Back to reality. For the first time in nearly two weeks, I need to carry a wallet instead of a Sea Pass card.
My wife and I just returned from a fabulous trip aboard the Constellation. Previously, we had cruised on Carnival, Princess, and Royal Caribbean.
Below are a few notes on our trip that may be interesting to the group - some "pay back" for all of the good information that I have received from the discussion group over the years.
Here are the sections: Preliminaries: Booking the trip with CruiseQuick and Red October Getting There: Flying to London and side trips Welcome Aboard: Some observations about the Celebrity Constellation Port By Port: Details on activities and a special section on Red October Disembarkation: The bitter end Sidebars: extended rants from an obsessed and perverted mind
12 Day Baltic Cruise Celebrity Constellation August 26, 2004
In the months leading up to our trip, I was excited because I had always wanted to take an extended voyage, visit Russia, and cruise with Celebrity. The twelve-day Baltic cruise was a perfect fit. I also liked what I had read about the Constellation: big (964 feet), new (maiden voyage in May, 2002), and many awards (top rated by Conde Nast Traveler).
We booked the cruise via CruiseQuick.com for $3021 per person. This included a category seven unobstructed ocean-view cabin on deck two, Celebrity Air via Virgin Atlantic out of Los Angeles with transfers ($800), and an extra day pre-cruise in London at The City Inn Westminster ($212). We also ended up paying about $400 per person for Red October and about $500 per person for on-board charges like drinks, internet, photography, tips, and so on.
So, including all fares, drinks, shore excursions, and so on, when we finally got home the cruise cost us about $ 4,000 a person.
I understand that we could have done all of the transfers and air on our own. I've done this before, but this time I was traveling with a larger group and I wanted the cruise line to take care of me for the entire trip. This ended up working out well.
They say it clearly on their web site: CruiseQuick is not for everyone. They won't hold your hand and help you pick out a cruise or a cabin. Their communications are terse. However, they have always been responsive and offered good prices, so this is the second cruise I have booked with them. There were a few little hiccups. At one point, they told me they would send me an email when they received the cruise docs. This didn't happen - I received the docs without any notice. Also, I had requested a balcony cabin. They said that the balconies were sold out, but my nicely-formatted email itinerary still said "balcony". When I pointed out that our assigned room was not on a balcony deck, they agreed that it was a typo and apologized for the goof. Not a big deal. I have to say though, that people considering CruiseQuick should not worry about it being an "email only" agency. They have always responded to me much faster than any conventional travel agency - always less than a day, in some cases in just a few hours.
After receiving the booking number from CruiseQuick, I went to the Celebrity website and keyed in all of our vital information. The web site for this is well-executed, on par with the Princess site and much better than Carnival's version. Eventually, I booked our shore excursions through the web site as well. This is a fabulous feature that is offered by Celebrity and Princess but not Carnival. On Carnival, it was very unpleasant getting all of the excursions ordered on the first day of the cruise. I also went to the Cruise Critic web site and signed up for the special "Connections" party offered to Cruise Critic users.
Celebrity's cruise docs are wire-bound and nicely formatted, with customized luggage tags bound-into the little folder. This is much nicer than both Princess and Carnival, who sent me a bunch of tags floating around in a cramped envelope. Carnival's docs were all in upper case and had a dated feel. Celebrity's were nice and modern, giving me a clean and upscale impression. Nice.
So far, the Celebrity website and docs experience was nice. When I called them to confirm that my cabin was not a balcony that was nice too.
Everyone who has who is internet-savvy and is considering a Baltic itinerary has heard of Red October ( http://www.redoctober.spb.ru ) tours. They're a Russian tour company that offers intensive tours for a reasonable price. It is run by a lady who previously worked at InTourist, the only travel agency around in the Soviet era.
I read many positive reviews of Red October, and we had a productive exchange of e-mail to develop my custom itinerary. I wanted to visit some unusual places in addition to the standard tour of the palaces.
I threw them a number of curve balls. I wanted our guide to be one of the "Helens" that have been reviewed so positively. I also also had an unusual itinerary in mind: I wanted to ride the subway, see the military museum, and visit a farmer's market. They handled all of these special requests with ease. Later, I asked about a visit to the "St. Petersburg Broadcasting Center". They said they were busy with other customers and would get back to me soon. I waited for two months before reminding them of my request. I think they forgot about it, because within a few more days they gave me some detailed information: A visit to the broadcasting center takes about six hours, and I would have to cut out something from our schedule to make it fit. I decided against it.
Off topic observation: Whenever I'm working with someone and they tell me they are busy, my first inclination is to lighten their load a little bit by taking my business elsewhere. That would be Denrus ( http://www.denrus.ru/ )in this case. I didn't do that this time because it was just a small issue and Red October is so highly recommended by the internet groups.
Several months before the cruise, Red October asked for passport information and sent me some "tickets" by postal mail to help us get through Russian Immigration. By email, they sent a final itinerary and several Word documents giving tips on dealing with the ship's crew at disembarkation.
As it turns out, none of this was necessary for us. The Celebrity staff and Russian Immigration just let us sail right through.
It seems that there is some confusion on the part of the cruise lines, perhaps intentional, about the need for Russian Visas by independent travelers. Celebrity states "A Tourist Visa is required for independent sight-seeing: however, visas are not needed on the ship sponsored shore excursions." What they don't say is that passengers who use travel companies registered with the Russian government - such as Red October and DenRus - are also exempt from Visas.
So let me put it clearly: You do not need a Russian visa with Red October.
I've also seen rumored on the internet groups that cruise lines will frequently make independent tourists wait until the ship's tours have disembarked. Red October sent me several e-mail stating we should get off the ship as soon as possible, and offering some tips on how to do that.
As it turns out, this also was much ado about nothing. During the cruise itself, there was a polite announcement asking those with independent arrangements in St. Petersburg to check in with the reception desk, ostensibly to deal with Russian Immigration formalities.
I brought my package of Red October materials to the desk, and clerk asked what time I wanted to get off the ship. She said that they were keeping track just to enable an orderly disembarkation. So much for immigration formalities...
I was able to glance at the list and stopped counting after I reached twenty groups for Red October. Good for them.
Celebrity booked us on a Virgin Atlantic flight that left Los Angeles International at 5:30pm and arrived at London Heathrow at about 10 a.m local time after about nine hours in the air.
