I will try to focus on items that may be of interest to those interested in this cruise. My wife and I went on the 14-day Kiel Canal and Baltic Treasures cruise on the ms Prinsendam (Holland America Line-HAL) in August 2011. We were joined by 3 of our relatives. Overall, the cruise was up to the usual HAL standards.
Last year when deciding on this cruise, my wife and I debated on the Eurodam versus the Prinsendam. I'm glad we decided on the ms Prinsendam. The ship is small enough to fit into the Kiel Canal; the Eurodam could not. Going through the Kiel Canal was one of the early highlights of the cruise. People who lived near the canal packed picnic lunches and came to see our ship pass by. They waved their hands, and we did waved back. Part of the mast of the Prinsendam had to be folded back so that we could fit under some of the bridges over the canal. It was a very relaxing way to spend a day looking at the countryside.
Prior to this cruise, my wife and I had only been on Vista class ships with HAL (1800-2000 or so passengers). The Prinsendam has about 800 passengers. The ship was not too small. It was "just right". You could quickly get to any part of the ship. One advantage was the Showroom at Sea where the Prinsendam Singers and Dancers performed. You were sitting closer to the stage than on a Vista class ship. You felt more connected to the performers. The Prinsendam Singers and Dancers performed on 5 nights, with an intro on the first night (leaving Amsterdam). We thought they were all very good; all the singers had wonderful voices. The showroom was dark on 2 nights, when there were evening tours (Hamburg, St. Petersburg). One disadvantage to a smaller ship is that some things don't stay open late. The soft serve ice cream station stopped serving about 8:30 pm. On the Vista Class ships, I was used to getting hot tea and soft serve ice cream after the evening show.
We arrived one day early and stayed at the Grand Hotel Amrath in Amsterdam. We recommend the hotel. (Tidbit: the mini-bar items were complimentary.) It's near the train station and the cruise port. My group got a taxi van to take the 5 of us the next day to the cruise terminal; it only cost 20 Euros for our group. We found a grocery store on a square not far from the hotel and purchased some wine and champagne to take on the cruise with us. Tidbit: we enjoyed Randy Roy's Red Light District Walking Tour in the evening.
Although the cruise information from HAL said there would be 4 formal nights on board, there were only 3. Not many men wore tuxedos. The trend seems to be suit and tie for men on HAL cruises for the formal nights.
Quite a few people did open seating for dinner rather than fixed seating (early dining at 5:30 pm or late dining at 8:00 pm). Those who did open seating got the best seats in the main dining room -- right along the windows, with the best views. Those with fixed seating in that room sat in the middle of the room, at least during the early dining time. My group (early dining) was in the smaller, auxiliary dining room. My group was able to move to a table by the window. In hindsight, we would have preferred to eat a little bit later. On some shore excursions, we didn't get back to the ship until about 5 pm, and then had to rush to get ready for dinner. If we did it again, we'd do open seating and eat later.
My relatives used the laundry rooms on board the ship. My wife and I decided before we left on the cruise to get the $98 unlimited laundry service (no dry cleaning though). That allowed us to pack lighter and not bring as many clothes. We also didn't have to spend our vacation time in the laundry room. An alternative was to pay $20 and get one bag of laundry done. We took full advantage of our laundry service. It was a splurge, but we enjoyed being pampered that way.
I brought my laptop along so that I could email our daughter about our trip, check on the stock market, and access my accounts via the Quicken financial program. Until the last night, I didn't use the Internet service on the ship, because it's relatively expensive and very slow; even the Internet Manager said so. On the last night, I did pay for the service--at a special price--so that I could try to print boarding passes for our flight home. Anyway, before I left the USA, I paid about $12 for a monthly VPN service (HotSpotVPN) so that I could securely access my email, banks, and other Internet sites. I was able to find free, or low cost, Wi-Fi at most ports. I would ask some of the crew as well as the ship's Travel Guide where I could find Wi-Fi at a port. In Hamburg, Germany, I took the complimentary shuttle bus to the Europa Passage shopping center, and found a Starbucks. There was also a coffee shop on the top floor of the multi-story mall; you could buy a drink or snack and get the Wi-Fi code. In Tallinn, Estonia, there was Wi-Fi at the end of the pier by the flea market. At St. Petersburg, there was Wi-Fi for $1 an hour at one of the cruise terminals (you had to walk to it along the pier so you didn't exit the Customs area, for which you needed a valid visa). In Helsinki, Finland, there was Wi-Fi at Robert's Coffee in City Center; you had to buy a drink or snack item to get the Wi-Fi password. In Stockholm, Sweden, there was free Wi-Fi at Seaman's Mission not far from the ship in the industrial dock area. I didn't look for Wi-Fi for the stop at Visby, Sweden. In Copenhagen, Denmark, I went to a cafe not far from the dock and bought a drink to get the Wi-Fi password. In Oslo, Norway, there was free Wi-Fi in the Tourist Information center by the City Hall. In the morning, when we docked, I also got free Wi-Fi from a bus parked by the dock waiting for passengers going on a shore excursion!
