We just returned from a wonderful week aboard the MSC Opera, with ports of call in the Baltic Sea: Kiel, Copenhagen, Visby, Stockholm, Helsinki, and St. Petersburg. This was the 10th cruise for my husband and me, having sailed on Carnival, Holland America, Norwegian, and several times on Royal Caribbean, most recently on the Liberty of the Seas in October, 2007, with our three teenagers. This particular trip on the Opera was an incentive trip offered by my husband's employer, so there was a large group of about 200 people, all loosely connected, sailing together. Travel arrangements were made for us, and there were agents accompanying us all along the way to help make things go smoothly. Also, we are not smokers or drinkers, so I can't comment on those aspects of the ship or trip, although I will mention that we were never bothered by second hand smoke, and the ship and rooms did not have a smoky smell. We were also more interested in the ports and sights than in having fantastic food. We have traveled in Europe before and know that Europeans have different customs and tastes than we do when it comes to food, so we went on the cruise feeling that as long as we could find enough to keep us from being hungry, we would be more than satisfied! I am going to do a review of the ship first, and then the ports of call.
We arrived in Kiel the day before the Opera was to sail. We stayed the night at the Steinberger Conti Hansa in Kiel. It was a nice, if not luxurious hotel, and had a great location. It was just across the street from where the ship was to dock. We also stayed there one night upon our return.
We had been told to expect to board in the mid to late afternoon, but were able to get on the ship at around noon. I have never had such an easy and quick embarkation! We were on board and in our cabin literally minutes after walking into the cruise terminal. We were in a balcony stateroom on the 10th floor, and we absolutely loved our room. It was extremely clean and in excellent shape. We had prepared ourselves to find it somewhat small compared to other staterooms we have had in the past, but were surprised at how big it felt. There was plenty of room for all of our stuff, and the suitcases fit nicely under the bed. I admit that the bathroom was a little on the small side, especially the shower, but we were never inconvenienced by this. Our stateroom attendant, Anna Marie, was polite, efficient, and did a great job of keeping things in great shape all week long. We loved the balcony, and it added greatly to our enjoyment of the cruise. We were happy to spend time in our room whenever possible. The tv didn't have many English speaking options, but there was one English movie channel, and we were able to watch a couple of movies while onboard. The selection was pretty good, with a variety of movies, most of which were fairly new releases.
Our entire group was booked for the second dinner seating, which was at 8:30. The first seating was at 6:00. Most nights the entertainment for the second seating was scheduled at 7:30, which worked out fine. The theater was big, and we had a great view of the action no matter where we sat. We attended every show, and found them to be fun and well-done. They didn't last as long as some shows we have seen on other cruises, but the costumes were outstanding, and performers were very enthusiastic. There are many languages spoken by cruisers on the ship, so it is a challenge to find something for everyone to enjoy. I thought they did a good job with that.
After the shows, we walked through the ship to the dining room for dinner. Surprisingly, we found food at each meal that was to our liking. We ordered somewhat carefully, and tried to order something from almost every course, so that if we didn't like something, we would be able to fill up on other courses. During the week, there were things served that I didn't really care for, but I left each meal more than satisfied. I understand that the MSC ships don't typically offer water as a drink during their meals, but the company we were with had arranged to have plenty of cold bottled water available to us each night, which was greatly appreciated! The one thing that was a bit annoying was the length of time it took to get through the dinner each night. Again, this didn't surprise us, as we have had the same experience everywhere we have traveled through Europe, but dinner took at least two hours each night. After a quick swing through the ship, where we heard great music being played in the various lounges and clubs, we were ready to head to bed.
We ate all breakfasts and lunches in the buffet on the 11th floor. Again, the food was not as varied or Americanized as the buffets on say, Royal Caribbean, but we always found plenty that was good. Lots of good fruit, excellent breads and rolls, plenty of salads, etc., were available. We found that they would make omelets to order outside on the grill, and there was never a long line. Also, the pizza in the afternoons was excellent.
The weather, though very pleasant, was too cool to want to spend much time by the pool or laying out on the top deck. I admit, though, that the pools did not look very inviting, as the water was a bit off-colored, and very cold. My husband used the hot tubs though, and said the water was fine. I think I may have been disappointed in these facilities if we had been in the Caribbean or Mediterranean, or had our kids with us. My husband used the gym facilities every day. They were not as extensive as on most of the ships we have been on, but they weren't crowded, and it was pleasant to use the treadmill or bikes while looking out the front of the ship. We spent an enjoyable couple of hours in the relaxation room during our day at sea. Except for a few short instances for a few minutes each, we didn't make use of the lounges and most other common areas on the ship, but everyone seemed to be enjoying them. The casino was fairly small, which we appreciated, and we also liked the fact that we didn't have to walk through it every time we traveled through the 6th floor.
All in all, we loved the ship. We loved our room. We found everything to be very well-cared for and beautifully done. The entertainment was good, the food was okay, and all staff were friendly and courteous. I don't think it is as good a ship for kids, especially teenagers, particularly if they have been spoiled by spending a week on the Liberty of the Seas with the flowrider. I was grateful the entire week that we didn't have our kids with us, but I wouldn't have traded the week for anything. I may be wrong, but I don't think the more Americanized ships are even doing much in the Baltic since 9/11, so if you want to enjoy these fantastic ports and do it on a cruise, doing it European style is a great way to go.
