We had heard a lot about cruising and liked the sound of it. We had always wanted to visit St Petersburg and decided to give it a go. After consulting a local cruise specialist agent we booked the Aurora Baltic Cruise and we were not disappointed. Prior to departure I used Cruise Critic extensively to research the do's and don'ts and read advice about our ports of call. I found the content invaluable and would like to thank all those who have contributed.
As part of the package we could choose either coach travel to Southampton or car parking, we opted for the driving ourselves and parking. It could not have been easier; we pulled up at the terminal someone helped us out with our bags, which disappeared, I was given a ticket in exchange for my car keys and we joined the long queue for boarding. I was surprised to find the queue moved very quickly, we were dealt with in a friendly, efficient manner and where soon on board. We were told that cabins would be ready for 2pm and to take lunch in the Orangery while we waited, we eagerly complied. After a very reasonable buffet lunch we found our cabins (sorry, I mean staterooms) with no difficulty one deck below the Orangery.
We were very pleasantly surprised by our accommodation. It was very clean with plenty of storage space and sufficient coat hangers. Suitcases easily stowed under the bed. Our cabin steward immediately came to introduce herself and explained were things where. During the cruise she was very attentive, magically popping in to make up our rooms when we went for meals. Tea, coffee and biscuits were topped up twice a day. Following someone's suggestion on this site, I had taken a 4 gang extension and I am glad I had. The one socket is on the dressing table and would be a bit awkward plugging in chargers, tongs etc. without it. It had also been suggested that we took our own hairdryer, which we did. However, we found the one in the cabin to be adequate, much better than some you find in hotels. It was nice having the balcony but we didn't make much use of it, perhaps we would if we had gone somewhere hot and sunny. My sister was in Cabin A283, an inside cabin, which she says was very noisy during the cruise. It appears it backs onto a service area and the noise continued until about 11.30pm from about 6.30am.
After unpacking it was time for the safety briefing followed by the sail away. It's a nice touch having the band playing on the quayside. Then it was time to get ready for dinner. We had opted for early sitting, which was 6.30, and had been allocated a table for just our 5 in the Alexandria restaurant. We were pleased with our decision as we found later that late sitting diners often were not leaving the restaurant until 10.30. Our waiters were great, very friendly and knowledgeable. Our wine waiter was particularly good. The food was of a high standard when you consider they are trying to achieve fine dining to around 500 people at a time. There was a good choice of food at each meal and always alternatives if you happened not to want anything from the menu. We started taking breakfast in the main restaurant, but later found it more relaxing to have the buffet breakfast in the Orangery which we found to be of good quality. We sometimes had to search for a table but there were 5 of us which made it more difficult. We also had lunches and afternoon teas in the Orangery, totally unnecessary but it had to be done. In all, the buffet food was of a good standard and was constantly topped up with fresh food.
Entertainment was of a very good standard. The shows were excellent and very popular, mostly of the West End musical type. We had to dash from our dinner to get a decent seat in the theatre. There were also visiting singers and comedians each of whom performed for a couple of nights. The lectures were on differing subjects catering for all tastes. The onboard entertainments team worked very hard and were always energetic. I don't know what they were on but I would like some. The sailaways were particularly good fun with singing and dancing on the deck, and the show they put on near the end of the cruise was fantastic.
On sea days there was a good selection of activities which you could partake in if you wanted. Our group did ballroom dancing, line dancing, craft work and quizzes and there was always plenty of room everywhere if you just wanted to sit and relax.
Being newbies we had booked excursions in most of the ports. We found these to be generally good value for money, though in hindsight we could have done more of the ports on our own. Shuttle buses were provided to take you in to the towns when necessary. One negative was that we found that the tours team were only interested in the tours that they were selling. When I asked them a couple of questions regarding the ports that we were doing on our own, their knowledge was lacking and their attitude was dismissive, referring me to the internet to get my questions answered. Thankfully I had done most of the research before we went via this site and the web.
On the return to Southampton everything worked like clockwork. Our luggage was collected overnight and we disembarked at 9.15 after breakfast. After collecting our cases from the luggage hall we collected our car keys and were on our way home by 9.45.
In summary, we had a fantastic holiday and have no complaints. Not like one lady I spoke to who said she would never cruise again because she found it too hectic, and they didn't have the brand of marmalade she liked. I suppose it takes all sorts!