We booked our 13 night cruise in a Thomson store after considering several cruise companies offering Baltic itineraries. We chose the Baltic Highlights cruise, as it had fewer days at sea than other companies and left from the U.K. After booking we had a few questions and we found the staff advertised by Thomson as ‘Cruise Specialists’ had less knowledge than ourselves and we had only read the brochure! Finding out details about the cruise was a nightmare whether in store (unknowledgeable), over the phone (try getting someone to answer) or e-mail (answered only part of our queries). We even considered cancelling as we were worried that this was a reflection of the same treatment we would receive on board. However, family and friends who had cruised with Thomson told us it would be fine once onboard. We had cruised on Oceana with P&O the previous year around the Med and thoroughly enjoyed it. They seemed to understand that the planning and anticipation of your holiday is an important part of your experience. We were sent lots of information including a personalised cruise itinerary booklet, luggage labels, a map of the ship, port directions etc. With Thomson we received nothing personalised to our cruise, all information was for fly-cruise even on the website. Two weeks before the cruise we received an e-mail saying that we should receive a call from the store to collect our tickets two weeks before our holiday. I left it a few days, but heard nothing, so rang the store. The tickets were there, but no-one had informed us. Even the information on the tickets was for a fly-cruise and the port information/map didn’t even have a postcode to enable us to plan our route.
We arrived at the Port of Tyne Passenger Terminal (after 1st arriving at the Port of Tyne Dock by mistake) to find many members of staff directing us to luggage drop off. Here Thomson staff give you your boarding pass, luggage tags and a health questionnaire to be completed. However, we could not be found on their records and had to wait while this was investigated- apparently a fault of the store which booked the cruise for us. The staff were very friendly, reassuring and then apologetic. The staff removed our luggage quickly and labeled it for us, advising us to carry on to the parking area. Unfortunately, there was no-one directing traffic to the parking area and we ended up doing a complete circle to the baggage area again! We finally found the parking area, got a ticket which needed to be validated at check-in and left for the shuttle bus pick-up point. A bus arrived and left within 5 minutes for the 2 minute journey to check in. The departure lounge was clean, modern with toilets and beverage facilities. We were checked in, parking validated and through customs within 5 minutes, the staff were really friendly. We then boarded another shuttle bus for a 2 minute journey to the ship. There was a short queue to board, but there was a member of staff to greet us and show us to our room.
We were on the lowest deck, A deck, outside cabin No 817 at the front of the ship. We had paid to pre-book our cabin, which seemed larger on the plan of the ship in the brochure. We were not disappointed, with the cabin being very spacious compared to our last cruise. There was two double wardrobes, 6 drawers, four small bedside drawers, a deep shelf into the porthole, a desk/dresser and lots of worktop space. The room was noticeably dated, but very clean and smelt fresh. There was a T.V (not all channels work and they are not always in the right order). There is no fridge and unfortunately, no tea/coffee making facilities (you are not allowed to take your own kettle either). The air conditioning was amazingly quiet and the room stayed cool and fresh throughout the trip. We had read about the constant vibration on Thomson Spirit, which we did not feel in our room. However at the back of the ship it was very noticeable at all times. Due to being a few feet from the water, the noise from swell is noticeable when moving and does lap against the side/porthole, although we found it cosy. The bathroom was clean and had plenty of storage space. It could do with a few adjustments for hygiene- the shower curtain sits right against the toilet and towel rails are also directly above the toilet. The toilet works on a vacuum system and ours did have a persistent whistling noise. The shower was great, but did soak the floor every time, as the curtain is too short. The two cabin stewards were fantastic (Snizhana & Mimi), as I suffered from sea-sickness to begin with they checked I was O.K, were always helpful and kept the room very clean. On that note the Medical Centre was spotlessly clean and the staff very thorough and professional.
