About us: We started cruising 9 years ago; this was our 18th cruise. Up to now, our cruising experience was limited to NYC-Canada and varied Caribbean cruises. In June we celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary a day after our oldest son graduated from the US Merchant Marine Academy and was commissioned as an Ensign in the US Navy. We had hoped to bring him along for this cruise the last time he sailed with us was 2009 (although hes far outdistanced us in time at sea) but the Navy had other ideas. We figured that this year we needed to do the blowout cruise something completely different. We sailed with DH (52), me (53), and sons 17 and 13.
Pre-cruise: Booking the cruise was easy. Flights to London well not quite as easy. We spent more on the airfare than on the cruise. After looking around and checking various itineraries, it turned out that the best-priced flight for us was Albany (30 miles from our house)-Toronto-London on Air Canada. The Albany-Toronto leg was on a Beechcraft 1900 18-seat turboprop. You had both an aisle and a window seat. I cant stand small planes, but somehow I managed it without drugs or alcohol. When we debarked in Toronto we saw our bags on the luggage cart, ready to be transferred to our London flight. With three hours to change planes, there was plenty of time. Or so we thought.
Well, when we arrived in London we had none of our bags. Zero, out of four checked bags. When DH reported them missing, Air Canada found that all four bags were still sitting in Toronto. It seems that when they were checked in Albany, they werent scanned properly so no one knew what to do with them in Toronto. (Never mind that the tags were clearly marked transfer and LHR.) At this point, it was early the next morning in London, we hadnt had much sleep, and it was much hotter than normal in London. Fortunately, Ive learned enough from past trips to pack a change of shirt and underwear in our carry-ons, so at least when we reached our hotel we could change. And Air Canada promised to deliver the bags either that night or early the next morning. We arrived in London on Saturday morning and werent due to travel to Dover until Tuesday, so it should work.
Our hotel was the Days Hotel near the Lambeth North Tube station. Nice hotel, decent restaurant. When we arrived before lunchtime, one of our two rooms was ready. We gratefully took the room and the boys promptly collapsed on the bed. (DH and I know better; you need to acclimate yourself to the time change, and the best way to do it is to stay up essentially, pull an all-nighter. Havent done that in a long time.) We had pre-ordered London Pass tickets, which gave us access to a number of attractions as well as public transportation passes. We needed to pick them up at a stand near Trafalgar Square. DH and I figured wed go collect the passes.
Not happening. This Saturday was a huge Gay Pride parade in Central London. When we left the Tube, we found that we couldnt get to the stand to get our tickets. (If we had taken the Tube to Leister Square instead of Embankment, we would have been fine. Love that 20/20 hindsight.) Meanwhile, remember, its really warm outside. Were in a huge crowd (complete with a guy who hit on DH). And although we changed our clothes back at the hotel, we are still missing our luggage. Not a pretty picture.
After dinner that night, we opted for a walking tour. We were very close to Lambeth Palace, so we walked over, through the gardens, across Lambeth Bridge, along the Embankment past Parliament, down to Cleopatras Needle, and then back across the river on the Millennium Bridge and along the South Bank back to our hotel. Of course, our luggage had not arrived when we got back to the hotel. At this point, the clothing supply is rather limited.
Sunday morning we finally picked up the London Passes, then headed over to the British Museum. Between our travels and our sons Social Studies teachers, our sons have a real appreciation for traveling and history and youngest son wanted to see the Rosetta Stone, the Egyptian exhibit, and the Elgin Marbles. The Museum was unbelievably crowded, but we made it to all three. Lunch at a museum restaurant, then back to our hotel to find one suitcase. Just one. Seems they put the other three on another van. Oh well, at least youngest son had clothes. Back out again, this time to Westminster Abbey for Evensong. Sons were horrified going to church on vacation is not their idea of fun. However, they got to see the inside of a major Gothic cathedral, and the music for Evensong was wonderful. Dinner was a pub around the corner from our hotel pizza for all, Fosters on tap for DH and me. When we returned from dinner, our remaining bags had arrived (YAY!)
