We are a married couple, early 50’s / 60’s, currently living in Maryland. We have cruised a fair bit, but this was the first time we had cruised the Baltic. Constellation is one of our favourite ships and we last sailed her in the Black Sea September 2013, so were hoping to see some familiar faces among the crew. We were in an A2 cabin, had the drinks package and a generous OBC to blow, thanks to the 123GO promotion, and were cruising as Elite Plus for the first time. I also have a feather and flower allergy, which can be challenging when travelling. I am an introvert and we are quiet people who aren’t much into on board activities, we prefer to read, write and do photos to keep ourselves busy, when we aren’t chilling and just staring at the sea. I will try and offer some tips for future cruisers, but probably by the time I get this finished the Baltic season will be over! Did I mention we had a great trip? Here is my (tongue in cheek) account of it, and let me once again say we really enjoyed ourselves in our understated way.
We flew United non-stop from IAD to Amsterdam. For some reason DH has been elevated to one level above pleb on the United frequent flier programme so our bags were not only tagged “heavy” they got a priority sticker too. Unfortunately his status isn’t lofty enough for 2 free bags, so bag number 3 cost us $100 each way. We paid extra for the Economy Plus extra legroom, and Economy Minus food. If you tell yourself that a good flight gets you and your bags from A to B pretty much on time and in one piece, then this was a good flight.
Tip 1, the window seat is very chilly, bring a jacket and gloves. You will be grateful for them!
Tip 2, if you are leaving from IAD do yourself a favour and stop at Vino Volo for a few nice tapas and a wine flight before your flight. You won’t regret it when “chicken or pasta” is delivered over Newfoundland. Likewise on the return flight when all they are offering is “chicken”, you will be glad that you ate breakfast at the airport, (no matter how awful it was), and picked up a sandwich to eat on board later.
What a great airport. No lines at immigration, no waiting for bags, and no lines at customs. It was easy to get a taxi too, a nice Mercedes one, with a careful driver.
I wish I was one of those travellers who appreciated twee boutique hotels, with lovely (but uncomfortable) antique furniture and four sets of stairs to drag your luggage up to the canal view room in the attic… but I’m not. I like a comfy bed, a proper bath, a good shower and air-conditioning, and I want an elevator. As I also need a feather-free room, I find it best to stick with a major chain, this time Marriott. We booked the room from the night before to make sure we could get into it and get some sleep immediately we arrived, as I am a grump when I get off a transatlantic flight. The Marriott is situated near the Rijksmuseum and Vondelpark in a quiet area, but just a few minutes walk from the restaurants and bars in the Leidseplein. I thought the staff here were excellent and the hotel was very comfortable. The bar is nice and modern and the asian dishes they serve are superb!
Tip 1: It costs more to book a hypoallergenic room than a regular room online, however if you book a regular room you can request hypoallergenic bedding and they will often upgrade you to the hypoallergenic room at no charge if it is available.
Tip 2: Get yourself a nice drink and a window seat in the hotel bar and watch the cars, trams and bicycles whizz by. It’s like a mesmerising choreographed dance.
Tip 3: I find the best way of getting over jetlag is to get 3 or 4 hours sleep as soon as you arrive at your destination, and then stay up as late after 10pm as you can manage.
As easy as Schiphol was to arrive at, the Amsterdam cruise port rivalled it for ease of embarkation. We arrived at about 11am, dropped our bags inside the terminal, (that’s a new one!), then went upstairs to check in. We already had our Edocs and check in was really quick in the priority (Suites, Aqua and Elite) line. ID photos are taken on the ship when you board for the first time, which is probably why check-in at the terminal was so fast. We were on board with our champagne by 11:15.
Tip: They will try to herd you up to the buffet until cabins are ready at 1:30ish. If you don’t mind paying for a quiet civilised lunch, Bistro on Five opens at noon, and Cafe al Bacio will already be open when you board, and offers pastries and drinks. It’s a great place to test out your drink package!
We were in an A2 cabin, 9104 which is near the aft stairwell on deck 9 and under the loos at the entrance to the buffet. This is a nice quiet area, whereas some of the other A2s are under the pool or the gym and have the potential to be noisy. The A1 cabins are new and are located high and aft on deck 11. As soon as I walked in there were no flowers and as I didn’t start sneezing, no feathers. Our steward Bengit stopped by and said he got the request ahead of time, (first time ever!), and had put hypoallergenic bedding in the cabin already. There was tea in the room, but as we never drink it, I said there was no need for him to bring it, but it still came every day. Aqua Class comes with lots of perks that I don’t really use, but what I do like about it is the free water, improved shower and meals in Blu.