I've traveled internationally many times, but this was my first flight with Virgin. There were a few surprises. First of all, carry on baggage for coach class was limited to fifteen pounds, and they had an electronic scale at the entrance to the check-in line. First or business class passengers escaped scrutiny.
I have a Tumi roll-aboard that I have been using for a number of years, and it must weight fourteen pounds empty. No matter how much I transferred to my checked bag, I couldn't get it down to the right weight, so I had to check it, which made me nervous as it had no locks. There was considerable chaos in the ticketing area people struggled to transfer items from bag to bag to meet the weight limits. In retrospect, I should have selected business class for my group. No fifteen-pound limit there.
Also, after a certain time the security goons decided that they didn't like the way the line was growing, so they re-formed it outside, completely ignoring the people who were already in a line tracing its way through the terminal. This caused a number of heated arguments from those who had waited the longest and suddenly found themselves at the end of a newer, longer, line.
The flight itself was non-eventful, other than I had an aisle seat. My fitful attempts at sleep were disturbed by well-fed rumps brushing against my shoulder as they waddled down the aisle. I pushed back when I felt something touch my head, but I doubt the worst offenders could feel my rebuking shove. Note to self: especially when flying coach, choose a middle seat over aisles when window seats are unavailable.
Soon, we reached Heathrow. Virgin once again dashed my expectations by using stairs and a bus to handle the disembarking passengers. The bus could only handle forty people at a time, and apparently there was only one bus, so some time to drain the 400 people from our 747.
After running through British immigration, our group of four people collected our luggage and we were off to find our Celebrity transfer agent. I breathed a sigh of relief as I discovered my belongings were still in that unlocked bag that I had to check.
Walking into the busy arrival lobby with our luggage, I spotted a Celebrity sign held by what turned out to be a very pleasant lady. She checked our names against a list and then escorted us to a driver, mentioning that only a few groups were arriving the day before the cruise, but that she would be shepherding more than 400 people the next day - the day of departure.
We were led to a waiting van and the driver took us to The City Inn, Westminster. It was one of the hotels recommended by Celebrity and I selected it because it was new and offered a modern, minimalist dEcor. Our group of four had the van to ourselves.
Independently, I had booked a tour of the state rooms at Buckingham Palace and a "flight" on the London Eye Ferris wheel. Even though we were all tired from the flight, it was energizing to be inside the palace. The tour was self-guided using a programmable audio headset. At certain points the audio would say something like "if you would like further information about this special clock, type 51 on your keypad and press the green button".
When we arrived back at the hotel there was a letter under the door from Celebrity welcoming us and offering some tips about the transfer the next day.
The next day, we got on the big bus parked just outside the hotel and arrived at the Dover port two and a half hours later. The bus was modern and it was about half full, but the seating was somewhat cramped - some of the taller people were grousing.
In the arrival hall at the Dover Port, we were greeted by a fair-sized line of passengers and some Celebrity staff dispensing punch and water. When I traveled on Princess last, they had some low-key live music in the arrival hall to set the mood, something that Celebrity should emulate.
When we reached the head of the line they handled the usual details and then threw me a curve ball: They wanted to keep our passports, at least temporarily, saying they had to make a copy for Russian immigration. I hesitated to give up my passport to anyone, but I had some ancient memories of Russians keeping passports in the old days, so I quickly relented. We received receipts, and the passports were returned to us the next day on-board, with a photocopy neatly folded for us inside. I still don't understand why they didn't just make a photocopy right then at the port, but I didn't complain.
As it turns out, Celebrity was making a copy for our convenience - Russian Immigration needed a copy the first day in St. Petersburg. I wish they just would have explained it like that. Something like "Russian Immigration now requires you to present a photocopy of your passport when you get off the ship the first day in St. Petersburg. We will make a copy for you and return it along with your passport to your stateroom. We will give you a receipt for your passport. The passport number you may have given us earlier is not enough for Russian Immigration. They need a copy, and we are helping you...."
We were on the ship in a half hour, welcomed by a glass of champagne and a line of uniformed staff taking passengers to their staterooms. We had room 2074, and within minutes of our arrival our Indian steward Camilo was there introducing himself and explaining the features of the room. That was nice, because on our last Carnival cruise we never met our steward.
In our cabin was a complimentary Celebrity tote bag, some bathrobes to use, two umbrellas, a safe, a hair drier, two outlets near the desk and one in the bathroom. The shower had a detachable nozzle and was thermostatically controlled. There was no peephole in the door.
On a lark, I confirmed that we would be experiencing the "glowing toilet" affect, occasionally discussed in the news groups. When the lights are off in the bathroom, a little bit of light from the outside corridor seeps in through a plumbing maintenance panel, resulting in a slight glow to the toilet bowl.
Moving on, I jumped on the bed and determined that the mattress was firm and the linens had a luxurious feel.
On our little desk I found our shore excursion tickets and an invitation to the Cruise Critic party. The signups for both of these were handled months ago via the web. I took a minute to read the daily activity guide. It had a high quality feel, thick paper and nice fonts. The "schedule" section was a separate piece of thick stock, almost like a 3x5 card, and was divided for easy folding. The small print on the activity guide said that promotional fees may have been paid by the recommended shops, and that was also stated from time to time by the onboard "shopping consultant". These thoughtful details put me in a good mood - I was pleased to see truth in advertising.
We wandered around the ship a bit, and found it to be modern, clean, and with a collection of art that was entirely to my liking. Lots of photographs, mixed media, and sculpture. I didn't see many inaccessible modern-art masterpieces.
There are no self-service laundry facilities aboard the Constellation, unlike the Star Princess and the Carnival Inspiration.
We checked out the reception area located at the foot of the tasteful atrium, noting a kiosk near the front desk that had printed newspaper summaries in various languages. They also had a "bank" desk and a "concierge" desk nearby. The bank handled the usual currency exchange details, and also handled postal duties - the attendant told me that they would mail postcards for $1.25 each, and if they were submitted more than an hour before departure they would bear the postmark of the current port. As it turns out, $1.25 was reasonable compared to the international postcard rates we found at some of the ports. Next stop: the casino. It casino had the usual slot games and video poker, along with dealer blackjack, craps, and roulette. The blackjack rules allow for doubling after a split, but the craps game only featured single odds.
