Embarkation: Upon arrival in Amsterdam we immediately checked in at the Yotel in the airport for a few hours of sleep. We have stayed in the Yotel in London-Gatwick and find it to be a very nice option to make up for sleep lost on an overnight flight. If you've never stayed in a Yotel, it is a very small room, but has all of the amenities needed for a good rest. There is free wi-fi, a comfortable, clean bed and bathroom, flat screen TV and they have food/drinks avaialble as well. I believe we paid about 80 euro for six hours. Well worth it for us.
After a rest, we proceeded to the ship. We took the train from the airport to the Amsterdam central train station and walked to the ship. People suggested it was about a 15-minute walk. We walk everywhere in Europe - this was much longer than 15 minutes. The fact that we were each rolling two suitcases and a backpack may have contributed to this journey feeling much longer! It wasn't a tough walk - we could see the ship from the back side of the central station, but it was awkward carrying our big suitcases. That said, we took a cab from the ship back to the airport and paid 55 euro. It was maybe 8 euro for the train tickets.
Embarkation was fairly easy. The check-in line for concierge class was probably 10 people long, but at that point we were just excited to know we were getting on the ship after my passport drama.
We found our room and had our luggage before the muster drill. We stayed in 8069, a port side balcony. The room was nice, but was across the hall from the supply closet used to by the housekeeping staff, so we heard noise each morning around 7 a.m. as the staff began preparations for the day. If you are a light sleeper, you may want a different location. Personally, I will avoid this room in the future.
Ports of call:
Bergen: We chose to visit Bergen on our own. We wandered through the town, had an excellent (but expensive) lunch at the fish market, and rode the floibanen to the top of the mountain. We were in complete cloud cover when we arrived in the top - having fought on/off sprinkles all day - so we walked a few of the trails at the top and came back to the visitor center just in time for the clouds to break so we could take photos of the city. We found Bergen to be an easy city to explore on foot - though we did take advantage of Celebrity's shuttle from the port to a central square in town.
Leknes, Lofoten Islands: This was probably my favorite port of call. The Lofoten Islands are beautiful with scenery unlike anything we've seen. We chose to take Celebrity's Hiking Nusfjord excursion. This was described as a challenging three-mile hike for experienced hikers. We are not experienced hikers but we are active early/mid 30s adults who enjoy a bit of adventure, so we tried it. This hike was incredible, but not without its challenges. We were climbing up and decending down fairly good size hills, having to balance our way over large unstable rocks, and even using a handmade wooden ladder to climb down a slick rock. There were a few individuals who did not have proper shoes and a few who had a lot of difficulty managing the uneven and difficult footing. In a few locations, there was nothing between one wrong step and falling down a very steep cliff. We thoroughly enjoyed the hike and the scenery. The route we took was used by children to walk to school every day. Our journey ended in the small fishing village of Nusfjord, where we had about 30 minutes to enjoy the village before boarding buses for the 30 minute ride back to the ship.
We booked a rafting bird safari through Spitsbergen Travel. The guides from Spitsbergen were parked at the pier in blue vans, waiting for us. We drove just a few miles down the road to their headquarters where the guides showed us a map of the Svalbard archipelago, told us a bit about the various areas and what to expect on our trip. Then we all were suited up for the rafting adventure. Everyone was given thermal floating suits, a lifevest, hat, goggles, gloves and boots. We brought our own Wellie-style boots because we didn't realize boots were provided by the company - an email to Spitsbergen Travel did not indicate that boots would be provided. It was just as well because they didn't have any boots to fit me (I'm just a ladies size 8.5). I could have worn boots that were several sizes too big - and while the guide reminded me that there would be little to no walking, it felt better to be in my own rubber boots. After we suited up, we took a short drive to the motorized rafts. Each raft held 11 people. Eight people straddled two rounded/oval shaped chairs the length of the raft. 3 rode in the back. We visited the hillside where various types of divers (birds) and puffins lived. Then we went to the ruins of a mining community across the fjord. After the brief stop (where we were served warm beverages and cookies) we went back to the headquarters and from there could walk into town or head back to the ship.
