August/September 2014 Berlin and Royal Princess Cruise: Baltic’s and Transatlantic
Part 1: Berlin and Royal Princess Baltic’s Cruise
8/23-9/2/2014 Pre Cruise time in Berlin
We had a delightful 10 day stay in Berlin before we got on a cruise ship for the Baltic’s and Transatlantic cruise back to NYC. We really enjoyed Berlin and it was probably the highlight of the vacation.
We stayed in Berlin at the Adina Apartment Hotel Berlin Hackescher Markt, 11 An der Spandauer Brcke, Berlin 10178. Located in the historic district of Mitte, it was also located in the old Jewish District and an easy walk to the river Spree with its many boat ride opportunities. We loved this hotel; it was in an awesome location and enabled us to walk almost everywhere. It took 15 minutes to get to the hotel from the airport, although we came in late at about 9pm and there was no traffic at all. It was located next to the train station/subway station at Hackescher Markt, as well as a tram line, making it a perfect jump off spot for all discoveries. As an added bonus we were surrounded by lovely restaurants, I cannot say enough about this hotel.
The hotel staff was excellent; they were always available to help with directions and suggestions. There was free Internet available for use in the lobby area and the lobby area had lots of couches and chairs and places to gather and email. The rooms were well appointed; we had a nice sized room with a huge balcony and a nice kitchen for snacks and morning coffee. It was well stocked with all the dishes and cooking utensils for making meals and even a dishwasher to clean up afterwards. We had an excellent coffee maker and they provided coffee. Around the corner were several well-stocked markets so we could buy whatever we needed such as coffee, fruit, and even meat, cheese, and bakery items.
During our stay we used the Ho-Ho bus, there were actually 3 different ones but we choose the least expensive one because it served our needs well. Make sure you check out all the Ho-Ho buses, their maps and costs so you can compare and pick the one that suites your needs best. We also used some “Frommers” and “fodors” walks to familiarize us with the areas. Some of these walks are available for free on the web.
Our second day we used the Frommer's walking tour called "Dark past, Bright future". We walked through Mitte as we meandered our way past the new Jewish synagogue as well as a part of the ancient Jewish synagogue, among other interesting places. We found this wonderful Middle Eastern restaurant called Dada Falafel, which is very close to the Jewish synagogue. The food was delicious; we each ordered different plates and loved every morsel of food that we got there. The falafels were yummy, as were all the sauces, couscous, hummus, and more. This was one of the best falafel's we had in a long time. This was certainly a be-back kind of the restaurant; we ended up eating here four times in the 10 days we were in Berlin. Not only was the service spectacular, they had live entertainment and the singer and pianist, which were wonderful. In total that day we must've walked 8 miles and my feet were killing me. We retired early because we plan to get up really early and have a full day of touring.
We had the reservations for the Reichstag tour the following day and were excited to visit. It turned out to be a highlight of the stay, it was interesting and at the top of it were magnificent views of Berlin. Got up early that day and ate at a local restaurant for breakfast which was really delicious. The restaurant was called Hackescher Hof. The breakfast menu was lovely, I had scrambled eggs with spinach and feta, wonderful toast, all of this for a mere €4.50.. We love this restaurant so much we ended up eating here almost every morning for breakfast. On to the Reichstag, we really enjoyed the experience and because I had made reservations in advance we got in quickly without waiting on any lines. After visiting this we walked to the Holocaust memorial, a haunting tribute to those murdered during the Nazi era. We also visited Checkpoint Charlie, as well as the Topography of terror. This was a somber afternoon but well worth the experiences and learning’s. Tomorrow we would visit the concentration camp outside Berlin. We found a Hertz car rental and grabbed the car we reserved and drove back to the hotel, we found driving in Berlin easy as well as all over Germany. Ken got to drive one 100MPH on the Autobahn, which was really fun!
Having picked up our car the day before, it was time for our Mosaic tour of Sachsenhousen concentration camp with guide Brian. This camp was located close to Berlin although Chris and Ken had different opinions about how to get out of Berlin and ignored our GPS, who we finally referred to as Flossie! Anyway it took us three times as long as we anticipated to get to the train station where we would meet our mosaic tour guide Brian. Gratefully Brian waited for us. From there we walked for miles to get to the entrance of the concentration camp. My feet were killing me and we hadn't even begun the tour.
Brian gave a fantastic tour, for me it was so enlightening where I had thought it might be simply frightening. This was an educational tour and I learned so much, I really was impressed with Brian. Our tour mates were very kind as they waited for us an extra half-hour because we were late and we were really grateful for them. I highly recommend mosaic tours if you want to learn about what happened in a typical camp from a historical perspective. In spite of this being such a horrific subject, Brain taught me about how serious the new Germans are about anti-Semitism and all hateful behavior. I have to say I came away from this with a newfound love of the German people, as a Jew this says a lot!
We came home fairly late, taking much less time to get back as the boys learned how to get back to Berlin using GPS! We decided to walk up to a new restaurant called Amrit, an Indian restaurant very close to the falafel place. The food was quite delicious, except the appetizer plate, which was really terrible, all fried and tasting bland. In spite of the food being tasty, the service was not very good. The waiter pointed to my husband stomach and embarrassed him, and all of us thought that was very rude. Good thing he didn't do that to me cause I would've slapped him hard. So even though we enjoyed the food we would never go back there again.
We stop for some dessert, Chris had to have apple torte and we walk to a restaurant on the river spree to get it. I had a scoop of ice cream, after ordering something called a Caramel Crunch, which was so hard it practically broke my teeth. I am not sure what they did to the Carmel but even the waitress could not eat it! Although we had returned here several times this ended up being our last visit.
Another dinner place we visited several times which was across the street from our hotel was a Mediterranean restaurant called Trattoria Ossena. The food was quite good and reasonably priced. They had yummy thin-crusted Pizza’s and great pasta dishes. They did not have free tap water so we had to pay for bottled! After dinner we stopped at Häagen-Dazs and got some ice cream, right across the street and around the corner of our hotel, very convenient! We stopped here too much, my clothing was getting tighter and tighter!
We took an Underground Tour of bunkers under subways, it was recommended by one of our friends who were staying at our hotel. This was a fantastic tour, really illuminated the way the Nazi’s thought and I was pleased with how humble our tour guide was, she was accurate and really owned the way the people of Nazi Germany’s views were very messed up and negative. I found this incredible attitude all over Germany, these people were model citizens who had learned and had grown from the negative Nazi prejudices’ to full ownership of the atrocities of that thinking. I really loved Berlin, and all of Germany and found this expanded vision everywhere I went. It was a great learning for me.
We also took several Canal rides on the Spree River—first we took a one-hour tour which was nice but very limited in where it visited. Several days later we took a 4-hour tour which visited all the locks and took us to many interesting locations. The 4 hours tour was about one hour too long and we jumped off the boat and found our way back to Berlin’s Mitte district easily using subways, trains, and trams. After being in Berlin for 10 days we really got the hang of public transportation and would have rented the car for less days since we paid for it, its parking space at our hotel, and gas (diesel). We all agreed that Berlin was a wonderful place to visit and were glad we had such a long and leisurely visit.
Transfers with SPB—I had arranged for transfers for 10 from Berlin to the port over a year in advance. When I made these arrangements we were set up to pay $80 pp for a total of $800 for the bus/transfers, and we were set for a departure time of 9am at our hotel Adina. Several friends from cruise critic who were not staying at our hotel had arranged to share a cab from their hotel to ours.