We ate in the lido, buffet restaurant for every meal. This was a real disappointment. On P&O’s Oceana the food was absolutely fantastic and one of the highlights of the holiday. Breakfast was the biggest let down; rock hard toast, eggs with shell in it, shriveled bacon, low quality sausages, hard croissant not only did it look unappetising it did not taste great. The fresh fruit selection was good and my husband had pancakes every morning, as they apparently tasted O.K. covered in butterscotch sauce! Lunch was O.K and there was usually one dish which looked appetising, the salad was always fresh and tasty. An afternoon tea was adequate, the scones were nice, but nothing compared with P&O. Dinner was inconsistent, again there was usually one dish which looked O.K. There seemed to always be a strong garlicky after taste to most dishes though. Theme nights, such as oriental did not contain dishes which you would typically think of. We did not opt for the more formal dining options, as displays in the buffet restaurant of what we could expect did not look any better. It has to be said that dessert options were always lovely, so well done to the chef in charge of these.
You can drink the water from your bathroom, but it is chlorinated, so does not taste fantastic. There is water available in the Lido area, but you cannot re-fill bottles here. A 1.5L bottle of water costs £1.80 and a 0.5L £1.40! A 330ml can of pop is £1.80 or a glass from tap £1.10 – ensure you specify or you will get a can. Drinks were very expensive compared to P&O or normal life, for example Jack Daniels, a cocktail, or a specialty coffee around £5. Even if you have a drinks package you will have to pay a premium of £1-£2 for many drinks. There is a good selection of Tea available in the Lido buffet.
Kalundborg- I stayed in port, whilst my husband took the Copenhagen on your own excursion. This took 1 ½ hours on the way there and 2 hours on the way back. The driver was friendly and provided maps. There was adequate time to see the city and he would highly recommend it. Kalundborg was a 15 minute walk from the ship, or a free shuttle bus was available.
Helsinki- There are 3 different walking routes into the city all marked out on the pavement and signs. The longest one takes around 1 hour, but is very scenic as it takes you right around the bay. The shortest takes around 30 minutes. Again there was a free shuttle bus available.
Another beautiful city, it's just a pity that we missed 45 minutes off the boat,as there seemed to be real trouble getting people off the ship???Very frustrating. The ship pulls in right by the city center. Fantastic architecture, fantastic ice-cream and fantastic weather. Stand outside Starbucks for free wi-fi.
A 5 minute walk from the boat and you will be looking down the lovely river towards the sea. There are a variety of shops and market stalls on the walk to the beach and many boats to look at (or take a ride around the harbour). The beach is spotlessly clean and I went for a lovely swim in the sea. You can hire a double beach chair with a roof for shade and there are toilets on the beach. We then walked along the promenade and through the park, before looking at the various shops and finishing with some currywerst-yum!
St Petersburg- Luckily we had done our research; you cannot go ashore without an authorised tour guide if you do not have a Russian Visa. Thomson will not tell you this when you book, on any correspondence and they will also imply that it is not safe to travel alone. After speaking to passengers on other cruise ships in dock at the same time, they had been told and were making their way into St P by themselves. Many people on the ship complained about not having a visa and having no choice but to stay on ship or pay for excursions.. The Thomson store could not advise us on obtaining a Visa, however their website recommends a company called the Travel Visa Company. It costs around £150 and the company was fantastic, knowledgeable and efficient. There are excursions available, but for the two days would cost more than the Visa. At the port there is an ATM. There is a shuttle bus from the port to a Metro station, it is then 2 stops to the station for the Hermitage. The return journey cost 180 rubles – a few pounds. You have to pay a small amount to use toilets in the city. The Metro is a fantastic experience in itself and is easy to use.
Tallin- This is a really beautiful city, with markets, winding streets, a castle, amazing churches and a large shopping centre. It is a 5 minute walk from the port to the gardens that surround the city. A free shuttle was available. There is also a café, wi-fi, shop and small market at the port itself. With our cruise with P&O this is the type of port we enjoyed every day, sailing up to it in the morning whilst eating breakfast, get off the boat and you are practically in the city. You can easily pop back for lunch and go back out again. We had a fantastic day.
For Tallin,Riga and Klaipeda wear sensible shoes as they do like their cobbled streets!