I just returned from escorting a group of 16 onboard the Jewel of the Seas' 12 night Scandanavia/Russia itinerary and must say that overall, this was an excellent cruise.
Flights- I negotiated a group airfare with Delta for the group who departed from Tampa with a stopover in JFK in both directions. The group said the service onboard was wonderful and the flights were all on time. I was flying from Seattle and flew United in order to arrive before the group in London. United upgraded me to Business Class and they lie-flat beds made for a very restful and pleasant flight.
Upon arrival at Heathrow airport, we were shocked not to encounter any lines at Immigration and Customs and were outside boarding our private bus to the hotel in about 20 mins after landing.
Transfers- I booked private transfers for the 16 of us with Tony at Silver Fleet Limos and not only was it very economical, we wer able to set our own schedule and beat the crowds and traffic. Tony sent us a 20 person mini-bus which was very comfortable and had plenty of room for us and our luggage. Total cost for transfers from the airport-hotel, hotel-ship and ship-airport was $150 USD per person.. again, must less than RCCL's prices.
Pre-Cruise- London- We decided to spend 2 nights in London pre-cruise and I booked the group at the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge. This is one of the hotels RCCL uses, however by booking on our own, we were able to save about 50% over the rates RCCL was asking. We could not have asked for a better hotel or location. The staff was friendly and accommodated our request for early check in, as we arrived at the hotel around 9:30am. Not only were our rooms ready, but they upgraded everyone to suites! The hotel was in the perfect location.. just across the Thames from Big Ben, and right around the corner from the London Eye. There were loads of little restaurants, bars, cafes and shops all within 2 blocks of the hotel, and the hotel's Lobby Bar is open 24 hours a day for late night drinks and snacks.
All of us had purchased the 2 day London Pass, which afforded us unlimited transportation on the Underground, Busses and Trains as well as free admission to over 55 museums and attractions, many with "Skip the Line Access". The London Pass was a bit pricey since you pay in British Pounds, but we still realized quite a bit of savings, and not having to wait in the LONG lines was also a bonus. We spend our 2 days exploring all of London and the major sights in a mixture of sun and rain..but hey, it's London, you expect to get wet right?
Cruise Day- We had arranged for Silver Fleet to pick us up at the hotel at 9:30am and they were right on time. In short order us and our bags were loaded and we were on our way for the 2 hour drive to Harwich. We arrived at the Cruise Terminal ahead of everyone else and basically walked right in, checked in and were on the ship in about 3 mins. Our bags were left on the bus, and the driver drove them right to the side of the ship and handed them to the Longshoremen, who loaded them immediately onto the Jewel. As a matter of fact our bags were all waiting for us in our cabins when we got there.
The Harwich Terminal is a small, simple facility, but served it's purpose well. I'm not sure how well it handles the crowds once all the busses and trains arrive, but again when we got there it was a ghost town.
Once onboard, we had a nice lunch at the Windjammer and waited for our cabins to be ready at 1:00pm. About 10 mins after sitting down for lunch, there was an announcement that the cabins were ready early and we were welcome to settle in.
Cabin- We all had Cat. E1 Balcony cabins scattered around Deck 8 and nobody in the group had any issues with plumbing, cleanliness or service. I had cabin 8544 with one of the best Cabin Attendants ever! Dave provided excellent service and the cabin was so clean, you couldn't even find a speck of dust behind the TV!
Ship- For a 12 yr old ship, the Jewel looked brand new. I've always applauded RCCL for the way they maintain their ships, but I guess in my mind I was expecting to see the Jewel a little more rough for wear, considering she'll be going into drydock soon for her Oasis-class Revitalization. The ship was gleaming white, with no signs of rust or unvarnished railings. Most of the carpet in the public areas was new and the ship was spotless. There were hand sanitizers everywhere, and crew members at the entrance to all dining venues and at the gangway made sure to squirt everyone upon entry.
