I wanted to write a review to help others as I found this forum and website VERY informative when researching my first cruise. So to begin with, thank you! Hopefully I can give further information to new cruisers. :)
We chose the Brilliance not for the ship, but for the ports of call and the timing was just right with the school holidays in Australia. As newbies, we didn't know what to expect and were guided somewhat by my travel agent.
We travelled as a young family, myself 43, DH, 45 and two children, 13 and 9 years of age. It had always been a dream of mine to visit St Petersburg and see some of Scandinavia so we thought the easiest way to do this would be by cruising.
To start, we flew into London and stayed there for two nights as we had jetlag to contend with. We caught a train from London Liverpool St station, to Harwich International with the quick, scrambling change at Manningtree. After our cruise, we had booked another fortnight in Europe so we had some rather big piece of luggage with us. Mistake number one! Anyway, we got to Harwich easily and the train to Harwich waited for us all at Manningtree (we thought we might miss the connection, so no problems there). Check in at Harwich was very easy and straightforward, and we looked a bit lost and confused and there was someone to greet us and point us in the right direction. Check in was reasonably quick, even with the queues, so that was great.
We boarded the ship and we were advised to go and book in a time for our dinner (we had pre-paid gratuities so were automatically "My Time Dining".) So we went to the dining room where we were greeted by a slightly assertive man (the maître d'?) and were told that we would have to book in at 7.30 as they were VERY busy. I was a tad confused as I thought the point of "My Time dining" was that I could choose?? It didn't seem the case, but as we were total newbies we just meekly said "OK" and made our way to the Windjammer buffet, which was already heaving with people but we managed to find four seats at the back.
We then went for a wander around the ship to see what was where, and then looked for our "stateroom". (cabin, but whatever!) We were surprised upon opening the door that it looked quite nice, and didn't look quite as small as I had thought. It had a little sofa and coffee table, so we felt comfortable in there...to begin with! We were on deck 3, so it was a midship oceanview. As new cruisers, I was worried about seasickness so was advised that this area was the best in case we hit rough waters. Anyway, the room seemed nice and our cabin attendant popped her head in and introduced herself to me and asked if we were new to cruising. I answered yes, and she explained some minor detail about the "do not disturb" cards that you can slot into the door. She then noticed there were four of us, so then came back later and set up the bunk beds which came down from the roof. So the bedding was arranged as one queen bed, then two Pullman bunks above the queen, on either side of the cabin with the ladders situated at the base of the queen. Getting a bit snug, by that point.....our luggage hadn't arrived yet so we went out to continue exploring our "home" for the next 12 nights.
We departed right on schedule at 5pm and were thrilled to be sent off by the sound of bagpipes on the shore! However the "sail away party" was a total fizzer and no-one was interested and very few people showed up. It was cold (for summer) and grey and started getting breezy, so that may have had something to do with it. Or maybe it was that most people were not really there to party, but to visit St Petersburg...I'll never know.
We discovered "adventure Ocean" for our 9 year old and filled in some details for her, and tried to check out the teen area, but it didn't seem that there was anyone there! So by that time, we headed off to dinner. We didn't wait long and were seated quickly. We hadn't purchased nay drinks packages so we just ordered wine and drinks off the menu but were presented with iced water as well. My 9 yo was handed a children's menu, so we ordered from that for her. The food was fine but I cannot remember what I ate, so it was unmemorable. The service from Rahul was very friendly and he seemed to take to my 13 yo, offering him extra bread and desserts with a smile. I left early with the 9yo, as we were still so jetlagged we just had to get to bed. Getting back to our cabin, it seemed to have shrunk, with our 4 large suitcases having arrived, and with a few backpacks, cameras, videos etc......
We were really only on the cruise to travel around, so we were not interested in getting dressed up for dinner, or shows, or souvenir photos or art auctions and shopping. As we were travelling from far away, we did not bother with any formal wear at all.
