In addition to the ships reviews I found it helpful if I knew a little more about the reviewer, so first a little information on me. We are a gay couple, 51 and 49 years old. This was our fifth cruise (but our first straight cruise.) We are seasoned travelers and roll very well with the punches. We tried to do this trip on a budget and were delighted with the entire trip. Let's go over some of the details.
Passengers. In round numbers there were 800 people from the United Kingdom, 700 from the United States and 750 from 46 other countries. Because the ship sailed from England it is an easy trip to the pier for many people from the UK. Of the over 2200 passengers, 720 were members of Royal Caribbean's Crown and Anchor Society (had previously sailed with Royal Caribbean and signed up for their frequent sailors club.) The average age was probably early 60's although in the Kid's Parade before one of the evening shows there were 30 to 35 young children.
While the ship was fairly full it never felt crowded. The only waits I saw for elevators was right outside of the theatre after a show let out and that is to be expected.
Itinerary. For people who are not frequent world travelers or used to the ways of the Western World, this is a great itinerary for you. Tallinn Estonia let's you dip your toe into a foreign culture, St Petersburg is pretty much the opposite of the Western World and the remaining cities ease you back into your Western ways.
Weather. The two cruises prior to ours had great weather (read sunny) with temperatures in the 80's (Fahrenheit). Unfortunately we had overcast skies with rain almost every day. One of the sea nights we had 150 mile an hour winds (as reported by the captain) yet the ship was surprising steady. We had a balcony on the 10th deck and wind was blowing rain water into our cabin. The staff was wonderful in responding immediately to vacuum up the water in our cabin.
The Ship. I absolutely love this class of ship. In the middle of the ship is the Centrum which is an opening from the 4th to 11th decks. To me it gives the ship a heart. You regularly pass this area and immediately get an idea of what is going on aboard the ship. The ships design features lots of wood and primarily a blue color palate. It makes it feel like a ship. With other ships we have been on the design felt more like a large hotel rather than a ship.
Food. I am a pretty simple eater and I found the food to be quite good. Some other passengers were looking for more variety and I can understand that. Imagine going to the same restaurant every evening, I think it could get boring, that did not bother me. While the main dining room menu tended to be a meat, chicken, fish, pasta option every evening I was please with all of my selections. It would have been nice to see a salad entrée one evening. The menu is slanted towards an American palate and any complaints I saw about the food tended to be cultural differences. Huge difference between American bacon and British bacon for example.
We tended to have breakfast and lunches at the Windjammer Café which is their buffeteria. Nice selection of foods.
We signed up for My Time dining which is Royal Caribbean's attempt at providing open seating. On our previous cruises they were always open seating for dinner, you just show up between 6:00 PM and 9:00 PM and were seated. With My Time you make a reservation for a time and that is your time for the entire cruise. Our reservation was for 6:45 PM and we showed up between 6:40 and 7:00 PM each evening. We always had a table for two and frequently ended up in conversation with our neighbors. The My Timer's we spoke with preferred My Time as many of the tables were for two. It can be challenging to have dinner with the same people every night if you have nothing in common with them. For people that cruised ten years ago, gone are the days of lobster dinner or the Baked Alaska parade but I did not miss those items.
We purchased a Wine and Dine package which in theory gives you a savings off of purchasing individual bottles of wine. We purchased 5 bottles of their Platinum Package for $125. After the third bottle I cross checked our selections with another wine menu that had prices on it. I found the wines we were choosing were regularly $26 or $27 a bottle, not much of a savings.
Entertainment. This is the one area that could use some improvement, especially the Production Shows. The singers, dancers and musicians were good, the overall concept needs work. Their West End to Broadway show raced through too many songs and made some strange changes to others. "With One Look" from Sunset Blvd was never meant to be a duet. "Masquerade" from Phantom of the Opera is too strongly associated with that show to be used in their City of Dreams show. Would suggest that the West End show focus on three popular musical and do several songs from those three shows.
Individual entertainers like Pete Matthews, Charles Back and Jacqui Scott were excellent. Others like Tenors Unlimited sang well but when trying to have a "rat pack" attitude with out the audience caring for them first, them came across as arrogant Americans. Contrast this with Pete Matthews who did a prat fall off of the stage early in his act. The audience felt sorry for him and that meant he had them in the palm of his hand to take us where ever he wanted to and he did a great job
Activities. I stepped outside of my comfort zone and tried a few of the ships activities during sea days. Did a pull off oil painting class, attended an arts lecture, and saw the Houdini style underwater escape, ice carving, bakery challenge and a close up magic show. All were well done.
