"Cities of the Baltic" cruise - 13 nights departing 29 May 2012 from Newcastle.
OK, Thomson Spirit is nearly thirty years old, and Newcastle, while a regular departure point for ferries across the North Sea, is not visited by many cruise ships carrying large numbers (1200 in this case) so we thought we would have to make allowances for embarkation/disembarkation being less smooth than at bigger ports. So what happened?
First, the Port of Tyne did themselves proud. Like most passengers we were arriving by car, and the port had a large number of friendly staff on duty to guide us every step of the way, and arrangements were just as smooth on our return.
Now, the ship. What's good about it?
1. The crew. It was quickly obvious that every single crew-member, from the highest profile to those undertaking fairly menial tasks, had bought into the idea that that the total customer experience is the sum of ALL the details and that, no matter how small the detail, EVERYTHING matters. Richard, the Cruise Director, brought this to everybody's attention towards the end of the cruise, but we had already reached this conclusion without any help. This is the biggest plus about the Thomson Spirit.
2. The food. Excellent quality and variety, and imaginative presentation. Like most passengers, we used the 24 hour Lido Buffet for breakfast and lunch, plus in-between-time snacks like afternoon tea. Unlike some self-service buffets we have seen, the Lido has a real quality feel - a family restaurant, with carpets, nice furnishings (and tablecloths in the evening). It is big enough and sufficiently well-staffed to cope with whatever comes - even during the busiest periods, it was quite easy to get a table, empty dishes were cleared very promptly, and the food just kept coming. In one extreme period they ran out of plates and cups, but only for a few seconds! For dinner (again like the majority) we chose the more formal Compass Rose Restaurant which was a delight - smart but not stuffy, offering a different five-course menu every night backed by a decent if slightly overpriced wine list. The restaurant was open-sitting most nights - this worked very well thanks to superb organisation. On the two formal nights there were early and late sittings - it was easy to switch from one to the other to suit your evening plans. Dress was smart casual; on the formal nights suits were in the great majority with just a smattering of evening suits. We cannot comment on the Sirocco Restaurant (reservations and a Â£19 supplement) as we saw no need to try it. To sum up, you would have to be very, very fussy not to be fully satisfied with the food onboard - with the sole exception of the coffee in our view, which we found abysmally weak, both the free coffee in the Lido and the paid-for coffee in the bars and lounges (the Compass Rose coffee was usually a bit better). That said, to be fair, some people thought the coffee was great!
3. The entertainment. The ship featured a number of talented groups, duos and individuals providing entertainment in the various bars and lounges, plus an energetic team organising and presenting a wide range of audience-participation events; visiting personalities (Peter Purves in this case) and lecturers presented interesting sessions. The jewel in the crown, however, was the 10-strong Thomson Spirit Show Team. A cruise-ship "West End" show is invariably performed to a pre-recorded music track but, in comparison to previous cruises, Thomsons have taken this to a new level - quality singers and dancers, excellent choreography, extremely polished and well-rehearsed routines, backed up by fully professional stage lighting and sound systems. At times you had to pinch yourself to remember that the musicians were not "live". Several shows won standing ovations and, after the Lloyd-Webber/Rice tribute show, we remarked that we would have been happy to have paid a West End ticket price at the door.
What's not so good?
1. The ship is "getting on a bit". Thomson Spirit will be 30 years old in 2013, and is starting to fray around the edges a little, but is basically a quality ship. Unlike earlier Thomson ships we had cruised with such as Island Breeze and Emerald, which had been converted from passenger liners, she was custom-built as a cruise ship - originally Holland America's Nieuw Amsterdam, built in 1983, and operating for Thomson Cruises since 2003. This means that the major eating and entertainment venues are logically arranged near each other, rather than being at opposite ends of the ship and several decks apart. Thomsons do not pretend that the ship is the world's smartest and, when you remember the service, food and entertainment, the age of the ship becomes irrelevant.
2. Bar prices. A common gripe I admit. Â£3.50 for a pint of San Miguel (the only draught anywhere) and the same for a can of John Smith's or Boddington's. The only wines (other than in the restaurants) were house red/white/rose, all of which were drinkable but very average and lightweight, and over-priced at Â£3.90 for a 150ml glass or Â£14.50 per bottle. So what do you do? Just get on with it - at least excellent service eases the pain!
Scheduled ports were Aalborg, Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Tallinn, Riga and Kalundborg (for Copenhagen). At every port a good range of excursions was offered (in many cases this included walking tours and bike tours). With the exception of St. Petersburg, all ports are suitable for exploring on your own and are a delight - our favourites were Tallinn and Riga. Free shuttle buses ran to and from the town centres and, unlike on many ships, the Thomson staff were eager to provided all possible help to those going off on their own - they could not be accused of only being interested is selling their own trips. We took organised excursions in St. Petersburg plus a Copenhagen trip from Kalundborg. We found these to be expensive but, on reflection, fair value.
St. Petersburg. Unless you are on an organised trip, you are not allowed past the immigration desks on the quayside - simple as that! There are so many highlights that it is difficult to cover them all. We did our best by taking full day trips (including lunch) on both days, plus an evening visit to the ballet. That way we saw the Catherine Palace, Peterhof Palace and Gardens, the Hermitage and much else. These excursions came to Â£436 for two people - not cheap but good! The "Wow!" factor was everywhere and the local guides were outstanding. The warning we would offer is that these trips can be tiring - it's not so much the amount of walking involved as the fact that you have to go lengthy periods without the opportunity to sit down. If you are less than fully fit, you maybe need to pace yourself a bit.
Kalundborg for Copenhagen. It is a 90 minute coach trip from the port to the capital, so that's a Â£34 fare even if you are opting to do "Copenhagen on your own" (and no, you can't save money or time by catching a train!) We opted for a City Highlights and Canal Cruise because the cost was not much more and this was a good choice. Several hundred passengers opted to stay in Kalundborg and they all seemed pretty happy with their day - the town went out of its way to make the cruise visitors welcome. Note: not all Thomson cruises dock at Kalundborg, some do stop in Copenhagen.
For any trip to the Scandinavia/Baltic region, you have to take layers of clothing. Weather conditions are very variable - be prepared for anything!