Top of the World—and the Baltic, too! We signed up for this 35-day extravaganza with some trepidation, as our longest previous cruise was 14-days—and we were not sure if we could stand to be on the ship (or that confined with each other) for that length of time. Turns out we loved every minute of it. As background, we are 60 years old (or so) and this is our 6th cruise. We sailed from Tilbury, England (a London port) on Holland America's MS Prinsendam. We opted for the airport transfer from Heathrow to the ship—which turned out to be a great choice. We waited about half an hour after arrival to collect all the passengers due near our arrival time—picked up passengers at all five terminals in Heathrow—and headed for Tilbury on the M-25. Traffic was horrendous, but painless for us. A worry-free way to get from the airport to the ship. The ship had a Friday boarding for a Saturday sail away—so when we arrived at the passenger terminal, it was empty except for our bus load. Need-less-to-say, the processing and entry onto the ship was painless, and our bags were in our stateroom when we arrived.
We were in room 252 on the Lower Promenade—our choice, because we love walking the deck. The room was about standard size, though the bathroom was larger than normal with a full tub and the room had a large (for a cruise ship) walk in closet with plenty of storage for everything—even for a 35-day voyage. As many reviewers have noted, the Prinsendam is a little long in the tooth, as cruise ships go—but we found it to be well maintained and very comfortable. We had no personal issues with the ship during the entire voyage—though we did hear of sporadic air conditioning/heating and plumbing problems from other passengers we encountered. We met our room steward and his assistant (Yuli and Yulius) upon arrival and they provided terrific service throughout the 35 days. They were low key, but intent on providing good service—and very, very friendly. They always had a smile or a good word...and were great contributors to our enjoyment of the cruise. Our two favorite features of the ship were the (free) self-service laundry rooms and the library. One of the main reasons we chose Holland America is for the library—and though a small ship—the library was well-stocked, cozy, and extremely well-utilized. The librarian—Sabrina—was friendly and helpful—and absorbed unending undeserved haranguing from people with complaints or questions about the internet system—which is co-located with the library. Yes...the internet system is slow, sporadic, and VERY expensive to use—it has been written up many times on nearly all Holland America ships. But...it must be a substantial and reliable revenue source—as they do not seem inclined to change it. We elected "As You Wish" dining and had absolutely no trouble getting a table on a walk-up basis. We enjoy meeting lots of different folks—which is why we select this option. We tended to eat early—around 6:00 pm with no waits...it appeared that there may have been some waits for "as you wish" seating as the time for changeover to the 7:45 fixed seating approached and some diners were languishing over their desserts and coffee. We heard no complaints. In our opinion, the food on board, and particularly in the main dining room was uniformly very good—and occasionally excellent. The executive chef bought fresh fish at the dockside markets in the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Bergen, Norway...so the quality of the seafood was excellent. Only the desserts seemed to lag the rest of the offerings in overall quality and variety. They were fine—just not anything memorable. Given the relatively high average age of the passengers on the cruise—the health club was always busy. Finding a free treadmill or bike was not a sure thing. However, it said a lot about the attitude and fitness of the travelers—which was one of impressive things about the cruise. We did not use the spa. We did use the hot tubs on several occasions—but were disappointed in the relatively tepid temperature that was maintained. They were more like "warm tubs" and in our opinion (especially on the arctic part of the cruise) would have been a great feature had the water been even a little hotter.
We attended quite a few offerings in the showroom during the cruise and found the shows—both the individual entertainers and the on-board singers/dancers to be just that—entertaining. The local talent brought onboard in Iceland was one of the best shows—though certainly not one of the most professional. We did not use the casino...and it appeared that it was very sparsely used throughout the cruise. I suspect that has something to do with the demographics of the passengers on this type of cruise and the Prinsendam. We did patronize the Java Cafe—both for java...and for an afternoon happy hour. It was about the only place on the ship with live news or other programming...which is nice once in a while. The cruise director, Thom, and his assistant, Kevin, did an admirable job arranging entertainment, activities, and information that fit the demographics of the passengers. Thom seems to have a perfect personality for his job (which makes sense) and was a continually upbeat influence throughout the cruise. One of the high points of the cruise was the expert lecturer on board for the Arctic Explorer portion of the cruise. Denis St Onge is an arctic geologist from Ottawa, Canada and recognized expert in his field. On top of that...he is a great communicator and had no problem simplifying some very complex topics so that the mass audience could understand them. His first lecture on "Plate Techtonics" packed the showroom—and attendance was similar at his subsequent lectures. It says a lot about the quality of the lecturer—and the curiosity of the passengers that these lectures were so well attended throughout.
