This is an overdue review of our Baltic cruise last summer...better late than never.
The short version of this review is that we were vey pleased with the "Solsticized" Constellation, loved the crew and we thought the Baltic itinerary was amazing. Like everyone else on this particular sailing, we did endure the Norovirus outbreak, which put a damper on the fun, but in 20/20 hindsight it did not materially impact our fond memories. Last but not least, we also think the specialty restaurant, Ocean Liners, is the best we have experienced in our dozen or so cruises.
This review will help you if you are interested in:
• Comparisons of the "Solsticized" Constellation versus the new Solstice-class ships
• A concierge-class cabin on Constellation
• Reviews of Ocean Liners and Cellar Masters
• Some tips for each of the Baltic ports on this itinerary, including St Petersburg
• Overly long, yet mildly amusing, narratives of someone else's vacation!
Read on for more details...this is a long review, but of course this was a long cruise.
Background on Us:
First some quick background on us, so you can put our opinions in perspective. We are forty-somethings who live in Manhattan. We are frequent cruisers, primarily on Celebrity. Being that we are fortunate enough to enjoy the many great restaurants here in New York, we like to think that we have high standards for fine wine and fine dining. Yet we don't consider ourselves stuffy and pretentious...we try to bring to our vacations a mindset of "let's have a good time, and don't sweat the small stuff." We are independent travelers who do not often book the cruise line's big-bus excursions. We book our own guides or just wander around, and we have no issues using public transportation.
On board the ship, we enjoy the upscale bars and fine dining options, and we enjoy dressing up every evening. We usually see one or two shows per cruise, but that is not a critical part of the experience for us. We'll make a couple of guilt-ridden trips to the gym, seldom use the spa and run past the children's area. (My kids are in college!)
We have sailed on all three of the Solstice-class ships (Solstice, Equinox, Eclipse) and really enjoy them. We've also previously sailed on the Constellation, in 2007, as well as on the Century and many of the Royal Caribbean ships.
We took the 12 night Baltic cruise to Scandinavia and Russia on the newly "Solsticized" Constellation. The ship is absolutely gorgeous, with many of the features of the Solstice-class ships. The spectacular itinerary included Amsterdam, Warnemunde (gateway to Berlin), Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Tallinn, Copenhagen, and back to Amsterdam.
We booked through Vacations To Go (first time using them) and it was a good experience. We are Select on Celebrity, so we get some other perks for that, too.
Seas and Weather
The seas were very smooth for the whole voyage. The Baltic was like a lake...much smoother than I expected. The weather on the trip was generally very good. We had a fair amount of sun, and only two truly rainy days out of the 12. Be advised that even in the summer, the Baltic ports can be cool (lows in the 40s) and rain is possible, yet they get warm (highs near 80 sometimes.) For example, on the day we went to Berlin, it was cold and cloudy in the morning, then sunny and warm (bordering on hot) in the afternoon. The combination of hot and cold is typical, so dress in layers. I wore either a sweater, or Columbia travel vest and/or a North Face soft shell for most of the trip. I admit that the travel vest does look a bit like I'm going on a Safari, but boy is it handy.
The embarkation was significantly delayed (at least 3 hours) because of the extra cleaning required in response to the Norovirus outbreak. Constellation's Norovirus issues of 2010 have been well-documented on this site, so no need to go deeper into it here.
Otherwise, the usual amenities, such as champagne upon boarding, were in place and it was business as usual.
Celebrity is generating a lot of hype about the so-called "Solsticization" of their Millennium class ships, starting with the Constellation in 2010. Overall, we are big fans of the upgrades (specialty restaurants, wine bar, martini bar, better beds, better bathrooms, flat screen TVs, new carpets, etc) and are looking forward to seeing them implemented on the other ships. The refurbished Constellation is beautiful and enjoyable. It's almost as good as a Solstice-class ship, but not quite. I missed the grass lawn up top, and the "all-newness" of bathrooms and cabins on the Solstice class.