Monday We started the day with a visit to the Tower of London. DH and I have visited several times, but we were happy to introduce our sons to the Tower. When we entered, there was a tour to the battlements where the rooms had been re-created to show how they would have appeared in medieval times. We hadnt seen that before, so it was all new for us! After the battlements, we bit the bullet and stood in line for the Crown Jewels. The line actually moved well, and it was worth the wait. It was much better than when I visited last in 1990! After that, we went to the White Tower, then lunch at one of the museum restaurants.
Next up: Tower Bridge. This is a mechanical/civil engineers dream. The tour offers the views from the upper walkways (which never really caught on the bridge openings were fast enough that people really didnt want to be bothered climbing up to the walkways) followed by a tour of the engine rooms that powered the lift bridge. After Tower Bridge, off to HMS Belfast. Weve seen the Belfast moored in the river, but this was our first visit aboard. Great tour.
Tuesday We hired a driver to take us to Dover (with four people, it worked out about equal to either bus or train and we didnt have to tote luggage around). We arrived in Dover before lunchtime, left our luggage at our B&B (Norman Guest House), then walked to the waterfront. Lunch was at Hythe Bay, right on the waterfront. I had a bowl of steamed mussels freshly caught and really good. After that, up to Dover Castle. You could do this right before you board the ship in Dover, but we spent several hours here. Aside from the castle, which dates to Henry II, there is a tour of the tunnels under the castle the site from which Operation Dynamo, the WWII evacuation from Dunkirk, was coordinated. When the evacuation started they figured they might be able to evacuate 40,000 troops. They ended up evacuating close to 338,000 troops. Its an amazing tour and it was great introduction for our sons to learn about the tremendous impact of WWII, a theme that would be repeated throughout our vacation. (My dad was a WWII vet and my great-uncle died in Italy in 1944.) Dinner that night was at The Allotment, a restaurant across from City Hall in Dover really good. We introduced the boys to chocolate mousse, and now theyre hooked.
Wednesday, July 3 Finally, aboard Legend! Our B&B proprietor had reserved a taxi for us at 10:15 and we were at the port in about 5 minutes. Check-in was absolutely easy, we sat in Zone 1 for all of about 5 minutes, and we were aboard Legend by 10:45. Too early for a Funship Special never had that happen before!
We sailed on Legend in 2006 out of NYC to the Caribbean, so we were prepared for the urns. Maybe the intervening seven years (and exposure to many more Farcus designs) have had an effect, but I liked the decor better this time. The Firebird Lounge is really nicely done, and I like the dining room with its china collection. And I could live with the urns. The Spirit-class ships have grown on me over the years.
Our cabin was Ocean Suite 5293, while the boys were in inside 5291 across the hall. 5293 has the same size balcony as a Grand Suite, and we did use the balcony quite a bit even though this was a very port-intensive cruise. One word of warning for any balcony cabin on this itinerary: since sunset and sunrise arent that far apart, your cabin may not be as dark as youre used to having. Make sure your drapes are pulled.
Boat drill, early dining (table 172 lower level), then had boys registered for Circle C and Club O2. Then off to the Welcome Aboard show with John Heald. As Ive posted before, I have never booked a cruise because of a cruise director or avoided a cruise because of a cruise director. A good cruise director definitely adds to a cruise, though. Ive followed Johns blog and FB page for a number of years, and figured I should see him in person. He did not disappoint. Yes, he did the Dick Little routine that Ive heard about over the years. It was still funny, and my sons (who watched it on TV afterward) thought it was hilarious. More on John later.
Thursday, July 4 Fun Day at Sea. DH and I typically spend our sea days by having breakfast on the Lido deck (we always opt for a table by the pools, no matter the temperature we just love being on deck) followed by cards and coffee on the Promenade deck. Usually I skip the port talks, having done my research ahead of time. However, I figured Id attend this time its just such a different itinerary, and I still hadnt figured out what we should do in Helsinki. It really helped John had great information about disembarking in St. Petersburg. And as for Helsinki based on Johns talk, we booked the steam train excursion to Porvoo. And Johns talk was a lot of fun.