We did use the Pinnacle Grill one time with some friends we made onboard—and also attended the two Cellar Master Dinners that were offered during the two segments of our cruise. We had a good time on all three occasions and I think the experience is worth the extra fee. On the second segment of the cruise there was some frustration with the Pinnacle Grill—as apparently there had been an extremely large number of "gratis" coupons given out by travel agents and other organizations—and for the last week of the cruise the Pinnacle was fully booked and there were many passengers who were not able to redeem their "gifts".
Ports of call. Wow! We really enjoyed this cruise...and selected it precisely because of the ports of call and scenic sailing (the polar ice cap) that were included. We only took two of the Holland America ship board excursions—but did make several arrangements on our own—which we try to identify. We tend to be very active—and the main reason we booked independent excursions—or none—was that we prefer walking and biking...and getting off the beaten path...AND...interacting with local people whenever possible. Independent excursions allowed us to do more of that. Here's a quick rundown in chronological order.
Tilbury, England (Embark/Debark). Gravesend, the town across the Thames from the port—reached by a continuous ferry immediately adjacent to the ship dock—is a quintessential English village, a couple of neat churches (one with the grave of Pocahontas under the vestry), nice historical naval fort, and a couple of good pubs. Great place to walk around.
Edinburgh, Scotland. We did the HO-HO bus tour and then used it to revisit a couple of locations. Did a lot of strolling and bought the obligatory sampling of really good Scotch whiskey.
Scrabster, Scotland. Absolutely nothing here (which got to be one of our favorite characteristics of a lot of these ports of call). Small town of Thurso a couple of miles away with a good museum to walk through. We did about a three mile walk starting at the churchyard that meandered through rolling meadows/heath and followed the dramatic coastline. The Orkney Islands are visible across the bay and the cliff fronts are awesome—with several caves at the base of the cliff that lead to "blow holes" up on the plateau on top of the cliff. This is no OSHA certified walk—as you can go as close to the cliff edge as your apprehension will allow you. The blow holes and arch formations were fabulous—and—there was no one there! We got a little lost out in the heath...but just joined a hedge fence row and followed it back down to the bay. What a great time.
Runavik, Faroe Islands. Again, nothing here. A very small town with an extremely scenic mooring in the fjord. We took the Holland America bus tour to Torshavn—the capital of the Faroes. I had selected this, as the day we arrived was the first of the two-day Faroe Island National Days. Unfortunately for us, the festivities did not kick off until about 2:00 pm on the first day—so we only got to see the booths and activities being set up...and only a few of the locals in their "national dress"...which was our real reason for selecting this tour. However, the bus ride from Runavik to Torshavn was worth the price of admission. Standing atop the ridge overlooking the fjords was unforgettable.
Reykjavik, Iceland. We elected to do a "private" tour by car in Reykjavik with Mike Kissane of "f-stop Tours". We booked everything online and arranged a rendezvous at the pier. Mike is transplanted from the USA, having met his wife while she was attending college in the USA, and returned with her to Iceland. He is now an Icelandic citizen and there could be no better or more fervently enthusiastic promoter of Iceland than Mike. We did a modified "Golden Circle" tour of geothermic regions (geysers), historic sites (cathedrals and a geological phenomenon where the first "thing"—Viking governments meeting was held)—a fabulous waterfalls...and mostly just wonderful commentary and background on everything.
