BACKGROUND INFORMATION: I’ve cruised 40 times, on 13 different cruise lines. I’m an Elite level member of the Princess Captain’s Circle loyalty club. The 14-night “Baltic Heritage” cruise on the “Crown Princess” was a lifetime wish, taking me to all the places my ancestors came from.
TRAVEL TO EMBARKATION PORT: I flew on Icelandair from Boston, MA to London Heathrow airport, and had superb service and convenience with Icelandair. I had an overnight stop each way, in Keflavik, Iceland for an amazingly low “economy comfort” fare, and it was not an inconvenience since I had the time and had always wanted to see Iceland anyway. Icelandair often upgrades passengers to seating in their Saga Class (business class) section, and I enjoyed this on three of the four flights I had booked with them for this trip. Hotel Berg in Keflavik is a great bed and breakfast close to the Keflavik airport, and offers complimentary airport transport. I had a very comfortable stay at Hotel Berg both times through Iceland on my trip.
I used iChauffeur’s elegant service between my hotel at London Heathrow and the embarkation port of Southampton, England. I had a private car and chauffeur of top professional standards, and felt like royalty on my journey. I visited Windsor Castle and Winchester Cathedral on the way to Southampton, both well worth seeing. I also saw a brief glimpse of Windsor Great Park and Ascot Racecourse, and had a quick, inexpensive lunch at a Subway shop in a village near Ascot. Look for “crisps” for potato chips! Also remember to look right first before crossing the street, as traffic moves opposite the USA pattern.
EMBARKATION PORT HOTEL: My overnight stay at the Holiday Inn Southampton was not the greatest. The hotel is tired, worn out, and I suggest reading the reviews about this property on the TripAdvisor.com site. The cheerful, really good and nice staff definitely made up for the bad state of the room and building, however, and the food was amazingly good. The view from my upper floor window was spectacular, overlooking all the cruise ship piers and part of the city. There is an 800 year old pub about a 10 minute walk from the hotel, and I had a traditional English fish and chips dinner there – worth it for the kindly landlord’s welcome and good food, plus the atmosphere and building’s décor. The hotel staff gladly reserves a private cab for guests needing a ride to their cruise ship – just ask them. My driver was very professional and the car was clean and new – it took about 5 minutes to get to the ship and was very inexpensive. I would not recommend this hotel if you are seeking a luxury experience, but for great staff, close proximity to the piers, and within easy walking distance of the fascinating historic old town center of Southampton, most of us can put up with anything for a night.
EMBARKATION: There was a huge, cheerful mob in the too-small terminal at Southampton. The cruise terminals at this historic port were built when ships were much smaller, and they simply don’t have the room or ability to process the large passenger volume of today’s big ships. The line to check in went out the door and stretched for a very long distance. Apparently nobody used the requested staggered check-in times, as it looked like at least 1000 people were there at noon. There were no visible signs for expedited check-in for Suite/Elite guests. After waiting in line with some very sociable and pleasant guests (nobody is really crabby when checking in for a cruise anyway, and it wasn’t raining!) for about 25 minutes, a uniformed Princess staff person appeared and asked for Suite and Elite guests to follow her for expedited check-in. The people in line behind me weren’t Suite or Elite, but came along anyway to “give it a try”. Even with the special check-in venue for Suite and Elite passengers, it was terribly slow, as well as processing through the very strict security, and it took about 50 minutes to finally get on the ship. It normally takes me about 10 minutes in the United States.
SHIP INFORMATION: The “Crown Princess” was built in 2006, and is 113,561 gross tons. There are 19 decks on this 952 foot long ship. Normal passenger count is 3,062 but my sailing was booked to full capacity, with nearly 3,600 passengers. Cabins range from insides to luxury suites. There are the usual amenities found in ships of this era and class with Princess. Multiple restaurants and places to eat,
internet café, theater, shops, pools, sun decks, fitness center, medical center, central atrium “Plaza”, shore excursion desk, passenger services desk with priority line for top Captain’s Circle guests, disco, and various lounges and bars. The promenade deck goes all the way around the ship, but requires going up one deck and then down again to keep going at the bow. International crew, who all appear to be multilingual.
