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Saturday 1 August This is a very long day by day review detailing our 9N Baltics cruise. We’d arrived in Copenhagen a few days earlier, which is well worthwhile as it’s a beautiful place with plenty to see. We stayed at the Hotel Bethel, right at Nyhavn a lovely location. We took the easy way out and hopped in a taxi for the short ride from the hotel, at a cost of 130DKK. Boarding this cruise was our quickest yet, we were onboard by 11.30am, having lunch at 12 and in our room at 1pm. Our luggage was a bit more problematic, the first bag didn’t arrive til nearly 5pm with a note on to say that ‘contraband’ (ie our 2 bottles of wine) had been removed. We could either pay $15/bottle ‘corkage’ to get the wine back, or collect it on the last day (we paid, as it’s still cheaper than their prices and we didn’t want the weight in our luggage to fly home). Note that their documentation said we'd have to pay $25 per bottle, but they actually only charged us $15 each. Our balcony room is lovely and the bathroom is the best we’ve ever had - shower screen not curtain, and sliding door for toilet. Only 2 power points, so definitely bring power boards. Hairdryer provided was good, although heavy. We wandered into a bar not long after boarding to see that the sports channel was actually showing the Manly NRL (Australian rugby league) match live…must have been a very quiet period in the rest of world sports for it to get an airing! Later that afternoon hubby also got to see a repeat of the Cronulla match on the TV channel in our room. Mandatory life boat drill was the fastest we have ever experienced, started on time and all over in 10 mins. If all cruise lines would manage that I’m sure attendance rates would be much better. Dinner in the Versailles restaurant was lovely and welcome show was OK, they can only improve from here (#firstworldcruisingproblems). Sunday 2 August Very big day today as we docked early (we were off the ship at 7am, officially not due in til 7.30am) in the German port of Warnemunde to join our group of 13 (arranged via cruise critic) for a tour to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp and Berlin, a 3 hour each way drive. Tour was arranged through Ship2Shore, I would highly recommend them. Growing up learning about Germany in Australia you picture a dark, evil place (yes I had an active imagination), but of course the reality of our drive in was glorious sunshine, rolling green fields and crop after crop of corn, often interspersed with wind turbines. The bus traveled at what felt like normal Australian speeds, but there were plenty of cars flying past us on the autobahn. The concentration camp was not surprisingly an extremely sobering experience. What astonished me most was the massive scale of it (and only the inner original part still ‘stands’). There was a very large central semicircle courtyard where rollcall would be held twice daily, and coming out from that like the spokes of a bike were row after row of prison barracks. Inside the barracks the triple bunks were stacked alongside each other, sleeping 3 at least to each single layer. Our guide Carolina was excellent at explaining the horror, while also throughout the whole day giving you an insight into how it is for Germans to deal with this as part of their heritage. As she said “you study WWII as victors who saved the world from tyranny, we study it as the perpetrators”. In her opinion the country is split between people who say enough, it’s time to move on from our Nazi history vs those who say we must continue to remember and feel the guilt. Her description of the Nazi tactic of randomness to maintain control within the camps and also how they were able to justify their refined controlled behaviour in their ‘real’ life vs sadistic and murderous actions within the camp will both really stay with me. After the camp we headed into Berlin for lunch at a beer hall that was nothing like what I had pictured. We sat outside in a beautiful tree lined square and ordered delicious lamb sausages, pretzels and beer/coke, great place to relax and exchange stories with our fellow travelers. Next up was the famous huge German chocolate store of Fassbender and Rausch, which has massive displays of German landmarks in chocolate as well as plenty of the good stuff to buy. One lady on our group had tasted their chocolate before so she flew through the place and walked out with 2 full shopping baskets (she bought an empty suitcase on the trip in readiness for their chocolate). We spent the rest of the afternoon driving and walking through the main sites. It was about 30 degrees centigrade today and nothing but glorious blue skies. Seeing a section of the Berlin wall was cool, particularly when looking at the comparison photos of then vs now. In other parts of the city the line where the wall stood is marked by a thin black stone line along what is now just road or footpath, and hard to imagine that to have crossed it only 26 years ago would have meant instant death. There are so many imposing buildings and monuments in the city centre, most of which are either new or reconstructed since the war. The Reichstag (Parliament) is spectacular, with a modern glass dome on the roof that you can climb (unfortunately we had no time, good reason to return someday). The idea of the glass dome is that it sits over the parliament, to reinforce the notion that their democracy is transparent. Probably the most moving experience in Berlin is the holocaust memorial. It takes up a whole block and is grey granite coffin like structures, ranging from normal size, to more than twice my height. You can walk all around the rows, it’s an eerie experience, and as Carolina said it’s good that it is right here in the centre, just down from Parliament and the Brandenburg Gate…not hidden away. I bought my laptop today as I could leave it safely on the bus, so spent some of the 3 hour drive back to the ship writing this. We have not brought ship wifi, as you can usually get it free at the ports or in town. There was free wifi in the Warnemunde port area, but unfortunately very little shopping open when we got back and with barely anytime in the schedule to shop in Berlin I was disappointed not to be able to pick up any souvenirs. Monday 3 August Loved the sea day, very relaxing and enjoyed the lecture on amber that was held onboard today. Tonight’s show was a fun selection of dance and musical highlights. Tuesday 4 August We joined a line up of 5 ships sailing into Tallinn, Estonia this morning, it was quite an impressive sight. We were off the ship quick smart at 9am hoping to snag free wifi at the port before our 10am bike tour. We succeeded and I was able to load photos, as well as chat with the kids. We had booked the 3 hour ‘Best of Tallinn’ bike tour with City Bike, paying a deposit online a few weeks prior, leaving from right at the port at 10am (you can also just walk up on the morning and book). Our bike tour did not look too promising initially, as despite us having booked they didn’t have enough bikes for everyone at the port. More did arrive from their store in town and we were on the way by 10.15am. It was a stop start affair as we had a few dodgy riders, and we spent a bit of time waiting for people to catch up. The main guide was at the front of the pack, and another at the back. At our first stop waiting for the stragglers she assured us not to worry if you get left behind, as the guy at the end will always bring up the rear and get you back to the main group. So we’re waiting and waiting, eventually she tells us to all stay put and she rides back, before coming back and admitting it’s actually the first day for the guy bringing up the rear, and he had got lost – so much for him being our saviour! Things did then improve somewhat and we biked initially through the lovely park areas outside the old town walls, which included their Summer Palace (commissioned by Peter the Great), the Presidential Palace and the huge amphitheatre/park which is the home of the Estonian song festival. It was at that venue that the famous singing revolution occurred in 1988, which was instrumental in Estonia finally gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Of course we knew nothing about