Isafjord, Iceland. We just "walked around" in the vicinity of Isafjord. The fjord scenery just keeps getting better (or different) and with the wonderful weather and temperature, walking was a joy. We should say at this point that the weather was continuously awesome the entire cruise. We had rain showers twice (in 35 days) and rough seas only one night very late in the cruise. I don't know how we got so lucky...but it surely contributed to the overall awesomeness of the experience.
Akureyri, Iceland. Again, we just "walked around". We walked to the Lutheran Cathedral and continued on to the Botanical Garden. The garden had just opened when we arrived, and there were only four other people in the garden along with us. It was absolutely gorgeous, with examples of plants and flowers that we had never seen. We spent a long time in the garden, just enjoying the sights and smells. Something that a picture will not show and is nearly impossible to describe. Outside the garden, we stopped in a local grocery store, which we like to do to get an idea of what products are popular in the local area and it does give us an idea of how the cost of living compares to what we know. We bought a couple of Icelandic beers to go along with two Faroe Island beers that a local resident had given us during a walk through his neighborhood in Runavik—to have our own beer tasting onboard. Great!
Longyearbyen, Spitzbergen, Norway. This was probably our favorite port of call—again—not much here. However, theship's fjord location is spectacular and there is a very good museum in the town of Longyearbyen (population about 1800). However, our shore excursion is what made the port for us. We booked a "fossil hunting" excursion through www.svalbard.net . It is not for the out of shape or the faint of heart. The small group of nine filled the van as we drove from the Radisson Hotel meeting point to the edge of town. Our guide—a waif of a young girl 20 years old—hoisted her mandatory high powered rifle onto her pack (required to go outside the city limits because of polar bears) and we set off up the moraine towards the glacier face. It was NOT an easy walk on the scrabbly ground and narrow trails with sharp drop offs...and took us an hour and 45 minutes to reach the glacier face. But what a reward...there were fossils everywhere—mostly leaves and plants...and you could take samples with you, if you wished. Getting the stones down to a manageable size/weight was not easy—but nearly everyone found one or two that became their favorites. A British couple in the group must have had 50 pounds worth in their back pack—I don't know how they managed to get back down the moraine without falling! We crossed a small raging glacier runoff torrent on an aluminum ladder with two small wooden slats laid on top of it. That was exciting!! Can't recommend this excursion enough for those who like a like adventure in a relatively controlled situation.
Ny Alesand, Spitzbergen, Norway. When you say there is no one here, you mean it. The year round population is about 35, which swells to about 120 (mostly scientists and researchers) in the summer. The harbor is probably the prettiest place we anchored. We tendered ashore, as there is no dock large enough to handle the Prinsendam. The local authorities had a "path" laid out that they asked everyone to stay on (a road). Ny Alesand had the same "Polar Bear" signs as Longyearbyen. Despite the restrictions, the port was fascinating and the scenery breathtaking. One researcher told of 80 beluga whales swimming and playing in the bay the day before we arrived (You should have been here yesterday!!)
Bergen, Norway. We had an overnight in Bergen, so I booked the Norway in a Nutshell tour through www.fjordtours.com (this tour not available through the ship excursions). This tour is a combination train, bus, fjord ferry, train, train. The total trip took about 10.5 hours and was absolutely phenomenal. Read about the tour online...everything they say about the scenery is true. We also took the Floybahn funicular up to the plateau over looking Bergen and did a hike on top and then walked down to the town—talk about hard on your knees! The fish market in Bergen is great and well worth exploring—try the free samples—the Minck whale was the most unusual. Several nice cathedrals and other historic sights. A great town for walking around.
Kristiansand, Norway. Probably our least favorite port. We walked through the town into a very nice park above the city with panoramic views—and some hardy souls swimming in the small lakes in the park. Like most places, there was a cathedral. We lucked out...there was a Scandinavian Countries youth orchestra rehearsing for a concert that night...so we sat and listened for a long time. They were great.
