7-5-12 The travelers included my husband and me, our kids, and my mother. Our daughter turned 12 on the cruise and our son turned 9 on the cruise. Arrived in London around noon. We stayed at the elegant Chancery Court Hotel. The staff were very personable and helpful. The kids enjoyed riding on the London Eye. Had a good dinner at Garfunkel's near the Strand area.
We had a wonderful sightseeing tour by a guide from Toursbylocals.com in a large Mercedes van. Our guide was a true English gentleman. After a rainy city tour by car where we stopped at landmarks for photos, we went to Madame Tussaud's wax museum at our kids' request. Next, our guide took us to a 350-year-old pub for a fish and chips lunch. Then we spent the afternoon at the Tower of London. The kids enjoyed being able to explore the area.
We boarded our cruise today with the kids wearing their "Love Boat" t-shirts. The kids got a kick out of watching some old episodes in anticipation of our cruise. Embarkation was simple except we did not reserve a wheelchair ahead of time since my mother injuured her leg right before the cruise. It took hours for the ship to get her a wheelchair because they told us they don't do this anymore without prior reservations with a third party company. The ship is beautiful. Kids insisted on going to the Shockwaves Kids Club (their age group was 8-12) while we had dinner. There were plenty of planned activities each evening at the kids club and the kids chose to go there each night rather than have dinner with the adults. We would take them to the Horizon Court buffet before they left for the kids club at 6 pm. They also insisted on spending all 4 sea days in the kids club (with breaks for lunch and swimming with us) and the port days they were with us all day. The adults did traditional dining at 6 each night in the Boticelli Dining Room.
We slept very poorly because the bed was hard as a rock. When the ship was re-furbished last year only certain rooms got the new pillowtopo mattresses. Our balcony stateroom was not one of them. My mother was in a mini-suite, however, and enjoyed the new mattress. Our bed problem was partially remedied for us by requesting an egg topper for the mattress. Our room steward Ignacio was very proactive in keeping our room clean and making sure we were comfortable. He was also very fun to chat with.
Our room was forward on the Lido deck so we expected to feel some of the ship's movement but were surprised at how smooth it was. There were only two nights that it seemed very choppy and we did not get seasick. This was our first cruise so I really did not know what to expect but one early morning it became very rocky and the whole room seemed to be shaking. I heard an announcement being made in the hallway so I jumped out of bed to listen to it in the hallway. Since I missed the first two sentences of the announcement, all I heard was, "So, by now, you have probably heard that we will begin the evacuation shortly." I looked around and those in the hallway appeared calm, going about their business. I soon found out that the announcement referred to a passenger with a medical emergency had to be taken off via Coast Guard ship. The announcement was to let us know why we were stoopping in the middle of the sea to make the transfer. I never heard anything else so I hope the person is OK.
We arrived in Rotterdam today. Our toursbylocals.com guide in Amsterdam was laid back and very attentive. The city was beautiful but it rained the whole day. It was good for the kids to see the Anne Frank house as they had learned of it in school. The canal ride was gorgeous. My favorite part of the day was visiting the windmills. The miller and his family live in there.
Kids enjoyed swimming and the kids club. I signed up for 3 Pilates classes (1 for each sea day) and they were all good and cost 3 for $30. Went to the traditional English lunch at the Crown Grill for fish n chips. We also met the Captain at the Cruise Criic Meet n Greet. The second in command officer was kind enough to arrange for the kids to have a private tour of the bridge on one of the port days.
This was the first formal night and it was fun to see everyone dressed up. Our waiter was always eager to please us and took an interest in getting to know us.
Went to 7:00 am free stretch class with wet hair since the stateroom dryers have very little power (ladies, bring your hown hair dryers). At 10:00 am we disembarked at Copenhagen, shopped the souvenir shops at port and took a city bus tour to Tivoli Gardens. The kids were thrilled to be at the world's oldest amusement park. My 9-year-old son was disappointed he wasn't tall enough to go on many of the thrill rides. Somehow he was tall enough to go on the giant swing ride with me. Those are the tallest swings I have seen at any theme park. Terrifying ride for me but thrilling for the kids. We had lunch at a family restaurant, Pirateriet, shaped like a pirate ship. The gardens were beautiful. They also have shows there, music, and an aquarium. I wish we were there at night because I heard it's magical with all the lights. This was the only port where we didn't have a guide and it was fine except we had a bit of trouble getting back to the port. It's our fault we forgot to exchange money. The city bus to Tivoli had accepted American dollars while the one on the way back did not. So we had to find a cab instead and the driver was kind enough to describe the city highlights and stop at the Little Mermaid statue for a picture.
