Celebrity Constellation Cruise Review by Frank Z: Northern Europe with kids
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Northern Europe with kids
This was our first cruise and we picked the Celebrity Constellation since it gave us exposure to seven cities/countries in northern Europe (Oslo, Copenhagen, East Germany, Tallinn Estonia, St. Petersburg, Helsinki and Stockholm, none of which we had visited. There were five of us on the trip.
Cabin: Small but very efficient. Our room (outside balcony) also had a bed that folded out of the ceiling that quite comfortably slept our 6' 4" son. There is apparently a third foldout bed in the love seat which was in the room however having all 3 beds unfolded would probably be very tight for this small a cabin. The cabin was always kept very clean and was in top shape. The bathroom was small but well put together. I did find out there are staterooms that are fully wheel chair accessible. The public washrooms also are fully wheel chair accessible. There is a strong box in the closet.
Age of Passengers: The average was definitely between 65 and 70 and almost all of them More appear to be retired. As a result there did not appear to be much activity in the Bar at the Edge of the Earth which is the young people's meeting spot, nor did the little kid's area get much of a workout.
Getting There/Embarkation/Disembarkation: We found it a lot cheaper to book the plane tickets ourselves than to allow Celebrity to book them. The difference in cost allowed the family to spend several days in London both before and after the cruise. If you do this however, make sure that you arrive at least a day early - our flight was delayed by nine hours which would have been a disaster if we had planned to arrive the same day. We also used the Eddie Manning limousine service to get to Harwich. They were wonderful, on time and not much more expensive than taking the Celebrity bus which is overpriced for what you get. The train which arrives on the wharf in front of the ship is the cheapest method to get to Harwich but was not running on the day we left due to track maintenance. The actual embarkation and disembarkation were both fast - 10 to 15 minutes. After getting aboard we had a quick lunch and then spent some time touring the ship. We left the ship about 8:15 in the morning on the final day after catching a quick breakfast. We had put our luggage out the previous evening after we changed to get to bed (any time after 5:00PM). Don't forget to keep out your clothes for the next day; otherwise you may be buying a Celebrity robe to disembark.
Food: I only have only inclusive resorts to compare to however I found the food and service to be excellent. The main dining room is especially good, with several special meals including a gala midnight buffet one night towards the end of the voyage when they pulled out all of the stops. Two of our party took advantage of the room service which was very quick although somewhat limited in terms of items available. Both my wife and I are gluten free which does create problems. This was addressed as much as possible by the staff however we found that my wife still got "glutened" several times (I am less sensitive to gluten than she is so I was unaffected). It took the better part of a week for her to recover. They still have a more work to do on that area and I would be quite concerned if you had a serious food allergy.
Decor: More oranges and browns. I am conservative in my taste in art and did not care much for the artwork scattered around the ship.
Promotion/Selling: At the start this was very intense as the crew figured out who would buy the very over priced alcohol/pictures/insulated mugs/clothing. After that things settled down. It is still however a somewhat distasteful thing that Celebrity does. The Emporium shops are tastefully done and had some very good items for sale. These were reasonably priced compared to what I expected - you could get better deals at some of the ports but there was only a 10 to 20% difference. Quality is mixed. Some of the jewelry that was sold could best be described as mass produced. Some of the art work and jewelry is very good quality. The highest end jewelry shop appeared to be the best of these shops with some very good jewelry at reasonable prices and the sales staff there was very knowledgeable The emporium had several different "sales". There was the Russian (2), Amber (2), and several art and jewelry events. The prices are OK but there can be a bit of a "feeding frenzy" on some of these events so don't get caught up in it. If you want to participate, go early.
Phone Service/Internet: The ship has a satellite service for internet service which is an expensive service to maintain. It can also be somewhat slow depending how many people are using it. This service is very expensive compared to land based systems so it is recommended that you use an internet cafe if you can or minimize your time using the on board system. I did make one very short call for mother's day. It was a very expensive two minutes, about $7/minute however that was expected. The ship's operator was helpful and my mom loved it.
