Getting There It all started on our eastern Med cruise on Equinox. We find that it makes packing to get off our ship easier if we have another cruise lined up, so we signed up for Constellation's Baltic cruise and took advantage of the OBC provided. When we got home, we talked with our long-time friends Dave and Sylvia about coming with us and they agreed. We had signed up for a 2A veranda cabin (7173), and they got a good deal on a Concierge Class cabin three doors away. The two couples flew separately, with Sylvia using Frequent Flyer miles to get a business class routing with connections while Gail and I got a great price on a coach seat direct from PHL to AMS by booking through BMI, which codeshared the flights operated by US Airways. We got to Amsterdam a day before Dave and Sylvia and took a Schiphol Hotel Shuttle to the Fita in the museum district. We had stayed at the Fita before, so it was like coming home. The hotel is in a primarily residential area, walking distance from several tram lines and near a good Indonesian restaurant called the Orient and it has an elevator, something of a rarity in small Amsterdam hotels.
The day after we arrived, we went downtown to see Sail 2010, Amsterdam's ship festival held along the shore around the Passenger Terminal, and then met some Dutch friends at the Van Loon museum, a mansion located on one of the canals. We had dinner with them at a wonderful restaurant called the Dauphine, somewhat out of the way, but on one of the tram lines which stopped at the end of the Fita's street.
Embarkation We met our friends at the hotel on Sunday morning and the Fita ordered a van to take us and our luggage to the ship; total cost €45. Because of Amsterdam's Sail 2010 program, Celebrity was unable to use the downtown Passenger Terminal for embarkation, docking the ship instead at Ceres Port, a container port west of Amsterdam. Embarkation went very smoothly, considering the change of port. We got an extra bonus because Ceres Port served as the holding area for tall ships leaving Sail in downtown Amsterdam and we got to see some of them from our balcony.
The Ship Once on board, we went looking for evidence of her recent "Solsticization." Thankfully, the over-the-bed cabinets from Equinox did not make it to Constellation. In fact, having just been on the un-Solsticized sister ship Summit, we saw relatively little that was different. Cellar Masters seems nice, although during the voyage we were never to see anyone operating the fancy wine-by-the-glass machine. The shift from Cafe Cova to Cafe Bacio seems to be mostly a matter of menu and a few high-backed chairs. Unlike Cova, Bacio has no alcohol on its menu, although alcoholic drinks can brought from a nearby bar.
The Cabin One little surprise was our room. 7173 is an oversized balcony room, and while the large veranda was very nice, the room itself was noticeably smaller than our Concierge Class normal-sized veranda on the Summit. We really missed the small shelves near the desk, which we were told are unique to Concierge Class. On the other hand, there is now a storage area over the flat screen television that we did not have on Summit.
Biggest plus of the day was Lorna, our cabin steward, who efficiently produced a card table for us to eat breakfast on out on the balcony after we expressed disappointment with the tiny table provided. She also whisked our big rollaway, we thought, to somewhere in the bowels of the ship when we discovered it was too large to fit under the bed. Actually, it turned out to have been in the room all along, since Lorna was bright enough to figure out that it would fit under the bed if opened.
Since we travel with a laptop, we signed up for a package in the Internet center, which has IBM machines in contrast to Summit's Apples. We discovered that we get a good Wi-Fi signal in the cabin, 20-40% inside and 60-80% outside; either is sufficient for downloading e-mail.
The Food Having been told that our preferred late dining was unavailable, we had opted for Select Dining, but thought that we would see if any late dining tables had opened up. Louis, the Maitre d', changed us from Select Dining to late, giving us a table for six with two seats blocked.