Food- I know the topic of food is very subjective, but I can honestly say the food in all dining venues was very good to excellent. Between the 16 of us we must have tried everything on the menu and everybody enjoyed what they ate. There was food available 24 hours a day from either the Windjammer, Seaview Cafe or Solarium Cafe, so the need to pay the $3.95 room service fee after midnight was not necessary. The selection in the WJ was varied, hot and fresh at each meal and snack service, and I'm happy to report there were finally some new items on the dinner menu in the MDR. We ate breakfast in the Private area of the MDR for Diamond/D+ members and it was very nice. Lunch on the sea days was eaten in the MDR and the salad bar was as fantastic as ever. On the first sea day, our Headwaiter arranged for our group and another to have a special lunch in Portofino for $10 per person which included a tour of the Galley at the end of the cruise. Lunch was delicious and a nice change over the MDR or WJ. Each night when we arrived at our tables in the MDR there were 3 plates of cheeses and crackers set out for us to nibble on before dinner which was also very nice. We all dined at Chops and Portofino and the food and service was top notch.
Service- One word-- EXCELLENT! The service throughout the ship was fantastic. Never once did we encounter any surly or unhappy crew. In addition to our wonderful cabin attendant, we were fortunate to have Bolwin (from India) as our Waiter and Maribel (from Peru) as our Asst Waiter in the MDR. They provided some of the best service I've had in the MDR since 1995. They, combined with our Head Waiter Erdem (from Turkey) could not do enough for us and were a joy to spend the evenings with. On the last night of the cruise they brought their camera's to take pictures with us, and were pratically in tears when we had to say goodbye.
Jasmin the Concierge and Mickey the Bartender in the Concierge Lounge were warm, funny and again could not do enough for us and really made for a great 12 days onboard. I cannot say enough about how great these people were and only hope to sail with them in the future.
Our Captain, James McDonald was very approachable and was also kind enough to arrange a tour of the Bridge for my group on the last sea day, which everyone enjoyed.
Entertainment- There were 3 production shows on this cruise.. all of them I'd seen before.. West End to Broadway, City of Dreams and Tango Buenos Aires. The RCCL Singers and Dancers were talented enough to pull them off with flair. The guest entertainers were also very good.. Singer, Brenda Cochoran, some Illusionist and a group called Graffiti Classics which was one of the best shows I've seen at sea from a guest entertainer. The live music in all the lounges was excellent and varied and the Centrum had live music almost every time you passed through-- day or night. There were several parties hosted in the Centrum at night and the place was PACKED! People dancing in all the decks surrounding the area, and the dance floor was shoulder to shoulder crowded. This cruise had an older crowd and not many kids, but those "seniors" partied like it was Spring Break and made for a very festive atmosphere onboard. There were far more activities scheduled than you could do in any given day. Clo the CD was out everywhere and really made sure this has a "Party Cruise".
Fellow Passengers- Like I mentioned before, this cruise had a very "senior" crowd, but they were active and fun. Most of the fellow passengers were lovely and we met some great people. Of course there was the usual rude, pushy person on occassion, but they were in the minority. People came from all over, a lot from the UK as you can imagine, a lot of Americans and quite a lot of Aussies and folks from South America.
Let me preface the port review by saying we were extrememly fortunate to have very nice weather and calm seas throughout the cruise. As a matter of fact, every crew member and shop owner we came across said this was the best weather they've had all season. The earlier cruises were plauged with cold and rain for most of their trips. For instance, St. Petersburg only has 30 days of sunshine a year, and we had 2 of them! We really lucked out!
Now on to review the ports....
Harwich- Nothing to see or do here, except board the ship. They did have a Scottish Bagpipe band played from the pier as we sailed away, so make sure you're outside when the ship sails.
Sea Day- Weather started off a bit chilly, but the sun came out and warmed us up a bit. There was so much happening around the ship that the day passed too quickly.
