Having done this cruise 7 years ago, the cooler summer temperatures of the ports enticed us to cruise here again for our 20th cruise. My husband, adult daughter (her first time to the Baltics)and I did have a few bumps along the road getting to and from the ship. Although we had booked our air flights 10 months early and had picked our seats so we would be together for the long flight, Icelandair took it upon itself to seat us wherever they wanted which happened to be all over the plane. They also made us weigh our carry-ons and complained that they were a few pounds overweight. Irregardless of the fact that we were allowed 2 suitcases apiece but only had 3 total, the agent still made a fuss over the 4 extra pounds my husband and I had in our carry-ons. Needless to say, we won't be flying Icelandair any more. Then we had prepaid our transportation to and from the airport before and after the cruise with Taxi2airport. Both times they were a no show. Thanks to the kindness of the desk clerks at each of our hotels, they made repeated phone calls and got the drivers to finally show up. We stayed at the Inntel Hotel Rotterdam Centre for 1 night before the cruise. The price was right, the hotel was clean, it was a good location for our own quick walking tour of Rotterdam that night, and it was one of the few hotels which would accommodate 3 people in a room. We saw the Erasmus Bridge, the Cube Houses, the Blaak railway station, and the Euromast Observation Tower but were too exhausted to go up for the view.
Then the next day after a short taxi ride, we boarded our ship, the Rotterdam quickly and efficiently. Having been on the Amsterdam last summer in Alaska, we knew our way around this sister ship. With 3 adults in 1 room, I worried that there wouldn't be enough storage space. No need to worry, everything fit. We loved the sleep sofa for our daughter. Usually on other ships, the opened sleep sofa took up half the cabin; not in this room. The entire seat cushion of the sofa flipped over and there were the sheets wrapped around the long cushion for her bed which she said was comfortable. Our cabin was in a great location - 1st one around the corner from the elevators. Our room stewards were efficient, friendly, and went out of their way to please. Kudos to them; wish I could remember their names.
Since the next day was one of our few sea days, we had our Meet & Greet with the other Cruise Critic people. We were a little disappointed that no one from Holland America showed up but they did have the room set up with coffee, tea, juice, and cookies. So we all met and got to know each other and exchanged information about private tours.
As to ship life, the Cruise Director, Michael Langley was fabulous, one of the best we have had. He was funny, approachable, and we were dazzled by his ability to go from English to Dutch in everything he said. There were many Dutch on board. We like to go to the shows every night and enjoyed all of them although some nights were more entertaining than others. On sea days, there would be dance lessons called Dancing with the Stars with the only 2 dancers onboard and, although I was only an observer, I enjoyed watching the people learn and then compete against each other for a spot in the final show to be held on the last night of the cruise. Trivia was played 3 times a day with a different theme for each one. Most of the time it was fun only spoiled by a few serious passengers who were out for blood. We opted for late seating for dinner at a table for 8, preferring to sit with the same people at the same table each night and getting to know them. Luck was with us on this trip. Our table mates were wonderful and a very lively group. A family of 3 was from NYC and I, being an ex-New Yorker now living in Maryland, got to polish up on my NYC accent again. The other couple was an Hispanic couple from California originally from Guatemala (the wife) and Chile (the husband). We all got along so well that after only a couple of nights, we became friends. The food was excellent, the choices were good, but the service to our table lacked. Although the 8 of us were always there on time and our orders were taken in a timely fashion, the first course never arrived for another 30-40 minutes. One night we waited 45 minutes for our entrees to arrive after our soup. The waiter would serve his other smaller tables long before ours. In fact, they would be served dessert and we were still waiting for our main course. Our complaint helped for 2 nights and then we were back to the same old, same old. The section captain never spoke to us but filled our water glasses after we complained about having to wait so long for our food. No apologies were ever offered or explanations given as to why we were last in the dining room. On nights when the show started 30 minutes earlier, we opted for the Anytime Dining. Other than that, Holland America did an excellent job.
We were blessed with wonderful weather in all 7 ports. Getting on and off the ship at each port was well done. It was nice to always be greeted by a happy, smiling, friendly crew. I am a definite planner so each of our ports were researched as to see as much as possible. In most of the ports, although not advertised in some, the Hop On Hop Off buses were there waiting at the port. See my port reviews for more details. Thank you to those CCers who gave such great details and suggestions in their reviews. I hope my review can be as helpful to others. Some of our excursions were private and some cruise line.