Both waiter and food were initially a bit of a disappointment. Our waiter seemed to think that verbally reciting dessert highlights was a good substitute for distributing dessert menus. His heavy Indian accent made communication difficult, and there was not an iota of warmth, just a man doing his job. As to the first night's food, lamb shank tagine style was, as always, a highlight, but the gazpacho came with soggy croutons, obviously sitting in the soup a while, and the cheese tray came, as always, with too few crackers. Things picked up after a while, and I guess that a turnaround day is pretty stressful to the kitchen staff. There was almost always something of interest on the right side of the menu, which lists the new dishes for the day (the left side has an unchanging list of old warhorses like NY strip steak and herbed chicken). However, there was one night when all but one dish on the right side contained either pork or shellfish, no-nos for moderately observant Jews like us. Things worked out; the soggy croutons were the exception not the norm and we came to appreciate our waiter's professionalism. He learned our likes and dislikes, and began telling us when his early seating people found certain dishes less than satisfying. His assistant has more personality and warmth, but not the familiarity with the food that our waiter has and in the end that counts for more than personal style.
First formal night was on our first sea day, but the other two formal nights were on port days, which seems silly, especially for those with early seating.
Breakfast on the balcony was a joy, even when we had to wear sweaters to withstand the bracing air. We also breakfasted in the main dining room and on the Deck 10 lido. Each venue had some dishes not available at the others, eg turkey sausage on 10 but not in the MDR, tomato juice in the MDR but not on 10. Lunch was almost always on 10, where we discovered that seating at the rear of the ship is easier to find than seating forward. Our friend Sylvia, who was raised in England, gravitated to the fish and chips and mushy peas, while I tended to select from the Asian specialties; Dave and my wife Gail ranged more broadly. All was good.
Entertainment We're generally not very interested in the shows every night, but we love to sit in a quiet lounge with an after-dinner drink and listen to classical music. Our biggest disappointment of the cruise was the discovery that there is no classical string quartet on the ship. There was a quartet consisting of clarinet, piano, violin and bass, playing some pop or film music, but it is not the same thing. There was also a folky vocalist/guitar player who was a superb instrumentalist but simply could not carry a tune; it was painful to listen to.
I'm not sure if this falls under entertainment, but Captain Pagonis is obviously something of a history buff, and his noon announcement before each port day gave good historical background on the port. Late in the cruise, he also gave a fascinating lecture in the theatre about how the ship is navigated and managed. We were already familiar with some of this, because our Roll Call members were invited for a bridge tour, ably presented by Second Officer Jamie (who started her fascination with the sea as a cruise passenger).
Disembarkation We had purchased an airport transfer from Celebrity, and had been concerned about our ability to make a 10:50am flight to the US. After an initial hiccup (we were given a later disembark time than our friends with a later flight, but a complaint to Guest Relations got us our Pink 1 tags), the disembark process went smoothly. In a process which didn't exist when we sailed Century out of Amsterdam in 2006, our bags were taken separately to the airport, and were waiting outside the terminal in color tag order to be picked up. Schiphol is fairly easy to negotiate, but unlike most airports, security is at the gate, and once you pass through the new backscatter x-ray, you are confined to a fairly small area, though for a short period of time. Then a tedious 8 hour flight back to Philadelphia on a US Airways 767. Although it is a narrowbody jet, the seats and seat pitch seem a trifle more generous than the line's Airbus widebodies.
******************************************************************************** Ashore We rarely take cruise company excursions, preferring to travel independently with the help of guidebooks, Cruise Critic posts and our own research. We and our friends agree that planning is half the fun of the trip. We also have the kind of relationship with Dave and Sylvia that allows us to spend a day together in one port and to each do our own things in another port.
