We are a married 20-something couple from the Northern Virginia region, and this was our 4th cruise. We had previously done 2 in the Western Caribbean, and one in the Eastern Mediterranean (1 HAL, 2 RCI). We chose this itinerary/ship for a few reasons: I wanted to see Russia, and it was cheap! I had no feelings towards NCL, but figured it couldn't hurt to try something new.
We flew into Copenhagen the day before the cruise, and easily collected our bags and navigated to the metro station. The airport is HUGE, but really well laid out and nearly all signs are in English. The Danish are also a really nice group of people and we found them more than willing to help us during our stay.
We stayed at the "Hotel Bethel" in Nyhavn (the part of town with the cute, brightly colored row houses). The rooms were tiny but sufficient, and the breakfast was great. The staff was fantastic and super helpful. I found it to be an excellent location, though honestly I don't think there's a bad location in the whole city. The city (at least, all the parts you'd want to visit) is very compact and completely walkable. We walked back and forth across all the touristy sections and then some at least 7-8 times during our time there. We also spent a day there post cruise. Below are the things we did in town.
*Boat tour - This was entirely skippable, though it was a nice, relaxed way to get a feel for the city the first night when we were so jet lagged and tired. There are 2 booths selling tickets, one for 80 DKK and one for 40 DKK. I don't know that there's any difference (our hotel concierge said there wasn't, other than price), so we took the 40 DKK one and it was fine.
*Ice Bar - Don't buy tickets in advance (though a reservation is a good idea). At the end of Nyhavn, where the canal stops, there was a guy with a table set up selling discount tickets to everything. For the same price as you could pay at the door, his tickets included 2 drinks instead of one. At $30pp, it's a pricey little tourist trap, but we had fun. The drinks were STRONG. We wandered over there around 6:30 and there was only one other couple for 45 minutes until a group came in.
*Tivoli - We opted not to pay and go in. It was around $17pp just to walk through the gates, and then more to ride anything or eat there. We walked the fence line and peered in and got a feel for it, but opted to save our money.
*Little Mermaid statue - Everyone said this was "so far away", but it really wasn't. It was a very pleasant 20-30 minute walk from Nyhavn through an old fortress and a park along the waterfront.
*Sandeman's Free Walking Tour - EXCELLENT. Must must must do if you are up for walking. It's about 2.5 hours long, but there's a "coffee break" in the middle of it, and the guide did a fabulous job of finding places for us to sit whenever he was going to talk for a while. He was really knowledgeable and funny and earned ever penny we gave him in tips.
Transport to the ship:
The next day we dragged our suitcases to the Norreport train station (around a 15-20 minute walk, though the cobblestone sidewalks were not conducive to luggage!) We didn't bother trying to figure out tickets, but there was an office nearby selling tickets, so she did it for us. The train was quick and very pleasant! We got off at Nordhavn (just 2 stops!) and took our bags on another 15-20 minute journey to the ship. It was really well marked and simple--just follow the blue line on the sidewalk! Grand total to get to the port was around $7 for both of us--that beats a taxi ride!
The Sun is obviously older. It's small, and starting to get dingy. From a distance it looks fine, but when you get up close you realize it's showing its age. The first night we sat in the theater and realized the armrest had been ripped off (the wood just snapped in half!) and later in Dazzles numerous chairs were falling apart. Elevators seemed disconnected somehow (if there were 4 elevators, pushing the button only called 2 or 3 of them, and you had to push the other button to get the remaining ones). That being said, it's really all just cosmetic stuff. It's not like doors were falling off their hinges or a/c was broken or anything.
We had originally booked an inside cabin, but the price kept dropping and dropping and we ended up getting a balcony room for an extra $100. (We really should have waited to book...tons of people booked in the last 3 weeks and got amazing deals). The room had tons of storage, and the balcony window let in lots of sunshine (at 4 am when the sun rose!) Downsides are the shower curtain that attacked you when you took a shower. You had to leave the bathroom door open to ventilate the room (no fan), so every time someone moved past the door or a breeze from the balcony blew, the curtain clung to you. Annoying, but not life ending. The TV in the room was TINY and straight from 1990, but the programming was good. They showed tons of different movies, everything from "The Vow" to "Jurassic Park" to "Green Lantern" to "A Beautiful Mind" in all different languages throughout the cruise.
This was the biggest downside of the whole cruise. The food was legitimately bad. My husband and I are NOT foodies, at all. Our Friday night dates are often to Applebees or Macaroni Grill, but many nights we struggled to find anything we wanted to eat and resorted to chicken wings and spinach dip in the sports bar. We tried to eat in the dining room but gave up after frustration with "Freestyle seating" and too many plates where we tasted the entree and didn't like it.
There was a real lack of variety on this cruise too, I felt. There was the standard 4 entrees that stayed the entire cruise, and then 3 new ones each night, but almost always 2 of the 3 were fish based (since we were in the Baltics, I guess). We aren't fish people, so that made it tough.
Our biggest frustration though was the "Freestyle" dining concept. In theory, it sounded great. On HAL and RCI, we always did their anytime dining options, showed up, and shared a table with new people each night. We've met dozens of awesome people that way. NCL's version of Freestyle seemed to be "Eat by yourself anytime you wanted". We asked to share a table on the first night, and the hostess told us we couldn't do that until later, because no one wants to share. We tried again the next night, and the hostess eagerly agreed and sat us at a great table...where we waited 45 minutes for another couple to join us. The third and final time, we waited 30 minutes for tablemates and then gave up. On the other companies' ships, we were asked "Would you like a table for 2, or for sharing?" every meal. I really think on this ship, people didn't even know you could share, because when we mentioned it to people at other times they seemed surprised it was an option. If you are dinner-for-two people, you're in luck though! The dining room was almost always empty no matter what time we went. I think the Europeans on the cruise liked to eat much later, meaning that anytime before 8 the room was at best 1/3 full.
