Far Too British by Half!: Oriana Cruise Review by Cruisin-Geezer

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Far Too British by Half!

Sail Date: August 2012
Destination: Baltic Sea
Embarkation: Southampton

We are British with over a dozen cruises to our names. This was our first cruise with P&O. Whilst we enjoyed this trip, we do prefer a more cosmopolitan passenger list, as we live with Brits all year and like to engage with other nationalities when we have the opportunity - hence the title of this review. With around 1900 passengers, we met just one Irish couple and one American pair. The rest all seemed to be from the UK with myriad regional accents. It was far less middle class than expected - not a problem, simply different to our pre-cruise perceptions of P&O. Whilst there were some younger folk (Oriana is an 'adults only' ship) on average the passenger list was extremely elderly (albeit, some very sprightly) - we are in our mid-sixties and felt like kids!

The Baltic has long been an area we had wished to visit, but having already had a long cruise this year, we had not expected to travel again so soon. However, a great late deal ticking all the More destination boxes with a sailing from a home port was too good an offer to miss.

Little known in North America, P&O is the world's oldest passenger shipping line, a household name in UK (the Peninsular & Oriental Shipping Company), and was celebrating it's 175th anniversary. Now days, it is part of the global Carnival Corporation, and is quite modest in size compared with many of its fellow Carnival subsidiaries. However, it retains many of its old traditions, including a long connection with India, reflected in the nationality of the majority of the service crew. There were also some Philippinos, but surprisingly no Indonesians!

P&O enjoys considerable loyalty from Brits - sailing from a home port; British cuisine; onboard prices in UK£s and cheaper than most lines; no service charge on bar purchases; relaxed policy on bringing alcohol aboard; very British in character; low gratuity surcharge - £3.10 pppd (c. US$4.75). Many of the people we spoke to were very well travelled, but hardly, if ever, sailed with anyone other than P&O - they simply were comfortable with the brand and these benefits.

The Oriana is P&O's flagship by virtue of its longevity (built 1995) and by current standards is medium sized (c. 1900 passengers & 800 crew). Whilst generally nicely laid out and sedate, she lacks some of the style, glitz and amenities of more modern ships. Relatively few of her cabins are with balconies. I think overall the best comparison would be Holland America Line without the baseball caps and sneakers!

Would we cruise Oriana or P&O again? Well, you can never say never. If the itinerary covered some of our bucket list and the price was right - yes we would. However, we wouldn't book simply because of the brand or the cruising experience - there are others that we prefer.


Embarkation: We left home at 11 a.m., had a coffee break en route, dropped our bags off with the porters at Southampton's Mayflower Terminal, dropped the car off with the parking people opposite, checked in via an orderly queue and were enjoying lunch on board by 2.30 pm. Excellent. Only gripe - we had to go looking for a couple of our bags, which had been left some way further down our corridor!

Disembarkation: Similarly, at the end of the cruise we were at our berth by 7.30, left our cabin by 8 a.m., sat in the Sun until 9.15, before disembarking, picking up our bags and car and were on the road by 9.50 and were home by 11.15 a.m. - Perfect. Five Stars for P&O.

CABIN - Very Average - 3*

Outside Cabin E153 (Deck 6), below the boat deck and forward of midships, starboard.

We reasoned not to have a balcony on this occasion as the cruise was port intensive and was visiting cooler climes, so we could not justify the extra cost. The cabin was rather small and in need of brightening up, but was well designed for ample storage. Likewise the shower/WC was very small but well designed and we managed adequately for a fortnight. Some parts of the ship vibrated a lot, but we had no problem in our cabin whatsoever. We sometimes heard a little noise from the boat deck above, but nothing to worry about. We had a good sized window, which however was always encrusted on the outside with sea salt. Whilst automated washers were used on the exterior of the ship they did not appear used or effective below Boat Deck.

No fruit bowl or bath robes on this cruise, but we did have a small tray of sweets and a single flower on arrival - not replenished. Service from our Cabin steward was adequate; nothing more. We saw little of him after the first day, when he had to ask us our names! There was no consistent time for servicing of our cabin and there were no personal touches. If we wanted ice we needed to order it from Room Service.

OUTSIDE AREAS - Decks 7, 8, 12 & 13 - Good - 4*

Given the cooler climes of this cruise, the pool areas were reasonably well frequented with sun-bathers (few swimmers). Sun beds and deck chairs in sheltered areas were in good supply and no selfish behaviour was evident. There are two pools on the Lido Deck (12) and another on Deck 8, aft, with attractive terraces rising above it. The Sun Deck (13) has a good walking/jogging track around the perimeter, pleasingly separated from recreational areas by a glass petition - so no obstacle course! Areas marked out for shuffleboard & quoits; and netted areas for golf, short tennis and other sports were all well used. There is a nice broad Promenade or Boat Deck (7), which also circumvents the ship, providing more sheltered walking than on Deck 13. The Boat Deck also has lots of comfy chairs and loungers. My only criticism of the Boat Deck is that the life boats / tenders and their associated paraphernalia seem rather low, thereby taking away a lot of light.


