Scandinavia and Russia
August 3, 2007
My partner and I recently returned (August 2007) from a 15 day cruise through Scandinavia and Russia aboard the Celebrity Constellation. The Constellation is a Millennium Class ship and sister to Millennium, Galaxy and Century. Although not a "family cruise" per se, with most people on board being 50+ retired or close to and frequent 'cruisers' we had a fine time exploring Scandinavia and the Baltics in comfort and style none the less. I would definitely recommend this cruise to anyone who is interested in visiting this fabulous part of the world, but critically speaking, I think there are some elements of the Cruise that could be improved upon.
In my review I will provide information on the ship itself and the various Ports of call including the shore excursions (which can be avoided) and general information that 'First Time Cruisers' like us may well find interesting. Celebrity Cruises are by no way a 'budget' cruise line and I would expect people travelling to be aware of this however I will also provide some hints and tips for those wanting to economise slightly because on board and at Port you can quite easily over spend.
We arrived in London from Australia and had pre and Post cruise Packages for accommodation and Transfers. Accommodation was in Mayfair (City of Westminster) at Grosvenor House which is just first Class. If this was an introduction to Cruising then this was a good initiation. Upon arriving we given an envelope with some departure details and also informed that there would be a representative from Celebrity in the Hotel Foyer that evening around 7:30. That evening when we went to see the rep, there was no body there and no one from Celebrity had reported to reception; so they (Grosvenor reception) were also confused. Eventually we found the lass but without any signage or advertising she was hard to distinguish. A fairly trivia matter and one that did not overly bother us but worth noting in this review; as some other travellers did make mention of it to guest relations onboard.
The transfer to Dover was 'fairly' smooth with the trip lasting just on 2.5 hours. Upon loading the luggage into the coach the driver requested that all bags including carry on should be stored underneath with the suitcases to save space in the cabin. I did not like this idea as my personal documents, (passport etc) always stay with me and after some 'discussion' was decided that passengers could take their hand luggage on board with them. Dover is approximately 70 miles from London; the Ferry Terminal is situated to the east of the town at the Eastern Docks and the Hoverport to the west. Both can be easily reached by foot, bus or taxi from Dover Priory Station. Services operate from London Victoria or London Charing Cross to Dover Priory Station. Arriving at the Dover Terminal, the embarkation process was quick and painless with our luggage arriving at our stateroom soon after without incident or undue delay.
First impressions are everything and being our first cruise we were blown away. The ship was just huge and everything and everyone catered for. There was marble everywhere and glass lifts nearby combined with the plush decor gave a soothing ambience. The entry point to the Ship was on level Three (Ten in total) and after a welcoming champagne we grabbed a seat and watched the others coming on board. Entry to the state rooms would not be till around 1pm so to pass the time by we headed up to the Resort Deck on level 10 for lunch and to check out the pool areas. After a great feed of hamburgers and tacos the message came over the PA that our rooms were ready and off we went to try and find our room.
Our Stateroom with balcony was on the Penthouse deck on level 6. Finding our room took some time as odds and evens were on opposite sides of the ship but we got there. The room was relatively small as you can imagine but was very comfortable and convenient with all necessities catered for and the suitcases fitted underneath the bed out of sight. The balcony was massive and bigger than all of the ones above us and was a welcome surprise and very different to what we were expecting. (Thanks Amy my travel agent for that) From the balcony I could see the loading of the ship and got a great perspective as to the size and enormity of this 92,500 Tonne vessel. A frequently stated adage about cruise cabins is "you don't spend that much time there anyway." This may be true but I still appreciated the fact that I could 'get away' and relax/sunbake (in privacy) when I wanted to and it served as a great place to have breakfast in the morning and dry clothes after hand washing (In port only as they will blow away at sea) We really appreciated the balcony and is well worth the extra money if you can afford it.
