My first cruise on Brilliance and one of only a handful on RCCL. To begin our Scandinavian cruise I parked at Park Plus at JFK for $228 for 14 days. Not bad for NYC, but I later learned that they have Groupons as well! We then flew on ... Read More
My first cruise on Brilliance and one of only a handful on RCCL. To begin our Scandinavian cruise I parked at Park Plus at JFK for $228 for 14 days. Not bad for NYC, but I later learned that they have Groupons as well! We then flew on Icelandair from JFK to Heathrow. Icelandair is definitely a “no frills” airline. I’m used to inflight meals and sometimes free drinks on transatlantic flights; not so with Icelandair (but I knew this before purchasing.) It was a safe comfortable flight at the right price. We stayed one night at the Heathrow Holiday Inn Express T5, and ventured into the South Bank of London for a few hours after checking in. Unfortunately there is not a tube stop nearby & we had to take the bus back to Heathrow. Certainly not a major deal, but it all takes a little time. We had a nice lunch at a pub near Waterloo station called the Hole in the Wall and then we did a nice scenic/narrated cruise on the Thames.
I was traveling with a group of 19 experienced travelers, including my 3 adult children and my travel agent (who set up several tours in advance.) The ships departure from Harwich was flawless, including a very easy check in. The ship appeared to be in great shape after the obligatory self-guided walk thru after boarding. This ship is laid out well and everything was very easy to find during the 12 night cruise. Interactive maps throughout the ship as well.
Dining was without any problems. We did the My Time dining and Danzalo, the maître d’ I believe, was helpful in accommodating our time request for each evening which we set up shortly after embarkation. I say “I believe” because each of their name badges in Minstrel only said “Restaurant” not their position. The Windjammer buffet was always very good with adequate variety. My only criticism there would be the endless use of antimicrobial gels upon entering the Windjammer and the inadequate seating for the amount of people onboard –yet we survived! As always nowadays, they were frequently promoting their 4 specialty restaurants, but the Minstrel Dining Room was terrific so there was no need to try that option. One surprising thing that several noticed was the menu choices on the final night were not nearly as good as the other nights where it was most often difficult to make a selection amongst the great options. I would think that would certainly hold true on the final night especially, but not so here.
Copenhagen: This was the only port that we did a ship’s excursion (Copenhagen City Sights & Castle Tour of New Zealand) and it was done poorly and there is no other way of saying it. The tour simply did not match RCCL’s description. We did not stop at or even drive by Nyhaven (which is the lead photo on RCCL’s excursion page) but instead we made a right hand turn when the guide said “that is Nyhaven over there.” The tour was supposed to include a “smorgasbord lunch at a local restaurant.” Instead we had a 2 choice buffet lunch that was catered at a local Senior Center –that’s right, a Senior Center. The tour was also to feature a walk on the ramparts at Kronborg Castle which did not happen. I wish that I was exaggerating, but I’m not. In fact, our travel agent had to have several meetings, going progressively higher to obtain a partial refund for our group. In the end, the Guest Service Manager herself was not happy with what she learned of the tour and we were each refunded 50% of the tour cost which seemed fair. We did visit Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid statue at the harbor, Amalienborg (the Royal Residence,) Fredensborg (the Queen’s summer Palace & she was there,) and Frederiksborg Castle (the only one that we went inside.) They were all impressive sights, but our guide was a bit weak & didn’t wait for the group before talking.
Tallinn: This was the first of 4 pre-booked tours with SPB Tours –and they were each exceptional. I can easily see why SPB is so highly rated on Trip Advisor. Ava was our guide here and she was very informative and obviously proud of the struggles that Estonia has had to overcome during their storied history. It was a half day walking tour of a beautiful city. A few of us stayed in the city & didn’t take the bus back to the pier. It was an easy 15 minute walk back to the ship. Being an aviation fan, one of the highlights for me was watching two A-10 aircraft (I later learned from the Maryland National Guard) do a low flyover while participating in the annual BALTOPS multinational military exercise that was occurring during our Baltic Sea cruise. It was the only part of this annual exercise that we saw over the 12 days.
St. Petersburg: Wow! We did a 2 day private tour with SPB Tours and the company owner Viktoria even personally met us at the port. Each day required a brief face-to-face with a young Russian immigration official with your passport when leaving the ship. There were no questions though and they were very friendly and efficient. Our tour guide Julia spoke great English and was just a wealth of information. Over the 2 days we took a ride on the subway, visited the Hermitage Museum (what an impressive collection!) the Church of the Spilled Blood, St. Peter & Paul Cathedral, a nice Neva River boat tour followed by a trip to Peterof by hydrofoil, Tsars Village, Catherine Palace, Yusopovs Palace, St. Isaac Cathedral as well as 2 shopping stops at our request. Each day we enjoyed a wonderful lunch in local restaurants. The first evening most of us did a tour of the Faberge Egg Museum which was well worth the time. We then had dinner at a wonderful Georgian restaurant called Rustaveli. I’d go back there in a heartbeat! This was the one port that I had just a little anxiety about, but it was completely unfounded and a wonderful visit. We never experienced any anti-American sentiment whatsoever. In fact, it was the complete opposite, everyone was very friendly.
