Journey to Port: What should have been a relatively easy journey of one and a half hours actually turned into a bit of a nightmare. We ended up in a stationery queue of traffic for about one and a half hours after an accident and we were getting seriously worried about missing the boat! We used the A12 which according to our check-in lady is notoriously bad so I would recommend finding an alternative route if possible.
Embarkation: Very easy, not much of a queue and the girl at the desk was clear and precise. Then it was over the photographer for an embarkation photo. As first-time cruisers we did not know about this and having spent three hours stuck in the car were rather bedraggled which was a shame as it would have been nice to have a good picture. Then it was up the long ramp (there is a lift if needed) to go through security. There is then a very long walk along gantries to the ship. On boarding the ship we were greeted with a glass of champagne or orange and directed to our cabin.
Cabin: We chose a Deluxe Balcony 2A and DH was a little disappointed with the size initially; I think he had delusions of grandeur though. Although not particularly large, it was fine and in good condition. We had brought extra coat hangers with us which I recommend if possible as there are never enough. The bed was reasonably comfortable although I found the pillows a little hard. The bathroom was clean and also had plenty of storage areas. Shampoo and conditioner, cotton buds and cotton wool balls are all provided as well as face cloths. The bath towels were a little small for my taste so I recommend using the ones from the pool which are a lot bigger. Our bags were delivered to our room very quickly and we had unpacked almost everything within the hour. After which we set off to explore the ship. Firstly, let me say, it is huge. Our cabin was on the port side forward which is a long way from anywhere! Generally, the ship was in very good condition and extremely clean. I had read some comments about it being a bit dilapidated but that was not our experience. The crew are all friendly and helpful. There is an interactive TV where you can order room service, book shore excursions, check your account etc.
Dining: We chose late seating for the main dining room and I probably would not do this again. Although I prefer to eat late, by the time all the courses were served we did not get out of the dining room until 10.30 to 11pm every night which is a bit too late. I think we were a bit unfortunate, but we seemed to get the slowest table in the dining room. One night when we still had not had our appetisers by 9.15 we complained. Things were a little quicker after that but not by much. Despite requesting a table for 6 we were seated at table for 8 although the other couple never arrived for the whole cruise! We ate in Ocean Liners one night and this was wonderful, it was my birthday and they brought a cake to my table. We also ate in the Casual Dining by Reservation one night and this was very good, in fact, we had some of the best food on the ship here! However, one point to note is that the menu stays the same for the whole cruise. If you chose to go to the casual dining area there is a large choice from pizza, pasta, sushi, stir fry, salad etc but most of it was not to my taste. I also did not like the "holiday camp" attitude in the casual dining area where you have to queue up with your tray. Frankly, I expect better from this class of ship. I was most disappointed by the food as it is tailored to the American taste and had some odd combinations of ingredients for me. I also did not want to have five courses every night (appetisers, soup, salad, entree and dessert). We used room service a few times, mostly for breakfast and a couple of times during the day for lunch. It was quick and tasty. My other favourite place was the Aqua Spa Cafe which had much lighter fare, although sadly this is not open in the evenings. I'm not a coffee drinker but apparently it was pretty bad – burnt tasting and lots of the Brits were complaining about it. The tea was not much better, although I discovered after several days that there is a silver flask at the coffee stations which contain Tetley tea bags – thank goodness!
Pools: We used both the indoor and outdoor pools as we were fortunate with the weather. In fact, after long day sightseeing a dip in the whirlpool is an absolute must! There were always plenty of beds with blankets and towels provided. Yes, there was some chair hogging but the staff removed their Entertainment: We didn't really bother with this, we are not big drinkers and by the time we'd finished dinner we were too tired to see the shows. DH did watch the one on the last night of the cruise. I saw the beginning but was not impressed and left early. Shops: As you would imagine there are plenty of ways to spend your money and we did. You can get everything from top class jewellery and furs to everyday items such as toothpaste. They have regular sales but mostly its tat, not the stuff you'd actually want them to discount. Almost every night they have a prize draw at 8.15. One night the prize was a pair of diamond earrings!
Casino: We only used the slots for about an hour one night so can't really comment on this.
Ports: The ships offers lots of tours in each of the ports but generally you can get better value by doing it yourself. Here's what we did:
Amsterdam: We did the ship's tour to Volendam and Marken mainly because we had been to Amsterdam before, plus I'd sprained my ankle the week before departure and did not want to do too much walking at the start. I would recommend this as a good trip if you want to see the countryside. Marken is a delightful little village which is untouched by the progress of time. Some of the people still wear traditional costume but we were not lucky enough to see any. Then it was on to Volendam which is a pretty seaside village, followed by a stop at a cheese factory to see how they make it (and of course buy some).
Warnemunde: In the morning we walked into town. The ship docks right near the centre so this is easy to do. Warnemunde is wonderful, very pretty. In the afternoon we did the ship's trip to the cathedral at Bad Doberan and the Moli Steam Train. This was an absolute gem. The train takes you right through the centre of the town, down the main high street which is quite an experience, to a very pretty seaside resort where we had a cup of coffee and cake in a local hotel followed by a wander around the pretty beach area. Some people on our ship did the trip to Berlin but we did not want to spend hours on a bus/train getting there only to have to turn around and do it all again a few hours later. Apparently the send off here was pretty amazing, lots of small boats sailing out of the harbour with us but we were fast asleep so missed it !