The cruise director's staff was great. They did fun trivias, dance lessons, and activities, as all crusies tend to do. The game shows were fun too, although I wish I had known was some of them were ahead of time. Hints:
*The first jeopardy is waaaaaaaaaay easier than the second (volunteer to go up for the first one!)
*Liar's club is basically Balderdash (inventing definitions for words) and was quite funny
*Perfect Couples is a series of silly physical challenges. I wanted to do it but couldn't because i was in a dress. Wear loose fitting pants!
*The Quest was really tame and poorly attended. It was the last night, so I think people were tucking in early. VERY different from the raucous chaos of Quest on RCI!
The shows were typical, but pretty good. There was a quartet of Latin singers who were very, very talented. Several production shows with classic songs from the 60's-80's by a moderately decent group of singers (some much better than others), a really creepy, egotistical magician (who is NOT family friendly, unless women dancing in thongs is family friendly...), and an absolutely stunning performance by a pair of former Cirque de Soleil acrobats.
We didn't have an interest in going to Berlin, so we hopped on a train and headed up to Schwerin for the day to see the castle. It was a good 90 minutes of travel for a town that really wasn't all that much. The castle was pretty, but it was hard to get much out of it without speaking/reading German. There was some signage in English, but it would have been really helpful to have had an English tour of it! Others on our ship had good things to say about the "Friends of Dave" tour--next time I think I'd do that instead.
What a pleasant surprise! We followed the walking tour that is so widely recommended on the boards here. There was construction that interrupted a stop or two, but in general it was pretty good. We found a spot in the wall near where they sell woolens on the perimeter where you could go up and walk along the top of the wall which was pretty cool. Again, we probably would have gotten a lot more out of a tour, but hindsight's 20/20
St. Petersburg, Russia
We did the 2 day "As much as physically possible" tour from TJ. Our guide was Maria, who knew everything about everything! The favorite spot was definitely Peterhoff and it's gorgeous fountains. What a neat place! I picked TJ because I wanted authentic Russian lunches instead of sandwiches like the other popular company on our roll call offered, and we weren't disappointed. We had 3 course lunches (soup, entree, dessert with tea/coffee) with Chicken Kiev one day and Beef Stroganoff the next. I can't say I was a fan of all the food, but I'm glad we got the chance to try it. My only complaints about the trip is that it was very fact-based, rather than the guide weaving in stories from her daily life, which is often my favorite part. The other thing is that the store we went to in order to pay for the tour and buy souveniers was EXPENSIVE. Maria told us it had good prices, so maybe everything in Russia is really expensive, I don't know. We bought an egg Christmas ornament that was around $30.
This was a throw-away port. We slept in and got off the ship late (around 9) and walked all the way into town, which was about an hour. Apparently there was a bus to take for 2.7 Euros, but I didn't pay enough attention. It was a really pretty walk along the water though, around 3 miles. We took the tourist tram line around the city (bought a ticket from the driver) and got off at the rock church. Got back on and tried to find the Olympic stadium, but found an international youth soccer tournament instead where we found a team from our home town! Took the tram back to Market Square and ate the most amazing apricots and strawberries for lunch, before walking back to the ship. My legs were exhausted at the end of that day!
Disappointed that we had such a short time here, but I knew that going in and honestly I was so tired of walking at that point it wasn't that big a deal. We were supposed to be in port from 7-2:30, but when the daily paper came out it said 8-2:30. We raced off the ship at 8:00 and ran to booth right off the gangplank to buy HoHo tickets. It got us to the Vasa Museum at 8:30, right when it opened. We had downloaded the ipod tour and wandered around with that for 30 minutes until the 9:00 English showing of the movie. Got out of the movie to find the cruise tours had arrived and the museum was pretty packed. I was about ready to leave anyway, so we finished up the ipod tour and got on the HoHo boat again at 9:45 or so to go to Gamla Stan. They should rename it "overpriced souvenier stan". There wasn't really anything there other than tourist shops. We found a 7-11 where we bought sandwiches and just wandered around until noon for the changing of the guards ceremony at the palace. It was quite the event! The Naval Cadet Band played all sorts of music, the guards did a bit of running around, and hundreds of tourists stood in the pouring rain watching it all! We then took the HoHo boat back to the ship and got back on around 1:30. If I could do it again, I think I'd go to the Nobel museum (in Gamla Stan) while waiting for the guards.
Last day was a sea day, and then back to Copenhagen. We took the train back to the city for another night in the hotel, and then took the metro to the airport for our flight back to DC.
What I wish I had known/done before the trip:
*Bbooked tours in all the ports. They were completely walkable and nothing required a tour, but I don't feel like we got as much out of the ports as we could have. We had already booked Russia tours, so we should have just added on the others.
*How expensive the countries are. It wouldn't have changed anything, but I needed to be prepared that in all the ports that a coke would be around $3-5. We sought out 7-11 type stores in all the ports to avoid the ridiculous price of the cafes.
*Gotten new walking shoes!!!
What I'm really glad I did:
*Bring umbrellas and waterproof jackets! It rained in Helsinki and Stockholm and would have ruined the trip without them
*Get Danish Kroners and Euros ahead of time. Rubles were unnecessary (could have paid with Euros or Dollars there) but I got them anyway and used them to tip our guide/driver
*Packed shorts, pants, and layers of jackets. It seemed like temperatures ranged from 50-90* throughout the day, so layers were essential!
Bottom line: I would not cruise NCL again, nor would I go back on this itinerary a second time, but I'm really glad we did it once. We saw some really neat parts of the world!