I had booked a large 16 seat bus for 10 so that we would have no problems with luggage, based on an experience I had with transfers in Buenos Aires several years ago where there was not enough room for everybody’s luggage and that resulted in luggage being piled up in the bus with us and somebody got hit in the head by flying luggage. I was not going to have that on the transfers I arranged for.
A few weeks before we left for Berlin and the cruise, we all got a note from Viktoria who stated that the prices for the transfers had doubled in price. She had not actually contacted the bus company early on and by the late date she did contact them the price had doubled. Everybody was very upset needless to say, and a many folks complained. She finally offered to do the transfers for $100pp, and everybody agreed to that price increase. We were all about compromises given no other choices at that late date. You’d think this is the end of the story but it gets worse!
Our transfers were set for a 9am pick from our hotel because the port was at least 2 hours away from Berlin without traffic. Everybody was ready to go by 8:45 am at the hotel unfortunately the transfer bus did not actually show up until close to noon. Apparently Viktoria was having problems arranging for these transfers because she left it to the last minute, and needless to say, people were very upset and worried about making it to the ship on time.
Our group was put in a very compromising position and the price increase should have never happened, let alone the 3 hour late pick-up. Thankfully the bus was roomy enough for everybody’s luggage and the driver was nice as well. However there were more problems we encountered when paying for the transfers. Some people were charged $75 for two transfers, while others were charged $75 per person. Those who paid more were upset and those who paid less didn’t want to talk about this! All in all, this was a very weird experience and thankfully it all turned out OK. Be careful using them for transfers, this is not their forte!
9/2/2014 Royal Princess Baltic’s Cruise Part Two
9/4/14 Tallinn, Estonia
Our first port was Tallinn, was a beautiful town that was very old and filled with cobbled streets and lots of charm. We pulled into the port town early and began our tour at 9 am. We disembarked quickly, went through immigration and boarded an SPB bus, which took us to a meeting point. We would be expected to find our way back to the ship after our tour and free time in this lovely town. We met our guide Triin who was a statuesque blond with a fantastic manner and expert knowledge of Estonia through many political incarnations.
She oriented us to our meeting location, gave us an overview of the history of Tallinn and off we went on our small bus, headed for Toompea hill, also know as Upper town. We got off the bus in our small group of 14 and began our slow descent to lower town in what I like to call the gravity tour! The upper town was old and cobbled, I was glad I wore a sturdy pair of shoes with lots of support. This is no place for flip-flops or heels.
We visited the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky with its beautiful mosaic interiors. Silently we watched as people participated in confession as a Mass was going on. This was a lovely church, and it was nice to see it filled with people. We were not allowed to take pictures but the gift shop sold many books and postcards as well as religious artifacts.
Next we headed to a lookout point where we could see a panoramic view of the Lower Town. Triin pointed out several steeples, one of which was the tallest building of its time. The red rooftops where so picturesque and the ancient medieval towers and walls were visible from above. We were warned against pickpockets, which was much appreciated.
President Obama had been there yesterday and Triin showed us where he stayed in one of the tallest buildings in town. She got very emotional when she talked about how Obama promised them freedom, in light of the former Russian occupation and the German occupation before that. Triin had grown up in a different Tallinn, one that was compromised by their former Soviet government. She was deeply touched by Obama’s speech.
We headed down to the Lower Town via a narrow cobbled street that was steep with some steps and very slippery, descending from Troompea hill and upper town to the Lower town filled with all the medieval walls and towers. The narrow streets and alleys were so scenic as we walked through Catherine’s Passage and headed for the Gothic town hall, which was built in the early 1400’s. We passed some old tombstones and a Dominican Monastery on the way to the ancient walls that surrounded the old city. On the way Triin treated us to some delicious fresh spiced almonds which were being made on the streets, after we left Triin we went back to buy some of these nuts they were so good.
Our tour ended at the old Viru gates, which was where we could find our transfer buses back to the ship. Instead of heading to the ship, we walked back to the large square where an open market was going on and sat and people watched. Then we found the shop where Triin said the best Marzipan could be found, and it was delicious and very reasonably priced! We also found an ancient Pharmacy, one of the oldest working Pharmacies in Europe and it was quite interesting with its displays and the still functioning pharmacy. Slowly we meandered our way back to the bus, passing a flower market and a clothing market as well. On the way we stopped at the port and grabbed some free Internet, something we did at almost every port!
We used SPB tours for all the sightseeing we did in the Baltic’s including Copenhagen, Helsinki, Stockholm, Tallinn, and a deluxe 2 day tour in St. Petersburg, Russia. We paid a total of $640 dollars for all 6 tours, which was a great price. The company is far better at providing tours than transfers.
9/5-9/6/14 St. Petersburg, Russia
DAY 1 7.30 am – 6.00 pm--meet guide at 7-7:30 after we went through immigration, which was quick and easy and not nearly as time consuming as we were expecting. Our Guides name was Maria and she was very hard to understand. It took me a full day to process her pronunciation and language differences, by that time half the tour was over. We had arranged for a group of 10 of us as a totally private tour and these two days we were a smaller group of 10 rather than the 14+ other people had. We paid a bit more for this; it was worth it not to have to struggle to hear the guide. One downside here is that we probably did not get the best guide because our group was smaller.
Here is what we did on day one, and the order in which we did it:
• City sightseeing tour.
• Subway ride
• A visit to Peter and Paul's fortress and cathedral, the burial place of the Russian Emperors
• Shopping at a place where they had “free’ bathrooms, free shots of Vodka or coffee, and free nibbles.
• Hydrofoil ride to Peterhof
• Walk in the Peterhof Lower fountain park and the Upper gardens
• Drive to the Tsars’ Village
• Late Lunch at a local restaurant where they would not allow us to drink the Vodka our guide gave us earlier in the day. We snuck some anyway, under the table.
• A visit to the Catherine's palace with the Amber room and a walk in the park
We were exhausted after our first day, and delighted to hear the bus had free Internet, from this moment on we all were emailing pictures to each other and our families and facebook, and texting/emailing up a storm. We found many buses throughout Europe have internet access, or hotspots as they are called.
DAY 2 8.00 am – 5.00 pm-- we meet the guide at 8-8:30, this time immigration was even faster. Our second day started out well, we got off the ship quickly and we finally met up with Viktoria as it was time to pay for all our tours, past-present-and future. This is where I noticed some inconsistencies in what she charged us for the messed up transfers in Berlin. See my transfer notes above.
Here is what we did, and the order we did it in.
• City sightseeing tour through the canals by boat. Here we had a different guide who spoke perfect English, I wished we had a guide who was easy to understand like this fellow. Not that Maria was not a good guide, she was fine and embodied a typical Russian. She did not change her clothing for the two full days we spent with her!
• Special early entrance to the Hermitage
• Lunch at a local restaurant where we had savory and sweet cakes
• A visit to Church of Our Savior on the Blood
• Excursion to the Yusupovs' Palace
• A visit to the St. Isaac's cathedral
Our special early entrance to the Hermitage was a joke; we were immersed in a long line of others who were also privy to this “special” early entrance. It was so crowed that I hardly had to use my feet to walk around, I was swept up by a large crowd comparable to my experience of being at the Great Wall of China on May 1st when all of China visits the wall. I was not certain how special our early entrance was when I had to wait for 5 plus minutes to see the special items in each room we visited, and even then I had to fight for viewing space as some people suffer from entitlement issues and push and step on toes all the time. DO NOT WEAR SCANDELS because your toes will definitely be stepped on! Also, carry tissues which can be used as emergency toilet paper, and as a mask to get you through some smelly bathrooms like the one we used in the Hermitage Museum!
