There were four of us in two Balcony Staterooms on the 9th Deck. Three of us had sailed with RCI before; two of us had been on Brilliance, which is the same class ship as Jewel. So, how did this cruise and ship compare to our previous outings with RCI?
First, embarkation. We shipped out of Harwich. The two of us living in England did not have to fly to our embarkation point - turned out to be a good thing because the Icelandic volcano was threatening flight interruptions. We were met at the dock and our bags were taken immediately. The line to get into the ship was huge, but my cabin-mate, Pam, who was on a mobility scooter, and I were at the disabled check-in counter; the other two in our party were at a regular check-in desk. All went fairly smoothly, and my friend and I went up to entry deck level in the lift (aka elevator). When we arrived at the terminal, we had hoped to find refreshments after our long ride from the West Midlands area. But no, nothing. When we embarked from Venice in 2009 we had been provided with lemonade or iced tea and cookies - BIG thumbs up for that. A "could do better" for Harwich.
The ship itself was as expected - clean and attractive. Our cabin was fine, and our steward was just lovely. Since we had less space because of keeping Pam's scooter and wheeled walker in the cabin, our steward kindly kept our luggage in his storeroom for us. Shortly after arrival we had the usual fireboat drill, but for the first time we did NOT have to don our life jackets.
We had early dining, not Anytime Dining; we enjoy getting to know new people yet keeping the same dinner companions throughout the cruise. We made a table of eight very nice and interesting people. We enjoyed our waiters, and the food in the dining room was good with many choices. One night I tried the Chops Special of Filet Mignon (saves $10 over going to Chops Grill), but I was disappointed that my requested medium rare filet arrived medium to well done instead. Our Maitre d' offered to get me another, but I refused as the steak was perfectly edible, if not quite to my taste, and I did not like the idea of wasting a good piece of meat.
The Windjammer was as expected - reasonable food with plenty of choices -- very good for a cafeteria feeding hundreds daily, really. At breakfast the eggs cooked to order were fresh and well prepared, as usual -- the cooks do make a mean fried egg over easy. Crowding there, especially on sea days, is always a problem, but manageable, especially if people are considerate and don't linger too much after their meals - and it can be an opportunity to meet new people.
Entertainment. We went to the ship's Russian show our first night in St Petersburg. The troupe was small and I have heard and seen better Russian singers and dancers, but the show was still enjoyable. If you don't opt for one of the Russian shows available as an evening excursion (whether from RCI or a private tour company), then do go see the ship's show. We also went to the magic show, a husband and wife team, who were pretty amazing. They did a second show our last sea day which included a lot of audience interaction. This show was in the Safari Club, and it was PACKED - so get there VERY early for best seats and view. The bad news for non-smokers is that the Congo Bar is a smoking area, so do not sit near there. Also, the smokers at the bar were there to drink and smoke, not for the show, so they talked through the performance, making it difficult for those of us nearby wanting to see and hear the act.
The musical groups that appear around the ship were the usual mixed bag. Some seemed pretty good, some not so - but that is very much a matter of personal taste.
Amenities I went to the spa - first time for me. I indulged in a half-priced massage, which was very nice indeed. However, the Elemis items the masseuse pushes gently for your aftercare are very EXPENSIVE. But it is my own fault for succumbing and buying the package.
Disembarkation. Surprise! We just walked off the ship, got our bags, and then went to our transportation. NO CUSTOMS anywhere in sight!
Overall, we had cloudy/rainy weather nearly everywhere. We lucked into sunshine in a few places.
Copenhagen - We did it on our own. We got off the shuttle at King's Square and meandered down the main shopping pedestrian area. Impressions: crowded, lots of bicycles, under construction, EXPENSIVE lunch (4 "smushis" or miniature sandwiches, 1 Schweppes tonic water, 1 bowl soup = 250DK c. $45.00 -- all the krone we had). We did get lovely sun in the afternoon.
Stockholm - Some sun and showers. We went on our own, using the Hop-on Hop-off (Ho-Ho) Water Taxis. Be careful, there are TWO Ho-Ho companies, so be sure you know which one you have tickets for. Walking around Gamlastan (Old Town) was interesting, and we managed to catch the changing of the guard at one of the palace guard posts. DO NOT MISS the Vasa Museum - fascinating, amazing archeology, and a good little cafe, too.
Helsinki - We did the ship excursion that included Porvoo, a charming old fishing town filled with interesting shops, colorful wooden houses, a boat ride to a nice lunch at a lovely old mansion that is now a spa hotel, and finally a ride around Helsinki with stops at the Rock Church and the Sibelius Monument, among others. Helsinki is not very old and is filled with Jugenstil architecture (similar to Art Deco). A very good tour. It was raining hard by the end of the day though.
St Petersburg - Because one of our group had mobility problems, we booked a private, less strenuous tour with DenRus. We highly recommend them -- excellent service. A superb guide, Mikail, and very skilled driver (the traffic there is horrible), Daniel, were with us both days. We were only four, six counting Mikhail and Daniel, so were travelling in a van and not in a huge bus group. (We highly recommend going as a small group - the flexibility that provided alone was worth the money.) We had a whole boat to ourselves for our canal trip (in the rain). We were very lucky and had a gorgeous, sunny afternoon for our walk through the gardens of Peterhof, with all the fountains spouting in full glory.
The old city is spectacular where it has been renovated. The golden spires and early 18th Century architecture provide stunning views along the Neva River. Time only allows a small taste of the treasures of the Hermitage, both as a royal palace and as an art museum. The Cathedral on Spilled Blood is truly amazing; the colors and richness of the mosaic decorations are spectacular.
We had been warned in the ship's shopping briefing that Russia does not allow export of large fur items (eg coats) or old icons, any purchased in the city would be confiscated by customs before reboarding. However, we were docked at the new port, and there were NO CUSTOMS there at all. Entering and exiting the ship was simple and quick as long as you had the correct paperwork.
Tallinn - To us, this was the surprise of our cruise. Tallinn is a colorful, delightful ancient town with architecture ranging from the ancient castle walls through medieval to 18th and 19th Century houses up on the top of the hill. Although the day was gray and drizzly, we had a wonderful walking tour (the ship's excursion) with an excellent guide (Miina). There are cafes and interesting shops, but there are also signs posted warning of purse snatchers and/or pickpockets.
Gothenburg - Two of us took the city tour, and two took the canal boat ride excursion. My friend and I were on the city tour, which included a stop in the old town area along picturesque canals, a stop at the Poseidon Fountain, a stop at the Masthugget Church with its Nordic decorations inside, and a visit to the Botanical Garden.
Summary - we all enjoyed the cruise. The crew were always friendly and helpful, which is what we expect from RCI. Our cabin stewards were excellent. Yes, RCI charges for a lot of extras, sometimes at fairly high prices, but all are optional and it is possible to enjoy the cruise without spending too much more than the fare. The excursions seem expensive, but the guides in our experience were all very good and a lot is provided by an excursion that is difficult to get just going on your own.