After the port talk, we went to the wine and food pairing at Golden Fleece, the steakhouse. Weve done these before on other ships, and its interesting to see some of the combinations the sommelier tries. Nikolai was fun he opened a Q&A session at the end of the presentation. After that, a brief lunch and then our Cruise Critic get-together in the piano bar. It was really great getting to know folks some of whom wed corresponded with for months, others who were more recent. Skipped the Captains Celebration and went straight to dinner. After dinner, we saw the show Jazz Hot.
Friday, July 5 Copenhagen. We decided to do a walking tour on our own. The Little Mermaid is a short walk from the pier and since we went early, it wasnt crowded. Then we walked up to St. Albans Church and the Kastellet (the star-shaped citadel near the waterfront), along the waterfront, went over to the palace and cathedral, and had tea/coffee at a cafe on the waterfront. Its a really nice city.
Saturday, July 6 Germany. We had decided not to go to Berlin for four of us it would have been over $1200 (independent tours werent much less) and it would be a long day. I just wasnt up for a long ride, then lots of driving around Berlin, then a long ride back. Instead, we looked at a tour offered by Alla Tours, with which we had already booked a St. Petersburg tour. We wanted Rostock and Schwerin; however, Alla advised that since we were docking in Rostock port, not Warnemunde, Schwerin was not a possibility given the train schedule. Instead, she recommended a Rostock city tour. It turned out to be a great choice. We were met by a guide who drove us over to a bus stop to meet our tour guide and the other tour passengers from Oceanias Marina, also docked in Rostock. We took the bus to a train station, then took the train into Warnemunde. What a beautiful seaside resort. There was a festival the day we visited, and the town was packed with visitors. After that, we boarded the train again to go into Rostock, then a tram to the city center. A very nice city we did a walking tour followed by some free time (we went to the Museum of Cultural History, formerly the Abbey of the Holy Cross). From there we went to lunch at a local cafe (really good schnitzel), then over to St. Marys Church with its amazing astronomical clock, built in 1472. From there, back to the ship. (Shh We tagged along on Marinas shuttle from Rostock back to the port. No one seemed to care. However, seeing as we traveled with two teenage boys, and kids are few and far between on Oceania cruises, we probably should have been a dead giveaway as tagalongs.) Dinner that night on the ship was open seating, since most folks were still out touring. After dinner, the German Oom-pah Band (Diech Tirolero) performed on Lido deck, complete with a German buffet (really good sausage) and German beer on tap. A lot of fun but you could tell people were tired. By 10:30, after Diech Tirolero finished performing, a lot of folks turned in for the night.
Sunday, July 7 Another sea day. Coffee and cards on Promenade deck and Johns port talk for Tallinn and Amsterdam. (Loved his warning about the coffee houses in Amsterdam!) Another visit to the Golden Fleece for a wine and food pairing. In the afternoon, while I was out exploring the ship, we received a surprise phone call: John Heald himself. Seems a FB friend sent a note to John to let him know we were sailing, and John called us. DH had a great time talking to him hes just a really nice person. That night he hosted Cigars under the White Nights on the Lido deck with the orchestra playing jazz (what a great orchestra I truly wish Carnival would go back to full ensembles) and I had a chance to talk to John in person and thank him for the champagne/strawberries he sent. (Okay, the 13 YO made a major dent in the strawberries. He declared John to be the best cruise director ever!) John mentioned how much he loves having a full orchestra on ships I hope the beards get the message and bring back the ship orchestras on other sailings.
Monday, July 8 Helsinki. This was the start of four straight port days, and we knew theyd be intensive. We booked the city tour and steam train to Porvoo excursion. All of the Carnival excursions met in the main lounge early and were sorted according to excursion. Theyd then call excursion number to take you to your tours. We started with a bus tour through Helsinki to Hinthaara, where we met the steam train for a rise to Porvoo. A nice ride through the country to the Porvoo train station. After that, we did a walking tour of the old city, which dates to the 1400s. After time to explore on our own, we took a bus to Haikko, a resort/spa, for lunch. I would describe the lunch as rather nondescript, but the resort was beautiful. After lunch, a bus ride back to Helsinki, where we visited the Rock Church, formally known as Temppeliaukio. Hewn from solid rock, its fascinating. Then back to the ship. We didnt do much after dinner aside from it being an early morning on Tuesday in St. Petersburg, we would lose an hour of sleep due to setting clocks back. (This was the third hour lost so far we set clocks back an hour the night before arriving in Copenhagen and again after leaving Rostock.)
