This was our first holiday cruise - we'd been pampered on business-related cruises twice before - so we had some trepidation and I would say only average expectations. Delighted to say the Queen Elizabeth and staff excelled despite the efforts of Baltic weather which, disappointingly, meant we couldn't get into Stockholm which was going to be one of the highlights.
We had booked probably too many excursions. Kristiansand and Oslo would have been better done at one's own speed and interests and you can go on your own to an ice bar (which had been the draw in Oslo). Copenhegan is a massive roadworks at the moment and, therefore, again self touring would have been preferable to being ensconced in coaches. We had tried six months in advance to book into Noma voted the best restaurant in the world (!) at 1401 Kobenhaun, tel +45 3296 3297, but only succeeded in making the waiting list. Despite regular texts with the owners, who were extremely courteous, we failed and were advised better luck next time (which we will certainly pursue).
We did Helsinki ourselves and that was well worthwhile although retail prices are on the high side. We would thoroughly recommend the Kamp Cafe (part of the only 5-star restaurant in Helsinki) at Pohjoisesplanadi 29, reservations +358 09 5840 9539.
We had decided to push the boat out(sic)in St Petersburg and subscribe separately ($455 a time) for two x 4-hour private car tours with driver and English-speaking guide to The Catherine Palace and The Peter Palace. The guides were good if a little guarded - the shadow of Communism still lurks - and each palace was over an hour's drive which, therefore, reduced the time on site to less than two hours. Despite this it was well worth the extra money and enabled you to leapfrog the queues which were of epic proportions (as was the gold leaf). The highlight, however, was a Cunard-organised evening tour and concert at the Hermitage which was simply magical. The Hermitage is closed on Mondays but was opened especially in the evening for I would estimate around 200 people (all from the Queen Elizabeth) split into groups of 25 which were given exclusive tours of many of the Hermitage exhibits - we didn't see all four million ! After that there was a glass of champagne and a 50-minute concert by the Symphony Orchestra of St Petersburg with Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Igor Ponomarenko in the Great Skylight Italian Hall. Truly memorable. A MUST (even at $396 for two).
The next stop was Talinn where, again, we would recommend missing the organised tours ! Sadly, Talinn is completely swamped by cruise ships and is becoming something of a second-rate Disneyesque "attraction".
The final stop was Zeebrugge where I elected to go on the Flanders' Fields tour which includes an excellent museum where you can browse on your own. Driving rain at the first military cemetery added to the poignancy. I was glad I went but the sadness and waste of life was palpable.
More cheerfully and back on Board I only have praise for the lecturers (which included Lord Geoffrey Archer on our cruise, plus lectures on The Battle of Jutland (1915), the Heroes of Telemark (WWII), the Falklands Wars and the Faberge Eggs. I also "took in" lectures on the i-Pad and using mobile phone cameras, both of which were pedestrian, and my wife tells me the abridged version of Twelth Night (Sixth Night ?) was well worth missing. Alas, poor Shakespeare!
We chose to go Brittania Club which meant open dining and you could elect for tables of two which we did and this worked very well. Service was impeccable and the sommelier added substantially to our enjoyment. The food was good and occasionally excellent. The 22-hour buffet restaurant was also first class and exceeded expectations for a midnight feast post the Hermitage St Petersburg evening. Room service for breakfast was also excellent.
Finally, if you like a pub, they have one and I can vouch for the Draft Guinness and the pub fare. The cabin was also spacious (the shower was a little cramped) with plenty of hanging space and under-bed storage.
All in all, an excellent holiday.
We are hooked.