Bryan and I booked this cruise through a deal offered on Travelzoo. The price per person was about $220/day including airfare from Miami. We later (wisely) added travel insurance. The airlines used were US Air and British Airlines...the 2 worst performers for the US and Europe. Our trip started out rough, with US Air cancelling our flight out of Miami AFTER we had been at the gate for over 2 hours...letting us know 10 minutes before we were due to board a plane that wasn't present at the gate. Fortunately, US Air representative, Ravi, garnered 1st class upgrades and a hotel for the night. We flew through Philadelphia and had a HUGE layover, so we took the train into the city and toured "The City of Brotherly Love" until our departure time...complete with Cheesesteaks for lunch and a picture by the Liberty Bell.
We arrived in Stockholm a day and 1/2 after we were supposed to embark the cruise and our pre-paid transfer to the ship did not meet us (or 10 others destined to join the cruise). After multiple calls to numbers that didn't work or weren't answered by humans, a group of 8 of us negotiated 2 cabs to transport us to the cruise port via 1 cabmaster who spoke English (the cabbies did not). Once arrived, the folks in charge of getting us and our luggage squared away went to work. Within an hour, we had cruise cards, rooms that unlocked with the aforementioned cruise cards and our luggage to our rooms (for those of us whose luggage didn't go on a separate vacation thanks to the airlines). Reports were filed in regard to the missing transportation and the lack of time in Stockholm due travel delay.
Our room was on the second level (steerage, as Bryan called it), but with the days in the Baltic lasting quite long (sunsets at midnight), inside was not a bad place to be. The room was small,but efficient and except for the large suitcases we had not fitting under the bed...there was plenty of room, drawers and hangers for all of our stuff. We only spent the evening in our stateroom one night of the entire cruise (watching Andy Griffith and Beverly Hillbillies re-runs) due to exhaustion and lack of entertainment that interested us. Our stateroom attendant, Benny, was terrific. He kept us in ice, water and clean towels. Our bed was made most mornings by the time we got back from breakfast and the bathroom was bleach scented every afternoon. The chocolates and turned down bed greeted us every evening after dinner (main seating).
The service in the dining room was very solicitous. Our waiter, Alfredo, was very attentive and seemed almost worried if we didn't enjoy our food (as it was, we were working out twice a day by the 4th day of the cruise just to fit into our formals). The Assistant Maitre Di was friendly and accessable. He dropped by nearly every dinner to update us on upcoming events and any changes in seating. The wine steward for our table was a lovely youg woman from Romania. She help us select a reasonable wine for each of our dinners and kept up with filling our glasses and storing our leftover wine for the next day. She also let us know when wine tasting events were scheduled (very informative and fun). Food in the Seaside Cafe was buffet style and was tasty. The standard pasta and pizza were available daily at all hours. Different themed meals were served here as well. There are good views from this room and unusual glass floor "portholes" in the floor that might be a problem for folks with a fear of heights. At night there were several times that a talented Phillipino acoustic guitarist played at the back of the Seaside Grill, near the reserved "casual dining". Sushi was offered most nights, but the variety was limited (California Rolls and a couple types of sashimi).
Excursions on this cruise were expensive. By the time Bryan and I arrived, most of them were booked. We had read several reviews here before our trip and arranged for a private tour guide in St. Petersburg, Russia. After hearing about others who took the ship excursion or booked with tour agencies in St. Petersburg, I am convinced we did the right thing. We had a 28 year old woman who spoke nearly flawless English (and French) that was licensed and had 8 years of experience. We never waited in lines (which can be long) and we saw far more things at our pace. We were able to stop for photos or shop. She was also very open to questions about life in Russia. She arranged for everything and her driver was very capable and had a nice vehicle (a Mercedes SUV/minivan hybrid). It takes more work to apply for your own visa, but once you have the paperwork completed, it takes only a week or so. In the other cities, we toured on our own. We hired a young Russian guide in the city square in Latvia. He had 6 years in University and his English was pretty good. An hour and 1/2 tour of the city by foot was only $40 US (far cheaper than the excursion through the ship), but not for everyone. We were conflicted about the Berlin excursion that the cruise offered. The actual port is Waremunde which is 3 hours from Berlin. You could catch the train only a short walk from the ship, but the time in port (7am to 9pm) left little time to see and appreciate all the things we wanted to do in Berlin, so we opted to take the train to Rostock (20 minute ride) and tour there, then return to Waremunde (a seaside resort from the "East Germany" days). It was interesting, but expensive. Don't expect to find "typical German souveniers" (beer steins, Christmas ornaments) there. Do expect fish/seafood, beer and pastries.