There was an evacuation drill at 16:15 prior to departure so doing anything worth while beforehand was pointless, we checked out all the levels including the pools gym and Aqua Spa on the Resort deck (Level 10). The Aqua spa provided and excellent variety of services for both women and men and it was here that we booked facials, massages, make up and hair etc for the entire cruise. It was important to book these as early as possible as the earlier you got in and booked the better the chance you had of obtaining appointments when you wanted them. As we were one of the first to book all of ours would be during the day's at sea meaning all the shore days were free to enjoy. A short stroll from the gym on level 10 was the under cover Thalassotherapy pool and Persian gardens complete with Turkish bath, herbal spa and Arizona room (Dry Sauna). The Persian Room was not a free service but well worth the money if you like this sort of thing. We regularly used it at evenings and it was never crowded.
Continuing our tour we checked out the champagne and martini lounges, Cova coffee lounge and the Emporium (Shopping) on the Entertainment deck (level 5) and the San Marco Restaurant, Rendezvous Lounge, Fortunes Casino and Michaels club on the Promenade deck (Level 4). Continuing down next deck was the Plaza Deck (Level 3) home to Celebrity Theatre, Cinema and the Grand Foyer complete with the Grand marble staircase and plenty of surrounding elegant timbers. At 16:15 we had our evacuation drill and at approximately 17:15 on time the Constellation departed from Dover and set sail.
The Constellation departs Dover and cruises across the North Sea to Helsingborg Sweden which is the first stop. Helsingborg is located in Southern Sweden and lies on the sound, which separates Sweden from Denmark. I this narrow part of the sound the straight of Oresund (or "The Sound" as mariners refer to it) ships from all over the world pass Helsingborg headed to and from ports around the Baltic Sea. This was a Tender Port meaning the Ship did not berth at a pier. Tenders were provided to take you to shore, there is not a lot to see here and an excursion is not required as the main sites are all in walking distance including Karnan Tower and Fredriksdal open air museum. You can get a public ferry to see Kronborg Castle (Ellsinore) on the other side of the sound, in Danish territory if you like but make sure you get some Danish kronor before you go and be weary of the ship departure time.
The next stop was supposed to be Warnemunde, Germany but berthed in Rostock instead. Not sure why this happened and there was no explanation provided by Celebrity. Both places really only serve as an entry point to Berlin than a compelling stop in their own right. Again a shore excursion in Rostock itself is not required here but transport into town is as the pier was approx 10km away. This was one of the costs that annoyed me given the cost of the cruise I felt shuttle bus rides should have been included. I was glad I opted to come into Rostock as it was a beautiful Hanseatic city with its own seaside resort. Located in the Northeast part of Germany on the estuary of the Warnow River, Rostock is the gateway to the Baltic Sea and considered an important seaport and together with Warnemunde, is one of the country's major shipping centres. Both an old and young city the historic city centre breathes Hanseatic flair and there is a considerable amount of North-German gothic brick architecture, including churches, cloister, a city wall and gabled houses. Rostock is also home to the oldest university in the Baltic region ad home to 14,000 students.
A shore excursion to Berlin is available during this berth, however we chose against it having been to Berlin before. Although somewhat pricey $250 euro each I would suggest it as an option as Berlin itself is a fascinating city and the journey by Train and coach would be considerably less difficult than trying to visit on your own in the space of a single day. We spoke to some people who did this trip and apart from the very long day (12 hours) they enjoyed it immensely. That afternoon to keep with the whole German theme there was German food and beer available in the forward bar, (Aptly named the Bar at the end of the Earth) With singing provided from the Rostock choir and with beer and wurst in hand a jovial time was had by all.
The departure from Rostock that evening was something special and I was a little disappointed that the ship did not provide an insight as to what was going to happen because I only caught the end of it. The ship was berthed at the Port and as the vessel is so long you can not see past the nose. Little did we know that a breakwater extended for about a mile after the docks and thousands of people had lined the breakwater to watch the ship sail? There were even fireworks on the Port side (Rostock side) we later found out but as were on starboard side we were not aware of this. Also yachts and boats led the ship out through the heads similar to spectator fleet at the Sydney to Hobart. All in all it was a spectacular ending to a great day and had the ship informed people that it was happening we could have sat up on the deck and watched it all!!!
