Our Baltic cruise was from August 18 - 28, 2008, and we traveled from Washington, DC (Dulles Airport) to our Port of Embarkation, Copenhagen
We chose Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS) from Dulles. There was an early afternoon flight that departed at 5:15 PM August 17 and arrived in Copenhagen around 7:15 AM the next morning. SAS uses an Airbus A330-300 for this route. This is a comfortable plane, although seat-pitch in economy is about as tight as it gets. SAS has followed the lead of many other carriers and now offers more leg room in their Economy Plus - for a substantial additional cost. The service and food onboard SAS was quite nice - comparable to other international carriers such as British Airways. Their entertainment system in economy is also fairly good, although they do not offer movies on demand. The flight was on time and arrived in Copenhagen a few minutes ahead of schedule.
Immigration was a fairly rapid process; even though only two officers were staffing the checkpoint, we went through quickly. The luggage arrived intact, and if you choose the "Nothing to Declare" line, Customs is a breeze as well.
We decided to use the train to enter the city of Copenhagen. The Danish Railroad (DSB) has a prominent ticket booth once you leave Customs and enter the Arrival Hall. The line was long and slow when we were there on a Monday morning, but after about 20 minutes, we had our tickets in hand. One-way tickets are 30 Danish kroner (DKK - at that time about $6.00) per person. The train runs every 20 minutes and is very comfortable. It is easy to maneuver your luggage onto the train. There are only two stops before you reach the Central Station and the journey takes less than fifteen minutes. Once there we stored our luggage downstairs in the storage lockers. The large boxes cost DKK 40 (at that time about $8.00) and can accommodate a fairly large suitcase plus some smaller bags. The instructions for how to use the lockers are not necessarily crystal clear from the step-by-step pictures. Pick an empty box, place your luggage in the locker (make sure everything fits), then close the box and the payment screen will light up with the amount of money to insert. You will need DKK coins. (A change machine is available across from the desk that provides "regular" luggage storage.) Once you pay the correct amount, the machine provides you with a circular plastic token. When you return to pick up your luggage, just place the token in the "retrieve luggage" slot, and your locker will pop open.
Since the weather was nice, we did some on-foot sightseeing, focusing on the main street (Stroget). A word of warning: because we were starting out at what was close to 3:00 AM back on the East Coast, our state of sleep deprivation soon caught up with us. It became increasingly hard to move about. A "grande latte" and a croissant at a near-by coffee shop helped immensely, however.
There is a convenient Tourist Information Center within a block from the Central Station, and several ATM machines for obtaining some Danish currency. The stroll down Stroget was very pleasant - lots of high-end stores to explore. The Stroget ends in a large circular plaza, where among other sites the National Theater is located. If you cross the plaza, you will come to Nyhavn, which is a very charming part of town located on a canal. Multiple out-door restaurants and coffee-shops await you, and you can take boat tours of the city from here.
We made it back to the Central Station around noon, and then got a cab from there to the pier. We had incorrectly assumed that the location of the ship was the oft-mentioned Langelinie Cruise Terminal, but when we arrived there, the Crown Princess was nowhere to be seen. Our cab driver managed to get us to the correct Pier - Friedhavn - another 5 minutes or so from Langelinie. We were met by porters who not only helped take the luggage out of the trunk of the cab, but were friendly and expeditious. The embarkation process went very smoothly - they had actually started around noon. There were no lines, and we were on the ship within a few minutes and in our cabin shortly thereafter. We were upgraded at no additional charge from a cabin with a porthole to one with a veranda - nice! After a quick lunch in the Horizon Court buffet restaurant, we were back in our cabin where the luggage had already arrived.
The approach to the archipelago of Stockholm starts early in the morning - approximately 5:00 AM or so. We had some rather dense fog, so there was a certain mystical feel to passing through the narrow passages between the islands at a fairly brisk clip. Regardless of the weather, it is probably worth getting up and taking a look. If you miss it, you can obviously hope that the sun will be shining when you depart. The ship passes among hundreds of little islands, most of them with little adorable vacation homes - ranging in size from very, very small to quite large with private tennis courts.