The toiletries have changed recently. Instead of helpfully saying “Shampoo”, “Conditioner” or “Body Wash” in big letters, they say “Cleanse”, “Hydrate”, “Revitalise” , and the translation is in writing way too small to read in the shower without your glasses on!!!!
The first night I had trouble sleeping, as the mattress was so uncomfortable that I ended up sleeping on the sofa under a mound of towels and bathrobes. The next day Bengit managed to get me a different mattress and I slept very well after that.
Tip: if there is a problem, mention it as soon as you can and give the steward the opportunity to fix it. There is no point saying nothing and then whingeing about it when you get home.
Blu is open for breakfast and dinner for Aquaclass guests and on a space available basis for suite guests. This was our 4th time in Blu and I think this was the first time I have really seen it at it’s best, well staffed with waiters, a good sommelier and an excellent bar waitress. We never had to wait for drinks or a second glass of wine, nor did we have to go to another bar for a drink during dinner like we had to in the past! This time the service was spot on. We tended to eat around 7:30, and at that time Blu always seemed almost but not quite full, so we always got a table straight away. We never asked for a specific waiter, or a table by the window, we just sat where they had space, and found all the waitstaff to all be equally as good.
One thing I will mention, as an introvert, is that I prefer to eat at a table for two, not a table for eight. The tables are very close together so even the table for two sometimes seems like a table for four or eight, which means you feel obliged to say hello to people next to you out of politeness. I loved being seated next to europeans who would just say hello and then either go back to conversing in their native tongue, or looking at the menu, rather than my nightmare scenario of being seated next to someone who just won’t shut up, especially at breakfast. You know who you are ;)
Tip 1: the “always available” dishes from the main dining room (shrimp cocktail, escargots, caesar salad, onion soup, chicken, steak and salmon) are also available every day in Blu. I also recommend the frogs legs, smoked trout, the filet mignon and the entree salads, which were usually lean grilled, steak, pork or other protein along with really good leaves.
Tip 2: dress code in Blu is always “smart casual”. On formal night some people dress up formally in Blu, some don’t, and you will look just fine whatever you wear.
Every cruise has a “sick of it” night, when you just can’t face one more four course sit down dinner. That’s the night we head to the buffet for a good stir fry for him, and a good curry for her, and both were pretty decent. That was the only time we ventured into the buffet this cruise. Perhaps it had something to do with a man sitting with his feet up on one of the tables near us….yuk.
Bistro on Five
On Silhouette I loved Bistro on Five as even though it was a creperie and I am not a crepe fan, it had lots of really good entree salads on the menu too. On Constellation it was a bit disappointing as they only had a chopped salad and a chicken caesar salad, and I am a real leafy spinachy and arugula loving girl. I tried both salads, but the chopped salad was bland and the chicken caesar had slivers of chicken that were so thin and crispy it was hard to tell them from the croutons, so both were disappointing. I really missed the steak, tomato and arugula salad from Silhouette. What irked though was that the crepe garnish was arugula and tomatoes, and people invariably left it uneaten on their plates. The chicken soup and garlic bread was good, but it wasn’t worth it for me to pay $7 (yes the price has gone up from $5) just for soup. I’m not quite sure what they were thinking with dessert, but this english person has never before been served a trifle with the sponge used as a garnish on top of the cream! Did they forget to put it in with the jelly layer? It was truly bizarre. So the disappointing food and the price increase, coupled with show tunes played so loudly that it was hard to hear what anyone said, made Bistro on Five a miss this time round.
Cafe al Bacio
My home from home. The big yellow chairs by the window are my favourite place to sit and veg and drink endless lattes and perriers! The staff in here are always excellent, and it was a pleasure to see Zora working there again.
Tip: Although you have to pay for drinks here the pastries are free and can also be packed to go. Also they have a box of chocolates on the counter that you can choose from, a sort of DIY pillow chocolate!
