Before embarking on this cruise, I read quite a few negative reviews. I think many of them were over-critical, and possibly the result of being jaded from past luxurious experiences.
Like other cruise lines, Princess has cut back on what is included in the base price. You have to pay for drinks (including soda, juice, and coffee), with the exception of the breakfast offerings. There are restaurants on board that require a cover charge, and pool areas that require a spa fee. All irritating, but I chose to ignore all of these options, and enjoy everything else.
The ship: The Emerald Princess is a classy ship, in excellent condition. Decor consists of lacquered wood and brass. All of the public areas were comfortable and elegant. The only design flaw I could see was that it was difficult to walk from one part of the ship to another without having to go up and down to avoid blocked passageways. On the positive side, all of the stair climbing helps burn off calories! Stateroom service was not very personal, and was more like Motel 6.
The food: I saw no need to spend money on specialty restaurants, since the food was so good in the main dining room. If you are patient, nearly all of the specialty food, such as lobster, are eventually served for free. The wait staff was very friendly, and their individual personalities showed through the stiff formality. Specialty cheeses and desserts were available 24-hours a day in the atrium, and pizza and burgers could be found near the pools.
Entertainment: The shows are short, and shown more often, to try to make scheduling easier. The ship's dance crew put on a couple of really good shows, but overall the entertainment was less impressive than other cruises I have been on. (I guess I'm a bit jaded as well) The most valueable shows were the port lectures by John Lawrence. Listening carefully to his advice will save you time and money, as well as helping you to plan your port time. They were always repeated on the stateroom televisions.
The ports: The ship visited 8 ports in 11 days, which was exhausting at times. I actually heard a few people complaining that it was too much, but my wife and I looked at it as a real value for the cost of the cruise. Be prepared for strenuous days.
The port strike was resolved in Oslo Norway, so we were able to visit the port. The castle right next to the ship was incredible! The self guided tour allowed me to see it at my own pace, with time left over to visit the open air Viking Folk Museum.
Aarhus Denmark was a small port, with not much to see. We made use of Denmark's free bicycles, and rode along the coast for a while before heading to the shopping district to explore and have a cold beer. We procrastinated too long, and arrived at the cathedral after closing hours (4 pm). Oh well, we had another beer instead.
In Warnemunde Germany, we booked a tour through SPB that went to Rostock and Schwerin Castle. Our guide was relaxed and knowledgeable about the sites. She was actually part of the congregation of one of the old churches that we visited. Schwerin Castle was one of the highlights of the cruise. Lunch was included with the tour, and consisted of German sausage, sauerkraut, and a beer. Unlike the unfortunate people who went all the way to Berlin, we had time left over to walk around Warnemunde before boarding the ship.
Tallinn Estonia was a warm and friendly medieval town. The people were vibrant, friendly, and willing to talk. I could see myself living there. We found a three story restaurant housed in a very old building, which was candle lit, and served wild game and a beer resembling mead in HUGE mugs: another highlight of the cruise.
St. Petersburg Russia took about a day to grow on us. When we left the ship, we were greeted by some very serious Russian agents. It felt very oppressive. We booked the 2-day, as well as the Evening Fun Tour, with SPB tours. Our day guide was reserved and efficient. We must have seen every cultural sight there was. Well worth the money, and less costly than the Princess sponsored tour. The fun evening tour is what really won our hearts. Our tour guide, Sasha, was confident, outgoing, and funny. Ladies, keep an eye on your husbands around this cute young woman!
Helsinki Finland was spread out, and therefore difficult to see in such a short day. We got to see the Temppeliaukio church, met some really friendly people, and enjoyed fresh fish in a farmer's market at the downtown docks.
Stockholm Sweden was another highlight of the cruise. Unfortunately, the port had the shortest stay of the trip, so we changed our approach. We were the first people off the ship, and immediately grabbed a taxi into Old Town, where we stayed to explore the rest of the day. We were able to get pictures of the old palace, medieval church, and town streets before anyone else arrived. As the stores began to open, we sampled Swedish pastries, meatballs, herring, and of course...local beer! We made it back to the ship with a whole 5-minutes to spare.
After the cruise, we spent 5-days in Copenhagen Denmark (it takes a minimum of three to get a good look at the city). We disembarked just as the International Jazz festival began. It rained a little bit just about every day, which was actually kind of nice. There is a lot to see here, and I think we covered about 80% of it. Kronborg Castle was definitely worth the 50-minute train ride to see. The underground ramparts really gave us a feel for the military life of its inhabitants. Climbing the tower at Our Saviour's Church was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. The staircase spirals around the outside of the tower, to dizzying heights. My fear of heights had me crawling the last few steps!
In summary, I would definitely recommend this cruise. It is rich in Norse culture, and a bargain for the money. I hope to return to some of the countries visited, because I enjoyed them (and the cool weather) so much.