The ship arrived in Stockholm on time, and it docked within walking distance of downtown and the old city. There is a blue line on the concrete to guide you out of the dock area, and then it is an easy walk along the water to reach downtown. We explored the Old City, which is the original settlement of Stockholm. It has many quaint streets; some barely larger than a tight alley-way. The Old City has a festive feel and can easily be explored in an hour or so.
In the afternoon we took the EZ-Stockholm excursion, which is a guided bus tour that explores a few of the sights around downtown. It makes just a couple of stops for picture-taking. The guide was very knowledgeable, but we probably could have done without some of the exquisite details regarding the Swedish pension system and the cost per square foot for apartments in downtown Stockholm.
Unfortunately, the ship leaves Stockholm already at 5:00 PM, which does not allow for a whole lot of time to explore this picturesque city. The ride out of the harbor is quite spectacular (weather co-operating) as the ship navigates among the many islands of the archipelago.
Note: There are two time changes on the Baltic Cruise; one to Helsinki and one to St. Petersburg. Each change is one hour ahead. Keep this in mind when booking early AM excursions!
We arrived in Helsinki at 10:00 AM. The weather was cool and cloudy, and rain was forecast. The port of Helsinki is a working port and the center of Helsinki is about 2.5 miles from the ship. There are several ways to get into town including a shuttle for $10 round trip (recommended), public transportation and walking (not recommended). Expect some confusion with lines for the shuttle mixed in with lines for tours. But there is someone near the ship's gangway by the tourist information bus to help guide you and hand you a free map of Helsinki which is invaluable.
The shuttle takes about 15 minutes to arrive in town and it drops you off at a central location on a street called Mannerheimintie, which is right near Helsinki's large department store called Stockmann. The store has a free restroom on the top (6th) floor, and if you ride the escalator down from the 6th floor you may want to stop and browse among the many departments, including a nice souvenir section. People speak fluent English so you need not worry about being misunderstood.
Make sure you understand in which direction you want to walk as it isn't obvious which way it is, for example, to Market Square by the harbor. Study your map closely to make sure you know the name of the street on which you are traveling as it can be easy to become turned around.
Among the sites that should be visited are:
Market Square, with its many stalls of colorful fruits, vegetables and other wares. It bustles with activity, music and is a lively place to visit. This is at the end of the Esplanade by the water.
The Lutheran Cathedral on Senate Square a couple of blocks north of Market Square. It is a gorgeous wedding-cake-like structure capped by several smaller domes and one large dome of green and topped in gold.
The large train station with its art deco reliefs of four men holding lights on either side of the main entrance, and its clock tower. The inside is cavernous but rather plain. This is several blocks west of the Lutheran church.
There are other sites described in other travel books but the above should take you about one and a half to two hours including a visit to Stockmann. The shuttles run every 15 minutes back to the Princess Cruise ship so if you visit in the morning you'll be back on board just in time for lunch.
Although rain was forecast the day actually turned out to be sunny to partly cloudy and we had time to catch some sun on an upper deck.
Back on board we had time to attend afternoon tea which was served in the Da Vinci dining room. There was a short line when we arrived right before the start of tea. Once in the dining room we found a table for two and then tea was served by white-gloved waiters. The tea was hot and delicious and served from silver tea pots - no tea bags, please! Servers came around with various treats. I sampled many of these treats - little sandwiches of salmon, cucumber and shrimp, plus cookies, pastries and scones with clotted cream and jam. My companion showed more restraint having a couple of little sandwiches only. Afternoon tea was deemed a success.
We enjoyed a relaxing happy hour in our cabin, savoring a bottle of Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc. (We had ordered a wine sampler for our cabin prior to our trip and enjoyed some wine before dinner each evening in our cabin.) We watched the sun set over Helsinki harbor. After a brief nap we made ourselves ready for an early dinner in the Cafe Caribe. The theme was German - we had a delicious selection of cured meats, sausages, and roast suckling pig. A Grolsch beer was the perfect accompaniment. Because of the time change ahead for St. Petersburg plus an early AM tour, we decided to make it an early evening. We watched several small cruise ships leave in the same direction as us - most likely Silver Seas and Seaborne.