Next stop after a relaxing day at sea was Helsinki the capital of Finland also known as the City of the Sea. Finland and was founded by King Gustav Vasa of Sweden while the country was under Swedish rule. Although it is Finland's largest city it is relatively small compared to other Scandinavian capitals. Overlooking the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea, Helsinki is bordered on the west by Sweden, on the north by Norway, on the east by Russia and on the south by the Gulf of Finland ad Estonia. Finland stretches from Helsinki on the southern coast northward to the Lapland region, which lies mostly above the Arctic Circle. The population of Finland is five million, with one million living on the southern coast in and around Finland.
Again good public transportation and close proximity to the city centre from the cruise terminal allows you to avoid shore excursions in Helsinki that cover the same ground that you can on your own. We were a little disappointed with the city and found there was not a lot to do apart from visit senate square and the local markets so the excursion out into the country side may be a better option for here. You can also take an inexpensive Ferry ride in and around the waterways which is another option if you have time. The Ferry leaves every 15- 30 minutes from the Fish Market in the heart of Helsinki. We did manage to find an internet café in a large department store which was good because the cost of internet access on the ship is just ridiculous. ($75USD 45 minutes) We chose to not use the service on the ship on principal alone. (A point I made also on my passenger feedback card) That evening we noticed a small amount of facial products missing from out stateroom which will be discussed at the end of this review.
The weather again was fabulous continuing the trend thus far with blue skies and warm days and it was hard to fathom that you were in a country that can reach -20 degrees in winter. Always be prepared however as the weather in Europe is unpredictable at best so unless you are certain it will not rain always take an umbrella and coat.
The primary attraction of this trip for us was the Russian portion of the itinerary and although it did not disappoint we would have done things differently if we had our time over again. The major mistake we made was not getting our own Russian tourist Visa so we could do our own thing in St Petersburg on day 2. A Russian tourist visa is required for EACH person who disembarks, which is not included in the cruise cost. We remained berthed in St. Petersburg for two days and it is worth noting that in the case of the Constellation (92,500 tonnes) and other similarly sized cruise ships, the port of call is a commercial shipyard depot about 15 minutes by car from the city centre, rather than at the passenger cruise terminal on the River Neva much closer to the city. End result is unless you are part of an organised shore excursion or you have your own pre-arranged tourist visa you can not leave the ship which for independent travellers like us can be frustrating.
On the first day in St. Petersburg, we did our first excursion, travelling to Moscow by air and coach, which was a one day round trip excursion. (15 hours) Although very expensive it was well worth it as it is one of those places that you may never return to again. Also as St Petersburg is so close (one hour flight) it just made sense to do it. I had wanted to do this trip from the time we made the cruise booking but had reservations due to Russia's aviation history. We flew with 'Rossiya' or Russian Airlines which are operated by the Russian State Transport company and are undergoing an upgrade of their fleet according to the in flight magazine. Being a regular flyer I am comfortable in the air, but the plane was very old and I was glad when it touched down in Moscow. We did get an upgrade to business class on the flight which was most appreciative and the cabin service was warm and friendly.
Moscow is the core and capital city of Russia, home to almost 10 million people. Populous, motley and multilingual Moscow has always had a great attraction thanks to its inexhaustible energy. The date of Moscow's foundation is not lost in the remote past. It is one of the oldest cities in Russia and a settlement might have existed on the site before 1147 the year under which Moscow is for the first time mentioned in the chronicles. For centuries Moscow has been a treasure house for carefully preserved national cultural tradition. All the Russian Tsars and emperors were crowned here in Russia's main cathedral, the ancient Dormition Cathedral and both Peter the great and Catherine the great came to Moscow to celebrate military victories.
The Traffic in Moscow is horrendous with almost 5 million cars on sub standard roads. The city is a perpetual gridlock, and travelling just a few miles can take hours unless you have a skilled local driver. Luckily we had one who said driving fast and not looking both ways is a popular technique. The trip to and from the city was quite warm (30 Degree celcius outside) and the bus was not air conditioned making it very unpleasant for some. Living in a hot, tropical climate in Australia made it almost bearable for us but I felt for the older people on the bus and those accustomed to cooler climates and I am sure it was mentioned in feedback.