Gym: Well set up and well supervised and is combined with the spa facility. Very clean. Reasonably good professional level machines. They could have more instruction on how to operate them. Any time other than 7-8 in the morning is un-crowded. Shower and the change room are excellent. A sauna, rain showers and shaving gear is present. I tended to use these showers - they were larger and more comfortable than the rooms (although the room showers were fine, just smaller). There are both towels to exercise with and big towels for after showering. There is a sauna which has a great view. The spa is not cheap but it is apparently good.
Entertainment: This was a bit hit and miss. They had a fantastic classical pianist, a very good acapella group, a good 4 piece band and a very good string quartet. They also had an iffier Asian girl band (who did a really mediocre Abba impersonation) and a single guy singer who I found was poor for my ear although some of the passengers really enjoyed him. There was a singer in the pub that seemed to be very popular. These entertainment acts tend to rotate through the various cruise lines hopping off and on after short gigs on each of the various cruise lines doing this area.
Guest Services: Generally very good and helpful. They made anything difficult easy. There are news summaries at guest services from several different languages and multiple different countries. Fiona did an excellent job of providing background information on each port, what to see and shopping if you are so inclined. There is a handout for each port complete with all details and maps. Fiona also did live presentations on the stops and these were recorded and were available on the TV system. She was also generally available with evening office hours, was often at the disembarkation point at the start of each port day and was even quite helpful when we ran into her on a street in Stockholm.
Library: There is one! It is well appointed with a fairly extensive selection of hard cover books in several different languages and many different topics and a number of good comfortable chairs. Being a total bookworm, I wished that there was more of a selection but I was able to get several good readable books. It is open 24 hours a day and two books per person can be signed out. There is a pocketbook section where people can drop off books they've read and take out and keep books for the long plane trip back - these are not part of the sign out books.
Gratuities: The guidelines given by the American Travel Service are provided for tipping. You can sign up to have these included on your visa bill although don't wait until the last moment to do this; the signup deadline is about 5 days before the end of the trip. You can add additional money if you wish afterwards in the envelope that they provide. Keep in mind that the staff does not earn much - tips count. The staff works very hard to make your trip a wonderful experience.
Itinerary Saturday and Sunday, May 3rd and 4th, Harwich and at sea: We had about a day and a half to get to know the ship and its routines before the first port of call. Monday, May 5th, Oslo, Norway The ship docked right next to the castle right downtown - there is almost no walk at all to get downtown. The city is very clean and neat with lots of bicycles and trams and few cars. Watch for gypsies who have a number of schemes to get money from you - give you a flower and then charge you an exorbitant price for it; beg with an empty baby carriage etc. Otherwise begging is non existent. The fort was worth going to - 13th century and still partially used as a military base. There is a small charge to enter the main castle but none to wander the grounds. Note that most of the museums are closed on Mondays which is when we were there. The exceptions are the Viking museums over on the Bygdoy Peninsula which can be accessed by a small ferry service that runs from the docks just next to where the ship docks.
Tuesday, May 6th, Copenhagen, Denmark We walked from the docks into Copenhagen which is about a 20-25 minute walk but allows you to see the Little Mermaid stature which is only a short distance from where the ship docks. The city is clean and well run similar to Oslo but much more Vibrant. It is very European and stylish - lots of people on bicycles including women in dresses on step through bikes which seemed to be a very elegant way to get around. We went to the Rosenborg Castle which is relatively unchanged although dark. There are many large portraits and the Crown Jewels which are worth seeing. We climber the observatory tower on Kobmagerg. It has a broad spiral walkway that is wide enough to drive a car which apparently an American did. There is a great view at the top and it was a lot of fun to climb up. We walked the main shopping street, Ostergard. The Amber House was OK but the most impressive jewelry was at the Halberstadt (Ostergade 4). The prices seem high but at the end of the trip, I would say that they had the best value for money for amber. The Canal Nyhavn is a tourist trap and has been featured in many pictures but is definitely worth seeing. We then walked back to the ship - about 15 minutes.