Our Bus driver was great, at one point after visiting the Hermitage, my cell phone was out of juice and our bus driver was able to charge it up in about a half hour. This was much appreciated because I did not realize how much power the cell phone uses when snapping photos. I used my cell as a camera throughout the whole trip as Ken was the official cameraman!
Our meals were included in the tour price; they were not great but adequate and represented typical Russian meals. I liked the sweet cakes better than the savory cakes on the second day, but then I have a huge sweet tooth. This was very close to the Hermitage and we walked to the restaurant once we exited the museum. The streets of the city in this area smelled of sewage badly.
After two full days of touring we were ready to go back to the ship as early as possible, we actually did not visit St. Isaac’s cathedral because we were burned out on sightseeing! I was glad I had not planned any extra night visits the night before because I was all toured out. We certainly enjoyed our two-day tour with SPB in Russia and would recommend it as a comprehensive and less expensive alternative to ship tours.
9/7/14 Helsinki, Finland
We had a 3-hour tour in Helsinki with SPB, here we were on a larger bus with about 32 people. Our guide was from Scotland, not a native of Finland although he had lived there for many years and was knowledgeable.
We stopped at an interesting place on the coast where a giant balloon was set up and I spied a farmers/craft market, which I cannot resist. We talked the guide into letting us have a quick 15-minute break here so we could peruse that market. We all bought a few items, me a long sock hat and my friend found several baskets of berries, because she was not able to get any berries on the ship she was happy to find some here. They were expensive, but good!
On this tour we only got a short visit to some of the more important places such as Senate Square and the Lutheran Church that towers over the square. We found free bathrooms in the church, had to climb a lot of stairs to get to it but it was worth it if only for the magnificent views it afforded. We did not have much times here, it seemed like we spent most of our time on the bus doing sightseeing from there, including a very short stop to see the Olympic Stadium used for the 1952 Summer Olympics!
Our longest stop was at Sibelius Park where we visited the Steel Pipe Monument built over the course of 10+years by a female Finnish Artist using 527 steel pipes which honored the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. This was quite unusual and we all were able to climb around it and under it and see the interesting way it was created. After viewing this monument, we took a walk to the river and learned more about this area.
Our final stop was the Rock Church, a one of a kind Church built into the bedrock with quarried stones. It was mid-day and a church service had just ended so we were allowed into this unusual place. It was so crowded here, certainly not a great place for those who suffer from claustrophobia. We were pushed and shoved by what seemed like hundreds and hundreds of tourists all vying for viewing space. This was supposed to be a quiet place but all I could hear was screaming children and I was horrified by the behavior of the crowds. I made my way out of there as quickly as I could!
Our tour ended where it began, although it was supposed to end at the train station it ended instead at the entrance to the port. This port had quite a few local shops with local items and I found it to be a good place to buy some stuff, this was not an inexpensive place at all and most of the items were very expensive, but at least they were all local to Finland.
9/8/14 Stockholm (Nynashamn), Sweden
I was totally surprised by Stockholm! The day started off chaotic, mostly because it was a tender port and there was a giant issue with communication. We were instructed to meet at 8 am by the guy who organized our private SPB tours, always at the IC. Meanwhile throughout the morning there was a series of announcements about the tenders, one telling us we would be late due to fog, the next telling us we would disembark immediately since they going to fill the 5 Limo tenders at the same time. It was quite confusing. We went from having a leisurely cup of coffee to racing for the tenders!
We all got on one of the five tenders and made to early to the SPB buses. Now that we all knew that there was internet hotspots on all the SPB buses, we connected to our emails and web browsers and played. This is both good and bad; it's free but distracts us from the tour guide’s narration. Anyway we were ready for our 5-hour tour!
When we finally reached Stockholm, I was surprised at how pretty it was, large and scenic. We stopped at a lookout and our guide pointed out some historic landmarks. Back in the bus, our next stop was the town hall/ government center. This was a lovely brick building filled with lots of history, pomp, and such. We had a half hour here, walking up and down the stairs and looking at the different decorations and rooms in it. We also had a few minutes to shop in the gift store but the prices were so expensive I did not buy a thing.
Next we visited the very interesting Vasa museum, with the humongous ship smack in the middle of the giant room built for it. This ship had sunk the day it sailed for the first time. There were three levels in this museum, all providing different perspectives to view the ship. Ken would have liked to stay here longer than the tour afforded, next time we are here we will visit this museum for half a day in order to see it all. We ate at the cafe because we did not bring any sandwiches from the ship, when will we learn? It was good and very expensive. We paid close to $20 for soup, salad, and bread and shared it!
After the Vasa Museum we headed to the oldest part of city called the Gamla Stan. We went on a quick walking tour with our guide who oriented us and brought us to the meeting place where we were expected to be in one hour. Off we all scattered to make our way through the narrow, cobbled streets perusing shops and restaurants and again put off by the high costs of everything! I visited some antiques stores in search of old glass/crystal doorknobs, which I collect when I can find them. No such luck here, we ended up sitting in one of the squares and people watching until it was time to go meet our guide at the bus. Our guide actually left us here, so we gave her a tip, piled into the bus, and off to the port where we would have to tender back to the ship. The tenders were empty and it was easy to get back to the ship.
9/10/14 Copenhagen, Denmark (turnaround day, start of Transatlantic)
This was the final stop for this segment of the tour, turnaround day. This was also our last SPB tour, making this the 6th one we had in as many days. The port was far from everything, it took us 20+ minutes to get into the city and the drive was not very scenic.
Our first stop was to see the Little Mermaid, which was right at the waterfront, perched out on a rock. Of course it was very crowded and we had to wait and take our pictures when the crowds subsided. There was shopping around the Little Mermaid and here I bought a cute magnet for 5 Euros, it was the best deal in town!
From here we went to Amalienborg Palace and Square which is the residence of the Royal Danish Family. I had fun trying to take a selfie with the guards, who did not talk and did not smile! We bumped into lots of princess tours here, as we did everywhere we went with SPB, one of my main complaints about this private tour company who never took advantage of going to places at times when the ship tours were not there!
Next we passed the city centers highlights like Tivoli Gardens, the Opera House, and Town Hall Square and stopped at Christianborg Palace for a tour. We spent a significant amount of time here visiting all of the rooms of this complex which houses the Danish Parliament, the Supreme court, and the Prime Ministers offices. It was a beautiful complex filled with art, tapestries, and beautiful furniture. In the Royal Reception rooms we saw many beautiful tapestries lining the walls, each telling a different story about the culture and history of Denmark.
Then we went to a large square where we had 1.5 hours of free time to visit, shop, or eat. We choose to eat at a local restaurant on a small and scenic side street while one of our group shopped! I had the most expensive but delicious sandwich here, made of dark rye bread, mango chutney, goat cheese, and shredded beets, it was yummy and I ate every bite. Ken ordered a side of fries (10 Euros) and they were not so good!
On the way back to the ship we passed Nyhavn (the new harbor), where in spite of being promised to see and walk this most scenic area, we were out of time and not able to see it at all! It looked lovely and I was bummed out that I missed it completely.
Part 2: 9/2/2014 Royal Princess Transatlantic Cruise Ports
9/11/14 Kristiansand, Norway
We did one Princess tour during the 25-day cruise, and this was in Kristiansand, Norway. Kristiansand is Norway’s fifth largest city and it is beautifully located on the scenic southern coast. This is a popular vacation spot for the Norwegians, summer is the busy season and we were visiting it during the between season where it is still summer but most kids have gone back to school and vacation time is over. I had a tough time finding out much info about this town, which is why I opted to take the Princess tour in the first place. Had I know that the ship would be docked right in the downtown area, close to many quaint streets which were easy to get access to, I would have done a DIY tour instead. Most of my friends had just walked off the ship and followed the many streets to lots of places, including a fresh fish market that was practically next to the ship. There were a lot of activities in this downtown area, not to mention lots of shopping.