In St. Petersburg, my sister-in-law arranged for private touring for our group of 5. She booked full day tours for a private van with wheelchair lift, because that was the only option in the online shore excursions for a party of 5. On the ship, Shore Excursion personnel notified us that the van could not accommodate 5 people, maybe only 2 people and a wheelchair. We were able to get a regular sized van, but for about $300 more per day. The shipboard personnel said that they have notified HAL headquarters about the error in the online information, but no corrective action has been taken. The shipboard Shore Excursion personnel were very helpful and friendly.
In Stockholm, my group went to the Ice Bar on our own (much cheaper than the HAL shore excursion). It was different and worth visiting. Admission price was about $29 US, which included one drink. There was an Ice Bar shore excursion for Helsinki, but it was outside the city. The one inside the city didn't open until the evening. There was also an Ice Bar in Oslo (same chain), but we didn't visit it.
In Oslo, if you're on your own (as we were) and visiting more than 2 museums, it may be worthwhile to buy the Oslo Card (about $41 US), which includes transportation and free admission to many of the museums for a day. Otherwise, consider getting the Oslo Transportation Pass (about $13 US), which provides unlimited use of bus, ferry, and tram transportation in and around Oslo for the day. We bought the pass at a Tourist Information Center. Norwegians speak very good English, so the staff at the Tourist Information Centers can explain options that work for you and your group. We wanted to see Edvard Munch's “The Scream” (painting), and learned it was in the National Gallery (free admission the day we were there) rather than in the Munch Museum; that saved us a trip. We were able to get a VAT refund on board the Prinsendam that afternoon, because Norway is not part of the Euro zone. I got a refund for the 14% VAT we paid for qualifying purchases we made while shopping in Oslo. VAT refunds for qualifying Euro purchases were handled at your departure airport (from the EU).
We were typically late into many of the ports. The weather delays were rare. In St. Petersburg, we were an hour late arriving, which meant we left an hour late for our private tour (which had set hours). Generally the Captain told us about the possibility of late arrival the night before--except for the last night. We arrived in Tilbury, London, our final port, several hours late. We should have docked at 5 am, but didn't until 7 am. This delayed passengers getting off the ship. We paid for a bus transfer to Heathrow airport from Tilbury. The bus left late and didn't get to Heathrow until 10:30 am. We should have checked in by 10 am for our noon flight (we weren't able to print boarding passes on the ship the night before). If you're taking the bus transfer to Heathrow Airport, don't pay for the transfer unless your flight leaves after 1 pm. Allow for the possibility that the bus will leave late. (Otherwise, take a taxi or other direct transportation.) It takes 1.5 hours on a good day to drive by bus from Tilbury to Terminal 2 at Heathrow. Neither HAL personnel before the cruise nor the Shore Excursion personnel at Tilbury could give us correct information about the transfer time.
Other tidbits: At several of the ports, complimentary shuttle bus service was offered from the cruise terminal to the nearby downtown area. One of my relatives bought a wine package on board; I thought the wine on the menu offered more and better choices. We enjoyed the two wine tastings on the ship; they were very entertaining and informative; the Cellar Master demonstrated several novel ways to open a bottle of champagne! In some of the ports, you'll need some coins to pay for use of restrooms in the cities. At the Hamburg port, we did the shore excursion to Berlin; it was a very long bus trip (8+ hours on the bus); we did buy some wine at one of the highway rest stops. For Russia, you need a visa to exit the dock area and go into town; those on HAL shore excursions were provided with a Russian visa. You will need to pay a nominal fee ($3-5 US) to take pictures inside some of the palaces, museums, and churches in St. Petersburg; no photography is allowed inside the Peterhof Palace. Our deluxe verandah stateroom had a large, walk-in closet with plenty of hangers. We couldn't fit large suitcases under the bed (as on Vista class ships). There are not many hooks in the room for hanging clothes on. Learn the names of your Dining Room Attendants and your Room Attendants and greet them when you see them; they will really appreciate it.