Oslo, Norway. Again, we did not take a ship excursion, but opted to get a "day pass" for the public transportation—subway, trams, buses, and ferries—and set off on our own. We had decided to do the "outside" stuff in Oslo, since the day was so beautiful and we knew we were returning on the second segment of our cruise. We started with Frogner Park and the Vigeland sculptures. This is well worth a long visit and each individual will view/interpret the sculptures differently. We really enjoyed it. We hopped a tram going east (for no other reason) and hopped out when we saw (what else) a cathedral. It was fairly typical, but very near the National Gallery (free). We stopped in the gallery and checked our bags and coats in the free lockers and grabbed a map. We went to the Edvard Munch room to view his paintings and especially "The Scream". Then we moved on to the "masters" rooms and spent an hour in those two rooms. A magnificent collection of paintings and sculptures and we had the rooms nearly to ourselves (at least at the time we were there). When we left, there were two tour buses just arriving, so it is not always so sparsely attended. We finished off the day just walking around and taking various trams to explore the city.
Amsterdam, Holland. The final port/debarkation point for the first segment of the cruise. We have been to Amsterdam many times, so we hit the Van Gogh museum (VERY crowded—buy tickets in advance online if you want to go) and then just strolled around Amsterdam, stopping as the whim hit us. We went to the Amsterdam City Museum, which we had not seen before. It was very well done...and had a remarkable room of Dutch Masters' paintings, including several Rembrandt's. Well worth the visit.
Kiel Canal. We left Amsterdam the same day (about 5:00 pm) and the next morning sailed into the first lock of the Kiel Canal. It was fun to watch the lock operation and we were met by a brass band a couple waving an American Flag. The couple "followed" us the entire transit, showing up every several miles where there was road access down to the canal. The canal was a relaxing time with farmlands and small villages along the route. Many people used the walking/biking paths along the canal and nearly all were curious about the ship and solicited waves from those on deck.
Tallinn, Estonia. We booked a "private" walking tour through Chill Out Walking Tours, http://www.traveller.ee/chillout-walking-tour and had a fabulous time (except for the torrential downpour near the end of our two-hour walk). Our guide, Jaanika, had excellent English and obviously loved Tallinn. She gave us a detailed and entertaining view of Tallinn—and recommended a restaurant for lunch where we were able to sample authentic Estonian food and beer. If you are "young at heart", check out the Chill Out Walking Tours. After the great lunch, we retraced some of our steps to spend more time in the historical places that interested us and search out some of the back streets of the "old town". Tallinn is a great walking city and probably our second favorite city on the cruise after St Petersburg.
St Petersburg, Russia. Everyone's favorite...and ours, too!! What a city...a week here would not be enough. We elected to take the DENRUS two-day value tour (vice the ship excursions) because of the DENRUS itinerary and primarily because of the smaller group size. We ended up with 16 in our group, which was very manageable and allowed us to get on/off the bus efficiently and maneuver in the crowded tourist sites with relative ease. Our tour guide, Nadya, was terrific—knowledgeable, articulate, and empathetic with her group. She got the most out our two days—and we were on the move, constantly. This tour is not for anyone with any type of mobility restrictions—as the walking, irregular surfaces, steps to climb, and pace, and just the amount of time spent walking each day were pretty grueling. Side note: you do NOT need a Russian visa if you arrange a tour with ANY Russian approved tour agency.
Helsinki, Finland. We took our second shipboard excursion in Helsinki...the three hour bicycle tour of the city—about 10 miles long. This was a great tour and not too demanding...though by the end of the ride you could feel it in your legs. The ride essentially goes around the outside of the city, but you see a lot of the "mandatory" sights. After the ride, we set out on foot to see some of sights up close. We walked to the Russian Orthodox Cathedral and enjoyed seeing the dramatically different interior (vice the predominantly Protestant/Lutheran churches we had seen previously). We walked from there to the Senate Square, which is also where the massive Lutheran Cathedral is located. From there we set off to find the "Rock Church". Unfortunately, we took a wrong turn and only had the small map the ship provided with us. We walked for almost an hour before we became reoriented and neared the Rock Church. It was worth the walk...a really unique and ethereal place. We just sat down (and rested) and soaked up the quiet ambiance of the church. We had a long walk back to the ship...but stopped at a local deli for a loaf of bread, hunk of cheese, and a bottle of hard cider...and joined about 50 locals in the back courtyard to enjoy our lunch. What a great way to finish up.