Estonia and were pretty amazed when the bike guide said it is the most developed IT country in the world, and it was here that Skype was invented. The population is only 1.3M, with Tallinn being its capital. Our favourite part of Tallinn was the old town, which was covered in the 2nd half of our tour. It is truly a picture perfect medieval town, paved with cobblestones on narrow winding roads (very bumpy on a bike) and postcard scenery of old buildings and church towers and spires. It’s actually the best preserved medieval old town in Europe, dating from the 13th – 16th Century. The tour finished at 1pm and because I had organised this in advance, we were able to leave our bikes at their shop in the old town to spend the rest of the afternoon wandering the streets (the rest of the group had to return their bikes at the port, and then could walk back into town). Given there were 5 ships in town (and usually they get about 2 a day), the place was packed but the guide recommended a fabulous hidden local place for lunch. We never would have found it on our own as it was tucked away behind high walls. We ate outside in a gorgeous garden in the brilliant sunshine (boy it was warm today) and got to try the delicious local bread Tallinn is known for. Our delicious meal was topped off with the best crème brulee we’ve tasted, it was just as well the rest of Tallinn was calling us or we could have sat soaking up their sun and food for the rest of the day. We did have a solid attempt at walking off lunch by climbing the Town Hall tower for stunning views over the town, and then heading up Toompea Hill, the high part of town where Parliament and the Russian Cathedral made for more lovely sights. We were due to sail at 5.30pm so picked up some nibbles from the buffet intending to sit on our balcony with a glass of wine and watch the sail away. Incredibly it was actually too hot to sit on the balcony, so we perched on the bed until the ship turned slightly and we weren’t in full sun. There can’t be many Baltic cruises where it’s too hot to use the balcony. We then went to a lecture on the highlights of the Hermitage Museum (more St Petersburg preparation). Before we made it to dinner there was free vodka tasting in the duty free store. Hubby enjoyed it, still tastes like rocket fuel to me. The show tonight was the ‘Oh What a Night’ tribute band usually based in Vegas who flew in to join the ship for a few days doing Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons tribute songs. We’re no experts, but they did sound good to us. Wednesday 5 August We got to experience the Russian pastime of queuing this morning. At every other port we’ve walked straight off the ship, but today it was a 30min queue onboard while we waited for customs clearance, and for everyone to shuffle off the ship. Then we joined another line for passport control with a 45min wait before we finally could leave the port building a little after 9am. Our tour guide Tatiana from TJ Tours was waiting and we joined with 12 others to drive into town. We spent an hour at photo stops around some of the main sites along the Neva River. There are so many grand palaces and buildings that look like they could be palaces along the banks of the river. Because the weather in St Petersburg is usually so dull, it was decreed that the buildings must all be painted in light and bright colours, particularly yellows to offset the gloomy weather. Amazing to think that in winter here, from October – March that massive river actually freezes over. We then boarded a hydrofoil to Peterhof Palace and gardens. It is another spectacular day, our guide said that this has been their coldest summer in 20 years and now it looks as if summer has come late. St Petersburg gets only 62 sunny days a year, so we are certainly lucky to be getting this weather. Peterhof was built by Peter the Great, starting in 1704 just after the founding of St Petersburg. He had traveled through Europe and wanted to build a palace and gardens to rival Versailles. It is not quite as spread out as Versailles, but the fountains are absolutely amazing, with much better water flow (no pumps required) and so operate for 6 hours every day. We had a quick blah lunch at a fast food place just outside the Peterhof gates. You ordered by pointing at pictures, we ordered and paid for different burgers but got the same meal, while others in the group who ordered the same thing got different. We were happy to be able to buy a Russian Magnum ice cream, a bit different to ours but very nice. Next up was Catherine’s Palace, which was almost totally destroyed during WWII and has now been rebuilt. Much of the furnishings were shipped to safety during the war, so that is still original, but the rest is restoration. It was breathtaking walking in to see the long line of palace building in a vibrant aqua and white colour scheme, with gold domed cupola on the corner offset against the blue sky and a couple of perfectly positioned white balls of fluffy cloud. Entry was reminiscent of the Taj Mahal as we donned mini bag like loose fabric ‘socks’ to cover our shoes and not damage the flooring. The rest of the interior reminded us of Versailles, but with just a little more breathing space as we shuffled through. Lots of lots of gilding and lush interiors, but it was especially interesting to see the portraits of the Romanov’s through the ages surrounded by their toys, uniforms, furniture or clothing. The highlight of course was the Amber Room, which frustratingly was the only place where no photos were allowed. There were plenty of all seeing Russian female guards on lookout to make sure you didn’t even attempt a sneaky shot. My first thought was that it didn’t look like I’d imagined, the photos I’d seen made the amber panels look smooth and flat, but they were actually all made up of mosaic type pieces of amber, almost like flat pebbles of different hues. It is of course a reproduction as the originals disappeared during WWII, but still made of genuine amber – although as a substance it looks almost plastic or fake, but beautiful nonetheless. We got back to the ship just after 5pm and had a less than 1hr turnaround as we had booked a night tour also. We grabbed a quick meal at the buffet and changed to slightly warmer clothes (not quite believing we would need them as it was still so warm). We joined up with another group of 10 to first walk down the Nevsky Prospect, the main drag of St Petersburg . Managed to pop into a few shops along the way and picked up a 1500 piece jigsaw of the Church of the Spilled Blood (the gorgeous cathedral with multi-coloured domes) to let us relive the holiday on our return home. Our new guide for this tour was Elizabeth, also wonderful I was so impressed with both our TJ guides. Next was the highlight of the night tour, a vodka tasting cruise on the Neva River. We needn’t have bothered changing as the warm weather continued and we had the most beautiful evening sampling as much vodka as we wanted, along with some delicious cabbage pie (actually tasted much better than it sounded) and cherry pie. The buildings on the river seemed to glow in the enchanting evening light (and no, that wasn’t the vodka talking) as St Petersburg lived up to its ‘Venice of the North’ name. We floated under bridge after bridge and towards the end of the night captured some gorgeous sunset scenes. Nothing like sharing vodka to get a group bonding, and we soon had 10 new best friends from the States! Thursday 6 August We slept soundly and thankfully had a much shorter experience with Russian customs and were out before 9am for day 2 of touring. We started with a quick tour through an underground metro station, which sounds a bit odd except that their metro stations are beautifully decorated with huge mosaics and marble columns, intended to be the ‘Palaces of the People’. Because of the canals the stations are very deep underground, so you have a super steep descent by escalator. We had early entry into the Hermitage Palace and Museum complex this morning. That sounds impressive as it’s before the general public are admitted, but there are still hundreds of other tour groups with the same early entry plan. We did see the massive snaking line for public admittance though, so it was certainly a bonus