Having cruised only the mainline cruise lines before Holland and Princess, we looked forward with great anticipation to joining our friends, Phyllis and Phil, who had only cruised the higher end lines: Crystal, Silverseas, and Seabourn. Phyl and Phil traveled separately to Copenhagen (they used frequent flyer miles on American, and had a tortuous route from Los Angeles to Boston to Zurich to Copenhagen). My wife Peggy and I took advantage of a half-price business class sale on Air France, and overnight to Paris and had an easy transfer at CDG, thanks to directions from Cruise Critic member/posters Globaliser and Flyertalker--my sincere thanks! We took the train from Copenhagen Airport to the city center for less than $5.00, and it was a short and reasonably priced cab ride to the Marriott, which we loved. Our friends had the canal view and we had the city view, with sights of Tivoli all lit up at dark (which is not til after 10pm in the late summer!) The hotel is convenient (only two blocks to Tivoli and a bit further to other city sights and restaurants. The breakfast buffet was excellent, but quite expensive (about $50 for two).
We spent three days pre-cruise in Denmark, and it was delightful! We tried the hop-on hop-off bus, which got us to several sights, but the recorded highlights were pretty basic. Be sure to bring guide books; we used Lonely Planet and Rick Steves. The concierge directed us to two very nice restaurants. The first, Cafe Nytorv was simple, but good food. Service at the outdoor cafe took quite a while as they only had one waitperson bringing the food from the restaurant across the street. The other restaurant recommended by the concierge, Gammel Strand was simply magnificent. Amazing food, wonderful wine and excellent service.
Morning of the cruise we had time for the Hans Christian Andersen tour. It was entertaining, informative and I highly recommend it. We cabbed from the Marriott to the pier, quick and easy. Check in was a breeze. As the rooms were not ready at 2:00, we went up to La Veranda for a late lunch. Plenty of food, but I would say nothing more than the usual buffet fare, which caused us to avoid it til the last evening of the cruise, when we were pleasantly surprised--more on that later. Afterwards, we headed to our suite. It certainly exceeded our expectations. The room was quite large, well appointed, with a nice large walk-in closet and a large marble bath. We met our room stewardess, Prisilla, who was charming and efficient. We took advantage of the time before sailing to do a couple of loads of laundry, then up to Compass Rose for dinner. No waiting for a table for four. The food was good, but I couldn't really say that it was outstanding. Two ongoing sour notes. One of our traveling companions prefers the sweeter white wines. He asked for a Reisling and was told there was none on the ship, but that they would see if they could get it at the next port. This turned out to be a running joke, as we asked every night, and the Reisling was never available. The same thing occurred with a request for strawberry ice cream: None available, ever.
Our issues with Compass Rose continued at breakfast. The service was extremely slow, even when the dining room was 3/4 empty. Sausages were so over cooked they were like rocks, hash brown potatoes were cold, and the eggs benedict was covered with some horribly congealed mess that bore no relationship to Hollandaise sauce. Sadly, each successive breakfast was the same or worse. Hardly what I would call a six star line's best effort.
Our first port was Visby on the Swedish island of Gotlund. We had to tender in, and the gentleman in the wheel chair proved quite a challenge for the crew, as the tender was bobbing pretty wildly. I was sure he was going to get dropped, but made it without mishap. We opted to explore Visby on our own. It's a charming medieval city, easily explored, although the hillside was fairly steep and the cobblestones uneven. We poked in a few shops, visited a lovely cathedral, strolled the town and returned to the ship. Dinner in Compass Rose was pretty good, but I found the desserts very unimaginative. I have never seen jello on the menu of any cruise ship in the main dining room! We went to the show that evening while our friends did some business emails in the computer center, which is quite large and well equipped. The show was the Broadway musical revue, fairly well done, and we enjoyed it.
A few words about ship amenities. Appointments at the spa took a little while the first day, as they were entering them manually in a ledger, not on a computer. The spa is small, the gym also small, but clean. Not nearly as elaborate, for example, as the Lotus spa on the grand class Princess ships. Each day there was a cultural lecture, mostly centered on either art, ballet or history of Russia. I went to one; it was informative--hard to keep track of all those Russian Tsars! The fore lounge usually had music, a few (and I mean few) appetizers. The aft lounge we visited once before dinner and were the only folks there to hear the combo. I don't know if the change in liquor policy coming Jan. 1 will bring more folks to the lounges, but the week of our trip (July 29-Aug 5) they were pretty quite. Not much else going on on-board. The ship stores had greatly overpriced clothing, jewelry, and russian folk art. The camera store was almost never opened, so we were unable to download any digital pictures to disks.