Warnemunde/Rostock, Germany. Warnemunde Is the Baltic Sea beach resort and Rostock its sister Hanseatic League city. We did not take a ship's excursion, but took the train to Rostock (easy to do, tickets in the station or from the machine—about 8 Euros). The trains run about every half hour. We did our typical walking tour of Rostock and it is a quaint, typical small German city with great narrow cobblestone streets in the old city. We spent quite some time in St Mary's Church, which has the most amazing pipe organ we have ever seen, the most amazing clock we have ever seen (an astronomical clock built in the 1400's that could predict the date of Easter until 2017), and a phenomenal photo display of the rise of the Nazi party and the pogroms against the Jews and other minorities (1923 to 1945). The photo display was from the personal effects and diaries/journals of politicians, young soldiers, college students, and Jewish residents of Warsaw and Russia. It was not pleasant viewing...but one of the most thought provoking displays on this period in history that we have seen. All in all, (with a significant contribution from the experience of the photo display) the visit to St Mary's was one of the high points of the our cruise. We had great typical German lunch in the Ratskeller Restaurant—which has outstanding swine haxe, for those who know what it is. We took the train back to Warnemunde and got caught in another downpour in the train station. By the time we reached the ship, we were soaked. We rested a while, changed clothes and went back out the Warnemunde to "hit the beach". It's about a 15-20 minute walk to the beach and well worth it. We searched for a place to have a bite of supper, and settled on a snell imbiss selling wursts and pomme frites. Good German curry wursts and two weissen bier...supper doesn't get any better than that.
Stockholm, Sweden. We did the walking thing again in Stockholm. The "water taxi" ferry met our ship at the pier and went directly to the Vasa Museum (which opens at 8:30...earlier than nearly any other tourist site). The Vasa Museum (recovered ship that sunk on its maiden voyage in 1528) is absolutely amazing. We got there early and avoided the lines (which were huge when we left) and spent nearly two hours in the museum. From there we walked to Skansen, the outdoor folk museum. If you are a walker and a history buff, this is a place you will enjoy. We spent a couple of hours in Skansen and hopped the ferry to Gamla Stan (the old town). We only had time for one walking pass through the palace and old town—as we spent too much time in the Vasa Museum and Skansen. We caught the ferry at the base of Gamla Stan back to the ship—another great day.
Copenhagen, Denmark. We decided to go the HO-HO bus route in Copenhagen, and it worked out to be a great idea. We took all three routes (red, green, yellow), just to get oriented...then revisited specific sites that interested us. We had smorbrod (open face sandwiches) from a charcuterie for lunch—sitting beside the street to enjoy our (relative inexpensive—and typically Danish) lunch.
Oslo, Norway (revisited). Since we had been here on the first segment of the cruise, we took the ferry to the island (actually a peninsula) where the Viking Ship Museum, the Kon Tiki/RA Museum and the Norwegian outdoor folk museum are located. The Viking ship museum has three ships that give you a great idea of how tough the Vikings were. Anyone who can sail the open ocean in those ships has got to be tough. Well worth a visit. My main goal is going to the Norwegian folk museum was to see the Gol Stave Church (as we had missed seeing the stave church in Bergen). We entered the museum and made a b-line for the church. It was fantastic...a wooden church built in about 1212 AD...with no nails or fasteners—only notch and peg construction. If you like architectural styles, churches, and history—seeing this stave church is a must. We found the rest of the folk museum to be excellent, also—though many of the buildings were not open because of roof leaks. From the folk museum we walked to the Kon Tiki/Ra Museum, which hold the original Kon Tiki balsa wood raft and the papyrus boat Ra that Thor Heyerdahl sailed. This is a great museum that once again drives home how dedicated (and maybe a little crazy) some of these early explorers must have been. Read the books by Thor Heyerdahl.
Whew...that's it. Again...though we were apprehensive about the 35-day length, we found the cruise to not be too long at all. We liked the Baltic explorer for the history/culture—but we LOVED the Top of the World for the scenery, the solitude, and the sense of place. Not for everyone...but certainly for us!!