We're from the Los Angeles area, and this was probably our 10th cruise and fourth with our 14 year old son with us. First time on NCL and first time to the Baltic. Previous lines included Princess, Holland America, Carnival, and Celebrity. We like them all, but Princess is probably our favorite line by a small margin. It just feels a little more elegant, maybe. We've traveled to some of the usual places: Caribbean, Alaska, Mexico, Panama Canal, around Cape Horn, but never in Europe. We have two older daughters, who used to cruise with us, but they're off on their own now, so it's just us and our 14 year old son. We like the bigger ships for their stability and variety.
Travel to and from Embarkation:
We flew from Los Angeles to Heathrow, and spent three days in London before heading to Dover. Public transportation in England is fantastic, so we took the Heathrow Express train into London from the airport. Great system. Walk on from within the terminal, and in our case, get off at Paddington Station, which was within walking distance of our hotel. Cheaper than a cab and much faster. We stayed at the Hilton Metropole on Edgeware Road. Very nice hotel and fairly good location. Expensive, but what the heck, we're on vacation. We had a double with a roll-away, but they also offer triples. Quiet rooms, well-appointed, very good service. Two underground stations right nearby, plus lots of buses. I like to run, and it was an easy run to Hyde Park, where you could run for miles.
We took the National Express bus from London to Dover. The bus system in England is great. Frequent departures, a fair number of stops, but not bad, and the buses are comfortable. Best of all, they're cheap! If we had used the ship's transfer service, it would have cost the three of us a total of $450 for roundtrips. The national express bus was only $88 roundtrip total for the three of us. We saved over $350. It lets you out in mid-town, Dover, and you take a taxi to the docks. Taxis were a block up the street and our ride only cost 1 pound each because the taxi company brought out a van and took a bunch of us to the docks.
Our trip home was a mirror image of our trip out. I highly recommend using the public system in England. You'll save a bundle of money, and have very close to the same level of convenience.
Our last cruise before this one was the Panama Canal on Holland America in 2009. The embarkation process then was very smooth and efficient. This was even better, in fact, the best yet. Very little delay, and because most of the paperwork was taken care of on-line before boarding, very little paperwork to worry about. Once on board, our cabin was easy to find thanks to all of the ship's staff providing directions. Overall, a very nice first impression.
Our cabin: 4250
Our cabin location was great, close to stairs, elevators, the main dining room, restaurants and entertainment, but out of the way of traffic. Cabin stewards were just a delight, but the cabin was a little small for three tall people (my wife is 6 feet, son is 6 feet and still growing, and I'm 6'5"). Not an issue during the daytime, but when the sofa bed was set up, it got a little cramped. The bathroom was nice, but also a little small, but it wasn't really an issue for us because almost all cruise bathrooms are like that. You just deal with it. When we boarded the ship and first got to our room, the air conditioning wasn't cooling the room so we contacted housekeeping to get it fixed and they sent someone out right away. The system improved somewhat after they replaced a filter and made some adjustments, but it still couldn't cool like we preferred. Fortunately, two-thirds of our trip was in cool to cold weather, so it was manageable. Not sure what a Caribbean cruise would have been like with the air conditioner working like it did. Overall, the cabin was very nice, but the furnishings in the room felt just a shade worn and dated, like it was due for refurbishment.
The ship's public areas were extremely well-maintained and easy to navigate. The outside of the ship says freestyle fun, but the style inside says Scandinavian modern, not glitzy, probably understated is a good word. It's probably a matter of taste whether you like it a lot or a little. We were somewhere in between. Princess seems a little more elegant, and Holland America a little richer, but these are quibbles. The public areas were very nice. The fitness room was well-equipped and the ship had the best jogging track, by far, that I've experienced on board ship. We always travel on larger ships, but even so, it's not always easy to get a long track with no obstructions. On the Sun, three and a half laps equaled a mile, which was just great. If you're a jogger, this is wonderful. The pool area was nice, about average size, but with no sliding roof cover, it was too cold (we sailed June 16-28) to use most of the time. We were a little unlucky with the weather because it was cold until our second day in St Petersburg, when it finally warmed up for the rest of the trip. The ship's entertainment was outstanding, some of the best I've seen anywhere, especially the Broadway-type shows.
