Although Copenhagen was not, technically, a port of call, it was our point of origin, and I had much to share about this lovely town. I added our final port of Oslo at the end of the review.
To reduce costs I had booked my own travel, lodging and tour excursions in Copenhagen. I selected the Radisson SAS Falconer hotel in Copenhagen for the night of our arrival and changed to the Princess selection of Radisson SAS Royal for our stay at the end of the cruise. This hotel, although more expensive because it is a "five star" versus a "four star" hotel was centrally located in the heart of the city. It is close to the town square and walking distance to all the tour buses. It is more than a cut above the Falconer and well worth the extra dollars. Also worth considering is the beautiful Marriott located centrally on one of the canals. Passengers staying there were generous in their praise.
We selected the local "City and Canal Tour" and found the "City" part very disappointing. The only photo stop was for the Mermaid and the city commentary was very sparse. The "Canal" part, on the other hand, was stupendous. Don't miss a good canal tour. It was recommended, once we got on board (and it was too late) to get your tour down by the canal and choose the "lesser" boats towards the end of the line. They are half the cost of the fancier ones in the front and travel to the same places. This was confirmed by a fellow passenger who followed that advice and was very pleased.
Upon our return after the cruise we discovered the Hop On-Hop Off tours to be excellent. You can board and purchase your tickets just down the street from the Royal. I recommend purchasing the pass that covers all three tours since it was only a few Kroners more, was not limited to one line and was valid for two days.
By far the best tour is the Mermaid Tour. It delivers you to almost all the destinations you would want to see with frequent photo opportunities. The least impressive tour for me was the Christianita Tour.
We entered the archipelagos at 8 AM sailing into port and it is well worth arising early to be on deck to witness the beautiful scenery. I would give the country itself a 5 rating for beauty and Stockholm holds many possibilities. The city deserves lots more exposure than was provided by the Princess Tour we had selected - the Vasa Museum and Royal Armory Tour.
The Vasa Museum is worth a visit if you go early in the day. It gets very crowded later on and I wouldn't want to stand in line for long to get a look at a ship that sank (funny story) and was restored 300 years ago. As far as museums go I would give the Vasa a 2+. The Royal Armory was more impressive in my opinion. There were many displays of clothing worn by the royalty and carrages used by them. I got some good photos.
The next stop was the Gothic Church where the Monarchs are crowned and also marry. Another good photo op and rich history to be had here. By far, the best part of the tour is the walking tour of the Gamla Stan where Stockholm began over eight centuries ago.
I think a hop-on, hop-off tour would have been preferrable to what we received from our Princess tour and I would consider a land excursion to Stockholm in the future.
Definitely would have done Helsinki on our own in retrospect since there was a bus available to get us into town and back if we did not use a Princess Tour. The town is charming but time is limited in port.
We took the "Easy" tour which was 3 hours long and wished we had done something more substantial. Our guide in Helsinki had little to say and her oratory during the tour was stilted and limited. We entered the Rock Church for a few minutes and went to a park to take in a sculpture. From there we were dropped off in the middle of town for thirty minutes to simply wander on our own. No suggestions were offered on what to see.
I would suggest doing a little reading on Helsinki prior to the cruise and then explore the sites on your own
I highly recommend the two-day, comprehansive tour that takes over nine hours each day. It covers every aspect of life in Russia and includes a canal trip on the Neva River as well. Although it was costly, almost $200/day for each person, I think we saw as much as the passengers who rented expensive private cars and vans or had booked their own excursions. Do bring along with you two copies of your passport photo page. You will need one to carry in St. Petersburg and may be asked for it by Immigration. You do not want to have to wait in line at the Passenger Services desk like many people did, simply to get their copies made. There was no need to purchase Rubles, the local currency, since they readily took Euros and Dollars every place we went.
By all accounts, all of the tour guides were excellent - sharing stories of life in Russia as well as the rich history of St. Petersburg.