St. Petersburg - Day 1
We reserved the EZ St. Petersburg tour for 7:45 AM - 11:15 AM. This meant that we needed to be awake at 6:00 AM in order to meet our group in the Fusion Bar at 7:30 AM. Since there was a one hour advance of time from Helsinki to St. Petersburg, we needed to be asleep early the evening before, in order not to be too tired the next day.
Note: On tours that start early the breakfast buffet area is crowded with people for breakfast. Also for a ship as large as the Crown Princess there are several early tours that congregate in various places in the ship, sometimes with several different tours in the same place, which can be confusing. Even though you are scheduled to congregate at a certain time, you will probably have to wait around until your particular tour group is called.
For EZ St. Petersburg we waited until just after 8:00 AM when our group was called. After going through passport control which was relatively efficient, we boarded our bus.
Note: You are notified several times prior to St. Petersburg to have a copy of your passport, and the ship's Passenger Services will do this for you free of charge. You give the copy to passport control the first time you leave the ship and then you don't need another copy for the second day. Of course you also need your original passport to pass through passport control, where they slip a little card into your passport which is your day pass to St. Petersburg. Don't lose it or you will have to pay a fine.
The tour guide (Elena) spoke very good English and the tour bus driver (Sergei) was very good as well in driving us through the traffic. Since it was a weekday there were lots of cars on the road. We were successfully navigated first through the port area and then St. Petersburg itself by our driver with several stops for photo opportunities and chances to buy souvenirs from reputable stands. The guide was very good in pointing out different sites and didn't overwhelm us with too many facts. She also was good in telling us to stay away from people who were walking around with items to buy since they may either give poor money conversion and even be involved as part of a pickpocket operation.
We had reservations at the specialty restaurant Sabatini's ($20 each) for 8:00 PM but showed up 30 minutes early - which was hardly a problem, since the restaurant was practically empty. It appeared that this type of specialty restaurant was not a huge hit on this particular voyage, even though the restaurant is beautiful, has a nice view over the back of the ship and the atmosphere is as hushed as any top-flight restaurant on land. Service was impeccable, friendly and attentive. We ordered a bottle of white wine - Michel Redde Pouilly-Fume. Although initially a bit too cold, it gradually improved. It turned out to be an excellent choice for the entire meal - nice body, intense and a clean steely flavor.
Although the menu is extensive, you have to make only two choices - the soup/salad course and the main (second piatti) course. The meal started out with a nice assortment of antipasta selections: prosciutto, Bresaola ham; mushrooms, artichokes, etc. Next, there was a deep-fried deviled crab ball accompanied by a small ricotta cheese flan. The flan was superb, but the crab ball was somewhat less memorable (at least for somebody from Baltimore). Next, a small sampling of zucchini - buttermilk and parmesan battered and deep fried - accompanied by calamari. The next course was a choice of soup or salad. I chose the tomato soup with grilled shellfish - very nice. My companion had the tender baby field greens which were more like bits of romaine and other robust lettuces. This was followed by a combination of hand-made potato and ricotta ravioli topped with a slice of black truffle and pappardelle simmered in mushroom veloute. After all of this, it was finally time for the main course. I chose the jumbo sea scallops which were beautifully presented and delicious, and my companion had the roasted Chilean sea bass which was lovingly prepared. Dessert was a selection of savory sweet treats.
St. Petersburg - Day 2
We signed up for an Hermitage excursion on this day and were scheduled to meet on the dock at 8:50 AM. This actually meant that we needed to go through passport control first and then meet our tour group.
Note: Make sure you allow enough time to go through passport control, although in our case it was quick and we allowed ourselves a few minutes extra to arrive on time.
Once again we were assigned an excellent tour guide (Irena) and driver (Sergei). Since it was a Saturday, traffic was much better. The tour guide handed out headphones and a device you attached them to in order to hear her as she gave instructions once we got to the Hermitage.