Apart from the Reception (Deck 5), these are all contained on Decks 6, 7, 8 &12/13. The Atrium rising from 5 to 8 and housing the central stairwell is modest by current standards, although it does have a very pleasing illuminated glass ceiling.

Theatre Royal - On Deck 7, forward, this is a comfortable single level auditorium which is comfortable if not full. However, shows were very well frequented and it tended to get hot and stuffy and a little cramped - 4*.

Chaplin's Cinema - On Deck 8 towards the aft, this is a very good facility and well frequented with reasonably current or popular films - 5*.

Retail - There are a few shops selling consumables, clothing, jewellery and souvenirs, but less than on most ships on which we have sailed. Good service for fragrances. Duty Free shop sold alcohol for on-board consumption on some days - most unusual!Like on most ships they have their 'bazaars' and themed 'discount' days, but there are few if any true bargains to be had - 3*.

The Photo Shop aboard the Oriana is deplorable - I have never come across such an inept team. The sets are very tired, the team lack creativity, are not open to customers' wishes, constrain themselves to set poses and fail to give time or attention to their subjects. The high prices for this 'point & shoot' operation reflect badly on the ship - 1*.

Crighton's Card Room - We did not use this, but it seemed a good facility for the purpose, with plenty of users.

Library - Did not use, but this looked well stocked.

Casino - Again, did not use - but of course there were those that did. Quite small and not a scratch on the upscale gambling dens on many a modern cruise ship!

Explorers - Excursions Office - we didn't use it, but it was very well frequented. Excursion prices seemed about normal for a cruise ship - better prices are secured independently. A lady from the Explorers team did PowerPoint presentations in the theatre on the ports that we would call at. Often these presentations are just a front for flogging excursions, but the lady concerned did a very good introduction to each city before talking about trips. She had excellent diction and gave her talks with integrity.

Future Cruise Desk - Always busy with two girls advising on and booking future cruises for passengers. A discount is provided to book before leaving the ship, but better prices can be obtained through many of the specialist on-line travel agencies.

Most of the Bars and Lounges are separated from the main thoroughfares of the ship, so it is normal to be able to sit and enjoy a drink and music, without the hubbub of passing pedestrian traffic. Most of the lounges and large bars are on Deck 8 - there were two we didn't like. The very large Lord's Tavern (1*), where televised screening of the Olympic Games was held throughout the day and evening, was a bit like a public bar of a modern English pub - very cheap and naff! Harlequins (2*) is the ballroom and whilst it had a reasonably sized dance floor and seating, it seemed very old-fashioned - especially considering that it was also the venue for the disco!

Tiffany's (5*), adjacent to the Atrium on Deck 8 was our favourite bar where snacks were available most of the day - relaxing and a decent cup of Costa Coffee available. A Coffee Card was available - 10 coffees for £21.00 (c. US$32.00) which gave a saving on lattes or cappuccinos, but no saving on an americano.

The Pacific Lounge (4*) at the rear of Deck 7 was a good venue for the cabarets, cocktail parties and more informal shows and events. The Crows Nest (4*), forward on Deck 13, is a delightful large bar with panoramic views. However, unlike the similar facility on most ships, it was no place for a quiet read - if it wasn't live music, there was always recorded music playing and not always tranquil!

Overall Rating for Bars & Lounges - Average - 3*

Main Dining Rooms - Good - 4*
There are two MDRs, both on Deck 6 - Peninsular at midships and Oriental in the aft. They seemed more spacious and less frenetic than on many ships. IMO the Oriental has the better table layouts, decor and general ambience. Do not be afraid to ask for a change if you are unhappy - we did, moving from the Peninsular due to poor service and a boorish table companion. We were seated at Table 1 in the Oriental and were very satisfied with this. However, we did notice that tables in the fantail (at the very rear) suffered from a very noticeable vibration.

Informal Dining: Good - 3.5*

The Conservatory Restaurant (buffet/self-service cafeteria) on Deck 12 is large, utilitarian, but bright and airy facility. With carpets it is less noisy than many buffet restaurants. It has accessible opening hours. However, there was not that good a choice of foods and the serveries were poorly replenished.

The Al Fresco Restaurant, forward, on Deck 12, is a good choice as an alternative to the main buffet - it is open most of the day, serving continental breakfast and light meals and snacks at other times.

Premium Restaurants - Excellent - 5*

There are two of these, each with a very affordable surcharge and it is best to book in advance. The Sorrento is situated behind the cafeteria and doubles as an extension to the Buffet during the daytime. In the evenings it transforms into a delightful Italian restaurant with panoramic ocean views - the cuisine is not authentic Italian, but nevertheless is most enjoyable. The surcharge was just £5.00 pp (c. US$7.50) - with exceptional service it is well worth it.

The Ocean Grill is a Marco Pierre White franchise and commands a supplement of c. £12.50 pp (c. US$19.00) and the cuisine is excellent. The restaurant is at midships on Deck 8 and is beautifully appointed, but has little natural light - facing a corridor on one side and the suspended lifeboats on the other.


