Dear Fellow Cruising Friends,
This is the story of our June 18-29, 2008, Crown Princess Cruise to the Baltic's -- Cabin # E 717.
We booked this cruise, (our 23rd) more than a year ago with our master cruise counselor who once again found us the best vacation ever! My husband is from Swedish ancestry and I am from Polish Ancestry. It was a great opportunity to actually see the countries that our grandparents came from. We flew out of Grand Rapids, Michigan to Chicago, then on an over night flight on SAS arriving in Copenhagen on June 19th arriving 16 hours later (including layovers) - 4408 miles from home and ready for adventure.
My husband Curt and I are in our early 50's and traveled with family friends (also in their early 50's) who were embarking on their second cruise. After traveling together on an Alaskan cruise and having such a great time on the Sapphire Princess we knew we had to cruise together again! Happily right before we left we all we upgraded from an inside cabin to wonderful outside cabins with large windows.
We had a great flight that included 2 meals, snacks, complimentary alcohol, video entertainment (movies, video games, TV shows, and music), pillows, blankets and wonderful service. What a treat as our tickets stated that we had no meals and no entertainment. The stewards also passed through the plane at 45 -60 minute intervals with water. Before we were served our second meal they also passed through with warm washcloths. What a treat as we were flying in the cheap seats! I can't even imagine how the people in first class were treated because we were given the best service we have ever had on any flight! Way to go SAS!
One note: Although our luggage was checked through from GRR to CPH, upon arrival in Chicago we had to go to the United/SAS desk and get the boarding pass for the second leg of our flight. After going through security in the international gate, we also had to register our passport at our departure gate with international security. The gate called numerous times for people to have the APIS check of passports and you could not get on the plane without going through this check.
Once you pass through the international security check point there is very limited food choice. You either have to catch a meal before going through security or go back through security again. Note that you can not bring any liquid such as soda etc. through the security gates. There are limited soda and sandwich choices near the gate, but the big restaurants are immediately in front of the international security check area.
We arrived in Copenhagen, Denmark right on time at 1:20 pm. We went through Copenhagen security and had our passports stamped and then on to the luggage carousels. A Princess Representative met us in the luggage area. We walked our luggage out the doors where Princess handlers gathered the luggage and the next time we saw it was in our room. Not having ever been in Europe we chose to take the Princess transfers.
Check in to the ship was painless and quick. Have your pre-printed boarding pass laid out in your open passport with your credit card and "I have not been ill" papers and away you go! There was a picture snap and we were on the ship and in our cabin. Less than an hour from the time we got off the plane we were on the ship and ready for fun!
We had the great luck of not only sharing our table with our wonderful traveling companions Don and Teri, but with new friends Bill and Daisy from Australia and Russell and Jennes from Texas. I have to say that there was no table in the dining room that had more fun than our table. We looked forward to dinner each night and most nights closed down the dining room with the waiters.
Our first day was at sea and it was a grand choice that Princess let us have a rest day. We did not have another day to take a deep breath for 8 more days!
The Hot tubs were hot and the pools were warmly heated. We did not gamble so I can't comment on the Casino with the exception that our dinner companion Bill told us that he made several deposits. The shows were entertaining if you had the strength to stay awake after a day of touring. The lectures were interesting and we were entertained by the variety of speakers and subjects.
Our Cruise Counselor left some great ice-cream coupons in our cabin that served us well later in the cruise. You could also get a 10 punch ice-cream card for $18.50 for 10 items. This would have been well worth the cost if a melon sized sundae or a large shake could entice you into more food.
There were numerous complaints about the coffee being nasty, but, I felt the food was tasty and nicely presented. Sadly, I think on a 10 night cruise where you can have your hearts desire in food each night even steak and shrimp get old for some. For me, I am thrilled to have someone serve me and clean up after. What a treat to have our waiter Sam and his assistant Nicholas take care of us every night. They were personable and polite and even when we might have been having a little too much fun at our table they gave us the best service with a smile each night.