Tuesday, July 9 St. Petersburg. You really need to pay attention to the instructions for disembarking here. There are three ways to visit. First, if you want to do everything on your own, you need to obtain a Russian visa before you sail. It takes time, its not easy, and its not cheap. Second, you can book Carnivals tours. When you disembark, you need your passport, your tour ticket, and an immigration form that Carnival will provide the day before arrival. The form is two parts; when you disembark, they will collect one half and stamp your passport. When you return, the will collect the second half and again stamp your passport. Third, you can book an independent tour. They will issue a document you will need to disembark, along with your passport and the immigration form. It works similarly to the Carnival tours. Just make sure you have the proper documents check them with your tour operator. As for disembarkation times they do disembark the Carnival passengers first. We were on an independent tour with a meeting time of 8:30 a.m., and we had plenty of time to get through immigration and meet our tour. Do give yourself plenty of time to get through; the lines on the first day are long. In our case, they did not allow families to go through the immigration together; we had to do it individually. Actually a good experience for our sons, since were trying to encourage them to be independent travelers.
We booked the two-day Comfort Tour with Alla. Before we sailed, Alla was very responsive to all of our inquiries regarding the tour, and we were very pleased with the tour. The Comfort Tour does not go to Yusupovs Palace or St. Isaacs Cathedral, although you see the outside of both. (We figured the boys would not be disappointed at missing one church and one palace.) We had a group of 15 with a mini-bus. We started the day with an overview drive, followed by a visit to the subway. We did not ride a train, just visited the station. If youre a rider of the MTA in New York or the Tube in London, it is amazing. After that, the morning was spent at the Hermitage. Again, amazing what an art collection. John Heald had mentioned in his port talk that if you stopped to see each work of art in the Hermitage, you would need 1 years to tour. Toward the end of the tour, a number of those in our group were just too tired to venture to the last exhibit the French Impressionists on the top floor. We decided to keep going and were rewarded with a fantastic exhibit of works by Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gaugain, and Picasso. Wow. After the Hermitage, we went to the Church of the Spilled Blood the location of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. Definitely one of those places you associate with Russia, with its brightly painted onion domes. This was followed by lunch at a local restaurant (food was just fine, if not notable), a canal tour on the Neva River and some of the canals around the city, and the fortress of Sts. Peter and Paul, the burial site for members of the imperial family.
Then back to the ship but wait. We booked an evening tour, another canal tour. We had booked it through Carnival since it was the least expensive night tour and the one we figured our sons would most enjoy. Going through immigration this time was easy since we had the passport stamp. It was fairly similar to the tour we had done earlier in the day, but we enjoyed it just the same.
Wednesday, July 10 St. Petersburg, part 2. Our meeting time was 8:00. We were through immigration by 7:50 and were still the last in our group. Then off to a store where we paid for the tour; we used our credit card without a problem (and paid for the Rostock tour as well) and did some souvenir shopping. DH found an icon of Mary and Jesus (some years ago he studied Orthodox iconography and has been fascinated by it); I found a shotglass to add to my collection; and then we had they sons finds. Youngest son came away with a Cossack furred hat with a hammer and sickle, while older son found a New York Mets set of nesting dolls. Only he could go halfway around the world and find something like this. Add a couple of tee shirts and we were done. (You do get a vodka sample as well.) From there we went to the dock for the hydrofoil to Peterhof. Off we went at high speed across the Gulf of Finland.