Dress Code - P&O operates 3 dress codes - publicised in the Daily Programme:
Evening Casual: Gents - Open-necked Shirt, Tailored Trousers/ Smart Jeans; Ladies - Dress or Casual Separates;
Smart: Gents - Smart Shirt, Jacket & Trousers; Ladies - Smart Dress or Elegant Casual;
Black Tie: Gents - Tux, DJ or Dark Suit & Tie; Ladies - Ball Gown, Trouser Suit or Cocktail Dress.

On this two-week cruise there were 6 Casual, 4 Smart & 4 Black Tie evenings and P&O stipulate the appropriate dress codes must be adhered to in the MDRs and some of the Bars & Lounges. If you are not appropriately attired you are expected to eat in the Buffet Restaurant and frequent the more casual bars. This firm policy suited us, as we look forward to dressing for dinner aboard ship, which falls outside of our normal lifestyle. And I have to say P&O passengers are quite a dressy lot. Despite coming from every walk of life, very few people were conspicuous as being inappropriately attired, even though there was the freedom to dress down in the more casual areas of the ship.

Dinner Sittings - There are two sittings running simultaneously in each of the MDRs. On this cruise they were 6.30 pm and 8.30 pm, the early sitting being more popular.

MDR Cuisine - 4*

P&O is very much a British line and the cuisine aboard Oriana certainly reflected this - in our opinion safe, limited in choice, unimaginative and rather boring! However, it was always perfectly cooked and served hot. Further, it was a relief on a cruise ship to have plentiful fresh cooked vegetables for a change! Certainly pay the extra for an upgrade in menu at the Sorrento or Ocean Grill several times on your cruise.

The wine packages were somewhat limited and a little on the pricy side, but offered a saving on purchasing individual bottles. The quality of wines was generally perfectly acceptable, although not outstanding. We bought a 6 bottle package of New World wines for £90 (c. US$140) - it included a Brazilian wine. I have never encountered wine from here before but it was okay! Also available, but not publicised, are half-litre carafes of house wine (£8.50 - c. US$13.00) - a reasonable alternative.


MDR Dinner Service - Very Good - 5*
After the first night we switched from the Peninsular to the Oriental Restaurant partly due to poor service. This proved a very good move, as the dinner service thereafter was excellent. However, this is generally the outcome, once you have established a good relationship and understanding with the waiting staff.

Breakfast/Lunch Service - 3*
In open seating, where there was no relationship with waiters, the service level in the MDRs was perfunctory - no more - in fact sometimes on the lazy side. This lack of relationship factor always puts us off cruise lines that major on open dining.

Premium Restaurants Service - Exemplary - 5*+.

Bar Service - 2*
Apart from one excellent lady in Tiffany's, we found bar service ranged from lazy or uncaring to functional. Very little personality compared with other cruise lines, but as there is no service charge on drinks, maybe there is no incentive.


Theatre Shows - 3*
Some shows were light entertainment and some were classical music. The two categories were shared between the theatre and other venues aboard the ship.

This cruise was billed as a Music Cruise and some of the classical stuff was either a little too high brow or heavy, when after a busy day ashore we just wanted light entertainment. So we skipped most of the classical performances for this reason.

The resident Headliners Theatre Company entertained with singing and dancing - IMO they scored 'A' for effort, but 'C' for quality. Some of their production shows revealed the considerable amount of hard work and enthusiasm they put in. The Cruise Director was endearing and generally very entertaining.

Formal Evenings - Very Disappointing - 2*
On four occasions we dressed up in our finery for what we believed would be special events. On every other cruise we have done, we have found that waiters and officers also put on dress kit, the restaurants may be decorated, special menus are printed for a mouth-watering Gala Dinner and there are often special events pre/post dinner to mark the sense of occasion. Sadly, not so on P&O.

Prior to the first formal dinner there was the Captain's Cocktail Party. The menu for dinner was quite good, but just printed in the standard format. That was all. On the second & third formal nights the only indication of occasion was that the punters were dressed up to the nines - nothing else - the crew certainly did not reciprocate.

One of these was a Black & White night and we innocently expected a Black & White Ball, like we had previously enjoyed on Cunard. Alas, whilst this was billed, when we went along it seemed like a throw back to our first dances at the local town hall back in the 1950s - we escaped quickly!

The final formal evening was preceded by the Captain being interviewed by the Cruise Director. The meal that followed was slightly more creative than most, but no other sense of occasion.

Other Evening Entertainments - Overall rating - 2*.
Cabaret shows in the Pacific Lounge led by the Entertainments Team - okay to very good.
Formal Dancing in Harlequins - Absolutely Awful - a throw back to the 1950s and generally very poorly attended.
Disco in Harlequins - the DJ was hidden behind a glass screen; the lighting, layout and flooring in Harlequins were all wrong; no atmosphere; poorly frequented - just did not work.
Combos in Bars - plenty of music of various genre and perfectly okay.

