Our 12 nighter to the Baltic was my 3rd and my husband's 2nd cruise. As a previous reviewer has said the weather wasn't great so we were quite pleased we hadn't splashed out on a balcony. Having a porthole though was brilliant as we could lie in bed with our room service breakfast and watch those beautiful Stockholm islands glide by at eye level. It was great being down on a level with the waves. We were in 3040, forward, on the portside which meant we had private views over the sea in sunny Tallin and Gothenburg but over a rainy dockside in Helsinki. It's all a blur and I can't remember the others!
We were very pleased with our cabin which was well appointed for the grade. We'd booked a Y grade outside guarantee cabin relatively late in April, so it was pot luck which cabin we got. In the event the situation was perfect for us just around the corner from the forward lifts to the gym and solarium. We were below, and well away from, the noisy Centrum and our fellow passengers were very quiet in their cabins and in the corridors, so with earplugs we heard hardly any noise at all. There was just about enough storage. Reasonable size bathroom with powerful shower and a line to hang your wet cozzies on. Certainly in our grade the only toiletries supplied were liquid soap in a dispenser in the shower and small bars of soap so I'd recommend you take your own. There is a hairdryer in the vanity unit in the cabin. The cabin and ship were spotlessly clean and Percy, our cabin steward, was very cheerful and efficient despite working extremely hard.
Our only gripe about the accomodation, being Brits, was lack of kettle. We brought vacuum flasks and filled up at the coffee station last thing at night, but it was a bit of bind and not quite the same when the water is not piping hot first thing in the morning. I really don't understand why you can't bring a travel kettle on board. We saw people carrying boiling hot cups of tea and coffee all the way down in the lift which was quite precarious.
The Centrum is a fantastic sight when everything is in full swing, with it's glass elevators, sweeping glass staircase and mood lighting - but very noisy I guess if your cabin is nearby, and, as everyone else will tell you, very cramped. I was also surprised at how small and cramped the shopping area was.
We found the Schooner Bar and Safari Club a bit dingy and didn't go in there much.
We only did one show - the Beach Boys tribute, only because my husband is a BB fanatic. It was ok. Otherwise we're not bothered about all that organised entertainment. We used the Latte-tudes for cappuccinos during the day and a glass of sparkling wine or a cocktail in the Champagne Bar on the way to dinner. Both were good people-watching spots. Prices were pretty steep. I think both cappuccino and fresh orange juice were almost $5 a piece.
The singers and musicians in the Centrum and the bars and lounges were good but their repertoires became very repetitive
The continual presence of photographers was very annoying and worse than on our previous cruises but there was one photographer who was excellent and always had a queue. We actually bought some of her photos of us.
There was a general lack of information and supervision around the gym (which is, however, fairly well equipped) and the Solarium pool. I was working out on a cross trainer when the man next to me was using the machine he was on incorrectly which resulted in him being thrown very heavily backwards onto the floor. At no time was there any member of crew around to advise him he was using the machine incorrectly nor when he fell off. There was no drinking water available in there that we could find and it took us about a week to find any changing facilities and lockers. Also, on a couple of occasions there were under-16s in the Solarium pool and Jacuzzi and crew, when they were informed, were fairly ineffective at establishing their ages and removing them from the area. This upset quite a few people who preferred this area because it is meant to be quiet and private.
The ports of call were what we had come for (well it certainly wasn't the weather):
Stockholm and Tallin were outstanding and we enjoyed Copenhagen too. The historic rooftop tour in Stockholm is fantastic but you need a good sense of balance. I wouldn't go so far as to say St Petersburg is over rated but it wasn't our favourite port of call. There are just hordes of us tourists. For me the ostentation of the palaces and churches did not sit comfortably with the general austerity of the place and I'm not surprised there was a revolution. However I can definitely recommend the car tour with driver and English speaking guide. Our guide spoke perfect English and took us all over SPB in a morning on top of the St Isaacs and Peter and Paul Fortress which were scheduled. She got us straight to the front of every queue in double quick time. On request she also arranged a visit to the top of St Isaacs which would have been better if not raining. The guide's knowledge of history was first rate and she was polite and helpful. This trip was worth every last penny. We also did the walk on Nevsky Prospekt which allowed us a couple of hours on our own and was also worth the money and then the evening river cruise which was good fun. The Hermitage visit was disappointing, hot, and frustrating as you have to stay in your group and look at stuff you don't want to see. Also it arrived back late which meant we only had a 15 minute turn around time for our afternoon visit to Peterhof fountains which was marred by teeming rain. The hydrofoil ride brought us from the garden right back to the cruise terminal. Helsinki was extremely disappointing as we were there on a Monday when virtually all the museums and galleries were closed. It is a very austere sort of place and again it was drizzling. After other reviews we have read we found Gothenburg a surprisingly lovely city of wide, tree lined avenues, lovely architecture - both old and contemporary, clean and well organised with excellent transport. The tourist information office in the shopping centre at the top of Ostra Hamngatan is very helpful. Even when we arrived in port you could tell immediately by all the new buildings in the dock area that this was going to be a nice clean city. It was the Gothenburg festival and there was lots going on in the streets and around Gotaplatsen. We got away from Avenyn to Haga, the old town which is very quirky and lined with street cafes and restaurants. The Volvo museum is right on the pier next to the ship so you don't really need to book a tour.
Assuming you dock in the same places we did, Tallin is a 10 minute walk from the ship. Stockholm and Copenhagen are about 30 minutes walk and very pleasant with things to do and see on the way. You will need to get the shuttle bus in Helsinki and Gothenburg.
We will definitely revisit Stockholm, Gothenburg and Tallin - they are great places with so much more still to do and such friendly people.
You need to research your tours in SPB carefully before you go. Doing so many separate tours meant we did the tedious return journey into SPB 4 times in two days. Peterhof is in the opposite direction and takes about 1hr 20mins by coach. Hydrofoil is 20 mins. The guides talk incessantly on the bus - some worse than others.
All our tours were booked through RCI. If you can afford it book a car or van tour with a small group. You can do this through RCI or independently. And NO you don't need a visa for SPB. If you book a tour it's all taken care of.
Getting off the ship at ports you just swipe your card. Coming back on you and your bags need to be scanned. You are not allowed to take food on or off the ship and any alcohol you try to bring on board is taken off you and returned to you at the end of the cruise. Immigration is easy - the only place you need your passport is SPB and the first time you get off there is a bit of a faff. Subsequently it's easier though sometimes a queue.
AND FINALLY, THE FOOD
This was the greatest disappointment. I need to eat gluten free and for me it was a very, very poor experience. In general my fellow (non-gf eaters) agree that the food ranged from occasionally good to occasionally inedible but mostly just middling. We really did not like the Windjammer (and in any case had been advised by RCI, because of my diet, to use the MDR for all meals) but were forced to eat there when the dining room was not open at lunch times on days in port. The dEcor in the W/J is a bit grim, it's noisy and short on tables meaning continuous announcements asking you to move on as people are waiting. The food is piled high but of low quality and does not seem to be organised in any rational order on the various islands.
On the overnighter in SPB there was open seating dining in the MDR for all at around 5 pm allowing people to go ashore for the evening (no time for us though between afternoon and evening tours). There was then a buffet by the pool at around 10pm. However, not only did I not get much gf to eat here (and I hadn't eaten most of the day), passengers returning around 11pm found there was no food left.
We ate in Portofino once which was a very nice ambience and good food but that, with the extra $20 each, wine and gratuity added a total of around $112 to our on-board account.
I will be posting my gluten-free on-board and in-port dining experiences on the gluten-free hints and tips thread in the Foodies forum if you want to know more.