compared to that. The Hermitage is composed of 5 huge palaces along the Neva River. Tatiana really shone in this venue, always managing to keep us ahead of the bigger groups, sometimes we were even in rooms on our own (for a few seconds anyway). Her knowledge is phenomenal, she knew so much about the paintings, architecture and history of what seemed like everything in there. The palace areas were the usual completely over the top gilded, chandelier-ed ornate rooms, and the art collection includes all the big names – a Michelangelo sculpture, 2 Da Vinci paintings and a huge collection of Rembrandt to name a few. After 2 hours of art history we were ready for a break and went to a fantastic local place where you took a tray and selected your food as you went along. Everything we had was delicious, and finishing off with 2 chocolate delights for dessert literally took the cake. Next up we made our way to The Peter & Paul Cathedral, which is where almost all of the Russian Tsars are buried. The church gleams with gold in the sun and looks more like a palace inside with chandeliers and paintings, just with the addition of large tombs throughout. So many of the tsars have amazing stories, often meeting a violent end. None more so of course than Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their five children, all executed in 1917. There is a memorial to that family in a side crypt of the church. Our final stop was the iconic church with its stunning multi-coloured domes that you see on every second piece of merchandise here (including my jigsaw), The Church of the Spilled Blood. It was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 (he was the grandfather of Nicholas II, the last Tsar). The interior is every bit as jaw dropping, with every conceivable spot covered in colourful mosaic images. My little camera tried but couldn’t do it justice, at least it’s a memory though. The church was jam packed today, Tatiana was saying it’s as busy as she’s seen it, even one of the church officials said to her on the way out ‘what is going on with all these people, it’s crazy’ (in Russian of course, that’s Tatiana’s interpretation for us). So ended a beautiful 2 days in Mother Russia, we were so blessed with the weather and our guide and group, we had a lot of fun together. I really was in awe of Tatiana’s knowledge, warmth and skill at managing the group, we were back at the boat by 4.30pm. The port area has wifi for a cost, much cheaper than onboard and quite fast so we made use of that before reboarding. We got back to our room around 5.30pm, all onboard was 6.30pm with sailing at 7pm. We ended up sitting on our balcony with a glass of wine to watch the remaining passengers scuttle onboard, and it turned out to be some of the best on board entertainment we’ve had. As it got closer to 6.30 the staff packed up one of the gangplanks, leaving just one for boarding. Every now and then a new couple would scuttle across the dock, many taking a detour to stop at the duty free shop right before the boat. Just before 6.30 a white uniformed officer marched off the ship and into the shop, started flinging his arms around and then stormed back out. We thought he must have been ordering passengers out, but none ever came so we wondered if he was stroppy at the store for not closing their doors and providing a distraction for late passengers to detour. They had removed the ramp up to the gangplank and were just starting to finally draw it in at 6.45pm, when an elderly couple (complete with walking frame) emerged from the terminal. A most entertaining session ensued as she could not make the small step up to the gangway now that the ramp was gone (what are the chances?) It ended up needing 2 crew to get either side of her and hoist her onto the gangway – to the cheers of other balcony dwellers like us watching the scene. The wharf workers who had all been standing patiently with their hard hats on ready to untie each of the ropes holding the ship to the pier had given up by now, and had settled back on benches with a smoke while wondering when we were ever going to get out of here. Despite our hopes of seeing someone have to make a running jump for it, there were no more latecomers and we eventually set sail at 7.30pm. After dinner we were back on the balcony watching more of our departure from the massive St Petersburg harbour and a beautiful sunset. The sun goes down around 9.20pm, but the light lasts till around 10pm. Friday 7 August We docked on schedule at 7am in Helsinki, but were distracted by being able to pick up free wifi from our balcony via the hop on hop off buses that lined up along the dock. We got off later than planned and ended up on a local bus #14 around 9am that took us to the Helsinki Olympic Stadium, host of the 1952 Olympics. You can buy an 8Euro all day pass onboard. There is an 11 storey tower at the stadium (thankfully with a lift) that gives great views over Helsinki. Amazingly we had it all to ourselves, and then were able to walk through the seating around the track. Seating has sure come a long way since then, these were just long wooden benches with minimal WH&S standards as you could climb right to the top of the seating area, and then easily hop up and jump out (if you were so inclined). Street signs were in short supply so we got a little lost finding our next stop, but thanks to some friendly locals eventually made it. The Sibelius monument is a collection of giant metal organ like pipes that commemorates the famous Finnish composer. Not too exciting, but took a photo and walked from there to the Temppeliaukio Rock Church, which is circular and quarried out of the natural bedrock. They were playing the grand piano inside and it sounded lovely, would be great to attend a service here. We trammed into the main area of town, which had sooo many shops and department stores. I’d read that Stockmann’s Department Store was the largest, so we popped in to check it out. Prices were much too dear for us, but it did come with the benefit of free wifi at a time when it was a civilised hour in Australia so a good chance for a facetime chat with family at home. We continued walking into the town wharf area, pretty much Helsinki’s Circular Quay. There were a huge number of market stalls set up in that area, we had a yummy lunch there of Reindeer rissoles (that was a first, tasted pretty much like normal rissoles) and a plate of mixed fish. It’s quite expensive here, those 2 takeaway plates were 24 Euro. Tallinn & St Petersburg were a nice break from the usual pricey European charges, although Stockholm tomorrow is apparently the dearest of them all. We had contemplated taking a ferry to the historical fortress on Suomenlinna island, but didn’t think there was enough time as we had to be back onboard by 3.30pm. It was frustratingly early for such a nice place on such a lovely day and unfortunately is the same in Stockholm tomorrow. We were back by 3pm, and at 3.30pm when we were all due to be on there was still a constant stream of passengers returning and long queues to board. We took up our favourite balcony position and watched the envelope pushed even further than last night, with the last person hopping up the gangplank at 4pm, the time we were due to be pulling out. Saturday 8 August We gained an hour overnight which made it easier to be up early to watch the lovely scenery on the passage into Stockholm. The city is set quite a way in from the Baltic Sea and the long harbour is dotted with dozens of little islands, many with only 1 or 2 houses on them. Seagulls always gather around the ship as we come in or out of the port, and a few particularly feisty ones were trying to take hubby on for the pastry he was nibbling while on our balcony after breakfast. As we were pulling into the dock we could see a Port of Stockholm free wifi signal, but it needed a password. We tried to guess every obvious option, but nothing worked. Hubby had given up when for the first time ever I guessed it – “stockholmport”. Yes I know it sounds obvious, but there are a lot of obvious options out there. Wifi worked great for the 15 or so mins as we docked, as we were probably the only users. We were off the ship just after 8am for a very short walk to the Hop On Hop Off boats moored nearby. They’re usually quite expensive to buy a full ticket (although they are a nice way to get around a harbour city), but first thing when the cruise ships are in you can buy a one stop ticket for 50SEK and it takes you direct to the Vasa museum in 10mins. We arrived at the museum just after its 8.30am opening and walked straight in. I had never heard of the Vasa before researching Stockholm but it is absolutely amazing. It was a huge Swedish warship that sunk in Stockholm harbour in 1628, just after setting off on its maiden voyage. Around 30 people died in the wreck, many others were saved as it was not too far from shore. The museum is so well laid out, first and foremost obviously is the massive wreck itself, which you can walk around the outside of on 4 different levels. Within each level they have displays set up from the wreck, or areas where you walk through a replica of the deck with cannons in place, and examples of how all the intricate wood carvings onboard were brightly painted. 