Stockholm: Someone on the boards recommended getting up early to see the ship sail through the archipelago which we did. It was absolutely magical, sailing silently through hundreds of islands as the sun came up. We did the HOHO bus which was right at the dock. Our first stop was the Vasa Museum and we were fortunate to have arrived early so there was no queue. You really need at least an hour or more to get the best out of this museum as there is lots to see. Beware of the coffee shop, the prices are exorbitant! As we were leaving the queue was already getting quite long so we definitely benefitted by getting there early. Next, got the bus into the centre and saw the changing of the guard at the palace which was wonderful but took about an hour so you need to be prepared to stand for at least that long. It starts at 12pm. Then walked down to the Old Town and had a good lunch in an Italian restaurant. Overall, we were a little disappointed with Stockholm. The Old Town is pretty samey and touristy. For sail away the captain opened the helideck but we preferred to watch it from the comfort of our balcony. Helsinki: We did the HOHO bus again, which was waiting for us at the dock. We went to Senate Square, the Sibelius monument, the Olympic park, the Rock Church and then wandered along the main street where we had lunch at an outdoor cafe and listened to a concert across the road in the park – wonderful. We really liked Helsinki although we met people who did not. I think a lot of people just went to Senate Square which is a bit dull and that clouded their judgement.
St Petersburg: The jewel in the crown for us. We had arranged a private tour through SPB with people we'd met on the roll call. We had spent a lot of time beforehand working out what we wanted to see and the timing as we had booked an evening tour through the ship which left at 6.30pm so we were very specific about being back in time for that. Unfortunately, SPB changed the itinerary/order around due in part to local events but the fact that we needed to be back at the ship by a certain time had not been communicated to our guide and this meant we had to miss the canal trip and be taken back on our own by the driver. That aside, we had a wonderful tour and I would recommend taking a private tour over the ship as it was much more personal and we went to the front of all the queues! On the first day we went to the Rostral Columns, passed by the Hermitage and St Isaacs and then on to the Catherine's Palace. We had lunch in place just across the road from the palace and it was OK, although nothing to write home about. In the evening we did the "Imperial Evening Tour" through the ship and this was stunning. This was an exclusive trip to St Catherine's Palace where we were greeted by a military band who led us into the Palace and up the marble staircase where Imperial soldiers were positioned. We then had a private guide through the Palace, including the Amber Room where we were allowed to take pictures which is not normally allowed. After the tour we had a champagne reception in the Hall of Mirrors or Throne Room while a string quartet played and dancers performed. Then we were led outside where the band was playing and dancers arrived in a horse drawn carriage to perform one last dance. The band then led us to a wing of the Palace where we had dinner while members of the Mariinskey theatre performed. It was absolutely magical and the highlight of our entire trip. Having been to the Palace during the day when it was full of people and hot and noisy we really felt like royalty having the place to ourselves – there were about 70 of us in total. On the second day we went to the Hermitage first thing and walked straight to the front of the queue and in the door – that's what having a local guide can do for you. This was an amazing place and we did not have enough time to really do it justice. Be warned, there is a lot of walking and no air conditioning or seating. After this we went to the Stolle pie shop where we had "Pirogies" – slices of sweet or savoury pie – delicious. In the afternoon we went to the Peterhof which is beautiful.
Tallinn: As my foot was hurting after all the walking in St P, we took the ship's "panoramic" tour which frankly was a rip-off. It took us around the outskirts of the town to the Kadriog Palace which we couldn't see through the trees! Then through a suburb to the song contest arena which we couldn't see because Madonna was due to play there, then we had a quick stop at the upper town and Tompeea. You could opt to stay in town, otherwise it was back to the ship. We did choose to stay in town and thank goodness we did as the lower town is an absolute gem! Every corner led to a beautiful vista and we absolutely adored it. We had Estonian sausage and mash at a restaurant in the main square which was lovely. If you had gone back to the ship you would have missed the best bit. Copenhagen: We did the HOHO bus from the port. We got the 2-day combined tour. This was the city that disappointed us the most – it was a very hot day and the centre was noisy and dirty. It reminded me too much of London which I was trying to escape. The Rosenborg Castle is a delight however and I definitely recommend it. We had lunch in a cafe in Nyhaven and watched the world go by and then headed back to the ship. The second day my foot was hurting again, plus we were exhausted so we just milled around the port shops and DH went to take a picture of the little mermaid which is nearby and when they say "little" they mean it! It meant wasting the second half of our HOHO ticket but we didn't mind.
Disembarkation: We received notification to go to the Theatre for 8.30, which we did. After a short wait they said we could disembark. At the car park our bags were waiting, as were porters with trolleys. The bags were out in the open but the porters told us they put a marquee up if the weather is bad.
General: Overall, we had a wonderful cruise. The ship is in great condition and the staff are friendly and helpful. Minor niggles: single ply toilet paper – not sure if this a financial or "green" policy but either way it doesn't work as people just use more! Coffee – as mentioned was disgusting. Some of the tea/coffee stations run out of cups/glasses during sea days.