I found it notable that the casino cashier would offer quick cash charged to the room account - the usual credit-card cash advance fees would not apply. I think this would be a better deal than using the shipboard ATM machines.
Leaving the Casino, we checked out some of Constellation's other special features. The library, "words" was an impressive two-story room with plenty of books and magazines. They also rented iPod music players there.
The music lounge, "Notes", was also two levels, and it had quite a few lounge chairs with nearby touch-screen jukeboxes. I messed with the touch screen a bit --- you can select genre, artist, or song, make a play list, and then listen to your custom concert via headphones. Unexpected and fascinating.
We went up to deck ten to take a quick peek at the Aqua Spa. Celebrity claims that they have the largest facilities afloat, and from what we saw that is no idle boast. The spa facility is quite appropriately located on the same deck as the buffet. It features a little Cafe, which features light cuisine all day. The cafe looks out over the therapy pools - a couple of regular Jacuzzi-style tubs and a larger heated pool of similar design.
Beyond the therapy pools were the treatment rooms, where the staff was offering the usual feel-good quackery such as "a coconut milk body scrub to release toxins that cause irritability and constipation." I was tempted to ask specifically which toxins were released and the specific mode of removal, but I decided against it. My guess was that the "toxins" came from the buffet down the hall.
The ship also touted acupuncture treatments in a similar fashion.
We inquired about a manicure and a pedicure, and the total for the "hand and foot ritual with exfoliating lime and ginger salt scrub" was a little over a hundred dollars. Perhaps this is a good deal for seaborne nail clipping, but I decided to pass.
In front of the ship, and indeed one of the few places where one could get a good view of where the ship was headed, was the gymnasium. It was well-equipped with gear from Life Fitness: six elliptical trainers, twelve treadmills, five steppers, four cycles, and a dozen weight machines. I also saw two Schwin rowing machines, a bunch of stationary bikes used for aerobics classes, and a small room with free weights.
On the very top deck was the "conservatory", a type of greenhouse where you could pick up some greenery and take flower arranging classes. It seemed to me that most of the flowers were silk, but some of them appeared to be alive. They also had a jogging track there.
I was sort of disappointed at this point to discover that there was no easy way to get to the very front of the ship. The concealed "topless deck" was about as close as one could get - neither the promenade deck nor the jogging track led all the way up to the front. I was hoping to do my Leonardo DeCaprio imitation by shouting "I'm the king of the world!" from the helipad on the ship's bow. Alas, that part of the ship is blocked to passengers.
The muster drill followed, and I marveled that both the audio quality and the depth of the explanations were better than other lines. Also interesting were the multilingual announcements: English and Spanish. As it turns out, there were a lot of people from Mexico and South America on the cruise.
I liked the way they played the Celebrity theme song as we were sailing away from port.
The entertainment that night featured some videotaped introductions from Celebrity executives. That was nice.
Port by Port
The first day was a day at sea, giving us a good chance to explore the ship and its many charms. I grew accustomed the friendly way the staff greeted us whenever we passed along the hallways and decks.
Our cabin was quiet. The silence was uninterrupted by shill announcements for Art auctions, bingo, or spa specials. Not ever. I like that about Celebrity. Occasionally we could hear our neighbors in the adjoining cabin, especially when they were putting things in their closet, but thankfully that was relatively rare.
The ship was very smooth. Overall, we only had noticeable motion on one day, which I understand made a few people sick. On that day, I was fine but I wished the closet had foam rubber hangers, as they were jangling about.
The ship was kept very neat and clean.
First stop: Oslo, Norway. Arrived at seven a.m., left at two p.m. Brief!
I awakened early to view our approach through the "fjords", and my wife and I were among the first to get off the ship at 7 am. Greeting us at the dock was a lone taxi, a hop-on, hop-off bus for the independent minded, and a few dozen pieces of luggage that were catching up to their owners. We wandered about the town a bit and then returned to the ship to pick up Celebrity's $45 "Oslo Highlights" tour.
That tour was a waste. We saw the sculpture garden, where our guide gave us explanations in unneeded detail on many of the dozens of sculptures in the park. There was at least ten other tour buses there, preventing really special photography.
After the sculpture garden, we went to the ski jump museum. I was also bored by this. After that, we drove by the courthouse and returned to the ship. At one point, the chatty tour guide told us to avert our eyes because there was an interesting flea-market happening on the side of the road, and we wouldn't be stopping there.
The main highlight for me was the visit inside the state building, which is impressive architecturally and also because it is the site of the Nobel Prize banquet. There was a large Asian tour group there and the members were taking pictures of each other engaging in mock acceptance speeches at the Nobel lectern. I thought that was a grand idea, but the line was too long so I gave up. No Nobel Prize for me, too impatient.
After returning to the ship, we still had a good hour to kill so we jumped on a shuttle that Celebrity had arranged between the ship and a shopping area.
Then we bid Oslo farewell, having experienced just a quick taste of Nordic Culture.
When we returned to our room, there was a little form on the bed asking us how we intended to get to the airport at the end of the cruise. Premature and a real buzz kill. That's not what I wanted to be thinking about so early in the cruise, and I can just assume that the ship was trying to plan the disembarkation process.
What made it even more disappointing is that I had scheduled all of my travel through Celebrity, so they already knew that I was using them to transfer from the ship to the airport and what flight I was taking. I shrugged off this minor annoyance and left the cabin to gorge myself.
Second port: Stockholm, Sweden. Arrived at ten a.m., left at five p.m.
We had scheduled "A Day In Stockholm" for $99 per person through Celebrity. And a busy day it was. The first stop was at a nice place to take pictures of the harbor. We visited a number of grand old churches, then the Viking Ship Museum. The museum was much more interesting that I anticipated - the old Viking ship is really large and there is a fascinating story associated with its rediscovery and recovery. The museum was well done.
We had about two hours on our own for lunch and shopping, and we spent it wandering around the crooked streets of the city center, getting lost at one point but it ended up all right.
By this point, I realized that Celebrity is really punctual. Our ship always arrived right on time at the ports and the shore excursions left almost to the minute of scheduled departure. Some of the excursions left early when they determined that everyone was already on the bus. That was nice and I appreciated it -- an improvement over the other cruise lines.
