For this trip, we combined a Baltic cruise with a week in Switzerland. We took a Baltic Cruise on the Jewel of the Seas in July 2004. During that trip, we concentrated on taking hop-on hop-off busses and hitting the main sites. This time, we decided to hit the sites that we missed the first time. The only major change is the inclusion of Berlin on this cruise. The travelers included me, my wife Kathy, and my son Robert, age 17. Kathy had a stroke in February, but graduated from rehabilitation and was using a cane during the cruise. We had to make only a few accommodations during the trip.
We chose NCL to be able to spend some more time in Denmark, and because we had a great time on the NCL Star in Mexico. We opted on an aft mini-suite for the views and the size. The price was not bad either.
We used frequent flyer miles on Star Alliance (US Airways Dividend Miles, 125k each) to fly to Europe first-class. We left Peoria, IL for Copenhagen on the evening of the first of June. We could not check our bags in Peoria, so we had them valet checked for our regional jet flight (economy) to O’Hare. Once at O’Hare, we walked, with our bags, from the F Concourse to the B Concourse. We were met by a wheelchair for Kathy. We checked our bags at the Lufthansa gate, received our first-class boarding passes then went to the United First International Lounge where we rested for a couple of hours.
We boarded the plane at 10 PM, walked up to the upper level of our 747 were we found that we were the only three passengers in first that night. We had the old blue first-class Lufthansa seats, but each of us had an aisle seat and a window-side bed with a mattress for our own zones of comfort. We settled into our seats, had dinner and drinks and flew to Frankfurt, sleeping most of the way (zzzz).
We were met by a wheelchair in Frankfurt. I went to an ATM to get some Euros at the Deutsches Bank ATM and had a light lunch at the Lufthansa First Class Lounge near Gate A-26. 30 minutes before flight time, an escort took us by cart to our departure gate for the last leg of our journey to Copenhagen.
We arrived in Copenhagen at 6:15 PM. We went through customs (no sweat), picked up Danish Kroner at an ATM, and then picked up a train to Copenhagen Central Station for 34.50 DKK. Less than ½ a block to the west of the main station is City Hotel Nebo where we checked in for two nights. We picked a family room for three which included a queen bedroom, a single bedroom, a sitting room and an en-suite bath. We were tired after our trip, so Robert ordered a pizza from Domino’s for us.
Friday, June 3 - Day 2: Copenhagen for a full day
We bought a Copenhagen Card (249 DKK/day) prior to leaving, so we could use public transport for a day. Kathy and I left early took the guided canal tour, which is also free with the Copenhagen Card. Robert stayed in the room. We used the City Circle Line / Bus 11A, which is a small electrical bus that could navigate the small streets in central Copenhagen. We crossed through the main train station to pick the bus up on the East side. The bus runs from the Central Station, Tivoli, Town Hall Square, Strøget, the Round Tower, Nørreport Station, Water bus terminal, Kongens Nytorv, Strøget (again), The National Museum, Central Station, and back to Glyptoteket and the Tivoli Hotel.
The three of us spent the afternoon exploring the National Museum. The museum traces Danish civilization from its ancient beginnings. Signs in English explain the story clearly. Mingle with mummified Vikings still clothed and armed for battle. In the evening, we went to Tivoli Gardens, Europe's first great amusement park. Tivoli is wonderfully Danish. During the summer, the park bursts with 20 acres, 110,000 lanterns, and countless ice cream cones of fun. We had dinner and returned to out room for the night.
Saturday, June 4 - Day 3: Onto the Norwegian Sun
Saturday morning we had a leisurely breakfast at the hotel. We then took a taxi (150 DKK) to the harbor to board the Norwegian Sun at Quay 254 in Freeharbor (Frihavnen). Embarkation was easy and our aft mini-suite was ready by 1:30 PM.
The Norwegian Sun looked great after dry-dock. The room was nicely refurbished with a flat screen TV, refrigerator, and a sofa-bed for Robert. The back wall is cabineted, with glas cabinets on top with glassware and room for snacks, coffee maker and refrigerator below; the TV is centered; with the right side used as a writing table / desk. The bathroom is entered from the entry hall; with a sitting area with mirror with drawers and closet, tub / shower and sink, and separate commode.
We had a great cabin steward. The restaurant staff was very friendly; especially the younger members of the wait-staff, especially those from St. Lucia who helped Kathy navigate the buffet lines and carried her plate when she had to use her cane. The buffet on the starboard side was usually packed with the overflow directed across to the Sports Bar on the port side or outside to the Great Outdoors.
The senior staff was less responsive when I had concerns. The only time that I felt satisfied by a response was when the chief customer relations person arranged to allow an escort for Kathy for an early tender when we tendered in Nynäshamn. The bump-and-grind waiting in the corridors and stairwells waiting to exit in St. Petersburg was almost too much for Kathy.