Our first full day was at sea, and we enjoyed kicking back and doing more exploring of the ship. We went to a talk about the ports on the first day, which was quite informative and recommended if you're cruising for the ports of call. But after that, there wasn't much else to do as it was very cold and windy, no-one was in the pools or on the decks, so it seemed a bit cramped in any indoors areas. The 9yo was in Adventure Ocean all day (it's open all day in port, but closes for an hour or so between each session on sea days). The 13 yo felt intimidated by the teen club, as there were a lot of teens that seemed to know each other and it didn't look like there was someone there to facilitate, so he never attended. All seas days for us were the same. Dropping off the 9yo at Adventure Ocean, and the rest of us just wandered aimlessly, looking for something to do. I enjoyed the trio in the atrium playing classical music, but seating was very limited. We always looked at the boards to see what was happening and where, but there was very little that interested us or that didn't cost extra $$$. So, sea days were tedious on one hand, but a welcome break from very intensive port days, too!
By the second day we realised we actually preferred to eat in the Windjammer, as I enjoyed the views and the selection was quite good. I also prefer to not have to sit and wait as I get restless easily! The food was as good as buffet food can be...it sits there stewing in its own juices, so you can't expect too much but it was OK. Initially I was very worried about hygiene at buffets, but there were hand sanitisers and a person at the door making sure you sanitised your hands. It didn't help once you were in the queue and eating with your hands from the plate, but hey, it's a start. The food was replenished often, and we didn't have problems finding seating as long as we went early or late. (we were still jetlagged, so were early birds!) The second evening was a formal night, and we wandered around looking at everyone dressed in their finest and having a bit of a giggle at how seriously some people were taking it. We wandered around in our jeans and hoodies, but we were still offered a glass of bubbly by a circulating waiter, who must have taken pity on us silly newbies!
We were very excited to arrive in Copenhagen, and thanks to the talk the previous day, learnt that it was a reasonably easy walk into the city so we skipped the hop on hop off and shuttle buses. (also, we were on a bit of a budget) Armed with a map from the ship, we made our way past the Little Mermaid, walked to Amelienborg, past Nyhavn and into the city centre. The walk back, however, got a bit tiring after walking all day, but we made it back OK. (just!)
Another sea day after Copenhagen, bored but at least it was a bit warmer and not as windy, so we could spread out a bit in the open areas. DH and 13 yo attended the Captain's talk, which they found interesting and informative.
Tallinn was another easy walk into the old city, which was lovely and the sun started shining and got a little warmer.
Then, the jewel, St Petersburg.
Most people had come to go to St Petersburg. You need to have a booked tour and a tour ticket with your passport to go through immigration. We were warned on the ship that the immigration officers could be stern, and they certainly were not wrong! It was a bit of a debacle getting off the ship, because most tours stated to meet off the ship at 7, and we weer still on the ship at 7am. Some people got upset and started arguing and pushing and shoving, which was not necessary. They were upset to see that those that had booked shore excursions from Royal Caribbean got priority getting off over the rest of us, so there was a fair bit of yelling which was ugly. A word of advice, SPB tours was great and very reasonably priced. It was easy to find them once we got through immigration and we had a fabulous two day tour. And yes, they wait for you even though it states to meet at 7am. They know we won't get through before 7.30....
There was a Russian folklore group in the theatre that night, but we were way too tired from our jam packed day to take advantage! One disappointment.
The second day in St Petersburg, we still had to go through immigration but it was a lot quicker, and the officer actually gave my daughter a small wink and smile, which was a HUGE difference to the previous day!
So, on to Helsinki the next day. This was the only port where we had booked a shore excursion through the cruise ship. It was very expensive, but I didn't want to regret it so I pressed ahead and booked. To make a comparison, it cost $250 for 4 hours in Helsinki with Royal shore excursions, and $250 for 2 full days with SPB tours in St Petersburg with all entry fees included. Go and do the maths! Anyway, we went to a national park for a bit of an easy walk through the forest, and at the end of it we could feed the reindeer and were given a cinnamon bun and coffee in a typical Lappish hut. It was fun and nice to see a bit of nature after several days of cities, culture, palaces and art, but it was very expensive for what you get, so not sure if it was worth it.