Our first port was Stockholm Sweden. We got up early to enjoy the trip through the Swedish Archipelago. It was a wonderful 4-5 hour trip. We enjoyed the wonderful beauty of Swedish shoreline. We sat on the back deck of the ship eating breakfast and then on the promenade deck in chairs watching life pass by. What a treat of beauty. We chose the Princess Tour --Stockholm & Vasa Museum - 12:15 - 3:15pm
We were to "Experience the Capital of Scandinavia on a narrated drive about town". We toured the Vasa Museum, home to the oldest fully preserved warship in the world. The Vasa was built as the flagship of the Swedish fleet. The Vasa foundered on her maiden voyage. The wreck was discovered and raised between 1956 and 1961. It was a most interesting site. Because the museum is kept at the same light as the ship was when it was under water we found that we had to take pictures without flash and lighten them when we got home. You could walk right up to the ship and be within "spitting distance". What a wonder. It was so perfect that you really have to wonder if it was real.
We went to Fjllgatan - one of Stockholm's highest points that offers panoramic views of the city skyline and its graceful waterways. We stopped there for photos. Then we continued on to Riddarholmen - where we saw the City Hall set on the waterside. We arrived right in time to see the changing of the guard at the Royal Palace. We also drove passed the National Museum and the Royal Dramatic Theater. We drove passed the city centre to the neighboring island of Djurgaden, regarded as Stockholm's outdoor recreation centre.
It was a nice, easy tour with minimal walking.
Next, onward to Helsinki, Finland. We chose the Princess Tour - Helsinki Highlights. Once again we chose a narrated drive. We visited Senate Square, Helsinki's central square that boasts 19th-century neoclassical buildings - a legacy of the Tsarist period. We marveled at St. Nicholas Cathedral. It was truly a picture taking opportunity.
We continued on to Temppeliaukio Rock Church - Designed by architect-brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen the church was completed in 1969. The church is carved into bedrock; only its graceful copper cupola rises above the curved rock walls.
At the Sibelius Monument - Located in Sibelius Park we got to see the stainless steel sculpture that was inspired by Sibelius' musical vision. A relief of the composer stands next to the monument. While there we met a lovely man who brings his dogs to the park to play with the American tourists. We had a great time playing with his 5 time world champion dogs and feeding the multitudes of birds.
We traveled on a nice motorcoach and traveled along the shoreline for views of Suomenlinna Fortress - the "Gibraltar of the North" and passed the Esplanade, Helsinki's famous design street, passed. the Market Place and the Presidential Palace before continuing on Mannerheim Street - the city's longest avenue. We drove alongside the Olympic Stadium, Opera House, Finlandia Hall, National Museum, Parliament and Kiasma - the Museum of Contemporary Art. At the end of our tour we had the opportunity to remain in town for independent sightseeing or shopping. However, you are then responsible for your own return to ship and by the point the jet lag was really kicking in and knowing that we would be spending 2 long days in Russia we decided to get back to the ship for a nice nap.
We chose to tour Russia with Denrus Tours - (www denrus.ru). We paid them in advance and received our ticket via e-mail several weeks before our departure. One thing I would suggest is that you check your e-mail on the day that tickets are promised to be sent because if your computer is picky like ours it will kick the tickets into the spam folder and delete them. Thank goodness the fine people at Denrus sent us another set of tickets and we were able to print them and start getting excited about our adventure.
We had no problems getting off the ship. The 4 of us met our group of friends Bill and Janine alone with Ellen and Michael in the dining room as Princess suggested. We sat for about 45 minutes waiting to have our number called. We were escorted off the ship and into the line for those not taking Princess tours. We were in line for another 45 minutes, but the time went fast as there was a wonderful band playing songs while we waited. Others who were in our Denrus tour group got off the ship immediately when the ship was cleared but had to wait for us on the bus. The choice will be yours to wait on the bus or in the dining room. One way or the other the tour does not leave until everyone gets there. The second day we walked off the ship and through the Russian passport check without incident.
The days run together in Russia. There is so much to see...so many things to learn. Our tour guide Ludemilla was a charming and crusty individual who kept us on our toes and got us to the best spots to enjoy Russia.