On this cruise I don’t think the speciality restaurants were selling well as we seemed to be continually hassled, while we were trying to have a quiet drink, by waiters and maitre d’s trying to get us to eat in either the Tuscan Grill or Ocean Liners. The truth is they are way overpriced now at $45 and $50 respectively, and I find the food there is too heavy, and the portions are so large that I can only manage one or two courses, so even with a 20 or 30% discount it just isn’t value for money for me. Also this cruise was probably my 15th on Celebrity, so it’s a case of “been there, done that”, and unless the prices are halved or they create an interesting new dining venue for me to try, I probably won’t bother with speciality restaurants again.
We only used room service for breakfast, and it was usually on time, ok early. (Note to Celebrity… we really didn’t appreciate it arriving at 5:40am when we had ordered it for 6am, the first St Petersburg day, nor the second St Petersburg day when we ordered it for 7am and it never appeared at all!).
They still have live music on board! Yay! We had Mickey Illardi, a guitarist singer, a really good string trio Gran Volta, Emily and the Nightcaps, the party band and what I presume is meant to define “modern luxury”, a “DJ Duo”, DJ Denkoff and Lady Sax, basically a Miami DJs but with sax not drummers, or sax karaoke with a flat sax playing over a tedious techno sort of drum beat if you will. DJ D and LS were predominantly anchored in either the Martini Bar or up in the sky lounge, but occasionally they played in the atrium and the noise was impossible to avoid. The Martini Bar seemed to thrive on it, Cafe al Bacio did not.
Entertainment and Activities
I didn’t go to many shows and the ones I went to I never stayed beyond a few minutes, it’s not that they were necessarily bad, just not my thing. There were late night parties in the sky lounge and occasionally on the pool deck, but again this was a port intensive itinerary and we were tired. We did enjoy some of the lectures on the history of the Baltic by Lisa Didier. Other activities either had a fee (wine tasting, malt tasting, tequila tasting and some fitness activities) or ended up with a selling opportunity, galley tours finishing in Ocean Liners with a hard sell on speciality restaurants, a faberge egg lecture that ended with, surprise, surprise a faberge egg sale! They were promoting shopping sales, unveilings and extavaganzas, health and beauty lectures with product sales at the end, and of course Park West was on board.
Tip: Back row on the aisle is a great seat for sneaking out of the theatre, unnoticed, after 10 minutes, even if it’s a comedy show!
We had lots of on board credit to burn so decided to book some massages. The new spa services provider is Canyon Ranch and the prices have gone up. I had two massages, the husband had three, as they were offering a fifth one free if you booked four. They no longer offer couples massages as they said they didn’t have rooms large enough, so the treatment space must have had a total redesign, (or Elemis had “tardis" rooms before!) as we have had them on Constellation before. The massages were nice, and yes there were annoying product pitches at the end, but a polite “No thank you” ended it quickly, for the first massage although the second needed a snappy retort to “These massage balls won’t take up much space in your suitcase”, of “They wont be taking up any space at all as I don’t want them” to cut that short!
Elite Plus Benefits
We really liked having 200 free internet minutes each and 2 free loads of laundry each. We didn’t use any of the other coupons.The free teas and coffees in Cafe al Bacio were already covered with our drinks package. We never made it to the Elite breakfast as we either ate in Blu or got room service, but we did enjoy a couple of evenings in the sky lounge at the Elite cocktail hour. The Elite afternoon tea held one day in Blu was also very nice. Excellent scones!
Our roll call was a little quiet and used more for the planning of private tours than for chit-chat. There were not a large number of participants online, so it was nice to see so many of them actually come to the Connections party, which was hosted by the Captain and his Activities Manager, and held in the Tuscan Grill on the morning of the first sea day. Celebrity provided drinks and pastries and everyone seemed to have a nice time getting to meet each other in person. I think this was one of the best attended and most successful Connections parties I’ve been to.
123 Go Package
We had booked this cruise on board a previous cruise and had received on board credit and a classic alcohol beverage package, which we paid to upgrade to the premium package. I was happy with the choice of drinks that were covered and liked not having to sign for every drink I ordered. Was it worth it? For me yes as I drink a lot of Perrier and lattes, and have usually got more than half my monies worth before I touch a drop of alcohol :) I think I beat the package 10 out of 12 days, the exceptions being the long day at Warnemunde and the first day in St Petersburg which was a long day of touring followed by dinner off the ship, LOL.
Here’s what I noticed…
Pillow chocolates have gone, replaced by a single foil-wrapped chocolate covered oreo cookie that appeared only once, on the first formal night. DIY pillow chocolates available at Cafe al Bacio :)
I am allergic to flowers, but the steward said it wasn’t a problem as they no longer put flowers in the cabins as they “have had trouble finding a reliable supplier in Europe”. The Captain’s Club did still send a vase of roses, which I donated to another cabin.