Princess now has weight requirements for baggage, similar to the airlines – read the fine print in your passage contract.
The veteran captain on the “Crown Princess” made a few brief appearances at various times and functions. He was extremely well spoken, and was at his best when he made his announcements of varying kinds from the bridge. He had a wonderful dry sense of humor, and very elegant diction. Unfortunately, it was very difficult to hear him, as the ship PA system was not very clear nor turned up loud enough to hear if there was any conversation going on. Annoucements were often at noon, and in the very noisy dining room or Horizon Court buffet areas, nobody could hear the captain. When money-making announcements for the ship, such as times for art auctions, were made, however, the sound level was blasting.
Princess has cut back on public announcements in the corridors, fortunately, but they still sound like carnival barkers hawking some kind of for-payment services of various kinds.
There was also a lot of paper advertising in the cabins for spa services, art auctions, and other activities around the ship. The “Princess Patter” is the daily newsletter with all the needed ship information, but it arrived later at night than I remembered from earlier cruises, and it was hard to plan something from it when it arrived late in the evening at an hour that most of the tired passengers were either sleeping or going to bed.
The ship is starting to show her age since the last time I sailed on the “Crown” a few years ago. There were dents and rust visible. Maintenance and cleaning standards were not what they used to be. I saw holes in the carpets, and there was one spot of what looked like jam on a carpeted stair tread near the buffet restaurant which remained there the entire 14 days of the cruise. My cabin had undusted corners.
It felt like the crew staffing had been cut back – I did not see as many people out and about around the ship polishing, vacuuming, and cleaning as I remember from several years ago. The cabin service staff may have been cut back, as well – to save time, the cabin staff on several decks I visited left their service carts parked in the very narrow hallways most of the time, as well as leaving linen carts lined up on the stairway landings, which made getting through there inconvenient. It was also not very sanitary to have clean linens out and uncovered with so many people using the stairwells and hallways, with a lot of passengers coughing and sneezing.
There were two laundry rooms on most of the passenger decks, but they only have two washers and two dryers each. All the laundry products were at least $2, if not more, and the vending machines for these products take American quarters only or ship’s tokens. There was a utility sink, ironing boards and irons in each room, and a chair or two. Very hot, tight quarters, but surprisingly also a social center with some good conversation. Laundry rooms were well used on this longer cruise, and it was often hard to find a free washer or dryer, especially on sea days. Beware the dryers – even the lowest setting is so warm that it caused shrinkage on some of my clothing. Upper-tier loyalty club members with Princess get free cleaning service, but not laundry apparently, and also can get free shoeshine service.
Princess begins brainwashing its guests early in the cruise, by using the word “excellent” in all their announcements. They are trolling for the top ratings on their passenger surveys, and it’s an insult to experienced cruisers who know what is excellent and what is not.
Princess has a strict nonsmoking policy throughout most of the ship, including its balconies. There are smoking areas, however, and the smoke seemed to filter throughout the public areas of the ship at times in the evening, especially around the casino and shops.
The “Movies Under the Stars” venue had some people attending, but it was very cool and windy on the open decks most of the time. I did not go to the movies, but the people at my table enjoyed it while covered with blankets, and with good popcorn.
STATEROOM: My original stateroom was aft on deck 11, an outside double with balcony. I normally book midships, but booked late this time and was on a wait-list for a balcony cabin. King-size bed made from two twins locked together, a small glass table, fabric chair, desk and chair, and two nightstands. Mini-fridge with complimentary liquor, water, and soda (for Elite level guest). Bathrobe provided. Upgraded toiletries in the small bathroom, which had everything I needed. Towels were very tired and were mainly scratchy rags. Flat-screen TV with good on-board variety and local programming, with local programs when reception permitted. Telephone and good lighting. The balcony was small, but adequate. There were two corroded metal chairs with nylon material forming the back and seat, and both were soiled. There was also a small metal table. Balconies on the upper decks have a complete “roof” or overhang from the deck above, which I prefer as it gives shelter from the sun, and when I want to enjoy the balcony no matter what the weather. The balcony wall in the cabin is nearly entirely all glass, and the view is always great! Good curtains blocked about 99% of any light when wishing to sleep. Keycard entry for the room. Full-length mirror near the quite spacious closet, which had good wooden hangars. There is a safe in the room in a shelved storage unit near the closet. The room appeared clean, but there were stains on the chairs, soiled places on the carpeting, and the light-colored wood furniture had some chips, nicks, and dents in it. More drawer space would have been nice. Princess doesn’t have single occupancy fares, so I was charged double for my cabin. The two nights I was in this cabin, I never heard a sound from outside. Good water pressure in the shower.
