by Tad Dunlap
May 17, 2008
London -- Harwich
However, you can NOT count on the trains to run. Folks on the previous sailing had no trains TO the ship per the online reviews. We found out at the end of the cruise when they decided to work on the tracks (some Brits told us that was a ruse -- they just didn't want to pay the weekend labor). So now instead of a train to hold all of us and 2 weeks' cruise worth of luggage -- they sent a bus. Few could board that one. The next had no luggage hold -- so we stood out there another 2 hours til busses could hold us and our luggage.
Solution is to buy the ship's transfer. We balked at the price but regret that now. Not worth doing it on your own when you don't know the port and you have to rely on small town transport.
We arrived around 1:00 and had no trouble checking in. Heading up the gangplank was maybe a ten minute delay for security checks. Printing up the paperwork in advance off the Celebrity website made it smooth. We were greeted in the very attractive atrium by staff bearing platters of champagne. Period. No water or sparkling cider or juice. Everyone doesn't drink alcohol. It would have been nice to offer everyone a beverage after traipsing all the way to the coast and having paid lots of money for this cruise. Minor complaint.
Cabin Attendant Fabian
One of the special things he did for us was to re-arrange the beds. They were not separated as we had requested. Nor had they been at the $500 a nite Andaz in London. No biggie so long as corrected before bed. What we changed after the first nite was keep Patty's bed adjacent to the bathroom and move the head of my bed up against the verandah window. This was the fix for my snoring that I am told penetrates right thru the ear plugs. Put the couch between the two beds so it all fits. Then the couch looks straight out the verandah rather than a side view so some folks would prefer that anyway. Each nite I pushed the heavy glass coffee table against the sliding glass door so I wouldn't hit it en route to the bathroom. The only thing I couldn't do in that configuration was use the bedside lamp. No biggie. And now I could peer out the window at the moon, bridges, islands, etc. Loved it.
Had some lovely entrees -- fish and steaks are certainly good enough for me. Midwestern tastes and not a gourmet. Willing to try the chilled fruit soups and some other rarities and enjoyed them. Everyone at our table agreed the soups are the best course on Celebrity - hot or cold - try em all. People seemed to concur that the seafood was high caliber. Loved the fish but can't testify to any shellfish myself. Pork chop one night was so juicy and tender. One woman at our table charmed the waiter into bringing an extra entrée for the table to share when we had trouble making a decision. Several nights people ordered a second serving of the entrée - and the plates were never left empty. We were quite pleased. Baked Alaska for the final formal dinner (of three). Nice coconut and exotic fruit desserts the other nights were superb.
Four of us went to the OceanLiners restaurant for dinner in memory of my mom's birthday. The room is dedicated to grand liners of the past, with panels from the Ile de France on one wall and display cases of historic ship memorabilia in the mosaic tiled foyer. Perfect way to sail out of St. Petersburg, dining to harp music, light in the air (sunset at nearly 11 p.m.) and the table surrounded by four or five handsome fellows so they could serve each course in unison to their eager patrons. Patty said it was the best steak she has had in her life. My fish dish was delicious. They added a free appetizer. Free petits fours. You felt very satisfied for this elegant change of pace one special evening. The $30 sounds steep but was worth every penny. I loved my chocolate soufflé. May I order one by mail??
Here is the menu for you to start salivating over: Starters: Classic Lobster Bisque, Tomato, Red Pepper & Mozzarella Soup, Caesar Salad, Salad of Diced Vegetables and Lobster, Smoked Salmon with Tuna Carpaccio, Twice Baked Goat Cheese Souffle, Frog Legs Provencale, Escalope of Foie Gras Normandy, Chilled Asparagus - sauce Gribiche. Entrees: Whole Dover sole Meuniere (YUM-O), Grilled Filet of Sea Bass, Scallops & Lobster, Magret of duck with sliced pears, Rack of Lamb in Puff Pastry, Large Shrimps Flambee, Saltimbocca alla Romana, Risotto al Funghi, Tenderloin Steak Diane. Cheese: A selection of Fine French Cheeses, apples, grapes and walnut bread. Desserts: Zabaglione with marsala, Coconut Crème Brulee, Chocolate Souffle, Chocolate and Orange Segment Mousse Cake, Light Lemon and Lime Mascarpone cheesecake, Ice creams and sorbets, bite-size surprises, coffee and petits fours.