Candidly, I wish this tour was a bit longer, but it was a very nice, easy way to see the immediate vicinity of Longyearbyen. The guides from Spitsbergen were excellent; they host a number of different activities in Longyearbyen for cruise ship guests and for travelers wishing to do longer trips in Svalbard. I would certainly use them again; in fact, we found several of their multi-day trips to be very enticing and would visit Longyearbyen again.
We left the ship on Celebrity's 9 a.m. North Cape transfer. This was an approximate 35-40 minute bus ride to the North Cape visitor center, with a brief stop at a roadside Sami shop (which had some nice souveniers for sale). The scenery was incredible - wild, desolate, beautiful. We saw so many reindeer on our way to/from the North Cape; it made our day! They wander through the countryside and cross the road much like the sheep in Ireland or Scotland. The transfer provided by Celebrity is merely a transfer; there is no guided tour (but Celebrity makes this clear in communication about this excursion). At the visitor center there is a theater with movie about the area, several viewing areas and the famous globe marking the northernmost point in Europe. We were given 1.5 hours at the North Cape, which really wasn't enough to take our time through the visitor center and experience the land surrounding the visitor center. We spent a few minutes wandering through Honningsvag before the Connie departed. There isn't much in the small town.
We booked a hiking excursion through Celebrity, which departed at noon. We woke early because we wanted to trek to the Aksla viewing point before our hike. When we disembarked, we received city maps (likely from the tourist information office) and we made our way to the fjellstua. It was perhaps a 10 minute walk. And then there are 418 steps to the top. The second half of the climb involves some fairly steep and uneven steps, but there are plenty of opportunities to stop, sit down and rest if needed. The views over Alesund are beautiful. We made our way back to the ship and had a late breakfast before our hike. We took a 15-minute bus ride to the base of Sugarlump Mountain. This was a very popular hiking trail, with several local residents on the trail at the same time. Though it was a short hike (about 1.5 miles) it was a steady incline all the way to the top. The changing weather patterns made for beautiful photos. When we arrived at the top, we were above the clouds. We had approximately 30 minutes at the top to take photos and enjoy the view. We hiked the same trail back down and took the bus back to the ship.
We cruised aboard the Millennium last year, but were looking forward to seeing the differences in the Connie after being "solsticized." We enjoyed the changes. Cafe Bacio became one of our favorite stops each day for espresso, tea, wireless internet access, good views of the sea and string music. The coffee and espresso were excellent, better than any other cruise ship specialty coffee shops. And the gelato was good too. We enjoyed the new martini bar and cellar masters.
We found the food in the dining room to be excellent every night. We thoroughly enjoyed our meals and opted for select dining, which allowed us to have a nice table for 2 every. I will choose select dining on future cruises. We typically dined between 7-8 p.m. every night. The longest wait time was 10 minutes for a table for 2. We simply waited in cellar masters enjoying a pre-dinner drink. We also dined in both specialty restaurants. The service and food were perfect.
On sea days we took advantage of the various lectures from a marine biologist and expert Scandinavian, along with members of the crew who educated us about the navigation and propulsion of our ship. I went to the spa for a seaweed detox wrap and massage. Aside from the usual sales pitch at the end, the service itself was wonderful.
A few minor items that need improvement:
1. Disembarkation - we were scheduled to be off the ship with the first group. When we arrived in the cruise terminal, our luggage was nowhere to be found. We looked through the entire terminal to no avail. We filled out a form and the agent told us to go to the airport (we were booked on a 9 a.m. departure back to Atlanta) as it was getting very late. I wasn't pleased with the thought of leaving the country without my luggage, but we made our way to the airport via taxi. We checked in for our flight and went to passport control. While waiting in line, Celebrity called me to say my luggage had been put on a truck headed for the airport. Our bags were waiting outside of the departure terminal. We quickly found our luggage, checked in again to check our luggage and ran to the gate. Fortunately, everything worked out (except that we had planned to handle our tax free refunds at the airport, and had plenty of time to do so, until we were delayed by the luggage mistake.
2. More time in port - this was a lengthy itinerary and I imagine we spent as much time in port as our journey allowed. That said, Honningsvag and Alesund were very short days, which prevented us from taking longer excursions or enjoying more time at the destinations.
Overall, this was an incredible trip. We were spoiled by Leroy, Kavi, Sheldon and Eagle - staff who made our holiday very memorable. Celebrity has become our cruise line of choice. We've already booked next year's trip.