There is Amber at every port, but I highly recommend you purchase it at one of the first 3 ports (Helsinki, St. Petersburg or Latvia). The prices are more reasonable. Also, buy in the stores...the stuff on the street is most likely fake (although it's ok if you're ok with that). Just remember it's petrified tree sap...not diamonds (as they would lead you to believe the way they endlessly promote it). I would also buy your Russian stacking dolls in St. Petersburg. They are less expensive, there is more variety and they are everywhere. The ship's prices aren't cheap. Same with the lacquer boxes...if you find one you like, get it in St. Petersburg. The shops have certificates of authenticity for those collectors out there. The ones from the vendors are equally nice in some cases if you don't care about the boxes' pedigree. Just remember...they're paper mache (not plastic or wood). The real ones can take months to make and the ones with mother of pearl details are quite interesting. Buy your "Faberge inspired" eggs in St. Petersburg, too. They are more expensive on the ship and there is less quality and variety. Buy your sweaters and fur in Helsinki from the market near the port. Many of the people make them by hand and they are unique and beautiful. Initially they seem expensive, but trust me...it only gets worse as the ports progress. Denmark and Norway are expensive (a Big Mac costs $12 in Oslo, Norway!). If you are an alcohol purchaser, there really aren't any bargains. Duty Free used to mean CHEAP. No longer. I would buy your alcohol in the Carribean, not the Baltic. Latvia had nice woolen socks and leather goods and linen. Lithuania had nice prices on much of their merchandise. We arrived the day Klaipeda was celebrating their 700th anniversary and Seafest occupied most of the downtown area. There was plenty of crafts, good food, beer and music as well as other entertainment. This town was the the friendliest of the former "Eastern Bloc" countries visited. Still...keep an eye on your pockets/passport/money.
Services on the ship are more than adequate and several "deals" were offered during the trip. There were "couples nights", "ladies night" & "teen nights". They offer massages, nail services, hair services, exercise classes. One of the coolest things we tried was Rasul therapy. It's a "do it yourself" kind of treatment for adults involving exfoliation, mud, steam and showers. It's definitely for couples who enjoy each other physically (we tried it as a result of being part of a package we bought that included champagne, canapes nightly, robes and the premium for dinner in the specialty restaurant). Dinner in the Ocean Liner Restaurant was well worth the premium. Bryan and I tried the wine pairing which was an added premium, but again...worth it. The steak Bryan had was one of the best ever and the wine choices were adequate servings and matched perfectly. They make Caesar's salad tableside, too. There were 3 formal nights. Plenty of opportunities for pictures. The entertainment on-board was less stellar than hoped for. Heavy on musicians (mostly classical) and singers (former West End British stars). The British comedian was not very funny...it must have been a "British Thing". The magician was good, but all of his tricks were slight of hand and cards. Cirque du Soleil is no longer associated with the cruise apparently. The views are still spectacular at the "End of the World" bar. There is a nightly DJ and dancing. The chocolate buffet wasn't as spectacular as other cruises I have been on, but it all tasted good. The Grand Buffet was beautiful to view, but it was served at midnight and seemed like such a waste of terrific food. The staff allowed so much time for photographs that one could hardly stay up to taste any of it. The regular entertainer in Michael's Pub is an extremely thin, blonde singer/pianist a'la Liberace. He was good, but we could only handle seeing his show one night. The general age group is greater than 50 years of age, but there were several families traveling together and kids from infants to teens on board.