Whilst in Moscow we visited the Metro underground which is very different to the humid, dimly lit systems of Paris and London where shoving to shoving to obtain a good seat is a pre requisite. With bronze statues and lovely ornate cornices throughout, it is well worth a look if you are ever there. We also visited the Kremlin and Red Square both of which were just fantastic and impossible to explain on here. Dinner and lunch were both provided and the beef Stroganov and vodka was well received. The experience of seeing Moscow is incomparable, and I highly recommend that you go sometime in your lifetime if you can somehow manage it, even if only for a day. We arrived back at the ship around 1.30am tired but extremely pleased we had done this trip and managed to avoid the pick pockets which are rife in Moscow.
The second day was spent in St. Petersburg which was equally fascinating. We did our second excursion for the cruise to The Hermitage Museum with an exclusive trip to the Gold Room or Treasury Room. The Hermitage Museum began as a winter palace, the home of the Russian emperors from 1763 to 1917. Today the winter palace is one of five buildings that make up the State hermitage Museum. Today the Museum collection which has been put together over the course of two centuries contains almost 3 Million exhibits and for me personally the collection rivals the louvre in Paris (Open for debate). Impossible to see everything, our guide took us past most of the main attractions but the highlight for me was the Gold Room and The Madonna Litta by Leonardo da Vinci and The return of the Prodigal son by Rembrandt.
The tour lasted only three hours meaning we were finished and back on the Ship by 11.30am and it was here that we were disappointed for not getting our own Travel visa. If we had we could have had the rest of the afternoon to explore St Petersburg on our own. We intend to return to this great city again as there are so many sites to see. I would recommend excursions to the summer palaces of the Romanov family and also both Peterhof and Pushkin Palaces if you have time all of which are available on this cruise. The catch is that there are only two days to see all of these great sites so you will need to sacrifice something; but whatever you choose will be an experience you'll never forget.
The next stop was Tallinn, Estonia, a charming old town and well worth a visit. Tallinn is the capital of Estonia and is located on the bay of Tallinn, which is an inlet of the Gulf of Finland. Situated in northern Europe, Tallinn is a major Baltic port and naval station, as well as being a major industrial centre. Tallinn was once known as Reval, this was the name given when it was ruled by the Danes from 1219 - 1346. During this time a network of streets was developed inside the town walls, these walls are still intact in the old town today. The town is close to the Pier (Easy 15 minutes walk) and easily negotiable by foot. The Holland America Cruise Ship 'Rotterdam' was in Port also and was berthed right along side us. The two ships cut an impressive figure sitting side by side.
Once in the old town we walked the old cobblestone streets and marvelled at this gothic town. It was if time had stood still and if there were not modern cars in the street and tourists everywhere you would think a horse and cart was going to pop around the corner at any minute. The buildings were old and some slanted and crooked only reinforce the age of the house. I remember reading the year 1210 on one of the roof gables. We visited Alexander Nevski Cathedral, built in 1894 in the traditional style of Moscow churches Complete with Onion Domes and the St Nicholas Church dedicated to the Patron Saint of Seamen built in 1230.
Next Stop was Riga, Latvia but unfortunately I am unable to provide any shore information as we stayed on board, choosing instead to enjoy a relaxing day by the pool. Riga is the capital city of Latvia and has a population of 800,000. In the early 30's the city was full of diplomats, traders and intrigues and earned the name of the "Paris of the East" Riga is a well preserved historic city which has a magnificent mix of Latvian, Russian and German influence. Riga straddles the Daugava River along which you will find many places of interest, including old Riga (Vecriga). Riga's axil street running North East from Akmens Bridge (Akmens tilts), is called Kalku Iela as it passes through the old city, then Brivibas Bulvaris as far as the towering Hotel Latvija, about 2km from the river. Returning to the ship we went to the nearby Ferry Terminals to check our emails (Information was in the town map) which. On the way back to the ship we checked our emails at the nearby Ferry Terminals which for $2 Euro for 15 minutes was much better price than on the ship.