Note: There are probably many cruise ships in port also offering tours of the Hermitage, and in our case we found ourselves in a long line that moved along not too slowly but not too quickly. We were told we were entering a back entrance because we were there before the official 10:30 AM opening.
Once inside the Hermitage our guide talked to us through our earphone receivers instructing us what to do, but if you were not close to her, her voice broke up. However, she held up a yellow flower for us to keep our eyes on, in order to make sure we didn't get lost.
The tour was interesting when it showed the large, opulent and incredibly ornate rooms of the several buildings that comprise the Hermitage. However, since it is an art gallery the tour inevitably veered toward the art itself which to us was not as impressive. There was some Impressionist art, Italian art and Dutch art by some well known masters, but frankly we've seen much more interesting art in other museums. The purpose to us was to see the buildings themselves, the beautiful floors and ceilings with their intricate mosaics and designs, the ornate chandeliers, the peacock clock, the malachite vases and tables, etc.
We got a flavor of both buildings and art, and as the morning progressed it became increasingly crowded, so much so that we had to really pay attention to our guide or else we would have become totally lost in the Hermitage. Fortunately our guide gave us places to gather in case we got lost so we could be found again, and allowed for a bathroom break and a museum shop break. All in all she received high marks from us.
We spent the rest of the day napping, watching a very good juggler in the ship's Piazza, and dining in the Cafe Caribe where they had a nice Mexican buffet.
We decided to have breakfast in the Da Vinci dining room. The breakfast menu is fairly limited - and offers very little that is not also available in the Horizon buffet. Service is very efficient, and there was no trouble finding a table for two. My companion tried the poached eggs on an English Muffin and they were reasonably well prepared. Eggs Benedict were not on the menu, however.
Tallinn is close enough to walk to from the ship. There are shuttle buses but they leave you outside the old town and you still have to walk. Our advice: Walk into town if you are in OK physical shape. If you do a Tallinn excursion chances are they will take you on a walking tour that is the same as if you walked around yourself.
Since it was raining we decided to leave the ship later than docking time of 7:00 AM. So we left at 10:00 AM giving us only a couple of hours in Tallinn as the ship was scheduled to depart at 1:00 PM. It was about a 20 minute walk into town plus a few minutes in a shopping mall just outside the port area to use the ATM for some Estonian krooni - at that time 100 krooni for $10.
The way into town was fairly intuitive but a bit adventurous. The lecture from John Lawrence (our ship's Cruise Director) the day before was quite detailed and told us to look for "Fat Margaret", a historic fort site that is, well "fat". Once we found that, we walked into town on Pikk Street, turned left at a church and entered the main town square. The problem we found was that we had to juggle maps under umbrellas which was cumbersome, so we were not sure how to get to the upper town from the town square. But we eventually found a way up. Although rushed, we felt we saw the main sites of Tallinn as the rain abated. Also off of the main square there was an information office that was very good at guiding us to necessities like free restrooms and mailboxes. We found a postcard stand that also had stamps so we were able to dash off a few postcards in our travels.
Unfortunately we had to return to the cruise ship rather quickly as time was growing short. The weather again turned rainy and windy and the last part of the walk to the cruise ship was daunting in that umbrellas and hats were trying to fly away from us.
Note: When leaving a port early like Tallinn at 1:00 PM, there will be mobs of people who want lunch, and in our case all of the tables inside the Horizon and Caribe dining areas were totally filled. We ended up outside at one of the tables around the pool area. Fortunately there was an ice carving demonstration and a Fosters beer that saved the day. My companion opted for an interesting Gdansk presentation in the Princess Theater while I went to the bartender's demonstration in the Piazza and won a cucumber-apple martini by remembering one of the ingredients!
We were up early to enjoy a quick cardio workout followed by 15 minutes in a hot tub outside by the pool in the brisk morning weather. The ship docks in Gdynia which is about an hour ride to Gdansk. By 9:00 AM we were ready to head down to meet up with friends who live in Gdynia, and they showed us around Gdansk and the seaside resort Sopot.