There was a really bad vibration noticeable the minute I entered the cabin, and it was so uncomfortable and annoying that I asked for someone to check the cabin. It was checked both at the dock, and after sailing, and the maintenance officer told me it was the wind and ocean movement. Definitely not true when tied to the pier! I have a Coast Guard rating, and know an engine malfunction when I feel it, and told the officer, who obviously did not believe me, that it was something malfunctioning with the propulsion system and/or propeller shaft or the propeller.
After the first night of being shaken very badly by the vibration, I asked the passenger service crew to find another cabin for me, and somehow they did, due to one couple missing the ship. The new cabin was identical to my original cabin, but at midship on the same deck, and in the same tired condition. There was black mold in the soap dish recess in the shower stall, which I had to call housekeeping about. The almost jackhammer-intensity vibration was still noticeable even at midships, but not as bad as farther aft. Other people had commented on this as well.
The mattresses in both cabins were so worn out they were not comfortable. I flipped both mattresses to see if it improved things, but it did not make much difference. The four pillows on the beds were so worn out they felt like dogs had chewed on them – small lumpy pieces of pillow stuffing were easily felt through the pillowcases. I asked for and received newer pillows, but they were still very flat, soft, and tired. Bed linens were otherwise very smooth and clean, and there is a comforter in a duvet cover instead of a blanket. Towels were once again badly worn and scratchy.
When I changed cabins, the helpful steward asked if I wanted my min-fridge contents of all that free liquor, soda, and water moved with me. I don’t drink, and just asked for some bottled water. In a short time, two stewards in white coats appeared with a big tray loaded with an entire case of bottled water – a real blessing on this long cruise with so many shore excursions. They had big smiles, and quickly loaded
my mini-fridge with the bottled water, which was a perfect size to easily carry.
As far as the cabin vibration problem, it continued until nearly the end of the cruise, when the ship was detained part of one day in one of the Scandinavian ports for repairs. The captain made an announcement about this, saying it was a problem with a propulsion system. So much for the officer telling me it was the wind and ocean movement.
DINING: There are three main dining rooms on the ship, the Horizon Court two-section buffet restaurant, a smaller buffet eatery, pizza, ice cream, wine venue, specialty pastries, hamburgers, and for-pay “premium” places to dine, as well as room service and some snacks available in the gift shops. Bottled water was for sale near the exits and lines for shore excursions. The menus hadn’t changed since my last Princess cruises for the past few years. I did notice, however, that the “light” or “heart-healthy” options had been removed. Sadly, the once rich and delicious fettuccini Alfredo, a famous Princess dining item, now has a rather bland and watery sauce. Vegetarian options were marked on the restaurant menus. I ate dinner in a traditional dining room with early seating, and had lunch and breakfast at the buffet. The first two nights in one of the dining rooms were terrible – sullen, silent waitress who could barely communicate in English, and dreadful food. I eat mainly fish, and the fish was undercooked, cold, greasy, and rubbery. It appears that Carnival, who owns Princess, is trying to cut corners and save money fleet and brand-wide, and it’s most apparent in the dining venues. In years past, there was a waiter, assistant waiter, and busboy for perhaps four medium-sized tables at most. Now it’s a waiter and a helper, for what appeared to be six or seven large tables. It took on average 45 minutes to even get an order placed and to see the first course. This was all over the dining room. I changed dining rooms after two nights, and the food was marginally better – but the service appallingly slow still, despite a veteran waitress and capable helper. Just too many people for too few staff, and probably the same in the kitchen. I was shocked to see as main entrée items things like macaroni and cheese, meat loaf, and spaghetti. Perhaps Princess/Carnival is catering more to what people enjoy eating at home, rather than providing a chance to try something more upscale and different. What used to be common cruise ship menu items are now only found on the for-pay restaurant menus. Some of the combinations of entrees on other nights were horrific combinations of what had to be leftovers, as none of it made sense, and the ingredients did not compliment each other or provide a good flavor. Deserts were varied, but again very atypical and unusual, and many people just resorted to ice cream, which is not what you pay for on a cruse. The overworked helpers were apparently forced to intrude on their diners, who are a captive audience at the table, and try to sell overpriced odd blends of after-dinner drinks and peculiar enhanced coffees, and all at my table for eight felt sorry for our nice helper. The service was gracious and experienced, just far too slow, and often took over two hours to get through a dinner. It was also very difficult to get water glasses refilled. The slow service made most of the early seating people late for shows or other evening plans.
