This is an extensive review...Bear with me, but this is our honest opinion and our personal view. Firstly, to put this cruise into context it will have been our 17th. We have enjoyed 3 previous cruises with 'Thompson', all of which have been fine and we thought good value for money. This was why we booked with their new branding 'Marella' and we were looking forward to going on the Explorer.
The advertising and videos looked fine, and the Baltic was an area we had not cruised in but had been to independently previously. The port itinerary was great, Copenhagen, Warnemunde, Stockholm, St Petersburg, Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga, Klaipeda, and Fredericia. We had visited Tallinn and Riga both previously. The cruise did what it said on the tin, and destinations were not disappointing with no problems visiting the ports. All through the cruise, we were blessed with sunny weather and mainly calm seas. From this aspect, the voyage went well.
Embarkation was good, as it was at the ports, and at the end of our cruise; well organised by the ship and no issues. Same in Russia, where good advice was given by destination services on procedure etc. There was enough time to organise and plan your own trips/activities if you had not booked ship ones, and what excursions we did take were reasonable and good. One issue which a number of people raised was the point that Marella no longer provides port maps in an effort to reduce their carbon footprint and help the planet. Fine, but a lot of people were not happy accessing an online map version on the ship, and some are not IT savvy, so its a cheap cost-cutting exercise in our view. You can in most places get a 'hard copy' map from the cruise terminals at the ports you visit for free anyway.
In Stockholm, we went to the ABBA museum and a walk around the old town. Probably as cheap to do this with the cruise ship excursion than independently. In St Petersburg, it was, as always busy but the Panoramic Tour we did with the ship excursion was very good. Our trip to the Ballet was also good. The second day we visited the Yusopov Palace and had a canal trip. It was somewhat chaotic due to road closures ( not Marella's fault ), and our guide was somewhat confused and our experience of Yousopof was marred by rude staff. The disembarkation from our canal cruise via an unstable and unsecured gangway was downright dangerous and a major health and safety issue, which we reported to Marella, and which they need to take up with the operator before someone is injured or worse. A number of passengers were phased by this incident on our trip.
Those were the only organised trips we took, apart from a shuttle to enter Helsinki which Marella charged £5.00 return for. I am not sure if in the past with Thompson these were free. They are not now.
However, now to comment on the onboard experience., the good and not so good. Let's start by saying the staff were polite and good-natured, and worked incredibly hard. Any queries we had were dealt with promptly but we had a number of issues. ( See cabin report ).
From getting on the ship the hard sell started. I was asked almost straight away if I wanted a premium drinks package. We don't drink much, so it was of little use to us. The all-inclusive was fine, as there is no shortage of the stuff either !. I drink mainly wine, and the white, red and rose were perfectly acceptable, but cocktails are invariable too sweet ( depends on taste though ) and lacking in alcoholic 'punch'. Spirits were not of great quality.
I suppose our biggest disappointment was food and service in the dining room. We felt that the quality of the ingredients had gone down from previous 'Thompson' cruises, and some of the meals over salty ( again, personal taste ). There was certainly less choice on the evening menu, and some of the meats were fatty ( lamb ) and poorly presented with bland and repetitive vegetables. The Latitude 53 dining room was very hit and miss. The evening meal was 3 courses, fine for us, but a few people were not happy, The Market Buffet was essentially the same with little change.
There were no specific theme nights, a feature we have found on other cruises. The Italian option Vista was quite good, and the Tapas evening restaurant OK. The major issue was service, so much so we complained and met the catering manager.
In Latitude 53 we waited one evening 3/4 of an hour to obtain our starters and the next evening 1hr before receiving our main course, and we were not alone. A gentleman at the next table waited with us, only to be served cold soup after the wait. My wife is on medication before meals and needs to eat within a reasonable time after taking it, and such a long delay made her feel ill. Often the dishes were presented lukewarm.
The catering services manager responded quickly and admitted there was a 'communication problem'. He offered us a complimentary meal in a premium restaurant, which was nice, but not the object of our exercise !. We did try both the steak restaurant and the oriental one and they were both good and worth the extra money. Over and above communication however, there seems to be a cost cutting exercise in staffing. The same issue was evident in the bars, where there was a lack of waiting on staff and it could take quite a while to order drinks from the bar areas. It got to such a state that we often ate in the Market Place Buffet where we were able to serve ourselves and eat in time for the first show in the evening which we liked to go to.
That said, entertainment in the theatre was varied, and unfortunately, again not as good as on our other cruises. The entertainers were enthusiastic even if at times the quality was lacking. The theatre has good sight lines and is comfortable. The acts engaged were OK. A comedy duo and singer. We had an individual comedy entertainer ( forgot his name ) who we did not enjoy. The musician in the venues were Ok, apart from the piano player who was an expert at being out of tune. Sea days dragged ( there were not many, and we normally like them ). However, the activities were not well organised. No, I don't want to learn how to fold a towel or napkin. There were no talks or lectures as we have had on other cruises, only the destinations talk by the crew who were out to hard sell excursions. Such a shame as the lack of activity was commented on by more than ourselves. The gym was busy though and I got time to read two books !.
The onboard cinema was a great idea if they had put more films on and not used it most of the day to flog acupuncture treatments and consultations with the onboard acupuncturist. There was such a lot we could have learned about the Baltic, and it was an opportunity missed. So of all the Thompson 'Marella' ships this has been the most disappointing in the entertainment offerings, surprising as Thompson were widely praised for their cruise ship entertainment in the past. The usual hard sell from the cruise ship shops was evident, but that happens everywhere. They were even trying to flog Bridge Tours at just under £10.00 !!.
Did we enjoy the Baltic, yes the ports were fine and the trip went very smoothly As we said the staff were fine, but in our view, the management need to take a long hard look at the training and support they give and the quality of what they are delivering. Standards have undoubtedly dropped as prices have risen. It's a competitive market and people will not pay good money for 3rd rate cruise experiences. Would we cruise Marella again ??? I doubt it if this is what they are offering.
Cabin: We opted for an outside picture window, and this was on deck 8. This is allocated on arrival unless you are willing to pay an extra 'fee' ( I think about £48.00 ) to choose your cabin. We have not met this practice before, perhaps we have missed something !. It seems Marella must be going down the same route as budget airlines in that your cabin will be allocated unless you pay to choose it. Not good, and another money making exercise. We were allocated one close to the bow. Not so bad for us as we don't suffer sea sickness, but quite bumpy when rough.
The cabin was adequate and very clean. Our cabin steward was good and of great help. We had a double bed which was two singles put together, and my side had a distinct 'dip' in the middle due I found out to a bent bedframe. I think someone of 'ample' proportions must have slept in it previously, but my first night was quite uncomfortable. I reported this, along with incessant noise from the air conditioning blower which, apart from temperature, we could not alter. The bed mattress was altered and I was told nothing could be done about the air conditioning fan. It was fixed in a fashion, and I slept better for the rest of the cruise. The shower was good, but no specific soaps and moisturisers as on previous Thompson cruises, just packet soap and shower gell from a universal dispenser.
There was a lack of writing materials, and there was no passenger laundry to use. Laundry was available on a 'same day' premium pay per item basis or a cheaper pay for item next day service. Unlike on previous ships you could not launder or iron your own items. Again, not good we thought and another added cost. We took handwash and managed to wash smalls and dry them on a towel on our window, but it was warm weather and it worked out well. Our advice is bring a travel iron !!. There was adequate lighting in the cabin and also draws/storage space and hangers. Another point, we were close to the Broadway Lounge, and we could hear singing and music in the cabin till late as they were practicing and the shows were on