Now for my review of the ports. We departed from Kiel, Germany, and spent a night there both before embarking and after we returned. It was a great little port city. We didn't do an excursion, but mostly hung around close to the port. There was a nice little walking outdoor mall, complete with a couple of nice places to eat. There was a wonderful walk along the wharf, and the day we returned, there was a fair of some sort going on, with many booths and childrens games, entertainment, etc. going on. My husband rented a bike from the hotel and had a great ride along the banks of the Kiel Fjord. I recommend the Kieler Brewery as a place to eat and have fun. It is very close to the pier.
Our first stop (Sunday) was in Copenhagen. What a beautiful city! We had arranged to do the ships excursion that was 7 hours and included a tour of the canals, but there must not have been enough people sign up, because they cancelled that one. They were able to get us on the tour of the city that lasted four hours though. We spent the morning seeing all the main sights of the city. Our guide was very informative, and we enjoyed it very much. The last stop was at the beautiful Tivoli Gardens, and we could choose whether to ride back on the bus or stay and find our own way back later. We elected to stay, and were glad we did. The gardens were gorgeous, and we left them with directions and a map from the excursion guide, and found a mile long outdoor shopping mall. We walked along that, detouring at one point a couple of blocks to see the inside of the Copenhagen Cathedral that had been closed for services when our excursion stopped there. We wanted to see the statues of the 12 apostles and the Christus statue inside, and they did not disappoint! We continued our walk until we got to the Nyhavn district, which our bus tour had passed during the morning. We were thrilled to find that we could do a canal cruise right there, and for only 10 or 15 dollars each. We thoroughly enjoyed doing it, and I would recommend it to anyone. We saw many of the same things we had seen in the morning, this time from the water, and from a different perspective. That took about an hour and fifteen minutes. Afterward, we walked through Nyhavn a little, had an ice cream cone, and caught a taxi back to the ship in plenty of time. We absolutely loved this city!
The next day (Monday) was on the island of Gotlund, Sweden, and the town of Visby. What a wonderful surprise this port was! We took the three hour tour. You can easily get around Visby by yourself, walking, or on a bike, but I was glad we took the tour, because our guide was so full of information and stories, and so proud of the island's heritage, that it greatly increased our enjoyment of it. The old houses and cathedrals and the wall were absolutely amazing, and it was extremely beautiful. This is a very short stop, only four hours or so. By the time the tour finished, we had to get back to the dock to be tendered back to the boat (this was the only tendered stop). I would have loved having more time here, but am so glad we didn't miss this stop! It was a real highlight!
Our third port of call was Stockholm (Tuesday). Another gorgeous surprise! I think the best part of the day for me was getting up very early (5 am) to watch us come into the city. For three hours, we passed literally hundreds of small forested islands, so close to the ship you could practically throw a stone and hit them. They were so picturesque, with the trees and with the summer homes on them. Little boat docks dotted the shores, and swans swam in the absolutely still waters. It felt like we were gliding on glass, it was that calm. It was truly one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen, and made whatever the company paid for the balcony room completely worth it. I enjoyed it again as we left Stockholm in the evening. The city itself was wonderful too. We did a four hour ships excursion that went to city hall to see the place where the Nobel Prize banquet is held every year and to the Vasa Museum, to see a 17th century ship that sunk on its maiden voyage and was found about 50 years ago and brought to the surface. Again, we chose to leave the tour at the end and find our own way back. We spent the afternoon shopping in the old town district, Gamla Stan, and found it to be very very charming!
Helsinki was our fourth port (Wednesday). This was another short port of call. I enjoyed it, but it was probably the least favorite of all of the ports, not because it was lacking in some way, but because the others were all so fantastic! We did the ship's city tour, and the guide was again very informative. Helsinki wasn't quite as picturesque as the other ports, but still very interesting. One place not to miss was the rock church, built into a crater of granite. It was very unique!
Our last port of call (Thursday) was St. Petersburg. As some have mentioned, you can't just get off the ship by yourself. You have to have the proper visas arranged beforehand if you don't do an organized tour. This was the one place we didn't do a ship's excursion, because our company had made available an extended tour that included both the Hermitage and Catherine's Palace. It cost $220 each, and was worth every penny! As we got off the ship, there was a brass band playing for us, and I thought it was a very Russian and wonderful touch. They were still there playing when we got back on board 11 hours later, too! The port is a bit of a drive from the city, and it was fascinating to pass every day life in Russia. The cars, the signs, the people… I loved every second of looking out the bus window! After driving through the city and for about an hour into the country, a drive I wouldn't trade for the world, we came to Catherine's Palace. It is beautiful and huge, and reminded me quite a bit of Versailles. We had a lovely tour there. Afterward, we stopped at this wonderful restaurant where we enjoyed a typical Russian lunch, which was actually extremely good, delicious, even. And we were entertained by Russian performers. It was wonderful! Then back to the city where we spent a few hours at the Hermitage, which is similar in size and greatness to the Lourve, which I may have misspelled. My parents had been there before, but without a guide, and were amazed at how much more we saw when we had a guide to point out the highlights and help us pace our visit. The whole thing was truly amazing! Afterward we made a picture stop at the Church of the Spilled Blood, and then topped off the day at Isaac's Cathedral, which was gorgeous. We were exhausted when we got back on board The Opera, but the day couldn't have been more spectacular! What a way to end our tour of the Baltic!
In summary, I loved almost every single thing about our trip to the Baltic on the Opera. The ship was beautiful, the staff great, the food okay, and the ports absolutely incredible. I would highly recommend the trip to others. The trip probably wouldn't be a favorite with kids, especially teenagers, and is definitely not a "fun in the sun" type trip. Instead it is a historical and cultural experience not to be missed!