Third Port: Helsinki, Finland. Arrived at nine a.m., left at six p.m.
We booked the $189 "Steam Train and Highlights" tour through Celebrity. We did indeed take a brief ride on a wood-fired steam train, and stopped at the obligatory old churches
We spent some time wandering around the quaint old town of Porvoo before going to an old manor on the Baltic for a fair lunch of chicken stew, scalloped potatoes, and raspberry mouse. Then it was back to the ship.
Fourth Port: St. Petersburg, Russia. Arrived at seven a.m., left at 6:30 p.m. the next day.
Using what I learned on this group, I used Red October to guide me through the two days in St. Petersburg. The experience was so efficient and so customized to my whims that it will be difficult for me to return to bus-sized tours. When all was said and done it ended up being a bit under $200 per person per day.
The night before we arrived, our room steward delivered a message to our room that explained how they had made special arrangements for independent travelers. To be the first off the ship, all we had to do was show up in a particular lounge at 7:00 am, and then a crew member would escort us to the gangway.
It looks like Celebrity has this all squared away. I was expecting a horror show, having to muscle my way through a wall of disinterested crew members telling me that I couldn't get off the ship until the ship's tours departed. Red October sent me several messages suggesting as much.
Instead, I was greeted in the lounge by two dining room staffers dispensing coffee and pastries. There were at least fifty people in the lounge.
Eventually, someone showed up with a hand-held radio. When the radio squawked he said "follow me everyone". Sure enough, we were the first off the boat at about 7:20 a.m. No trouble at all. All of the doom and gloom predictions came to nothing.
As I first set foot on the uneven asphalt of the industrial port of St. Petersburg, Russia, I was greatly amused to find a uniformed brass brand playing "Stars and Stripes Forever". Ahhhh, the irony. The iron curtain had become the ironic curtain. I couldn't help laughing at that thought, but sadly it seems that the humor escaped those around me.
We were guided into the small Russian Immigration building. The stern agent took the paper photocopy of my passport that Celebrity had made for us, stamped the passport on the very last page, and handed me a little red card to that said "cruise ship passenger". From there, I passed by modern radiation detector and out into the parking lot of waiting buses and vans.
I guess I won't be carrying out that lump of plutonium after all.
No trouble at all with immigration, much easier than I was expecting. Red October had mailed us little tickets to help us get through immigration, but immigration didn't ask us for them. Red October also provided us with a fancy letter giving all of their license numbers and a set of special instructions for dealing with the ship's crew. None of that was needed either. So we were well prepared for trouble that never occurred.
Better safe than sorry I guess, but it might be time to dial back some of the doom-and-gloom that has been foretold for those taking shore excursions independently of the cruise line in St. Petersburg. We just didn't have any trouble at all. Of course, none of the other countries had any passport formalities to begin with, but what little there was in Russia was well worth all of the magic experiences we had there.
It didn't take but a minute to see the group of Red October staff and the line up of white vans. I walked up to Laura and she directed me to a modern white Mercedes Vito van. The driver was "Sergey" and our guide "Elena". Later that day I spotted the other "Elena", "Alona" and "Dimitry" - guides that have been widely discussed in the newsgroups.
When prompted, Elena told me that she, too, was previously known as Helen but she changed her name to avoid confusion. That didn't help me too much, because we ran into another "Elena" with a Red October name tag.
We were in the Mercedes van and on our way out the port by 7:40 am. Earlier than I expected and very nice.
The first day was action packed as we: Took an orientation drive around the city, with photo stops as desired Visited the Eliseev Grocery Store, an historic specialty shop Tour of the Hermitage, bypassing most lines, which is a big deal Visit to the Hermitage Gold Room Visit to the fabulous Peterhof and its amazing fountains Visit to Catherine's Block A ride on the subway to marvel at the ornate stations A brief stroll down Nevsky Prospect (something inspired by spy novels and history classes)
Each of these was accompanied by the patter of our knowledgeable guide, who filled us in with lots of color and extra details. We also discussed life in Russia and the medical system, which was of particular interest because two in our party were nurses.
Elena seemed to be unaware of cruisecritic.com and rec.travel.cruises, saying that it was uncharacteristic of Russians to share personal observations. She was somewhat amused of my descriptions of the popular topics, notably food and balcony privacy. I wrote out some instructions on how to visit the cruise sites and she said that she would check them out.
At one of the photo stops, we were all amused to see a man who was taking his bear for a walk. It weighed at least 200 pounds and when it stood up it was about five feet tall. Our guide assured us that bear-walking was an unusual occurrence even though none of the passers by seemed to pay the slightest attention to the unfolding spectacle.
As I was jockeying my camera for a good angle she dryly noted that bears were unpredictable animals and I should keep my distance.
We saw a lot that day, and I'm sure we just scratched the surface of the Hermitage. I was amused to see a group of a hundred people crowding close to hear the Celebrity tour guide as they were led through the Hermitage, while we were there at the same time, lingering at each exhibit for as little as long as we liked, asking questions here and there, and generally bypassing all of the crowds and lines with impunity. This is the first-class way to go.
We arrived back at the ship tired and educated. Sadly, I fell asleep at 8pm so I missed the late-night Russian Buffet. Why didn't they have that running from six until midnight? I wasn't the only one to wonder about that. See my sidebar on food to experience my rants about the meal schedule on port days.
The second day, we made arrangements to meet at 7:30 am, a bit early than listed on the itinerary but suggested by the guide to give us the best chances of hitting all of the items on my expanded itinerary. That is, my version of the itinerary was expanded compared to her abbreviated version.
The band was there playing Dixie as I stepped off the Constellation at 7:15. This caused me to laugh even harder than the first time! Still, nobody else seemed to get the joke in just the same was as I did. Maybe the musicians did indeed wish they were back in the land of cotton, where old times were not forgotten. Was this a literary allusion to old Soviet times or just pandering to the audience? Hmmmm.
( Oddly, when we arrived one of the Russian monuments we were greeted by a different brass band, this one playing "Hail Britannia". Perhaps I was a victim of mistaken identity. )
We quickly met up with Elena and were off to an early start, driving away from the port at 7:20.