The buffet in the Horizon Court never opened on time, and desperately needed to use both sides. They had breakfast run right up to the start of lunch on one side, and then opened the other side for lunch, and should have cut breakfast off a bit earlier to allow double usage of the food lines and seating for the huge lunch time crowds. Hot buffet items were rarely even warm, and often cold, to the point that I asked the manager to have a chef check the foods with his food thermometer. When he did, he quickly removed the cold items, and probably prevented an epidemic of food-borne illness. This trend continued the entire cruise. The variety at the buffet was enormous, with typical American food items, as well as items favored by many international cultures, and it was a good chance to try foods not found at home. I personally love Princess’ Indian food items, and there was something new every day, as well as good Asian and British food items – just not always kept at the proper serving temperatures.
The hot breakfast items such as pancakes, French toast, and waffles were usually held far too long and were cool and rubbery or just plain tough by the time I got them.
The plates in the Horizon Court supply were hot when they should have been cold, probably right out of the dishwasher. The very hot plates melted some of the cold deserts, and ruined the salads. Chilled plates would have been far nicer and more appropriate. The oval plates for hot foods were usually cold.
Princess continues its tradition of having medium-sized oval plastic plates to put an entire meal on, unless you have six hands to carry an additional desert or salad bowl or plate, or another plate for bread or something else. Seating was at a premium all the time, unless you were the first one in line, and it was hopeless to park one plate of food at a table and go back for more. Either the waiters cleared the table in your absence, or the lines were so long it was a waste of time. Beverage service was OK at the tables for water, juice, etc., but took a long time to get soft drinks. The canned soft drinks mostly seemed to have come from someplace where the lettering was not English or readable, and they always tasted strange to me, despite being Coke brand. Again, there was not enough staff when things got busy, but they did try to keep the tables cleared, cleaned and ready for the next guest.
There was a Purell dispenser at the entrance to the buffet, and a smiling greeter at the entrance, but nobody enforced washing hands with the Purell. On Cunard someone politely dispenses the hand sanitizer into your hands before allowing you through the buffet lines, and people complied nicely, and stayed healthier. Serving tongs and tools for the buffet foods were used, and then fell back into the foods on the buffet line – they need to find a better and more sanitary way to dispense the foods. Bread and rolls always seemed stale and hard, and there was very little variety in the baked goods. There were some gluten-free and sugar-free items.
No matter where food was served on the ship, the silverware was peculiar. There was a very large tablespoon or serving spoon, a knife, and a very small desert-sized fork wrapped up in the napkins in the buffet, or at the table in the dining room. Apparently these was supposed to be all-purpose utensils no matter what was eaten, and guests were supposed to eat their desert with the same utensils they used for the main course. There were smaller spoons available at the buffets, but it was a hassle to find and get them, and leaving the table before finishing one’s food resulted in the table being cleared while I was gone. Dining room utensils were changed with the courses, but the utensils were distributed according to European use, not what those in the USA are accustomed to. Good chance to try something new and different, perhaps, but it took some getting used to.
Fish served were varieties which used to be used for bait, or called bottom feeders or junk fish. There was lobster tail served just one night. The tired Baked Alaska parade took place one night, and was very poorly timed, and just held up the slow dining service even more, with soggy Baked Alaska served unless one really insisted that they wanted something else for desert. This event turns nice dinners into a circus atmosphere, and it wasn’t really appropriate with this rather older crowd of experienced passengers.