Copenhagen- The weather was the worst here.. very chilly in the early morning with a few sprinkles of rain before turning mostly sunny. We arrived at 7:00am on a Sunday and it was a ghost town! We left the ship as soon as it was cleared and walked along the water toward the Royal Palace and the center of town. We were literally the only people on the streets and it was a bit eery, but a very enjoyable walk. Along the way, we stopped for pictures at the Little Mermaid, and took advantage of not having crowds of people to contend with. Along the walk there were lots of opportunities to take pictures of fountains, small churches, parks, statues etc. We made a brief stop at the Royal Palace and then continued on to the center of town, stopping at a small cafe on the main canal for coffee. The HoHo bus left from this location, beginning at 9:30am and we purchased our tickets from the driver. Our intended plan was to ride the full circuit and then go around again, hopping off at the areas we wanted to explore further. Unfortunately, due to a large accident, the busses ran behind schedule and had to amend their course, so we basically rode back to the point from where we began and got off to explore on our own. We walked back to the Palace for the Changing of the Guard at 12 noon, and it was nothing very grand. I wouldn't make it a point of of watching unless you happen to be in the area. We later returned to the HoHo bus, and finally got to ride the full circuit, however due to time constraints we did not have the luxury of getting off at any of the sights. Instead we rode back to the stop at the pier, and spent a little time wondering around the shops at the pier before boarding the ship.
Sea Day- Weather started off a bit chilly, but the sun came out once again and warmed us up a bit. Lots happening around the ship.. lectures, music, dance classes etc.
Stockholm- The weather was slightly warmer the morning of our arrival and the sun came out in full strength for rest of the day. We docked at 9:00am and once again we left the ship as soon as it was cleared. We purchased tickets for the HoHo bus right on the pier and soon were on our way to the first stop at the Vasa Museum. The Vasa is a must see! The museum is literally built around the salavaged ship and it was very impressive. They gave a good guided tour which lasted about 40 mins and then we spend an additional 30 mins exploring on our own and visiting the various exhibits. They also run a movie on the history of the ship and how they salvaged her from the harbor. There's also a nice cafe and gift shop here. After about 1.5 hrs at the Vasa, we walked down the street and took the ferry across to the City Center. From here we made the short walk to the Nobel Museum, which was nothing much, but interesting nonetheless. After about 30 mins, we walked around the corner to watch the Changing of the Guard at the Royal Palace, this one is not to be missed. Complete marching band, guards on horseback and a lot of ceremony made for a nice show. Following that, we purchased tickets to visit the Royal Treasury, Crown Jewels, Royal Chaplel and Royal Apartments. One ticket gained you entry to all 3 and we spend a while exploring the Palace before splitting up to do shopping, have lunch and exploring the city on our own. We rode the HoHo bus around the city gaining insight into the local areas of interest before being dropped off back at the pier to reboard the beautiful Jewel of the Seas.
Helsinki- Weather here was sunny and warm... a perfect day! The ship docked at 10:00am and we opted to take the ship's shuttle bus to the center of town ($10 per person, round trip). Upon arriving in town, we walked down the Esplenade toward the Open Air Market and purchased tickets on one of the harbor cruises. This was a lovely way to see the islands that dot the Helsinki Harbor and was very informative. The narration explained how the locals live, gave a history of the area etc. There was a small cafe onboard for coffee and light snacks and the 1.5 hr trip was perfect for picture taking. After the boat trip, we split up to explore the Open Air Market for shopping and lunch. This was a great place to pick up inexpensive, local souveniers, fresh fruit and have lunch. There were numerous vendors serving all kinds of cuisine.. we opted for the fresh salmon with potatoes and veggies, and the portions were HUGE. Three meals cost us $30 USD... and were easily worth double that. After lunch and shopping, we regrouped and took the 3T Tram to the Rock Church, another must see. After some time there, it was back on the 3T Tram to the Market where once again we split up and went off on our own. Some people went back to the ship, while others of us, sat outside with an ice cream and listened to a free concert that was taking place outside in the Esplenade before we returned to the ship. Another MUST SEE is the public restrooms inside the City Hall building! The City Hall is a light blue colored building across the street from the Open Air Market. The restrooms are free and, well....they have to be experienced. The Men's room was actually a lot more strange than the Ladies, from what was described.. but you must not miss this.