Beautiful entry into Stockholm. Prettiest country I've seen so far. Our Toursbylocals.com guide took us to the Vasa museum. Kids enjoyed it very much. Sadly not enough time for Skansen (open air folk museum) or the Pippi Longstocking museum but we spent an enjoyable afternoon touring Gamla Stan (Old Town). Shopped for souvenirs there. I have been collecting a Christmas ornament from each country. We had delicious Swedish meatballs with lingonberries. My son said it was the best meal ever.
Our toursbylocals guide took us on a ferry to Suomenlinna, a fortress built by the Swedes in the 18th century to guard the harbor. Kids climbed on rocks and went through tunnels to explore. Had a nice Finnish lunch of fried flounder and more at the buffet at the fortress. Went to a cute toy museum on the fortress. Took the ferry back and shopped in an open air market where my mother got a great deal on pretty necklaces and bracelets. Then she found her favorite store Marimekko and bought a bag.
St. Petersburg, Russia
"Best Guides Children's Tour"
The day was off to a rocky start when we passed through immigraton because the agent was grumpy and we couldn't understand her directions so she yelled at us in Russian. Once we met our guide we knew it would be a good day. What makes her a "best" guide is she always spoke directly to our children and made the tour both educational AND fun for them.
Started the day with a city tour with stops for photos and the kids were given specific instructions to hunt for "secrets." They even found gold keys. Went to a fortress that was a political prison 100 years ago--very creepy. My son got to experience solitary confinement when he volunteered to let them turn off the lights when he was alone in a cell for a few seconds. We took a hydrofoil (like a boat on skis) to Petershof Gardens/Fountains (the czars' summer palace). Very pretty with gold everywhere. Our guide whipped out some supplies for her purse and showed the kids how to make their own fountain using a hose, bottled water, etc. The kids were also challenged to walk across a series of stones while trying to "avoid" stepping on a mystery stone that would set off a fountain. They were soaked in seconds and didn't seem to mind it being so cold. Had a Russian lunch on site. Delicious beef stroganoff which was invented in St. Pete's and Russian pancakes for dessert. The bathhouses were interesting. The highlight of the day was the private Matroshka wooden doll painting class. The teacher was so patient and we all did a good job. I got bit by quite a few mosquitos while there. The class was supposed to be in one of the guides' home but it had to be moved since my mother injured her foot right before the cruise and the guide's home was on a fourth floor --not accessible. Too bad because our kids were supposed to meet her kids and practice their language skills. Maybe some other trip. But in any case, the doll painting class was a real treat. By this time we were exhausted. We could have arranged tickets to the Russian ballet at nighttime but we were glad we did not as we still had a full day in St. Pete's the next day.
Day 2, St. Petersburg
Our guide took us to the Hermitage Museum. Lots of gold everywhere and beautiful art. We also went to the gorgeous Church of Spilled blood and had another good Russian lunch of Borscht soup. We climbed nearly 300 steps of St. Isaac's church for a spectacular view. Also went to pretty St. Nicholas's church where the guide had headscarves ready for my daughter and me. Our guide taught the kids about mosaic art and gave them "sidewalk chalk" to practice on the ground in an area where it was permitted to do so. These hands-on activities were perfect for the kids to have fun while learning!
Too bad it rained all morning because this was such a beautiful medieval town, similar to Sweden's Gamla Stan. Our guide from Estonian Experience did a great family friendly tour. The highlight was getting to paint our own marzipan figurines. She gave us a nice walking tour and, in the van, showed us parts of the documentary "The Singing Revolution" to give us a perspective on Estonian history. I would have spent time shopping for pretty wool sweaters but at that point it was pouring rain and almost time to get back on the ship before lunch.
