Baltic Cruise Review, July 28-Aug 9
We spent a lot of time reviewing all the itineraries that cruise in the Baltic's and decided to go with our favorite cruise line, Regent. It was a 12-day cruise and there was a comparable cruise on Oceania that was 14 days for close to the same price, but then we did the analyses of the all inclusive nature of Regent, coupled with our silver status giving us free internet and the comparison was close enough to make the plunge. At just over $20,000 for the two of us, this took some time and thought.
Bottom line, we had a wonderful time, as we typically do on Regent cruises and I will say that they exceeded my expectations.
We took advantage of the business class upgrade each way for $999 which made the trip over much more enjoyable (and we got the miles on United). Regent's air desk was very accommodative. We arrived 3 days prior to the departure in Stockholm and stayed at the Sheraton on our own nickel. A lot has been said, positive and negative about the Sheraton, but we found it to be well located and comfortable for our purposes. We did a lot of walking sightseeing while in Stockholm, did a hop on/hop off bus tour, a boat tour, and a self guided tour using a Rick Steve's book in the Gamla Stan (Old Town). After two solid days, we saw everything we wanted to see. Stockholm, as others have reported, is very expensive. In fact probably the most expensive place we went on this cruise. But we enjoyed the sights, the Vasa museum, the food and the people. It was easy to get around (and great connections via high speed train from the airport to a block and a half from the Sheraton).
We left for the port on Thursday arriving at 11:30a (work with the your hotel to get one of the "cheap" taxis; there are many here that will rip you off big time). We were one of only a couple of people in the waiting area and thought that everyone must already be on board. Turns out that no one was there yet! A Regent spokesperson said that the ship would be ready around noon (not the cabins) and they ended up boarding us at 11:50a. We ended up being the first on board! I bee lined to the spa desk and got the last booking for a massage on the at sea day (all others were booked online). Lunch was fine in La Veranda and we were able to eat in Prime 7 that night, which was excellent. We explored the ship and at 2pm, we were allowed in our cabin and our luggage arrived shortly thereafter.
Rather than give you a day by day of each port, let me provide the highlights:
Ship: We thought it was in great shape. Others have talked about it being tired and in need of refreshing. We cruised on the Voyager two years ago, New Zealand to Australia, and found her in great shape then as now. I really love this ship. Everything is close by! We had cabin 647 which just seemed to be in the perfect spot in terms of distance to everything including the location on the ship (in the center so less rocking/vibration) and deck level in terms of the main things you do on the ship like eating (decks 4 and 5 mainly) were just one floor away. The cabin was excellent as before; roomy, well laid out, and I have to say one of the best beds I have had on the 20+ cruises we have been on. The bathroom is better than most suites I have been in on Princess, Holland, and others. The Voyager has a great cabin.
Staff: our cabin stewardess, Christina, was excellent and got the routine we were in very quickly. We can't say enough positive things about her. She quickly replaced what was in our refrigerator for what we wanted and kept our cabin in great shape. We didn't like the waiter we had on the second night of the cruise in the Compass Rose so on the third night when they sat us somewhere different, we found a waiter that we loved, Emmanuel (Station 12) and his assistant. We ended up sitting in his section each night we ate in the Compass Rose as he was one of the best waiters we have had. Having the same waiter night to night, if you find a good one, is just wonderful. They totally pick up on your likes and dislikes. By the end of the cruise, he could almost order for me as he knew what I wanted when I sat down. There is something to be said about an excellent waiter like that. Our wine steward, Albert, also was over the top in helping us find that special pinot noir that was included in the ships "included" selection once we found one we liked. As for the rest of the staff, they were friendly and helpful, but no one stood out too much.
Food: Always subjective, but I still think that Regent has some of the best meals at sea (at least for what we have sailed on). You get what you pay for! We cruise frequently, up and down the various lines (Crystal, Regent, Princess, Holland) and while variable, the meals were consistently very good to excellent each night on the Voyager. We got into Prime 7 twice (the second time was near impossible as the ship was sailing full, almost having to beg to get in the second time which was a bit disappointing) and the food was amazing both times. One night a bone in rib-eye and the other a pork chop that was over the top. Both experiences and service in Prime 7 was memorable and delicious. We ate in Signatures once and it was nice, but once was enough. Word of advice, if you go in hungry, be sure to ask for extra appetizers as the portions were small as before. They don't "like" this very much and often brought both ordered appetizers at the same time as I'm sure this threw them off a bit, but what the heck. By the way, the chairs in Signatures are much more comfortable than any other dining establishment on this ship. The chairs in the Compass Rose are too tight (all right, no comments on my hips). La Veranda and the pool grill both offered an ok set of food choices each day but just nothing to write home about. The only sea day we had was Mexican food and it was very disappointing. The ice cream bar is great to have, but most of the time, it is only vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. With room for about 12 ice creams, you would think they would change this up a bit more.