Next Stop was Klaipeda, Lithuania. The one thing I loved about this cruise was that there were very few days at sea, (3 in total out of 15) meaning everyday you were in a new city or town in another country. I guess this is one of the reasons people cruise but this itinerary is definitely better than most other cruises we looked at and was a major factor in choosing Celebrity. Again an excursion was not required with the town less than 15 minutes walk away. Klaipeda is Lithuania's only seaport on the Baltic Sea. It has 190,000 inhabitants which is down on the 210,000 people in 1992. Today the city is a major ferry port with connections to Sweden, Denmark and Germany and the architecture has a western European influence. There are popular sea side resorts nearby at the towns of Neringa and Palanga but we did not see these.
There was very little to see in the town and first impressions were of a city which lacked any real character. The buildings were fairly run down and there appeared little in the way of rejuvenation giving an overall feeling of poverty. Transport was similar to St Petersburg and Russia, (Except for the upper class) with old buses and cars and the most of the shops were closed which was odd for a Monday. The only shop I wanted to see, a clock and watch museum was closed Monday's which was disappointing, so we walked back to the ship soon after. There were some interesting excursions out of the city which would have given a better idea of Lithuania and the surrounding country side which is said to be quite lovely and I would encourage people to do this.
Next stop was Copenhagen, Denmark a simply beautiful city which oozes class and royalty and a touch of romance... With its canals, house boats and royalty it reminds me of Amsterdam without the tourists and red light district and Monaco. We had a two day stopover, (which was actually overnight and one day) in Copenhagen arriving in the afternoon and did our third and final excursion, a canal cruise on the first evening. During the Canal cruise we passed several landmarks including; The Den Lille Havfrue or Little mermaid which is the symbol of Copenhagen and the most visited monument in the city. We also passed the Royal Museum of fine arts, the royal library, the opera house an impressive building of ten storey's, with five of these being under the water. The most impressive site was the Rundetarn Tower a 120ft tower erected by King Christian IV in 1642. We really enjoyed the night cruise through the canals and found it quite romantic and highly recommend it to anyone doing this cruise.
The following day we walked into town following the water line admiring million dollar yachts and apartments. Along the way we could see the Royal yacht moored nearby and passed through the Royal palace and other sites. Again an excursion was not required here but the walk into town was a good 30 - 40 minutes (Including video/camera time) meaning some people may struggle. Shuttle buses were again available for a price but we chose to save our money for other things notably shopping which depending on your budget can be done in Copenhagen. The Ostergade is the main shopping precinct and is pedestrian only strip, (However be warned If you are looking for budget shopping in Copenhagen this is not the place to do it) With Gucci, Prada, Rolex and Royal Copenhagen shops throughout window shopping is probably a better option unless you are cashed up.
We ate lunch at the Hard Rock Café which was a fair walk along the Ostergade past Tivoli Gardens before returning to the Ship via the best buy ice cream shop in Europe. We departed Copenhagen that evening and had a day at sea before returning to Dover which gave time to reflect on this wonderful part of the world.
Highlights and Lowlights
The nearby Seaside bar and grill immediately next to the pools were perfect for pasta/hamburgers/tacos while reclining with your favourite book. The buffet restaurant inside on level 10 which served more casual (and generally more varied) fare than the primary dining room was always good. You could eat prepared food or have pasta, stir fry's etc cooked on demand whilst you waited. We ate there several times because to be honest we found the whole dressing up and eating at the same time every night with the same people over rated not because we did not enjoy others company, but because we just wanted to be eat normally without having to worry about being formal and table etiquette.
The main dining room on level 4 (The San Marco Restaurant) was a two story affair at the very rear (Aft) of the ship with a huge window overlooking the sea. There were also windows at Port and starboard also overlooking the sea. The chefs and staff consistently served a variety of excellent dishes the entire cruise, including a children's menu. Different tastes in food for so many passengers aboard will likely result in disappointments for one meal or another, but everybody on our table found the food to be above average. (Note I say above average because although good it was not great, a sentiment shared by not only us, but many people especially frequent cruiser.)