Activities Programme - Overall - 2.5*
As far as we could tell this mainly consisted of rather jolly sing-songs and flag waving around the Terrace Pool on various sail aways. These sail-away jollies are apparently a feature of P&O and were certainly popular with a certain segment. They are led by the Entertainments Team and the ever-energetic Cruise Director.

We saw several variants. On leaving Copenhagen there was a competition between one side of the ship and the other to see who could sing loudest! Sailing out of Stockholm everyone was issued with plastic flags announcing P&O's 175th Anniversary. So we departed Sweden's capital to the beat of 60s & 70s music and flag waving a-gusto! As we left Lithuania the good citizens of Klaipeda came to see us off and were no doubt bewildered by throngs of Union Flag waving cruisers singing 'Rule Britannia', 'Land of Hope & Glory' and the like! We felt rather embarrassed. Then as we left Kristiansand, as it had begun to rain, the sail away sing-along was moved to the Crows Nest Bar. Unaware, my wife and I dropped in there for a quiet drink, only to be confronted with hundreds of old dears waiving their flags and muttering along to more favourites from the 60s - we thought we had inadvertently called in on an old people's home fun day. We quickly retreated, realising we are not yet part of this culture!

Games of shuffleboard, quoits, short tennis and cricket, etc were organised on the Sun Deck and were quite popular - anyone seemed to be able to join in. We did not observe much else, although we could hear quizzes and the like around the ship and there were some games events. There were ballroom dance classes, which were quite well supported, but they seemed a bit twee to us.

Cocktail Parties - 2*.
The Captain's Cocktail Party is, I regret, a bit of a sham on most ships these days, and sadly Oriana is no different. Half the ship packed into the Pacific Lounge and little opportunity or inclination to mingle.

There were events for repeaters but being P&O first-timers we were not privileged to attend any of these.


Lifeboat Drills - The passenger emergency drill was relayed simultaneously prior to initial sailing to groups in three muster stations - ours was in the Harlequins Ballroom, which was not large enough to seat everyone. Instruction is given by means of a public announcement and crew are on hand to demonstrate how to put on a lifejacket and to ensure passengers put them on correctly. The overall attitude by passengers and crew was one of seriousness, which is a reassurance compared with other ships we have been on.

Hygiene - One of the great concerns of any cruise ship is the risk of infection spreading through the vessel. They cannot control the exposure of passengers to illness prior to boarding or at ports of call. They cannot ensure hygiene observation and practice by passengers or even crew members. So IMO ships need to be unapologetic in the promotion of good practice.

Oriana had hand sanitation dispensers (static or human) at the entrance to all restaurants. Curiously, the doors to public toilets remained open all the time, so that one didn't soil ones hands by opening or shutting the door.

Cleaning around the ship was not evident, so it must have happened whilst we all slept. The ship seemed clean and tidy, but did not have the sparkle and freshness we have experienced on other lines. Maybe, its because its an old ship and much needs refurbishing. Our cabin was not particularly well cleaned.

Smoking is restricted to certain parts of the ship and there is a clear and unambiguous policy deterring people from smoking or dispensing tobacco products from balconies.

An interesting measure is CDC's health and cleanliness ratings (U.S. Public Health Service). In October 2011 the Oriana was rated at 95%, which is quite low, so maybe improvement is required.


The Reception Desk always proved courteous and efficient.

It was good to have the Captain or other senior officer give a daily announcement as to navigation, weather conditions, etc. However, communications could be improved. The TV in cabins is sorely limited in terms of choice of channels. There are several in-ship channels, but very few entertainment and information channels. The system showing the ship's route and position is about the worst I have seen. The only way I found convenient to establish progress in the Olympic Games was by way of Sky News - very limited and repetitive. The Olympics was being screened in the Lord's Tavern, but as we did not like this environment and avoided it, this was not much use to us. It was not until half way through the cruise (after the closing ceremony) that I discovered that there was a daily news sheet and Olympics round-up bulletin printed and available in one of the bars. Poor general communication in that we found it by accident, and the discovery was a bit late!

The ship issues a daily bulletin that features the programme for the day. It is nicely presented, but soon becomes rather samey as the format never changes.


We choose our cruises, primarily for the interesting itineraries, always wishing to visit new places. Oriana's ports of call did not disappoint and it was most refreshing that in most places transfers to the city centre were provided free of charge. We visited Gothenburg (Sweden), Copenhagen (Denmark), Stockholm (Sweden), Helsinki (Finland), St Petersburg (Russia) overnight, Tallinn (Estonia), Klaipeda (Lithuania) and Kristiansand (Norway).

We experienced and confident travellers and generally prefer to do our own thing at ports of call, either just strolling around the town or picking up local excursions - of course much cheaper than ships' excursions. P&O produce reasonably good fact sheets on each destination and these proved a helpful addition to our pre-cruise research. On this trip we pre-booked independent excursions in St Petersburg and simply mooched around the other delightful destinations at minimal cost.