The second day we visited Catherine Palace and the recently-restored Amber room World War II memorial Impromptu photo stop in front of an old Soviet-Style factory Big Lenin statue in front and hammer-and-sickle accents Lunch and shopping stop at Red October store, including new, fashionably attractive annex across the street Peter and Paul Fortress Spilled Blood Cathedral with its impressive mosaics Artillery museum, the largest of its type in the world, but for fanatics Farmers market A special art gallery suggested by the guide The hotel Europa to exchange some currency
It seems that Marlboro is the favorite brand of cigarettes in St. Petersburg, if the butts scattered about are any guide.
I was delighted that the guide suggested that we take a side-trip to a particular art gallery. As it turns out, Elena has special knowledge of art history and suggested that visit the "Baron Stieglits" art school and museum. This is significant because my last name is "Stieglitz" and my distant ancestors hail from Eastern Europe. The director of the school greeted us warmly and I ended up buying a few pieces of student art from the collection on display. I'm happy that she suggested it.
We returned to the ship, saying goodbye to Elena our guide and Segey our driver. It soon started raining like crazy, and we were all thankful that St. Petersburg blessed us with delightful shirt-sleeve weather.
It was, all in all, very satisfying and quite a bargain.
This seems as good a place as any to offer some tips for working with Red October. Tip one: Get a detailed itinerary before you embark, take it with you, and confirm it with the guide at the beginning of your excursion. Early on, I discovered that our guide was working from a simplified version of our itinerary, and it took a few uncomfortable minutes of discussion to resolve the differences.
We ended up seeing everything as agreed, and our guide was a consummate professional. Still, it would have been nice if Red October provided their contractors with the exact same detailed itinerary as they provided their customers.
Tip two: Buy your lunch from Red October or carve out some time to have lunch in a restaurant. Red October advises you to take some food from the ship for lunch on the run, as some of the commutes can be lengthy. However, the ship advises that it is against Russian law to do so. I didn't want to take chances with the authorities, instead taking a gamble that food supplied by Red October would be safe. To avoid any problems, I asked Red October to provide boxed lunches. They obliged, and at $10 per person per day it was a good deal. Each lunch included a tuna sandwich, an egg salad sandwich with bacon, a bottle of water, two bananas, and an apple. I would have been happy with one of the sandwiches and a bottle of water.
As it turns out, our belongings were never searched by Russian immigration. So bring your baggies and stuff your Carnival Cruises tote bag until it is full of buffet fruit and room-service sandwiches - you'll save a whopping ten bucks on lunch but you'll have a real sense of accomplishment at beating the system. :) This brings me to my third piece of advice for those working with Red October: Know when to pay. It's not exactly clear, but we stopped by Red October each day to pick up the lunches and shop in their affiliated store.
A bit off topic, but The Red October store is on the ship's "approved shopping" list and many of the ships tours make a pit stop there. Apparently the Red October stores and the Red October tours share a business location but they are different companies.
The prices and quality in the store seemed good to me. Your stop at the store is also when you are supposed to pay them for their travel services, something I wish they made crystal clear in their communications. They give a 3% discount for cash.
I was a bit squeamish about carrying that much cash around town, so I paid for half of it on day one and half of it on day two. Bought some postcards too, and our guide Elena helped me with the postage.
The next item with Red October, and perhaps this applies to independent traveler, is that some of the better monuments charge extra for cameras. This seems to be unevenly enforced at the sites. In one location, I received a red sticker to place on my camera, and it was clear that the matronly museum staff in each room were checking for it. In most of the museums, a room monitor would point at the camera and chat with the guide in Russian. In other places, there was no tag and no checking.
Charging for cameras comes with the territory I guess, and it wasn't too expensive - a couple of bucks at each place. I asked Laura at Red October to set me up with camera licenses everywhere I went. Still, there was some confusion about this on the itinerary, as it appeared that not all of the places that required licenses were reflected. So I coughed up a few more bucks as we entered some of the museums.
The posted "camera fees" seemed to be substantially less that what Red October charged, and the explanation was a vague "currency conversion commission". For instance, the listed fee for a still camera at the Church of the Spilled Blood was 50 rubles. The rough exchange rate was 30 rubles per dollar, which roughly equates to less than two dollars for a still camera. Red October charged four dollars.
For what it's worth, Laura from Red October suggested that I forego taking my own pictures and buy professionally-produced picture books which are available at each site. I ended up buying some books *and* taking the pictures, but I have to say in retrospect that Laura gave some good advice - I had such problems with lighting and lenses that I should have stuck to outdoor portrait photography of my family and left all of the indoor shots to the books.
In my opinion, Red October should just cover all of the camera fees as part of the overall charge, or more clearly define them. It just felt a little weird, especially considering that camera charges are included in the base cost of all of the ship's tours.
I'm not going to argue over a couple of bucks on an expensive vacation, however, I start growling a little bit when I discover some funny arithmetic. I just shut up and turned over some extra dollars.
And speaking of which, the invoice I received at the Red October store didn't quite match the price I was quoted. I was pondering this and I couldn't find the discrepancy until I added up the long column of numbers and found that the total didn't match the line items. I asked "the accountant" who was there to collect my payment and she told me that the total shows the full price without the cash discount. So I guess the line items on the invoice show the discounted value, but the total shows what you would have to pay if you used a credit card.
I was thinking that this was probably outside of GAAP but I kept my mouth shut again, merely suggesting to the accountant that a column of numbers with a total underneath it should all add up - if she was going to mix discounted and non-discounted prices on the same page she should have a note stating which was which.
She smiled. I just paid the discounted price, in cash as agreed and expected, and was done with it.
The Red October experience was very positive. These are just some minor observations. I would do business with them again and would recommend them to someone traveling to St. Petersburg.
Back on the ship for a quick snack after our busy day, I counted more than fifty full-size buses parked in front of the Costa Atlantica, a ship every bit as large as the Constellation. Just then it started to rain, and there must have been some kind of delay on the Costa ship because there were hundreds of people stand out there getting soaked. Tough luck, that.
Fifth Port: Tallinn, Estonia. Arrived at eight a.m., left at five p.m.
We were booked for Celebrity's deluxe package: Best of Tallinn with Concert and Lunch, for $80 a person. My first impressions of the port were positive - it was clearly designed for cruise ships and seemed newly constructed, featuring smooth concrete sidewalks and an organized parking area for the buses. The ship was met by a dozen buses and a taxi. It was easy to get off the ship, too: there weren't any stern-faced immigration authorities to deal with as in St. Petersburg, we just walked down the gangplank stepped on to the waiting bus.