Warnemunde: Fantastic day touring northern Germany with Dave and Sylvia. Sixt upgraded us to an E-class Mercedes, which was good because when David began nodding off at red lights, I could take over. We went to Lubeck first on the E20, where we parked and walked to Neideregger's marzipan shop across from the medieval Rathaus. Marzipan in every shape imaginable, none of it alas edible by diabetic me. We had lunch at a restaurant in the market square behind the Rathaus, served by a waitress who knew no English; we managed (Sylvia speaks some German). Then we drove on route 20 and over back country roads south to Schwerin, where we arrived at the castle lit by the golden rays of the late afternoon sun - magic. Since it was after closing time, we took the "Mercedes privilege" of parking in the castle park and we wandered around trying to capture the immense building in photographs. As the sun set, I drove us out of Schwerin and through Wismar to Bad Doberan on route 105, seeing a slice of rural Germany that looks like the rolling part of Pennsylvania where so many Germans settled. Along the way, we saw what may be the last German/Russian bilingual road sign, a reminder that everything east of Lubeck was DDR in the old days. The Molli train was locked in its shed by then, so we continued on to Rostock, where we searched out Albert and Emile, a recommended restaurant on Altschmeidstrasse in the shadow of the Nikolaikirche. We got confused when the navi (German for GPS) took us to a street with a different name, and as we debated what to do, a local resident came by, asked in English if he could help and pointed out the restaurant up the street, which had changed its name at a cross street as so often happens in Europe. This kind of helpfulness occurred several times during the day, leading one to wonder how such a kindly people could have perpetrated the Shoah. Albert and Emile was charming; we ate on the back patio after challenging the chef for something that would get us out in an hour, so we could drop the car and take a train back to Warnemunde and board by 11:30. He came up with a delicious pot roast of beef daubed with horseradish sauce and served with squash, zucchini, mushrooms and fingerling potatoes. The chef (and probable owner) had limited English (remember, anyone over 20 learned Russian in school not English in the DDR) but Sylvia's German got us through. Turns out the guy has run a few times in the NY Marathon and was treated well by Americans and wanted to reciprocate. Of such small strands are international ties woven. I got us back to the Sixt office across from the train station, and we reached the boat with 45 minutes to spare.
Stockholm: Up at the crack of dawn for the sail-in to Stockholm through the archipelago of islands where many Swedes build weekend cottages. Grey and foggy, which has its own charm, but sunny would also have been welcome. At 7, the bow helipad was opened but we opted not to freeze in style. Later: we decided to observe the sail-in from the rear of deck 10, sheltered from the wind by the ship's bulk. Off at 8:30, easy walk to the HO-HO boat, or rather boats, since there are two companies which run the same route, but whose tickets are not interchangeable. We more or less randomly selected the one with the black logo over the one with the yellow logo. The black logo city map turns out to be better than the yellow logo map, so we apparently made the right choice. Off the boat at Slussen in sudden sunlight and immediately to an ATM on Stora Nygatan then on to find Gyldene Freden, a restaurant opened in 1720, and Martin Trotzik, Stockholm's narrowest street. We reached Stortorget with the Swedish Academy (where the Nobel Prize winners are selected), and took Kopmangatan to see the St. George and the Dragon statue on Kopmantorget. Off to the Palace, where we toured the Royal apartments, watched an interminable changing of the guard by soldiers in bright blue uniforms which, at least in me, inspire no military respect. They look like extras at an opera, although I am impressed by the brass band which plays while riding horses in the rain which accompanied the ceremony.. Rain ends, and we return to Stortorget for lunch at the cafeteria Rick Steves recommends. Plans for walking to the synagogue near Nybroplan evaporated under additional rain and Gail's extreme tiredness, so we took the boat back and reboarded Constellation where we harbor-watched from the balcony with Diet Cokes. Once again, our reach has exceeded our grasp. Grey skies for the sailaway, but still well worth watching from a window table on Deck 10 with hot coffee.