Helsinki: Yet another SPB Tour! George was our guide here on this 5-hr. Panoramic Helsinki + Seurasaari Island tour on a slightly rainy day. We started with the typical city tour with a stop at Senate Square where the Lutheran Cathedral is, as well as a very nice marketplace on South Harbor. We then headed to the Seurasaari open air museum. Basically, it was a walking tour on an island park that had many well preserved Finnish buildings from the 18-20th centuries that had been brought there from all over Finland. It is very well done and included some staff in typical Finnish garb from the past. We made a stop at the cafeteria there for a coffee & a terrific fresh made cinnamon bun -which to our surprise was included in the tour! We also made a photo stop at the Finnish Olympian Paavi Nurmi statue/Olympic Stadium (1952 Summer games.) We visited a monument at Sibelius Park made of 527 steel pipes honoring the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, before continuing on to the beautiful Rock Church, a one-of-a-kind modern-day structure build entirely into bedrock and quarried stone –in the city. We had some free time here and this was a really nice experience. The acoustics inside were incredible! We also had a few minutes to run across the street to buy some licorice!
Stockholm: Our final tour with SPB and again, they did not disappoint. This was a 5 hour Stockholm Highlights Tour on another day of on & off light rain! Unfortunately I cannot remember our guides name here, but she did a very nice job. After a few photo stops, the city tour first took us to City Hall. She provided lots of information here about Stockholm’s most famous citizen Alfred Nobel (he’s just ahead of Abba!) Then on to the famous Vasa Museum! She gave us a nice guided tour of the museum and then we had some free time to explore on our own & hit the gift shop! The Vasa is a great story that I would recommend reading about online before you go! The launch of Vasa was an epic failure on King Gustav’s part, but the recovery 333 years later (1961) and the restoration of this beautiful warship is a fabulous story! We enjoyed a nice tour of the old medieval city known as Gamla Stan. Our timing was good because we were able to watch the procession into the Royal Palace for the daily changing of the guard and then after her tour we had free time to explore this beautiful little city further.
Skagen: We went off on our own here and it was an enjoyable day. I do wish that we had rented bikes ($10 USD) because we’d have covered more ground. We walked out to the northernmost point of Denmark (& took a tractor pulled tram for the final part on the sand.) It’s where the North Sea & the Baltic Sea meet at a spit, which you can easily appreciate standing there. My son brought a kite from home & flew it there for a while which was cool to watch. We then walked through a small shopping area primarily for locals. No cruise line owned stores here (or anywhere on this trip.) Terrific ice cream though!
Brilliance Staff: I cannot say enough about the ship and her staff, officers, & crew. They were just exceptional at every step. Tim Connor (UK) is the Cruise Director & he was the best that I’ve seen in many years. He was very personable & approachable -yet not intrusive. I do believe that we found the absolute best bartender/bar waitress on the high seas –Marijana (pronounced Mariana) from the RBar, although she was just promoted to work in the wine bar Vintages. She is from Serbia and was always interesting to talk with when she had a moment. Though the Centrum was a busy place Marijana always greeted us by name & remembered our drink preferences. She is so sweet!
Entertainment: There was an adequate amount of entertainment onboard and most of it was very good. The production shows were good, and what you would expect. The headliners in the theater were very good and included a Russian music/dancing group the first evening in St. Petersburg and Abbamax, an Abba tribute band from the UK later in the cruise. The hands down best entertainment was a band called Temperature. They are 4 guys from Jamaica that played everything –and played it very well. They were exceptional! They were heading home the same day as us after 9 months on the ship. They’ll be back on RCCL, but don’t know what ship yet. The Dimas Duo and the Spanish guitar player Daniel were pretty good as well. The Starlight Trio was also very good. They’re 3 Ukrainian ladies that played piano and cellos throughout venues the ship.There were also 2 entertainers that weren't good unfortunately. Pub entertainer Phil Shaper and the Schooner's piano/vocal guy Jon Asher. I think this will be a 1 and done for both of these guys.
Sea Days: Brilliance had a full schedule on sea days. Multiple types of trivia, rock climbing wall, tournaments, a very nice mini golf course, basketball, talks by Captain Stig, and much more. I mostly used these days to recharge for the next day’s active schedule!
Random thoughts: Scandinavia & Russia were very nice. I learned a lot about that part of the world. Expect to pay much more for something that you would at home in Denmark, Finland, & Sweden. Drinks on the ship were also steep at $9. In addition to regular laundry service the ship offers a bag deal (theirs) for $30. The fine print is that it's only for socks & underwear. I put 4-5 long sleeve button type shirts in there and a few other shirts with a note to just wash/fold and there was no additional charge. Roll it up tight!
Overall this was an awesome itinerary at a great price on a well-managed and well maintained ship. It was an excellent experience. Read Less