My partner and I enjoyed our Holland America Alaskan cruise a couple years back, and we'd always wanted to see Scandinavia, so we signed up for their 12-day Baltic cruise.
Now, most others we know in the gay/lesbian "community" (I hate that word but it does the job) look at us like we're nuts when we say what we've done. After all, there are cruises that cater to gays exclusively. But these tend to be "party" ships that aren't really what we're looking for 24 hours a day.
This cruise lived up to our expectations -- not more, not less, which isn't too bad.
We arrived in Copenhagen a day early to give us a cushion of time and see more of the city. It proved to be a pattern for this cruise. We were able to taste a bit of the city but not much more. We walked around the narrow cobblestone streets, peeked in the Tivoli Gardens, ate at a lovely Italian restaurant (Fiat) near the Nyhavn harbor. We'd love to come back.
The ship for this cruise was Holland America's flagship, the Rotterdam, almost identical to the Volendam on which we'd sailed before. We like the layout. Plenty of lounge areas where you can curl up with a book or conversation.
In the boarding area we quickly got a sense of the demographics of the passengers. A lot of grey hair and J.C. Penney vacation fashions. No other male (or female) couples that we could see. But then, there weren't a lot of families with ADD-afflicted children either, so it definitely balanced out. As before, the HAL boarding process was efficient and quick. Before we knew it we were in our stateroom, a veranda cabin that lived up to the website illustration. Small but roomy enough, smartly decorated, very inviting. I feared that we'd hear our neighbors through the walls or ceiling, but the room was perfectly quiet throughout the entire trip.
At our assigned dinner table we met our dining companions for the rest of the cruise, a very nice couple from Canada and an 83-year-old Australian dowager traveling solo. She had a wry sense of humor and was up for anything. The Canadians clearly weren't expecting a gay couple at their table, but their discomfort quickly disappeared and by the end of the cruise we were like a family.
The HAL experience is pretty hard to beat. The service is extraordinary, and your cabin steward and waitstaff all remember your name. The entire ship is clean and bright. There's plenty to do if you're so inclined (which we weren't -- we participated in a "Name That Tune" contest one night, but the pianist wasn't really into it). Food, of course, is everywhere.
The slight downside is that the food, overall, was pretty bland. The adventurous menu selections were mostly disappointments in the tastebud department, except for the excellent meal we ate one night in the deluxe Pinnacle Grill. Still, everything was edible, and we didn't really take the cruise to have five-star cuisine at every meal anyway.
The entertainment, likewise, leaves a little to be desired, but is appropriate, I guess, for the target passenger demographic. Evening shows were mostly Vegas-type song-and-dance revues, with B-level talent who could have done more under different circumstances. But they weren't quite bad enough to amuse ourselves making fun of them. The lounge musicians weren't as good as on our previous HAL cruise; it seemed like one of them was belting out the same Muzak version of a Neil Diamond song every time I walked past.
The ports of call were the main reason we took the cruise, and, again they were mostly good with a little bit of disappointment. Our favorites: Tallinn, Estonia, was surprisingly fun, with interesting shops and a well-preserved old city center. Helsinki and Stockholm were beautiful, clean, fascinating. Our least favorites: Oslo seemed a bit too bland, and the German port (Warnemunde) was a bit tourist-tacky.
We only signed up for a few shore excursions. The St. Petersburg tours were surprisingly enjoyable. We both didn't know what to expect, and were pleasantly surprised. The tour guides were well-informed, efficient, and even entertaining (albeit often in an inadvertent way!). We're not big museum goers, but enjoyed the Peterhof and Catherine the Great palaces. We particularly wanted to see the Hermitage, but were dreading it somewhat because of comments we'd heard about it being overcrowded and hot. We were surprised that the crowds were tolerable and, even though we rushed through five buildings in an hour-and-a-half, we felt that we saw quite a bit, even if we couldn't stop and appreciate all of the art. Later we talked to others who booked their own private tour guides and recommended it, but we didn't have any complaints with the ship-organized tours.
In Arnhus, Denmark, the shore excursion we chose stopped at a curious selection of sites (a vintage train that took us nowhere in particular and back, and a museum of a 2,000-year-old preserved body) but was definitely worth it for seeing the beautiful countryside.
Most of all, the cruise was peaceful and unchallenging enough to really be relaxing, and provided an interesting glimpse into countries we'd always wanted to see. A bonus was viewing the coastal islands all along the way from our stateroom.
I don't know if we'll do another cruise anytime soon, because we generally enjoy staying longer at our destinations to do some exploring, but if we do another, it will be definitely be HAL.