On our Princess excursion we did a cruise through the Blindleia Passage to Lillesand, a cute and charming little town that was quite scenic. The cruise was nice but the guide was not very exciting and I just didn’t feel any passion or love from him, something I notice that good guides always have. The passages was striking in a haunting way, with all of its interesting rock formations, and perfectly calm waters. The homes around this passage were expensive, in the million-euro neighborhood for most of them! It was a beautiful area.
The town of Lillesand where we finished the cruise was mostly closed, not only because it was early in the day but also because it was late in the season and most residents were there for the summer only. Finally, we only had a half hour to visit the town and it was not enough time to walk through the narrow winding lanes throughout, so we didn’t see much of it at all. This town was so cute; it certainly deserved more time than we were allotted to visit it. If I ever come back here I will find my own transportation to get back to Lillesand, it really required several hours to explore during “open” hours. The excursion was not worth the money we spent on it at all!
9/14/14 Reykjavik, Iceland
Iceland was an amazing place to visit. We had a private “Golden Circle Tour’ which covered many of the striking geological formations and other interesting aspects of this lonely Island in the middle of nowhere. Our guide picked us up promptly and off we went to explore the natural attractions of Iceland.
Our first stop was Thingvellir National Park, the drive to this place was spectacular and our guide filled us in on all the historic and geological tidbits we needed to know in order to enhance our visit. Thingvellir Park is located in a rift valley and was covered in most places by lava from an ancient volcano. It was also the location of the ancient Viking Parliament. It was eerie and haunting to walk through this geological wonder because it contained the Mid-Atlantic ridge, which runs up the Atlantic Ocean all the way through Iceland and beyond. This ridge separates Europe’s tectonic plate with the Atlantic plate and is the place where much of the new land on earth is produced. Its very unusual in that most of the ridge lies deep in the ocean and is difficult to explore but here in Iceland it is above water and easy to access. This ridge causes Iceland to have many Volcanoes and Earthquakes since this is where two tectonic plates meet.
Beating the cruise ship crowds was awesome; at first we had the whole place to ourselves, although soon more and more busloads of people arrived. We got to walk through a large part of this area, crossing a river and passing by some interesting formations and waterfalls. This was an astounding area; one could have one foot in Europe and the other on the Atlantic plate, which ultimately goes to the Eastern edge of the USA. It was an amazing place to visit, a definite must see. From here we could see in the distance one of Iceland’s many Glaciers, another amazing site to behold!
Our next stop was Gullfoss Waterfall, another amazing natural sight that was breathtaking. Having this place to our selves once again, we beat the big buses and had a few moments to ponder and pose for pictures as well as selfies with our whole group. These falls were magnificent, a term I will use over and over again to describe Iceland’s geological wonders! As we hiked down to get close to the falls, water was spraying and it was good we had raincoats with hoods on to protect us as it also started to rain a little. These falls with their double cascade that plunged down 105 feet into a deep gorge were nicknamed the Golden Falls, and they produced many rainbows although I had a hard time photographing any of them. The sun was playing hide and seek with me!
Our next stop was Krysuvik Solfataras, also situated in the Mid Atlantic Ridge. This was a very interesting area with steam vents, bubbling mud pots, hot springs, algae deposits, and geysers all among a very stark landscape. We sat waiting for the largest geyser called Strokkur to blow, and it was shooting off water and steam every few minutes. Some explosions were taller than others, but it was very predictable and we could stand in front of it and capture a picture while it blew pretty easily. We were among many people now so it took several minutes to gain access to the spot. The smell of sulfur was strong in the air.
This place was busy with many tourists by this time so it was difficult to get pictures of the Geysers and bubbling mud pots without people in them! Nonetheless we all got the photos we wanted and walked across the street to several places to eat. Most of us had packed a bag lunch off the ship so we went into the less expensive restaurant to eat, there were picnic tables everywhere and this seemed like the best place to settle in, and several of our group bought food here and we all sat together. At some point, a man came up to us and asked us to not eat our bag lunches here so we left and went out to the van to finish our food. We did not go back in to buy anything at the store that was connected to the restaurant either, although we did use the restrooms before we started eating.
Next we stopped at a cute country store, which all the girls had to go into, our guide bought several loaves of bread while we bought Chocolate bars made in Iceland, Icelandic Salt, and several different candy’s all from Iceland. This was the place to buy souvenirs, the prices were the best we could find and we were glad we had stopped here and gotten out. We all wondered about the bread our guide bought, but not for long!
Our next stop was amazing; we pulled up to a spot close to a large group of wild Icelandic Horses and their babies (foils). Our guide brought us over to them and taught us how to feed them, it was so exciting and I was completely in travel ecstasy! We sat feeding them for 15-20 minutes, snapping pictures and selfies and oohing and awwing away as these incredible horses gently ate out of our hands. We learned that these horses are very special; Iceland does not allow any horses from outside in so the breed is very pure, and very unusual looking. These horses are shorter and stockier than other breeds; they have more hair and look distinctly different from other horses. They were magnificent to interact with and this was a once in a lifetime moment for me.
Now it was time to head back towards Reykjavik and the port, we had been so immersed in this lovely country that time seemed to stop! I was shocked at how late it was. We stopped at The Pearl on the way back to the Port. This 10-story complex was quite striking because of its unique circular architecture and the fact that it uses geothermal heat to serve Reykjavik’s water storage needs. Iceland runs completely on geothermal energy, it is free and they are one of the only countries that totally rely on this green energy. Anyway we all went inside and took the elevator, or stairs, to the top to see some great views of Reykjavik and to make purchases at the store! There was also a glass-domed restaurant at the top that revolved but we had no time for that.
As we headed back to the ship our guide talked about how autos cost a lot to buy here but if you buy an electric car, the energy is free and you do not pay taxes on it. A good incentive, we saw a lot of electric cars around.
We made a quick detour through Reykjavik, stopping briefly at the interesting church for pictures, and hearing a few interesting tidbits about the town’s past. We drove down several streets and saw lots of places to shop and eat but we did not have time for any of that. Our day was done, we had seen some amazing sights in Iceland and I was certain that I wanted to return and see more!
One last note here about the Northern Lights. Several days before we got to Iceland I had gotten a heads up from a NASA and a Northern Lights list I am on that there had been several large solar flairs and it was a sure bet that there would be Northern Lights on the day we were in Iceland. I was so excited about this, it’s a lifelong dream to see this spectacular display of lights, and now I was surely going to see them. Our guide had informed us that the lights were definitely going to be visible that night if it cleared up, but it never cleared. We did not see any lights at all because it remained cloudy for the two days it took to get back to Europe. So I guess this trip was not going to be the one I saw the Northern Lights on, that remains on my bucket list!
9/17/14 Glasgow (Greenock), Scotland
We had a fantastic tour with George Martin owner of Go-Go bus tours of Scotland, we really pack a lot into our 6 hour day and I fell in love with Scotland and the Scottish people.
I woke up to the sounds of Bagpipes, looked out of my balcony to see several Bagpipers playing for us as we pulled into port. It was so memorable and haunting, I love the sound of Bagpipes first thing in the morning. I cold not wait to get off the ship and start the day. We met at the IC and were off the ship quickly and without problems. Our driver and guide George was waiting for us and our tour began. We drove into Glasgow, maybe 25 minutes from the port, and listened as George filled us in on the Scottish history and lore. We were all mesmerized by the sound of his voice and his lovely Scottish accent.
