My wife and I took the 10-night Scandinavia/Russia cruise on the Eurodam that departed on June 29, 2010. This was our 40th cruise. Another couple joined us so we made a group of 4.
We flew from Washington, DC to London (Heathrow) on June 25. This was an overnight flight via Virgin Atlantic. We had upgraded to "upper class" so sleeping on the lie-flat seats was not difficult and enabled us to start tour of London as soon as we arrived. I had pre-booked airport transportation with Premier Airport Cars and their driver was waiting for us outside of the baggage claim area. He took us to our hotel, the Waldorf Hilton. I would note that the price we paid for the pre-booked transportation was less than the taxi fare paid by our companions, who flew in a day later. The Hilton was in a good location and provided a very comfortable room.
I had purchased a two-day London Pass prior to leaving home, which included public transit. This enabled us to enter most major sights, including the Tower of London, without standing in line. We used the Tube system extensively. We encountered unusually hot weather while in London, which made sightseeing uncomfortable at times, especially since many building are not air conditioned (including the Tube system). On Monday, we joined our friends on a city tour from Premium Tours. They offered hotel pickup at a location close to the Hilton. The tour included the major sights in London as well as a river cruise and a priority pass to the London Eye. That evening we took in a show at the Savoy Theater. Legally Blonde was an excellent production (although a little corny) but the theater was not air conditioned so it was rather uncomfortable.
Tuesday morning, I had arranged transportation to Dover through Adelphi Executive Hire. Darren Parsons (the owner) met us at the Hilton at 9 am and took us to Canterbury, where we had a few hours to explore that city and tour the Cathedral. This was a nice detour on the way to the ship. I would highly recommend Darren for transportation in London/Dover. We arrived in Dover at about 3 pm and were on the Eurodam within 10 minutes.
As a newer ship, the Eurodam is virtually spotless and has very nice public areas and dining venues. Our cabin was a balcony stateroom on Deck 6. It was the typical size and included sufficient storage space for 10 days. The bed was very comfortable and the refrigerator actually worked well (unlike many other ships). The crew of the Eurodam was very efficient and friendly. They provided excellent service. Our stateroom attendant was very quiet and not talkative but he serviced our room in a very efficient manner.
Since this was a port-intensive itinerary, we didn't spend much time at the pool. It's notable, however, that there are virtually no lounge chairs available in shaded areas. A substantial part of the Lido area has been taken over by 8 cabanas that are available to suite passengers. While I don't object to the concept of cabanas in general, I don't believe that they should be placed in this prime area. The Sanctuary area on Princess Ships, for instance, is generally in an area that had been underutilized. I would not consider taking this ship or any of her sisters on a Caribbean or other warm weather itinerary.
We found the overall dining experience to be very good. We had a table for 4 in the back corner of the dining room next to a window, which provided very nice sea views. Since the sun sets very late in this part of the world during summer, we always had something to watch during late seating. The only misstep in the dining room was a crème brulee that had obviously been sitting out as the sugar had melted.....it wasn't edible. The Lido buffet always provided a decent selection of items for breakfast/lunch. In particular, we enjoy the fresh squeezed OJ in the morning. We dined at the Pinnacle Grill on our last night and found the food and service to be outstanding. My only food-related complaint was the pizza. It's billed as "gourmet" but was the worst pizza I've ever had on a ship. I've eaten frozen pizza that was better.....HAL needs to work on this. HAL offers a Mariner lunch on the last sea day. It was very well attended. I was disappointed, however, with the food. My beef wellington was overcooked (meat was tough) and had obviously been sitting out as the pastry was mushy. I couldn't eat it.
We found the entertainment on the ship to be lacking, at best. We went to the show on the first night. We didn't expect much and got even less. There was about 2 minutes of singers/dancers followed by the cruise director hosting passenger games (I thought I was on Carnival for a couple of minutes). The shows on all other nights were all before dinner for late seating passengers. We like to enjoy our days and rest by the pool prior to getting ready for dinner so this does not fit into our preferred schedule. The cruise director explained that many passengers prefer after dinner shows but he thought it was better to schedule them early due to the length of time in port. Apparently, what he thinks is better trumps what many passengers prefer. While many ships schedule pre-dinner shows, I have never been on a cruise that scheduled them all in this manner. As for music, we didn't find much to our liking. They had a guitarist that was awful and several other acts that were mediocre, at best.
The highlight of this trip was the ports and that was the primary reason we selected this trip. For the most part, we tend to book private tours to sightsee on our own as opposed to using cruise line tours. HAL provided a port guide, whose function was to provide information to independent travelers. Ian did a very nice job providing presentations prior to arriving in each port and being available for questions on the ship and at the piers when we disembarked. This was a valuable service that other lines should replicate.
Kiel, Germany: We arrived in Kiel at 11 am, three hours later than advertised due to "operational reasons." Since we booked the Castles, Lakes, and Roses tour through HAL, this didn't present a problem. I had read many good reviews about this tour so, despite my aversion to cruise line tours, we gave it a try. It really didn't live up to expectations. The operators didn't seem to know how to adjust to the time change so we didn't get to make all of the stops included in the tour description. The lunch was provided at a nice restaurant and the boat ride was very scenic; however, the remainder of the tour was not well organized and the guides did not seem to be very knowledgeable.