Only five of the eight ports are featured in Cruise Critic's Port Reviews Section. Therefore my summary of the other places we visited follow:

Gothenburg, Sweden - This was Oriana's first visit to Gothenburg, Sweden's second city. There were no quayside taxis offering sightseeing trips. The free shuttle bus took us from the port at Lundbyvassen to the city centre in about 20 minutes. It is an easy place to walk around - the old city is a small quarter adjacent to the modern centre, with the largest shopping mall in Sweden (very expensive by non-Scandinavian standards). There is a pleasant waterfront but nothing is particularly noteworthy, except perhaps the various gardens that radiate out from the centre.
The ship offered excursions to do what we did free of charge. They also offered an excursion to the nearby Western Islands, which sounded a enjoyable and interesting experience.

Clean, safe and as most people speak English - easy to be understood. Not too many tourists.
Rating - 3*

KLAIPEDA, Lithuania - This was Oriana's first visit to Klaipeda and according to the Captain we nearly didn't make it as the entry into the port was a little hazardous. However, I'm glad we succeeded as, after the large and heavily 'touristified' cities that preceded on our cruise, I found this little town rather refreshing. Anything bigger than Oriana (1900 passengers) would probably have difficulty entering port, so Klaipeda is unlikely to ever have too many visitors.

The 'cruise port', if you can call it that, is part of a much larger industrial port reaching along the Curonian Lagoon, a natural inlet from the Baltic Sea. To greet us on the dockside were local girls in national costume and with beaming smiles, performing delightful folk dances for our entertainment. Whilst P&O had not laid on a shuttle bus to the town centre (10/15 mins walk) the local authority did provide one, although it was not announced or signed by the ship or anyone else! If walking, beware the rather difficult cobble stones. There were no quayside taxis offering sightseeing trips.
Klaipeda is Lithuania's only port and represents their attempt to get in on the cruise market. But the town is a late entry to a highly developed Baltic Touristic Region and so in terms of amenities, attractions, etc it has little to offer. Neither does it have outstanding architecture or much in the way of natural wonders. By comparison with Vilnius and Kaunas, the two principal cities of Lithuania, Klaipeda has little to commend it. So why was I taken by it?

I think it is because it is a real town with real people. There is no tourist trap, prices are lower, the few local artefacts are novel and the people really did try to please. They have made some effort to restore buildings in the historic Germanic town centre, reflecting Klaipeda's former place as part of East Prussia, when it was called Memel. We found a dear little tourist market, where virtually every product incorporated the local gemstone, amber (much cheaper than elsewhere in the Baltic).
There was also a very pleasing local food market, with fruit and vegetables, meat and fish and dairy products all of a pleasing look. In comparison the clothes stalls (and shops) had very dowdy looking merchandise, so Klaipeda clearly is not about to make an entry into haute couture!

A stroll around Klaipeda town centre will not take more than a couple of hours. So after lunch aboard ship, I walked across to the adjacent river mouth where I found ferries going across to the Curonian Spit. This is a spit of land just a mile or two wide and about 60 miles long. It has some of the largest sand dunes in Europe and was planted with trees in the 19th C. to inhibit erosion. The spit seems quite undeveloped and but for the Baltic climate would probably represent Lithuania's best chance of tourist development. I was the only non-Lithuanian both ways on my ferry ride over to the spit. They run about every 15 mins up until 6.00 pm with a crossing time of about 10 minutes. The fare was 3 Litas (c. £0.70 / US$1.10) each way. The ferries were full of Lithuanian families just taking an afternoon out on the spit. Most folk were visiting the Lithuanian Sea Museum, which includes a dolphinarium. However, I took a path through the woods and dunes to the beach on the other side. Here I found the most glorious wide sandy beach stretching to the horizon, with hardly a person and not a man-made structure in sight - glorious!

Klaipeda is clean and safe, but hardly anyone speaks English - so be prepared to speak a little German or use sign language! Not too many tourists.
Rating - 3*

KRISTIANSAND, Norway - The Oriana docked at the Silokaia Cruise Quay, which is no more than a five minute walk from the town, so there was no need for a shuttle bus service. A 'noddy' train operates from the quay to the town for those that need it. There were no quayside taxis offering sightseeing trips.

Rather than walk straight into the town it may be better to follow the paths around the waterfront to the East, through pretty gardens and past several yacht marinas and Christiansholm Fortress. Then continuing on you reach the Otra River and proceed north-west, before eventually cutting inland by any one of a number of residential streets towards the town centre. Kristiansand is built on a grid system so, it is difficult to get lost. The benefit of taking this walk first is that it is very pleasant and gives a good orientation of this clean and relatively small town.

Once in the town centre there is not a lot to see. There is a 19th C. Dom (cathedral) which is probably more attractive on the inside than out. The main shopping street is nearby and houses some nice but pricy shops (Norway & Denmark are the most expensive countries in Europe). Therefore there is not a lot worth buying. Kristiansand seems to cater more for domestic holidaymakers, rather than international tourists, and there is very little in the way of souvenirs or tourist merchandise to buy.