A plus for the Constellation is that it has three sets of stairs (forward, center, aft) as opposed to the Solstice class, which only has two (fore, center.) This is a nice benefit, as I have found that it is a long walk (over 100 meters) from the back of the Solstice to the closest staircase. It is easier to get around on the Constellation.
I would characterize the overall look and feel of Constellation as "contemporary elegance," with clean lines, fine art, beautiful wood paneling and excellent lighting. There is nothing gaudy or tacky about it. The ship feels like a modern, luxury resort.
Our Concierge-class cabin (8051) on the Constellation had a better layout (especially the closets) than the similarly-sized Deluxe Verandah cabins on the Solstice class ships. [Note that a Concierge-class cabin on Constellation is about 191 sq ft., a Deluxe Verandah cabin on Constellation is about 170 sq ft, while a Deluxe Verandah on Solstice is about 194 sq ft. I am comparing Constellation's Concierge class room to the Deluxe Verandah room on Solstice.] The Solstice bathroom is better, since it is brand new and has a great layout. On Constellation, upgrades have been made in the bathrooms, but certain details, like the cracked tiles in our bathroom floor, were reminders that this refurbishment was a facelift, not a new build.
We loved the wine bar, Cellar Masters, where we spent many evenings chatting with Agnes and her colleagues. This wine bar on Constellation is open and airy, and generally a great place to hang out. We signed up for the tastings and the champagne "sabering." Yes it's touristy, but so what? We're on vacation!
Since the Cellar Masters on Constellation was inspired by the wine bar of the same name on Solstice, a comparison is in order. The Cellar Masters bars on the Solstice-class ships are dark and cave-like...and thus not too popular. I have been on four Solstice-class cruises (on all three Solstice-class ships) and I don't recall the Wine Bars ever being so much as half full. Such a waste. I think Celebrity may want to look at how great the wine bar is on Constellation, and use it as a reference model for the Solstice ships. I wish I could enjoy the wine selections in Cellar Masters' on Solstice-class ships, but the venues are just too dark and depressing.
In a happy contrast, Agnes and her Cellar Masters' crewmates were serving up good times on Constellation.
We booked late seating in the main dining room, and had a well-located table with absolutely delightful tablemates from Atlanta. The dining room is situated in the back of the ship, with huge windows overlooking the ship's wake. Since Scandinavia in June is the "land of the midnight sun" we had full sunlight throughout dinner every evening. It was wonderful, and weird at the same time, being blinded by sunlight at 10pm in the evening! The food was excellent. As has been our experience with Celebrity, the food is generally of very high quality, with some dishes being exceptional, and some needing to be sent back. The service was impeccable, and if a dish was not to our liking, the waitstaff gladly replaced it with something better. Overall, we found dinner in the main dining room to be a highlight of every evening.
We booked Ocean Liners for my birthday dinner (en route to Copenhagen) and it didn't disappoint. This was our third time in Ocean Liners over the years, and we think it is the best specialty restaurant we have experienced. In fact, the quality of food, presentation and service is the equal of many of the big-name restaurants here in New York City. We asked for a special table (under the painting of the S.S. United States) and we were absolutely pampered. For dessert, I had two Grand Marnier soufflEs and a birthday cake. Wonderfully decadent!
We also dined in the Tuscan Grill, which is located on the top deck with beautiful views of the sea (enhanced by the midnight sun.) TG is top-notch all the way. This is our fourth different Tuscan Grill experience (Constellation, Solstice, Equinox, and Eclipse.) I would say Constellation's version is tied with Equinox for first place. We had a great meal.
I won't try to write a guidebook about the sights, as you can fully research the ports elsewhere. Rather, I will offer a few cruise-specific tips which you may find helpful. Our cruise visited these ports: Amsterdam, Warnemunde (gateway to Berlin), Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Tallinn, Copenhagen.
The sail away, past the huge modern windmills and then later through the locks, was truly amazing. You'll be going through the locks during dinner, so take a peek out the window!
