of Estonia is charm personified with church spires, winding cobbled streets, battlements and a lively but not over-exuberant atmosphere. The old town (Vanalinn) is fascinating, small and easy to explore. The magnificent, onion-domed, Russian Orthodox, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is the undoubtedly highlight of the Toompea, the upper town. Also see: Town Hall Square, Fat Margaret's Tower, St Olav's Church, the Viru Gates and Toompea Castle.


Andy Martin travelled with Saga for four nights. The Saga Pearl 11 departs Dover on May 22 2018 for the 14-night Majestic Baltic cruise, with prices from £2,825. It's her last Baltic voyage before retirement in 2019. Call 0800 505030 or visit saga.co.uk