Holland America gets it right with excellent service and superb food. I was hard pressed to find fault with anything on board ship, so my review centers around the ports….all of which were excellent. It was a great itinerary that gave you a good taste of Northern Europe and the Baltic. In many ports we had some difficulty with our American credit cards that don’t have a chip or a PIN. Debit cards seemed to work fine.
Despite the fact that the Eurodam was the only ship in port that day tickets were sold out as early as 8:15 AM for the famous Flam Railway. Fortunately, after many hours online, I found a way to purchase tickets for my family of 4 in advance. Our plan was to ride up and bike down. I also booked the bikes (at the top in Myrdal).
If you are planning on biking down to Flåm and only going one way by train, it is possible to purchase tickets at the national state railways website, https://www.nsb.no/en/. The earliest departure is 8.35 and another at 9.45 AM.
The website www.visitflam.com is only for booking round trips. It is imperative that you purchase your tickets advance, as this excursion is really the only game in town and will sell out quickly. The ticket office opens at 8.00 in the morning.
We purchased tickets for the 8:30 AM train and the ship arrived around 7 AM. Flam was the most picturesque port I had ever seen. A village of about 450, it was postcard perfect in every way. The ship docks at the base of Flam with a supermarket, a fantastic sweater/souvenir store which has a HUGE selection of beautiful Norwegian sweaters (reasonably priced given the high quality), restaurants and of course the Flam Railway station. Everything is right there, no more than a 5 min walk. We got to the train station by 8 AM (30 minutes before the train was scheduled to leave) and there was already a very long line of people trying to purchase tickets. The pre-paid ticket line is the farthest over to the right and still we had to wait about 30 minutes. By 8 AM all of the tickets had been sold out except for a few one way tickets and of course tickets after the cruise departs. There were a lot of disappointed people.
The ride up was beautiful with many stops along the way at small railway stations. One of the last stops before reaching Myrdal, if not the last, was at a mountain hotel for waffles. I thought we’d hit it on the way down, but we never did. Everything I read about it said it was a nice stop, but our bike trail didn’t take us past the hotel. At the top were of course rest rooms, a café and lots of people appropriately dressed for biking (bike pants, winter hats, fleeces, lightweight jackets, etc). They were all congregating at the café...not sure what they were waiting for... perhaps another train. It was probably 55 degrees and breezy. We located our bike rental guy without any difficulty.
We are a family of 4 with kids age 11 and 9 and I myself am not that experienced riding on gravel, down steep hills with hair pin turns so we walked our bikes down the first mile. It was steep, but my husband who bikes to work every day could have handled it no problem. The trail was not at all crowded and we were alone most of the time. After the gravel zig zag road, the gentle ride down on a paved path will amaze and entertain you with beautiful waterfalls, rushing rivers, lush, and green mountains. We stopped at a goat cheese farm (Rollarrosa which opened at 11 AM on your right). You can’t miss it as it is the only farm open to the public. We enjoyed a cheese plate and a pancake for $60.00. Get used to the high prices in Norway. The ride down took us about 2 hours with many stops along the way for scenic photos. This was one of our favorite excursions.
At the bottom, we dropped our bikes off at the train station by the ship. On our way down we noticed a sign that read “No Cruise Shit!” and another one that could be seen from the ship that read “No Cruise Ship.” When we asked a cruise officer about the signs he stated that Flam is not crazy about cruise ships coming into port and ruining their beautiful natural landscape. The residents are not necessarily in favor of spoiling their natural, scenic landscape for the economic infusion that thousands of cruise passengers bring. After seeing Flam, I can’t say that I blame them, although I think there is a classier way of saying “No Cruise Shit.”
My advice for Flam: Avoid the high mark-up that cruise ships charge for the Flam railway and pre purchase your tickets at half the price. Try and get the 8:30 so you are back on the ship for lunch then go back out for some shopping. If you are fit enough, definitely bike down, you won’t regret it and you’ll feel much closer to the beautiful, natural surroundings.
I can’t tell you the hours and hours I spent researching how to climb Pulpit Rock with little to no success. We finally determined that it would be impossible because we were only in port for 8 hours (9 – 5) and all the sites said you can’t climb it unless you are in port for a minimum of 10 hours. Holland added a Pulpit hike excursion at the last minute and we bit the bullet and signed up. We paid twice as much as what it would cost us if we did it on our own, but time was not on our side.
