Port and Shore Excursions
We did the Princess tour Ebeltoft & Scenic Drive. Aarhus doesn't seem to have all that much to recommend it. It's a port city and there's lots of graffiti. We were glad we chose to go a bit further afield on this tour. We drove about an hour to the quaint village of Ebeltoft. Our guide did a brief walking tour for about 20 minutes and then let us go on our own for about 45 minutes. It's a cute village with lots of ice cream shops, cobblestone streets and an old brick city hall. It was nice, but nothing to write home about. For those of you from the West Coast, if you've ever been to Solvang, the Danish town in Southern California, you'll probably be disappointed with Ebeltoft. Although it's more authentic than Solvang, there aren't the large number of Danish bakeries that you would find in Solvang. In fact, we didn't see one bakery. The one attraction in Ebeltoft that we would have liked to explore if we had the time was an old restored frigate sailing ship that is now a museum. However we didn't have enough time to explore the town AND do that.
We did enjoy the scenic drive aspect of the day. Although it rained off and on, it was nice to see the Danish countryside, farms and small seaside villages where many Danes have summer cottages.
In general, however, I think it would be better if Princess eliminated this port and instead gave us more time in Stockholm.
Copenhagen was the embarkation/disembarkation location for our cruise. Unless you do a pre- or post-stay at a hotel you won't see much of the city except for the bus ride between the port and the airport. I highly recommend staying for a few days so you can get to see this wonderful town. We stayed two nights pre-cruise at The Square Hotel and one night post-cruise at the Scandic Palace Hotel, both located adjacent to Radhuspladsen Square (City Hall Square) and a short walk from the main train station.
We didn't do shore excursions here, but explored on our own.
When we arrived at the Copenhagen Airport, we purchased The Copenhagen Card, which gives you unlimited rides on all public transportation (trains, buses and even a canal cruise) as well as free admission to most museums and discounts at other restaurants and attractions. You can buy the card for 24 hours, 72 hours or a week. We purchased the 72 hour version and thought it was well worth it.
Using our new cards, we hopped a train from the airport to the city's main train station. Then it was a 5-10 minute walk to our hotel. The only difficult part is that wheeled luggage doesn't work too well on cobblestone streets. Copenhagen has cement sidewalks but with cobblestone "trim". It still made it a bit difficult even though we had the luggage with four wheels. Be careful or you can tear up the wheels on your bags. You also need to take care with bicycles. Copenhagen has more bicycles per capita than any city in the world. They are everywhere! And many of them drive very fast! There are dedicated bike lanes almost everywhere. Be careful not to wander into one as a pedestrian or you can get run over. We saw several bicycle/pedestrian near misses.
Our first hotel, The Square, is a nice modern hotel and very clean. They have free wired internet in the rooms and free WiFi in the lobby. They also serve a buffet continental breakfast. You can book a room with or without the breakfast. The breakfast room was larger than we expected and the breakfast was adequate. Our only problem with the hotel was the ridiculously small room. We booked a "standard double" room and it was barely bigger than the double bed! We literally had to press ourselves up against the wall and walk sideways to get around the bed. The "closet" is really a cabinet that is so narrow you have to hang your clothes facing front instead of the normal way you hang clothes in the U.S. The closet would only hold about two changes of clothes per person, so don't plan on unpacking. There was also nowhere to put your luggage. They have a built-in luggage rack that folds up against the hallway wall, but if you open it up, it blocks your access to the bathroom. Not very good Danish planning! The other major complaint was that the hotel was advertised as being air conditioned. But our room had a very high ceiling and Copenhagen was having 72 degree sunny weather. They considered this a heat wave and told us that their AC system couldn't keep up with it. They apologized but said there wasn't anything they could do. Our room was sweltering. We finally took to opening the window to try to vent some of the heat out of the place. Not what you would expect when paying $275 a night. In every other way the hotel was fine, but I would book a larger deluxe or executive room. And hope you don't visit during a heat wave.