There were various theme nights, but not much was done differently other than attempts at regional cuisine and different waiter uniforms. On Italian night, some specialty dish was prepared with so much overload of garlic that the heavy odor was nauseating and lingered forever in the dining room.
On long tour days I had dinner in the buffet, which other than serving myself, was actually much nicer. It was faster, quieter, and I had far more variety, and there were nicer table settings at dinner time. I did not go to any other dining venues on this cruise.
ACTIVITIES: There was something for everybody, from dawn until late at night. Gamblers, art auction fans, fitness fanatics, music lovers, readers, and everything in between had plenty to keep them busy. My favorite activity was Zumba dance class, held four times during this cruise with a dynamic Brazilian dancer as instructor. However, this was a port-intensive cruise, and most people spent the day ashore touring, and came back very tired after getting up at dawn for the tours most of the time. Sea days were a welcome break to try to sleep in and just relax on balconies or elsewhere. There was above-normal warmth, sunshine, and gorgeous dry weather almost the entire cruise, and the open decks and pools were very popular. Sea days featured “sidewalk bargain sales” from the shops, which made the shoppers happy. Shops had good variety, with the usual slightly inflated shipboard pricing.
Timing of some of the activities was not good. Princess seemed to save the premium activity times for their money-makers, like the art auctions, infomercial-type lectures for spa services, and shore excursions. The very interesting port lectures and enrichment lectures always seemed to be at lunch time, or just when most people were getting ready for dinner, or had not yet returned from late tours. There were some good fitness activities, but it would take a really dedicated person to be on deck before 7 AM for jogging, Yoga, or other fitness type activity. Most if not all the fitness activities appeared to be scheduled first thing in the morning. This is a cruise, not boot camp, and a later time would have made these activities much more enjoyable for a lot of us.
The ship photography team was everywhere, tirelessly, endlessly. Photos were very expensive. Some of the photos taken at the gangways used embarrassingly corny and amateurish props and costumed crew members. I did not have any pictures taken. Photo gallery staff were extremely helpful and friendly with camera advice and issues.
PROBLEMS: An issue which nearly caused a mutiny on this cruise was the internet service. The majority of the passengers owned and used wireless devices constantly. After a few days, and with allowance for the slow and sometimes intermittent internet service at sea, I kept getting messages about the service having too many users and to try later. Reception was OK in the cabin, and not much better in the internet café, when the internet was available. Repeated calls to the internet café manager got a polite response about there not being some kind of part on the ship to allow more users, and that it had been ordered and would take a week to arrive and be installed. It took more than a week, and frustrated thousands of people who needed to be in touch with family, or do work while on vacation. The internet service was also very expensive and it was easy to spend a fortune just waiting for the service to connect, or to send and receive simple email messages. Princess should have been aware of the exploding demand for wireless internet access on their ships years ago, and done something proactively, rather than annoy and frustrate their guests with lack of service. To his credit, the young male internet café manager was always gracious and calm, no matter what level of frustration he was dealing with, and he did give credit to me for a wasted 30 minutes when there was a connectivity issue. Elite members do get some free minutes for internet, but free or not, nobody wants to see the minutes wasted.
Another really serious issue during the cruise was the failure of huge sections of each deck’s toilet systems. I had this problem with both my cabins for the first three days of the cruise, intermittently, but others had it worse with no usable toilets and had to use the public restrooms. The smell of sewage was definitely noticeable throughout parts of the cabin decks. This could have quickly resulted in serious health issues had it gone on much longer.
Once the toilet problems were fixed, I had no cold water for half a day – a very annoying and inconvenient situation when it happened right after a Zumba class and I needed to shower before lunch. This was eventually fixed, but it took time.
On the last day of the cruise, my safe locking system failed, and it took a few hours for a crewman to repair the door and put the safe back together. This was the last day, and a much-needed sea day for some rest before dealing with end of cruise packing, and not the time to have to babysit equipment repairs in my cabin.