Talinn, Estonia: After arriving in Talinn, we decided to purchase the Talinn Card, which included a tour of the city (combination bus/walking) and access to most of the sites in town. This was an easy way to see the area. We enjoyed the Old Town area and had a very good lunch at the Garlic Restaurant Balthauser that sits above the main square. We walked to and from the ship, which took about 20 minutes each way. The weather was very warm so it was uncomfortable towards the end. Thankfully, the bus used for the tour was air conditioned.
St. Petersburg, Russia: This port was the highlight of our trip. Again, it was unusually hot....90+ degrees, which we hadn't bargained for. We booked a private guide and driver for the four of us from TJ Travel. They charged $340 pp (-5% for cash payment) for two full days. Our guide was excellent and very knowledgeable about local history and the sites we were seeing. We started the first day with a tour of the city with several photo stops followed by a hydrofoil ride (thankfully with air conditioning) to Peterhof, where we witnessed the start up of the fountains. The grounds of this palace are amazing. From there, we drove back to St. Petersburg and toured the Hermitage. Although very crowded, our guide got us around the line and through the highlights of this museum, which houses an incredible amount of art in addition to the beautiful rooms of this former palace. We finished the day at the Church of the Spilt Blood. On the second day, we started at Catherine's Palace, which was also crowded and hot but should not be missed. Our guide got us through the crowd and into the palace ahead of the line and explained what we were seeing in each room. The amber room is amazing. We returned to the city for lunch, which was our only disappointment since the pie shop that is often used by TJ Travel was closed. We settled for an Italian place, which wasn't very good by our standards. We continued with a tour of a local market and a subway ride. The subway stations are decorated like museums and are worth the visit. The cruise line had advised us that photos were not allowed in the stations but our guide said it was OK. We finished the day and the tour at the Fortress of Peter and Paul. We were tired after two days of solid touring but it was well worth the effort.
St. Petersburg is the port where I would strongly recommend a private tour. I compared what we did to what the ship offered and found that two full days with the HAL tour would have cost $398 pp. and did not cover all of the sights that TJ Travel included. We heard many complaints from fellow passengers that the tours offered by HAL were crowded and not well organized. The little bit of research on this web site that led us to TJ Travel was well worth the effort and I would highly recommend them.
Helsinki: I purchased the Helsinki Card before we left and we used it to sightsee on our own. We took the ship's shuttle into town as public transportation was not close. We then took the ferry to Suomenlinna Fortress and visited the museum and took the guided tour, which was very interesting. We had lunch in Market Square and took a city tour in the afternoon. This was the only rainy period we saw during the entire trip but we were on the bus so it wasn't a total loss.
Stockholm: I purchased the Stockholm Card before we left so we took the public bus from the pier (about a 10 minute walk from the ship) to the Vasa. The bus drivers were very helpful in pointing out the correct stops and spoke excellent English. I had read that it is best to visit the Vasa as soon as it opens and this was good advice. We beat the tour buses and only had a short wait in line. The ship and displays are impressive and this museum shouldn't be missed. From the Vasa, we walked to Skansen, the outdoor museum and spent some time walking through the park. Since we arrived as it opened, quite a few of the buildings had not opened. Also, many of the vendors don't take credit cards or Euros so local currency is needed to partake. From Skansen, we took the hop-on/hop-off boat to the Gamla Stan, where we saw the changing of the guard, had lunch, and toured the Royal Palace. It wasn't as impressive as Russia but still worth the visit. The public bus took us back to the pier in plenty of time.
Copenhagen: This was our port of debarkation but we spent an extra night so we had time to tour the city. Debarkation was easy and we had no trouble finding a cab. We got off a little ahead of our scheduled color, which probably made it a little faster. We took the Hans Christian Anderson walking tour from the visitor's center, which was very well done. The guide is a transplanted American who gives the tour in character and offers a unique perspective. After the tour, we used the Copenhagen card to get around the city, touring several palaces and museums. We had dinner at a local restaurant that I didn't care for but it was another hot day so that could have affected my opinion. After dinner, we went to Tivoli Gardens. This is a combination of amusement park and gardens and is worth a visit. The grounds are well done and there is outdoor music in the evening. We probably should have eaten there as the restaurants looked pretty good. This was fairly close to our hotel, which was the Marriott. It offered very comfortable rooms and is located directly on the canal, which was a nice location to end our visit.
We had a noon flight on Saturday from Copenhagen through Heathrow to DC. We had plenty of time to get some sleep and eat breakfast before heading to the airport. The buffet at the Marriott was good but very expensive. We could have used public transport to the airport, but we decided to use a taxi for convenience. The airport was easy to navigate and we found our flight without difficulty. We were on United back to DC and found that their new business class is very comfortable and well done. Despite the hot weather, this was an excellent trip and we wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to others.