After the cruise we stayed at The Palace Hotel (also known as the Scandic Palace Hotel). It's just across the square from the first hotel where we stayed, so it is also very close to the main train station, Tivoli Gardens and the Stroget pedestrian shopping street. This is an old hotel (built in 1910) and has been a host to visiting movie stars and royalty through the years. The exterior is brick and patterned to look like City Hall, which is right across the street. The interior has been modernized. Here we also had booked a standard double room. It wasn't huge, but it was much better than our first hotel! Their AC worked fine, but by that time the temperatures were more normal and in the 60s so it wasn't needed as much. They also serve a full buffet breakfast (including eggs, bacon, sausage, etc.) which was included with our room. The hotel has a restaurant (where we ate dinner) and a bar. Our only problem here was that when we first walked into our room there was an unusual (bad) odor that smelled like some food had rotted. We flagged down the housekeepers who were still in the area and they came and sprayed air freshener. We sniffed around and never could figure out what had caused the bad odor, but the spray took care of it and it wasn't an issue during the rest of our stay. However, it wasn't a great first impression.
As for touring, we did the Hop On/Hop Off bus our first day and then went to Tivoli Gardens that evening. We also took the free canal cruise that was offered through our Copenhagen Card. A must-see is Nyhavn Harbor. We had lunch there and enjoyed people watching. We also photographed the Little Mermaid statue in the harbor and took a city bus to catch the changing of the guard at the royal palace. Post-cruise, we took a city bus to the Carlsburg Brewery, about a 20 minute ride from the city center for a tour. You get to enjoy two beers or soft drinks at the conclusion of your self guided tour. And later, back near the hotel, we strolled down the Stroget pedestrian street and enjoyed all the little shops and cafes. We had lunch at a pub in that area.
We did the Princess "Scenic Cruise" tour which takes you out through Helsinki harbor and then around and by some of the smaller islands. The cruise lasted about an hour and a half to two hours. It was very nice and great for photos. The only complaint was that the speakers on the boat weren't working well on the outer deck (where most people were seated) and we could barely hear the guide. She tried several times to increase the volume but wasn't able to do much about it. The boat company needs to get this fixed. The cruise takes you by Suomenlinna Fortress, to the Jollas area, Villinki, past the Korkeasaari Zoo.
The cruise ends at the city's main harbor near the Market Square. Even though it was a Sunday there was lots going on there and we had about 30 minutes to check out the booths and displays and a farmer's market. As an aside, on our first trip to Helsinki in 2001 our NCL cruise ship had docked right here next to Market Square. This was great for exploring the city. Now they have built new cruise ship docks that are about a 20 minute drive from the city so you aren't as close to things as you used to be.
We really enjoyed seeing Oslo, as this was our first visit to this port. We had been to most of the other ports on this itinerary in 2001 on an NCL Baltic cruise. But we really wanted to see Norway.
We awoke to find that we had docked directly across the street from a beautiful fortress, which was visible right outside our starboard-side balcony. We took the Princess City Tour, which included a photo stop for the city's new opera house (which is designed to look like two sheets of overlapping ice) and an interesting glass sculpture in the harbor that rotates one degree a day to make a complete rotation once a year. We also visited the Holmenkollen Ski Jump, which was just opened in 2011. There are great views of the city and harbor from up on that hillside. We didn't have time, but if you visit the ski jump independently, there is a computerized ski simulator experience that you can try for a fee. Our tour also made a brief photo stop at the Gustav Vigeland sculpture park. In addition to these stops, we also drove by Oslo's City Hall, where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded each year. All other Nobel prizes are awarded in Stockholm. We also drove by the Maritime and Kon-Tiki Museums, several churches and the downtown area. If you are touring independently, you can see city hall from the ship and I would estimate it to be an easy 5-10 min. walk. There was also an Oslo Hop-On/Hop-Off bus that stopped right in front of the ship.
