We drove the 5 hours to Harwich the day before and stayed in a nice hotel called The Tower Hotel in Harwich which includes looking after you car for the entire cruise (cheaper than the port car park). Had a very nice breakfast and got a taxi to the port, arriving just before 1100. We had to wait a little while before the embarkation hall was open, but not too long. The process was very swift and managed to get on board just after 1130. Lots of glass which does give a very good veiw whilst at sea, as all RCI ships, very clean and all the staff attentive and seem to enjoy what they do. Customer relations were rather busy on this cruise with lots of money changing going on so try to get there early otherwise expect a bit of a wait.
We only did excursions in St Petersburg (see below) as this was the easy option as far as the visa was concerned. We did feel the shops were taking advantage of the 'local markets' as the russian crafts etc did seem to have a mark up from the price that could be obtained ashore. As a members of the Crown and Anchor program we did feel that the enhancements given to us were not as good as previous cruises. The entertainment on board: the singers and dancers were brilliant but we did feel the first show a bit disjointed. The guest entertainers were on the whole of good quality with a varied selection of genre.
The on board bands: I felt that as we were on a smaller ship we got the last of the choices, they seem more mature than previous cruises and I don't think any of them had the mother tounge of english, saying that they did have some excellent musicians on board with the classical guitars of the top grade. We did miss certian things that we have become used to on the larger ships.. Tea and coffee making in the cabin was not there, we did not have a flat screen tv and the one we had was looking a bit tired. No ice in the cabins unless you asked for it. The only place we found to make our own coffee was the Windjammer. These are small things as the food on board at any of the places was superb, not massive portions at the main dining room but adequate and you can always ask for two lots of startes and mains and puddings if you so wish just like the americans on our table (which we got on really well with). The price of the booze on board I thought were ok, no real price rise and of course try to get on with the bar staff as they tend to let the flow go on for longer.... real strong drinks - great. I went for the wine package, which works out cheper than ordering at the table, with good quality wines served very well just adds to the dining experience. We tend to include the gratuities within the price of the cruise, but felt our head waiter was noticed by his absence and ended up leaving his envelope on the table! The rest we felt really deserved them.
Copenhagen We like Copenhagen and have been a few times but this time we decided to walk from the ship around the dockside and into town. The small marina just along from the berth was nice and we found some 'friendly' locals to pass a few minutes with. I have seen the mermaid before but my wife had not, and was dissapointed that the mermaid has been transported to China for the world trade fair and they have a large screen showing the crowds walking around it. It was nice to see lots of seating available as it was very hot and we needed to rest several times. We did the normal tourist spots with the Palace and the canal with all the bars etc. Again we were lucky and it seems all the shops had sales on. They are currently doing lots of road works on the main round about and the end of the canal and before the road to the shops, not too bad but it was a little busy whilst trying not to get run over whilst crossing the major road.
Stockholm We berthed in the port a little way from the port, it is walkable but only if you are used to walking a few miles daily. We got the shuttle bus which dropped us in the centre of town close to the old part of town which has some good places to visit. My main mission was to go to the Hard Rock Cafe which took about 30 mins to walk to even in the heat. It has been a while since my last visit it was very clean with loads of shops, eating places etc. Not a cheap place to shop and you have to have the local currency which we exchanged on board for both this port and Gothenburg. We found a small stall to purchase a fridge magnet at a resonable price. A good day.
Helsinki We decided to get the hop on hop off bus as we found it better value for money then the shuttle bus. This was at the berth when we got off the ship and the price included both routes for a 24 hour period (25 euros per head). Even if it was a sunday when we visited there was a market in the main square with some quality goods and at reasonable prices and in Euros. We managed to find a small cafe where we had lunch, not cheap but really nice and a good quantity. We did both routes of the bus and managed to hop off a few times taking in the sights and got a good impression of the city.
St Petersburg The main reason for this cruise, we pre booked two excursions - The last of the Romanos an 8 hour trip and a walking tour of St Petersburg lasting 4 hours the next day. We berthed in the new cruise terminal which they are still developing. After an early breakfast and meeting in the theatre with the rest of the ship, we had to fill in a small questionnaire for immigration. The actual process was quite swift with the lady actually laughing at my passport photo, and I was being serious for a change. The organisation for the coaches etc was very good and our guide on the first day superb. We were issued with radio headphones so our guide could talk to us through the crowds of noise, which worked very well on the first day. The trip itself included three palaces, lunch and a fair bit of walking. Again we were a 'lucky' with the sun as it was 36 degrees.... this proved to make the palaces a bit warm especially as we had to put on plastic over shoes (made the feet a bit warm) but understand the reason why as the work that has been done is wonderful. The meal that was included in the price was a bit rushed as I think a few coach loads turned up at the same time but the meal itself was surprisingly good. Included was caviar, a salad, Borch, chicken something... and ice cream for pudding and we also had some fizzy wine and a bottle of water between two. If you needed anything else you had to pay in rubbles or on your card. On our way back to the ship we stopped at a couple of places with opportunities for shopping at markets for those Russian dolls etc, you must haggle and they accept dollars. The following day we did the walking tour which I found better as you actually to see a bit more of the real city. The guide this time was not as good as our previous one, and we had to listen hard to understand what she was telling us and the headphone system did not seem to cope with out doors, but we did enjoy this trip again we an chance to spend some dollars at another market. A local group of musicians came on board and played for a couple of hours and we thought them better than the entertainment the previous evening in the theatre. We would definately go back to this port. The excursions were well organised and overall value for money with the ease of things.
Tallinn The last time I visited was 25 years ago when Tallinn didn't have a great deal of tourism, how things have changed. A new port (new to me) where all the cruise liners berth (we had a couple with us including Queen Victoria) so the place was a bit busy. You can walk into town from the dock which would take around 15-20 mins, we took the bus as again it was too hot. The old part of town is still very well preserved and great photos to be had. We stoopped at 'Old Hansa' a shop and eating place set out for the 15th century, a great place to stop and purchase some real antiques. They preferred Euros rather than dollars unless you have the local currency, but they do haggle the prices. If all else fails there is a market at the end of the jetty where you can purcahse all things local at good prices.
Gothenburg - Sweden. Our first visit and the way to the port is full of turns and very narrow lanes, great for photos and observing the seamanship of the crew. We berthed in the container port as I don't think the ship could get under the bridge which lead to the city. A group of jazz musicians welcomed us ashore. The local tourst board were in attendance and supplied us with a very good book with a map inside which we have kept. We had to get the shuttle bus as it is about 9km walk, a bit too far in the heat we had... but once in the city we found it clean with lots of shops (how many Mcdonalds can you get in one town?) with very friedly shop assistants. A tip.. I was on a search for an internet cafe and found a 7-11 with some terminals, but there system was not working but suggested the library. I am now a member of the Gothenburg library were access is free and you can even print off a limited amount of pages daily for no cost. A marching band paraded along the berth on our departure, a great sendoff.