Since this city isn't included in the pull down menu, I will include my review for it here.
There wasn't much to see in Kiel. So we took the local train to Lubeck. If you travel after 9 AM, you have unlimited service at a cheaper price for up to 6 people. The cost is 32.7 euros. There are 2 trains each hour: for example, the 9:04 leaves Kiel and arrives in Lubeck @ 10:32, stopping at every station. The 9:44 leaves Kiel and arrives in Lubeck @ 10:52, stopping only at larger stations. Before 9AM, the cost is 17 euro pp one way. It is a bit of a walk to the train station from the ship or we were told you could take Bus 42 or a cab. We walked. The Lubeck train station is pretty large so ask someone which way to go. We didn't and ended up walking all around in a circle. Lubeck is a quaint medieval town. We went to St. Petri zu Lubeck and paid to take the elevator to see the town from above. We went to Marienkirche, another beautiful church which, unfortunately, was being renovated so it was shrouded in construction netting. The shops and cafes were delightful and we were glad we made the train trip. Riding the train to and from Kiel was very picturesque. We did walk around Kiel for a bit but enjoyed Lubeck much more.
We were sorry to see the cruise end. Many were staying on to do a b/b to the Norwegian fjords which we regretted not looking into. Oh, well, another cruise. Disembarkation went as smoothly as embarkation.
We had planned to stay in Amsterdam for 2 days after the cruise. We traveled from Rotterdam to Amsterdam using dagtoetaxi.com recommended from a CCer review, arrangements being made through the internet. He was most reliable, showing up as promised and where to to meet as promised. We had toyed with the idea of taking the train to and from Rotterdam and Amsterdam but decided lugging our suitcases and carry-ons would make the trip difficult. We had booked the Ibis Hotel in Amsterdam near the train station. What a view! They were most accommodating, our room was immaculate, and the free breakfast each morning although not as good as the food on the ship, was still delicious. Having prepaid for a 2 day pass on the Hop On Hop Off boats, we toured Amsterdam by water. We had ordered our Anne Frank museum tickets on the internet (just Google "Anne Frank") and were glad we did. The line was 2 blocks long but we walked right in. We opted for the 30 minute talk beforehand and enjoyed the background information and pictures. She even let us take pictures of the photos on her wall although no photos were allowed in the museum. Again we were blessed with good weather as we rode each of the lines of the HoHo boat. Also not to be missed are Dam Square, the Hard Rock Cafe, the famous "I Amsterdam" letters, the Van Gogh Museum, the Skinny Bridge, and so many of the houseboats, canal houses, towers, bridges, little cafes and shops, and so much more. We took a suggestion from another review I had read and ate Dutch pancakes one night at the Pancake Bakery (191 Prinsengracht) down the street from the Anne Frank Museum. Thank you to the CCer who wrote that. We even went to a Dutch mass although we didn't understand anything. Yes, we walked through the Red Light District one afternoon. Amsterdam is a great city.
It was an exhausting trip but worth every minute. The cruise was very port-intensive and we often wished for a sea day just so we could catch our breath. Would we do it again? Yes, in a blessed minute!
We prebooked through the internet the Hop On Hop Off bus (www.hop-on-hop-off-bus.com)along with a 1 hour Canal Boat Tour (www.getyourguide.com/copenhagen); enjoyed both. We viewed the Little Mermaid from the front (HoHo bus) and from behind (Canal boat). We walked around Tivoli Gardens (the 100 year old amusement park) and along Nyhavn, the waterfront. Copenhagen was a nice and colorful port with lots to see.
In Helsinki we took our first cruise line tour “Helsinki Highlights” because the internet told us the Hop On Hop Off buses didn’t go to the port but there they were. We had already paid for the cruise line tour so we were at the mercy of the tour guide. She gave us too much time at places where there wasn’t much to see. For example, we stopped @ Sibelius Park for 20 minutes where there were only 2 sculptures and at Senate Square for an hour with 20 other tour buses but we zipped by the Olympic Park without stopping. Unfortunately, for my husband and myself, we were on the wrong side of the bus and missed the Stadium. Then on our way to the Rock Church, our bus backed into a car so we sat for 15 minutes while our bus driver and the car driver hashed it out. Finally, someone asked if we could get off the bus and walk the block to the Rock Church which is a must see. We were only given 45 minutes to get there and back since the accident had taken up our time. At the end of the tour we chose the option to be dropped off downtown. We walked around on our own for a while but got bored and took the shuttle back to the ship. We found Helsinki to be a bit boring.