Our first stop was at the Beautiful Glasgow Cathedral; it stands on the spot where St. Mungo founded Glasgow in the 6th century. This cathedral is a massive complex including a cemetery hill, and some gorgeous grounds. The Cathedral itself is humungous, with a large interior and lots of lower levers, all made of these massive stones and wood. We spend a good half hour exploring all the nooks and crannies of this place, and really enjoyed it. We were leaving just as the massive busloads of cruise ship tours were arriving, perfect timings.
We visited a lovely and free museum also on the grounds where they had plentiful bathrooms and a great gift shop with lots of reasonably prices goodies and mementos. This is where I bought a Celtic mood ring, and one for each of my tour mates and we all enjoyed wearing them and mine is still on me! As a good private guide should always do, George had timed our visit to miss the giant busloads of people again, he even got us to the free museum bathrooms before the crowds descended! As we left the bathrooms, a long line had already formed for the bathrooms. Good going George, this distinguished him as a superior tour guide and throughout the day we managed to miss crowds everywhere we went. It was fantastic.
Next we headed to the oldest house in Glasgow, a lovely 3 story stone house where I took to smelling those ancient stones, they smelled so earthy and I loved that sensation of smelling all the history and soot that passed through this home. I could have spent hours in this ancient place but the clock was ticking and we had many places to explore and things to visit. I begrudgingly departed from this wonderful and ancient home with a face full of soot and a very happy demeanor, I felt like a kid again, and that is why I love to travel so much as it brings out my creative imagination.
From here we traveled past the east end, the old medieval part of town and Glasgow Green, Britain’s oldest public place. We stopped to visit the People’s Palace and see the Victoria Fountain, the world’s largest terracotta fountain. It was quite beautiful and a perfect place to eat our bag lunch. After we visited the Peoples museum with its green conservancy and its lovely collection of historic pieces depicting life in Glasgow during WWII and later after the war, all the way up to present times. This was a very interesting and informative place, we had to be pulled away for it because time was ticking and we had more places to see.
We traveled along the banks of the River Clyde we pass St Andrew’s Cathedral and through the new central business district. This area was formerly the site of the shipbuilding yards and has now been transformed, results of this regeneration can be seen in the modern design of the recently erected buildings such as The Glasgow Science Centre, the “The Hydro" and The Riverside Museum of Transport and Travel.
Our tour continued to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, the buildings of Glasgow University and the Botanic Gardens. Glasgow was the Host City for 2014 Commonwealth Games and the Kelvingrove complex had a wonderful store with items from these games, some of them on sale. We spend some time at this complex, enjoying a free organ pipe concert, some free Internet, and a quick look at the art and antiquities that were displayed here. I even found a painting from my Great Uncle Josef Israels displayed in the museum, it was so touching to find a piece of my history here!
We headed back to the ship, totally sad that it was already time to go. We all enjoyed George immensely, he was an incredible guide and host and we appreciated touring with him very much. On our way back to the ship we had a lively conversation about politics as this country was going to vote tomorrow whether to leave England and become independent and George was well versed in the pros and cons although he would not tell us whether he voted yes (leave England) or no! We fell in love with Scotland and decided right then that we most certainly would return soon!
George Bryan Martin Company owner, Go-Go Bus Tours, Scotland. Tel: +44 (0) 1475 686070 Mobile: 0781 324 9197 email: email@example.com Website: www.go-goscotland.com For 8 people, the cost would remain at 270.00 GBP.
9/18/14 Belfast, Northern Ireland
Alister with City and Causeway Tours
We had an incredibly fun and exhilarating experience on a private tour in Belfast, Ireland. Our guide was born and raised in Belfast and had great knowledge of its history, topography, and knew all the back roads to the best places to visit when trying to see it all in one day! What a day we had.
We were picked up at the port promptly at 9am and departed for our first official stop at the Giants causeway, a natural wonder of the world and National landmark. On the way we took a small two lane coastal highway, which was magnificent and called the Antrim Coast Road. Later we also drove along the very scenic Torr Head road. Alister pointed out landmark after landmark including an optical illusion where we could see Scotland, and many other seaside points. We stopped at a small seaside town and bought drinks, and had a potty stop; this town was called Glenarm Village. After refreshing our diet cokes, water, and of course candy for my dear 95 year old aunt, we heading onward down the coast. Alister was quite animated as he drove scaring us a little but truly showing his expert knowledge of the roads and landmarks. We really enjoyed this guide as he epitomized all that we had come to love about Northern Ireland, with his animated passionate style.
So what if he drove while looking at us, calculating expenses on a calculator, bringing up iPad pictures, and illustrating with both hands! He had pointed out the “Jesus handles” for us to use while we careened down a tiny dirt back road. These were especially appreciated when he showed us a spot where he said "look at this, it looks like we are going off a cliff" as he floored the gas and we went flying over a hill gaining some air before we touched down on land! The girls kept applying lipstick; we figured we should look good when we died. It was our ongoing joke, nobody ever felt that they were in danger, Alister know the roads well and we never saw more than 2 other cars on all of the back roads.
Alister was also knowledgeable in botany, pointing out flowers and plants and describing what they looked like in full bloom. On Torr head road He stopped at some blackberry bushes and I climbed out and gathered berries for my group. Allotter offered us his slightly used coffee cup, lined with napkins, to put my berries in. He also clipped whole branches of berries for us to eat. Only one of us got berries crushed all over her pants, and we all survived unscathed (the following morning;) from eating those wild berries!
We made a quick detour threw the town of Ballycastle and onto the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge which we opted not to do, but the stop was much appreciated for a rest stop, and the magnificent views of the coast. We bumped into many friends here from the ship and it was nice to compare notes, our guide was certainly a stand out.
Next we headed for the Giants Causeway where we walked or rode down to the largest natural wonder of its kind in the world. This stop was perfect for all as some of us chose to walk while others opted to take a bus down to the columns of basalt rock formed by ancient volcanic eruptions, or by some ancient giants as told in a fairy tale we listened to after our visit. Alister insisted that the tale was the true story and we all fancied it as truth, when you visit you be the judge!
One note here is that there is a charge for the bus rides up and down to the causeway, one euro each way. We sort of snuck on since we honestly answered we were coming from the Royal Princess (true) which implied we were on a Princess tour (we were not) and we were scurried onto the bus without having to pay! The causeway is magnificent and should not be missed, although I doubt the visitors center is worth the money it costs to go inside, and after all this place is all about nature and the great outdoors. We all had plenty if time to walk, take pictures, and muse at these giant formations. Up at the visitors center we were told we needed to pay 8 Euros to go inside, including visiting the store, so we opted to spend our "magnet and trinket money" elsewhere.
We met our guide at the pub and headed to Dunluce Castle and the town surrounding it where we ate the best scones ever at the "Wee Cottage." They truly were the best I have ever had; don't miss this place, a small eatery with delicious food. One of the waitresses was from California, we chatted a little about how she ended up living in such a different place than Southern California. We also bumped into another tour group with City and Causeway tours and they were having as much fun as us, I have only good things to say about this company. Our guide took group pictures of us at every stop; we all appreciated these Polaroid memories, which we would cherish forever.
Anyway leaving the "Wee Cottage" we headed for Bushmills Whiskey distillery where we had the option of sampling the whiskey, taking a tour, and of course shopping for Whiskey, some of which could only be purchased at this location. We spent about a half hour there then departed heading back to the port on a different more direct road, which was nonetheless quite scenic. We stopped at a small stream where our guide pointed out some Salmon, which were easily seen as they jumped out of the river on their way upstream.