Freestyle is the only way to go. In fact, we won't travel on a ship that doesn't offer some version of that. NCL's freestyle program is excellent, with its relaxed dress code and anytime dining. This feature really helps make a vacation truly a vacation. No rigid times or codes to follow. Great! Dining variety, food quality and service were also very good. We sampled everything, including the extra-cost specialty restaurants. The Italian and Japanese restaurants were excellent and well-worth the service charge, but the steakhouse steaks just didn't have much flavor. The buffet restaurant was also excellent. The only complaint we can offer is the layout of the beverage stations, which were placed along the main hallway to and from the buffet line. People were coming in, going out, getting beverages, balancing plates of food, all in a space wide enough for only two people. It's a design problem that can't be fixed without major remodeling. Maybe when the ship goes in for refurbishment, they'll do something about it. I'm sure I'm not the first to remark on this issue.
Children and teens:
Our 14 year old had a great time. The demographics on this trip skewed a little older, so there weren't that many kids or teens on board, but there were 40 teens (out of almost 2000 passengers), 10 of which used the teen center and bonded into a typical teen-age pack. We only saw him at night and on port tours. He loved it. The ship's teen counselors were very familiar with the ways of teens and nothing was forced on them, and they had a comfortable place to hang out. We can't speak for the children's program, but we did see them now and then when we went to the teen center to see what our son was up to, and the program looked very well-run with the kids engaged in a number of fun activities.
Port & Shore Excursions
I'll detail the ports in the next section, and they were all great. This will be kind of an overview of how we approached planning for the itinerary. The Baltic is one neat itinerary, and it exceeded our expectations. Starting in London, having the bonus of Dover, and then going to the Baltic ports makes for a fantastic look at Northern Europe. The ship of course offers a number of tours, but we've learned over the years that you can usually do better, and often much better, by booking your own tours with local tour companies, which we did. I scoured the internet looking for tours and travel options, which I like to do. Some people may not like to do that, but for me, it's fun and there's so much information available at your fingertips that you can not only find an independent tour operation, but also get excellent user reviews on their features and quality. It's hard to go wrong if you do your homework first. Anyway, that's what we did in every port we went to, including St. Petersburg, and it worked out great. We got more and saved money in the bargain. See below for some details.
Dover is a beautiful little English town. The white cliffs of Dover are truly white and an impressive sight. The castle above the town is exceptional: large and well preserved. Well worth a visit. The town itself feels so British. Kind of a strange thing to say (after all, we were in England), but when you come from a huge city like London, which is very cosmopolitan and where we spent three days before our cruise, you don't get as much of that traditional British feel. If we had it to do over again, we'd have gone to Dover for at least two days before embarking. It's just a delightful place.
Beautiful, but not as nice as the other ports on our itinerary, which isn't a criticism of Copenhagen, but rather a tribute to the other ports. We toured the city on a hop-on-hop-off double decker bus, which is a great way to see the city. We went to Tivoli Gardens, which were as beautiful as advertised, but we'd heard so much about them that we expected something the size of Central Park in NY or Golden Gate Park in SF. Not close. You can walk it in about half an hour. Nice visit, but not extraordinary. It's really small in relative terms.
This was an unexpected delight. It was the least known port on our itinerary, but we absolutely loved it. Many passengers elect to skip this port and take the train into Berlin, but since the train trip was 3 hours one way, we opted to stay in Warnemunde, and it was a fabulous choice. The ship docked right at the city; we just got off and walked into this beautiful German fishing port and beach resort. Beautiful shops and restaurants stretch along a narrow river that empties into the Baltic. Lots of colorful boats docked on both sides of the river, with walkways, trees and flowers lining the river. I don't think Disney could have done a better job. The shopping and food were excellent, especially the German bakeries. A nice bonus is a long beach-front walkway that fronts a very broad sandy beach for miles. The hotels along the beachfront are mostly fairly modern, and most of the architecture along the river is quaint rather than old, so we also went to Rostok by train, just 20 minutes away, to see a very well-preserved medieval city. Again, no tour was necessary. The trains ran every 15 minutes or so and dropped you off at the Rostok main train station, which is within a long walk of the medieval city center, or if you don't want to walk, just go down one level in the train station and catch one of the trolleys that run right to the main plaza in front of the medieval center. We had a great day and evening because the ship didn't leave until 11 PM due to the long day-trip to Berlin. Warnemunde was a delight, and the shopping was excellent.