Our toursbylocals guide picked us up at the port in Gdynia and gave us a driving tour of Gdnyia and Sopot on the way to Gdansk. The Old Town of Gdansk is beautiful. Very charming. We saw Lech Walesa's office, St. Mary's Church (maybe the largest brick church in the world?), and lunch at the Red Door where we had pierogi with all types of fillings and delicious potato soup, perfect on a cold, rainy day. The highlight of the day was an amber workshop where we learned how it is cut, polished, and used for jewelry, incense, etc. Most of the world's amber comes from Poland. When we arrived the craftsman gave us each a shot of Polish vodka (well, not the kids) with gold in it. It has rained in nearly every country but it has not spoiled our fun and learning.
Fun sea day and family birthday celebration. The kids went to a Junior Chefs program where they got to bake their own birthday cakes in the ship's main kitchen with the chef. They loved it! My husband rested and explored the ship while my mother and I enjoyed an afternoon at the spa. We went to the spa on a couple of occasions. The staff do an incredible job with the services but we found the hard-selling of products to be a bit excessive. Tonight was also our last formal night.
Our guide from OsloGuidebureau made the tour especially kid-friendly. She took us on a city tour by van then we stopped at Vigeland sculpture park. Wonderful place for kids to see 200 sculptures of the human experience from birth to death. Some were hilarious. We went to the Homulken Olympic ski jump where the kids went in a simulator that allowed them to experience Olympic downhill skiing! Trolls were everywhere and I think it's part of the charm. Norway did the best job of marketing itself at the port, by the way. Then the kids enjoyed the Viking ship museum where we saw an original intact ship from 800 AD. Then we had a yummy lunch of cold sandwiches on fabulous fresh-baked bread. Kids loved the chocolate cake and curran jam (Swedes call it lingonberry jam). Next we went to the Norwegian Folk Museum (open-air)....one of the highlights of the trip. Old buildings were physically moved here to reflect Nordic life in the old days. We saw schools, Nordic farm animals, folk dancing, music, etc. and rode in a horse-drawn carriage. The church was from the time of the Vikings...1200 AD. This was a tour where we saw the most in the least amount of time. My favorite souvenir is a beautiful wool Norwegian sweater I got for half price ($100) at one of the cruise terminal port shops. These were the best cruise terminal souvenir shops of any port we visited on this cruise.
Today was our last sea day and we were all a bit sad. I definitely see cruises in our future. This was the trip of my dreams. Today there were tasks to do like packing, laundry, printing boarding passes (very hard to do with the internet being painfully slow), settling our account, buying ship photographs, and putting luggage tags on our luggage. Some things I forgot to mention...The food on the ship was great with a nice variety of choices. I didn't comment on entertainment because we didn't seem to find the time to go to many shows and many were too late for us. We enjoyed the port lectures and tried bingo for the first time. Bingo was fun but seemed like a very small "prize" (e.g., $250) for all the people paying about $30 each to play. As a first time cruiser I found the operation of elevators in this ship's layout odd. We would prefer to use stairs but as I mentioned we had a wheelchair with us due to an injury. Certain venues could only be accessed by certain elevators and the stairs did not even seem to run "all the way through." For the most part the weather was cold and rainy, unusual for July even in the Baltic so we wish we could have spent more time outside on the ship's decks.
We all agreed that next time when we don't have a wheelchair, we will use the express disembarkation and walk right off the ship early with our luggage. We were held up quite bit by having to wait in a group of all the other wheelchairs but, all in all, we made it to the airport on time. Too bad the service where they check your luggage all the way to the airport wasn't available on this cruise.
Favorites of the trip:
Touring a real working windmill in Holland, visiting the charming "old towns" of Sweden, Poland, and Estonia, and the Matroshka doll workshop in St. Petersburg. Going with private tours with hands-on activities ended up being the right decision for our family. I can't imagine being on a bus with 50 other people and not having the personalized attention we were so lucky to get with private guides. I was surprised that private guides usually cost us less than the ship's shore excursions. The kids club was a highlight because they met kids from all over the world, gave the adults a bit of alone time, and my daughter now has some new pen pals!