A senior couple taking first-ever cruise
Baltic & Northern Europe
We are a senior couple who have done quite a bit of traveling, both domestic and international, but have largely traveled independently and had never taken a cruise. However, we were interested in seeing a bit of the Baltic countries and in visiting St Petersburg, Russia. A cruise seemed like a good way to do it, so that we did not have to deal with language issues and making travel plans for each of the places we wanted to see.
Having never taken a cruise, we were totally unfamiliar with any cruise lines, but had received some information regarding Oceania and its Baltic cruise, so began our investigations with it. Since it was our first cruise and might be our only one, we thought we wanted to select a ship with fewer passengers and a reputation for quality service and accommodations. We wanted to have a good experience and were willing to pay a little extra for it.
Since we were unfamiliar with cruising and what types of things to ask, we elected to use a More
local travel agent, whom we had used a number of years before for a special situation. In retrospect, we will not do that again. Although she handled our initial booking efficiently, once she received her fee, we had very poor response to questions and issues that came up over the several months between booking and embarkation. After meeting other passengers on the cruise, we learned that they received much better service for no fees from other agents or online booking services.
The Oceania cruise included airfare, but required them to handle the booking. We wanted to travel on our preferred airlines to earn miles for all that we were spending on this trip and Oceania agreed to do that. That eventually became the source of most of our pre-trip difficulties as Oceania of course wanted to use the cheapest flights which weren't always the best connections. We accepted that until Delta changed times on one of their flights, which made it impossible to use because of the ship's arrival time in port. Oceania switched us around to partially use a non-preferred airline and then when those flight times changed switched us totally from Delta, even though they and one of their partners had flights that would match our connecting requirements. Eventually, we were put on those flights, although by the time it was over, the choice seats were gone and we ended up paying for an upgrade in order to sit together. In the future, I would handle my own booking and just take whatever flight credit the cruise line would provide.
Our departure date finally arrived and all went well. Our flights were on time and we arrived in Copenhagen at the expected time of 7:51 a.m. on July 21. Processing through immigration was a bit slow at first, but finally moved along pretty well and our bags were waiting when we finished. We were staying at the Copenhagen Marriott for the night and had considered taking the train from the airport as an economical transportation choice. However, we were tired from jet lag and just didn't feel like figuring out where and how to buy tickets, where to catch the train and how to recognize our stop. So, we just grabbed a cab, which took only about 15 minutes to reach the hotel and cost about $35, which we were able to charge to a credit card since we had no Danish kronor.
For anyone who feels up to taking the train, it seemed like it would have been relatively simple. The access to the train was right from the main terminal and the stop for the hotel was only about 2 blocks from the hotel and immediately across the street from Tivoli, so undoubtedly would have been well-marked.
We chose to use to arrive one day early to Copenhagen to make sure no travel difficulties would affect the start of our cruise. We also chose to use our Marriott points for a night at the Copenhagen Marriott. It is a large, very busy and expensive hotel. Our room was fine and we had access to the Executive lounge, which helped save a little, as they served a decent complimentary breakfast and appetizers at night. Their appetizers were not as extensive or as readily replenished as those at other Marriotts, but were still adequate. We had been told the hotel restaurant was not that great and very expensive. They did have free Internet, but you could only access it in the lobby. Supposedly it was available in the executive lounge, but it never worked for us.
The Marriott is within walking distance of some of the tourist attractions, especially Tivoli Gardens. We had seen some of the attractions on a previous trip, so did not repeat those. We did, however, walk to Ny Havn, which is not far for people who like to walk. Much of the walk was along the canal, which was pleasant, although construction eventually forced us away to a less scenic route. We did repeat our visit to Tivoli, since it was so close. We had tried to avoid obtaining any Danish currency, since our time here was so short, but we ended up using an ATM at Tivoli to get a little cash for a snack, a souvenir gift and for the next day's taxi to the ship.