Near to the cruise quay there is a nice looking development with several bars and restaurants, if you really want to pay Norwegian prices for what is free on board ship!
Clean, safe and as most people speak English - easy to be understood. Not too many tourists.
Rating - 3* Less

Published 08/31/12
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Cabin review: EAE153 Outside Stateroom with Window

Read All Outside Stateroom with Window (EA) Reviews >>

Port and Shore Excursions

It takes more than a day to enjoy this lovely city. Having spent a long weekend here a few years ago, we know Copenhagen reasonably well and had no inclination to do a ship's excursion or the hop-on-hop-off bus tour operating from the quay. There were no quayside taxis offering sightseeing trips. P&O do not offer a shuttle service here, but it is only about a 10/15 minute stroll from the berth at Langeliniekaj along the waterfront to the famous Little Mermaid, and about the same again to the Amalienborg Palace, with the popular Nyhavn another 5/10 minutes beyond. Here you can take a boat trip around the Inner Harbour and adjacent canals - in a short timespan, this is probably the best and most economical way to see many of the major sights. Clean, safe and as many people speak English - easy to be understood. Infested with tourists most of the year.

There are four possible docks at which cruise ships are berthed. The Oriana docked at Hernesaari and a free shuttle bus was laid on for the 10/15 mins drive into the city centre. There were no quayside taxis offering sightseeing trips, although the hop-on-hop-off bus did venture to the port. Helsinki is easy to walk around - from the Swedish Theatre through the tranquil Esplanade Park to the Market Square at Etalsatama (South Harbour), where sightseeing cruises can be picked up. The Market itself is worth lingering in - lots of beautiful fresh fruit and vegetables, freshly caught fish, woollen and fur clothing, local artefacts, and so on. Overlooking the Harbour is the imposing Uspenski Cathedral (Russian Orthodox), which requires a bit of a climb. The other Cathedral (St Nicholas - Lutheran) has a spectacular shimmering white edifice and overlooks nearby Senate Square. This demands an even steeper climb to reach it, but is satisfying to do. From here it is a short walk to the shopping centre and the striking Helsinki Railway Terminus beyond. A little further on is the intriguing Temppeliaukio 'Rock' Church - modern, built into rock, with a copper dome. There are other museums, theatres, etc within easy walking distance of the centre , and Helsinki is an easy day visit. Clean, safe and as many people speak English - easy to be understood. Not too touristy when we visited, but we were the only cruise ship in that day. Rating - 3.5*
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Amber Room

About halfway through oure tour of the Catherine Palace we entered the Amber Room, the one room where it is not permitted to take photos. The walls are completely decorated in amber with the most intricate designs. The Catherine Palace was on the front line and occupied by the Nazis in WW2. Apparently, after the war all the amber had been plundered and the restoration has been painstakingly replaced using photos and documents to guide an authentic replacement.

Catherine Palace

The Catherine Palace is in Pushkin (aka The Tzars' Village) in the south-west suburbs of St Petersburg. From the lovely gardens the blue and white facade with golden turrets and details is just sublime. And inside, as you enter room after room of rooms lavishly adorned with mirrors and gold and chandeliers you just keep saying WOW and WOW and WOW. Gradually the rooms change from simple gold and mirrors to walls with crimson or green, etc. About halfway through the tour of the palace we entered the Amber Room, the one room where it is not permitted to take photos. The walls are completely decorated in amber with the most intricate designs.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

The glorious Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood has to be the most magnificent church I have ever seen. From a distance you can see the golden and coloured many onion domed turrets - perhaps the most delightful of St Petersburg's many iconic buildings and monuments. Both the exterior and interior are simply WOW - adorned throughout with mosaics and gilt-work in the richest of colours. The restoration work to transform this church (used in Soviet times as a potato warehouse!) must have been immense.

City Tour

Our extensive two-day tour was at a fairly fast pace, enabling us to see many of the wonderful sites of St. Petersburg. First we had an overview tour of the city centre, plus a visit to the smart and clean subway and an upscale souvenir shop. We had several photo stops and drove along Nevski Prospekt and various other of the main thoroughfares, passing many of the sites we would later stop at and visit.