Ports Tallinn. This was the only city in which we did a ships tour package. Most people enjoy their ships tour and it has its advantages. For example, if a ships tour is late as four different busses were in St. Petersburg, they hold the ship until all the ships tours have returned. When you are on your own and are late returning to the ship, they do not hold the ship for you. On the flip side, doing a bus tour with 40 usually is a lot of hurry up and wait and the costs of the tours can be high.
For Tallinn we chose to do the ships Walking Tour of Tallinn. The three and a half hour tour of Tallinn ended up being over two hours of shopping. We went into one church, stopped a three viewpoints. Now as I know the lay of the land I would have only taken the shuttle bus from the ship into town and explored on our own.
St Petersburg. Without going into a lot of detail, it is possible to obtain a Russian Visa to explore St Petersburg on your own but I would strongly recommend a private guide. This being our third trip to St Petersburg we wanted to see some new things. We hired a guide through Guide Guru and I highly recommend them. At no cost to us they obtained the Cruise Ship Visa for us, met us on the pier and showed us everything we wanted to see for the two days. The cost was $650 each including tip. We had a very knowledgeably English speaking guide, a newer Toyota car with separate driver. The only extra cost we had was for lunch on the second day. The benefit of a private guide is amazing. At the Hermitage we went straight to the front of the line. In the drive over to the museum the guide asked what we would like to see in the museum, we told her and she took us to the artists or medium (sculptures) that we were interested in. Several times we would walk into a room and be the only people in the room. The guide was so knowledgeable, she could talk about the artist, what inspired them or what to look for in the painting. My partner who has the business mind was thoroughly enthralled with the Art History lesson.
One thing we saw that was not open in our last visit in 1994 was the Church of the Spilled Blood. The entire inside of the church (now museum) is covered in small tiles. Highly recommend a stop there.
We also did non touristy things like going to a Russian version of Wal Mart and then later a coffee house. As we also like old trains we went to an incredible train museum. Our guide had never been there and we were pleasantly surprised at the wonderful collection of Russian trains.
Helsinki. We took a shuttle bus from the ship into town ($10 a piece round trip, American dollars accepted.) When purchase a Helsinki card which provided public transportation, many museum admissions and a bus tour were all included in the card price. If you choose to see the city on your own, do take the shuttle bus into town.
Stockholm. The ship docks away from the town. Some people walked it but the pier is in an industrial harbor area and easy to get lost. Rather than buy shuttle tickets, the Hop On Hop Off bus people pull right up to the ship. Shuttle bus was $12 per person round trip and the Hop On bus was $25 per person for the day so for $13 more we chose that options. (They took American dollars.) We had also bought a Stockholm card prior to leaving because we were in the city on a Sunday. The Stockholm card provided admission to the Vasa Museum, City Hall tour, Canal Boat Tour and the Museums of the Royal Palace.
Copenhagen. The ship docks next to the Little Mermaid statue. Again we purchased the Hop On bus tickets, got an overview of the city and then explored Tivoli Gardens, walked the canals and city streets on our way walking back to the ship.
Oslo. The Hop On bus stops at the ship and went to where we wanted to go: Vigeland Sculpture Park, The Kon Tiki Museum
Overall we never exchanged money except one ruble withdrawal at a Russian ATM machine to pay for lunch on our second day there. Otherwise everyone else took dollars or a MasterCard.
It was a wonderful vacation. 12 nights is a perfect length to cruise and these were all interesting ports.
Other passenger complaints. I noticed that an overall a component of people happiness with their trip came down to a perception of value. As with the airlines, it appears no two cruise passengers pay the same price. As soon as one finds someone who paid a lower price, it tended to sour the more expensive passengers mood. For example we met a couple from Australia who had booked the cruise almost a year in advance. We booked less than three months in advance. I did not say anything because he had already talked to other passengers but I realize he paid more for his 4th deck interior cabin that we did for our 10th deck balcony cabin. But to me, we had to pay a much higher air fare so it all works out in the end. The cruise lines do reward their frequent passengers so sign up for their clubs.