Since we needed every minute, we were the first group off. Everyone was provided an ample box lunch and a bottle of water, but bring extra water. We boarded 2 busses (80 people) and took a 5 minute ride down the street to the ferry terminal. The bus drove on the ferry. After the 30 minute ferry ride, it was another 20 minute drive to the base of Pulpit.
Although ages varied, everyone on this excursion was physically fit, and we got quite a lecture on climbing Pulpit from our guide Anna. The hike starts with about 20 minutes in a “forest” up a dirt pathway. Then you begin the 3 mile hike over large rocks/boulders. There are 2 seep sections each about 15 – 20 minutes where you are climbing on rocks set up like a steep staircase. I would say only 5% is “a gentle walk on a wooden path through the meadow.” As you got closer to the top, you were walking on huge rock surfaces. I’m 50 and not an experienced hiker, so I was a bit concerned.
Anna was firm about our time constraints. It would take 2 hours up, with only 15 minutes at the top and we must start our descent at 12:15 in order to make it to the bus by 2:15 with a 2:30 departure time. The weather was in the 60’s with chance of rain which worried me because everything that I had read stated that the rocks become slippery when wet.
The narrow route up (about as wide as a double sidewalk) is the same route down, so you are constantly in front of and behind lots of people. There are places to stop if you need a break or to take a photo, but in some locations you need to keep going because the path is too narrow. As we began our climb, the group spread out quickly; the quicker people charged ahead.
Everyone was dressed property with hiking boots or sneakers, pants, a fleece and/or rain coat. Anna was right, there are 2 steep sections, but surprisingly they are not bad. I don’t have great balance and not crazy about walking on rocks, but there is a rock/stone/boulder path (and in some cases a steep staircase made of large rocks) that has been created for hikers to make it as easy as possible (I have no idea how that was constructed).
People are patient with one another and the hike is very enjoyable, although you are constantly looking down to figure out where to set your foot. Remember to stop and take in the unbelievably gorgeous view. About 3⁄4 of the way up, it began to rain, never more than a light drizzle, but enough to wet the rocks. They are not as slippery as I had feared. At the top, the wind is very strong and many of us did not dare go near the edge because of the wind. My kids stood in the crack, where over time, about half of the top of Pulpit will surely fall into the fjord. The top is much smaller than it appears in photos. It is now raining, cold and windy, so we don’t stay long (maybe about 10 minutes). I’m a little concerned that the slippery walk back might require more time, so I head back.
No desire to eat lunch in the rain, but 20 minutes later on a huge boulder we stop for a 10 minute lunch once the rain stopped. The last mile, although gradual was difficult because your knees and legs are tired. Your head is down the whole way, looking for the next rock to place your foot. We made it up in 1 hour 40 min (my kids in 1 hour 30 min) and down in the same time. Everyone made it down safely and on the bus heading back to the ship by 2:30. I couldn’t help but wonder what happens if there is an injury. Twisting an ankle would be so easy, it must be a miserable way down. I’m told they do helicopter airlifts for more serious injuries. Thankfully, we never found out. I’m glad Pulpit was in the beginning of the 10 day cruise before the extra 12 pounds.
My advice for Stavenger: If you really want to see the fjords, you have to hike Pulpit. Dress appropriately (in layers) and bring a backpack, extra water and wear hiking boots/sneakers...no open toed footwear. The weather is always cloudy with chance of rain, and every day on our cruise it rained for about 30 minutes so be prepared. Stavenger also has a cute town where the ship pulls right in (bars, restaurants, shops, playground, etc). It is worth exploring which we did in the evening, because the ship stayed overnight.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get a lot of time here because we had to berth in Stavenger overnight to wait out Hurricane Bertha. Instead of leaving at 5 PM we left at 5 AM the next morning and arrived in Kirkenstad at 3:30 PM with a departure time of about 6 PM. We walked around the harbor area, saw the fort and strolled down the shopping streets dedicated to pedestrians. It was a nice town, but we didn’t go to the water park as planned . This location is great for clothes shopping if you have teens.