What is and isn’t included in the beverage package has changed. I drink a Pouille Fuisse in Blu with dinner. Previously (as recently as February) it was right on the $11 limit for wine by the glass in the premium package. Now the limit has been raised to $13 but that particular wine is now priced at $13.50, so I had to pay a surcharge of 50c a glass.
Speciality restaurant prices are extremely high now.
We did tours in every port and booked them through SPB tours online. Overall we found them to be very well organised, the guides were excellent, the drivers safe and the vehicles modern and clean, and would not hesitate to recommend SPB. Vika, the owner of the company, made a point of trying to greet each person booked with SPB in St Petersburg, which I thought was a nice touch. With hindsight some ports we could have easily done ourselves using the hop on hop off bus, instead of taking a tour. Here’s what we did.
This was advertised as “an easier alternative to Berlin”, and was definitely billed as a walking tour that used public transport, but I think some people read “easy” and stopped there. We had people on the tour who were unable to walk quickly or for long distances, and younger people who wanted to walk faster, so it made it difficult for the guide to keep everyone together. The day we took this tour there was a severe weather warning for Warnemunde, so our itinerary was rearranged with the intention of keeping us safe and dry on a train until the weather improved, and I have to say it worked. We had a quick look at Warnemunde, had lunch arranged in a restaurant, saw the inside and the grounds of Schwerin castle and then a walk around Rostock. The champagne at the end of the tour was a nice touch.
Tip: Read the literature. It says public transport and walking so don’t complain when that’s what you get!
Old Town Tallinn and Kadriorg-Pirita.
We loved Tallinn and our tour included the old town, a palace and it’s grounds, and pies for lunch. I hadn’t realised lunch was included, so that was a nice surprise!
St Petersburg Deluxe 2 Day Tour.
St Petersburg is pretty much the main reason people take a Baltic cruise. We had a private tour for 6 version of the Deluxe 2 day tour. I had hoped we could customise it on the day, staying longer at places that interested us more, shorter at places that didn’t, but we couldn’t, as we had timed admission tickets, but at least we walked straight into places. We saw pretty much everything that’s on a “must see in St Petersburg” list. Day 1 we rode on the metro, saw the Peter and Paul Fortress, Peterhof and the Catherine Palace. We didn’t have lunch until 2pm which was way too late as we had breakfast at 6am that morning to ensure we were near the front of the disembarkation line. We were served a 4 course lunch at a new place SPB was trying. It was OK but we didn’t want to eat too much as it was late and we had 7:15 dinner reservations at Sadko that night using their “Night on the Town” option.
Despite initially thinking we were crazy for making evening plans after such a hectic day, we gritted our teeth, showered, changed in 30 minutes and headed back out. We really enjoyed our evening and had the restaurant to ourselves, (watched over by our taxi driver to make sure we didn’t sneak out the back door unaccompanied!), and had the best Chicken Kiev and Beef Stroganoff ever!!
Day 2 started with a scenic boat ride followed by a visit to the Hermitage. We had lunch in a pie shop which was good, followed by visits to the Church On The Spilled Blood, St Isaacs Cathedral and the Yusupov Palace. We like to wander off and take photos but it was impossible to do that in St Petersburg, probably because we were on the blanket tourist visa and they wanted to keep us on a tight rein.
Tip 1: Much has been said about whether private tours disembark after Celebrity tours in St Petersburg. They don’t. The Celebrity tours meet at the theatre and disembark through the deck 1 forward gangway, other passengers disembark through the deck 1 midships gangway. The official time for the ship to clear is 8am, people started queueing at the midships deck 2 stairwell (as low as we could go) at 7am. We were able to disembark around 7:30, and were cleared through immigration by 8am. The only advantage the ship tours had was that the immigration hall was slightly closer the the forward gangway than the midships one, after that it was pretty much the luck of the draw as to whether you picked a slow line or a fast one.
Tip 2: Bathroom stops are often in souvenir shops, but you are not required to pay to use them or to buy anything.
Tip 3: It never hurts to have local currency. The pie shop in St Petersburg didn’t accept credit cards or Euros as some other tourists unfortunately discovered. We had local currency and were also able to buy an ice cream at Peterhof from the kiosk that only accepted rubles!