From the sublime to the not, my reality check for Celebrity F&B folks. Room service quality has gone way down. Not only has the portion size decreased a third, the quality has too. The pepperoni pizza was decent, the tuna sandwich passable, the chefs salad not. The cookies are good. Beverage selection meager. I know - with all that good food in other venues, why whine about this? In certain ports, odd timing and all - you really need something delivered on occasion. One GOOD thing about room service in 08 versus my last Celebrity cruise in 04, you can now get the deluxe dinner from the main dining room menu. Just let your cabin attendant know before dinner service has begun. That was nice. Room service otherwise needs improvement.
Buffets were better than in past. More variety. Salads seemed more inventive here than in the main dining room. Lots of fresh fruits and cheeses. LOVE the POG - passion fruit, orange and guava juice, as well as lemonade in the self serve dispensers next to the iced tea, coffee, and water. Omelet station was very popular and for good reason. Also high quality for the waffles and French toast served at the rear of the other dining lines. Had some delicious BBQ and beef dishes worthy of the main dining room. Very nice quality overall. A healthy spa cuisine option at their end of the deck. The pool area right outside the main buffet has burgers, hot dogs and tacos. Also potato salad, other salad fixings too up until 6 pm daily. Or was it 5?
One downside re: buffet service -- some of the guys did not have the English skills to tell me what I was ordering. This happened more than once. They smiled and tried - but I really couldn't grasp what was being served and no identifying labels out front in the dessert section in particular. Ah well -ate it anyway! Separate ice cream areas were very popular. Several exotic fruit and non-sugar options to choose from as well as the usual favorites. Cups or cones, your choice.
My overall take on the food this cruise, I am very pleased. When about 50 pct. of what I taste is delicious, and another 25 pct. very good - I can easily forgive the remainder being average or even on rare occasion just not worth having. The one area I would skip in future was the do it yourself pasta bar. Once they add the veggies- you have an inch of water in the bottom. But again, I focus on the 50 pct delicious mark and ache to return when I am so fortunate. On the other cruise lines, I am afraid they hit delicious maybe 10 pct of the time. Not Celebrity. YUM.
Spa was wildly popular. Nice facilities. Hard to book so don't delay once you get onboard. One fun feature was a silent auction near the end of the cruise. You can bid for any spa treatments, including the teeth whitening at a bargain price. Women looked great coming out with their hair and nails done.
Lounges were very tasteful, pleasant music, nice art throughout the ship -- some of it a bit too modern for me but most of it quite interesting and well positioned. Shops had some fun events - Russian fashion show and "spot the fake amber" and so on. They brought out lots of Russian dolls,hats,chocolates,jewelry, etc. so you had plenty of shopping opportunities right on board.
Disappointed in the highly touted arboretum. They're silks, not live flowers.
I went to one of the ship's free classes. Most now come with a charge. Dino was very good with explaining how to store your photos online at home with various programming tips. Class was full so book early.
Casino had a lot of jackpots coming and going. I had the feeling I would hit my mom's favorite numbers on keno on her birthday. And sure enough, I put in $60 and all five came in for nearly $800. Tasty treats on trays in the casino late nites - but that does NOT make up for the lack of a midnight buffet. None - all gone. Kaput. The previous sailing had the final one under new policy. I know we are all eating less, and being more green and so on - but not ONE on a 2 wk. premium cruise? When they announced the ice carving display near the pool it felt like a slap that they still show off these skills but with NO buffet?? Sigh -- an unexpected change.