7 skeletons were recovered, including one trapped under a cannon still with clothes and shoes on. The skeletons are all displayed in a long coffin like structure in the shape of a boat. The highlight for me was a film that showed how they recovered the Vasa. In the late 1950’s a local salvage expert was obsessed with finding it and eventually sent down a probe that brought up a section of old oak. Once it was determined to be the wreck they had to build a massive structure around it, tunnelling multiple steel cables under the hull, and sealing every opening – from cracks and cannon holes to individual nail holes so that it could eventually be able to float again. Finally in 1961 the day was set to bring her up and most of Sweden stopped to see it. The footage is just amazing, ever so slowly you start to see shadow under the water, then bits of wooden structure peek above sea level, before the deck and some of the hull appear. We were watching it open mouthed, it’s so incredible they have the footage, you really feel like you’re there watching it be reborn. We spent about an hour there, by the time we left at 9.40am the queue for tickets was well out the door, (including all the tour buses from our ship arriving) – thank goodness for that direct hop on hop off boat. Yet again it was a lovely day and we walked just over 30mins from the island where the Vasa is, skirting the sides of another island or two into the city centre. Yet again we were amazed at how gorgeous European cities are. Hubby described it as Paris like, but I think it’s more just European water city like. We’ve seen so many either river or ocean front areas on this trip alone fronted by historic classically designed colourful buildings with elegant bridges and green parks…all just so beautiful. Our destination was the Stockholm Town Hall which is where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded each year. The building itself is positively new, dating from only the early 20th Century. There is a large gold mosaic hall which is where the Nobel banquet used to be held, until it outgrew that spot and moved to the massive indoor courtyard with grand marble staircase and colonnades. The courtyard can seat 1300 guests, allowing 60cm for each guest’s dinner setting or 70cm for guests of honour. There is also a very high tower which of course we climbed for great views across Stockholm with our ship in the background. Disappointed we never had a tower climb in our program in St Petersburg, as we’ve now done one in every city on this trip. We crossed our final couple of islands to head to the Gamla Stan/Old Town region where the Royal Palace is, along with hundreds of souvenir shops and restaurants. It’s quaint and touristy, and we were hungry tourists who decided to embrace our status and order Swedish meatballs with Swedish beer for lunch. I’d never had Swedish meatballs before and they were fantastic, the sauce was just delicious. We walked through some of the Palace, you had to pay to do a full tour, so we just checked out the Royal Chapel which was gorgeous and free. That left us plenty of time for browsing the narrow streets and shops as we slowly headed towards the ship. Last purchase was a very yummy salted caramel ice cream cone as we began the easy 30min walk back. All onboard was 3.30pm, we were back again by 3pm but now that we no longer were the only people who knew the wifi password the connection was pretty ordinary. At 3.30pm they were rude enough to turn off the wifi signal, guess they thought that would finally get everyone to stop hovering around the office on the dock and actually board the ship! We spent the next half hour in our favourite balcony position watching the latecomers. If the group coming on late contained kids, the kids would invariably run ahead, arms waving to get onboard (one yelled ‘don’t go, don’t go’) while the parents ambled along behind. 5mins before we were due to sail, the Captain made an announcement saying that 1 passenger is yet to board, and if Ivan (long unpronounceable name) is onboard, could he please make himself known. About 2 mins later a hop on hop off boat pulls up at the dock in front and a guy gets out and makes a run directly to the ship. Unfortunately there was a large locked mesh fence there, so he turns around and runs the few hundred metres down the official walkway. When he turns a corner, everyone on our side can see him and he sprints along to massive cheers and applause from the passengers on high. It was so funny, we were yelling ‘run Ivan run’, even the security guard at the checkpoint applauded him on board. 20sec later the gangplank is pulled in and we finally set sail only 15mins late. We had saved our bottle of champagne from home and spent a lovely time on the balcony toasting our final port and watching the view back out along the long Stockholm harbour. The sun was shining, people on sailing boats and families on the shore were waving…..hard to believe in a week we’ll be deskbound again. The show tonight was a British singer/pianist by the name of Claire Vinkesteijn who was very good. She’s married to a guy from Holland and was in the finals of Holland’s Got Talent. Sunday 9 August Awoke on our sea day to the shocking sight of an overcast sky. Hubby went to the gym while I did some laps on the deck, just so we could feel we’ve done something healthy before the day of eating begins. He was thrilled to be able to watch his beloved NRL team play (and win) on our TV. I missed most of the game as there was an art auction advertised offering free champagne, so naturally I went to that (for the art of course). I sat for quite a while watching people paying a fortune (some were $10K+) for what looked pretty normal art to me, only to leave disappointed when the promised champagne did not eventuate - talk about false advertising. We spent the rest of the day lazing, reading, writing, willing our washing to dry without the sun we’d been used to and watching a movie I’d bought with us. Final ‘event’ for the day was the Captain making an announcement that a man was to be medically evacuated. About 6pm a Danish rescue boat pulled up alongside us, the guy was stretchered onto one of our lifeboats, lowered down and then slid across to the rescue boat. The whole process took about 20mins, and when they pulled away to head to shore another cheer went up from our side of the boat. Our starboard balcony has certainly been the action packed side this cruise. Monday 10 August Oh, the cruise is over :( Gosh they are such a wonderful way to travel. Even just the people watching onboard is fun, it’s a study in humanity – such a variety of personalities, body types and fashion choices. We walked off the ship at 7.15am, caught bus 25/27 to Osterport station (bus stop only a 2min walk from ship) and then train to airport, arriving there at 8.15am – pretty fast and easy. Wish I’d been game to book an earlier flight, but thought I’d better be safe and settled on 12 noon. This was without doubt one of the most wonderful cruises we’ve done. Meals, facilities and entertainment were all OK, our room steward was fantastic, but what really counts for me are the ports and every one of these was a winner. It certainly didn’t hurt that our weather was just gorgeous, so how could you not enjoy it?