Helsinki: I'm still struggling to figure out why I liked Helsinki so much better than Stockholm. Part of it is that we paced ourselves and didn't tire ourselves out, but there's more. Helsinki seems to be a more manageable place, the kind of place I could imagine myself living. It is chock full of nordic art nouveau architecture, which is more geometric than French art nouveau, leaving the link to later art deco clearer. The most magnificent example is Eliel Saarinen's railroad station, a blockbuster of a building. It is 1909 ultramodern, and it is easy to contrast with the neoclassical Atheneum across the street. And it works today, too. We started the day with a shuttle ride into town from the Hernesaari docks, getting off on Erottajankatu diagonally across from the Swedish Theatre. This is a block from Stockmann's department store, which provided rest rooms and a new battery for my dress watch. One of the endearing things about Helsinki is that the Finnish for hello is "hey." When the young guy who does watch batteries greeted me with "hey" I had to resist a powerful urge to reply "hey yourself, dude, what's going down?" Of course he spoke English; Finland, like many countries with small language communities or complicated languages (Finnish has 19 cases) makes sure that all of its citizens learn a more widely spoken language. The clerks in Stockmann's have little flags on their nameplates to indicate the languages they speak beyond Finnish and Swedish (Finland is bilingual) , and it was not unusual to see two or three flags. We then stopped in the Academic Bookstore across the street for a Herald Tribune, and walked up the Esplanade to the Market Square. The Esplanade is really two parallel streets with a blockwide park running up the middle, terminating at the Market Square with a bandstand, Kappeli's ornate art nouveau restaurant and the Havis Amanda Statue, behind which we would eventually take the 3T tram all around the city. But first, a walk through the dockside market, which has distinct produce, crafts and eating zones. At least on the crafts side, everyone spoke English and took credit cards with the same little wireless boxes that we saw in restaurants. And they knew to swipe our chipless American credit cards. We bought earrings and a lovely framed transparent photo of the Northern Lights set up to have a tea candle behind it to simulate the flicker of the real thing; it was our most Finnish souvenir. Then on to the 3T, which does a loop all around the city, magically changing at one point to a 3B before changing back to a 3T again at the market square. We got off at the train station and went inside; the rear facade facing the tracks is uninteresting, but the side exit shows some variation on the main theme of the front. We reboarded, using our 24-hour pass, and rode through a mixture of commercial and residential neighborhoods, including Eira, an art nouveau neighborhood not far from the docks, before returning to the market square. We stayed on to return to Stockmann's, by now definitely our favorite Helsinki WC, and then caught the shuttle back to the ship. Some walking, a lot of sitting, and a very positive impression of Helsinki.
St. Petersburg: This is the only port in which we did a formal tour, with a guide that we first heard about on Cruise Critic. We discovered that some postings on Cruise Critic about cruise line impediments to travellers with independent tours were not borne out. A prefilled Russian landing card was stuck in our door the night before, and we were off the boat at 8 AM, cleared Russian immigration and met our guide in the lobby of the new cruise terminal a few minutes later. Our immediate surprise was finding that Masha, with whom we had been corresponding, was not to be our guide, in spite of all of her e-mails having been in the first person ("I will take you to X..."). However, the new guide, Inne, proved to be outstanding both as a fount of knowledge and a charming person, and Alexander, our driver, also spoke excellent English, something of a rarity in the guiding business. We climbed into a Mercedes minivan and took off for an orientation drive around the city before proceeding to Peterhof via a three-station Metro ride. The stations are elaborate, but the cars resemble 1960 era NY subway equipment, only without the graffiti.
Peterhof was simply magnificent. We did not go in the main palace, used for state entertaining, but focussed on the gardens with their variety of fountains, all run by gravity from nearby springs - no pumps. We also went through Monplaisir, Peter the Great's modest actual residence while at Peterhof. Then on to Tsarskoye Selo or the Catherine Palace, full-blown baroque with gold everywhere, a bit over the top for my taste. It was particularly instructive to see photographs of the palace as the Germans had left it, basically just the outer walls, to realize how much work has been done to restore it. The one hour drives between these various places were fascinating for seeing how people live on the outskirts of St. Petersburg (pretty similar to American suburbs) and in their country dachas, which range from palatial to literal log cabins. We also got a lesson from Inne in Russia's bloody history; we particularly warmed to Elizabeth the Spender, who died leaving 100,00 dresses, each worn only once. We returned to the city and went into the Cathedral on Spilled Blood, a classic Russian-style church with colorful onion domes, although only finished in 1905. The interior is filled with large mosaics in a kind of Maxfield Parrish/Norman Rockwell style. One is awed by the mosaic work, though not by the art. We never did find out why virtually all large Russian churches are styled "cathedral;" either it means something other than the seat of a bishop, or the Orthodox church is overflowing with bishops. Finally to dinner at Bar Kavkas, a Georgian restaurant with delicious food but Azerbaijani wine, since the hostilities between Russia and Georgia have blocked their wine trade. Alexander picked us up and drove us down Nevsky Prospect and back to the cruise terminal where we collapsed into our beds.
