Port and Shore Excursions
We embarked in Amsterdam. The cruise terminal is very nice with all the basic facilities. It is close to the Central Station. However, if you have several pieces of luggage, it's worthwhile to just take a taxi (about EUR11-15).
When the ship departed from Amsterdam, it passed through the canal. When it reached the coast of the Netherlands, the 'gate' which separates the canal and the sea would open. Though I believe that it was not as stunning as the big canals (like Panama Canal), it was also interesting to experience it.
It was not our first time to visit Copenhagen. Probably due to the unusual hot weather, it turned out to be a big disappointment. As the ship docked 15 mins away from the city centre, we took the shuttle organized by the cruise line. Copenhagen has lost its charm as a 'European' city. It could be too "internationalised" and lost its uniqueness. Also, everything was very expensive. Another downside was that the city is under construction, as they are building the subway. I feel that it is not a big issue if we skip this port.
The ship docked about 20 mins away from the city centre. We took the hop-on and off bus (Euro 20 per person) to travel around the city, including the Church in the Rock and Sibelius Monument. Of course, you will not miss the Senate Square where the white Helsinki Cathedral is located. (note: even the ship docks very early in the morning, you don't have to leave the ship immediately. Many of the places only open in late morning).
We arrived Warnemunde on a beautiful sunny day. Unlike many other passengers, we decided not to go to Berlin taking into consideration the long journey times from Warnemunde to Berlin (2.5 hours by train one way). We wanted to save our energy (and money) for St. Petersburg. Instead, we took train (about 30 mins ride) to nearby town -- Rockstock. It turned out to be a very nice experience, especially in terms of shopping. Taking train to Rockstock was very simple. We bought a one-day pass at the station (note: the vending machine does not provide the 1-day pass option. So, please go direct to the ticketing office for this ticket which is good for both train and tram). After the train ride arriving at Rockstock Station, we took tram to the city centre which is just few stops away (note: when you get off from the train, look for the tram platform "to city", as there are 2 tram rails for opposite directions). Rockstock is just a small town with some old building. After Copenhagen, we found that the products in Rockstock are very affordable. It was a nice walk in the main street. There is also an old church that you can visit.
St. Petersburg was the highlight of our trip. Against the advice of the cruise line, we did not take the excursions offered by them. Instead, we followed the useful review of the fellow cruisers in this forum and took the private tour. There was NO problem at all to go through the Russian immigration control with the tickets issued by DenRus. Following the instructions of the travel agent, we were among the first to leave the ship. The process was very smooth -- took us less than 10 mins. The ship docked at 6.30a.m. but the gangway was not ready until 7a.m. We were allowed to leave the ship at 7.20a.m. By 7.30a.m., the entire group (15 of us) were ready to go. We were very happy that we could sit in a comfortable and spacious coach (which can actually take 30 people but there were only 15 of us).
The 2-day tour went very well as per itinerary. Our travel guide (Ms. Lana) speaks excellent English and has great sense of humour. She is also very experienced and scheduled every activity nicely. We did not spend too much time of waiting, even for the Hermitage. Instead of queuing in the main entrance, our group could enter the Hermitage from other entrance. We noticed in the entrance tickets that our group booked a specific time to enter the museum. This could explain why we did not have to line up with other 'walk-in' visitors. Unlike the cruise line excursions, this private tour included lunch. This saved us the efforts of looking for eating places and the need of exchanging Russian rouble. We dined at decent places on both days. The dining venue on the 2nd day was particularly impressive, as it is designed like a palace near Peterhof. Talking about Peterhof, it was a MUST. The fountain gardens are marvellous. Of course, you cannot miss the Catherine's Palace and the Amber Room. On this, we would like to give credit to Ms. Lana again. When we visited Catherine's Palace, we entered from the main gate. Then, after visiting the Palace, we went to the outdoor garden. Ms. Lana nicely arranged the bus to pick us up from the backdoor of the garden. This saved us the time and efforts to walk back to main gate. I noticed that many other visitors had to walk back. Another highlight of the tour is the Nevsky River cruise, which brought us to Peter and Paul Fortress as well as close-up to the ship Aurora. It was another seamless itinerary planned by the tour. Ms. Lana also bought us to take the Metro, which was a very interesting experience to see the beautiful decorations of the subway station and take the long escalator to 120m below the ground. We also visited the souvenir shops on both mornings. Yet, we were not forced to buy anything but encouraged to use the clean toilet facilities.
We are seasoned travellers around the world. We reckon that Ms. Lana is one of the best travel guides we ever had. We are very satisfied with the 2-day tour, though very exhausted. If you visit St. Petersburg, please make sure that you are energized and with good walking shoes.
Stockholm was our last port of call. To be accurate, the port was Nynashamn. It is one hour away from Stockholm. Luckily, as soon as we got to the shore (tender was required for this port), we found the 'special' hop-on and off bus. It took us all the way from Nynashamn to downtown Stockholm. From there, we did the standard hop-on and off bus tours. Then, the special bus took us back to the port. I must say that this hop-on and off bus operation saved our visit in Stockholm. First of all, as tender was required, the ship gave priority to passengers who joined the cruise line excursion. We waited for an hour in the ship before we could take the tender. Secondly, the cruise line did not provide us information about the availability of such hop-on and off bus (as in other ports for obvious reason -- the hop-on and off bus is their competitor for excursion). If the special bus was not available, we would have difficulty and limited time to visit downtown Stockholm. There are only 2 trains per hour to run from Nynashamn to Stockholm. Taking into account the 'late' tender service as mentioned above and 20 mins walk from the pier to the train station, we would have only very limited time in town.
When we arrived Tallinn, it was another sunny day. Though the old city centre is within walking distance (about 20-30 mins from the pier), we decided to take a taxi (Euro 15) to the hilltop (The Orthodox Cathedral -- Alexander Nevsky Cathedral). Then, we walked downhill and strolled around the old town before walking back to the ship. We believe that it was a good strategy, with St. Petersburg on the next two days in mind. We also took nice panoramic shot from the hilltop. Tallinn was a nice little medieval town. In order to appreciate this small town, we took snack and coffee in one of the many cafes in the plaza. But, honestly, it was nothing very special.