I immediately took a liking to our young guide, Taavi. He had some scrappy, literate comments like "Your guides in St. Petersburg may have told you about cold winter weather. We are at the same latitude and our winters are not so bad. Perhaps they are trying to cultivate a Dr. Zhivago theme." And also "The Soviets gave us the honor of being part of their happy union... it was a tragic situation". And.... "You may be interested in the practical money situation here. It is technically illegal to trade in foreign currencies. However, somehow businesses find a way, so you will probably be able to use dollars and euros."
Taavi amused me with his chatter was we drove by blocks of old Soviet-style housing and then newer units, finally arriving at the Festival grounds for some quick photographs. We moved on to the upper town, visiting the obligatory Old Churches common to all of our port tours. We then walked downhill from the upper town to the old town. It was a nice walk and I enjoyed it immensely.
We stopped in the town square for the provided lunch, and I found it quite tasty: The meal opened with a salad with lettuce, sweet peppers, parsley, and dill. It was followed by some marinated beef, a spicy cabbage side dish, pickles, and for desert, ice cream. The marinade and spicy sauerkraut made it special - I had never encountered those flavor combinations and I was pleased.
After lunch we were supposed to attend the "concert" part of our "concert and lunch" deal, but after I truly understood what the concert was all about I decided to just wander about the town and take pictures - there was a flower mart nearby and that seemed to offer better photographic opportunities than a trio of monks with flute and guitar.
After taking pictures, we picked up some postcards and spent some time filling them out over pastries at the local cafe before rejoining our group at the bus and returning to the ship.
Back on the ship, we decided to catch a movie in the elegant cinema. It was an elegant, wood-paneled room with about fifty seats, also used for lectures and small religious ceremonies. The movie of the day was Monster with Charlize Theron. The sound system was good, even though the tracking of the videotape and the convergence of the projector was a bit off. Not bad though, it was a good show and the seats were comfortable.
Sixth Port: Copenhagen, Denmark. Arrived at seven a.m., left at six p.m.
Somewhat problematic on this port was that we arrived on Sunday when many of the shops were closed. Fortunately, we found some open souvenir shops and most of Celebrity's "recommended" stores were open.
We were booked for two Celebrity tours. In the morning, City of Copenhagen for $39, and Royal Gardens and Parks for $62 in the afternoon.
The afternoon tour was cancelled, and Celebrity informed me of this the night before via a note in a classy little envelope delivered to our stateroom. The professional tone of the message and the way it was delivered helped me get over the pain of the cancellation. So we would have to get to the gardens on our own.
Our tour started promptly and the first stop was a photo opportunity of the "Little Mermaid" stature. The boring guide informed us that the statue was sponsored by Carlsberg beer and for some reason Americans liked to take pictures of it. We continued, going by the palace square to witness the changing of the guard, and then by a few gardens before taking us back to the ship. Not very exciting, most likely due to the dry delivery of the guide.
After we arrived back at the ship, we took the free Celebrity shuttle back into town, and wandered around buying the required trinkets: Fridge magnet, postcards, glass from Hard Rock Cafe. We took a taxi back to the ship for $36; the port area was very congested due to the unveiling of a massive new Maersk container ship.
Back on the ship, we found some interesting items in our cabin. The first item was a tidy envelope with disembarkation instructions and luggage tags. Not wanting to acknowledge the obvious fact that our vacation was coming to an end, I tossed these aside.
The next item was a tipping form. By signing the form and returning it to the front desk, we could have the "recommended amounts" charged to our shipboard account and distributed to the service staff. We could also single out specific areas for additional tips, such as the dining room waiter or room steward. Oddly enough, to use the automatic approach you could only tip the recommended amount or more. If you wanted to tip less, you had to go with the envelope approach.
The form came along with a table of suggested tips. In his disembarkation talk the cruise director said that the table represented recommended amounts from American Express Travel. Hmmmm. Here is what was listed, per guest, per day:
$3.50 for stateroom attendant $3.50 for waiter $2.00 for waiter assistant $0.75 for the assistant Maitre'D $0.75 for the assistant chief housekeeper
A message on the in-room television also mentioned: $4.00 for concierge in the concierge staterooms $3.50 for butlers
This approach toward tipping is a bit classier than what I have experienced on Carnival and Princess, where they automatically charge you for tips each day unless you state otherwise. In my opinion, if they are going to do that they should just increase the price of the ticket and adopt a no tipping policy.
I went with the automatic approach, and despite this we still received envelopes the next day, along with a lengthy cruise survey form. That evening, our waiter was careful to inform us that the dining staff with the best rating received two extra days off a month, and he hoped that we had an "excellent" experience.
That night on the in-room television I saw one of the many programs featuring shopping consultant "Dario", who as usual delivered a rapid-fire pitch with his Italian accent.
Dario was trying to get us to engage in a contest where we could win back the price we paid for all of the items we purchased during our port visits. All we had to do was fill out a form indicating what we purchased and the name of the shop, and then drop by his office so he could photocopy the receipts. The whole thing smelled fishy to me. Actually, on all of our cruises ended up thinking that the shopping consultant was on the take. Celebrity was more up-front about this than the other lines.
Reading the half-page of fine print accompanying the contest entry form, it appears that that it is run by "Onboard Media" and the drawing takes place once a year in Florida. So, in return for your shopping data, Onboard Media holds a single drawing, amalgamating all of the cruise lines together. I wonder what they do with data - pay commissions to the port guide, perhaps?
It made for some interesting reflection.
The final port: Dover,England. Arrival at 4 am.
The assistant Maitre'D told us that 96 couples were doing back-to-back cruises, staying onboard the Constellation through it's Baltic itinerary and continuing trans-Atlantic to New York. He also mentioned that there were 1,800 passengers booked for the trans-Atlantic hop, and I have to admit I thought about what I would have to say to my employer to extend my vacation to include it.
Celebrity offers some final excursions around London in conjunction with their airport transfers from the ship. That seemed like a good idea, so I asked at the onboard excursions desk if I could convert my plain airport transfer to a deluxe transfer featuring a tour of London. The short answer: no way. I could *buy* the deluxe transfer at face value, or I could use the plain transfer, there was no pricing for conversion or trade-in value for our group of four passengers. Well, I guess I should have thought of that before I booked the cruise.