The Marriott is also fairly close to the cruise ship port. Oceania had notified us that our embarkation time was 1:00 pm, so we caught a taxi at the hotel about 12:40 and reached the port in about 10 minutes. The cost was about $20.
At the Marina, we were greeted promptly and pleasantly by the shore gang, who took our bags and directed us to the boarding line. We received a bottle of water and took our place at the base of the gangway in what seemed like a long line. It moved quickly, however, and we were soon on board and, after passing through scanners, were directed to the Marina Lounge, where workers with computers were set up to check in guests. We waited only a few minutes for our turn and were quickly checked in and given small folding wallets with a deck map and our room keycard. As we left the area, another person scanned our cards and checked the photo that had been taken at check-in to make sure we matched our photos.
Since rooms were not expected to be ready until 3:00, we were invited to have lunch at a number of venues. We went to Deck 12 to the Terrace Cafe and enjoyed a delicious lunch from the buffet while sitting outdoors on the aft deck on a lovely sunny day. Afterwards, we wandered around, familiarizing ourselves with the features of the ship, until it was announced that all rooms were available (about 2:45 p.m.).
We were pleasantly surprised to find our accommodations quite roomy with a nice veranda. Our bags were delivered about 4:45 and we proceeded to find places for everything. It was not difficult and we had plenty of empty drawers left over. The bathroom was spacious enough, although we would agree with some reviews that we have read by other guests, that we would have been happy to sacrifice the large tub, which we never used, to have a slightly larger shower. I had also read reviews about a lack of electrical outlets for charging electronic devices, but we found plenty for our use.
The mandatory emergency drill was announced about 6:00 p.m. Instructions in our room told us to proceed to our mustering station, which A4 located in the Marina Lounge. It took about 20 minutes to assemble everyone. Then, we were given instructions for donning our life vests, which we had all been required to bring with us. After proving that we could do that and being checked that we had done so correctly, we were dismissed and allowed to return to our rooms or whatever.
We enjoyed another meal at the Terrace Cafe buffet for dinner. On subsequent evenings during the cruise, we ate one time each at the specialty restaurants: Polo Grill, Red Ginger, Toscana and Jacques. We never did eat at the Grand Dining Room, but all of the restaurants were very good. Of the specialty restaurants, we enjoyed the food at Red Ginger the best. We had a hard time passing on the Terrace Cafe, as the buffet had so many choices and they varied every day. All were prepared very well and not overcooked from sitting on a steam table.
Because of jet lag, we were in bed and asleep before the 10:00 p.m. ship departure and I never heard or felt the ship leaving port. Even when waking during the night, there was hardly any sensation of movement. Not knowing if I would experience any sea sickness, I came prepared for the cruise with various remedies, but never needed anything. The entire cruise was extremely smooth.
The two weeks prior to the cruise, the area we were visiting had experienced unseasonably cold and rainy weather every day. We had packed expecting more of the same, but it had become unseasonably warm. We had rain one night, but all the days were sunny with temps in the 80s and even 90 in St Petersburg.
We did not participate in any entertainment or shows, other than attending a lecture on St Petersburg, which was of an appropriate length and informative.
Some reviewers for other cruises have noted embarkation gatherings of Cruise Critic members, but if this cruise had one, we were not aware of it.
We found on board Internet access to be pricey, slow and not always dependable. We had thought we could use free internet on shore at some restaurants and other public areas, as is easy to do in the U.S. However, it is not readily available in Europe, although was available at a couple of McDonald's. To keep in touch via email, we found it necessary to purchase 100 minutes of time for $85. I think a lot of time was wasted with the poor transmission time.
Although we have no other cruises with which to compare, we were pleased with how orderly the arrivals and debarkations were at each port, with a smooth procedure in place for the tour groups to exit and board buses. The only exception was St Petersburg, which probably was more of a mad house because 1) more passengers were going ashore than may have been the case at other ports and 2)the lengthy time it took for Russian immigration to process each visitor. The newsletters delivered to the room each evening were very informative and helpful regarding the next day's port and shipboard activities.