Here we opted for the Hop On Hop Off which comes directly to the boat. It was raining (only for about 45 minutes) and than again later for about 30 minutes so the hop on hop off seemed to be a good option. It took us through the downtown streets with lots of shops/office buildings and we got off at the ski jump location where we had to take a train (up a steep hill and through beautiful neighborhoods). We walked about 15 minutes up to the ski jump and museum. We took a ride in the simulator (which I must admit, my husband and I got a little motion sick toward the end). It was basically an enclosed gondola that took you down a simulated slalom ski run and on a ski jump. The visuals are dated, so don’t expect a Disney experience, but it gives you a decent idea of what it is like to travel that fast down a mountain.
Inside the ski museum we took an elevator to the top of the ski jump where we got an outdoor panoramic view of Oslo with our cruise ship off in the distance. We walked back down to the train station and rode down to the center of town to pick up our Hop On Hop Of. Next stop was the Vigeland Sculpture Park. Vigeland is a very pretty park that you can do in 30 minutes. Unfortunately, our wait for the Hop On Hop Off to leave Vigeland was about as long. Only time for one more stop and our must see attraction the Kon TIki Museum detailing the adventure of Thor Heyerdahl’s expedition on a balsawood raft from Peru to Polynesia in 1947. Fortunately, we had shown our kids the Kon Tiki documentary so they knew what they were seeing. It was amazing to see it up close and person. Keeping our eye on the clock, back on Hop On Hop Off and back to the ship.
My advice for Oslo: Do the Hop On Hop Off if you want to get a quick bird’s eye view of the city. Don’t miss the Kon Tiki museum, but make sure you see the award winning documentary before going as they only show it once a day in the museum. You’ll have a much deeper appreciation for the men and their voyage after seeing the Kon Tiki in person. The sculpture park was lovely, but the wait for hop on hop off was a drag....maybe it was just bad timing on our part. Avoid the ski jump if you are afraid of heights or can’t walk up steep hills as the walk from the train station to the ski jump museum is up hill about 15 minutes.
We docked a bit further away next to the Volvo museum and enjoyed a complimentary shuttle into the center of town. We gave the kids a break today and took them to Leisberg...and large amusement park. Once off the complimentary shuttle we figured out how to take the train/trolley 10 minutes to the amusement park. We arrived at Leisberg at 10 AM and they don’t open to the public until 11 AM so we waited. We purchased an all-day pass for the kids and there were some very good rides in the park. The park is quite pretty with floral landscape. It reminded me of a little Disney World. My son and husband LOVED the wooden rollercoaster which was quite good. Other rides were very good as well and the kids enjoyed the park. Back on the train/trolley to catch the complimentary shuttle by 3 PM and on the ship at 3:30 for departure at 4:30.
My advice for Gothenburg: If you are going to Leisberg, take your time and get there when the park opens at 11 AM. It is a good family take-in and a nice break from the museums and other adult cultural stops you’ll force the kids to suffer through.
Here again, we decided to do the Hop On Hop Off to get a bird’s eye view of what we wanted to come back to at the end of our cruise for our overnight layover. Our initial intent was to ride the whole tour without getting off, but we couldn’t
resist Stroget, the world’s longest pedestrian street full of shops and restaurants which then led us to the famous and often photographed Nyhaven. It is truly a picturesque street of cafes/bars along the canal.
We found the happy wall where people leave messages on wooden panels that open and close like small doors. From
there we walked to Tivoli garden and were surprised that it is entirely walled off and we had to walk around the entire garden in order to find the entrance to pay for admission to the park and rides. We opted to save it for next time since we only had 2 hours left and still had to had to take Hop On Hop Off about 40 minutes to the Little Mermaid stop where we would have to wait up to 45 minutes in order to catch a complimentary shuttle (20 minute ride) back to the boat. In retrospect, we should have done Tivoli and taken a cab back to the boat, but we thought we could finish our Hop On Hop Off tour and get a few more nuggets of information on Copenhagen.