We went to Peterhof Palace & Grounds - Built to rival Versailles, the palace sits atop a hill overlooking the Gulf of Finland. Peter the Great drafted the layout for the 300-hundred acre park and supervised the design of the palace fountains. The Grand Cascade, the most famous fountain group, features Samson prying open the lion's jaw as water cascades down terraced steps and small spouting fountains flow from smaller sculptures. Some of the hi-lights were visits to the Throne Room, the Portrait Room, and the White Dining Room.
The Peter and Paul Fortress was originally built to protect the city from Swedish attack, the fortress soon became Russia's Tower of London, a place for imprisoning political prisoners - including Peter the Great's own son. We went to the visually overwhelming Peter and Paul Cathedral - the city's tallest structure in the days of Peter the Great. The ornate interior boasts gilded iconostasis, 18th century paintings and icons - and the tombs of many Tsars and Tsarinas, including Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.
After a tour of Peter and Paul Cathedral and Fortress we boarded a flat boat for a Canal Cruise. It was a 60-minute journey traveling the Fontanka River, the Kryukov Canal, the Moika River and the Neva River. Peter the Great conceived the Neva as the main thoroughfare of the city and from the beginning the river was included in the whole architectural ensemble. During our journey we passed under numerous picturesque bridges and admired the exteriors of the many beautiful buildings in St Petersburg. Sadly, it was warm and we along with many of our tour companions were caught nodding off. It was a very relaxing part of the tour!
While on the canal tour we saw the Rostral Columns. The columns imitate the ancient Roman practice of displaying the prows of captured enemy ships on a column.
My very favorite stop was St. Isaac's Cathedral - The cathedral's massive central gold dome - one of the largest in the world - is covered with 220 pounds of pure gold and dominates the city skyline. The Cathedral was commissioned by Alexander I in 1818 and took more than three decades to complete. After the October Revolution of 1917 the cathedral was turned into museum. I could have stood there for days with my mouth open just taking in all the beautiful mosaics and paintings.
We went to St. Isaac's Square which is situated to the south of St. Isaac's Cathedral. In the center of St. Isaac's Square is a monument to Nicholas I - the equestrian statue which has only two points of support. Opposite the Cathedral, on the bank of the Moika River, stands the former palace which was built for Princess Maria, the daughter of Nicholas I. Today, the former Mariinsky Palace is the seat of Legislative Assembly - St. Petersburg Council of city's Deputies.
At the Hermitage our guide Ludemilla gave us the best tour! She is an Art Historian and Art Professor at a Russian University. What art she did not know about was not worth seeing. She made those of us who were "Art Challenged" develop an appreciation for the masters. . The Tsar's former Winter Palace and four other buildings house one of the world's premier art collections. Ludemilla took us through the display rooms, which contain over three million art works, including paintings by Da Vinci, Rafael, Monet, Rembrandt, Renoir - to name a few. Designed by Rastrelli, the Baroque Winter Palace boasts patterned parquet floors and ornate staircases. Art overload!!
We visited Yusupov Palace and went through the palace's magnificently restored apartments and saw an exhibition of photographs, waxworks, and the actual cellar room where Rasputin was poisoned and then shot. The palace was built in 1760, the Yusupov's, a wealthy Russian noble family, acquired the palace in 1830. The palace was the site of the assassination of the monk Rasputin, whom Prince Felix Yusupov and other nobles feared as a baneful influence on Tsar Nicholas II. Be prepared to wear the provided foot covering while you are here. It is a little slippery.
We only had the opportunity to drive passed the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood. This church sports a fantastic and ornate "Russian-style" exterior and is built on the site of the March 1, 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II. The church is distinguished by its picturesque silhouette and rich colorful decoration. The facade is lined with ceramic tiles. We got to see this beautiful church 2 times on our tour. Close enough for pictures, but not close enough to touch. This Church was everything a Russian Church should look like.