As we approached the port we took a quick drive through Belfast, our guide teaching us about the division between the Catholics and the Protestants and the walls that were built to divide them. These walls were quite disturbing, reminding us of the Berlin Wall which divided the city for so many years. Belfast's walls were colorful, filled with lots of graffiti, slogans, and colorful pictures depicting different aspects of each side. It was sad to see so much division amongst the Irish. We arrived back at the ship with plenty of time to spare, and there was lots of shopping at the port.
We thoroughly enjoyed our day with Alister, he was such a character and made our visit interesting, exciting, and added a sense of authenticity that really made a difference. He was bright, wacky, well informed, and really knew the back roads and roads less traveled, making this one of my favorite port visits of the entire cruise.
City and Causeway Tours cost was 50GBP pp for and 8 seater bus which was very comfortable.
9/19/14 Cork (Cobh), Ireland
Took a tour of Cork and the Blarney Castle with Butlers Tours in Ireland as recommended by someone earlier on this the roll call and they had organized this private tour for up to 20 people. On Trip Advisor Butlers Tours had received fantastic reviews. The tour I signed up for involved visiting the town of Blarney and the Blarney Castle to kiss the famous stone followed by a visit to the Woollen Mills just across the road. Next we were supposed to travel to Kinsale enjoying a panoramic tour of Cork city on route plus stopping at Charlesfort just to enjoy the stunning views or partake in the guided tour. After Kinsale, if time permited, we would take a coastal drive out around The Old Head of Kinsale before going back to Cobh, where again if time allowed we would have a visit to Cobh's Cathedral and The Queenstown Story. Butlers Tours quoted approx 21 E per person for 20 people. The tour we actually took when a little differently than what was promised.
We did not have a good tour guide/driver. Our driver/guide advised us that the drive to Kinsale was very long, it would take a hour to an hour and a half each way and that Kinsale was boring with nothing to see. I could tell he didn’t want to take us there, he was selling the long drive and boring story heavily and this info conflicted with my own personal research. I read that Kinsale was famous for its many restaurants and pubs and lunch there was recommended before a stroll around its narrow and winding streets. My info indicated that Kinsale was a must see kind of a place! The driver had convinced the whole bus to drop Kinsale and I had to protest in order to get to see that town. I had a funny feeling about the driver and could tell he didn’t want to drive to Kinsale, and after my protesting he reluctantly agreed to take us there! The folks on tour with us also agreed that it was on the tour plan although I could tell they did not want to take that long bus ride. Guess what, it only took a half hour to get there, the same to get back to the ship, and everybody loved it the best! That’s right, the whole bus thanked me for insisting, and we all agreed that it was the best little town we had seen, not as commercial and touristy as Blarney and easy to walk and enjoy at ones own pace.
In Blarney I kissed the stone! We arrived at the Blarney Castle and gardens with plenty of time to visit. We all walked toward the castle and I was nervous because of the 122 stone steps one must take in order to kiss the Blarney Stone! As we approached, we could see the castle was high and that there was a small line coming out of the castle, it was a line for kissing the Blarney stone! I could not believe how crowded it seemed to be, and I was ready to give up climbing up those stairs to kiss some strange stone. While some people had told me this would entail stepping on very steep and almost impossible stairs, I was thinking I would not do the climb but my dear beloved friends would not let me back out. After all it was on my bucket list! Anyway they encouraged me to do it, and reminded me that with this line, it would be slow going up so I did not have to worry about getting out of breath. OK I decided to do it! The line went slow, wending its way up the castle with plenty of rooms to step into for the claustrophobic like me. My pals kept telling me that there was an opening coming up, sometimes the stairwell was dark and closed in but there was merely a few steps before the many openings so it was easy. For the first time in my life I was grateful for being in a line, we went up slowly and I never felt out of breathe or closed in. At the top I was so excited I could have burst. The views were unbelievable and as we slowly made our way to the exact spot where we had to get on our backs while a nice guy held us as we also held ourselves and slowly pushed out and kissed that stone, and all the folks who had come before me!!! I was ecstatic; I had accomplished another bucket list item and felt proud! I was so thrilled that I had done this and I thanked my friends again realizing that in this case, it actually did take a village!!!
We did a quick drive through Cork because one couple was so set on not driving the prolonged period of time the driver exaggerated about and instead chose to walk around Cork on their own and take the train back to the station. When I bumped into them later during the cruise they were bummed out that they had missed Kinsale, especially in light of the short drive time and lack of traffic that the driver insisted we would hit (we hit zero traffic). At least they did enjoy visiting the city of Cork.
We were so pleased with the town of Kinsale, and ate at this restaurant called the Blue Haven Café, which provided a great place for us to eat and ponder the beautiful scenery. Several of our group decided to shop rather than eat, so this was a perfect place to meet, we grabbed a large table under a cover outside because it was raining lightly and sporadically. The waiter was so kind and helpful, I asked a question about something that was not on the menu and he ran in and got my answer (no) so I ordered a delicious sandwich made of cheese, which was grilled with tomatoes and beets, no mayo. It was so yummy, a different cheese, which I don't remember the name of and never wrote it down so I cannot describe it at all! Someone else in my group ordered soup, which was also delicious, and others ordered wine, coffee, and beer. We all had a great time here and hated to leave, but alas we had to as our bus was leaving.
Besides Blarney and Kinsale, we did not visit any of the other promised sites, we stopped at a look out over Kinsale, I guess this was Charlesfort (Really Charles fort) but we were not given any time there and barely had time to get off the bus and take a picture. Naturally time did not permit us a coastal drive, Cobh’s Cathedral, or the Queenstown Story! Our friends who were also on a Butler’s tour did visit the Cathedral and several sites we did not visit, instead our driver “advised” us to extend our visit at Blarney, which ate up all of our time. Everybody but one couple arrived back early at the bus in Blarney, it was raining and everybody was ready to go but we waited thanks to our horrible driver/guide. He was a happy camper with more time to read his book!
The moral of this story is to beware of the old bait and switch tactic, do your own research and be wary of driver/guides who try to talk you out of visiting a place you planned on visiting. They may be motivated by a bad night before, a bad argument with somebody, a hangover, gas prices, or even reading a good book like our driver was doing, he would have preferred having more time to read than drive! It was very sad when one gets stuck with a driver or guide (or both) who does not like their job and has little passion for the places they visit or the people they are hosting. We have all experienced bad guides who talk like robots and clearly do not like what they are doing in contrast to the passion filled guides who capture our attention with amazing stories and clear love of the places they take us.
9/23/14 St. Johns, Newfoundland
Missed port due to high winds so on to Halifax for an overnight stay.
9/24/14 - 9/25/14 Halifax, Nova Scotia
Arrived early, the evening before our appointed port day of 9/25, and got off the ship by 8PM. We visited a few open stores; one was a convenience store where we bought some cokes and water, and a few snacks. Then we found this store called the Chocolate Café and Chocolates by Design and it was delicious. I purchased some delicious chocolate treats to bring back to my dear Aunt for her 95th Birthday, and we sat and enjoyed using the free Internet that was available here. Of course I had to try some of the chocolate and it was really good. I was glad we had come off the ship, the walk was great and the chocolate was even better! We saw a group of people eating a chocolate fondue and it looked so good, but I could not convince anybody to have some with me! It looked to die for; sadly we had just eaten dinner and dessert on the ship so it was not meant to be!