Absolutely loved these ports; what a wonderful trip!

Norwegian Star Cruise Review by tmbhl_on_the_go

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Trip Details
  • Sail Date: August 2015
  • Destination: Baltic Sea
  • Cabin Type: Balcony
Saturday 1 August

This is a very long day by day review detailing our 9N Baltics cruise. We’d arrived in Copenhagen a few days earlier, which is well worthwhile as it’s a beautiful place with plenty to see. We stayed at the Hotel Bethel, right at Nyhavn a lovely location. We took the easy way out and hopped in a taxi for the short ride from the hotel, at a cost of 130DKK. Boarding this cruise was our quickest yet, we were onboard by 11.30am, having lunch at 12 and in our room at 1pm. Our luggage was a bit more problematic, the first bag didn’t arrive til nearly 5pm with a note on to say that ‘contraband’ (ie our 2 bottles of wine) had been removed. We could either pay $15/bottle ‘corkage’ to get the wine back, or collect it on the last day (we paid, as it’s still cheaper than their prices and we didn’t want the weight in our luggage to fly home). Note that their documentation said we'd have to pay $25 per bottle, but they actually only charged us $15 each.

Our balcony room is lovely and the bathroom is the best we’ve ever had - shower screen not curtain, and sliding door for toilet. Only 2 power points, so definitely bring power boards. Hairdryer provided was good, although heavy. We wandered into a bar not long after boarding to see that the sports channel was actually showing the Manly NRL (Australian rugby league) match live…must have been a very quiet period in the rest of world sports for it to get an airing! Later that afternoon hubby also got to see a repeat of the Cronulla match on the TV channel in our room. Mandatory life boat drill was the fastest we have ever experienced, started on time and all over in 10 mins. If all cruise lines would manage that I’m sure attendance rates would be much better. Dinner in the Versailles restaurant was lovely and welcome show was OK, they can only improve from here (#firstworldcruisingproblems).

Sunday 2 August

Very big day today as we docked early (we were off the ship at 7am, officially not due in til 7.30am) in the German port of Warnemunde to join our group of 13 (arranged via cruise critic) for a tour to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp and Berlin, a 3 hour each way drive. Tour was arranged through Ship2Shore, I would highly recommend them. Growing up learning about Germany in Australia you picture a dark, evil place (yes I had an active imagination), but of course the reality of our drive in was glorious sunshine, rolling green fields and crop after crop of corn, often interspersed with wind turbines. The bus traveled at what felt like normal Australian speeds, but there were plenty of cars flying past us on the autobahn.

The concentration camp was not surprisingly an extremely sobering experience. What astonished me most was the massive scale of it (and only the inner original part still ‘stands’). There was a very large central semicircle courtyard where rollcall would be held twice daily, and coming out from that like the spokes of a bike were row after row of prison barracks. Inside the barracks the triple bunks were stacked alongside each other, sleeping 3 at least to each single layer. Our guide Carolina was excellent at explaining the horror, while also throughout the whole day giving you an insight into how it is for Germans to deal with this as part of their heritage. As she said “you study WWII as victors who saved the world from tyranny, we study it as the perpetrators”. In her opinion the country is split between people who say enough, it’s time to move on from our Nazi history vs those who say we must continue to remember and feel the guilt. Her description of the Nazi tactic of randomness to maintain control within the camps and also how they were able to justify their refined controlled behaviour in their ‘real’ life vs sadistic and murderous actions within the camp will both really stay with me.

After the camp we headed into Berlin for lunch at a beer hall that was nothing like what I had pictured. We sat outside in a beautiful tree lined square and ordered delicious lamb sausages, pretzels and beer/coke, great place to relax and exchange stories with our fellow travelers. Next up was the famous huge German chocolate store of Fassbender and Rausch, which has massive displays of German landmarks in chocolate as well as plenty of the good stuff to buy. One lady on our group had tasted their chocolate before so she flew through the place and walked out with 2 full shopping baskets (she bought an empty suitcase on the trip in readiness for their chocolate). We spent the rest of the afternoon driving and walking through the main sites. It was about 30 degrees centigrade today and nothing but glorious blue skies. Seeing a section of the Berlin wall was cool, particularly when looking at the comparison photos of then vs now. In other parts of the city the line where the wall stood is marked by a thin black stone line along what is now just road or footpath, and hard to imagine that to have crossed it only 26 years ago would have meant instant death.

There are so many imposing buildings and monuments in the city centre, most of which are either new or reconstructed since the war. The Reichstag (Parliament) is spectacular, with a modern glass dome on the roof that you can climb (unfortunately we had no time, good reason to return someday). The idea of the glass dome is that it sits over the parliament, to reinforce the notion that their democracy is transparent. Probably the most moving experience in Berlin is the holocaust memorial. It takes up a whole block and is grey granite coffin like structures, ranging from normal size, to more than twice my height. You can walk all around the rows, it’s an eerie experience, and as Carolina said it’s good that it is right here in the centre, just down from Parliament and the Brandenburg Gate…not hidden away.

I bought my laptop today as I could leave it safely on the bus, so spent some of the 3 hour drive back to the ship writing this. We have not brought ship wifi, as you can usually get it free at the ports or in town. There was free wifi in the Warnemunde port area, but unfortunately very little shopping open when we got back and with barely anytime in the schedule to shop in Berlin I was disappointed not to be able to pick up any souvenirs.

Monday 3 August

Loved the sea day, very relaxing and enjoyed the lecture on amber that was held onboard today. Tonight’s show was a fun selection of dance and musical highlights.

Tuesday 4 August

We joined a line up of 5 ships sailing into Tallinn, Estonia this morning, it was quite an impressive sight. We were off the ship quick smart at 9am hoping to snag free wifi at the port before our 10am bike tour. We succeeded and I was able to load photos, as well as chat with the kids. We had booked the 3 hour ‘Best of Tallinn’ bike tour with City Bike, paying a deposit online a few weeks prior, leaving from right at the port at 10am (you can also just walk up on the morning and book). Our bike tour did not look too promising initially, as despite us having booked they didn’t have enough bikes for everyone at the port. More did arrive from their store in town and we were on the way by 10.15am. It was a stop start affair as we had a few dodgy riders, and we spent a bit of time waiting for people to catch up.

The main guide was at the front of the pack, and another at the back. At our first stop waiting for the stragglers she assured us not to worry if you get left behind, as the guy at the end will always bring up the rear and get you back to the main group. So we’re waiting and waiting, eventually she tells us to all stay put and she rides back, before coming back and admitting it’s actually the first day for the guy bringing up the rear, and he had got lost – so much for him being our saviour! Things did then improve somewhat and we biked initially through the lovely park areas outside the old town walls, which included their Summer Palace (commissioned by Peter the Great), the Presidential Palace and the huge amphitheatre/park which is the home of the Estonian song festival. It was at that venue that the famous singing revolution occurred in 1988, which was instrumental in Estonia finally gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Of course we knew nothing about Estonia and were pretty amazed when the bike guide said it is the most developed IT country in the world, and it was here that Skype was invented. The population is only 1.3M, with Tallinn being its capital.