Wednesday, May 7th, Warnemunde /Rostock, East Germany The ship landed at Warnemunde which is the sea port for Rostock. There is a long marine channel that connects the two and at various points, this has been a similar sized port to Hamburg. To get to Rostock, take the train that is right beside the cruise drop off for 9 stops to the Habpt-bahnhop stop. Go to the trams that run underneath the train tracks and take the #5 tram into Rostock. A fare that can be bought at the train station in Warnemunde covers both the return train ride and the trams. Another more expensive alternative is to take a tour boat down the ships channel to Rostock. Went to the Petrikirche (St. Peters church), a large brick church built in 1218 with a new 117m tower which was added in the 1990s. There is an elevator can be taken to the top of the tower for 2 euros. The Marienkirche which was built in the 13th century is a very large traditional French style church with a huge organ and is also worth the visit. Lots of people buried in the walls and the floors. Very impressive windows and high ceilings - definitely one of the more memorable churches of the trip. The very old university is stunning and the Kropeliner Str., the main shopping street in the old town, is a nice walk. Saw the city walls and the waterfront. Returned to Warnemunde and walked along the main canal down to the beach. There are lots of shops and places to eat. The beach is fun and quite large. This is the Riviera of East Germany. There is a good and very reasonable internet cafe right by boarding point that we used.
Thursday, May 8th, Sea Day Relax and recovery day. Worked out, sat in the sun and read. Because this was a sleep in day, we had a late brunch in the dining room. Wonderful choice and very well prepared. The Maitre'd usually sits you at a table with other random passengers which gives you a chance to meet other people on the cruise.
Friday, May 9th, Tallinn Estonia The shuttle was not needed - it is about 500m to the Fat Margaret Tower which is the edge of the medieval town. The Alex Nevski Cathedral is interesting to see but not spectacular. We also went in St. Olafs which has a very high steeple that you can climb for a good look at the old town. The Town Hall Square is a lovely open area with lots of shops and the old 14th century stone Town Hall. The flower market which is on Mere pst at the city gates is worth seeing. There are numerous shops selling amber, wool and linens. Our favorite was Oh La La which is just outside of the town square which had good amber and excellent staff.
Saturday, May 10th, St Petersburg, Day 1 Early start - they accumulated all of the outside non Celebrity tour people up at the Edge bar at 7:00 AM. They then brought us down to customs in groups depending on leaving time. Alla Tours which we used was there, however one group had their tour operator change their name between issuing the visa and this morning. Customs would not accept this and held the people taking this tour back. It took an hour to sort out. Fortunately our papers were in order and we were out in about 5 minutes. We had Elena as our guide with Dimitri as our driver. There were 19 of us compared to 30+ on the Celebrity tours. We were off early and kept ahead of the rest of the tours so we did not get the crowds from the other tours. We did a drive around which included several picture stops, The Church of the Redemption, Dekabristov Square, the Peter and Paul Cathedral in the fortress (Royal Family graves), the Tsarskoe Selo (Amber Room) and the Peterhof (fountains). We finished up with a hydrofoil ride back to St. Petersburg and some shopping. St. Petersburg is a mixture of change and contrasts. There are the huge palaces but a lot of them have not been fixed up yet from World War 2 which was 63 years ago. There is a critical shortage of housing which has driven housing prices into the stratosphere compared to earnings. This is partly due to the Soviet era housing wearing out very early. The pre Soviet era building however appear to have lasted much better. From talking to some of the people, there is still a lot of red tape and it appears that the system benefits mostly the top 10% of the wage earners. The others are loosing ground. There is a lot of pollution and they still drive out of date, poorly maintained Ladas. But education is free as is medical care, although you have to wait a bit. People from St. Petersburg are very proud of the city and are very justified in being proud. Although there is much work to be done, it is amazing how much work has been done and how wonderfully detailed it is. Cost: $200 for souvenirs.