The night before disembarkation, we spent time filling out the luggage tags, which were not pre-printed like the embarkation tags. I wish they were pre-printed for disembarkation, as that was a nice touch and the ship certainly had all of the information about us that they needed.
We were taking advantage of Celebrity's transfer service, and our disembarkation instructions told us to show up at the theater at 8:00 am. We arrived at the theater a few minutes early and were led out of the ship in an orderly fashion.
There were no overhead announcements, and the luggage in the terminal was well-organized. There was a line of porters, and a crewmember would assign porters to groups a few at a time, so the process was civilized. We were then led out to a bus labeled with the same code as our luggage tags and we were off to Heathrow.
The bus ride to Heathrow took about three hours, leaving us about four hours to pick up some final duty-free souvenirs. Heathrow also has a fine cigar shop, featuring many Cuban brands.
At Virgin Atlantic, I had a bit of a problem with the security guards roaming the check-in line because I had torn out the perforated e-ticket page from the book of cruise docs, which I had discarded on the ship. That was a mistake, because the guards wanted to see names on the etickets, but Celebrity did not print the names on that page, even though it was nicely perforated for easy removal. So we were asked to get out of line and wait in another line so they could print a new e-ticket for us.
Note to Celebrity: Please print the passenger names on the e-ticket page of the cruise docs.
The embarkation process for Virgin was disorganized and the flight left an hour late. We arrived back in Los Angeles without incident, but I doubt I will fly Virgin again. The food on Virgin was pretty good though.
I should note here that one of by bags was damaged on the ship at disembarkation. My sturdy hard-sided Samsonite Silhouette was only on its second trip. The bag arrived wrapped in plastic and labeled "damaged on the ship". I wasn't going to cry about it - luggage is there to take a bullet and protect the contents. Celebrity had nothing to say and I didn't ask.
Later, I was told that the bags are stacked pretty high and the hard-sided luggage tends to pop, while the soft-sided stuff just gets squished. The bag and its Saran-Wrap cocoon survived the flight intact. When I opened it up at home, all of the contents were there and the bag appeared to be undamaged. I guess it just popped open and then the crew on the ship was unable to close it because the locks were still engaged. Not sure if I will ever use that bag again, but it was $300 bucks and I'm hesitant to toss it.
One of the favorite aspects of cruising for me is the music. Celebrity did a good job there, only disappointing me in one area.
Music that I enjoyed included Onyx, a dance band; the Coverdales, a barbershop quartet, a string quartet, a jazz guitarist, a lounge pianist, and also a concert pianist who doubled as a comedian and music appreciation professor. Highly enjoyable.
Slightly disappointing was the show band backing up the production shows - they did not have a guitarist, relying instead on pre-recorded tracks for guitar and some of the other instruments. I also noticed that some of the performers in the production shows seemed to be singing but were not miked - can you say "lip sync?" The show band had a pretty large horn section but I never could make out the saxophone or the flute player.
This was in contrast to the excellent band aboard the Carnival Inspiration, which had the memorable-yet-improbable name of the Braxton Hicks Show Band. This band had a kick-butt electric guitarist and the band leader played the sax, which I could always hear prominently. That Carnival Cruise was otherwise lackluster, and I was left wishing that the two ships could switch bands.
Overall, I think the production shows on Carnival and Princess were a bit better than Celebrity. However, Celebrity had much better specialty acts - singers, comedians, lecturers, and so on. I'll take Celebrity's approach any day.
I'm always amused when I read cruise reports that mention "inedible" food. To me, inedible food kills you or makes you sick. It is all edible! I didn't care for the cafeteria-style fish sticks on the Carnival Inspiration, but I wouldn't call them inedible. So there.
I thought the food was good on Constellation, much better than the Carnival Inspiration and about on par with the Star Princess. I thought the sushi, omelettes, and other made-to-order dishes were very good. The food in the main dining room was as good as could be expected given that they were serving a thousand people at once. I thought the main dining room food was better on Princess, but I had a late "personal choice" table on Princess, so the kitchen was probably more relaxed making my food on that cruise.
The buffet was well staffed, with plenty of people to carry your tray if needed and to take away plates when you were through. On many days, I thought the buffet food on Celebrity was better than the food on in the main dining room - more interesting spices and served hot.
However, the meal on lobster night, the "gala", was fabulous, the best I have experienced on a cruise ship. The lobster was sweet, the broccoli crisp, the polenta spicy, and the baked potato creamy. Just wonderful, a meal I'll be recalling fondly for quite some time.
I missed the 24-hour buffet that they have on the Star Princess. I also wished that Celebrity labeled all items on the buffet and desert lines. Only some of the main dishes were labeled, making me cringe whenever I heard someone ask a hapless attendant "what's this?" I sort of felt sorry for the attendants, as they must have to cheerfully answer that question a hundred times a day.
The "gourmet bites" were served around midnight, where waiters in the public areas would graciously offer appetizers such as onion tarts, mini-hamburgers, and similar fare.
Each of the dining room meals had several soup selections, but to be honest everyone in my group found the soups thin and lacking. I think the Star Princess added a nice touch to the soup, sprinkling some fresh ingredients on the top like dill, carrot, green onion, or sour cream depending on the situation. Our soups on Celebrity were barren. And what a dining room it was! Sometimes there would chamber music from a piano player and strings. The room featured two-story windows facing aft, giving a wonderful view of the ocean. There was plenty of space between the tables, giving an open, uncluttered feel compared to other ships. Our party of four was seated at a table for four at the late seating, and I noticed both smaller and larger tables scattered about.
I found service to be a bit slow, in the European style, giving us five or ten minutes between courses. The beverage service was prompt and efficient, but they put soda cans on the table, which to me seems to be a step backwards from the otherwise elegant surroundings. Our dinners routinely took two hours to complete. Perhaps there is something to be said about a leisurely dining experience, but I think a little over an hour is enough.
I like the way Princess had a list of "set items" which you could always get in the main dining room: steak, chicken, Caesar salad, shrimp cocktail, cheesecake. I mentioned this to Edio, our main waiter and he said that he could get me some of these whenever I wanted and the others if I asked for them in advance. That was nice of him. I sort of like the Princess system of having them regularly available, as I am fond of shrimp cocktails and cheesecake. Not at the same time, of course....