The on-board entertainment was not as good as we expected after cruising on the NCL Star to the Mexican Riviera in March 2008. The quality was not as good and the passengers less inclined for fun. The passengers were primarily older, with a third coming from Europe and another third coming from Asia.
The food was plentiful and good. The receptionist at the Four Seasons Restaurant always remembered our names and made us feel special. We did teppanyaki and the Brazilian steakhouse, but no other special dining venues.
Sunday, June 5 - Day 4: On the Autobahn to Berlin
We decided to rent a car Warnemünde to travel to Berlin on the advice of experienced posters on the boards. This would give us the most flexibility, in case of bad weather, etc. This proved to be a blessing. It was only a short walk from the pier (to the right) to the Hertz car rental where I picked up the car to take us to Berlin. We got a Golf VI with an automatic transmission. It took 3 ½ hours to get to Berlin via the autobahn.
The Autobahn is unlike the US interstate highways in that the German roads are well maintained. That is essential at the speeds that the Germans travel at. About 2/3 of the road had no posted speed limit, the other parts were posted at 130 KPH (80 MPH). At one point, I got our speed up to 193 KPH (120 MPH). There are rest areas with gas stations and places to pick up soda and snacks.
We decided to park the car at an indoor lot at Potsdamer Platz. There, we picked up the Berlin City Tour (green and beige open top) HOHO bus with live € 12 per person. The tour included a photo stops at the Wall / Gropiusbau, a 3/4 mile long section of the Berlin wall that has been made into the longest outdoor art gallery, Checkpoint Charlie, Gendarmenmarkt and Alexander Platz on the east side. We headed back west on Under der Linden past Berliner Dom (the cathedral), a century-old church which towers over Museum Island. We stopped for a driver change in front of the famous Brandenburg Gate (1791). The tour then passed by the Reichstag building-the heart of German democracy-has a short but complicated and emotional history. When it was inaugurated in the 1890s, the last emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II disdainfully called it the “house for chatting.” It is outside the city's old walls, far from the imperial palace. It was from here that the parliament proclaimed the German Republic in 1918. In 1933, this symbol of democracy nearly burned down. While Nazis blamed a communist plot, some believe that Hitler himself planned the fire, using it as a handy frame the communists and grab power. Because of a bicycle tour, we missed the the Siegessäule, the Victory Column in the Tiergarten and the Berlin Zoo. The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial church was enclosed with scaffolding.
We arrived back to Potsdamer Platz at 3:00 and after an interesting drive through Checkpoint Charlie, we headed back to Warnemunde at 4 pm. We did not know at the time, but this particular Sunday was one of a few in which Berlin stores could be open on a Sunday. Thus the city was extremely busy. Therefore, everyone from the West (Hamburg, etc.) was also on the road trying to make their way home at the same time. We hit traffic just beyond the ring road and had to leave the autobahn a couple of times and take the back roads to avoid the traffic (Thank God for GPS, “navi” in German). We arrived back to the ship at 8:00 and had a late dinner on the ship before it departed at 10:00. People who went with the SPb tour bus did not leave until 5:30 and were caught in the same traffic jam. They arrived back in port just 10 minutes before departure. In hindsight, I would take the train next time.
Tuesday, June 7 - Day 6: Helsinki
We had been in Helsinki before, and knew our way around. Therefore, we picked up three one-day tickets from the bus driver (€7 = $10) at the bus stop near the dock and headed to Market Square. There we saw the obelisk in the center of the harbor front market. This is the Czarina’s Stone, with its double-headed eagle of Imperial Russia. We briefly explored the colorful outdoor market with souvenirs and crafts. We then walked one block North to catch the Tram #3T Tour as outlined by Rick Steves. . We stopped at the prestigious Stockmann department store – Finland’s Harrods to replace my watch battery. It has a great gourmet supermarket in the basement. At the far side of Stockmann’s we saw the famous Three Blacksmiths. While there is no universally accepted meaning, most say it celebrates human labor and cooperation and shows the solid character of the Finnish people.
We spent the late morning and afternoon diving into Finnish culture at the Seurasaari Open-Air Folk Museum founded in 1909. Inspired by Stockholm’s Skansen, also on a lovely island on the edge of town, this is a collection of 100 historic buildings that come from every corner of Finland. We left the Museum at 1:30 and had time to take a cruise to Suomenlinna Island & Fortress. Then we took the # 16 bus back to the ship.
Wednesday and Thursday, June 8 & 9 - Day 7 & 8: St. Petersburg
We decided to take the two-day SPb Deluxe tour. The ship was not cleared by Russian officials until almost 9:00 (scheduled for 8:00). Some immigration staff allowed families to present themselves together, others insisted on having visitors present their passports one at a time. Therefore, we got a late start.