Peterhof is a palace built by Peter the Great in the early 1700s and was intended to resemble Versailles. The fountains in the Lower Park are amazing. What is equally impressive is to realize that the palace and fountains were virtually destroyed during WWII and have been painstakingly restored. After touring the Lower Park, we had lunch in the Orangerie, then ventured to the Upper Park and back to our van for the trip to Catherines Palace. This was another palace that was completely amazing particularly for having been blown up in WWII, but again painstakingly restored thanks to the existence of photos and plans for the various rooms. Then out to the gardens for a walk, then back to the port where we bade farewell to our guide Katya and driver Dmitri.
Tonight was the White Nights Dance Party on Lido deck with a band and a Mexican buffet. We didnt even try St. Petersburg wiped us out. And that was with the Comfort tour!
Thursday, July 11 Tallinn. We hadnt made any plans for Tallinn; I had read that you could do an easy walking tour, and we figured that after three straight days of excursions wed want to take it easy. We picked up a map and walked to the old city. (Note: Be very careful crossing the streets; use the pedestrian crossings with signals. There is a lot of traffic coming from several different directions.) What a gem. The old city still has its medieval walls, winding streets, and old churches. Right in front of the Town Hall is a square filled with vendors and cafes. After our walking tour, we headed back there for lunch and found Karl Friedrich caf. DH and I sampled the local beer and a Baltic herring plate, while the boys had pizza. So much for local flavor. However, this cafe prides itself on its pizza and the boys thought it was very good. Back aboard ship, the VIFP Gold/Platinum/Diamond party took place. It was fun, with plenty of food and drink, and John leads a good party.
Friday, July 12 Day at sea. Another morning with coffee and cards, another food and wine pairing at the steakhouse (last one of three). In the afternoon we went to Johns marriage show. As he says on his blog, his marriage show is very different from other ships shows; theres none of the nun, hooker and missionary jokes. After dinner, we went to the main show, Big Easy, a tribute to New Orleans.
Saturday, July 13 Another day at sea. Unfortunately, the weather was not great this day as it was cloudy and windy, and they closed off the open decks. However, a great feature this day was a concert by the ships orchestra and the four featured singers. What a lot of fun! After dinner I tried the hypnotist show thought it was completely staged. I saw people reacting to instructions even before the instructions were given. Not fun.
Sunday, July 14 Amsterdam. We were delayed in docking, as the canal lock on the North Sea Canal malfunctioned; however, instead of sailing at 6 as scheduled, we had an extra hour in port. We figured we would do a canal tour to give us an overview of the city, and walked over to the area in front of the train station where you could book canal tours. Note: Watch out for the bicycles! Theyre everywhere, and not all cyclists pay attention to the traffic signals. I went to cross a street with the pedestrian signal and just about got plowed down by a cyclist. Of course, Ive had that happen in NYC as well. We booked an hour-long canal tour and really enjoyed it. After the tour, we stopped at a cafe along the canal for a snack Dutch cheese and Heineken for DH and me, chicken nuggets and Coke for the boys. After that, back to the ship. Since we sailed an hour late, we were able to enjoy sailing away from Amsterdam from our balcony. As it turned out, our return voyage through the lock was also delayed. Since we would be disembarking in Dover the following morning, we had to get luggage ready. Weve always left our luggage outside the cabin the night before no self-assist. With four people and several fairly large bags, we just cant manage it.
Monday, July 15 Back to Dover. We docked late, thanks to the malfunctioning canal lock in the Netherlands. Not a concern for us; we had realized when booking flights that we likely could not get to Heathrow in time for a flight to Toronto with the right connection to Albany to get home that day, so we just planned on a driver to take us to a hotel by Heathrow so we could fly out Tuesday morning. However, others did have flight problems since we arrived late. Traffic on the M25 was awful between construction and accidents, our trip to Heathrow took 2 hours. We spent the day (and night) at the Novotel Heathrow. Comfortable hotel, decent food. Next morning, we headed over to the terminal for our non-eventful flight home.
Kathys thoughts. This is the section where I give my opinion about the travel, the cruise, the ports, etc. Your mileage may vary.