Day 2 in Halifax
Took a full days tour to Peggy's Cove and Halifax Historic City. Our guide Jonathan picked us up at the ship promptly at 9am, explaining that this port was like the “Ellis Island” of Canada. As Jonathan drove us away from our ship, he started teaching us about Halifax. We drove through the city and first visited a lovely upscale neighborhood where Jonathan claimed to live. As we drove past this wealthy neighborhood, which had homes that were so beautiful including lovely Victorian manors’ as well as more modern and Historic mansions. He was joking as he pointed to one of the largest homes in the area, a lovely Victorian, that this was where he actually lived. We all laughed, this is where we all would have loved to live in fact! We also drove past St. Paul’s Church, the oldest Anglican Church in Canada. Finally we drove past several hospitals including the Grace Maternity Hospital, a Children’s Hospital and the Victoria General Hospital.
Our first stop on our tour of Halifax was at the Public Gardens, which were the oldest in Canada. We walked through the many winding paths as our guide Jonathan illuminated the various flora and fauna we spotted in this lovely garden. We learned about what plants could grow in this climate, and what could not. Jonathan was quite well versed in his knowledge of plants, and I could tell he spent a lot of his free time here. It was a beautiful place to begin our tour of Halifax.
Next we visited the Halifax Citadel National Historic site of Canada and really enjoyed it here. Although we did not have time to go inside, we did have enough time to go to the front entrance and take a picture with the Scottish guard who was silent but gave off a nice vibration, so it was OK to stand close to him and get your picture taken. Well, I hope it was because I did this! This citadel is located on a hill high above the city and afforded us great views in all directions. We could even see our ship off in the distance. The cost to visit inside was certainly not very expensive and next time we will go in and have a look.
We stopped at The Fairview Cemetery because of everybody’s interest in Titanic information since it was bound for Halifax. This Cemetery had some of the victims of the ill-fated RMS Titanic buried there and it was interesting to hear their stories and see the way their tombs were maintained, and some were not maintained as well as others! We learned about how some of the very wealthy people had very sparse tombstones, I could not believe it! This was certainly a worthwhile place to visit; we were there for about a half hour.
We stopped at a Canadian Maple Candy store for “free” candy including fudge tastes, maple cookies, and coffee. After a few minutes the store started filling up with several busloads of tourists so at this point we went through it quickly because lots of us did want to buy some souvenirs. As the bus folks come in we started getting pushed and shoved, people took cuts in front of us as if they were entitled and that was our cue to exit stage left! We were all out of there quick at this point!
Then we were off to Canada’s most famous lighthouse, Peggy’s Cove. This lighthouse is supposed to be one of the most unique, captivating and exhilarating places to visit in Nova Scotia with it s red and while exterior. It is the only lighthouse in North America that houses a post office, although I did not get close enough to see it. There was a quaint and historic fishing village here as well and most of the houses had been converted into stores. We walked out to the actual lighthouse amongst many tourists there, too many people here for my liking and I rested on a rock at a distance to get some space to myself. The rocks were so unusual and interesting, formed by ancient glaciers with sharp lines in them, making it easy to walk on as if they were some kind of ancient road, it kind of reminded me of the Aztec lines in Chile. There was also a man playing bagpipes, which lent an eerie feeling to the whole place.
We walked back to the designated meeting area after giving up on a long line for the bathroom in the large store closest to the lighthouse. Surprisingly I found a free bathroom a few steps away at a Pewter store, there was no line and I was able to get in immediately. Lesson learned, never go for the most obvious bathroom, as there will always be another just up the road!
9/27/14 New York City (Brooklyn) disembarkation day
Part 3: Royal Baltics and Transatlantic Cruise Review 9/2/14-9/27/14—Just the Cruise
We got on the ship quickly with plenty of time to settle in and explore before muster. The ship was the same as it had been last year when we spent a month on it; large and laid out well but still lacking a full promenade deck outside. We went to trivia and quickly found some partners who were good, although Ken was the star player. We won our first trivia and got water bottles, I figure by the end of the cruise we might be able to build a raft of water bottles!
Muster was quick and very small and I was surprised how few people there were at muster, not realizing what a small number of people were checking in from Berlin. This was a weird cruise in that it was sold many different ways. Some people embarked in Copenhagen three days before Berlin, some in St. Petersburg, and many embarked in Copenhagen 9/10/14 for the transatlantic. Our dinner was OK, in spite of asking for a large table for 8-10, we were put at a table of 4 and ate alone since our table mates were off in Berlin. We didn't leave Berlin until 10:30 PM.
The following day we changed our table to a larger one for 8 and all of our friend joined us at early seating and this became the highlight of the cruise in many ways. On turnaround day we changed our table of 8 to a table of 10 and that undoubtedly became the highlight of everyone’s cruise. We all looked forward to dinner each night, and maybe gained a few pounds too, after all food tastes better when shared with good friends
Problems in the Cabin
I Woke up the first morning ready to embrace the day. I had been on the Royal last year for 30 days and experienced some issues so I was ready to embrace a new and improved ship. This was not quite the experience I had. The toilet in my room (A718) was clogged first thing the morning, and you know how that goes when you are traveling. This caused extreme discomfort to us and I spent the morning calling for help. Just like last year, nobody came to fix the toilet until I called 5 times, not my favorite way to start a cruise. We had to vacate the room and race to use the public bathrooms, then to the front desk to ask for help in person, this being the most effective method of eliciting help on this ship. Good grief, I swear I am not doing anything different on this ship than I do on others so I don't understand what the problem is. Could it be related to the power blackout we had yesterday right after we boarded?
Problems on the ship
Some cruise critic friends took my rear facing deluxe balcony C743 (from last year’s cruise), the infamous soot room, and were beside themselves with how bad it smelled, how much tar was on their balcony, and how unusable it was. Please beware that the issues around the sooty aft cabins, and the plumbing problems still exist. If you have booked any of the aft cabins beware that there has been no fix.
Laundry service was another problem, taking 3+ days from the beginning of the cruise, and throughout the cruise the time grew longer, usually 5-6 days. Having spent 10 nights in Berlin pre cruise, I had lots of dirty clothing and was not expecting to encounter this kind of delay. To add insult to injury, close to the close of the first segment of the cruise (the Baltics) they offered a “stuff a laundry” bag promotion where everybody could get as much laundry done as they could fit in a bag for $20. This probably caused more delays for us elite members who were getting our laundry done as a benefit. I refrain to call it free because we spend a lot of money taking a lot of cruises to gain elite status.
Trivia and other Games
We played trivia a lot but encountered a really lousy cruise staff member named Geof who was such a bummer; he ruined the experience for a lot of us. He ran a cruise long progressive trivia and was so rude to the captain it really offended many of us. This cruise long game took place at around noon on every sea day and was often interrupted by the Captains daily announcement. Every time the Captain came on Geof would make faces and act like the captain’s announcement was so boring and useless and then he would make “speed it up” gestures and pretend that he was dying, or just dropped to the floor as if in prayer, all centered around making fun of the Captains announcement. When the captain finished his announcement, Geof would clap and talk about how long winded the captain was. Frankly I was embarrassed for the Captain, I though Captain Dino Sagani was one of the more personable and informative Captains I have ever cruised with. This guy Geof was a fool, and quite full of himself! I did not like him at all.
Otherwise the Cruise staff was excellent. The Cruise Director Lisa Ball was fantastic; she was very involved in all aspects of the shipboard activities and even called trivia. We really enjoyed her presence and appreciated how involved and active she was, truly a team player and in no way full of herself like some CD’s can be. Lisa really set the bar high for me!