After returning from our city tour, we had an opportunity to explore the Akershus Fortress, right across the street from our ship. It is free admission to walk around the grounds of the fortress and check out all the cannons pointed out to sea to stop invaders. There are also Norwegian Guards in full uniform who march around patrolling the grounds. Be forewarned that the fortress grounds are very hilly and have cobblestone walkways that may be difficult for toddlers, the elderly or others unsteady on their feet. We chose to also go to the Hjemmefrontmuseum (Norwegian Resistance Museum) that is on the fortress grounds but requires an entry fee. This gave us an appreciation for what Norway went through after being taken over by Hitler and how many fought behind the scenes to try to get their country back.
This was our second visit to Warnemunde and once again we chose to take the long (3 hours each way) train ride in to Berlin. We did the Princess tour "Berlin on Your Own" in which you get a train ticket and bus transportation from the train station to the city center. You are dropped off and get about 4 hours to explore on your own before heading back to the bus meeting place for the return trip to the train station and back to the ship.
On our first visit to Berlin in 2001 we had done this same tour and used our time to ride the Hop On/Hop Off bus to explore the city, visit the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, etc. On that tour we had driven by the Reichstag/Bundestag (Germany's Parliment Building) and loved the combination of original old architecture combined with a new modern dome that was added after reunification and moving of the German capital from Bonn back to Berlin. Anyone can walk by the building and view it, but if you want to go up into the dome it takes some advance planning. Don't just show up there and expect to be admitted. You need to have prior reservations, which are free, but it's something you need to do by internet, preferably before leaving home for your cruise. I started the process about a month before our trip by going to www.bundestag.de/htdocs_e/visits/kupp.html I encountered some problems with their web site, such that I'd get all the way through the registration process and they'd tell me they had sent me an email and that I had to click on the link in the email to finish the registration. However, the email never came, nor was it in my spam filters, etc. I tried signing up a second time and the same thing happened. Finally I emailed a human in the Bundestag tour office and enlisted her help in getting us signed up. But I still didn't get the confirmation number until about two days before we were ready to leave on our trip. So start early and have patience. The visit to the dome was worth it. There are 360 degree views of Berlin from up on the roof and you can actually look DOWN on Brandenburg Gate.
When I hadn't received my confirmation from the Bundestag, as a backup plan I also booked a lunch reservation at the rooftop cafe at the Bundestag. If you have a reservation number they will let you bypass the long lines to get into the Bundestag and you go straight up to the roof. I expected it to be a fairly casual cafe but we found that the restaurant Kafer is quite lovely and also quite upscale price wise. We had a very nice lunch, but it set us back about $95 USD for the two of us (including two beers). As it turns out you don't need BOTH a dome visit reservation AND a restaurant reservation. If I had it to do over again, I would have just made the Kafer restaurant reservation and that would have given us the access we wanted to the dome in addition to the rooftop views of the city. Be prepared that if you do either of these items you will need to provide your names and dates of birth to the authorities to get the reservation. Plus when you enter the Bundestag you have to go through passport control AND show them your printed reservation number. It's a bit of a hassle, but then this is their parliment building (like our U.S. Capitol) so security is expected.
It was difficult to guess how long the train and bus ride from Warnemunde to Berlin was going to take, so it was a bit tricky making those advance reservations from home. I chose a noon lunch reservation and a 1:30 dome tour reservation. The restaurant will hold your reservation for 30 minutes but release your table if you are later than that. We were very rushed trying to get to the restaurant on time. I had estimated that we'd get in to Berlin and the bus drop off point by 11:15 a.m. but we didn't get there till noon due to construction and heavy traffic. We had been told it was a 20 minute walk to the Bundestag so we tried to grab a taxi, but he wouldn't take us. He told us it was only 5 minutes away and not worth the fare. So we ended up power walking and it was every bit of a 20 minute walk. We should have tried more taxis until we found one who would take us. At any rate by the time we reached the Bundestag and went through the security lines it was 12:30 and we didn't think our lunch reservation would still be available. However our table was still open, so it all worked out. If you try something similar, give yourself more wiggle room and don't make your lunch reservation until 1 p.m. The email for restaurant reservations is firstname.lastname@example.org
After our visit to the Bundestag, we strolled around Brandenburg Gate (a block away) and had an ice cream. We had planned to walk to Checkpoint Charlie and the remnants of the Berlin Wall, however after our harrowing walk/run to get to the restaurant we were exhausted. We opted to grab a bicycle rickshaw at Brandenburg Gate and he peddled us on a scenic drive through the city and paused to show us some of the sites along the way. We felt this was worth the 6 Euro per person cost. We then took some photos around Checkpoint Charlie and the Wall remnants and walked about 15-20 minutes back to Gendarmenmarkt, which is where the Princess bus picks you up.