Warnemunde / Rostock / Berlin
We walked into the train station in Warnemunde and learned that they offered a "special" combo ticket to Berlin for a wonderfully low price, say, about 30 euros. This provided passage for both of us on the local train to Rostock, and then the Regional train to Berlin. Note that the combo ticket is one price for your group of up to 5. So whether you have two travelers or five, it's the same total price. The trip takes 3 hours.
By contrast, Celebrity offers a very expensive excursion to Berlin on a "reserved" train. Their trip takes about 2.5 hours.
The pros of using the local/regional train:
- It is much cheaper.
- It is exactly the same type of train car as the reserved train Celebrity uses.
- You will get a much more authentic experience, travelling with real Germans in and out of Berlin.
- The local/regional train takes about 30 mins longer and requires a change of trains in Rostock.
- Our authentic experience also included lots of students, a few crying babies, and one sketchy character.
But if you want to save a lot of money (at least $200) and have a little adventure, then give it a try. BTW, the German trains definitely run on time!
Berlin itself was, of course, fantastic and interesting. I had a very specific set of sites to see, so we went on our own, using public transport. It's a big city, so you may want to consider a tour, if you just want to hit the highlights.
Warnemunde is a very quaint port town, so don't overlook it. We had drinks and a late dinner in the town and really enjoyed it. The locals kept to themselves and were not super friendly, which surprised me, but we still had a nice time.
Wow. We've never seen Sweden, and it is impressive. The early morning sail-in to Stockholm was one of the visual highlights of the trip. The sail-in requires several hours, as the ship follows a narrow channel through an archipelago of small islands, each one more quaint than the next. The locals will wave to you from their picture-perfect cottages. So be sure to get up early to have breakfast on your balcony as you float by Sweden. It's a must-do.
Helsinki is a nice European capital, but not as beautiful as Stockholm. I enjoyed the open market by the port. My wife was horrified as I ate the "street food" but I thought the grilled salmon and fried fish were fresh and delicious! Also, if you are in the market for reindeer pelts (or reindeer rugs or coats or boots) this is the place for you. Helsinki had a more rustic feel than Stockholm. Technically, Finland is not part of Scandinavia, and it does have a different, more arctic "back to nature" feel to it.
The highlight of the itinerary is the two-day stop in St Petersburg Russia. Make sure you have your papers in order. The Russians are serious about security! You will need your visa or tour paperwork just to get off the ship. We would recommend that you take an organized tour. We have friends who are Russian and even they say to take an organized tour! So we booked a tour with Red October. It was pricey, costing about $1500, with tips, for two full days of touring. This did not include an evening activity. We justified the splurge because we felt that this may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see St Petersburg and we wanted to do it right. Good call. The guides were absolutely worth the price, and we had a great experience. We got a wonderful tour guide (Luba) who spoke perfect English and is extremely knowledgeable regarding art and history. Our driver, Vladimir, made sure that we got where we needed to go in our Mercedes mini-van. One of the advantages of the private tour was that we were able to get early admission into the Hermitage. We had the place to ourselves for a good hour before the hoards arrived.
For our evening in St Petersburg, we booked Celebrity's "dinner-and-folkloric music" excursion to the Catherine Palace. This may sound cheesy, but it was really enjoyable. Granted, we had to load into the big tour bus (which we really hate) and we sat in horrible St Peterburg traffic, which made us an hour late (which we also hate.) But after that, the experience was great. Celebrity had booked the entire Catherine Palace just for our group, and we were treated like invited guests. There was a band playing for our arrival, and they literally rolled out the red carpet. Musicians and period-style performers were scattered throughout the palace during our private tour. We had a mini-concert and dance recital in the great hall, with performers in period costumes from Catherine the Great's era. We then had a special "Russian" dinner, which featured very charismatic folkloric dancers as the entertainment. It was a memorable evening, and we would highly recommend this tour.
One other highlight: We asked our guides to take us to a "regular" Russian restaurant...the type where locals would eat lunch on a typical day. They complied. No Tsarist gold here, and no tourists either! The meal was hearty and enjoyable. The restaurant, which was plain and like a diner, served many different types of pies by the slice: meat, vegetable or fruit. These pies looked like large turnovers (a foot in diameter, completely enclosed in pastry dough) and were delicious. Try it, if you can find it.