If we were to cruise on this ship again, we would have no objection to the same room. It was quite comfortable and its location near the gangway made it interesting to just sit on the veranda and watch the goings-on. Watching the crew lower and raise the gangway was interesting, as was seeing other passengers coming and going and watching port activities. At Riga, as the ship pulled away from the dock, we observed several elderly Latvian ladies standing near the dock for a long time, waving to the departing ship passengers, until our ship was nearly out of sight.
Other comments continue in the port reviews, except for Ronne on the Danish island of Bornholm.
That was our second port of call and we chose to take an Oceania tour called "Taste of Bornholm". Although it did not include a brewery, as we had expected based on tour description, it still was interesting and by taking a bus around the island, we were able to get a better feel for the island than just going to the little town of Ronne. We gathered in the Marina Lounge on the ship at 8:45 and were soon dispatched to our waiting bus. Our local guide was Hans who did pretty well at speaking English although he stumbled occasionally on the pronunciation of a word. The first stop was a farm where the owner had a butcher shop. We had a close-up tour led by the owner and then had samples of various sausage products in the retail shop at the end of the tour. At the little harbor town of Svanake, we stopped at a hotel where tables were set up outside for us we were served a plate with grapes, a couple of slices of bell pepper, a few slices of the local, award winning blue cheese and some biscuits. Along with the snacks, we were given a sample two varieties of the local akavit. The last stop was Nexo where the first Danish vineyard was planted about 10 years ago. The owner and winemaker gave us a little tour and then let us sample a few varieties at tables in the winery. Will have to say that the wine was nothing to write home about. We returned to the ship about 1:00 and took a shuttle, arranged by Oceania, for a 5 minute ride to Ronne. There were some shops to visit, but would not have wanted to spend much time in town. Less
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Port and Shore Excursions
We had signed up for an Oceania tour that included Stutthof Concentration Camp and central Gdansk. The ship docked in the port of Gydnia about 8:00 a.m. at which time we had already convened in the Marina Lounge to organize for the tours of the day. We and 38 other people were dispatched to our waiting bus shortly after that and began about a 1 1/2 hour drive to Stutthof. Our guide was a Polish lady who was very willing to impart lots of information (in fact, she talked almost all the time), but her English was sometimes a little difficult to understand and whenever she was slow coming up with a word, she filled the pause with "mmm", which soon became very irritating.
The introductory film and the tour of the camp was very informative, although we certainly had read and seen many documentaries of the Holocaust before. And of course, this was a rather depressing part of our trip. However, we felt it was worth our time.
From there we drove to Gdansk. The drive was interesting as we had the opportunity to see some nesting storks several places along the way. We exited the bus and began a walking tour of central Gdansk. The tour guide led us for 1/2 hour or so and then left us on our own with instructions to regroup at a certain point at 1:40. About 80% of the city was destroyed during WW II. It was rebuilt and this central area was built in the style of the buildings of the 1600s. The tall, thin houses side-by-side with ornate roof lines and distinctive exterior painting made each one unique. There were many shops, restaurants and vendors, so the whole area was interesting for browsing. We also visited St Mary's church, a prominent landmark on the skyline. It is the largest brick church in Europe and was started in 1349.
Although our bus didn't bring us back to the ship until about 3:00, the Terrace Cafe, which normally would have closed by then, had stayed open to accommodate passengers returning from late tours.
We had visited Helsinki on a previous trip, so did not take any tours or visit any of the normal tourist sights. We took the shuttle from the port to a point somewhat near the harbor, which ended up being a longer ride than we would have expected, probably 20 minutes or so. We still had to walk several blocks to the harbor where we browsed among the stalls at the open air market. They had some of the best-looking produce we have seen. We sampled some strawberries, which were delicious and tasted like berries should taste. We sampled some plump, sweet sugar peas that were so good that we did like the locals and purchased a paper bag full of them to snack on as we strolled. We took a break from the market to visit the nearby Uspenski Cathedral, a dramatic red brick church built in the Russian Byzantine style in 1868. It is the largest Russian Orthodox church in Western Europe, but can't compare in size nor in ornateness to the churches we saw in St. Petersburg. We caught the 12:45 shuttle back to the ship.
