Pre-cruise information: I selected this particular cruise for the simple reason that the itinerary provided 3 days in St. Petersburg, 2 days in Stockholm, and 2 days in Copenhagen (not counting the day of embarkation). It didn’t hurt that I had read great things about the Azamara ships and that the itinerary coincided with our daughter’s work schedule. It turned out that there were many other reasons that made this cruise wonderful, and a few hiccups (mostly outside the control of the ship) that made the trip “interesting.”
I originally booked a sky suite (to better accommodate 3 adults), but when prices started falling in the spring, I found a penthouse suite that became available after final payment was due that cost us, after taking into account OBC and prepaid gratuities, all of $140 more than we originally paid. This may well be the only time we ever end up in a penthouse suite. The second great thing about the cruise, obviously, was the itinerary and the independent excursions we arranged and undertook in each of the six ports (see below). Finally, and contrary to the forecasts even the day before our departure from the US, was the weather – other than 30 minutes of misting in Copenhagen on the day of our embarkation, we had perfect weather, meaning lows in the low to mid 60s F and highs in the mid to high 79s F.
We arrived in Copenhagen a day early and took a taxi (about $40 US) from the airport to the Marriott (booked via a Priceline bid). The cost was acceptable (everything in Copenhagen is costly), the amenities and condition of the hotel were great, but the location was simply not good. The Marriott is several long blocks from Tivoli Gardens and even farther from most other major attractions in Copenhagen (e.g., Stroget, Nyhaven, Little Mermaid). The city is walkable, but make sure you have good walking shoes!
The night before embarkation we met up with CC roll call buddies at the Absolut Ice Bar for a couple of drinks (about $25 pp per drink) and then went to Tivoli for a nice dinner at Groeften. Then walked back to the Marriott.
Checkin: We got a cab from the Marriott to the ship’s berth at Frihavnen for about $30 US. We arrived at the ship around 11:45 and made it onboard in about 20 minutes (no line but still forms to fill out). Our cabin wouldn’t be ready until 1:30, so we met some of our CC roll call friends on the pool deck (deck 9 on the Journey) for a cocktail then on to our cabin when ready. We had already made reservations for Aqualina for our first at sea day and made the rest of our reservations as soon as we were in our cabin. As suite guests, the ship asked us to select one of its specialty restaurants, so we selected Prime C for our sailaway dinner since we’d be going to Aqualina a couple of nights later. We also made reservations for a couple of additional nights at Prime C and Aqualina while in line.
Room: When we first walked into the room, we were elated with its size, arrangement, and furnishing. The PH suite is aft and is about 560 square feet PLUS a huge veranda that wraps a bit around the side of the ship. The bedroom is spacious, with lots of closet space (more than the three of us could use) and a vanity area just outside the adjoining large bathroom (equipped with Jacuzzi). A second half-bath is just inside the entry to the suite, and the living room (with a 4-seat round dining table) was equipped with a sofa bed (that our daughter said was perfectly comfortable) and a large-screen TV. The veranda was equipped with a dining table for four on starboard side of the veranda, and with two chaise loungers on the other side. The veranda was accessed by sliding glass doors from the living room and from the bedroom.
Service in our cabin was great. Our “main” butler (Arvind), second butler (Minish) and housekeeper (Rosalie) were unobtrusive but always available. Rosalie was possibly the best stateroom attendant we’ve ever had – incredibly personable, warm and helpful. Our daughter asked Rosalie (on the sly) on our last sea day if she could make a towel animal for my wife; when we returned after dinner my wife found two “kissing” swans on our bed, which was also adorned with rose petals! Arvind was prompt every morning with breakfast (full breakfast a couple of times, juice and coffee/espresso every other morning), and Minish was always around (quite often helping Rosalie). Arvind or Minish were also prompt with our tea and/or savories every afternoon if we ordered them the night before. Given how port-intensive our itinerary was, there were a few days when we didn’t get to have them, but when we did the food and their presentation were great.
Food: Mostly wonderful. The 2 specialty places were excellent, as was Discoveries (the main dining room). The service was great, wine selection was reasonably priced and the food was very good. We generally had breakfast at Windows Café (the buffet line, which changed name to Breezea for the evening meal), and it was always tasty. My only complaint about breakfast there was with fellow passengers, some of whom apparently don’t know the meaning of lining up at the omelet station. Lunch at the buffet was mixed – maybe we were spoiled by the main dining room and the specialty restaurants. They offered sushi a couple of evenings that our daughter really enjoyed. We only tried the pool bar/grille a couple of times – had a nice burger and fries. The ship also sponsored special evening buffets a few nights (featuring port-related foods), including our overnight in Stockholm where they even made their own “ice bar” that was a lot of fun.