City Tour

We had two very full days here. The Oriana docked at the new St Petersburg Sea Port on Vasilevsky Island. It is about a 20 to 40 minute drive into the city centre, depending on traffic. It is very complicated and expensive to obtain visas to enable independent travel and most cruise passengers take ship's excursions. However, we elected to join a small group of other passengers (CruiseCritic Roll Call) and do the 2-Day Extensive Tour of St Petersburg, plus an evening trip to the Ballet at the Hermitage Theatre, all arranged by TJ Travel. They are one of four local tour operators authorised to provide visa-free excursions. We booked on-line a few weeks in advance of travel. We were lucky that our visit to St Petersburg was over a weekend, enabling us to avoid the worst of St Petersburg's notoriously heavy traffic. Our guide Alex and driver Eduard met us at 7am on Day 1 at the cruise terminal as arranged. Alex is a delightful young woman and has an excellent command of the English language. She never failed to share her in-depth grasp of Russian culture, history and art in an easy, entertaining and enlightening manner. Most of our tour was queue-free, which in St Petersburg is an achievement by itself. Day 1: The tour was at a fairly fast pace, enabling us to see many of the wonderful sites of St. Petersburg. First we had an overview tour of the city centre, plus a visit to the smart and clean subway and an upscale souvenir shop, before visiting the glorious Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. We then took the 30 mins hydrofoil to the amazing Petergof Gardens. We had lunch nearby, before being driven to the fabulous Catherine Palace in the SW suburbs, after which we finished at the stunning St Isaac's Cathedral back in the city centre. We were delivered back to the ship at 18:00, with just enough time to freshen up, change and have a quick snack before leaving at 19:00 for the ballet. A group of 8 had opted for this at the Hermitage Theatre. This accommodates an audience of only about 250, so everyone had an unhindered and close view of the excellent performance of Swan Lake (although it should be noted that in this rendering nobody died!). Eduard drove us to the theatre and he was waiting for us when the performance finished. We were back on board by 23:30 - oh so many superlatives in one very full day! One comment - TJ Travel informed us that the dress code for the ballet would be semi-formal, so we all dressed appropriately. However, the audience, mainly East Asians, had clearly not heard this message and you could say that either we were the smartest set in the theatre, or we were terribly over-dressed! Day 2: Next morning we started at 8am and it was again a very full but most enjoyable day. After a 'champagne' canal cruise, we visited the incomparable Hermitage Museum. TJ even arranged entry before the official opening time, enabling us to see some of the wonderful treasures and artworks, a good 30 minutes ahead of the crowds. Our only regret was that there was no time to dwell at leisure over such an unrivaled collection. Following a good lunch we proceeded to the Peter & Paul Island and its cathedral, where the Romanov Tzars are entombed. We then proceeded to Kalinka, an excellent souvenir shop with good quality and service and reasonable prices, where Tatiana, a partner in TJ Travel was on hand to collect payment for our tour. Alex then fitted in an unscheduled visit to a real practicing church, the beautiful St Nicholas Cathedral, where there were both a wedding and a baptism going on in different parts of the building. Then we had our last visit of the tour to the Yusupov Palace, the site of Rasputin's murder. After so many opulent and absolutely stunning sites, this palace, although good anywhere else, seemed a little underwhelming! Alex & Eduard delivered us back at the port in good time for our departure and after bidding fond farewells our exhausted group staggered aboard the Oriana with so many great memories to last a lifetime. Everybody aboard our ship thoroughly enjoyed St Petersburg, but only our intrepid little TJ group saw so much, and at considerably less cost than had we taken the ship's offerings. The only downside was that nowhere else compared and it took us the best part of a week to recover! Caution should be exercised if travelling independently - typical security concerns in a very large city, compounded by very few people speaking English and everything written in the Cyrillic alphabet - so you can't even make best guesses about public notices, where you are, etc. However, we have no hesitation in recommending T J Travel, they are professional, reliable, charming and easy to deal with. Full details of their tours can be found on their website: http://www.st-petersburg-tours.ru

Hermitage Museum

We visited the incomparable Hermitage Museum. TJ even arranged entry before the official opening time, enabling us to see some of the wonderful treasures and artworks, a good 30 minutes ahead of the crowds. I was spell-bound at the wealth of art on display and of course the fabulous interiors of the Winter Palace, which forms part of the Hermitage. Our only regret was that there was no time to dwell at leisure over such an unrivaled collection of art masterpieces.

Neva River Cruise

Day 2 of our excursion commenced with a 'champagne' cruise along several canals and into the Never River. This trip afforded lovely views of many of St Petersburg's iconic sites including the Church on Spilled Blood, The Hermitage & Winter Palace, and the Peter & Paul Fortress. I took some great photos from the boat. Being early in the morning it was quite cold on the river, but blankets were supplied for those that wanted them.

Peter & Paul Fortress

Following a good lunch we proceeded to the Peter & Paul Island and its fortress and cathedral, where the Romanov Tzars are entombed. The golden spire of the cathedral dominates the St Petersburg skyline. Not as spectacular within as St Isaacs or the Church on Spilled Blood, the cathedral is still undergoing some rennovation, but is still very much worth a visit. I would have liked time to explore the fortress and walk around its wall, but . . . alas . . . time!

Peterhof Palace

We took the 30 mins hydrofoil from the city to the amazing Petergof Palace. We didn't have time to visit the palace, but immensely enjoyed the magical gardens. I have never seen such spectacular fountains with golden statues and features abounding. The palace from the outside gleams in yellow and white, with golden turrets, etc.

Russian Ballet Show

A group of 8 had opted for this at the Hermitage Theatre. This accommodates an audience of only about 250, so everyone had an unhindered and close view of the excellent performance of Swan Lake (although it should be noted that in this rendering nobody died!). Eduard drove us to the theatre and he was waiting for us when the performance finished. We were back on board by 23:30 - oh so many superlatives in one very full day! One comment - TJ Travel informed us that the dress code for the ballet would be semi-formal, so we all dressed appropriately. However, the audience, mainly East Asians, had clearly not heard this message and you could say that either we were the smartest set in the theatre, or we were terribly over-dressed!

