REFLECTIONS and SUGGESTIONS [8-15-05]
Baltic Sea tour - The Star Princess, preceeded by Princess' land tour. Land: July 18 to 24. Cruise: July 24 to Aug. 3, 2005 Land itinerary: Budapest-Vienna-Prague. Cruise: Copenhagen-Stockholm-Helsinki-St. Petersburg-Tallin-Gdansk-Berlin- Copenhagen.
1. Preliminaries: For my wife and me, ages 58 and 69 respectively (very active persons), this was our 4th Princess cruise. Many persons submit helpful reviews of the Princess ships and commentaries about the places. I'll try to limit my remarks mostly to advice-related matters.
2. We suggest that you consider making your own air plans. If done well in advance, you can expect more convenient connections to suit your own needs and desires. The cost is often no greater than Princess offers, and usually less. For example, we were able to stop for about 24 hours in Amsterdam on the way to the land tour's origin in Budapest, at no extra air cost for this "additional" city.
3. In Amsterdam, we were delighted at the Sheraton Hotel Airport's convenience and rooms. We took the train beneath the adjacent airport to the city; fast and inexpensive. Be prepared to walk extensively in all venues, of course. We suggest very comfy tennis/walking shoes. Of course, watch the internat'l. weather reports in the weeks before you depart. In the weeks of our trip, we encountered little rain, but substantial cloudiness; moderate temperatures. A raincoat would have been unnecessary. Wise to take a light, unlined jacket, preferably rain-resistant, small umbrellas and a crushable rain hat. Take plenty of batteries/film. No need to buy street maps in the U.S. for the toured cities because many of the hotels and tour bus guides distributed better ones (containing local ads); Princess sometimes has some ok ones in their daily newsletter; and Rick Steves' walking maps are very good. One lightweight sweater is a good idea for cooler evenings. Sport clothes are ok for all restaurants on land and on the ship; but on the ship, no T-shirts, jeans, shorts in the dining rooms. On the two formal nights, ok for men to wear dark suits. Better than tux, since tux requires formal shoes; and most appropriate for the dining rooms are shined dark leather shoes. Therefore, no need to take more than one pair of leather (dressier) shoes. Although the international air weight limits on baggage are generous, the intra-Europe flight(s) limit you to 44 lbs./person; the penalties for overweight can be costly.
4. In Amsterdam, crowds notwithstanding, visit the Anne Frank House (museum). Feel the fear and claustrophobia that must have infected her and her family for those long years, hiding from the gestapo. Canal ride, of course. On a Sunday afternoon, we couldn't get much of the flavor of the Red Light District. Get "high" just breathing normally on many of the side streets from the atmosphere of legal pot.
5. Land tour: Princess subcontracted its land tour to Kuoni Tours, Ltd., of Zurich. Our prior and present experience is that Kuoni does a wonderful job of organizing and operating these tours. Our tour leader was Mary T. Keenan -- delightful, informed, witty, efficient, professional, thoughtful. What a treat if she is assigned as your leader! Kuoni makes excellent selection of sites, restaurants (some meals are included; some aren't); allocation of "free" time and tour time and logistics of moving people and luggage. The local guides they engaged were generally good. With respect to the "local" guides, it's the luck of the draw. Some recite their speeches from rote; some are more flexible in their presentation style. All are knowledgeable. All are fluent in English. Some are more willing to answer questions about local living conditions and matters of down-to-earth interest to most of us; some are not.