Final words about Russia: I grew up in the cold war, so it was a bit surreal to set foot in what had long been characterized as the "evil empire." Yes, there are still the occasional mega-statues of Lenin, as well as hammer and sickle symbolism, but the emphasis from the tour guides was on art, history and Tsarist palaces. I asked a lot of questions about WW2, but that seemed to be a sore subject. Considering that the siege of Leningrad was the deadliest siege in human history and occurred only 70 years ago, that is understandable. Overall, the sights are great and the people are super friendly and accommodating.
What a pleasant surprise! When we first looked at the itinerary, Tallinn seemed like the poor cousin. We initially viewed the stop at Tallinn as a "rest day" after St Petersburg, but in actuality, it was one of the highlights. It is a terrific little walled town, with a Hanseatic heritage. The day we were there, the town held a music festival in the old town square featuring the local high school kids, and also held a craft market with local (not "local, made in China") crafts. Make sure to take the time to see Tallinn.
It was rainy and cold during our day in Copenhagen. We could tell that it's a really nice city, but we will have to come back to truly enjoy it.
On the trip from Copenhagen back to Amsterdam, the ship passes under one of the largest bridges in the world - the Oresund Bridge. The bridge, which connects Sweden and Denmark, is spectacular. The passage occurred around midnight. There were many people up on deck, with drinks in hand, to celebrate the passage. It was like a mini-New Year's Eve as the big ship glided just a few meters under the span.
Compared to a Caribbean cruise, or even a Med cruise, the Baltic crowd is older and more sophisticated. Everyone we spoke to was very well travelled and an experienced cruiser. I am sure there must have been a few kids, but I don't remember seeing them. The bars were definitely slow at night, especially compared to a Caribbean cruise. This was due to a combination of factors: the older crowd, the frequent time changes (St Petersburg is 3 hours ahead of Amsterdam,) and because we were all working pretty hard during the day to see these incredible ports!
The Dreaded Norovirus
Suffice to say that it was an unfortunate black cloud hanging over our heads during the trip. The crew worked feverishly (OK, bad pun) and did a fantastic job of containing the outbreak. We still managed to have a great time in spite of the situation. We were glad to see all the extra precautions put into place, and can't understand the people who complain about simple procedures designed to keep passengers safe. We followed all the precautions and did not get sick. My advice to you is to sanitize frequently. From this cruise forward, we have been bringing Lysol wipes so we can wipe down every inch of our cabin when we first arrive. And we sanitize when we walk in and out of restaurants, and always wash our hands when we're supposed to.
The funny thing is, that now when we go on a "land" vacation, we are appalled at the lack of sanitization stations! I think cruising has raised the bar for germ management!
The shows were very good. Sometimes on this site, you'll read complaints that shows "are not Broadway quality." Well, what a shock. Why would anyone expect Broadway quality on a cruise ship? Are you in New York? Did you book 3 months in advance? Did you pay $200 per ticket? Or did you just simply stroll in, as we did, to experience a pretty darn good show with surprisingly talented entertainers?! Set your expectations appropriately and enjoy the free shows. They are very entertaining.
The piano player at Michael's Club was a huge hit with many of our older cruisemates, who saw him at every opportunity. Imagine a combination of Liberace and Don Rickles and you'll have a vague idea of his style. It wasn't necessarily to our taste, but he played to a packed house every time.
One quibble, though. Some of the piped in music and the sail away music was not in keeping with the ports of call. I like Johnny Cash as much as the next guy, but it's not what I expect to hear when sailing from Amsterdam to Berlin. Neither is the steel drum music, which seems left over from the Caribbean season. I would ask Celebrity to think it through a bit more.
All in all, this was a fantastic and highly memorable trip, which was well worth the money. I would highly recommend Celebrity Constellation's Baltic cruise. We love Celebrity's product and will continue to cruise with them in the future.