SERVICE: Other than the slow dining room service, I had the best cabin steward service I’ve had in years. Quick, polite, cheerful, and very timely and efficient. The rest of the service was the usual mix of enthused newcomers to the ship’s crew, rarely, and then those who were just doing their job, and then the sad mix at the bottom of people who did not like their jobs, or had been on the ship far too long without a break. The front desk passenger services people were enviably multilingual, but his could also make communication a problem, and some of the young crew had rather hot tempers when things were not going well. The young lady who helped me change cabins was the picture of Asian grace and courtesy, and I was very fortunate with her wonderful service throughout the voyage.
There were a lot of rather grim, tense crew visible, including officers, and I did not see very many smiles on this trip. The crew who used to say hello and smile whenever they saw passengers now just ignore people. Perhaps the fact of tips being automatically added to cruise bills is responsible for this, although tips can be adjusted up or down if the passenger wishes. The good staff did a wonderful job, but some of their fellow workers need a reminder course in passenger service – or possibly need a vacation.
Shore excursion desk staff did a great job trying to make everybody happy with so many tours which were sold out. This group did their best to get people what they wanted, and to adjust schedules and provide information.
ENTERTAINMENT: What I saw of the several production shows was so bad I left after five minutes. The shows are dated, old, and tired, and the performers tried, but were not together when dancing, or able to sing on key most of the time. Seating was terrible, as most people seemed to attend the first show, and unless you were there an hour early, seats were gone very quickly. Younger people did not have the courtesy to offer seats to the obviously elderly or special needs people, either. The string trio who played classical music at intervals in the Plaza sounded very amateurish, and were never together. I was too tired to investigate anything else with the shows, which were not things I enjoyed anyway. There were the usual magicians, illusionists, mind-readers, comedians, and I heard mixed reviews about all of these. The lounge singers and entertainers had small crowds, but again, I did not personally stay to listen. With the intense port schedule on this cruise, people were generally too tired to enjoy much night life, especially with the late dinner hours. Some of the Plaza dancers or other show people looked like second-rate vaudeville acts.
The best entertainment in my case was watching people, socializing with others, and meeting people of various nationalities and cultures. I treasure sharing a big table with an Indian family in the buffet at dinner one night. There were a lot of passengers from many British Commonwealth and independent countries on this cruise and all were delightful ambassadors for their countries and cultures. The scenery when coming into port every day was great entertainment, as well as just watching the sea from my balcony, or walking the open decks and enjoying the ocean and fresh sea breezes. The guilt-free naps on the balcony, falling asleep to the sound of the sea, were priceless. Sunsets and sunrises were all different, and all gorgeous – free entertainment at my convenience, there for the taking of photos and pure visual enjoyment.
PORT AND SHORE EXCURSIONS: This cruise was round-trip from Southampton, England, a port with many things to explore. Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and Poland were countries visited. The highlight of the cruise was the two full days in port, overnight in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Most of the ports could be walked to and through from the ship pier, with the exception of Belgium and Poland. Russia had its own very strict visitor and visa policies, and tours were the only way to see this incredible port city unless one had a tourist visa allowing independent travel, with the city itself being some distance away from the ship’s pier. There were taxis and some type of shuttle vans outside the passenger terminal. The cruise terminal is brand new, with restrooms and lots of shops with nice English-speaking people working in them. It’s a small area, but great shopping. The immigration stations are the first thing seen inside the cruise terminal, with deadly serious officials checking passports and visas, and then letting people pass through into the more welcoming outer terminal.. Returning to re-board the ship, passengers go through modified airport-level security before passing through into the passport control booths and then onto their ships. There is a small stretch of open dockside area between the ship and the cruise terminal, but the entire terminal area is security fenced and guarded. This cruise port area can take up to six ships, supposedly, with separate buildings and nice landscaping. Tour guides and buses meet guests in front, or as the guests exit the immigration section door.
There was a good variety of tours for every interest and physical condition, and some tours were in languages other than English – and tours also were available for those with mobility special needs or guests wishing more adventurous or physical experiences. Tours ranged from a few hours to all day, and were on foot, by bus, small boats, and other modalities, and in all price ranges. Tours can be reserved on the cruise line website ahead of time at home, or booked on the ship. Book early to avoid sold out tours! There was a drop box on the ship for forms requesting or cancelling tours, a big time-saver.