The only complaint I have about the food service on this ship was the alcohol prices and the charging for soft drinks with a primary meal. Children can't drink alcohol, and adults don't always want to drink tea, coffee, or water with lunch or dinner. To whole exercise of summoning the bar or wine steward every time a passenger wants a soft drink with a meal is primarily directed to generate more profit. I can understand cruise lines not wanting to supply endless rounds of soft drinks for the never ending thirst of kids but this is not really a family cruise and there were very few children on board. To incur a charge to have a soft drink with a primary meal is a rip off to be honest. Also I found the wine prices to be grossly over priced. I do not mind paying for a god red when it is deserved but I was aware of the prices of several bottles on the wine list from back home and to have a 200% mark up is again just a rip off. All in all it is just another way that some cruise lines exploit their customers.
The Ocean Liners Restaurant on level three provided another eating option. The restaurant was fitted out in similar style to the grand liners of yester years and was elegant in every detail. There was a charge associated with eating here and required a reservation but well worth the money with the meals simply superb and the table service some of the best I have experienced. (A word of warning, if you are going to eat here make sure you go there on an empty stomach as there are 6 courses and cheese). The bars and clubs were all classy with the Champagne bar, Martini bar and 'Michaels Club' in particular with it's piano bar all great ways to relax and enjoy a drink. Again the prices were inflated; with a Bailey's costing almost triple the price in Australia. The disco was located at the front of the ship, aptly named 'The bar at the edge of the Earth' it was spacious had great views out to sea. Being first time cruisers we found the entertainment good but regular cruisers did not and we heard on several occasions that the entertainment was disappointing. The celebrity Theatre which was the primary theatre was well designed and comfortable and Fortunes Casino was always busy.
There is a movie theatre on board that had a variety of current movies playing at most times (Ratings varied from PG to R), and a constant rotation of recent movies on the stateroom TV kept us entertained while changing clothes for dinner or relaxing/winding down in our stateroom.
Outdoor entertainment was plentiful with most sports catered for including basketball, volleyball, tennis and a jogging/walking track and a great selection available for children in the celebrity X-Club. From teen-oriented explorations and entertainment to special opportunities for toddlers and their parents to interact with each other, the X-Club is designed to make sure your children enjoy their Celebrity experience as much as you do. You can even join your children for X-Club Family Events like Karaoke, Family Disco, Bingo and more.
The major disappointment for us was the lack of follow up to our complaint on the missing facial products in our stateroom which was valued at around $150 dollars. Basically the company did not believe us saying there was only two people that had access to our room and neither used moisturisers so reading between the lines we must have been lying. My partner had bought the products from the Aqua Spa on the Ship and was therefore very aware of how much she had used, for the ship to imply that we were making it up was to be frank an insult. At no time did we imply it was a crew member but requested it be replaced however, the ship had a policy that nothing is replaced on board instead you have to make a complaint to head office and try and resolve the issue after disembarkation. ???? The issue was not resolved with management on board and we did not bother completing the complaint form for head office however my partner was given a replacement by a staff member, (Area and name withheld) and we thank her for doing what management should have done in the first place.
Other complaints were the inflated prices for anything on board, including alcohol at the various lounges, tea and coffee at the Nova Coffee bar and of course the Internet. Also expensive were the photographs which were taken on formal nights and at every gangway when exiting the ship. The photos were displayed on level 4 and you could select the ones that you like however, at almost $20USD each these were grossly over priced. I understand that this is how some crew members make extra money but considering they would have to throw a large percentage of the photos out that were not purchased the price could have been reduced significantly. As mentioned previously the shuttle bus rides into town also incurred a price which we thought should be included in the cruise fare; however the cruise company are well aware that people need to get into town at some ports so it is a necessary evil unfortunately unless you want to pay for a taxi.
Thank you for taking the time to read my review, I hope I have provided a useful resource for those that might be considering this ship or its itinerary. Would we take another cruise, yes but being independent travellers we will probably wait a few years. Cruising is great way to see many different countries in style and with very few of the dramas associated with independent travel but this it what we love about travel, the uncertainty and decisions that you have to make in foreign countries. Cruising does not provide this but provides many other opportunities which is the reason it is becoming so popular. Happy cruising!
Would we cruise again with Celebrity - YES
Recommended to other people considering cruising - YES