Since our daughter had never been to Berlin, she chose to do a cruise line excursion called Berlin Highlights by Motor Coach to the sites in Berlin and a stop at a former concentration camp. She enjoyed the day.
My husband and I chose, at first, to walk around Rostock. We had to visit St Marien Church twice because we didn't know the astronomical clock dating back to 1472 was behind the altar. Fortunately, our 2nd visit was around noon so we saw the lovely display it puts on at that time. Passing pleasant pedestrian shops and cafes on our way to the market square with its interesting-shaped buildings, we then opted to take the local train to Warnemunde and were so glad we did. I like to people-watch so I adored the train ride. Warnemunde was delightful. Although there were 3 cruise ships docked there, hence, crowds of people, it was "very visitor-friendly" as 1 review I read said. Besides a cruise port, it is a seaside resort with many locals covering the beach. There is a sea promenade, lighthouses, Alter Strom which is a walkway lined by captains' and fishmen's houses with pubs, cafes, and boutiques. We were lucky enough to be there for Warnemunde Week festival which entails different events, entertainment, and markets. It was here that we ate the best soft ice cream ever! It was sold in a little stand on the boardwalk near the cruise center. When ready to go back to the ship, we took a boat which left from the Warnemunde dock to Rostock. I enjoyed Warnemunde more although much smaller than Rostock.
We arrived in Stockholm @ 5PM one day and did not leave until 4PM the next day. We were delighted to see the Hop On Hop Off buses waiting at the pier although their runs usually end before that time. It was a special arrangement to give us one loop around the city with no stops for that night. Some people opted to get off and knew beforehand they had to find their own way back to the ship. Bright and early the next morning, there they were again waiting for us. Once again, I, the ultimate planner, had prebooked HoHo tickets for the bus and boat, so off we went. My suggestion which I didn't follow and almost regretted it, is to go to the Vasa Museum first, as early as possible. It gets so crowded later in the day and the lines are long to get in. The 400 year old wreck now turned into a monument is a bit pricey to get in but one of the major attractions of Stockholm. Also, Gamla Stan is a must see. It is the Old Town with narrow streets and 16th century buildings. We met a very honest storekeeper there who kept giving us back our Swedish money when we were paying for a few souvenirs telling us we gave her too much each time. I wish I had written down the name of her store to recommend it for anyone's souvenirs. If you want to see the changing of the guards, get in front of the Palace's open courtyard before 11:45. A band marches in front of the troops and some of the troops are on horseback. They march to the courtyard and the change happens around 12:15. The area is roped off and very crowded. Gamla Stan is just behind the Palace. Both the HoHo boat and bus were good means of transportation around the city although we ran out of time and did not get to the Hard Rock Cafï¿½. The HoHo line that went near there took too long so we did not want to chance missing the ship since it departed @ 4PM.
Tallinn was my favorite port of all. We booked a private tour through www.shoreexcursionsgroup.com called Exclusive Medieval Tallinn Hilights. It was basically a walking tour although a van took us to the Upper Town and then dropped us off with our guide. There were only 8 of us. We went to Dome Hill, the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Alexander Nevski, and walked through cobble-stone streets and blind alleys to some magnificent viewing platforms from which we could see the Lower Town and its rooftops and steeples. We went to Kiek in de Kok which means "Peek in the Kitchen" because they said that from the top you could see into the kitchens of the rest of the city. We descended to the Lower Town passing many other interesting buildings and were told about their significance in Estonian history. The tour ended in Lower Town where there were shops, cafes, and markets. It was a bustling area. One place in particular was the sweater wall which was down an alleyway near the Viru Gate but, beware, those ladies are tough to bargain with! I read that there is a free tour every day @ noon, leaving from the tourist information center at the corner of Harju and Niguliste Street but our tour was pretty good. The Estonians are a friendly, happy and proud people (except for the ladies at the sweater wall). It was a great port.