Food/Dining experiences-- Main Dining Room
We had the best dining table ever, seating for 10--infamous Table for 10 group--and we were close to the back with decent views of the water. Our table was filled with good friends, people we have cruise with before and got along with well, my dear friends joined us for the Transatlantic portion and they got along fabulously with the rest of the group, becoming instant family. I cannot tell you what a difference the right mix of people make for a successful dinner group. So what if we were loud and laughing every night. We spend each night laughing till our tummies hurt (really) and generally being so jovial that we were infectious. Most of the tables around us became louder and looked like they were having as much fun as we were. Laughter was breaking out all over the place. Yes one of our neighbors look like they were suffering being close to our loud and joyous table, and they looked grumpy and bent out of shape much of the time but I suspect this was how they were all of the time, independent of our proximity.
Our tablemate Bob started this kleptomaniac routine, which he performed throughout the entire 25-day cruise. He was imitating some lady we had talked about who was on a world cruise and had tried to steal all of the dinnerware, utensils, and whatever else she could get her hands on until she got caught. Bob would casually start stuffing utensils, sugar containers, plates, glasses, and more, often while the head waiter Arkie (short for Arkadius) stood talking to us about what we did that day, or any special orders we asked for. We laughed and laughed every time Bob did this shtick, as he slowly and surely made all the dinnerware disappear. Then he would stand and all the stuff would fall from his clothing causing all of us to squeal with joy and laughter! No matter how many times he did this, we could not stop laughing at it. Bob should be a comedian! Arkie enjoyed our antics throughout the entire cruise, he was drawn to us because we were infectious with joy!
Our waitress D (short for Dorota) was fantastic, as was her assistant waiter Zoran. Zoran was not around as much as D, I guess he was getting the food all the time, Princess has changed the way the wait staff works and I was told its normal to not see the assistant much. D really put up with us in such a perfect manner; sometimes she faked being stern when we were getting raucous, or just being loud and noisy, and other times joining in as if she was part of our group and she was! Our neighbors had appointed her “Queen” of the dining room staff and she regally wore her the crowns they brought for her. She was incredible in her manner and perfect at negotiating large, loud groups! We all loved her dearly.
I always order extra vegetables for each night. Initially I had grilled Asparagus and Spinach steamed with garlic brought to the table every night. My tablemates were quick to agree that this was a very good thing, generally the dinner plates do not have many veggies on them and we all loved the extras. As the cruise went on they first ran out of Asparagus, then they ran out of Spinach. I asked for Broccoli instead and it always came steamed with garlic, I think garlic makes everything taste better.
During the Baltic’s portion of the cruise our fixed dining time was 6pm, and during the transatlantic portion, we were supposed to come at 5:30, although we always showed up between 5:45 and 6pm. The only negative to dining at the traditional early seating is that we always missed sail always. The trade off was well worth it, late dining was between 8 and 8:30 and that was just too late for all of us to eat, digest, and get to sleep for early ports.
We went to Sabatini’s to celebrate our friends wedding anniversary on one of the formal nights. We actually dressed for it, although you don’t have to dress formally on formal nights to dine here. We had our infamous Table for 10 group and started at 7pm and we did not finish until close to 11PM, that’s how much fun we had! The food was excellent, with a few exceptions, and service was great too. Food always tastes good when accompanied by good friends and good service.
Horizon Court Buffet
At the beginning of the cruise the HC is incredible, do try to make it up there on day one for lunch because you will be amazed at the variety they have there, including 4 carving stations. We often went up to the massive buffet at 11:25 am, a perfect time for Ken to grab breakfast and me, lunch, timing being everything here. I always grabbed some yummy grilled veggies, wild rice and asparagus, some lean brisket or other lean meat, Roasted Chicken, and a veggie salad with lo cal dressing. There were many healthy options in the Buffet, no need to feel deprived if dieting. I really enjoyed eating at the HC for Breakfasts and lunch, but really hated it at dinner.
The dinner options were far less abundant than the options during the day. Half of the Horizon Court was closed, or refashioned for Fondues or the Crab Shack. The grill area was always closed; no yummy fresh grilled veggies or meats for dinner were ever available, although they always had several carving stations opened. At dinnertime nuts and dried fruits and lot of veggies and meats were plentiful but as the cruise progressed they seemed to run out leaving less options. I tried to make a trail mix to take with me on port days as a snack, don’t forget to bring ziplock baggies for this. At 5:30 pm there is always an array of deli meats and sandwiches that can be used to make sandwiches for the next day’s port visit, if you are so inclined to do that this is the place.
On several occasions we brought the infamous table for 10 group to the HC, we even found a table for 10 and this became our alternative dining spot although we only ate here twice because of late port visits or because we wanted to see a sail away.
On our first formal night, we dressed for it but hated to as we always do! I noticed that lots of people did not dress for formal nights, many choose to eat at the Buffet. I think we ended up dressing for every formal night except the last, mostly because one of the 10 enjoyed it so much and we wanted to make her happy!
During one of the last sea days there was a surprising “man overboard” announcement and we were all asked to go back to our cabins for a head count. Everybody did this pretty quickly and mostly hung over the balcony railings looking for whomever had jumped ship. Our room Steward came by and noted we were in our cabin. Meanwhile I noticed a beach ball like red thing floating in the water off the port side of the ship, by this time Captain Sagani had turned the ship around and we were heading back the way we came. A tender boat was lowered into the water and I saw it heading straight for the red ball then suddenly it turned and started going away from it. I could not believe this, I grabbed the phone and called passenger services and told them to tell the captain that the red floating thing was off the port side at 11 o’clock. After a few minutes, the tender boat turned and headed straight for the red thing and in quick time they determined it was nothing more than a fishing marker. Captain Sagani came on and told us that the passengers and crew were all accounted for, complimenting us on one of the quickest counts he had ever seen, and also thanking the passenger who called and directed them to where the red ball was. I hope I was not the only person who called.
Meet and Greets (2)
We had two M&G’s, the first one was during the “Most Traveled lunch” and only one staff member showed up and he was very late. That staff member was the Safety officer and several people who were having soot issues in their cabin balconies hijacked him. The second M&G was more crowded and a few more crew members attended including the CD. Both meetings were in Club 6, not terribly conducive large groups and lots of folks had to stand or sit on the floor during the introductions. I know I missed this because I was sitting in the center part of the room and all the activities took place close to the bar area, which is also the smallest area!
Ports and Princess Tours
We did one Princess tour during the 25-day cruise, and this was in Kristiansand, Norway. We did a cruise through the Blindleia Passage to Lillesand, a cute and charming little town that was quite scenic. The cruise was nice but the guide was not very exciting and I just didn’t feel any passion or love from him, something I notice that good guides always have. The town was mostly closed, not only because it was early in the day but also because it was late in the season and most residents were there for the summer only. Finally, we only had a half hour to visit this place and it was not enough time to walk through the narrow lanes of the town, so we didn’t see much of it at all. The excursion was not worth the money we spent on it at all! Other than that, we only did private tours.
Disembarkation was quick and easy, especially since we booked a transfer to the airport with Princess. We left our room by 8:30am and waited no more than 20-30 minutes in our appointed meeting place before we got off the ship. Immigration was quick and easy, and our luggage was neatly placed in its proper area and we found a porter who hauled our 3 pieces to our transfer bus and off we went to La Guardia. Unfortunately our driver was unable to take us to the departure area of the airport, he grumbled some excuse and dumped us at the arrival terminal and we had to schlep our luggage upstairs to find the proper check in area. This was a mess and most of the folks just grabbed their luggage and dragged it up to the proper place, like us. I did notice that the excuse our driver made, that his bus was too high, was BS, there were no restrictions on height up at the departures area and we had been duped by a lazy, know-nothing bus driver!