Our second port was Tallin, Estonia. It was a delightful town! Our friends' travel agent is connected with Virtuoso tours, and they included a guided tour of the town. The port is a commercial shipping port that is a couple of miles from town, so we boarded a bus which dropped us off outside the walls at the top of the old city. Our tour guide was pleasant and informative. The walking tour took us to a beautiful Orthodox cathedral, down a cobbled lane to a music hall where several musicians in local traditional dress performed on kannels, which are ancient Estonian instruments resembling zithers. They were quite entertaining. Afterward, we strolled the streets, saw several lanes containing the work of local artisans, then on to restaurant "Gloria" which was hosted by the tour. The food was good. We hurried off to do a little shopping (I still have no idea whether the amber necklace I bought my wife is authentic amber--they say if you heat it, the odor will be woodsy if genuine, or like plastic if it is fake!). We met up with the tour guide and reboarded the bus. We did a short tour which passed by several government buildings, then private homes, and on to a medieval convent that was destroyed by one of the invading countries that passed through Estonia over the ages.
We returned to the ship and wrote a few post cards before our 7:00 p.m. reservation for L'Attitudes. I had contacted the maitre d earlier, as the written confirmation left in our cabin (I pre-booked on line) seemed to indicate we were a party of eight, when I was trying to tell them that we were a party of four, but didn't mind being seated with others. The staff were most grateful that we were willing to be flexible, as the other dining requests for that evening seemed to have taxed their seating arrangements. If you go to L'Attitudes, they request you be prompt, as the food is timed to come out on schedule. Although you receive a menu, there are no choices, and no substitutions. The food is served family style, as in most Chinese restaurants, although I would describe the food as more fusion with an asian flair, rather than Asian. I found the food in L'Attitudes quite good. Only the appetizers (egg rolls, skewered beef, etc) seemed a little pedestrian. We were seated with a delightful young couple from Philadelphia, Ruthie and Ben, and quite enjoyed the meal and the conversation.
Our long anticipated arrival in St. Petersburg was the next morning. We had, on the recommendation of many Cruise Critic posters, engaged a private tour from Alla for the four of us. Although Alla was booked, she engaged a young woman who often contracted with her. We had the services of our guide, Julia, and a driver for the full three days in St. Petersburg. Each was invaluable. Julia was well educated, knowledgeable, able to accommodate requests for unscheduled stops for meals, shopping, an impromptu subway ride, and still got us to all the sites we had pre-arranged. She took care of all our entrance fees (and with one exception was able to get us past the lines waiting to get in) as well as photo stickers for camera use. Our driver Valery got us in and out of many traffic jams in the city, which is just not able to accommodate the influx of private cars since Peristroika. We kidded him about his race car driving, but he knew what he was doing. On the third day, he even brought his video camera to show us his son's swim meet, where he had won a medal!
On the first day, Julia took us to Peter and Paul fortress and Cathedral, St. Isaac's Cathedral, Church of Our Saviour (also known as Church on the Spilled Blood) before lunch at a nice little restaurant frequented by locals, Mischa and the Bear (named after a Russian folk tale) and helped us order. As we got to know her, and she us, she became accustomed to our senses of humor, and we got along famously the whole trip. After lunch, we went to Peterhof and toured the extensive grounds and fountains at Peter the Great's summer palace. Not to be missed. Both Alla and Julia recommended seeing only the grounds. Entrance to the palace was extra, and many rooms were under renovation. We returned to the ship with tired feet! On our way up the gang plank, we saw large groups leaving for evening excursions to the ballet and elsewhere, so I suggested we see if there were any openings at Signatures for that night. Indeed there were if we could be there promptly at 7:00 p.m. We rushed to clean and change. Signatures, the Cordon Bleu restaurant, has a menu which has no substitutions. Upon arrival, we advised the head waiter that we had reserved souffles for that evening at Compass Rose, and asked if it was possible to have them served up at Signatures. The head waiter checked and said that was not possible, but that he would notify Compass Rose that we would arrive for souffles, coffee and after dinner drinks after we completed our meal up at Signatures. We were impressed. Although Peggy's filet mignon was little tough, everyone one else at our table raved over the food and the wine (the red for the evening was Mouton Cadet, quite a cut above the complimentary reds being served in the main restaurant). Entertainment that night was a troupe of Russian Folk dancers the ship had brought aboard. They were excellent! Afterward Phyl and Phil went to the computer center and we repaired to the lounge for a little music and conversation before bedtime.