6. All rooms in the Budapest Marriott were great; views of the Danube below; centrally located. In free time, we walked extensively. We recommend the Dohany Synagogue (cathedral-like in structure; huge); the House of Terror (gestapo headquarters for Hungary in WW II; later used by the Communists for the same purpose; view the holding and torture rooms, the extensive photos of life during that War and under the Communists after 1945; rent the optional headphones to hear the narrative that tracks the photos in the many rooms; total cost is $11./person). The House of Terror is accessible easily by subway; the subways operate on an honor system, unofficially: you buy the tickets, usually from a dispensing machine near the tracks; but the trains employ no visible conductors to collect them). Walk the length of the main pedestrian-only shopping street. On one end is the Public Market, a huge former train station filled with booths for the display of fresh foods, linens. Specialty of the Market was the paprika; many varieties; good for inexpensive gifts with clever packaging. At the other end, the famous open-air cafe, Gardaud's, featuring local ice cream and pastries; can't miss it; $1.l0/scoop. Prices in Hungary: quite reasonable, especially in view of price levels in most of the other cities we visited, and those in western Europe today. An optional evening boat ride on the Danube was fun/interesting. The palaces/castles on the "other side" of the River (the City is divided by the River into Buda and Pest) are illuminated at night. Eat in any of the restaurants, in all these cities, which appear interesting to you. In the touristy areas, of course, the menu will be in English, generally. If the restaurant doesn't have English translations, it's nonetheless an adventure to try the place anyway. One night, Mary's agenda included a gourmet dinner at Nostalgia, where we were serenaded by their talented combo; beautiful place, but music too loud and relentless, inhibiting conversation.
7. Currency: Before departing Denver, we bought some local currencies at our big-city bank, a good idea. Don't overbuy, though; it's not easy to move from country to country, excepting Euro countries, trying to find residual value in the former country's moneys. ATM machines are everywhere. Conversion rates vary; and conversion to our dollars may entail an additional charge when you arrive home, especially with credit card purchases. Plan a tentative, albeit rough, budget, in terms of foreign currency needs. Our dollars are accepted in many countries by many vendors; but not universally. Guidebooks are of little authority on this point; you have to determine the situation at each vendor or restaurant yourself.
8. The bus tour to Vienna was scenic and interesting, including a boat ride from Melk, Hungary, to Durstein. See the many "windmills", electricity-generators, on the way. They are huge, graceful, mesmerizing, and appear to be turning at a lazy speed. The Hilton in Vienna was well-located and handsome. We spent a long afternoon walking the city on our own, especially the Hapsburg palaces which comprise a multi-block area near the city center; and the main pedestrian-only shopping street. See the acrobats, mimes and musicians performing in the streets for handouts. Mary arranged for us one evening to attend an optional concert featuring a combo of about 8 very talented musicians playing selections from Mozart/Strauss—and even featuring some short ballet vignettes! Delightful. About $65/person. Held in one of the many (non-air-conditioned, of course) old palaces that abound in Vienna. She arranged for front-row seats; all other attendees had knees-to-chest seats. The bus tour was good, giving us the needed urban orientation. On our own, we took a trolley to the suburb of Grinzing, looking for the artsy-craftsy galleries that purportedly abound; we found almost none, which attests to my sense of map-reading since they were probably there. Don't look for a light lunch in Vienna. The heavy, but delicious schnitzel, tantamount to our chicken-fried steak in density and calories, is de rigeur at all the restaurants we saw, excepting some small stand-up food places. Vienna prices were significantly higher than in Budapest. Typical was our late-night stop at a delightful ice cream parlor with outdoor seating across from the Hilton. Four scoops of ice cream and one tiny coffee, E7.50.
9. Prague's hotel was the Marriott; well-located and first-class again. Key sites are the big clock in the Town Center, the narrow streets with shops, reminiscent of Venice; the Charles Bridge crossing the Vatlava River. Prices were the most modest of any of the cities on land/cruise. We recommend buying crystal, especially artistic forms. Comparable items in Scandinavia were much higher-priced. Shipping costs/insurance, though, are high. We lugged a heavy crystal bowl, beautiful, modern, unique - back to the hotel and on the planes to Copenhagen and later to Colorado. Shipping/insurance quotes exceeded $100. on this item. Restaurants, even mainstream ones in the town center area, are all reasonably priced, and the food, delicious. For $24., incl. tip, we two ate like royalty one evening, randomly selecting a restaurant in that area which seemed to be pleasing its many patrons (half of them eating outside). Our local guide, Libby, was excellent. Included in the official tour were visits to castles across that River; a lunch/boat ride through locks separating portions of the River as it passes through Prague. See the Jewish Quarter and cemetery steeped in 20th Century (and much earlier) history; but closed on Saturdays. There is the oldest synagogue in Europe, 13th Century. The land tour concluded with an elegant dinner in a private dining room at what we understand is the city's finest restaurant. Service, food and environment were awesome. (We'll try to find its name for you, if you request).