Warnemunde: We bought the ship's excursion to Berlin. Train was within easy walking distance from the ship. Chaos in the main theater where ALL the Berlin tours were to gather simultaneously. Why they didn't deploy some in the other empty areas of the ship I don't know. Casino was closed, the lounges were closed at 8 a.m. so split things up rather than having 1500 people walk down one aisle of the theater to get boarding passes. Other ports were less of a madhouse but it was a bad start to the day. The train was satisfactory - rather crowded. Not as much leg room as I recall on trains in Europe. Coffees, water and fruits were dispensed as part of the $300 tour. We chose the tour that included luncheon at a brewery, a riverboat tour, a bus tour by Checkpoint Charlie, and walking near Charlottenburg Palace, the main shopping street with KaDeWe, the Brandenburg Gates and the Reichstag. Walking rapidly we could barely see all of this interesting city in the time given. 3 hrs each way by train - a nice big German lunch served family style - platters of sausages, two kinds of potatoes, and apple strudel - very nice. A snack bag on the train ride home and the ship buffet served late for us. A good but tiring day and a nice intro to Berlin.
Stockholm: One of the great things about this port was getting there. The ship comes off the Baltic Sea into the archipelago of thousands of islands at around 3 a.m. For our sailing, the full moon was shining across the water so I had to sit up and gaze. Docked around sunrise. A rather difficult 20 min. walk to the main part of old town but I had some shopping to do in one of the countries of my ancestors. What made the walk tricky was winding thru an industrial port that isn't clearly marked while they build a new cruise port there. Also building a large ABBA museum there for future cruise patrons to enjoy.
Across the water you can see their small version of Tivoli Gardens, the Vasa historic Ship Museum, etc. Expect some sticker shock given the poor exchange rate of the US dollar. Scandinavia is costly. Think Switzerland. COSTLY. But you can still pick up trinkets and candies, etc for a few bucks. We took the Waterways tour in the afternoon. Leaves right from the ship's dock. Walking past the bow we got doused with water. The crew didn't realize anyone was walking there as all the other tours and paths into town left mid-ship. We complained and in typical Celebrity good customer service, they gave us free dry cleaning for those outfits. Several people with mobility problems had chosen this tour since they didn't have to board a bus. It was still a challenge as there was a short but rather steep gangplank. The crew helped and everyone made it -- but just barely. Out on the water for a couple hours got nippy (we didn't have any rain in 14 days -- or the snows that hit St P in mid-May, but it is NOT a warm weather cruise). Saw the old hotels and palace downtown, the newer housing area where they built an "Olympic Village" but never got the bid from the IOC, and some really lovely large buildings along the waterway. Not an earth shattering port but very nice to look at and worth exploring. Again -- the sailing out was great to watch -- dining on the verandah with a sweater on was perfect. Never knew about the Swedish archipelago but a very pleasant surprise to have seen.
Helsinki: Loved Finland. Just the whole north woods, clean air look and feel of the place. Very attractive and outgoing people. Nothing in the way of a skyline -- it's not that type of city. Nice sized port -- too far to walk into town on your own. The buildings are low rise and modern as the oldest building dates back just to 1740 or so. They only used wood to build at that point and it just didn't survive for long. We chose one of the "specialty" tours that day. We went out of the city to HVittrask, the home of the leading architects of early 1900's. The one that Americans will know best is Saarinen, whose son also became famous in the US after they emigrated. They designed the classic Pan Am building at JFK, the Dulles airport outside D.C., and the St. Louis Arch. They had a large studio and several homes in a compound out on a lake with birch and pine trees north of the big city maybe 20 miles. The home has some great design features of course, built on 7 levels within a 3 story home. Very nice for those with any interest in seeing some of the countryside as well as the design aspects. We then came back into town, the guide pointing out the old train station and other buildings done by the same trio of architects, the new Concert hall, the old Cathedral built by a friendly Czar (Peter the Great?). You then had the option of staying in town to shop. I wanted my buffet so back to the ship we went. And thus we found something you too might enjoy. Across the parking lot from our dock were two little souvenir shops with nice books, art and some clothing for sale. They took any currency -- dollars, euros, pounds, and that would turn out to be rare in other ports. And they had a little P C set up and I thought maybe they let you surf online for a few Euros -- but it was FREE. So rather than pay what the ship charges, do a quick check of mail, etc. online there. I had seen one opportunity like that in Stockholm at the 7-11 grocery, but not free, about 3 Euros for a half hour.