Day two in St. Petersburg started with a short visit to St. Nicholas Church, which unlike several of those previously visited was still in use as a church, the others serving primarily as museums to religious art and architecture. We also visited a small pedestrian bridge near a small park in a residential neighborhood, and stopped to take Julia's picture in front of the university she previously attended, and where she now teaches English! Then on to the Hermitage, which was glorious. Once again Julia was able to get us past the long lines for entrance. We visited a few rooms before our allotted time to visit "the gold room" Julia gave someone a dressing down when it appeared the guide appointed for the group to which we were to be attached was at a different location than she had been advised! For those who don't know, most of the contents of the gold room were household decorative items (snuff boxes, hair brushes, etc., and the Sythian archeological collections). Crown jewels are in Moscow, and most, if not all of the Faberge eggs were sold to Malcolm Forbes! There is so much fantastic art to see in the Hermitage, that I would not spend my time or money on the gold room unless you are there for an extended number of days. We had lunch in the museum snack bar, and then toured the wings devoted to the art collection. Quite impressive, as was the building itself. Later, we visited the Yusopof palace, home to a wealthy Russian family, and site of the murder of Rasputin.
Back to the ship for a second evening at Signatures (the one we had pre-booked). The menu was the same for the entire week (as is the case at L'Attitudes). Some of us had the same main course, others changed. We were seated with a doctor and his wife who were from Alabama. Lively conversation and excellent food and wine!
Our last day in St. Petersburg! We were a little late getting off the ship. I think Julia was a little worried! (By the way, because of the relatively small size of the ship, we had an excellent docking area in town along the canal, not at the larger and more remote commercial shipping area). We traveled out of town for the trip to Pushkin, home of the famous poet, and site of Catherine's Palace. En route we saw several examples of Soviet style architecture: blocks of grey multi-story flats. Rather depressing. In St. Petersburg we saw a few areas with apartments dating from pre-revolutionary times, but saw no private detached homes. There were a few of these in Pushkin. The Palace is quite ornate with much gilded carvings. We stopped at a very nice restaurant on the way back and sampled a local berry during, as well as some local vodka! We had a canal boat cruise scheduled, but it was drizzling, so we opted instead to do a little shopping for souvenirs after a side trip to take a ride on the subway, just one stop. The architecture and cleanly state of the station impressed us. Sadly, we bade farewell to our guide and driver, and boarded the ship. We went up to the forward lounge for cocktails and to see sailaway, but our departure was delayed, so we decide to go eat. The menu in Compass Rose didn't look that appealing, so we decided to try La Veranda. It was Mediterranean night, so in addition to the buffet for appetizers and desert, the main courses were delivered to your table, and we found the meal and the service superior to Compass Rose. Go figure.
We had a day at sea, at last a few hours to relax. I had a massage, started packing, then had lunch at the outdoor poolside grill. In addition to a plethora of salads, they had burgers, and were also barbecuing cuts from a huge tuna caught from the ship that morning! Still no strawberry ice cream, however, and the milk shakes and smoothies seemed to be lacking something: ice cream! Guess this just gets lost in the translation. our last port was Stockholm, but we only had time to take the shuttle to town and stroll for a couple of hours. We wanted to see the Vasa museum, but it was closed by the time we were able to disembark that evening, and we flew back to Paris the next morning. Disembarkation was rather odd: when they called our color, we walked down the gangway, found our luggage on the tarmac and waited for the driver our TA engaged for our trip to the airport. No customs or immigration of any kind!
Although I was somewhat underwhelmed by the quality of the food in the primary dining room, we had a wonderful trip. I didn't find the food any better than that on Princess, and below that served on Holland America. The larger room, absence of tipping, and complimentary liquor in room and at dinner did not, to me, justify the price, which was double that of a comparable trip on either of those lines, and that was with a 2 for 1 fare the week we sailed on Regent. Our companions were also less than impressed, saying they much preferred their trips on Crystal. I guess what I am saying is that for the extra expense, and reputed reputation as a six star line, the lack of attention to detail, follow up, and meal quality were all below my expectations. I realize these are subjective areas, but of the three lines on which I have traveled to date, my preference right now would be Holland America. I like HAL's classic cruise line decor (found the public area decor on Voyager a quite cold example of Euro modern that was sort of late fifties barren), and the service staff on Holland also just a little bit friendlier and more accommodating. This was a very port intensive itinerary, so the little time spent on board Voyager did not detract from my vacation. It just didn't do that much to enhance it.