The occasional midnight buffets were tasty and attractively arranged according to themes. Overall, I like the way the buffet stations were set up. There were at least eight stations spread out in the restaurant, and during busy times six of them were copies. So I never encountered a long wait as on other cruise lines. Hats off to the designers.
The "Aqua Spa" had a little Cafe with freshly prepared food. I thought the food there was some of the tastiest onboard. One of the meals there was quite memorable: Cold, Sliced lemon chicken with little bits of lemon zest on top, white beans and dilled potatoes, along with a plate of fruit that included kiwi, papaya, mango, and pineapple. Yummy.
The "Casual Dining" restaurant was an area of the buffet restaurant that was reserved in the evenings for special service. It had waiter service, its own menu and its own kitchen, all for a "suggested gratuity of $2 per person." They took reservations for the same day only. It looked pretty good but we didn't try it, nor did we try the $30 Ocean Liners restaurant.
They always had an ice cream / frozen yogurt station open when the buffet was running. The attendant told me that many of the flavors were made on the ship.
I found the bar service to be outstanding. There were plenty of order-takers around, but I didn't feel harassed as I have on other ships. They would ask once, if at all, and then leave us alone. If I was thirsty, some eye contact or a tip of the head was enough to bring a waiter to take our drink order. I like the understated approach.
I'm a bit disappointed in the scheduling of the food on the Constellation. Many times when I would get back on the ship after a full day of shore excursions, the only thing that would be available would be finger food - hamburgers, French fries, pizza. The regular dinner buffets never seemed to correspond to my schedule, and I was a bit too impatient for the 24 hour room service. Why isn't there something interesting and tasty available when the shore excursions return? Maybe the crew is busy preparing for the big sit-down dinner. I tried to sign up for the $2 casual dining option, but that proved to be fully booked. Why am I being maneuvered into having burgers?
Speaking of burgers, they were better on Carnival, although I think Celebrity has the edge on Pizza. Why can't the cruise lines duplicate Pizza Hut and In-N-Out?
Speaking of Room Service, the menu has sturdy meals such as salads, sandwiches, and soups. Seems to be a bit of a secret that you can order the same stuff they are serving in the dining rooms during certain hours.
And as yet another aside, I am embarrassed to report that I broke the dress code on a few occasions. Celebrity had clearly stated that there were some formal nights and some informal nights, and I misinterpreted the meaning of "informal". So twice I appeared in the dining room in a polo shirt, to stupid to realized that "informal" meant "jacket but no tie". My mistake, and my humble apologies to all on the vessel who had their experience reduced by my appearance.
Here's where it gets interesting. The second time I showed up in polo shirt for informal night, the assistant matre' D professionally took me aside as I was strolling in, politely saying something like, "sir, today is informal night, but tomorrow is formal if you need a jacket we can help you.". I thought that he handled this well, and I quickly thanked him and explained that I had some formal gear for the next day. Even though I broke the rules, or at the very least stretched the concept of "informal", I was happy that Celebrity is making some efforts to enforce the dress code and thought the whole thing was handled well. Even outside the dining rooms, people on the ship were generally well-dressed.
At the end, I was left thinking that the food was pretty good, and suddenly the ship had too many mirrors. My wife said "I can't go home weighing 120 pounds! Maybe we should stay on the ship until it gets to New York and work out every day."
Sidebar: Interactive Television
The in-room television system was modern. It also included gambling! I bought some credits and made a few dollars on low-stakes blackjack, with the winnings credited to my shipboard account. Sadly, my meager winnings did not even approach the losses in the ultra-tight casino.
The TV had just what I wanted. You could order excursions and room service from the television, there was a nice selection of pay-per-view movies in addition to the free offerings, and you could review your charges as well. Nice.
On some of the free channels they were playing commercial-free reruns of shows like CSI, Friends, and classic black and white variety shows from television's golden past.
Also on the TV were daily video messages from the cruise director and the "shopping consultant". So if you missed one of their talks, it was always possible to catch them on the in-room TV. That was a nice touch.
The television in our room, despite its many charms, had no extra connections for a camcorder or digital still camera. The only input was a coaxial RF connector, no RCA jacks.
I wish they had the dining room menus available on the TV.
Sidebar: Digital Photography
I left my still cameras at home, instead relying on a newly-purchased Kodak EasyShare 7543 camera and two high-speed 512mb memory cards. I bought the Kodak because of its diminutive size and its Editor's Choice rating by PC Magazine.
I ended up being a bit disappointed at my decision.
The Kodak offered a good optical zoom ratio and produced breathtaking images, as long as the lighting was right. I ended up taking about a thousand pictures on the trip - that may sound like a lot, but I usually snapped several of each subject, varying the angle and the camera settings a bit, so I could go through the pictures later and pick the best examples. I guess that in the end there will be a dozen pictures that I am really happy about and a few hundred that do a good job of documenting the trip.
The problem I had was that we visited many dimly-lit places, some of them quite large. The flash just wasn't big enough to illuminate all the space. Also, some of the rooms were divided between narrow pedestrian walkways and wider display areas, and space on the walkways didn't always give me enough room to fit everything I wanted to catch within the viewable frame.
I longed for my old SLR camera, which had interchangeable lenses and an eye-melting external flash unit. Had I given it more than a few second's thought, I would have bought another digital camera, using the pocket-sized Kodak for impromptu shots and one of the Nikon prosumer digital cameras for the serious work. I'd bring a couple of lenses - maybe a 50-250 zoom, a wide angle, a standard unit. Some of the Nikon and Cannon units have a "hot shoe" that can accommodate a powerful flash unit. Some of these flash units have a pivot mechanism, so you can bounce the light off of a wall and avoid reflections when shooting shiny objects.
Finally, some of the spaces were so dimly lit that I had trouble both getting the auto focus to work and also holding the camera steady enough to get a good image. I wish I would have brought a flimsy portable tripod, or perhaps one of those extendable sticks to balance the camera.
The good news was that the ship's computer services were set up nicely for digital cameras. In the training room, there are a bunch of computers with universal memory card readers. The idea is that you copy all of the images from the memory card in your camera to the sh