Try to get back to the bus pick up spot early enough to allow for a visit to Fassbender & Rausch Chocolatiers Am Gendarmenmarkt. It's an amazing chocolate shop at Chrlottenstrasse 60, just down the block from the Berlin Hilton, where your bus will pick you up. There are also many sidewalk cafes in the area where you can relax and have a coffee or a beer and do some people watching.
Now that we have been to Berlin twice, if we ever do this itinerary again we will probably opt to stay in and around Warnemunde/Rostock and see that area. However, Berlin is a pretty fun town with tons to see, so don't miss it if this is your first visit to the area.
This was our second visit to St. Petersburg. During our first trip we had done a day-long visit to The Hermitage Museum and Peterhof Palace. If this is your first visit to the area, you should probably see at least those to sites.
We opted for a Neva River Cruise which also takes you through some of the city's smaller canals, which Peter the Great had built after he visited Venice. There are many similarities. This was a very nice way to see many of the sites of the city in a relaxing cruise. Before boarding the boat you also get a chance to visit the Church of the Spilled Blood and have about 30 minutes for photos and souvenir shopping if you wish. This church was something we had driven by before, but I appreciated the stop to be able to shoot decent photos. We visited on a Friday but there were tons on brides and grooms getting married there and many flower-covered limousines picking up the young couples. Our guide explained that due to the harsh winters in St. Petersburg, hardly anyone gets married in the colder months. So in the summer there are weddings happening every day, not just on Saturdays as we are used to in the U.S.
I would recommend this tour for anyone who has already seen the major sites of St. Petersburg, or for those who are exhausted from their first day of touring and want to take it easier the second day.
I know many people are fascinated by Russia, but even on our first trip we would have preferred spending one day in St. Pete and having a second day to spend in Stockholm or Helsinki. Two days in St. Petersberg is too much.
We did the Princess Tour "Stockholm Ice Bar and Gamla Stan." This was one of the most enjoyable tours we took due to the bubbly and funny tour guide that we had. She was hilarious and made us feel very welcome.
The ice bar experience is touristy, but fun. The bar is sponsored by Absolut and located inside of a major hotel. You are issued a fur lined poncho/hoody and warm gloves are attached by strings. Make sure you put on the gloves before going inside the ice bar. The glasses are actually made out of ice themselves, as is the bar, the tables, etc. They pour you a raspberry flavored drink (with or without vodka) and you get about 15 minutes to drink up, take photos and then exit. You wouldn't want to stay much longer than that due to the extreme low temperature, but it's one of those things that you are glad you tried once.
We also had a photo stop at a lookout point up the hillside that provided a great view of the city.
Then we were bussed to the Royal Palace and had the option of joining our guide for a brief (20 min. ) walking tour of Gamla Stan (Old Town) or just going out on your own. We took the tour with the guide and then still had an hour of free time to explore, shop or have a coffee at one of the sidewalk cafes. We thought we were going to miss the changing of the guard at the royal palace, which happens at noon daily. We had to be back on our bus by noon. But as we were driving out, we got to see the guards and their accompanying marching band coming through the city streets and crossing the bridge over to the palace. Granted it was through bus windows, but still, we got to see it. Overall, it was a very enjoyable tour.
We were very disappointed that Princess only gave us a few hours in a wonderful city like Stockholm. At first we were scheduled to arrive at 7 a.m. and leave at 2 p.m. which was short enough as it was. Then they cut the arrival time back to 7:30 and we had to be back on board by 1:30, so it was definitely a short port stop. Again, we wish we could have cut out the second day in St. Petersburg in order to have at least a full day (if not an overnight) in Stockholm.