Ship, shows and service: As I mentioned, Legend is not my favorite ship (although she is growing on me). However, all of the lounges were well cared for and full of options. I spent several evenings with Bruce in the piano bar (along with sassyb69 and will and hel) and had a great time. Especially notable for me was the full ships orchestra saxophones, trumpet, trombone, bass, keyboard, drums 10 members in all. Aside from performing in the main lounge for shows, they also performed at Johns Cigars under the White Nights on the Lido deck, had a concert in one of the aft lounges after dinner, and had a pre-dinner concert with the four featured singers on the last sea day. I mentioned to John how much I enjoyed the orchestra, and he noted that hed like to see more ships with the large orchestras. The shows were fine, at least the ones we saw with a port-intensive cruise, there were a number of shows we skipped. However, I certainly was not disappointed in the number or variety of shows available. Lots of trivia, if you like trivia I enjoy it, but actually never had time for it on this cruise.
Service was excellent; our cabin stewards took great care of us, including our laundry. As Platinum cruisers, we were entitled to 3 bags each; I think we used 6 or 7 total for the 4 of us. The last set we sent out had a problem, as one of the mesh bags split and our laundry ended up mixed with another familys laundry. They brought everything to our cabin and we sorted it out right down to a pair of socks that was unaccounted for. Our dining room team was excellent as well, and Stefan on bar service was wonderful.
John Heald: I started following Johns blog some years ago and then started following him on Facebook. Loved his sense of humor. However, I had never sailed on one if his cruises. (Came close once we were scheduled to do a Carnival Freedom cruise that originally listed him as CD however, he had his schedule changed and then we had to cancel the cruise altogether when DH changed jobs.) As I mentioned toward the beginning of this review, I have never booked a cruise because a particular person was scheduled to be the cruise director, and that was the case with this cruise. Having John as CD was a bonus. And he really is a good CD very visible, very personable, and an amazing memory for people. What was telling was DH: while I had followed Johns blog and FB pages, DHs knowledge of John was whatever I told him periodically. He had never looked at the blog or FB and wasnt particularly interested in cruise director stuff. After the cruise, he became an avid follower of both the blog and the FB page.
Food: We generally have breakfast and lunch on Lido, and most dishes were fine. One problem I had on this cruise is that I dont eat early breakfast for some reason, it just doesnt sit well. I dont get hungry until closer to 10 a.m. With early port days, I knew I had to eat something before disembarking at least I could manage some cantaloupe and cereal. Dinners in the dining room were very good. A nice feature of the European cruises is that Carnival offers some meals that arent offered in the US it was nice to try some new things.
The cruise: As I noted at the beginning, this was the blowout cruise for us. Prior to this cruise, the longest cruise we took was 8 days. Understand, however, that this is not a cruise for relaxing you cruise this one for the ports. Even with four sea days, this was intense. But unforgettable! I never thought I would get to Russia. Or Estonia, for that matter. The hardest for me was the time changes. You lose three hours over the course of sailing to St. Petersburg and gain it back on the return. (Oldest son has very little sympathy. In 2011 he sailed on a cargo ship from Albany NY eastward through the Mediterranean and Asia, finally ending in Long Beach, CA. He lost lots of time. Upon returning to CA, he flew a redeye from LAX to JFK, got back to campus at the Merchant Marine Academy, and promptly found a place to go to sleep.)
The ports: There wasnt a single port I didnt enjoy. St. Petersburg probably would rank first, followed by Tallinn and Rostock/Warnemunde. I think if I had done more research on Helsinki and Copenhagen I would have done some things differently, but I enjoyed both ports. Overall, though, you need to be a comfortable traveler rather than a tourist; St. Petersburg is very strict with its requirements, and a couple of the other ports required you to bring your passports (not just photo id) ashore. While everyone we came in contact with was comfortable with English, I would recommend having a few phrases in the local language tucked away. Our guide in St. Petersburg taught us a few Russian phrases; when we returned to the pier after the tour, I said Thank you in Russian to the immigration officer who checked my passport, and she gave me a nice smile and a return Thank you.
Next trip: Were looking at Alaska for a cruise next year. DHs brother and wife are interested in going along to celebrate their 25th anniversary. Stay tuned.