If you don't know anyone in this port, you will probably want to book one of the cruise tours to Gdansk where you will be able to purchase amber items (jewelry, carvings, etc), as the Baltic area is rich in amber which is a fossilized tree resin. Gdansk itself is amazing in that it was destroyed during World War II and has subsequently been almost completely rebuilt as it was originally. You may also want to visit Sopot which has a beach and also the longest wooden pier in Europe.
Back in the cabin, we organized our purchases; straightened out some misunderstanding regarding missing Cokes from the mini-fridge, and sampled one of our delicious wines - Kiara Private Reserve 2006 Chardonnay from Sylvester Paso Robles Vineyards. We then dressed up and checked out some of the ship's bars for a Gdansk Sail-away drink. We tried the Skywalkers Lounge - but it was too cold and too empty. We settled for the Adagio Bar where I enjoyed a Vespa followed by Campini.
We retired to the cabin - in part because I was beginning to develop symptoms of congestion and a cold. I tried baby aspirin as a first line of defense.
We woke up around 7:00 AM and my throat was a bit scratchy. I tried some Alka-Seltzer to help alleviate the symptoms, and decided to defer my work-out. The gym was in the atonement phase - pretty filled up when my companion used it around 7:30 AM. It was a gray day but the seas were calm. I attended a napkin folding class headed by Chelsea, one of the cruise personnel, and came back with some interesting designs. They had a fairly amusing "cooking demonstration" in the Princess Theatre with the head chef - this was also a promotion to sell his cookbook for $28.00. Interestingly, when preparing the scallop dish, the chef made the point that sea food should be cooked only briefly - does that hold true for salmon as well? Not in the DaVinci dining room, apparently. The show was followed by a quick tour through the ship's galley for the Botticelli restaurant which was kind of fun and eye-opening.
We attended Cruise Director John Lawrence's lecture on Oslo and as usual it was very informative. We took a brief break before having a late lunch around 2:00 PM. The rockfish and sautEed shrimp were delicious and not overcooked - more evidence that the Horizon Court does a better job with seafood dishes than the main dining rooms. We checked out the "champagne hoopla", which turned out to be a bunch of folks throwing hoops over a champagne bottle - with much ooohing and aaahing but not interesting to us. I then secured tickets for the BIG Bingo jackpot at 4:00 PM; alas, this was not our day. Oh well, next cruise... This was all deservedly followed by a nap.
We had reservations at the other specialty restaurant Crown Grill ($25 each) for 8:00 PM - the restaurant was fairly busy but we were seated next to a porthole where we had a great view of the sunset. (This restaurant is on a lower deck and some of the tables nearer to the entrance may have to compete with some noise from the photo gallery.) Service was pretty good, a little rushed however. We ordered some red wine.
We ordered carpaccio of lamb for one appetizer, and scallops with foie gras for the other appetizer, both superb. For the main course I had the 8 oz. filet mignon and my companion ordered the New Zealand lamb rack. With the main course several side dishes are set at the table for you to serve onto your plate. These included garlic mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, French fries, creamed spinach, corn and a couple of other vegetable side dishes. It was a bit overwhelming and I think it would have been better to have had them served to you on your plate. That said, the filet mignon was cooked just as I ordered it, medium rare and it was delicious. My companion's rack of lamb was also very good. I ordered the molten chocolate dish with chocolate ice cream and it was outstanding. My companion ordered the dessert sampler and it was also very tasty.