St. Petersburg- We booked a private 2 day tour with Alla Tours and couldn't have asked for a better 2 days. SPB only gets 30 days of sunshine a year, and we had 2 of them! The weather was sunny, warm and in the high 70's - mid 80's both days. In SPB, if you do not purchase a ships excursion, or a private tour, you will need to obtain an entry visa or else you will not be allowed off the ship. There is now a new cruise terminal in SPB and it is modern and very nice. Going through Immigration was a breeze. We simply presented our passports, immigration form (supplied by the ship) and copy of our tour vouchers that Alla had emailed before we left home and that was it. Don't expect anyone to smile though. The ship docked at 7:00am and once again we were the first ones off. After clearing Immigration, Alla met us in the lobby of the terminal and introduced us to Angie, our Guide for the next 2 days and Vladimir our Driver. We had a private tour for the 16 of us and were soon in our Mercedes Minibus and off to explore beautiful SPB. After a short drive with several stops for photos, we stopped at a small shop for free shots of Vodka, Russian cranberry liquor and free coffee and tea were also provided. Doing vodka shots at 8:00am was an eye opener to say the least. Clean restrooms were also provided at this stop, before we boarded our boat for a 1.5 hour cruise around the canals of SPB. Excellent narration was provided on the boat by our guide Angie. We departed the boat the the entry to the Yusupov Palace, where we had early entry and were able to see the Rasputin Exhibition as well as the rest of the Palace basically on our own. After that it was off to ride the subway which had beautiful stations and was an experience in itself. Vladimir and the bus met us when we departed the subway and then we were off to St. Isaac's Cathedral, where once again we skipped the lines and had time to explore before going back on the bus for the drive to the Peterholf. During the hour long drive, we were provided with a box lunch to enjoy on the bus. It was very good-- a grilled chicken breast in a russian crepe, with fruit, water and a candy bar. Everyone enjoyed the lunch and scenic drive. Once at the Peterholf we spent a few hours exploring the fountain gardens and beautiful grounds, before boarding a hydrofoil back to SPB. Vladimir and the bus met us back in SPB and drove us to St. Peter & Paul Fortress with a visit inside the Cathedral where we were treated to a private concert by the Choir. By this time it was about 5pm and it would have been the conclusion of our day, however I had requested for Alla to find us a local restaurant where we could dine for dinner and enjoy being in a port overnight. Alla found us a great place, uniquely Russian and had great food. We asked Alla and her husband as well as Angie and Vladimir to be our guests, and Alla was kind enough to not charge us for the extra time with the bus. Dinner was a long, slow process, but with freely flowing vodka the group didn't seem to mind. After dinner it was back to the ship and bed to rest for our second day of touring. It was a very long day.. we left the ship at 7am and didn't get back until 1130pm..but it was well worth every minute.
The second day, we were up and off the ship at 7am, and again were met by Angie and Vladimir outside of Immigration. Our first stop was to their office, where we made our payment for the tour. $300 per person for both days, including lunch each day, photo permits, and all entry costs. Alla accepts USD, cash, credit cards, Euro, Pounds.. whatever you wish to pay with. After making payment, we had time to shop and once again partake in the free vodka shots, coffee and tea before heading off to the Hermitage. Once again, we had early entry, so we had 45 mins to explore before the place opened to the public and it was nice not to have to fight any crowds. After plenty of time to at the Hermitage, we were off to the Church on the Spilled Blood, before stopping at a nice restaurant for lunch.