Walt Disney could not have built a more picturesque, cobblestone village. It was so quaint and pretty and well maintained. We docked in Tallinn and walked 20 minutes through some unattractive hints of Soviet occupation before we reached the entrance into the old town next to the church with an observatory tower. We went through the gate of the old city, along the cobble stone streets (hint: wear comfortable walking shoes) passed shops and restaurants. The city was just waking up as it was about 8:30 AM and nothing was open yet. It began to rain and none of us were prepared because we left the ship under blue skies. (Note to self: it rained for a few minutes every day during our 12-day cruise in Northern Europe so take an umbrella or light rain coat everywhere). We took refuge under café umbrellas that were starting to leak when a kind gentleman opened the door to his subterranean restaurant Wana Wiipuri (Pikk 33 street in Tallinn) and invited us in to stay dry. Before we knew it he ushered us (a party of 7) into a private dining room and served us coffee, Coke and water. His name was Heinrick and he was eager to meet us and tell us about his newly opened restaurant. We visited for about 40 minutes and once the rain let up I paid him for the coffee which he never charged us for. We were all touched by his hospitality that we promised to return for lunch later that day. We enjoyed walking the cobble stone streets and looking up at the beautifully maintained buildings from long ago. The city was beginning to come alive, restaurants and shops and cafes had opened, waiters standing outside dressed in clothes of yesteryear speaking with tourists and warmly giving directions and advice on where to go and what to see. Tallinn looked like it was out of a fairytale village that Disney animated artists had created. There was plenty of shopping, especially in the town squares, where vendors had set up an outdoor market. Prices were very reasonable. Woolen hats, mittens, sweaters were plentiful. Wooden souvenirs like kids’ toys, cheese knives, cheese boards, trivets were hand crafted and lots to choose from. Back to Wana Wiipuri for lunch that did not disappoint. Heinrick was happy to see us and saved his best waiter Igor, who spoke perfect English, for us. He welcomed us with complimentary vodka shots and we dined on typical Tallinn appetizers of pickles and pickled onion shoots with a dipping sauce. The food was fresh and delicious. Everyone enjoyed their meal and the warm hospitality Henrick and Igor provided.
On our way back to the ship we went to a wonderful chocolate shop across the street from Wana Wiipuri and climbed the observation tower of the church. The climb is not for claustrophobics or people with knee problems. It consisted of about 150 – 200 steps (a ladder type climb at one point) to the top of the tower where you walked around outside and got a spectacular view of Tallinn. It was crowded as the stairway was narrow about 4 feet wide at best and people were coming up and down simultaneously. Often times you had to wait for people to pass before you could proceed.
My advice for Tallinn: Walk around the city, bear in mind it doesn’t really wake up until about 10, but enjoy a café while you are waiting. The streets are easy to navigate, just wander and let yourself get lost. There are few cars in the old section, so walking in the street is fine. Prices are a welcome change from Norway, so indulge yourself in a sweater or souvenir. Don’t miss lunch at Wana Wiipuri and if you are game, climb to the top of the church tower only a few minutes from Wana Wiipuri. We found the people to be extremely warm and hospitable and English was not a problem. This was a great port.
I had booked rental bikes a month in advance from Helsinki Cityride only to receive an email 1 week prior to arrival in Helsinki that they couldn’t honor my reservation. A bit disappointed, but on to plan B. Our group of seven took the complimentary shuttle into town and we began walking toward the harbor. Lots of cafes along the way and a nice outdoor market selling all kinds of breakfast and luncheon foods as well as souvenirs like animal fur hides, handmade mittens/hats, T shirts. It was nice meandering through and looking at all the beautiful fruits and local delicacies which the vendors were kind enough to offer samples of. We ended up at the ferris wheel with enclosed cars (Helsinki’s version of the London Eye). It opened at 10 AM and we enjoyed a few times around and got a good view of the city and a rather funny statue of a 40 foot tall, old man peeing. Naturally, the kids got a kick out of that. Only minutes from the Helsinki Cathedral we meandered over, climbed the steps and peeked in. During our daily drizzle, we walked about 30 minutes to the church built into the side of a rock aptly called Rock Church (or Temppeliaukion Church). We went in to
check that out.
We tried looking for a particular restaurant and got hopelessly lost, but enjoyed our 45 minute walk and ended up at a traditional Finish restaurant. Everyone said you have to see Sibelius Monument dedicated to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. It was in a very remote area of the city. We figured out how to take the public transportation and then walk 20 minutes to a rather unattractive location. Once we got there, we were all a bit disappointed and unanimously decided that it was not worth the 45 minutes it took us to get there. Tired after quite a bit of walking, we caught a public bus to the center of town to catch the complimentary shuttle just before the rain arrived.