If you love medieval cities, cathedrals, cobblestone streets, picturesque villages, stunningly beautiful palaces, cultural traditions, and old waterfront cities, this is the cruise for you!
I took a half-day tour of Bruges, Belgium, and it was loaded with sights. The guide was very good and the canal boat tour included was lovely. As with all the cities visited, there was a lot of walking on cobblestones and uneven old streets, and the hiking boots I brought were one of my most useful items. The guide walked a bit too fast for really seeing things in detail, however, and it was hard to take photos. Also hard to hear the very good commentary due to enormous masses of tourists. This was the case in some of the other ports as well, as this is the tourist season there. The smell of the famous chocolate was in the air, and the beautiful lace of the region was displayed in many shops.
I also took a half-day tour of Stockholm with a sunny, cheerful and well-spoken guide, and enjoyed hearing about the historic sights I was seeing. Fast paced again, but still able to stop and photograph things.
Another half-day bus tour in Copenhagen was very good, with walking and some riding in the bus combined. Plenty of time to see most of the sights, but would have enjoyed more time in the old port part of town. Most of the tours I enjoyed allowed for an hour or so of free time to explore and shop independently. Stores ranged from tiny kiosks or hole in the wall shops to multistory department stores with famous high-end and world-recognized brand names.
The crown jewel of the Baltic region has to be St. Petersburg, and two days in port is barely enough to see part of the sights. The ship’s tours were all-day marathons, and some of the most durable passengers booked additional evening tours for cultural programs or sightseeing. They probably got three hours of sleep, but had memories for a lifetime. I used the services of TJ Tours, and had a private guide with his own car just for myself. It was worth the considerable expense, as I saw what I wanted to at my own pace. Mikhail the guide was superb, and knows Russian history. His English was very good, and we were able to discuss history, politics, and life in general like family. He was able to get priority entrance for me into all the sights. I did not visit the Hermitage Museum, however, as I have seen enough photos of what is in there to feel like I’ve seen it – and from what others on the ship reported, it was jammed with humanity, and hot and stuffy, and they couldn’t linger to see the many famous pictures, if they were able to see them at all over the crowds. I had a very special and meaningful private visit to the legendary Vaganova Ballet Academy’s historic museum, which thrilled me as a former ballet dancer. I also enjoyed a visit to St. Petersburg’s oldest fire station, which was a treat as I now work in emergency services. I saw everything I had on my list, over two days with Mikhail, and it was the best tour I’ve ever had at any port. TJ Tours is easy to work with via email, and they communicate adequately in English and promptly.
It was nourishment for my soul to visit the places my ancestors came from, and to see people who looked like me. It satisfied a lifetime longing to see where my family came from, and I felt very much at home in all the ports visited. Apparently I blended in well enough that in nearly every port, other tourists would approach me and ask me in careful English if I spoke English, and could I give them directions!
I enjoyed exploring on my own, at my own pace, and took thousands of photographs. It was fun to see ordinary sights as well as the historic ones, such as stores and shops and schools. I saw Kellogg’s cornflakes in a small store in Keflavik, and the same cosmetic brands common in the USA in all the stores. Dogs are permitted in some stores in the ports visited, and it was amazing to see how well they coped with escalators.
Goods and services are very expensive in the Baltic and Scandinavian region, and people pay high taxes there, and receive enhanced social benefit from these taxes throughout their lives. Some cities had very good bus and tram systems, and subways.
A family friend lives in Helsinki, and was kind enough to guide me around her city for hours, both on foot and on trams, with great information on all the sights.
Princess used to have very good port maps for independent exploring, and they still provide a fact sheet for each port. Their maps, however, are very basic, and not very good. The ship’s library has some good tour books, and they were very popular with people making notes for independent touring throughout the cruise. Pocket-sized guidebooks with maps could come in handy here, if you can bring them from home without going over your baggage allowance. The ship probably could do more for its independent travelers, but of course their main intent is to make money from selling their tours.
The tour buses I was on were without fail all new, clean, and carefully driven. The bus driver for the Bruges tour in Belgium gave his passengers small chocolates.