Although many have questioned the need to visit the magnificent "Palaces of the People", the St Petersburg Metro (subway) was stunning. We rode the subway between Kirovsky Zavod north to Narvskaya Metro station. The subway was truly an art museum in its own right, and it also gave us the opportunity to get the feel for the Russian people who lived in St. Petersburg.
We rode passed the Bronze Horseman which was built by the order of the Empress Catherine the Great. The monument is dedicated to the founder of St. Petersburg, Peter the Great, and stands on Decembrists' Square facing the Neva River. We did not do much shopping. There was too much to see. Both days of touring included lunch. Lunch was ok. Both days lunch did come with vodka and champagne. Russians enjoy their "medicine" and Ludemilla was most concerned that we take our medicine to stay health! The only thing I wish I would have done in Russia is to grab my husband and dance a quick waltz in one of the many beautiful ballrooms that we toured through. I did not think of it until I got home and I think it would have been fun to dance on the floor that so many famous people danced. Before we arrived in Estonia we were lucky enough to run into fellow tour mates Pam and Hal who had downloaded a walking tour from the internet. www.brentjes.com/tallinnwalk.html They graciously allowed us to tag along with them. It was a short 20 minute hike to the gates of the old town. Once we walked through the archway in the medieval city wall we were transported to another time. I kept saying that I thought I had walked into the movie "Shrek". Hal acted as tour guide and took us all around the town following the instructions of the tour. His downloaded tour took us to all the hi-lights and we were crossing paths with others who were taking the Princess Walking Tour. We saw Fat Margaret, The Alexander Nevsky Russian Cathedral, The Parliament Building and Tall Herman. We hiked up to the Toompea Overlook and took some really exceptional pictures of the beautiful landscapes. We also spent a little time in the town center shopping. This was the only place I wished that I had brought along some Euros. It was a great place for those got to have souvenirs. The next day we were in Poland. We joined friends Hal and Pam, Ellen and Michael as well as Andrea and Scott for a day long tour that will remain in my heart forever. Scott booked this tour for us and for the 4 couples that took this tour together it was a time of heart wrenching sadness and mind numbing sights. We all met on the internet in the Crown Princess Cruise area on the dock. Our tour guide Andrew Falkowski picked up on the dock and we began our tour in a 9 person van. We toured though Gdynia and Sopot arriving in Gdansk about an hour later. We traveled onward through the city to the Stutthof Concentration Camp. Stutthof Concentration Camp was created by the Nazis close to Gdansk at the very beginning of World War II. It is a place of extermination of inmates from 23 lands, the place of Holocaust of thousands of Jews. We went through the Gate of Death, barracks, watch towers, gas chamber and crematorium. We saw how people lived and died. We saw the ashes and skeletal remains that had been shoveled from the crematorium and preserved under glass where they were originally found. We saw where the Nazi's hung a person each day as an "example". Andrew told us how people tried to live and survive here. He told us stories of mortification, degradation, the horrible living conditions of the inmates, extermination by hunger, murderous work, gassing, mass shooting, hanging and needlings which ended with "medical attention" all employed here for the "Final Solution". It was a terrible place. We were warned by other cruisers who visited this place that we would be taken to the brink of tears. I was unprepared for the feeling of everything being sucked out of me and for our little group all we could muster was deafening silence. It was overwhelming empty feeling and I never ever want to feel the emotions that overtook me while I was there. After our tour of the camp we silently journeyed back for a stroll on the streets of Gdansk. "A gem of the ancient Polish Kingdom" would be an understatement. We visited Old Town, Old Crane Machinery, and Long Market Square with Neptune's Fountain, Town Hall, Golden Gate, Torture House, Arsenal, St. Mary's Church, and Mariacka Lane with its terraces and amber shops. We were able to see a picture of what the city looked like after the war. Nothing was left except foundations and half of the clock tower. Looking down the same view at the same street that had been totally decimated, it was hard to believe that it had been built back to its former glory. What a beautiful, alive place. There was happiness and color and the smells of Polish cooking, friendly people and glorious flowers. It was a total contrast to