We'd heard a lot about Tallinn from my sister and her husband, who had visited it a few months earlier. They raved about it and we weren't disappointed. Old Tallinn is located right next to the cruise docks. It's very well-preserved, almost a complete medieval city, and quiet. When we went, there were very few other people about, no crowds at all, no waits in the restaurants, no lines anywhere for anything. Nice way to see the city. If you're interested in the medieval and subsequent historical period, this is an excellent way to see how life was like back then. A few modern shops and restaurants are located throughout the city, but they all fit nicely into the medieval structures. Variety is somewhat limited compared to other ports, but it's not bad. No tour is necessary; the city is just a very short walk over from the dock, and it's easy to tour on your own. Once you're inside the walls, it's impossible to get lost.
This city was just stunning. The palaces and churches, gardens and canals, were just jaw-dropping. Two days is not enough to see everything, but we did our best, starting early and finishing as late as possible. We used Alla Tours, a russian tour company, for both days and they were wonderful. Great guide, great itinerary (each day was packed), nice small tour group (14 people), and we bypassed the lines at the museums, palaces, and other monuments (wait until you see the lines at the Hermitage!). The russian museums are extremely popular with the locals as well as tourists, so be ready for lots of people and lots of crowding. Alla Tours was great because they took care of everything: visas, tour tickets, transportation, everything. My wife got an upset stomach on our second day, and they even arranged to take her back to the ship right away, without disrupting the tour itinerary. I'm not being critical of the ship's tours, because they are good, and for many people, they happen to be just right, but we got a lot more with Alla Tours and had a smaller group to be with, which makes a big difference when you get inside the crowded museums and churches.
Great port with wonderful, friendly people. We went off on our own again, riding the hop-on-hop-off buses. Almost everyone spoke English, and Helsinki has special tourist guides walking around the major tourist areas ready and willing to help you with directions, opinions about sights to see, and questions in general. It's a beautiful city, especially around the waterfront, and also very easy to navigate. There was a farmer's market in the main port area, which added a splash of bright color to the predominately white buildings surrounding the waterfront. Lots of flowers, vegetables, trinkets, souvenirs, and similar stuff. Some decent bargains. All in all, a great port visit.
This was our last port and it was wonderful. Like Helsinki, a very beautiful city. When you go, though, be aware that the ship may not dock at Stockholm itself. In our case, we docked at Nynashamn, which is a good 45 minute bus trip outside the city. Not sure why that was the case (I heard no dock available, or would take too long to cruise there), but we had very little port time available, which was a disappointment becuase there was lots to see and do in Stockholm. Fortunately, there was a hop-on-hop-off bus right at the port in Nynashamn to take you into the city and around the sights. Nonetheless, we only had from roughly 10 AM to 3PM to see Stockholm. Not enough. Don't miss the Vasa Museum. Extremely impressive and well-worth the trip.
Also the best yet. Being able to walk off with your bags anytime is a great innovation. No hassle to put them out at night, then go find them again once you get off the ship. Very smooth and virtually no waiting.
NCL did an excellent job. We would sail with them again. It was a very pleasant experience. The cabin stewards deserve special praise. They were tremendous: genuinely friendly and anxious to make sure we had everything we needed. We even bumped into them in one of the ports, and even though they were on some of their rare free time, they were just as courteous and helpful as they were on board ship. We can't say enough about their service and friendship. People really do make the difference, and NCL has some excellent people. Also, keep in mind that if you go in June, you're going during the summer solstice, and when you get up to St. Petersburg and Helsinki, you're so far north, that the sun almost never sets. Amazing.