We left the tour group in order to spend our time climbing on the stone wall. This was wonderful---we walked the entire perimeter of this narrow stone wall encircling the medieval town of Obidos---much more interesting than the souvenir shops!
It was difficult to hear the river guide because of several non-English speaking passengers (not from our ship) who spoke loudly to each other throughout the tour. I was also dismayed at the lost time when the boat was parked for 15-20 minutes under Big Ben (across from the London Eye) while letting off and picking up other passengers, following which it crossed the Thames and let us off at the London Eye. It would have been more interesting to have been given the option of getting off the boat at that point and cross the bridge on foot to reach the London Eye.
The London Eye provided good views and was a nice option given our limited time in London but it would have been nice to have a guide explaining what we were seeing.
Our castles excursion on the first day was interesting because we got a history lesson on a tour that also took us outside of Copenhagen. We were lucky enough to witness the changing of the guard at the royal palace on the way back. On the second day we really enjoyed walking through the town on our own, along the waterfront, a canal lined with boats, through the pedestrian shopping street, to the Tivoli amusement park (entrance fee prohibitive), and back to the ship via a series of gardens.
Our guide for the city tour was knowledgeable but was somewhat cynical and made it difficult to understand what we were seeing. For example, he would tell us to get our cameras ready but then would not tell us until we were past that point what it was we were seeing. The most valuable part of this trip was what we learned from the personal experiences before and after the Berlin wall came down related to us by the woman who had essentially the role of a stewardess on the long bus ride between the port of Warnemunde and Berlin. They fed us excessively on this 13 hour excursion. The ship had opened the restaurant early enough to have breakfast on board, there was a stop for a hearty German meal in the early afternoon, and the ship was still serving supper when we returned. The lunch bags they served on the bus to and from Berlin were not necessary (contained sandwiches, smoked sausage, fruit, peanuts, chocolate bars, cheesecake, water, and fruit juice). This would have been useful on the St. Petersburg excursion, where we were underfed!
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Rating:
The guide was knowledgeable and sensitive and relayed a bit of what he knew of his own relative's experiences during the war. The visit through the old barrack/now museum was somewhat rushed---not enough time to read the panels on the walls or floor. There was competition from other groups. Our guide lamented that our tour was started too a bit too late to avoid the rush because of the timing of the excursion from the ship (even 30 minutes earlier would have been better).
We had a lovely day walking around Tallinn on our own---very picturesque. We got a bit lost and ended up climbing old graffiti-covered stone steps to the top of a wooded hill, suprised to find a skateboard park among the ruins! A street along the old wall turned out to be the best place to buy a wool sweater of all the Baltic ports we visited. One of our fellow passengers lost 900 euros and her charge card to a pickpocket at a look-out point (it happened while she was distracted and raising her arms to take a photo), so beware!
Lovely room seen briefly as part of the Catherine Palace excursion. I would have preferred to have been allowed to take photos, which I had paid for as part of the Catherine Palace excursion.
Catherine Palace Rating:
Very long line-up again. Lots of gold and Baroque decor. It's too bad that no photos were allowed in the amber room.
City Tour Rating:
Two-day excursion which included city tour (ended up going on the same route and seeing the same buildings and monuments several times over). The amount of history, culture, and art here is overwhelming. There was a great deal of time wasted waiting in line outside of palaces and museums. Once inside, it felt rushed. There was not enough time to enjoy any of the art. Although I resented the extra fees to be allowed to take photos and video inside each attraction, I was glad that I did because now I can at least look at some of the art at my own pace. I cannot understand why no photos were allowed in the amber room or inside Peterhoff's. This was perhaps a good way to be introduced to St. Petersburg but if I ever return, I would prefer to book a private excursion (I'm not sure about doing that in the winter to avoid crowds as suggested by the guide).
Hermitage Museum Rating:
Although there was an early opening for the HAL cruise ship, we still had to wait in line and the doors opened 15 minutes late. 2 hours at the Hermitage was not sufficient for my liking but was good enough for my 19 year old daughter. The guide rushed us through each room and there were only seconds to photograph a piece of art that caught my eye (often falling behind or having to leave the group in order to do so). It seemed that a lot of time was wasted while waiting as a group for the bathroom breaks and during the lunch/shopping break at the Hermitage cafe (at our own expense). Because we did not have any roubles and had packed a picnic lunch which we ate at a souvenir break, this time could have been better spent if we had the option of staying longer looking at art instead of waiting at the cafe.
In retrospect and after hearing from the other passengers, the HAL exclusive 4 hour evening at the Hermitage tour would have been better (and the lighting would have been adequate this time of year when it stays light all night).
Peterhof Palace Rating:
I don't know why photos were not allowed inside. This palace was impressive but very similar decor to Catherine's Palace. The intricate wood in Peter the Great's study had been undamaged. It was interesting to see the bedrooms with the doors on either side of the bed. The fountains were nice and the trip back to St. Petersburg on a hydrofoil was interesting.
St. Isaac's Cathedral Rating:
Impressive architecture and ingenious engineering.
Loved this city! We elected to walk around it on our own (5 hours). The city map provided at the pier was sufficient. We sat on top of the cathedral steps listening to some folk singers in Senate Square. Church of the Rock was marvelous--there was a pianist playing when we arrived and we had a picnic on top of the rock. At the market, I sampled a local delicacy--a small fish, battered and eaten whole. A walk around a lake on the way back to the ship proved very scenic and serene.
Very rough tendering experience but once on land, it was great! The bikes were near the pier. Great bikes! Picturesque cycle through the old town followed by serene countryside, a tea break at a princess's house, and a bit of a climb to fabulous cliff views. The guide was a very knowledgeable historian who also provided botany lessons about the various plants we saw along the way. My only complaint is that I wanted to stop more often to take photos but did not want to lose the group!