Our cruise to St Petersburg via the Baltic was one of the most enjoyable trips we have made, having cruised several times before with Princess and other lines. We had enjoyed a cruise from Beijing to Bangkok on the Diamond Princess a few months earlier and this cruise, on a much smaller ship, proved to be even better.
The Ocean Princess has a more traditional feel and it is far easier to get around than on the much larger ships. That said, all the familiar facilities are at hand but with less duplication as it only has to cope with about 670 passengers. The atmosphere on board was great with about two thirds of the passengers being from the USA with Canada, Australia and the UK well represented. We had expected more than 70 brits on board, since the cruise started and finished in Dover but the balance was fine.
The crew were exceptional and made everybody on board feel welcomed and special. The majority of the crew were from the Philippines but there were many nationalities. Nothing was too much trouble and the atmosphere was really good.
Food and Drink
We opted for fixed dining at the 8.15 pm sitting and enjoyed the company of three other couples. The food was of a high quality and was always well presented. If we were being critical we could mention that lobster was only offered on one of the three formal nights and the kitchens tend to use crab sticks rather than real crab in their dishes.
Afternoon tea was popular on sea days but they tended to rush the process and where were the white gloves? We did use the self service Panorama on the upper deck a few times and found the choice to be good. It was also more civilised than on the larger ships although there was little sign of any alcohol hand wash.
Drinks at the bars were fairly expensive and subject to 15% service, as usual, with no happy hour, but the service was good. Wines were expensive at nearly 40 USD for pleasant but unexceptional chardonnay.
An enjoyable cooking demonstration was followed by a tour of the kitchen area, which was larger than expected being on two levels linked by an escalator. All looked immaculate and it was interesting to see the busy kitchen staff starting to prepare for the next meal.
When booking, we had some reservations about the entertainment because the main lounge is on a single level. This proved to be no problem because the lounge was seldom crowded and we enjoyed excellent views of all the shows.
The small entertainment team were fantastic and presented some of the best shows we had seen on any Princess ship (and considerably better than Diamond Princess). The Cruise Director (Frank) did an excellent job as did Peter's resident band. A tap dancing duo were extremely polished and we enjoyed two very good solo singers. An American comedian failed to amuse many of the brits or Australians but his fellow Americans thought he was great and laughed at everything, in their usual way.
The resident port lecturer (Deborah) gave a 30-45 minute presentation on each port during the sea days. We attended them all but felt that they did not really provide the right sort of information, being mainly photos of various buildings at each port of call. Those on trips seemed happy to be taken to wherever their chosen excursion would take them whilst independent travellers (like us) had other needs. For example, knowing where and how to buy tram tickets and whether there was a bus or train stop near the port would have been more relevant.
We generally avoid all organised trips and prefer to get around independently making local arrangements. This worked well at most ports but was not possible in St Petersburg without having our own Russian visas. We opted for a trip to the Hermitage followed by several hours on our own, an evening at the ballet then a third trip on the metro on the second day. All were OK but seemed poor value.
In spite of being a relatively small ship, we docked at some rather remote ports in Copenhagen and Stockholm. We were therefore obliged to use the shuttle provided by Princess to reach the town. They informed us that it was a 20 minute journey in Stockholm and charged us 8 USD each way for no more than a 10 minute ride. If Princess choose to use container ports then we felt that the shuttles should be included, as they had been on our Asian cruise.
We enjoyed the 70's night, rock and roll night and country night in the top floor lounge but they were poorly attended in spite of being well promoted. With very few sea days, passengers appeared to turn in early (by 11 pm) to prepare for the next day ashore.
Little competitions like putting, bowling, hoopla and trivia contests kept us busy during sea days as we competed for worthless prizes. Nevertheless, some teams resorted to cheating by using the internet, which seemed rather sad. Unusually, there were no art sales on this ship, no doubt due to its smaller size.
We were too busy to spend time in the pool area, fitness room or spa but they appeared to cope well and did not seem over-crowded.
Sailing from Dover was far less hassle than battling through the P & O mob in Southampton.
Having visited most of the ports of call by land over the years, it was interesting to visit them again by sea. There is plenty to see and do in Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki and Amsterdam and they are easy to explore independently. Tallinn is a delightful capital, which is also easy to explore. Our shorter stop in the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda was sufficient time there. Strong winds prevented the Italian captain from docking at Riga, the capital of Latvia, which was disappointing. Apparently, this happens frequently, so maybe Princess should review their itinerary and provide an alternative.
The two days in St Petersburg were enjoyable but we would have preferred to have explored the sights independently, as on a previous visit, had it not been necessary to have visas. Swan Lake at the small theatre in the Hermitage was simply no comparison to the same ballet we have seen at the nearby Marinsky theatre.
Our passage through the Kiel canal was interesting but lacked the excitement of the Panama canal, where the ships are pulled through by electric mules.
We can understand why many of the passengers had cruised on the Ocean Princess previously and would not hesitate to select it again for a future cruise. We thoroughly enjoyed the food, entertainment and atmosphere on board and called at a good selection of interesting places around the Baltic.