In the middle of each day we were treated to an authentic Russian meal, which is their large meal of the day, which included caviar, a shot of Vodka and wine as well. The first day we were also entertained by Russian singers and folk dancers, enhancing the Russian atmosphere.
The highlight of the trip for me was the Peterhof Palace. Do schedule your tour early so you can be at the Palace by 11 AM when the fountains come on. This happens only once each day and is well worth planning for. The tour included the fountains and gardens as well as the incredible palace itself which may even outshine Versailles itself.
Another palace you will see is the Yusupov Palace where Rasputin was assassinated. Read up on the Romanov's before you come and you will enjoy the stories even more.
Day two found us at the Hermitage Museum early in the morning. It was closed on the Monday we were there, but it was kept open for Royal Caribbean and Princess passengers. Even so, the crowds were oppressive. I can't imagine what the crowds would be like on a day in which the museum is officially open. Unfortunately this tour does not permit much time for musing over the art work. There are five buildings and we entered four of them. Time constraints necessitated walking quickly through some exhibits in which I would have preferred to spend more time. If one of your primary interests is the Hermitage, be sure to schedule a different tour that spends more time there. The biggest complaint was that we only spent a couple of minutes with the Impressionists and other masters.
In designing the tour for myself, I would have eliminated the Peter and Paul fortress or the church where Tsar Alexander 11 was killed and substituted that time for the Hermitage. Wear comfortable walking shoes because both days are spent on the run with little time for rest.
I highly recommend seeing this city on your own time. It is a comfortable walk from the ship into town and the town is delightful to walk around in. Focus on the Upper, or old, part of town first and end up in the Town Square area which has charming cafes offering much-needed refreshment and rest. It is also closer to the ship for your return. It is quaint and charming with many shops, homes and gardens to photograph. Beware of the most difficult cobblestone streets you will encounter and wear very stable, comfortable walking shoes.
The Russian Orthodox church is well worth visiting and photographing as well as the little Lutheran church from the 13th century.
Time here was very limited - we had to be back on the ship by 12:30 so we left for town as soon as the ship docked. I would have enjoyed the town even more had we more time to spend.
If you do not book a tour in Gdansk you will need to get yourself into town which is 45 minutes away. We scheduled a one-hour walking tour and had one hour of free time as well afterwards. I did not see any hop on/off busses in the town at all. The tour did not begin until 12:30 PM and ended at 5 PM which seemed adequate for what we saw. We did not take the tour to Parvo which was more comprehensive and also very interesting I understand.
Our tour guide had a masters degree in Economics and was clearly enamored of Poland and very knowledgeable. Unfortunately our tour did not provide for any photo stops on the way into the town of Gdansk so photos were hard to obtain. Lec Walensa's home was a blur, as was the sculpture celebrating the Solidarity movement within Poland.
Because this is a walking tour you need to be prepared with good shoes although the terrain is level and easy to traverse. The primary target is the old town area which is identified by arches at the beginning and end of each street. St. Mary's church within is the largest brick church in the world although you would never know it to look at it. Good photo opportunities here. Watch and listen for the knolling of the bells of the Town Hall on the hour. It is in the center of the town square and is surrounded by cafes which offer rest and refreshment during your hour on your own.
Our final port - was OSLO, Norway. Port Rating 4 Here I would suggest using the sightseeing buses which cue up outside the ship in the morning. Because the Sculpture Garden is open 24 hours you can get there early before the rest of the town opens. It is definitely worth seeing and photographing and a highlight of Oslo. Remarkable. The National Gallery on Universatietate displays Munch's paintings which include "The Scream." I found his work not especially impressive and a bit depressing, but it may be worth a few minutes to see the famous painting on the second floor. The Gallery is close-in and free.
I highly recommend stopping by the Grand Cafe which is a part of the Grand Hotel and frequented by Isben in his heyday. I did not care to visit the Fram or Kon Tiki Museums although it is easy to do so as the bus takes you there directly. If you want to take the ferry back to your point of origin from the museums, you must buy your ticket before starting the tour. They don't sell them at the end and you need to take the bus back.