We had read other reviews indicating that while Riga was a city you could visit on your own, there was much of historic interest that could be better appreciated on a guided tour. We elected to take a walking tour through Oceania. Although we arrived in port at 9:30 a.m., our tour was not scheduled to meet until 12:40. So, we decided to walk into the historic part of the city on our own and do a little souvenir shopping, correctly assuming there would not be much time for it on the guided tour.
The ship was docked within easy walking distance of town, but because some road construction blocked our most direct walking route, we made a wrong choice at selecting an alternate, which ended up taking us longer than necessary to reach the old town center. Before leaving the ship, we had met with a local tourist rep who was available in the main lobby of the ship. She had showed us on a map some possible areas to search for the souvenirs we wanted. By using the map and her directions, we were able to fairly easily locate what we wanted, do a little browsing on our own and then return to the ship in time for the organized tour.
We loaded a bus and met our local tour guide, who was very knowledgeable and informative, especially about all the architecture. He was sometimes a little difficult to understand, but mostly OK. We began with a bus tour around the outskirts of old town and a drive past some of the landmarks like the canals, parks, art nouveau and other buildings and the Freedom Monument. Then, we parked and began about a 2 hour walking tour. Of course, a good portion of the city was destroyed during WW II. Some has been rebuilt, but not all. The guide explained the significance of the buildings we were seeing and took us to the three main historic churches. Along the way, the guide also shared information about current social and political structure as well as history.
Because the traffic is so bad and we had to be back to the ship by 4:30 for a 5:00 p.m. departure, the tour was cut just a little short to make sure the bus could get back to the ship in time.
We had elected to visit Warnemunde and Rostock on our own, so about 10:00 a.m.,we took our boarding cards, passports and day pack and made the 10-15 minute walk from the ship to the little harbor town of Warnemunde. We had received directions to an ATM, which was about 3-4 blocks into the center of town. Within a bank building on the square that surrounded the church was an ATM. The screen was a little confusing at first, since it was in German, but once we spotted the flags at the bottom to select English, our cash withdrawal proceeded fairly easily. We somehow missed an option for a receipt (probably while the screen was still in German), so although we got our cash, we didn't have a printed record of the withdrawal.
We did a little shopping at some of the many souvenir shops along the "main drag", as we headed back towards the train station, which we had passed on our walk from the ship.
We located a ticket machine where we could purchase a pass good for use on the train to Rostock as well as the tram there. The pass that we wanted was to be 4.60 euros, but we couldn't get the machine to read our credit card, so we used some cash. The 4.60 pass was good for the two of us. There was an S1 train waiting and we hopped on. It took only about 15-20 minutes to reach Rostock. The train ended at the main train station, so there was no question as to where to get off. We had been told to catch tram 5 or 6 to Rostock city center and were under the impression that we had to walk a bit to catch it. We did walk several blocks and caught the appropriate tram, but later on our return, saw that we could have caught the tram right there in the train station at another platform. Although the tram stops were lighted on a sign on the tram, we were not sure of the correct stop, so we asked another passenger by showing her our map. When we thought our stop was approaching, we confirmed with her and she nodded yes. The tram lets you off right at market square which is overlooked by city hall and St Mary's church. It probably was only 10-15 minutes from the station to city center.
There was a small market in the Rostock square, with vendors selling produce, clothing and food carts selling snacks. Leading off the square was a shopping street bustling with shoppers and other tourists. It was pleasant to walk along this street and see the shops and listen to some of the street musicians. We also visited St Mary's church, much of which dates from the 15th - 17th centuries and includes an astronomical clock that dates from the mid-1400s. At the end of the street is the Kr'peliln Gate, which is a tall tower built originally as part of the city's defenses in the 13th century.