10. Flew to Copenhagen; boarded the Star Princess. No point in my describing this ship to you; doubtless, you've read or heard so much about it. It's huge, refined; superb service; great food, entertainment and atmosphere. Amenities are endless. The omnipresent photographers are unobtrusive, believe it or not, and do take great photos of you and your friends to supplement your own. We had traveled on the Star and its sisters, the Grand and the Golden. The 2600 passengers never "crowded up", which attests to the ship's interior design and operating efficiencies. The next day was our only sea day. I mention this, because, with or without the land tour preceeding the cruise, the itinerary is exhausting, provided that you walk and climb at all the cities, where appropriate, either on the land excursions or on your own. The "sea days" on other cruises, including those of Princess, afford respite from this rigor. The cruise is touted as "10-day." I heard it formerly was 14 days, which makes more sense, although probably enables the cruise line to make fewer cruises on the summer itinerary of the Baltic.
11. In Stockholm, (we took the "Best of Stockholm" tour), the main attraction is the Vasa Museum, where there is displayed a gigantic, ornate Viking ship which sunk on its maiden voyage in 1638, and was discovered and retrieved from the bay about 20-some years ago. Because of a quirk in the salinity of the bay water at that point, and the soft mud at the bottom, the extent of the preservation is awesome. The sailors existed on salted herring for every meal on these ships; I assume bad breath wasn't an issue for discussion. Also notable there are the Nobel Prize sites—banquet venue, prize announcement and bestowal areas. The Princess all-day tour was excellent, again in large part because of the guide.
12. In Helsinki, a half-day tour was adequate, the points of interest being relatively difficult to see "on your own" being the Rock Church and the Sibelius monument in a beautiful park area. The market square, a bazaar of little shops, was interesting. Earrings were displayed by the actual artisans, as were the deerskins and heavy sweaters. Prices were reasonable, considering the apparent quality of these items and the high prices found in the formal stores in the other Scandinavian cities.
13. St. Petersburg was certainly the highlight of the cruise. By researching Cruise Critic and its contributors, and in other ways, we researched the issue of private tours in St. Petersburg and in Berlin. We opted to go that route in both cities, and it worked wonderfully. In Russia, our group from the Star consisted of seven compatible persons; we had prearranged to meet on the Star on the second day of the cruise to become acquainted. The company contracted, Den-Rus, was superb. Its guide, with us for the full two days, Nadya, was outstanding; fluent in English; a resident of St. Petersburg; knowledgeable. The profound advantages: We could have extensive dialog with her about life in her city, in Russia; about all matters of day-to-day living. We could hear her in the crowded venues, such as the vast Hermitage museum, rather than being unable to hear the tour guide who says "...gather round me and listen..." when you can't gather around him/her and you can't hear. No time wasted in embarking or disembarking from the tour buses. Flexibility in semi-customizing the itinerary. For example, we rode the famous subway for three stops; we took a hydrofoil from Peterhof Castle back into the city; we ate at Demidov's luxury restaurant on the Neva River. We cut short the umpteenth palace in favor of more/less shopping, as our small group wished. Stops for photo-ops were at our whim, not subject to the rigorous schedule of the buses. You get the picture. Cost: About the same as the two-day tour(s) from Princess. Same in Berlin, where the one-person tour company caused her driver to meet us at the ship, drive us the 2 hours into Berlin, and we could, and did, customize our itinerary to do and to see what we wanted. You can contact us for more info. about her. Incidentally, our stereotype of a Yugo for transportation in St. Petersburg morphed into a modern air-conditioned van; and the same in Berlin. The Berlin tour also cost about the same as the Princess tour (in which private railroad cars whisk the cruisers into Berlin, about 2 ½ hours).
14. We had heard that Tallin, Estonia, was the place to purchase fine linens, but we didn't find the linens we sought. No tour is needed here. Simply leave the ship and hike to the top of the Old Town, about 45 minutes. Exerting, but reward yourself with a coffee or soft drink in the central town square near the summit. If you feel and think that you're in a medieval town, with the turrets, castles, ramparts - you're right; you are. Charming; a piece from the Middle Ages, of one of the many countries that were conquered and re-conquered time and again. Be thankful that you weren't a knight in shining armor, ascending the hills there.