what we had seen earlier in the day. This tour will long be the worst and best tour we have ever taken. Our next day was at sea and we were too tired to be anything but tired! There were many things to do on the ship but there was also the underlying sadness that we only had one more day to tour Europe and we were on our way home. We got some packing done. In Oslo, Norway we took the Princess Tour -Ez Oslo. It was a narrated drive exploring Oslo's scenic highlights - we chose this no walking tour as we though we would be beat by the time we got to the end of the cruise. We went passed the 13th -century Akershus Fortress which today is part museum, and part military area before turning towards the City Hall - inaugurated in 1950 at Oslo's 900-year jubilee. The Fortress was immediately across the street from where the ship was docked. There was no entrance fee and once we were done with the bus tour we spent several hours walking through. We went passed the Parliament, before proceeding down Karl Johan Street, named after the Swedish-Norwegian king in the early part of the 19th century. Along the way we passed the oldest part of Oslo University which dates back to 1813. The tour went passed the Royal Palace, built in the first half of the last century, and today, the residence of the Royal Family. Although we would have loved to walk through the Vigeland Sculpture Park we only had a brief glimpse as we stopped at the entrance. We took the steep climb up Holmenkollen Hill. Perched high above Oslo, Holmenkollen is the cradle of ski jumping and the site of the 1952 Olympic ski jumping competition. On clear days, the view to parts of the town and the Oslofjord with its many islands is impressive. We drove down the busy "Bogstad-veien" with its many shops, and continue along the Royal Park passing the House of Artists, and down to "Stortorget" - the big market square and Oslo Cathedral built in 1697. We stopped at Ekeberg Hill. From this vantage point we could see the harbor, the fjord with its many islands, and a large part of the town stretching out in the valley below. As I said, after we were returned back to the ship we walked 100 feet or so to the Fortress for some exploration. There is a small gift shop at the dock. Sadly the next day we were up and back into the dining room to wait for our transfer to our tour of Copenhagen and then home. We chose the Princess Tour -Debarkation Tour - Copenhagen City & Tivoli Gardens
We boarded a large bus and started a multi hour tour that lasted a good 3 hours before we arrived at Tivoli Gardens. Our tour drove through Copenhagen and passed the Old Stock Exchange, which boasts a copper roof and a spire formed by four intertwined dragons' tails, the 16th-century Holmenes Church, attended by the Royal Family, the Town Hall, Tivoli Gardens and the Nyhavn waterfront. We went to the Royal Palace and of course a tad of early morning shopping at the dock after visiting the Little Mermaid. At 11 am Tivoli Gardens opened and we had 90 minutes to stroll the gardens. Tivoli Gardens is Copenhagen's legendary pleasure garden and features merry-go-rounds, roller coasters, concerts, and dancing, as well as cafes and restaurants. Our guide gave us the basics and left us to explore on our own. After all the hype I was really expecting something special and am sad to say I was somewhat disappointed. Our tour ended at Copenhagen airport where we gathered our luggage and schlepped to the longest line I have ever been in. Although we had 2 ½ hours until our flight left we made the gate by the seat of our pants. There were many delays at the counter. It was a little on the tense side for many who had flights before ours. We had a great flight home on SAS. Upon arrival at ORD we had to go through immigration with our customs paperwork, claim our luggage that had been checked through from CPH to GRR, move it from the luggage claim and put it in a pile 10 feet away to be put back on the next flight. I tell you about having to claim your luggage when you go through American Customs as a friend also had luggage checked all the way through and did not know they had to claim it (thought it would be waiting at their final destination) and it was taken by the airline because no one claimed it - the whole Homeland Security procedure. What a surprise to get home and not have your luggage waiting for you. It took several days and much paperwork to get the wayward luggage released and sent home. We had a great time! 11 days, 1600 pictures, a bevy of new friends, more memories than a normal person deserves to have and we are Home Sweet Home. No matter where we cruise I am always teary eyed by how much I love to set foot back in the USA. We are so very blessed and are now looking forward to our next adventure - Ireland and Scotland!
Great cabin. Nice and quiet. Close to the stairwell and on the x-way to anywhere we wanted to be!