Tour scheduling was somewhat inconvenient, but perhaps had to take into consideration arrival times, tides, bus availability, or other factors. Some of the best tours began mid-morning, and ran past a normal lunch time, and did not offer a meal during the tour. Other tours were very long and got back to the ship minutes before the cut-off time to board. For early-sitting diners, there was no time to clean up before dinner. Anytime dining probably solved this problem for some, but there were always long lines of people trying to get into the anytime dining room sections. Some of the early-morning tours left practically as soon as the ship docked, necessitating a dawn breakfast, and did not get back to the ship until long after lunch time. Anybody needing to eat on a schedule or for medical reasons had to do some creative planning and eating to survive. Some ports don’t allow foodstuffs off the cruise ships, so it was difficult to take snacks.
Overall, the tours were great for the most part, and so was independent touring. It all depends on your own personal preference. Unless you’ve studied your history and know all the facts, or been to the ports before, having a guide explain things was invaluable to get the most of the sights and places.
DISEMBARKATION: There were several options available. These included express walk-off service for those who could manage their own luggage the entire time almost as soon as the ship was cleared, very early in the morning, as well as traditional “leave the bag in the hall at bedtime for collection” style, with debarkation at set times according to deck location. Captain’s Circle high-level members had priority disembarkation and a private waiting lounge, very nice. I used the express walk-off service, but there was some confusion or mix-up with the ship’s personnel, and they cleared one group off early – and never announced the second group, which I had signed up for. I went to the assigned meeting place at the proper time, only to be told rather sharply that all the walk-off people had left an hour ago, and just to go and get off the ship. If you do plan on using the express service, be prepared for long waits for elevators if you need them, and many people did because of the length of the cruise requiring more clothes and thus large bags. It was a bit hectic and crowded leaving the ship, but the small old cruise terminal I entered had some truly lovely, helpful, and calm staff on hand to provide directions. I had a private car and driver, and was directed to a special waiting area inside part of the terminal to wait in comfort.
SUMMARY: This port-intensive cruise is not a relaxed luxury experience. If you are looking for days of relaxing around the swimming pool and lots of sea days, you are on the wrong ship. I used the ship for a floating hotel, and that’s what it was good for on this particular trip. No unpacking more than once, no worries about housekeeping or cooking, and every day you wake up someplace new and marvelous. I did not go for the nightlife, and did not feel that I had missed anything. It has a good fitness center if you enjoy workouts and have the energy after so much touring. I never went to the Spa, as there wasn’t time. By the end of full days of touring, and often walking 10 miles over cobblestones, it was great just to clean up, get fed, and do something quietly for an hour or two and then collapse into bed. I love to sleep on a ship at sea, and despite the worn mattresses and the vibration which never let up entirely, I had some very good rest. This cruise had a lot of couples averaging in age from late 50s to early 70s. There were about a dozen children on board of varying ages, and the older ones appeared lost and bored most of the time when they were visible. Lots of opportunities for talking with interesting people from all over the world. The ship felt and looked tired, and did not seem to have the style and class Princess used to deliver reliably. The ports and itinerary were the main feature on this cruise, not the ship, cuisine or amenities. Most people toured most or all of every day in every port, and we were all glad to see the sights and then return to the ship to recharge for the next day’s adventures. The weather was extraordinarily good for the region, and I was so grateful to enjoy the blue skies, sunshine, and balmy temperatures which were above average on some days. There was a bit of fog at sea now and again, and some mist leaving England, but otherwise the entire trip was travel-brochure perfect with the weather. Only the last day, at sea, was there a weather event when a cold front passed through the region, and it brought very high winds and moderate seas. The wind was strong enough to pressurize my balcony door, and it could not be opened. There was noticeable motion all day on the ship, which made the Zumba class even more fun and active. One lurched gently into the person next to them during the class as the ship moved, and I met some nice people that way! I feel that for the amount of ports and sea days provided, it was good value for the money (despite paying double for single occupancy). I would cruise with Princess again, and have a Nordic cruise planned for next year – but I also have realistic expectations about the current version of Princess now that Carnival Corporation has bought the Princess brand.