Tip 4: The Cappuccino ice cream on a stick at the ice cream kiosk at Peterhof is delicious!
5 Hour Panoramic Helsinki and Seurasaari Island
SPB offered two tours here, a 3 hour Helsinki tour and this, the 3 hour Helsinki tour plus a walking tour of Seeurasaari island which was a living history museum. Unfortunately some people on our tour booked it at the last minute in St Petersburg and unbelievably thought they were getting a 5 hour Helsinki tour… Some came in unsuitable shoes for walking, others were incapable of walking long distances, and when we got to the island said they didn’t want to walk in a forest, they wanted to go back and see Helsinki. I booked the tour because I wanted to see both. I felt the guide was put in a very difficult position because I was not prepared to forgo walking around the forest because other people didn’t want to. Our guide compromised and left them in a tearoom while my husband and I and one other gentleman did the forest walk and saw the historic buildings, which were really interesting. Perhaps the description should have be more specific “3 hours in Helsinki, plus 2 hour walking tour around museum in forest”.
Tip: Wear walking shoes for a walking tour and do your homework and read what tour you are actually taking!
Panoramic Tour Stockholm
This was a great tour with a brilliant guide, Elisabeth. The City Hall and the Vasa Museum were amazing. I liked that there was 1 hour free time at the end, so we could shop, eat lunch locally or go in the museum.
Tip 1: Don’t miss the Vasa museum!
Tip 2: The elk burger at The Black Sheep restaurant is highly recommended.
This was the only tour that I felt was disorganised. The port was chaotic when we arrived, as a lot of us disembarked earlier than we needed to, and the disembarkation instructions were vague and it was hard to know where exactly to meet the guide.When we finally did find our bus and guide, we had to drive over to the Volendam to pick up 3 passengers from that ship. We waited for about half an hour but they never appeared. It was very irritating. The tour started late, but finished at the advertised time, so we lost about 20 minutes of what would have been free time. I was disappointed we didn’t get to see the famous street with the canal. We drove by it quickly but didn’t get chance to take the photos I wanted to.
Tour Tip 1: I know none of us like to admit that we are getting older and perhaps can’t walk as far as we used to, or stand for a long time, but to be fair to other people we really should accept our limitations and only book tours that we are physically able to fully participate in. If you are no longer able to walk for long distances, please don’t book a walking tour that requires you to be on your feet for long periods of time, it’s not fair on you and not fair on other people on the tour. Instead check out the “panoramic” bus tours the cruise line offers that cater to people with mobility issues and will allow you to see sights at a slower pace with more time on the bus to get you closer to the points of interest and less time spent walking to them.
Tip 2: Read the description of the tour you are booking so you know what to expect!
There is no room service on the last morning so options were the buffet (zoo), dining room (zoo with assigned seating), or in our case Blu. Cabins have to be vacated by 8am. We had a disembarkation time of 8:30 but were called at 8am. Bags were easy to find and there was an abundance of taxis waiting outside the terminal. Amsterdam is a really well organised port.
On this cruise we never got a mid-cruise “tell us how we’re doing” survey. To be honest the answer would have been “Very well, thanks for asking”. We were told that the end of cruise paper survey had been discontinued and that we would receive a link to an online survey once we were back home. I made a note of crew members I wanted to single out for praise for exceptional service, but neither myself or my husband ever received a survey in our email. (Celebrity advertising materials have no problems finding our inbox though!). Checking back on our roll call some people received them, others didn’t. I found it very disappointing at how hit and miss this was, and that mine never materialised.
We spent 4 days post-cruise in Amsterdam, staying again at the Marriott. We decided that we would have 4 days of down time, and enjoyed a daily walk in the Vondelpark, an excellent guided tour of the Rijksmuseum, a canal boat ride, a visit to the Westerkerk with a climb up the bell tower and a lovely free organ concert, a lot of wandering around and some fabulous ethnic food.
This is a fantastic itinerary but very tiring. There are two one hour time change between Germany and Russia, which felt exhausting after still trying to acclimatise to the 6 hour time difference between the USA and Amsterdam. We forfeited nightlife for getting a good night’s sleep so we could get the most out of our port visits. We were very fortunate to have excellent weather for the whole cruise, and in St Petersburg and Tallinn, the “hottest weather in 30 years”. We found the Constellation to be in excellent condition, her crew were friendly and helpful, the food was excellent and there were plenty of activities and entertainment if you were interested in it. All in all an excellent cruise.