15. Gdansk, Poland, is reached by disembarking at Gdynia, about 25 miles away. (The Poles are spartan in the use of vowels). The bus to-and-from Gdansk is all you need. All the tour buses have a guide separate from the driver; ours gave a "tour" presentation along the way that couldn't have been better on a tour-tour! Gdansk is best seen as a shopper's joy - amber jewelry of all qualities, colors and shapes is the specialty there. Street vendors and high-end shops compete on long streets adjacent to the (you guessed it) river that runs through the town. By the way, be sure to bargain with all street vendors in all cities; it's expected. Take care in buying amber because it might be simply dark glass. But for $21, from a street booth, we bought a gorgeous amber/silver necklace. For five times that price, we bought earrings from a main-line store, being comfortable about the quality. Other great buys there were sweaters, displayed by the artisan, and yes, you guessed it: linens, beautifully-embroidered, at reasonable prices. God bless capitalism: we passed Lech Walesa's palace, a far cry from the living accommodations for the Gdansk shipyard workers whom he led in the revolution against the Communists about fifteen years ago.
16. In Berlin, we had a private tour, as noted, sharing the van and the cost with two lively cruisers who were also on our Russian private tour. We suggested an itinerary that included the inside/outside of the Jewish Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind (whose first U.S. project is the Denver Art Museum, a spectacular addition to our city), the two-week old Holocaust Museum, lunch at the Reichstag, and driving through the former eastern section of the city. There's a two-hour waiting line of tourists to gain admittance to the Reichstag building; we waltzed in directly with prearranged luncheon reservations. It's a dramatic place to eat; sliding roof; world-renowned glass dome about 80' high atop this old majestic, infamous structure. A memorable experience, not available on a Princess tour. A quick, somewhat frivolous stop at the leading department store there, with the shortened name of KaDeWa, is worthwhile. This is more spectacular than the very many luxury dept. stores we've seen around the world and here. The top floor is a glassed-in restaurant/delicatessen with gourmet selections that are astounding in their variety and display. Although Germany is plagued now with chronic unemployment, primarily the result of its non-competitive labor and production costs, the wealthy are still wealthy - as is the apparent case throughout the world. It's interesting to see the low-end Mercedes and Beemers, not sold in the U.S., as taxis.
17. For us (tour called "Hamlet's Castle, Rosenborg, and Copenhagen City Drive"), Helsingor was the disembarking port for Copenhagen, our final stop. The Princess tour is about 2/3 day, and well worthwhile. The bus drive is about 35 minutes into Copenhagen, and parallels the Baltic coast. You have never seen more bicycles. I observed few over-weight natives. Car ownership is costly. The tour ends with adequate time for you to explore the Tivoli (disappointing gardens and over-rated beauty; missing it is no loss), and, yes, you're right again, the main pedestrian-only shopping street. On this street are merchants of international reputation for luxury, adjacent to sleazy T-shirt shops; do both pay the same rental rate? If you haven't been canal-ridden-out by now, that's an option, as in Amsterdam but not as many. Of course, there's the mandatory visit to the Little Mermaid statue (provided by the Princess tour). The castles on the Princess tour are worthwhile seeing - the "Hamlet" one at Helsingor, and the Rosenborg Castle. They look and feel like castles, and date from the middle ages, complete with moats, turrets and drawbridges. Everything, in short, but the guys who toss the cauldrons of boiling oil from the ramparts.
18. Disembarkation day. As usual, conducted efficiently by Princess. But don't take Princess' word that taxis to the Airport will be in short supply. If you have about 4 hours until flight-time, and if there are no other cruise ships in your port, there should be plenty of taxis at your ship which will take you to the airport with 3 hours to spare. Allow those three hours, because the lines for check-in, especially at SAS, required one hour merely to reach the counter. The Princess option takes you to a Hilton hotel to sit-and-wait (if you have an afternoon flight), until another bus takes you to the airport, at $40/person. The taxi with tip was about $40; we had us two passengers; and there was no intermediate holding stop. The highway to the airport is modern and was efficient in mid-morning on a weekday.
This was the trip of a lifetime; don't miss it when the opportunity next arises for you. firstname.lastname@example.org. Read Less