Sunday, May 11th, 2008, St. Petersburg, Day 2 Started the day with a tour of Nevsky Prospect which is the main shopping street for St. Petersberg. Next we did the Hermitage. This museum is incredible. We got in early before the main crowds and toured the main rooms quietly. The furniture, floors, ceilings, gold leaf etc is incredible. The paintings - Renoirs, Monet, de Vinci, Michelangelo, Degas, Rodin, Picasso, Gogin, etc. There is just about every painting/sculpture from every major artist up to about the 1940s. You would see a painting you recognize from books but would just walk by - it still wasn't important enough to stop - there are rooms of much more important paintings ahead. The malachite (green semi precious stone) room is amazing and worth seeing. This was followed by visiting the Church of the Blood, certainly the most ornate and most beautifully detailed church that we saw. We had lunch at one of the minor manors of St. Petersburg. Good food however I wasn't able to eat a lot of it due to my gluten/dairy problem. They had allowed for no wheat but not no dairy. After lunch we did St. Isaac Cathedral. This was only completed in the 90s due to the Russian revolution. It has been restored beautifully and was not harmed that much during the war. There are some beautiful mosaics. And of course the walls are incredibly painted. The best part of it is the solid granite columns which hold up much of the place. They are not in sections for ease of installation; rather they are solid and took quite the feat of engineering to raise. The last place we visited was the Yusupov Mansion. This family was considered richer than the tsars. There house reflects great wealth although it is not as spectacular as the Winter Palace. Its main claim to fame is that the families personal things are still largely in place - all of the major chairs and tables and beds were cleared from the Winter Palace to remove the influence of any sort of "family" existence. There is even a full theater complete with royal box - the Yusupov family enjoyed putting on plays and performances. The other is that Rasputin was killed in the basement by a group that included the oldest son of the family. Rasputin had gained influence with the Tsar's family and this was not viewed favorably by the Russian nobility.
Monday, May 12th, 2008, Helsinki, Finland Slow start - everyone still tired from St. Petersburg. Took the shuttle since it was too far to easily walk. We ended up walking around hitting up the Lutheran (large, clean, simple and white) and the Uspensky (red brick, much more ornate inside, great location on a hill) Cathedrals. We also walked along the Pohjoisranta next to all of the tall ships. Then it was off to the Market Square - lots of vegetables and fruit but not many gifts. Ate a wonderful lunch in a conservatory on the west side of Esplanade Park. There is a restaurant part and a cafeteria part that was a bit lower in price. We tried to do some shopping but generally it is quite expensive. Kalevala Jewelry was great but again too expensive to buy anything. We ended up in an internet cafe for the last part of the afternoon. Back to the ship for a workout and a very good supper.
Tuesday, May 13th, Stockholm: The day started out very warm and became progressively colder. We decided against walking in although it was not that far - about a 25 min walk. The shuttle drops you off just on the north side of the old town and the Royal Palace. We did a bit of a wander into the new part of town to look at a couple of stores. We went to Nordiska Kristal for crystal and Little Sweden for gifts. The first was wonderful to see but very expensive. The 2nd was very touristy - we do not need T shirts and other bric-a-brac. We went into Kristall Rummet also recommended by Celebrity later in the afternoon. This turned out to have some good jewelry, and surprisingly some good things that were on sale. In North America, things on sale are common but it is very rare in these countries. We bought our crystal just a short ways down the road from Kristal Rummet, at Wasa Crystal. Not bad prices, good selection, they would ship to Canada and guarantee everything. Unfortunately the sales staff left a bit to be desired with respect to friendliness. We did catch the changing of the guards at the palace which was quite good and worth seeing. It is in a semi circular court at the back side of the palace and starts at noon. It lasts about 1 hour. We had lunch in the Kings Garden at one of the cafes. Then we split up, the girls to the National Museum and the boys off to the Vasa Museum. The walk over to the Vasa Museum (the ferry boats were on strike) along the Strandvagen was spectacular. All of the old houses along this street have been well preserved and are quite impressive with the old, mostly wooden ships docked along the harbour in front. The walk from the National Museum took about 25 minutes. The Vasa Museum is worth the trip. It is a spectacular and mostly intact ship. At that time, Sweden with 1.5 million people was a major maritime nation. Unfortunately as is shown with one of the nifty computer programs that are in the museum, the design of the ship was impossibly flawed by having insufficient weight in the ballast to compensate for the weight in the superstructure. This was not helped by the king of the time adding additional superstructure on the top further unbalancing the ship. The Vasa flipped over on its side and sank after sailing 50m when it was launched. We finished up by walking around the old town until catching the shuttle bus back later in the evening at about 7:00PM. This was something that was helped by not leaving until the next morning.
Wednesday-Friday, May 14-16th, Return Trip to Harwich The return trip lasts for 3 days and is a good break after the intensity of going to all of the cities/countries. Returned library books, slept, worked out in the gym, had regular meals and at the end, packed.
Summary We were very happy with this trip - everything lived up to our expectations. The only black mark was the gluten contamination my wife found in what was suppose to be her gluten free food. Yes we would use Celebrity again. Less
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