Excursions: Other than taking the ship’s shuttle from the dock to downtown areas in Stockholm and Copenhagen, all of our excursions were independent. We either “did” DIY (Helsinki, Tallinn, Stockholm and Copenhagen) or our privately arranged independent tours (used SP-B Tours for Berlin and St. Petersburg). The main reasons we decided to use a private tour guide for Berlin and St. Petersburg were to keep costs lower than tours offered by the ship and to keep the size of the group smaller.
Warnemunde/Rostock for Berlin: As noted, we used SP-B Tour for our excursion to Berlin. Although we ended up seeing lots, in the future I wouldn’t take a trip from this port to Berlin. The distance is simply too great and too much time is spent in transit. Unfortunately our driver from the dock to Berlin spoke no English so we were occasionally out of touch with what was going on. Our tour guide in Berlin (also arranged by SP-B) was a young American (maybe 30 years old) who was incredibly knowledgeable and accommodating. That being said, however, it still took us 4 hours each way in transit, and we were getting nervous about getting back in time, particularly when the driver couldn’t tell us how long it would take to get out of Berlin (the traffic at 4:30 pm was horrendous). We got back with 45 minutes to spare, but the 9 of us in the minivan were getting pretty nervous.
Helsinki: We would have enjoyed Helsinki quite a bit were it not for two hiccups – we were there on a Sunday and the summer solstice, meaning that the market area (some would say the major attraction) was essentially shut down, and I was pick-pocketed at the Tourist Information Center. The pick-pocket incident was weird – we had gone into the TIC to purchase tram tickets. I took out the leather “pouch” containing my Euros and sea-pass card (but no credit cards or ATM cards, thank goodness), took out the money for the tram tickets, put the pouch on the counter, and the next second it was gone. We told the agents behind the counter and they didn’t seem to be very concerned. When we came back to the TIC just before returning to the ship, they were more concerned and told us to report it to the police – my wife tried to from the ship’s phone, but the police authorities said we had to appear in person to file a report. Since the ship was about to leave, we didn’t file an official report. Lesson learned? Not even Tourist Information Centers are safe from pick-pockets.
St. Petersburg: Simply incredible. Of course, the fact that the Journey docked at the Lt. Schmidt embankment right on the Neva River, across the river from the Church of Spilt Blood (viewable from our veranda) made it even better. Our tour guide, Elena (from SP-B Tour) was great (as was our driver Yuri). We had the same group (11 of us) for all three days. We had no problem disembarking (at least problems no greater than anyone else getting through passport control) – the first day it took about 30 minutes, the other two days there was no line so disembarking was a breeze. The first day we drove about the city with a couple of stops for photo opportunities, then drove to Catherine’s Palace – about a 40 minutes drive and then VERY long lines through the palace itself. Our lunch that day was so-so – blinis and a soda pop at an outdoor café.
Our second day started a bit later (9:00 am) and included, at the end of the day, a canal ride that was fun and restful. This was after our 2-3 hours at the Hermitage (incredibly ornate – much more so than the Louvre and the interior even rivaled Versailles). That morning we visited Peter and Paul fortress and cathedral, where we got to visit the memorial graves of all the Romanovs and enjoy an acapella (sp?) group singing in a closed side chapel and then visited the Church on Spilt Blood. At the end of our tour the second day, our guide accompanied us to a Stolle’s near the Mariinsky Theater for a bite of dinner before attending an opera at the theater. The opera (a contemporary The Brothers Karamazov) was interesting and fun, but we opted out after the first act (and 15 scenes) that lasted a bit over 2 hours. As previously arranged, our driver Yuri met us outside the theater and took us back to the ship.
Our final day in St. Petersburg included a visit to a market (with tastes of various local foods), a short subway ride (one stop – very interesting) and then a drive to Peterhof for a walk through the gardens and fountains and a visit to Mon Plaisir (a small “palace” actually used by the Romanovs). We returned to St. Petersburg by hydrofoil (very cool), then a late lunch at another Stolle’s (think pies), and finished up at Yusupov’s palace (site of Rasputin’s murder). When Yuri and Elena drove us back to the ship at 4:00 (ship departed at 5:00), Elena pulled out a bottle of vodka for all of us to have an informal toast to conclude our visit to St. Petersburg. I would recommend SP-B Tour (aka Viktoria on the CC forums) without hesitation. Our group was small, we saw lots, and the price was much less than comparable activities obtained through the ship’s excursion offerings.