After lunch, we were once again on the bus for the hour drive to Catherine's Palace. We were supposed to have "skip the line access" however there was some government functions going on and they had us backed up for a while.. not too long, thanks to Angie's manuevering us around the crowds. The tour included the Amber Room and the outside gardens before we were back on the bus and headed toward the ship. Another long day.. off the ship at 7:00am and back onboard at 5pm, but again we loved every minute of it.
I would be remiss, if I didn't stop and take a few minute to explain how wonderful Alla and her staff were. Alla herself was very quick to respond to my numerous questions and all requests were met with a "no problem" attitude. Angie, our guide was fantastic! Best KGB guide in all of Russia-- LOL and Vladimir drove that mini-bus like it was a Ferrari. Angie's command of the English language was excellent, and she provided just enough history and background without the usual overkill most guides give. She was very flexible to our needs and requests and you could tell she takes great pride in her city and country. Her skill was also proven in her ability to get us away from the crowds and ahead of many groups at the various sites.
Tallinn- Weather upon arrival was a bit chilly but soon the sun was out and it was a beautiful, warm day once again. The ship docked at 8:00am and since we had just spent 4 tireless days running around the previous ports, I decided the group needed a day on their own (not to meniton I needed one as well). Since basically Tallinn is a small, medeveal town, it would be the perfect place to let the group go off on their own to explore. The port facility has a shuttle into town from the ship for $10 per person, roundtrip, but the ride is nothing more than about 3 blocks, so I say skip the cost and make the easy walk toward the Old Town on your own. Everyone thouroughly enjoyed their time here. We explored the lower and upper parts of Old Town, the Open Air Market and enjoyed popping in to many of the art galleries and shops. If you want to buy anything on this trip, Tallinn is the place to do this-- and we all did!
Following Tallinn was another Sea Day- Weather started off a bit chilly, but the sun came out once again and warmed us up nicely. Again, lots happening around the ship.. lectures, music, dance classes etc.
Gothenberg- Weather here was COLD and WINDY on arrival. The sun did manage to come out and the balance of the afternoon was warm and sunny, until the ship departed, when it decided to rain. Not a lot to see in this port. At the pier is the Volvo Museum if that interests you. In order to get into town, you must buy tickets on the ships shuttle bus for $15 per person, round trip as it's about a 20 min drive to the center of town. Once in town there's not a lot to see.. other than parks, shops and restaurants. There is a HoHo bus, but we didn't partake. We did buy tickets on the famous Padaan Canal Boat trip and it wasn't worth $1, let alone $25 per person. A few of our crew friends from the ship had time off, so instead we spent the day with them at a local cafe drinking beer and cocktails and having lunch.
The final Sea Day started off cold and windy, but by mid afternoon the sun magically appeared and the pool deck was enjoyed. Of course the ship was abuzz with it's normal, endless activities.
We docked back in Harwich at 4am, and opted for Express Departure which had us leaving the ship at 5:45am!! We were literally the first to depart the ship and were once again met by Silver Fleet Limos and our private bus for the 3 hour drive to Heathrow. Then it was through check in, security and on our way home.
- Pack for all types of weather-- rain, cold, wind, sun etc
- Dinner seatings in the MDR are 6p and 830p in addition to MTD.
- During the overnight in SPB, the MDR is Open Seating for everyone from 6p-9p, they also had a very nice poolside buffet set up from 1030p until midnight for those who stayed ashore at night.
- Allow extra time in getting back to the ship. Traffic was a nightmare in every port and it took a lot longer than expected to get back to the ship.
- Do not wait for the ships sale in the gift shops to buy your souveniers. The prices were about 1000% higher than they were in each port for the exact same merchandise.
- Tallinn is the best place to buy anything
- The ship offers money exchange services. It wasn't necessary to get a lot of local currency in each port, as most places accepted USD, EURO and all took credit/atm cards.
If you're interested in watching a video I made of our entire trip as well as a tour of the Jewel of the Seas, please visit: