by Bud Lockwood
June 5, 2004
My wife and I took the Celebrity Constellation Scandinavian and Russian cruise to sample the eight countries on the itinerary, along with a pre-cruise stay in London. The pre-cruise experience, the ship, the ports and the logistics were all memorable experiences worth sharing. Perhaps our experiences can help others be better prepared to enjoy similar cruise opportunities. A few suggestions are included here to assist.
Pre-cruise Experience and Preparations.
We booked the Hilton London Metropole hotel through Celebrity to rest after our trans-Atlantic flight and to see a little of London. Warning: prices in the hotel for food are VERY EXPENSIVE. The Metropole hotel is very convenient to downtown London.
Suggestion: Take advantage of the "breakfast included" in the hotel rate but get out to local restaurants for lunch and dinner.unless you want $60 sandwiches and drinks for two for lunch.
Suggestion: Book a transfer from the airport to the hotel on the internet before you go. It is a 30 minute train ride from Gatwick and the pre-booking costs $77 for two using Hotel Link, a large operation. They escort you from the airport to the hotel.
We took the double decker traditional bus tour of London. It has a tour escort. Many famous London sites, including a river cruise on the Thames, are included. A great opportunity to see the sights, get on and off the bus as you please to tour and eat. The double decker London bus is a fun experience in itself. The tour can be booked at the hotel, on line or at the tour stop.
We booked the hotel to Dover port transfer. It was a 1 ½ hour bus ride, efficiently run with two bus loads of fellow cruise passengers.
Suggestion: Book the transfer. Individual transportation is much more expensive and not as reliable.
Local currencies were a concern during our cruise planning. Not a worry! The dollar is widely accepted, along with credit cards.
Suggestion: Exchange a few dollars for British pounds to cover incidentals and tips in London. We also got a few Euros to use in Germany. The ship has an on-board bank for currency exchange.
Celebrity's Constellation deserves the number one ranking it received from Conde Nast for its class ship. The total of a number of small differences truly raised the ship experience to its award level. The color scheme ( highlighted with royal purple in many common areas), greetings and genuine friendliness by all crew members, the on-board bank, framed photographs ( a lot of them) lining the corridors in the cabin areas, robes in the cabins, food quality, internet café, on-time service ( including room service), shops, on-TV options including stock quotes, presence of supervisory personnel checking quality and customer satisfaction, special window screens in the dining room for formal nights, outside elevators at midship, tour organization and execution, and cleanliness.
The Oceanliners restaurant is worth a try. The décor and service were way above average and complemented the excellent food making it a special evening experience.
The ship's two level San Marcos dining room, highlighted by a two story window at the rear of the ship, along with its topside restaurants, grill and no-extra-charge ice cream bar provided all the food needed, There were also at least two "midnight buffets".
Suggestion: Establish a celebrity email address before you leave, share it with people who may have an important need ( $2 per email address) to contact you..and the ship will alert you when an email arrives.
The entertainment was varied and very good with the theater shows and entertainers as the centerpieces. The Constellation has a variety of lounges, enough to suit every taste.
This cruise is really all about the eight countries ( England, Norway, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Poland, Germany, Denmark ) the ship visits during the 14 day cruise. We booked at least one tour in every port and were pleased with the decision, principally because the tours provided excellent and very knowledgeable guides and provided access to places we could not have achieved any other way.
England: Take the London bus and river tour as I explained above. It was the only tour we booked locally, but we knew about the tour before traveling.
Norway: We took the "Norwegian Adventure" tour that included trips to the Viking Ship Museum ( several restored Viking ships), the Kon-Tiki Museum ( contains Thor Heyerdahl history and replica of the Kon-Tiki as well as the real Ra ships), the Maritime Museum ( a great 5 screen multi-media show on Norway's seashore activities). Sailing out of Oslo be prepared for photos as the ship sails under one of the highest bridges in the world.
Russia: The Constellation spent two full days in the St. Petersburg Port, perhaps the centerpiece port for the cruise. We took the full day "Grand St. Petersburg with Hermitage" tour the first day and "St. Catherine's Palace" tour on the second day. It was a great way to see the bustling port city, hear about its restoration after communism's fall, see for ourselves the levels of activities including traffic jams and experience the feeling of freedom residents feel. Lots of highlights..
. Hermitage Museum is a must for art and history buffs. The museum has millions of exhibits and would take days to tour. We saw, in a couple of hours, walls filled with very accessible works, LOTS of works, by DaVinci, Michaelangelo, Raphael, Rubens, VanDyke, Cezanne, Picasso, Van Gogh and countless others Suggestion: Be prepared for stairs and a grueling walk.
. St. Isaac's Cathedral, included on the tour is an awesome display of architecture, art and ornateness.
. St. Catherine's Palace is also huge, highlighted by the fact that it has been largely reconstructed after its destruction in WW II. A major feature of the palace is it's "Amber Room", a room with walls and pictures all made of different colors of amber. The entire palace and grounds are too big to appreciate without a visit. A special bonus of the tour was the bus ride to the palace which passed the front line where the Russians stopped the German advance on the city in WW II.
. St. Petersburg port is the largest and busiest port I have ever visited. There are hundreds of working port cranes, ships everywhere and a lot of action. It is worthy of a lot of photos.
. Astoria Hotel lunch was a big treat as part of the tour. A Russian lunch, complete with a taste of vodka and Russian entertainers was a lot of fun.
Souvenirs? There were Russian vendors at every stop with large selections. Dollars accepted.
Finland: The "City of Helsinki" tour gave us a great overview of this attractive, clean city with a busy downtown area. Several stops with the Rock Church, a unique church carved from solid rock with a copper dome, were included. We visited Senate square and a very impressive, domed Lutheran Cathedral. ( be prepared for a lot of steps to the cathedral)
Sweden: Stockholm is also a modern and very picturesque city, perhaps the most picturesque of all we visited because it is built on several islands; mixing water, old city, new city, parks and ships. The ship couldn't get into the Stockholm port because of weather so it anchored at Nynashamn, about a 45 minute bus ride south. This bonus gave us a ride through the beautiful, rich green countryside. We took the "Stockholm and Vassa Museum" tour. Great views of the city and time to see the real Vassa, a 17th century warship that sunk on its maiden voyage.
Poland: The ship docked in Gydania and we took a bus to Gdansk for the "Leisurely Gdansk Tour". A highlight was passing the Gdansk shipyard where the revolt against communism started. Poland was a special treat as we could see the ongoing recovery of the people and their appreciation of freedom.
The tour includes a shopping stop in a very nice area with a lot of shops and restaurants along the waterfront.. great opportunity to purchase amber and get nice photos.
Germany: The ship docked at Warnemunde, a very scenic port with a shops and a fishing fleet anchored walking distance from the ship.
Suggestion: Make time for a walk to the shops and the photo opportunities the area offers.
We took the "Molli Steam Train and Historic Mecklenburg" tour. The highlight was a 30 minute ride on a working steam train that services several towns in the area. Stopped in a small town for coffee and dessert at a local hotel.
A ride through the formerly East German country side and villages, with narration by the guide, showed the dramatic, positive results since German reunification.everything is new.
Denmark: Copenhagen is an overnight stay, from noon-to-noon. We took two tours: "City Sightseeing With Dragor Village" and "City of Copenhagen", similar tours but little overlapping. Copenhagen is a colorful city with its share of castles, statues and museums. The number of bicyclists is impressive. They are everywhere, in very large numbers. Dragor Village is an old village characterized by hundreds of small yellow homes with thatched roofs.
A stop was made on both tours at the "Little Mermaid" sculpture in the harbor.
Suggestion: The "Little Mermaid" sculpture is walking distance from the ship. There are also a lot of shops and restaurants across the street from the ship.
Celebrity planned and executed arrangements efficiently. Some examples:
. Boarding was easy. We were the only ship in Dover. After the ride from London we were on the ship in record time and having the first afternoon buffet lunch at lunch time. 5 to 10 minutes for the embarkation.
. Disembarkation was just as easy. There were a large number of people to guide us through the baggage ( with an attendant for each family) and to the bus to the airport.
. Airports are not near the port so transfers are needed. Booking through Celebrity buys insurance that you will get onboard.
. Tour booking may be done on line before the cruise. We did that and the tickets were waiting in our room. Tours do sell out so pre-booking works well. If you change your mind refunds are easy.
. Money exchange is easy because dollars work well ( as do Euros) in most, if not all the tourist areas and money exchange facilities are readily available, including a bank on the ship.
. Weather is a consideration in Scandinavia. Weather for us was generally very good, in the 60's for daily highs. Be prepared for stiff breezes.
Summary: A very nice cruise opportunity to visit countries and cities with centuries of history to see and share while staying in above average accommodations.