My advice for Helsinki: Definitely take the complimentary shuttle, explore the outdoor market, take a ride on the ferris wheel and check out the two churches (Helsinki Cathedral and Rock Church) then call it a day. There really is just not that much to do.
ST PETERSBURG. Russia
Avoid the high cost of HAL’s large bus tours and the hassle and expense of getting your own visa and contact TJ Tours http://st-petersburg-tours.ru/. I found Tatiana, the owner, to be extremely friendly, competent and professional. For the reasonable price of $315/adult and $280/child for a 2 day tour with a private van, dedicated driver and English speaking tour guide. Our guide was Ksenia and we thought she was excellent. Our tour lasted from 8 AM – 5 PM both days and we opted to sign up for dinner with a Russian family at their home for $55/person….worth every penny. Dining with the Russian family was the highlight of the entire trip! Don’t miss out on this wonderful experience.
When the ship docks you immediately go through immigration. Expect long lines and delays. It took us over 30 minutes to get through immigration and all kiosks were open. There are separate lines for each kiosk so just pick one and wait. The HAL staff is on hand to make sure it goes as smoothly as possible, but there is really not much they can do to speed up the process...this is Russia after all! Once through and past the kitschy souvenir shops, Tatiana, the owner, was waiting with several of her guides. We started our tour hitting all the sights that I had outlined via email months in advance. We chose to see: Peterhof by hydrofoil, the upper gardens and lower parks. We did not go into the palace. We had a traditional Russian lunch at an out of the way restaurant. The food and service was excellent. Next was a master class of Matreshka doll painting, but my son was fighting a cold and we preferred to go to a typical Russian supermarket (similar to Wal-Mart). My husband was severely scolded by the security officer for taking photos. We returned to the ship to freshen up before our 7 PM pick up for dinner with a Russian family. We had the privilege of seeing a typical Russian apartment and met a lovely woman, Olga who made us a lovely meal and we talked about Russian life. Everyone agreed, it was the highlight of the trip. On the way back, it was 9:30 PM and there was only 1 immigration window open allowing people back on the ship. Russia can and should do a much better job with their immigration procedure. Day 2, we met at 8 AM and caught a boat ride for a guided tour of the rivers and canals, then to the Hermitage museum where our English guide gave us a private tour, traditional lunch at a sandwich shop and a visit to the Church of the Spilt Blood. We were taken to TJ Travel’s office to pay Tatiana. Everyone was extremely happy with the tour guide, driver and the entire experience. To have TJ handle visas, transportation and provide a tailor made tour is worth every penny. Don’t do Russia any other way. Each day, we had one or two obligatory stops at a tacky souvenir shop that provided free vodka and coffee. A small price to pay in my opinion.
My advice for St. Petersburg: Use TJ Tours…sit back, relax and enjoy….enough said.
The city is about 2 hours from the port of Warnemunde. We used ToursByLocals.com and had an excellent tour guide. Months in advance I crafted our own itinerary which included pick up at 8 AM, a 2 hour drive to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp where our ToursByLocals tour guide gave us a complete guided tour through the camp, then off to Berlin where we saw the Berlin wall and a section of “no man’s land.” We also saw the site of Hitler’s former bunker, the memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, through Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, a quick stop at a museum and a church and then said goodbye to our tour guide and the driver took us back to the ship (2 hour drive). Our group of 7 traveled very comfortably and the tour cost approx. $1300 for all 7 which included admission to museums, the camp, the driver and tour guide.
My advice for Berlin: Use ToursByLocals. They provide extremely friendly and professional guides. You get to craft your own day and see Berlin the way you want to see it.
This was our last stop before ending the cruise in Copenhagen and I didn’t think our group would be up for another long day in the car with a 2 hour drive to Hamburg. We walked around Kiel which had lots of shops and malls. It is heaven if you are a shopper. The one cool thing we did find was in the church which has an observatory tower that is only open 2 days a week. The tower was closed, but adjoining the building is a government office which has a set of continuously moving elevators without doors. You’d think my kids and husband were in Disney Land. They got the biggest kick out of jumping on and off the elevators and riding them up a floor or two. You’ll never see anything like it in the States, so check it out. We were back on the ship by lunch.
My advice for Kiel: Had it been a nice beach day we would have gone to the beach because it looked beautiful. Unfortunately, it was cool and rainy.