Liquor/Wine: Only top shelf liquors, in fact, higher quality than I remember on past Regent cruises. I have to say, this is one of the best reasons to go Regent: I HATE pulling out my card key every time I want a drink. HATE IT! I find that we would go and have a nice before dinner drink every night in the Observation lounge, listen to the pianist, and not even think about it which, unfortunately, I often do on ships where it isn't all included. The wines we had on board were good to very good, but we usually found several wines we liked a lot and the staff always seemed to find another bottle of that selection for us each night. As an example, we enjoyed an excellent Byron Chardonnay and several Russian River Pinot Noir's, all included. On a couple of nights we ordered off the wine list which was reasonably priced and a great selection for a cruise ship (they actually had a Screaming Eagle Cab on board; I think it was $2500!).
Excursions: I haven't sailed on Regent since they added free excursions. I was a bit concerned as to how they would be. My biggest concern was that they would pack 50 people on a 50 passenger bus, it would be slow and crowded, etc. I was in for a welcome and delightful surprise: they typically only had 25-30 on a bus, leaving extra room and a more manageable group. Despite the fact that some excursions had several buses to the same location, the fact that they didn't cram everyone together was a welcome surprise. I found the tour guides used to be first rate, very informative and the passengers on the bus to be respectful about meeting times, etc. The positive experience we had on the excursions was the biggest surprise (positive) of the whole cruise. Further, on each of the excursions we did that were extra money, we found these to be each "over the top". It was amazing how much more special an experience was for paying a little bit extra. This should really be considered before you are turned off by the extra fee.
Ports: This is a very port intensive cruise so you need to be prepared to almost have a vacation after you get off this itinerary. We bagged two excursions that we were just too tired to go on (telling the destination desk, of course, of not going in advance to open it up for others). We loved all the old towns we visited and the ability on many of the excursions to have extra time to enjoy lunch in each. The most memorable ports/excursions were: 1) The Hermitage, of course; 2) all of St. Petersburg; 3) the chocolate making session in Tallinn; 4) Bruges (one of our favorite destinations); and 5) The Reclaimed Land excursion in Amsterdam. This latter excursion was very interesting and included a couple of extra stops including a cheese farm, a windmill museum, and a small town that was very quaint. This coupled with an excellent tour guide (as were all of them!) made this a most memorable excursion.
Entertainment: Sorry to say but we were so tired each day from the excursion and then a nice dinner, that we saw only the concert pianist who was exceptional. So I can't speak to the other performers/shows.
With some ship board credits applied, I think I got off the ship owing $70! That has never happened to us before!
We disembarked flawlessly as we had arranged a rental car in Southampton. We ended up being one of the last to get off! The assistant cruise director said as we got off the ship, "Wow, you really got your monies worth, first on and last off!"
We ended up driving to Stonehenge, staying two nights in Bath (loved it!), drove to Blenheim Palace, stayed in Oxford one night (a great town), then took a train to London where we saw Jersey Boys (awesome!). Business class home through Regent ($999) made the trip home that much easier to get back to reality.
It was a very memorable vacation with no/few glitches, excellent service, food, and excursions;
Regent has me for life....
P.S. What's not to like?
We had one oddity occur on an excursion that I should mention (there has to be something constructive here!). We did an "Evening with the Tsars" in St. Petersburg excursion that was excellent. Not open to the public, we visited Catherine's summer palace where just Regent cruisers were in attendance (maybe 3-4 bus loads of 25 each). The evening was magical in how they had music playing in different rooms including the ballroom where they had a string trio that played to us along with dancers. Really special evening. The excursion included a dinner; we didn't read close enough that the dinner wasn't until 10:30 at night! Although it did say to have a snack before starting, we didn't expect it to be this late. I noticed on my ticket that only salmon was to be served. As we don't eat salmon we asked if there was an alternative to the destination desk (days in advance). They said there was and made sure we could have the vegetarian plate which was fine for us. We ended up with a plate of shredded carrots! No really, I have a picture of it! Hardly a dinner! I did complain to the destination desk, they took down my info and sent it to the corporate office in Miami. We received a letter on the last day of the cruise that they apologized for the carrots, but due to an "overwhelming positive response of the evening" that there would be no adjustment in the fee charged (this was a $159 per person add on). I thought this was lame. Even a token $25 adjustment to recognize that a plate of shredded carrots is hardly a meal would have been fine by me. The phrase in the letter that surprised me was the "overwhelming positive response"! No one else had a vegetarian meal that I could see so how could it not be? Again, it certainly didn't ruin our cruise or the evening, but I thought Regent would have been a little more generous in their response.
Finally, we came back to dinner one night to find water all over our bathroom floor; turned out that the sink was leaking. We called to have it fixed, and unfortunately, it took over three hours and wasn't complete until midnight. As said previously, given the port intensive nature of the cruise, it was tough to stay up while we waited. It was just a pipe to be replaced and took longer than I would have expected as the workers left and didn't come back several times for half an hour. I called reception to make sure they were on it. The pipe was completely rotted out so that was a bit of a concern.