As soon as we got through immigration, we were met by Viktoria and our guide for the day Elena. We immediately boarded our 15 passenger Mercedes bus for the drive to the Tsars’ Village (summer residence). The first thing that we noticed is how much change occurred in the 7 years since our last visit. There were big-box stores (like Wal-Mart and Home Depot) on the outskirts and a new ring expressway. We arrived at Catherine's Palace and had to wait an hour in line to gain entrance. You are allowed to take pictures and videos without flash in all the rooms except for the rebuilt Amber Room (the original is lost from the time of World War II).
After Catherine’s palace, we were driven near the Peterhof where we had lunch at a local restaurant. They served a salad, a vegetable soup, some sort of beef over rice (a Beef Stroganoff knock-off) and a nice dessert.
Elena kept up such a brisk pace during the morning, despite seeing that Kathy could not keep up, that Kathy decided to stay with the bus instead of walking though the water fountains of the Peterhof. The Russian Navy was doing combat exercises in the Gulf of Finland, so the hydrofoil ride back to St. Petersburg was canceled. We drove back to St. Petersburg and visited Peter and Paul's fortress and cathedral, the burial place of the Russian Emperors.
We got back to the ship just before 7 PM. By then, most of us were exhausted and all but three of us decided to forgo the evening activities and return to the ship for rest.
On Thursday we had less trouble with immigration and were able to meet the bus at 8 AM. We first took a cruise along St. Petersburg’s canals and the Neva River before heading to the Hermitage Museum for an early entrance and an extended, three-hour tour. Kathy had a wheelchair at the museum, but we had to carry the chair up steps and all the lifts (elevators) were out of commission.
After the Hermitage, we had a chance to walk into the subways, but did not actually ride one of the trains. We took the escalators deep underground, went to the platform then retraced our steps to the entrance. We had piroggis for lunch. We then visited the Church of Our Saviour of the Spilled Blood and the Yusupovs' Palace. We ended the day at a local meat and produce market and a brief stop for souvenirs at the request of the group before returning back to the ship.
Friday, June 10 - Day 9: Tallinn
Seven years ago, Tallinn was the highlight of our cruise. Estonia joined the EU in 2004 and adopted the Euro in 2011. All of the wonderful craft shops have been replaced with cheap souvenir shops, mostly with Russian knock-offs. It was such a disappointment for Kathy who wanted to pick up some glass vases since the vases we bought in 2004 shattered when shipped home.
We decided to not walk uphill to Toompea, choosing to take a taxi for €15 to the imposing Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. We took-in the scenic overviews before hiking back down to the Town Hall Square. We picked up a beer and hard apple cider at Olde Hansa before walking back to Fat Margaret Tower where we took a €5 taxi back to the dock.
Saturday June 11 - Day 10: Saturday in the Parks of Stockholm
We decided to get to Stockholm by train. We took the shuttle bus from the dock to the station leaving at 8 AM and arriving just before the 8:05 departure. We bought Stockholm cards on line before the cruise, which covered the trains, trams buses and the sights in Stockholm. We made it to Skansen just as it opened at 10 AM. On this Saturday, it was “Wedding Day at the Park” so there were many wedding parties joining us for the day.
Skansen is Europe's original and best open-air folk museum. It's a huge park with more than 150 historic homes, shops, churches, and schoolhouses transplanted from all corners of Sweden. The old interiors are wonderfully furnished, complete with guides dressed in traditional outfits. In “Old Stockholm” (top of the escalator), shoemakers, potters and glassblowers are busy doing their traditional thing in a recreated Old World Stockholm. The rest of Sweden spreads out from Old Stockholm. We were also able to take in the Aquarium, which was covered by the Stockholm card. We took the tram and then a bus to the Stockholm South train station to connect with the train back to Nynäshamn.
Monday, June 13 – - Day 12: The end of the cruise and onto Switzerland.
We arrived in port at 5:00 AM. Because we departed from a remote part of Frihavnen at the beginning of the cruise, we decided to take the $30 per person ship bus back to the airport. We flew out of Copenhagen at 11:25 AM and arrived in Zurich at 1:10 PM. We picked up our suitcases and headed straight to the train station at the airport. From there, we took a 2:40 train to Murren, in the snow-peaked Berner Oberland country south of Interlaken. We spent two nights at our hotel in cliff-top Mürren, where we enjoyed amazing views and a “vacation from our vacation.”
After the break, we took a train back to Zurich where we stayed at the Sheraton Neues Schloss Hotel, our base for five days of train touring among the best and most scenic routes in the world. We had an eight-day Swiss Pass for first-class train travel. Travels included: the William Tell Express, the Bernina Express bus and train, the Glacier Express, the Golden Pass train, and a day in Luzern before flying back to the USA.
On the return, we were able to experience the “new” first class seating on Lufthansa from Frankfurt to Chicago. We arrived back in Peoria by 7 PM totally relaxed and refreshed.