Our favourite part of Tallinn was the old town, which was covered in the 2nd half of our tour. It is truly a picture perfect medieval town, paved with cobblestones on narrow winding roads (very bumpy on a bike) and postcard scenery of old buildings and church towers and spires. It’s actually the best preserved medieval old town in Europe, dating from the 13th – 16th Century. The tour finished at 1pm and because I had organised this in advance, we were able to leave our bikes at their shop in the old town to spend the rest of the afternoon wandering the streets (the rest of the group had to return their bikes at the port, and then could walk back into town). Given there were 5 ships in town (and usually they get about 2 a day), the place was packed but the guide recommended a fabulous hidden local place for lunch. We never would have found it on our own as it was tucked away behind high walls. We ate outside in a gorgeous garden in the brilliant sunshine (boy it was warm today) and got to try the delicious local bread Tallinn is known for. Our delicious meal was topped off with the best crème brulee we’ve tasted, it was just as well the rest of Tallinn was calling us or we could have sat soaking up their sun and food for the rest of the day. We did have a solid attempt at walking off lunch by climbing the Town Hall tower for stunning views over the town, and then heading up Toompea Hill, the high part of town where Parliament and the Russian Cathedral made for more lovely sights.

We were due to sail at 5.30pm so picked up some nibbles from the buffet intending to sit on our balcony with a glass of wine and watch the sail away. Incredibly it was actually too hot to sit on the balcony, so we perched on the bed until the ship turned slightly and we weren’t in full sun. There can’t be many Baltic cruises where it’s too hot to use the balcony. We then went to a lecture on the highlights of the Hermitage Museum (more St Petersburg preparation). Before we made it to dinner there was free vodka tasting in the duty free store. Hubby enjoyed it, still tastes like rocket fuel to me. The show tonight was the ‘Oh What a Night’ tribute band usually based in Vegas who flew in to join the ship for a few days doing Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons tribute songs. We’re no experts, but they did sound good to us.

Wednesday 5 August

We got to experience the Russian pastime of queuing this morning. At every other port we’ve walked straight off the ship, but today it was a 30min queue onboard while we waited for customs clearance, and for everyone to shuffle off the ship. Then we joined another line for passport control with a 45min wait before we finally could leave the port building a little after 9am. Our tour guide Tatiana from TJ Tours was waiting and we joined with 12 others to drive into town. We spent an hour at photo stops around some of the main sites along the Neva River. There are so many grand palaces and buildings that look like they could be palaces along the banks of the river. Because the weather in St Petersburg is usually so dull, it was decreed that the buildings must all be painted in light and bright colours, particularly yellows to offset the gloomy weather.

Amazing to think that in winter here, from October – March that massive river actually freezes over. We then boarded a hydrofoil to Peterhof Palace and gardens. It is another spectacular day, our guide said that this has been their coldest summer in 20 years and now it looks as if summer has come late. St Petersburg gets only 62 sunny days a year, so we are certainly lucky to be getting this weather. Peterhof was built by Peter the Great, starting in 1704 just after the founding of St Petersburg. He had traveled through Europe and wanted to build a palace and gardens to rival Versailles. It is not quite as spread out as Versailles, but the fountains are absolutely amazing, with much better water flow (no pumps required) and so operate for 6 hours every day. We had a quick blah lunch at a fast food place just outside the Peterhof gates. You ordered by pointing at pictures, we ordered and paid for different burgers but got the same meal, while others in the group who ordered the same thing got different. We were happy to be able to buy a Russian Magnum ice cream, a bit different to ours but very nice.

Next up was Catherine’s Palace, which was almost totally destroyed during WWII and has now been rebuilt. Much of the furnishings were shipped to safety during the war, so that is still original, but the rest is restoration. It was breathtaking walking in to see the long line of palace building in a vibrant aqua and white colour scheme, with gold domed cupola on the corner offset against the blue sky and a couple of perfectly positioned white balls of fluffy cloud. Entry was reminiscent of the Taj Mahal as we donned mini bag like loose fabric ‘socks’ to cover our shoes and not damage the flooring. The rest of the interior reminded us of Versailles, but with just a little more breathing space as we shuffled through. Lots of lots of gilding and lush interiors, but it was especially interesting to see the portraits of the Romanov’s through the ages surrounded by their toys, uniforms, furniture or clothing.

The highlight of course was the Amber Room, which frustratingly was the only place where no photos were allowed. There were plenty of all seeing Russian female guards on lookout to make sure you didn’t even attempt a sneaky shot. My first thought was that it didn’t look like I’d imagined, the photos I’d seen made the amber panels look smooth and flat, but they were actually all made up of mosaic type pieces of amber, almost like flat pebbles of different hues. It is of course a reproduction as the originals disappeared during WWII, but still made of genuine amber – although as a substance it looks almost plastic or fake, but beautiful nonetheless.

We got back to the ship just after 5pm and had a less than 1hr turnaround as we had booked a night tour also. We grabbed a quick meal at the buffet and changed to slightly warmer clothes (not quite believing we would need them as it was still so warm). We joined up with another group of 10 to first walk down the Nevsky Prospect, the main drag of St Petersburg . Managed to pop into a few shops along the way and picked up a 1500 piece jigsaw of the Church of the Spilled Blood (the gorgeous cathedral with multi-coloured domes) to let us relive the holiday on our return home. Our new guide for this tour was Elizabeth, also wonderful I was so impressed with both our TJ guides.

Next was the highlight of the night tour, a vodka tasting cruise on the Neva River. We needn’t have bothered changing as the warm weather continued and we had the most beautiful evening sampling as much vodka as we wanted, along with some delicious cabbage pie (actually tasted much better than it sounded) and cherry pie. The buildings on the river seemed to glow in the enchanting evening light (and no, that wasn’t the vodka talking) as St Petersburg lived up to its ‘Venice of the North’ name. We floated under bridge after bridge and towards the end of the night captured some gorgeous sunset scenes. Nothing like sharing vodka to get a group bonding, and we soon had 10 new best friends from the States!

Thursday 6 August

We slept soundly and thankfully had a much shorter experience with Russian customs and were out before 9am for day 2 of touring. We started with a quick tour through an underground metro station, which sounds a bit odd except that their metro stations are beautifully decorated with huge mosaics and marble columns, intended to be the ‘Palaces of the People’. Because of the canals the stations are very deep underground, so you have a super steep descent by escalator.