St. Isaac's Cathedral

We finished Day 1 of our exhaustive tour at the stunning St Isaac's Cathedral back in the city centre. Its golden dome can be seen as a major feature on the St Petersburg skyline, but the interior is where you really say WOW. Magnificent mosaics cover every inch of the walls and ceilings in the most glorious of colours. The iconoclastas is beautiful and the lofty grandeur of this cathedral leaves you awestruck.

Yusupov Palace

We had our last visit of the tour to the Yusupov Palace, the site of Rasputin's murder. After so many opulent and absolutely stunning sites, this palace, although good anywhere else, seemed a little underwhelming!

I had not been here for 25 years and my memory played no tricks - Stockholm remains one of the most spectacular cities in Northern Europe. The enjoyment starts three hours before docking as you cruise through the Stockholm Skrgrde (Archipelago). There are three main docks where cruise ships tie up. The Oriana berthed at Fryhamnshaven, about a 15 minutes free shuttle ride to the city centre. There were no quayside taxis offering sightseeing trips. Sister ship Aurora was berthed at the much more walkable and picturesque Stadsg?rdskajen - probably luck of the draw. There is far too much to see than can be achieved in a day. For a brief overview you have the option of a ship's excursion, a hop-on-hop-off bus available in the city centre, or a hop-on-hop-off ferry (several similar operators), which will take you around the central harbour areas. We took this as it was the cheapest option and offered lovely views of most of the downtown cityscape. Price 220SKr pp (c. £10.00 / US$15.00) from the Gamla Stan (Old Town) waterfront, beneath the Royal Palace. One of the stopping points is the 'must visit' Vasa Museum, where a huge salvaged and restored 16th C. sailing ship is on display - absolutely remarkable and the 200SKr entrance fee (C. £9.00 / US$14.00) is well worth it, whether you stay for an hour, or all day (which you could easily do). A walk around the Old Town is a 'must do' and the changing of the guard at the Royal Palace is the best I have seen anywhere. It happens daily at Noon and I recommend getting into the square in front of the Palace at least 45 minutes before hand in order to have a clear view. Clean, safe and as many people speak English - easy to be understood. Lots of tourists, especially in Summer.

The port of Tallinn is about a 20/30 minute walk from the Old City, although the Oriana provided a free shuttle bus, which took 5 minutes. Note: the Old City is not the modern City Centre - this is at Kesklinn about 2 or 3 kms south and not particularly noteworthy. There were six cruise ships in on the day of our visit - potentially about 11,000 passengers! There were no quayside taxis offering sightseeing trips. I last visited in 1992, shortly after Estonia's independence from the Soviet Union. At the time there was the excitement of freshly won national emancipation, freedom of speech, and so on. The old town was a living and working city and Town Hall Square was the site of real local businesses serving the community - butchers, bakers, candlestick makers . . . and so on. I was able to stroll the medieval streets in peace and tranquility and I remember the city with immense fondness. So it saddened me deeply to see what has become of the place. The medieval architecture is much the same and no doubt to some degree usefully restored. However the spirit has died; or at least changed from innocent idealism to hedonistic commercialism. Gone are the shops that served the community and in its place are a plethora of restaurants, bars and tacky souvenir shops. The town was heaving with tourists and I felt I could just as well have been in Los Angeles, Milan, Frankfurt or London, as opposed to the capital of a tiny Baltic State. In 'deference' to its visitors, prices were super-inflated as compared with the cost of living in the real local economy. The tourism business in Tallinn is certainly thriving, but at the cost of the soul of the city. Having had my whinge, I would confess that I expected little different! The old city of Tallinn is still beautiful architecturally and it is reasonably easy to get around if you are able bodied. Buses are not permitted in there. However cobbled streets and a steep climb to the Upper City make it difficult for some. The hop-on-hop-off bus would help here as it drops people off close by both the Lower Town and the Upper City. The view from the viewing platforms of Toompea (Upper Town) across the red roofs of Vanalinn (Lower Town) should not be missed. The Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevski Cathedral is worth a visit, but if you have been to St Petersburg it does not hold a candle to the churches there. The lanes between Toompea and Vanalinn are quaint and there are many delightful old lanes off Raekoja Plats (Town Hall Square) in the Lower Town. You just need to ignore the throngs of visitors and look behind the tourist enterprises to see how the city used to be. Whilst we just walked, there should be time to do a hop-on-hop-off tour that embraces some of the outlying areas, besides the Old City. The Tallinna Lauluvljak (Tallinn Song Festival Grounds) are reasonably nearby and will be interesting if you discover the role the site played in Estonia's long fight for freedom from the Soviet Union. Further along Tallinn Bay is Pirata Harbour, which today is a yacht marina, but which was the venue for sailing for the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. Clean, reasonably safe - just badly marred by tourism.
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