St. Petersburg: At last. This was what it all builds up to, two days in this historic capital of arts and politics of the old Russia. We learned early on how serious they were about the "visa" situation. There was a souvenir shop across the parking lot from the dock. Thinking it was similar to Helsinki, and we could just stroll across, we tried but were thwarted by the frowning guards: "Russian visa?" No. "You can't go." Okay -- we tried. I took an afternoon tour while Patty rested up for our big night in town. I went on a tour of the Russian Museum and the Church on Spilled Blood. There were very few tours left once we boarded in Harwich, so I advise you go right away if you have any special tours picked out. Most will sell out in every port. We later learned there was a board on the counter stating which were sold out, which took waiting lists, and which (rarely) had been cancelled (lack of sufficient interest). The interactive TV in your stateroom allows you to book right on the screen. The info would sometimes make it look as if it were sold out but if you went to the desk you could sometimes still get booked.
The day we docked was the biggest festival of the year in St P., commemorating the city's birthday anniv. Why did someone NOT know this in advance? Our tour bus could not cross the parade route. We could not walk across the parade route. Had someone thought of this in advance, the tour could have been moved to morning, before the parade route became an issue. Needless to say it was chaos, We had to walk an extra mile, then go through a packed sidewalk crowd of parade viewers for blocks, walk under the street via a Metro tunnel, back up, and then towards the Museum. The museum was worth it but we lost about 1.5 hours of tour time and were panicked about getting back in time for the grand evening tours. Loved the museum, displaying all these grand Russian artists we had never heard of. Really a pleasant surprise, other than the parade fiasco of course. Then we strolled across a park right to the Church on Spilled Blood, a work of art itself. This was built on the actual site of the Czar's shooting in the 1880's. He was standing next to the canal and so they had to build out into the canal to make room for this stunning church to be built, housing a shrine to him on the actual spot where his blood spilled. The church is made of millions of mosaic tiles all the way up to the onion domes, depicting Biblical scenes. Some of the walls are made of stunning semi-precious minerals jasper and rhodolite -- like a poor man's emerald and ruby. Really wonderful to see the inside of this place. And shopping nearby afterwards.
That night was the piece de resistance. We did the tour that you MUST try and do. So many people later said they wished they had gone. It was a Night of Splendour at the Hermitage, with the climax being a private ballet performance in what was Catherine's private theater. Two busses of people from our ship were the entire crowd that night. So approx. 75 lucky people were given a private tour thru all four main buildings of the Hermitage Museum, seeing all the highlights without spending hours crushed between other tour groups. Mind you, we were the second sailing of the season, so there were 4 large ships in town. By the height of the season, that grows to 7 ships. Any chance you have to see any palace without the throngs, DO IT. We only wish we had an extra nite so we could have done the other grand evening event at the Summer Palace as it was a madhouse the next day. After seeing the Michelangelos and Raphaels and rooms full of impressionist masters, we were treated to the ballet -- seven vignettes from the great ballets. Most were danced as a pas de deux, some solos, and also the flanking 8 swans for Swan Lake in addition to the prima ballerina.
Fantastic orchestra, awesome dancers, and in that special setting -- what a night to remember. We walked out to see the sun still in the sky at 10 p.m. and many crowds for the Festival night. We did the nine hour tour the next day entitled Pushkin and Peterhof. This allowed us to see both Summer palaces -- the first in the Czars Village 20 miles south of St. P. This is the blue palace -- nearly destroyed by Nazi bombs. The majority of arts and ceiling panels were evacuated far into the countryside and thus preserved. The amazing Amber Room panels are still missing. What you see now is a replication. Stunning. Great palace to see -- but the crowds, and the walking are starting to get to us. Then our guide wants us to see one more garden, one more statue. Very nice and enthusiastic girl but the audio system didn't always work and we were weary long before Peterhof, the next Palace out on the Gulf of Finland. If you read the tour description, you expect to walk around 2.5 or 3 miles -- forget about it. We had to walk double that by the time we got thru all the upper gardens, lower gardens, inner gardens and the truly comical and impressive fountains Peter built to amuse himself. This is the yellow palace with the Cascades flowing behind. You must put on these little booties to tour inside. And some folks slipped. The floors are slick and we were tired so it was a real challenge. We did get some good prices on souvenirs from hucksters outside. The old dark "fur" hats and souvenir scarves and postcards, all about half what the ship charged. (The ship did have very nice shops and not terribly overpriced really.)