We had early entry into the Hermitage Palace and Museum complex this morning. That sounds impressive as it’s before the general public are admitted, but there are still hundreds of other tour groups with the same early entry plan. We did see the massive snaking line for public admittance though, so it was certainly a bonus compared to that. The Hermitage is composed of 5 huge palaces along the Neva River. Tatiana really shone in this venue, always managing to keep us ahead of the bigger groups, sometimes we were even in rooms on our own (for a few seconds anyway). Her knowledge is phenomenal, she knew so much about the paintings, architecture and history of what seemed like everything in there. The palace areas were the usual completely over the top gilded, chandelier-ed ornate rooms, and the art collection includes all the big names – a Michelangelo sculpture, 2 Da Vinci paintings and a huge collection of Rembrandt to name a few. After 2 hours of art history we were ready for a break and went to a fantastic local place where you took a tray and selected your food as you went along. Everything we had was delicious, and finishing off with 2 chocolate delights for dessert literally took the cake.

Next up we made our way to The Peter & Paul Cathedral, which is where almost all of the Russian Tsars are buried. The church gleams with gold in the sun and looks more like a palace inside with chandeliers and paintings, just with the addition of large tombs throughout. So many of the tsars have amazing stories, often meeting a violent end. None more so of course than Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their five children, all executed in 1917. There is a memorial to that family in a side crypt of the church.

Our final stop was the iconic church with its stunning multi-coloured domes that you see on every second piece of merchandise here (including my jigsaw), The Church of the Spilled Blood. It was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 (he was the grandfather of Nicholas II, the last Tsar). The interior is every bit as jaw dropping, with every conceivable spot covered in colourful mosaic images. My little camera tried but couldn’t do it justice, at least it’s a memory though. The church was jam packed today, Tatiana was saying it’s as busy as she’s seen it, even one of the church officials said to her on the way out ‘what is going on with all these people, it’s crazy’ (in Russian of course, that’s Tatiana’s interpretation for us).

So ended a beautiful 2 days in Mother Russia, we were so blessed with the weather and our guide and group, we had a lot of fun together. I really was in awe of Tatiana’s knowledge, warmth and skill at managing the group, we were back at the boat by 4.30pm. The port area has wifi for a cost, much cheaper than onboard and quite fast so we made use of that before reboarding.

We got back to our room around 5.30pm, all onboard was 6.30pm with sailing at 7pm. We ended up sitting on our balcony with a glass of wine to watch the remaining passengers scuttle onboard, and it turned out to be some of the best on board entertainment we’ve had. As it got closer to 6.30 the staff packed up one of the gangplanks, leaving just one for boarding. Every now and then a new couple would scuttle across the dock, many taking a detour to stop at the duty free shop right before the boat. Just before 6.30 a white uniformed officer marched off the ship and into the shop, started flinging his arms around and then stormed back out. We thought he must have been ordering passengers out, but none ever came so we wondered if he was stroppy at the store for not closing their doors and providing a distraction for late passengers to detour. They had removed the ramp up to the gangplank and were just starting to finally draw it in at 6.45pm, when an elderly couple (complete with walking frame) emerged from the terminal. A most entertaining session ensued as she could not make the small step up to the gangway now that the ramp was gone (what are the chances?) It ended up needing 2 crew to get either side of her and hoist her onto the gangway – to the cheers of other balcony dwellers like us watching the scene. The wharf workers who had all been standing patiently with their hard hats on ready to untie each of the ropes holding the ship to the pier had given up by now, and had settled back on benches with a smoke while wondering when we were ever going to get out of here.

Despite our hopes of seeing someone have to make a running jump for it, there were no more latecomers and we eventually set sail at 7.30pm. After dinner we were back on the balcony watching more of our departure from the massive St Petersburg harbour and a beautiful sunset. The sun goes down around 9.20pm, but the light lasts till around 10pm.

Friday 7 August

We docked on schedule at 7am in Helsinki, but were distracted by being able to pick up free wifi from our balcony via the hop on hop off buses that lined up along the dock. We got off later than planned and ended up on a local bus #14 around 9am that took us to the Helsinki Olympic Stadium, host of the 1952 Olympics. You can buy an 8Euro all day pass onboard. There is an 11 storey tower at the stadium (thankfully with a lift) that gives great views over Helsinki. Amazingly we had it all to ourselves, and then were able to walk through the seating around the track. Seating has sure come a long way since then, these were just long wooden benches with minimal WH&S standards as you could climb right to the top of the seating area, and then easily hop up and jump out (if you were so inclined). Street signs were in short supply so we got a little lost finding our next stop, but thanks to some friendly locals eventually made it. The Sibelius monument is a collection of giant metal organ like pipes that commemorates the famous Finnish composer. Not too exciting, but took a photo and walked from there to the Temppeliaukio Rock Church, which is circular and quarried out of the natural bedrock. They were playing the grand piano inside and it sounded lovely, would be great to attend a service here. We trammed into the main area of town, which had sooo many shops and department stores. I’d read that Stockmann’s Department Store was the largest, so we popped in to check it out. Prices were much too dear for us, but it did come with the benefit of free wifi at a time when it was a civilised hour in Australia so a good chance for a facetime chat with family at home.

We continued walking into the town wharf area, pretty much Helsinki’s Circular Quay. There were a huge number of market stalls set up in that area, we had a yummy lunch there of Reindeer rissoles (that was a first, tasted pretty much like normal rissoles) and a plate of mixed fish. It’s quite expensive here, those 2 takeaway plates were 24 Euro. Tallinn & St Petersburg were a nice break from the usual pricey European charges, although Stockholm tomorrow is apparently the dearest of them all. We had contemplated taking a ferry to the historical fortress on Suomenlinna island, but didn’t think there was enough time as we had to be back onboard by 3.30pm. It was frustratingly early for such a nice place on such a lovely day and unfortunately is the same in Stockholm tomorrow. We were back by 3pm, and at 3.30pm when we were all due to be on there was still a constant stream of passengers returning and long queues to board. We took up our favourite balcony position and watched the envelope pushed even further than last night, with the last person hopping up the gangplank at 4pm, the time we were due to be pulling out.

Saturday 8 August

We gained an hour overnight which made it easier to be up early to watch the lovely scenery on the passage into Stockholm. The city is set quite a way in from the Baltic Sea and the long harbour is dotted with dozens of little islands, many with only 1 or 2 houses on them. Seagulls always gather around the ship as we come in or out of the port, and a few particularly feisty ones were trying to take hubby on for the pastry he was nibbling while on our balcony after breakfast. As we were pulling into the dock we could see a Port of Stockholm free wifi signal, but it needed a password. We tried to guess every obvious option, but nothing worked. Hubby had given up when for the first time ever I guessed it – “stockholmport”. Yes I know it sounds obvious, but there are a lot of obvious options out there. Wifi worked great for the 15 or so mins as we docked, as we were probably the only users. We were off the ship just after 8am for a very short walk to the Hop On Hop Off boats moored nearby. They’re usually quite expensive to buy a full ticket (although they are a nice way to get around a harbour city), but first thing when the cruise ships are in you can buy a one stop ticket for 50SEK and it takes you direct to the Vasa museum in 10mins. We arrived at the museum just after its 8.30am opening and walked straight in.