Oslo greeted us with partly cloudy weather. (The person who thinks the jogging track is on the sundeck (above our cabin) woke us up around 6:00 AM.) We got an early start - My cold was beginning to resolve after aspirin, Sudafed, and Alka-Seltzer. We were ashore in Oslo shortly after 8:00 AM and explored the Akershus Fort in some detail - nice views of the port and the ship. We then walked around to the Opera House - about a 45 minute walk along the water area, a little tricky navigating the at-times disappearing sidewalks - where we were to meet up with Beathe (my companion's niece) at 10:00 AM. The Opera House is a beautiful sleek structure in white marble - sitting right on the waterfront. Once we had figured out how to get there, we checked out the main Railway Station across the street, where it cost 10 Norwegian kroner (NOK - $2.00 at that time) to use the bathroom! No wonder Oslo has surpassed Tokyo as the most expensive city in the world. We then walked back to the Opera House where Beathe was already waiting for us. We wandered around the Opera House, and took a peek inside until the fire alarm sounded and we had to leave. We strolled down Karl Johans Gate - all the way up to the Castle. We got a picture of the tall soldier at the gate. We then walked back to the waterfront and had coffee, plus a sandwich for Beathe - all for the princely sum of 233 NOK (about $45 or so). Beathe walked with us all the way back to the ship and got a picture of us waving from our balcony. After a light lunch (barramundi) and a Grolsch beer, we tried to catch a brief nap - but couldn't because of too much excitement from the day. We then packed and put our luggage outside of our cabin door. We opened our very last bottle of wine - an Altos Malbec. Outside, the winds had picked up quite a bit, and we imagined a blustery crossing to Copenhagen.
After a frisky crossing, we arrived in Copenhagen in the early morning hours. Disembarkation was relatively painless and we were transported back to the airport where we caught our plane for home. All in all it was a very good trip and we would recommend Princess Cruise Lines, the Crown Princess ship and it's personnel, and especially the Baltic itinerary to anyone who would like to explore this part of the world. The ten day period of time for this particular cruise is not too long and allows you to experience quite a lot of the local flavor of the port cities.
Things to Keep in Mind
One problem we discovered is making phone reservations for dinner for "anytime dining". We had earlier made a reservation one day for 6:00 PM in the Da Vinci room and then decided later that we would opt for the Cafe Caribe. However, when calling the first time to cancel we were put on an indefinite hold and gave up. Later we tried again only to be told that dining reservations were closed for the day. So we had no means to cancel our reservations. In general the phone reservation system as well as the room service system can be overwhelmed which means being put on hold indefinitely, and dining reservations for anytime dining must be made before 4:30 PM or else you are out of luck.
The concept of "anytime dining" is itself somewhat of a misnomer. Anytime dining is billed as having your meals when you want and with whom you want. Actually when you reserve a time for dinner, you are given only certain choices: 5:00 PM, 5:30 PM, 6:00 PM, 8:15 PM and 8:30 PM. These choices were given even though we phoned for the reservations as soon as they were opened at 8:00 AM for reservations. So in effect they are giving times similar to the fixed dining schedules and not "anytime dining".
Tours and events such as wine tastings shouldn't be covered in constant talk. Let the participants savor the experience and talk among themselves, especially wine tastings.
o Very speedy and effortless checking-in procedure; including very helpful porters on the dock.
o The Piazza in the center part of the ship had several excellent shows - jugglers, acrobats, etc. that kept us entertained.
o The Caribe and Horizon Court buffets were strong on their food choices and innovative themes.
o The specialty restaurant Sabatini's is excellent with food, service and atmosphere.
o The Cruise Director gave very informative talks about the ports we visited. If you miss them you can always see them on the TV in your cabin since they are on a continuous loop on one of the channels.
o "Anytime dining" is really a misnomer - at least if you want to make reservations. You are limited to 5:00; 5:30; 6:00 and 8:15 and 8:30. These times are clearly chosen to overlap with the fixed dining seatings.
o The gym is crowded - and the overall space is small for a ship this size. The gym is equipped with Precor gear; about 22 treadmills, 5 elliptical machines, a few stationary bikes, and an assortment of strength training machines. At times, a section of the treadmills were roped off "out of courtesy for the passengers in the suites below".
o The waiters in the dining rooms may tell you fish dishes can't be cooked on the rare side when you request it, perhaps due to the fact that the cruise line may be trying to avoid people getting sick if the fish is prepared improperly.
Good room spacewise, standard balcony, average bathroom, hallway busy, noise from early morning runners overhead.