Tallinn: We had about 10 hours in Tallinn. Rather than walk to the town (maybe a 20 minute walk, but through some industrial areas) we took the ship’s shuttle that deposited us next to the old town. Tallinn was a great escape – a step back in time and obviously smaller than St. Petersburg. Lots of walking, a little shopping, sitting in outdoor cafes drinking (beer in my case, cappuccinos for most of us), and people-watching. We did visit a couple of churches but mainly just enjoyed the day.
That night we were treated by the senior officers on board to the Best of the Best. This was a fabulous dinner held in Michael’s Club, a six-course dinner paired with wines, hosted by the Captain and Hotel Director. They gave the ladies beautiful red roses and the men miniatures of Estonian vodka. The service was impeccable, to say the least.
Stockholm: We arrived in Stockholm a bit ahead of schedule – around 9:30. I’d bought us Stockholm cards, so we took Bus #76 to the Vasa Museum (very interesting for a bit more than an hour) then walked to Skansen, another must see. We found it disappointing – I’m sure that families with children might enjoy it more, but we left after 30 minutes or so. We walked to the Grona Lund where we caught the ferry to Slussen at the southern end of Gamla Stan. We walked a bit, found a restaurant with outdoor seating for lunch, and then walked some more. Then on to the Royal Palace, the Royal Treasury, a store to buy Tom Tars, and then walked to the Stockholm Ice Bar (another one!). Enjoyed a drink there, but afterwards opted out of public transit and caught a taxi to the ship (about $20 US). Dinner on ship that night with late night cocktails on the pool deck and the Journey’s rendition of their own Ice Bar. Very fun.
The next day I decided to take it easy while my wife and daughter took the ship’s shuttle back into town for a little more shopping. They also caught the changing of the guard at the Royal Palace at 12:15 or so. I whiled away my time with a massage at the Aqua Spa (my wife and daughter had already spent some time and money there). The sailaway that afternoon at 6:00 pm was beautiful (through the archipelago), and we had a photographer come to our suite for an in-suite sitting (or actually, on-veranda sitting).
Entertainment: To be truthful I only went to the cabaret once – for a folkloric show after we got back from the opera. Enjoyed that very much (and it was taped and on the ship’s TV periodically after that). The theater is much smaller than what we had on the Celebrity Millennium and the Princess Caribbean, but it was adequate to the task. But for people expecting big productions, it might be a disappointment. My only other “entertainment” was the casino, which I enjoyed too much, if you get my drift.
Ship: Perfect size! Many liked the casual atmosphere - no formal night. Some folks did wear suits to dinner, but others just shirts and slacks. People could have gone to a buffet dinner where shorts and jeans would have sufficed, so that option exists.
The spa was great. They offered the usual range of massages, facials, and manicures, but also had a board certified acupuncturist on board. There was a steam room in the men's and ladies' locker rooms. Robes and slippers were provided. Behind the spa, there is a private terrace with a thelassotherapy pool. This was provided as an amenity to Penthouse and Royal Suite guests and was available to others for an additional $175 per couple for the cruise. We used the thelassotherapy pool probably 5-6 times each.
The weather was good enough most days to use the pool on Deck 9 and its hot tubs.
Staff: The level of staff excellence can be attributed to the Hotel Director, Philip Herbert. He had prior experience on the Crystal and Celebrity and applied his knowledge and experience to the Journey. He was incredibly gracious and helpful. The captain/master (Georgios Theodorou) was affable and friendly. The Cruise Director, John Howell, seemed to be everywhere! He constantly asked people how things were going. He greeted everyone as they headed out on daily excursions, walked around during sea days, poked his head into the restaurants and emceed the evening entertainment. He also taped a segment in the casino bar one night discussing the activities the following day and featured my wife, daughter and one of our new friends (they were whiling away their time while husbands/father sat at the blackjack and poker tables); his only mistake was that he called my wife “Candy” throughout the video (which was repeated numerous times on the ship’s channel on TV the next couple of days) – it was hilarious when the three of them gave unexpected answers to John’s questions.
Debarkation: Very smooth and organized.
Would I sail Azamara again? In a NY minute, in a heartbeat. Enough said!