We were prepared for Stockholm. I had read and reread Rick Steves a dozen times. I had purchased Stockholm cards(I highly recommend these for the independent traveler and you can order them online). We were prepared for rainy weather; it turned out sunny and warm!. I had warned everyone to be up at 5AM to view the archipelago as we entered Stockholm. Thanks to John Lawrence's port talk, we decided we would watch the archipelago as we sailed OUT at 5PM. Then came the news that we couldn't enter Stockholm. John Lawrence gave another talk with details of how to get from Nynashamn to Stockholm which is about 1 hour by train. The bonus was that our Stockholm cards would get us on the train so we didn't have to wait to buy tickets! Off we went and the train was wonderful-a clean, quiet, comfortable, modern commuter train which deposited us in downtown Stockholm. We caught the bus(Stockholm card) to the Vasa Museum (Stockholm card). You cannot miss this amazing ship! When you walk in, the Museum is darkened but as your eyes adjust you are floored by the sight of this immense 17th century warship. Because we had an hour journey back to the ship and I tend to read everything, we agreed that we would allocate an hour. We caught the convenient hop on/hop off harbor taxi (Stockholm card again)and explored the old town, Gamla Stan. It's a beautiful and fascinating city. After lunch, we toured the palace apartments and then the treasury to see the crown jewels. We just scratched the surface and reluctantly returned to the ship but stopped to visit Nynashamn which is small but pretty and worth a brief stroll.
Probably the only port where we felt we had sufficient time. We boarded the Hop On/Hop Off bus which was waiting at the dock. It provided an easy way into the city along with commentary. The HO/HO buses are a less expensive alternative to the ship's city tours but lack the interaction with a tour guide as the commentary is recorded. Compared to the other ports, Helsinki was not a 'WOW' port. We enjoyed a nice lunch at a local cafe, toured the harbor market, Uspenski cathedral and enjoyed walking around town but were back to the ship with time to spare.
There aren't enough superlatives for St Petersburg. The city is amazing. besides Stockholm, this was the city I spent the most time studying before we left. The information that you receive infers that unless you book with a Princess shore excursion you won't be able to disembark unless you obtain a tourist visa. The reality is that you can book with any tour operator in St Petersburg and they have a group visa already. I spent a lot of time before we left talking with the couple who didn't make the tour deciding on which company to choose. We decided on Anastasia and I cannot say enough good things about them. We arranged a smaller group tour. We requested no more than 10 people and it turned out to be 5 of us. This allowed each of us ample time to ask questions of our guide. Svetlana was extremely knowledgeable and answered every questions we had. As near as I can tell, we were the only group whose canal tour included Russian champagne, caviar and blinis along with Russian chocolates-YUM! I can only recommend that you try to pack as much into your two days as possible and then there is still too much to see. We asked if we could see the subway system which wasn't on our tour and she accommodated us with a brief ride. Anastasia as used the hydrofoil from Peterhof to avoid traffic jams. we would have used it in both directions but there was a problem in the morning and they weren't running. Your amazement at the wealth and buildings only increases when you realize that these structures were all but totally destroyed by the Nazis in WWII and have been completely rebuilt. Our tour (2 day)included the Hermitage, Peterhof, Church on Spilled Blood, St Issac's, subway, all entry fees, lunch both days, canal tour, city tour and all for less than the Princess 2 day shore excursion. It pays to shop!
OK, it's not as spectacular as St Petersburg, but it's a medieval jewel. we docked within walking distance of the old city. Again, Rick Steves is your friend in your tour of Tallinn and Toompea. You really get a feeling of the town as you walk around. If you have trouble walking, take a taxi to the top of Toompea and walk down. Tallinn is also the place to shop. Prices here are a lot less than in Russia and the workmanship is wonderful so buy your souvenirs here. Only exception was for a small Russian box where I think I did better on the ship. Because we had so little time, we filled every minuted walking and I feared we wouldn't get back in time. By now, I had been appointed tour guide and didn't want us to miss the ship on my watch.
Prepare to be pleasantly surprised here as well. Gdansk was also destroyed by the Nazis in WWII. The city is beautiful I was totally unprepared. It's also a great place to shop for amber. We took the ship's Roads to Freedom tour. It started by taking us to where WWII began. Our guide debunked a lot of tales we had learned in history (the Poles did NOT send cavalry against tanks!) and heard how they held the Nazis at bay despite overwhelming odds. We learned of life under communist rule and visited the Solidarity Museum. You could feel the passion in our guides voice as he communicated what felt like wounds still raw. Our time in Gdansk was too short. We did get a good tour of the city, it's buildings and St Mary's church but had too little time exploring on our own.
What a beautiful city!! We finally docked right in downtown after a beautiful sail up the fjord. Although this is a fjord, it's not the same as the steep walled wonders of the western coast of Norway, but rather a gentle sweep of land to either side of a deep water port. Oslo is the greenest of all the cities we visited both in terms of trees and parks as well as the ecological sense. Our main goals were to see Frogner park and the Vigeland sculptures as well as the Viking Ship Museum on the Bygdoy peninsula. I had thought about the Oslo card but the short time we had (7:30AM-1:30PM) was too short to make it worthwhile. I did learn that the ship used to dock from 7AM-5PM which would really have been much better. We did get to see what we wanted. I really enjoyed the viking ships as well as the Kon Tiki and Ra museums. The water taxi is really convenient. I wouldn't recommend the Hop On/Hop Off bus in Oslo. The commentary is minimal and you can do the same with teh well organized trams and buses and water taxi.