The bus took us back into the city and we were given shuttle bus tickets as we took one of the ship's excursions. The Kauppatori market was lovely and had some great lunch options and fresh berries.
Next stop, Stockholm. By this point we were very tired not having had any breaks, so we hoped to get a shuttle bus into Stockholm as the ship docked a bit too far from the city centre. But alas, we were told there were no shuttle buses! We had to get on a Hop On Hop off and we had to buy tickets in advance. So we rested up, put on our best walking shoes and walked in to the city. Again, it was fine walking into the city, but walking around all day and back was a chore. It was the most we had walked in any port so far, so I recommend trying to get a bus or taxi or Hop on Hop off if possible. Cruising out of Stockholm in the sunset was breathtakingly beautiful and it will stay with me forever...
Finally, a sea day that I was actually grateful for as my feet were very sore and were begging for mercy! Another Captain's talk and some lazing around.
Last port, sob, and we were back in Denmark. We were informed that there was a music festival in town, which sounded good, but when we got there you needed to buy day tickets, so it wasn't for us. Skagen is a beautiful small town and it seemed a holiday area for Danes. We enjoyed just walking around, poking into shops here and there and generally soaking up the atmosphere with the buskers all around and a lot of people there for the festival.
Then another final day at sea, and this is when things got a bit uncomfortable. Even though we had pre-paid gratuities, we were being encouraged to give even more in cash. As Australians, we are not used to tipping, so found this odd and it made us feel uncomfortable. We were also being asked about disembarkation and we had no idea, we just thought we'd walk off ourselves with our luggage, which was an option. But then we were told, after choosing this option, that we had to leave by 6am! But then someone else told us we could leave when we liked, as long as it was by 9am. So it was a bit of a confusing day for us.
We felt pressured to tip extra, so we gave some extra $$ to our room attendant, who really didn't go out of her way, just did the usual cleaning. I noted that some signs stated to contact my room attendant if I needed anything, but I had no idea how to! Was she supposed to have left me her contact details? I never really needed anything, so it wasn't an issue, but I felt that she diddled us by not leaving her details. She also did not leave us newsletters on the kids programs a few times, so I guess she could have been better, but I felt sorry that she had to attend to our cabin used by 4 people, and dodging wet washing hanging from the ladder rungs and everywhere I could hang things! So she did an OK job, I guess.
We did attend a few shows, they were OK but nothing spectacular. I also attended an enrichment talk. The first one literally put me to sleep (the rocking of the ship??) , but the second one was better.
In all, we really enjoyed our first cruise, the Baltic was often as smooth as glass, we were very fortunate to have had good weather throughout the entire cruise. No seasickness! We had dinner in the MDR only about 4 times. My 13 yo thought it a treat and he felt quite posh as we rarely go to restaurants at home, but I preferred the Windjammer. My 9yo loved Adventure Ocean so much, that she refused to get off the ship in Stockholm and Skagen, so a very big THANK YOU to the youth staff who were fabulous!
The ship was reasonably clean, I didn't have too much trouble with the cleanliness except for one spot in the Windjammer that looked like it had ice cream smeared on the glass and it never did get cleaned up.... The pool decks and chair were always washed down every morning and our room seemed clean.
The service in the MDR was at times very slow, which is why I preferred the Windjammer, The menu in the MDR was the same as what was served in the Windjammer, we noticed, so no fear of missing out!
Prices of drinks were very expensive, the cheapest glass of wine was $9 US, with gratuities on top of it. We didn't drink much!
We bought the kids a soft drink/soda package. It was not advertised on the ship, so be careful, you don't have to buy the $20 package for the kids. They got a souvenir cup and a very limited choice of Coke, lemonade or soda water. Not really worth it but there was a minor tantrum on the second day and I acquiesced. We also got the 12 bottles of Evian delivered to our room, which they also charged gratuities for, which surprised me!
But in all, we had such a great time, and it whet our appetites for another cruise, so it must have been OK! :) Read Less