Our second day in SPB concentrated on the city itself. We drove around for part 2 of our city orientation tour, stopping at a local covered market where we wandered around among produce stands, including a few selling pickled vegetables and cheeses. I bought some smoked string cheese, which had a strong, salty flavor. On to a canal cruise with English commentary, where the boat thankfully gave out blankets to protect us from what felt like 40-degree temperature. We again got the opportunity to contemplate the Russian classical and baroque aspect of SPB, which involves a basic classical or baroque building in which every flat (ie, non-decorated) surface is painted a pastel color (mostly yellow, but also light blue and pink). Sometimes deeper colors are used; the Winter Palace is painted a darkish green, and there are many deep ochre buildings. Having grown up in the 60s with black-and-white photos of Russia, I had been expecting something grey and dreary. Most of the day was taken up with a visit to the vast Hermitage museum. We bypassed the long line of people waiting to get in because we already had tickets, thanks to Inne. We had asked her to concentrate on the state rooms in the Winter Palace where the Russian revolution took place, and these tended to be much less crowded than the painting galleries, some of which resembled the NY subway at rush hour. We entered from the Neva embankment and came out on the vast square between the Winter Palace and the General Staff building, where so much of Russia's 20th century history was made. Our final stop was the Peter and Paul fortress, where we visited the church which holds the remains of Russia's czars, including since 2004 Nicholas II and Alexandra. We returned to the ship, settled up with Masha and had an emotional parting from Inne.
Tallinn: Our plan for Tallinn was basically to follow Rick Steve's walking tour, which we did up until the Town Hall square, when it started raining. The Old Town proved to be a short and well-marked walk from the ship. When the rain started, we did an early lunch at the Balthasar Garlic Restaurant on the square, which was wonderful and used the spice delicately in its food, not overwhelmingly. We then ambled down to the "sweater wall" and the Viru Gate, and stopped at a nearby supermarket to replenish toothpaste and hairspray at lower prices than the ship offers. At that point, we were starting to get nervous about our 2:30 all-aboard, and took a wrong turn walking back to the ship which made us even more nervous. The upshot was that I pulled ahead of Gail and got to the gangway just at 2:30 and alerted some of the hotel staff that my wife was coming, but lagging a bit. As it turned out, two or three tour busses arrived back late, and the gangway did not come up until around 2:50, but we cut it closer than I ever want to do again, and stressed Gail unnecessarily. Three PM departures are tough; we were told that Tallinn has a ferry rush hour late in the afternoon, and that we needed to clear the port before it started, or we couldn't leave until after 6. We had ambivalent feelings about Tallinn. Its Old Town is picturesque, but scrubbed and very commercial, leading to a kind of Disney World "Olde Europe" effect.
Copenhagen: Early arrival at Copenhagen on a sunny, warmish day, docked at the close-in Langelinie pier rather than more distant Freeport Terminal. We discovered that Rick Steves is wrong about there being a tourist office with an ATM on the pier (not the first time we've caught him in an error), so with nothing but US dollars, we paid for the HO-HO bus and had to bypass Amelienborg Palace for Kongens Nytorv, where there are many banks with ATMs. Lesson learned: get foreign currency before we leave. Because the HO-HO only goes clockwise, and takes an hour and twenty minutes to circle Copenhagen, we never got back to Amelienborg. But it was nice that we could pick up the bus on the pier right in front of the ship. We walked from Kongens Nytorv (also where the ship's shuttle drops off) to the new Jewish Museum, only to discover (a) Dave and Sylvia (they got an earlier start than we did, and took the route 26 bus from the pier into town using Euros) and (b) that starting September 1, the Jewish Museum does not open until one. We walked up the Stroget (Copenhagen's pedestrianized shopping street) and had an excellent but expensive lunch at the Cafe Norden across from the Illum department store. Back to the museum, now open, for our visit. It is small but fascinating, and labels are in English and Danish, but regrettably in small light grey type on a dark grey background. Architecturally, the museum is interesting. Designed by Daniel Leibeskind, it is a building within a building whose floors and walls slant unexpectedly to symbolize the uncertainty that can accompany being a Jew at certain times and places. We then walked back to Stroget and picked up our HO-HO for the rest of loop, arriving back at the ship a comfortable half-hour before all-aboard.