After resting a bit with coffee and a pastry at an outdoor cafe, we caught tram 5 to return to the train station. We then had only to go to platforms 1 and 2 and a train to Warnemunde was waiting. We discovered then that there is a machine on the platform for validating your ticket. We should have done that when we boarded in Warnemunde, but didn't realize it. Apparently, no one routinely checks for tickets on the trains.
We returned to the ship in the late afternoon. Other passengers had elected to take either an Oceania tour or an independent tour to Berlin. We chose to skip that, as it was at least a 3 hour bus ride each way, leaving only a short time for a limited city tour. From our veranda, we watched those busloads of passengers returning to the ship about 9:45 p.m., a very long day. The positive end to their trip was that a band and about 100 crew members were lined up on the dock, singing and greeting each group of travelers as they arrived. We spoke with a few who went to Berlin and no one was ecstatic about it. Some were disappointed and others felt it was just "OK".
The ship departed the port at 11:00 p.m., soon after the last of the tours returned.
This was part of our 2-day independently booked small group tour. We did not have any reserved time in the Amber Room at Catharine Palace. We only were able to get a glimpse as it was quite crowded with many tourists. We were able to stop long enough for our guide to give us some history about the room.
This was part of our 2-day independently booked small group tour. The palace was very impressive to see and a definite "don't miss". However, it took a lot of patience to get through it. Our private tour did not have any privilege of fast or early entrance and the site was quite crowded. Guards at the gates to the grounds were limiting entrance in order to control crowd size within the palace. Several Chinese tour groups managed to push their way to the front and gain entrance ahead of other groups waiting in line. This generated much dissatisfaction and shouting amongst the crowd. Even with the gate restrictions, followed by restrictions at the palace doors, the crowd inside was still rather large, even for such a large building. It sometimes made it difficult for our guide to find a spot where we could see and she could explain what we were seeing.
Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
This was part of our 2-day independently booked small group tour. The church is quite impressive, particularly the mosaics. Our guide provided a history of what we were seeing and gave us plenty of time to take photos.
This was part of our 2-day independently booked small group tour. Since the Hermitage is so large, the guide asked if there were certain exhibits that our group preferred to concentrate on. We selected impressionists, so after showing and explaining different rooms of the Winter Palace to us, she gave us plenty of time to view the art in the areas we had selected. She provided information on many of the pieces.
Neva River Cruise
This was all part of our independently booked SPB tour. It was a pleasant 45-60 minute tour and allowed us to see some sights from one side that we had seen only from the other side during the driving tour. However, the guide for the river cruise was a different SPB guide and not the one for our small group tour. She was not as good nor as easy to hear and understand when explaining the sights we were passing.
Peter & Paul Fortress
This was part of our 2-day independently booked small group tour. The area was quite crowded and perhaps extra-so because it was Navy week and many locals were there celebrating and sightseeing in addition to foreign tourists. Our guide was able to keep us together and provide explanations of what we were seeing, making sure we didn't miss the tomb of Peter the Great as well as the chapel with the remains of the last Romanovs.
This was part of our 2-day independently booked small group tour. Our car dropped us at the entrance and our guide led us through the gardens. We did not go inside the palace. Of course the palace, fountains and gardens were developed by Peter the Great to rival the Palace of Versailles and they are quite impressive. When we reached the Gulf of Finland after walking through the gardens, we took a hover craft to return to St Petersburg where our driver met us with the car.