I had never heard of the Vasa before researching Stockholm but it is absolutely amazing. It was a huge Swedish warship that sunk in Stockholm harbour in 1628, just after setting off on its maiden voyage. Around 30 people died in the wreck, many others were saved as it was not too far from shore. The museum is so well laid out, first and foremost obviously is the massive wreck itself, which you can walk around the outside of on 4 different levels. Within each level they have displays set up from the wreck, or areas where you walk through a replica of the deck with cannons in place, and examples of how all the intricate wood carvings onboard were brightly painted. 7 skeletons were recovered, including one trapped under a cannon still with clothes and shoes on. The skeletons are all displayed in a long coffin like structure in the shape of a boat. The highlight for me was a film that showed how they recovered the Vasa.

In the late 1950’s a local salvage expert was obsessed with finding it and eventually sent down a probe that brought up a section of old oak. Once it was determined to be the wreck they had to build a massive structure around it, tunnelling multiple steel cables under the hull, and sealing every opening – from cracks and cannon holes to individual nail holes so that it could eventually be able to float again. Finally in 1961 the day was set to bring her up and most of Sweden stopped to see it. The footage is just amazing, ever so slowly you start to see shadow under the water, then bits of wooden structure peek above sea level, before the deck and some of the hull appear. We were watching it open mouthed, it’s so incredible they have the footage, you really feel like you’re there watching it be reborn.

We spent about an hour there, by the time we left at 9.40am the queue for tickets was well out the door, (including all the tour buses from our ship arriving) – thank goodness for that direct hop on hop off boat. Yet again it was a lovely day and we walked just over 30mins from the island where the Vasa is, skirting the sides of another island or two into the city centre. Yet again we were amazed at how gorgeous European cities are. Hubby described it as Paris like, but I think it’s more just European water city like. We’ve seen so many either river or ocean front areas on this trip alone fronted by historic classically designed colourful buildings with elegant bridges and green parks…all just so beautiful. Our destination was the Stockholm Town Hall which is where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded each year. The building itself is positively new, dating from only the early 20th Century. There is a large gold mosaic hall which is where the Nobel banquet used to be held, until it outgrew that spot and moved to the massive indoor courtyard with grand marble staircase and colonnades. The courtyard can seat 1300 guests, allowing 60cm for each guest’s dinner setting or 70cm for guests of honour. There is also a very high tower which of course we climbed for great views across Stockholm with our ship in the background. Disappointed we never had a tower climb in our program in St Petersburg, as we’ve now done one in every city on this trip.

We crossed our final couple of islands to head to the Gamla Stan/Old Town region where the Royal Palace is, along with hundreds of souvenir shops and restaurants. It’s quaint and touristy, and we were hungry tourists who decided to embrace our status and order Swedish meatballs with Swedish beer for lunch. I’d never had Swedish meatballs before and they were fantastic, the sauce was just delicious. We walked through some of the Palace, you had to pay to do a full tour, so we just checked out the Royal Chapel which was gorgeous and free. That left us plenty of time for browsing the narrow streets and shops as we slowly headed towards the ship. Last purchase was a very yummy salted caramel ice cream cone as we began the easy 30min walk back. All onboard was 3.30pm, we were back again by 3pm but now that we no longer were the only people who knew the wifi password the connection was pretty ordinary.

At 3.30pm they were rude enough to turn off the wifi signal, guess they thought that would finally get everyone to stop hovering around the office on the dock and actually board the ship! We spent the next half hour in our favourite balcony position watching the latecomers. If the group coming on late contained kids, the kids would invariably run ahead, arms waving to get onboard (one yelled ‘don’t go, don’t go’) while the parents ambled along behind. 5mins before we were due to sail, the Captain made an announcement saying that 1 passenger is yet to board, and if Ivan (long unpronounceable name) is onboard, could he please make himself known. About 2 mins later a hop on hop off boat pulls up at the dock in front and a guy gets out and makes a run directly to the ship. Unfortunately there was a large locked mesh fence there, so he turns around and runs the few hundred metres down the official walkway. When he turns a corner, everyone on our side can see him and he sprints along to massive cheers and applause from the passengers on high. It was so funny, we were yelling ‘run Ivan run’, even the security guard at the checkpoint applauded him on board. 20sec later the gangplank is pulled in and we finally set sail only 15mins late.

We had saved our bottle of champagne from home and spent a lovely time on the balcony toasting our final port and watching the view back out along the long Stockholm harbour. The sun was shining, people on sailing boats and families on the shore were waving…..hard to believe in a week we’ll be deskbound again. The show tonight was a British singer/pianist by the name of Claire Vinkesteijn who was very good. She’s married to a guy from Holland and was in the finals of Holland’s Got Talent.

Sunday 9 August

Awoke on our sea day to the shocking sight of an overcast sky. Hubby went to the gym while I did some laps on the deck, just so we could feel we’ve done something healthy before the day of eating begins. He was thrilled to be able to watch his beloved NRL team play (and win) on our TV. I missed most of the game as there was an art auction advertised offering free champagne, so naturally I went to that (for the art of course). I sat for quite a while watching people paying a fortune (some were $10K+) for what looked pretty normal art to me, only to leave disappointed when the promised champagne did not eventuate - talk about false advertising. We spent the rest of the day lazing, reading, writing, willing our washing to dry without the sun we’d been used to and watching a movie I’d bought with us.

Final ‘event’ for the day was the Captain making an announcement that a man was to be medically evacuated. About 6pm a Danish rescue boat pulled up alongside us, the guy was stretchered onto one of our lifeboats, lowered down and then slid across to the rescue boat. The whole process took about 20mins, and when they pulled away to head to shore another cheer went up from our side of the boat. Our starboard balcony has certainly been the action packed side this cruise.

Monday 10 August

Oh, the cruise is over :( Gosh they are such a wonderful way to travel. Even just the people watching onboard is fun, it’s a study in humanity – such a variety of personalities, body types and fashion choices. We walked off the ship at 7.15am, caught bus 25/27 to Osterport station (bus stop only a 2min walk from ship) and then train to airport, arriving there at 8.15am – pretty fast and easy. Wish I’d been game to book an earlier flight, but thought I’d better be safe and settled on 12 noon. This was without doubt one of the most wonderful cruises we’ve done. Meals, facilities and entertainment were all OK, our room steward was fantastic, but what really counts for me are the ports and every one of these was a winner. It certainly didn’t hurt that our weather was just gorgeous, so how could you not enjoy it?
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