So there was much to see -- and whether you did a Celebrity tour or the private tours, we all want to come back and see more of St Petersburg and Russia. The included lunch was bland -- they put out some caviar and vodka to dress it up -- but the rest was not close to what we had become accustomed to on the Constellation.
Tallinn: Okay it was interesting. Mind you we have just seen St Petersburg. Why we thought this little palace tour here (we chose the Upper Town tour) would be of any interest, I don't know. The old town was quite something -- the best preserved fortress walled town I have ever seen. More than a dozen of the huge towers still standing guard over the old town. Medieval church full of coats of arms was interesting. The palace -- not so much. This was the spare Motel Six palace I think -- only for passing thru Estonia or harboring a mistress or whatever. A few nice paintings, a nice chandelier, some truly nice gardens yes -- but after Peterhof, sorry. Pick another tour. Shopping in Estonia was a challenge. They just stared at my VISA card -- not seeming to know what one would do with it. This was in the premier modern shopping mall mind you, not some goat stall. The only place I could actually make a transaction was at the post office so I could mail some cards with their postmark. The ship charges TWO DOLLARS per foreign stamp -- any country, and in some countries that really is the going rate -- but in others like Estonia you save if you get your own. The ship will mail them when they pass thru that country again if you miss the deadline -- so they could still have the postmark of your choice -- just two wks. after you disembarked. Russia and Estonia -- best prices. Some places took all currencies, some only took their local monies. Hard to know in advance so be prepared for anything. Except VISA in Estonia -- they don't know what it means.
Copenhagen: Loved the place. The most expensive place but still great just to walk around -- great old buildings, great new buildings, friendly people. Amazing Tivoli Gardens. (amazing that a medium diet Coke was 7 dollars US, ouch) Definitely buy the ships' transfer as it includes the admission and the bus back. I walked the 75 min. back cuz I had not purchased it. And it's a long hike. The Gardens were full of stage performances, a variety of restaurants and rides and shops and great lighting and flower designs. Don't miss it. We did another specialty tour here, to the village of Dragor. Historic farming village out 15 miles or so along the sea. No cars allowed in their narrow streets so you could see thick thatched roofs, huge flowers blooming, wondrous old style homes, and also the ship that was used to smuggle Jews across the sea, one or two at a time lying in the back of this inauspicious little fishing boat. Loved strolling here for an hour or so. The tour included coffee and a pastry -- they don't call them Danish in Denmark, but instead "Vienna bread" and good it was. Then back through the very modern airport area of high speed trains and apartments and finally back through the old town of palaces and museums. Unfortunately our table mate was among 3 women who were pickpocketed here on the palace tours. Throngs of people pressing against you and all the victims had zippers unzipped on backpacks or bags. One man was also prey in either St P or Tallinn -- his cargo pants zipper was undone and the wallet taken. The guides were constantly warning us to watch our surroundings in St P and we were fine. But the guide in Denmark said that professional criminals bus in to target the crowds in summer and then again at Christmas markets. Otherwise it is the 2nd safest country in the world, after Iceland. Non-violent snatch and grabs but not a happy day for some.
What more to say. Loved the ship. Loved the cruise line. Loved the ports. Was it perfect? No, of course not. But I wish all cruises were this nice -- and that I could go more often. Keep up the good work Celebrity, but bring back a midnight buffet every couple of weeks okay?