Prior to our cruise, we had made contact through Cruise Critic with two other couples interested in sharing a small group private tour of St Petersburg. We chose SPB based on other reviewers' recommendations and it was a good choice. We made arrangements ahead of time, but did not have to pay anything until the end of the first day of the 2-day tour. If we had wanted to pay cash, we could have waited until the end of the 2nd day, but we elected to use credit cards and SPB needed to make sure the cards processed over night. SPB provided us tour tickets by email and we only needed to present those when we were going through Russian immigration in order to gain permission to the country. We did not purchase visas. On the other side of the Immigration lines, we were met by an SPB representative who directed us to the guide who would be with us for the two days. We ended up with Elena Volkova, who was a very friendly and knowledgeable guide, who spoke excellent English. She directed us outside to our private van with our driver, Alexander, who would be our excellent chauffeur for the two days. During the first day, we visited Smolny Cathedral, Isaac's Square, the Winter Palace and the Hermitage. We stopped for lunch at a local pie place where I had an egg and onion pie, a bowl of cold borscht soup and a cup of tea. Some had a meat pie. We continued with a visit to the Churchof Our Savior on Spilled Blood, the Peter and Paul Fortress and the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral, St Isaac's Cathedral, Yusupov Palace and finally a subway station. We could have ridden the subway, but our group was interested only in seeing one of the stations and we visited one with one of the longest escalators, taking you down 120 meters to go below the Neva River. The second day began with a 40-minute canal boat city tour, followed by about a 1-hour drive to Pushkin to visit the Catharine Palace. Today's lunch was at restaurant in an old mansion and included tea or coffee, hot borscht, beef stroganoff with mashed potatoes and ice cream with a good caramel sauce for dessert. Another hour drive took us to Peterhof Palace and gardens. After walking through the gardens, we took a hover craft back to St Petersburg. Our group had requested time for a short shopping stop to pick up some souvenirs, so our driver took us to a place that had lots from which to choose. We were then returned to the ship after a very busy but interesting two days.
St. Isaac's Cathedral
This was part of our 2-day independently booked small group tour. The building was quite crowded with other tourists, but our guide kept us together and explained some of the history of the building and allowed us to take all the pictures we wanted. We did not spend a great deal of time here.
This was part of our 2-day independently booked small group tour. It was interesting to see as an example of the home of nobility and as the site where Rasputin was murdered. It was not as crowded as other sights and our guide had time to explain much of the home and its history in detail. The only place where we were rushed was the cellar which is set up to look as it may have appeared when Rasputin was there. Only a few people are permitted into the small area at a time, so a guard would hurry visitors along in order to make room for the next group.
We did not visit Stockholm, but had seen it before and think it one of the most interesting cities. We arrived here only in time to take a shuttle to the airport to catch a flight to Amsterdam to connect with a flight to the U.S.
The ship didn't dock at Tallinn until near noon. Oceania provided a shuttle to take passengers on the short ride to Old Town. It is an interesting old city to walk on one's own, especially on a beautiful day as we had. The biggest negative was that there were 4 or 5 other cruise ships in port at the same time and the narrow streets of old town were clogged with other tourists. There is an upper and a lower part of old Tallinn and the shuttle dropped us at the start of the lower part. So, there is considerable up hill walking to reach the upper town. We enjoyed the exercise, but some travelers may find it too much of a hike. There are plenty of shops and restaurants, but because of the crowds, it was rather difficult getting a table and service at one of the restaurants with outdoor seating, where we stopped for a brief rest and a beer. We returned to our original drop off point and quickly boarded a shuttle back to the ship, returning about 4:00.
Since we had a nice sunny day for Visby, it was a nice town to just enjoy a leisurely stroll through the cute, well-maintained town of cobblestone streets. This was the only port that required tendering. So, all passengers taking tours were tendered ashore first. About 8:30, an announcement was made to say that the tours were gone and very few people were waiting for tenders, so that was a good time to leave the ship. We had to go to the Marina Lounge to pick up a tender ticket and waited just a few minutes for our number to be called. The sea was somewhat choppy and the small tender was rocking a bit, but crew members helped and it was easy to step aboard. Once the boat started moving,the choppiness was less noticeable. It took about 10 minutes to get to the shore.
There were no particular sights of interest, but just a pleasant town to browse the shops and stroll. We stopped at a bar and enjoyed outside seating with a couple of beers, which turned out to be quite expensive at 30 euros. The establishment accepted both euros and kronor. We had located a bank and had exchanged some currency, but the bank was not very convenient. It was a rather long walk through the scenic part of town to the more local retail section.