August 8, 2008
Weather was generally in the mid 60s with a chance of showers. Bring layers, a packable rain jacket with hood, and a folding umbrella. Pants and jeans, rather than shorts, were practical most days, although we did have a couple days that were sunny and in the 70s. The seas were relatively calm except for the night we sailed into Gydinia, when the boat was visibly rocking, making walking (not to mention dancing) a challenge. We heard that the prior sailing never made it to Gydnia because of the rough weather. Our itinerary was supposed to include a stop in Helsingor, but this stop was eliminated and instead we went right to Copenhagen arriving at 12 noon.
International Café: Nice place to relax with a cup of real brewed coffee or tea. Note that coffee on the ship is otherwise terrible! The additional charge for coffee/tea in the International Café is worth it.
Entertainment: We enjoyed music by the band Amante, the comedy of Kevin Hughes, and a 70's night dance party. Most of the shows in the Princess Theater were not very good, although we liked the magician. The Troika show was AWFUL.
Port Lectures: The port lectures given by John Lawrence were excellent and informative. You can catch them live or watch a replay on your stateroom TV.
Teen Center: The four teens (ages 14 to 17) in our group made good use of the teen center Remix. On port days, games and activities were scheduled from 7pm to 1am. The teen dance party in Club Fusion was a highlight.
Currency Machine: Because the ship stops at so many different countries, only two of which (Finland and Germany) use the Euro, the shipboard currency-exchanging machine was a real convenience.
Did Not Like
Sanctuary: This is a special "quiet area" near the spa pool where you can sit on a deck chair and relax. However, the additional charge of $15 per half day is a rip-off and it did not appear that many people took advantage of this.
Anytime Dining: With Anytime Dining you can generally only make a reservation for 6:00, 6:30 or after 8:15 -- so if you think that you will be able to make a reservation "anytime" you will be disappointed. Instead, the in-between hours are "walk in." Since we were a group of 9, this meant that if we wanted to plan to eat together we had to choose to dine either at the early or the late time. Several nights we decided to split up (the five adults ate separately from the 4 teens) and we had no trouble walking into the dining room without reservations, although one night we had to share a table with another group, which was fine. Before you agree to share, know that you will not be served until the table is full. Therefore, it is better to share with a group that is already there, than to be the first group at a large table. A problem I see with Anytime Dining is you don't get to know your waiter and they have really nothing invested in serving you. On our prior cruise to Alaska, we chose the set dinner seating, had the same waiter each night, and the service at dinner was much better.
Food: Overall the food in the dining rooms was just average. Most of the appetizers and soups were very good, but the quality of the entrees was hit or miss.
Billing & Front Desk: On the last night of the cruise, people lined up for hours to get their bills to review. There were not enough people at the front desk to handle the inquiries. The situation was deplorable. Why Princess would not deliver a copy of the bill the day before the cruise ends is beyond me. Perhaps they want to discourage people from questioning their bills? You need to check your bill to make sure someone else's charges are not on it. One of the people in our group had an extra $2500 of shipboard charges on their account, which apparently had been charged to the wrong stateroom.
Princess Transfers: In Copenhagen, Princess transfers from the ship to the airport were about $60 per person. This would have been $540 for our group of nine. Instead, we pre-booked a 16-passenger van for about 980 DKK, which is a little under US $200. Our hotel concierge took care of this, however, you could do it directly through midibus.dk or another car service. If we had thought about it, we probably could have reduced our cost even more by taking on some additional passengers who were waiting in the very long taxi line at the port (I am guessing it was about an hour wait for a taxi). Therefore, my advice is NOT to waste your money on Princess transfers, but try to arrange a private taxi so you don't have to wait in the taxi line.
Ports of Call
Copenhagen: We arrived in CPH on Wednesday, giving us two days to look around the city before embarkation on Friday. Five of us took a taxi from the airport ($258 krone for a 10-15 minute ride) to our hotel (SAS Royal), the other four took the train. The taxi arrived first but train was pretty fast too! Of course it was too early to check in but the hotel took care of our bags and we walked to Town Hall Square, Stroget & Nyhavn where we had a nice lunch. Returned to the hotel for a nap and then spent the evening at Tivoli where the teens went on the rides, I enjoyed a pantomime show, and we had a great dinner at Groften restaurant. Entry was 85 krone pp and unlimited rides for the kids at 200 krone each. Thursday we did the hop-on hop-off bus tour from the Town Hall Square which we enjoyed tremendously. Hopped off at the statue of the Little Mermaid, and at the Danish Resistance Museum (WWII museum) then hopped back on to return to the vicinity of the hotel where we had a nice lunch at Axelborg Bodega on the Axeltorv. Dinner was fabulous Thai food at a place called Spicylicious, a lovely restaurant though we had to walk through the red light district to get there. Friday we enjoyed a great breakfast buffet at the hotel, took another walk down Stroget and had some of those great Danish hot dogs from a stand for 25 krone each. The hotel arranged a van to take our party to the cruise terminal. Embarkation was a bit hectic as it was pouring rain. Did I mention that it rains a lot in CPH? Make sure to always have a raincoat and umbrella handy! First order of business on board was to register the kids for the teen center. The next day was a relaxing day at sea.
Stockholm: The ship docked at 10am and we had to be back on board by 4:30pm, thus we had just over 6 hours to see something of Stockholm. There were several ways to get into town from the cruise berth, including a Princess shuttle bus ($13 round trip to Stromgaten Street near the Opera House) and a Hop on, Hop off (HOHO) open top tour bus. We opted for the HOHO sightseeing ferry, which was very enjoyable (100 Swedish Kroner or $15 US dollars per person). The ferry dock is just to the left of the cruise berth and departs at 15 minutes before and 15 minutes after the hour. The HOHO ferry route takes you to Old Town first, followed by the Royal Palace, Nybroplan and then Vasa. We decided to sightsee in Old Town then go to the Vasa. Unfortunately, by the time we got to Vasa in the afternoon, there was a line to get in. That is the problem with 3,000 cruise passengers all trying to see the same attraction on the same day! We could have used more time in Stockholm, and really would like to go back again.
Helsinki: Princess offered a shuttle bus to the Esplanade ($10 round trip), which is near the famous Stockmann's department store. From there it is a short walk to the Market Square, where you can enjoy local food specialties and shop for crafts. From the Market Square, you can take the ferry to Suomelinna Fortress (5.50 euro round trip), where there is a very interesting museum focusing on the history of the fort, which was originally built by the Swedes and later used by Russia. The film was a good introduction to the museum and was offered in an array of languages. It would have been interesting to walk around the island and explore the fort, but as it was raining, we returned by ferry and took a LONG walk to the Rock Church. Worth the trip but of course it was filled with the same 3,000 cruise passengers all wanting to see it. Took the 3T trolley back to the Market Square (2.20 euro).
St. Petersburg: We spent a great 2 days in St. Petersburg touring with our guide Albina from Alla Tours. If you are touring with an independent company like Alla, you do not need a visa (Princess tries to mislead you into thinking a visa is required, but this is not true when you are touring with a licensed guide). Also, contrary to Princess warnings, there was no trouble disembarking. Ignore any instructions that Princess gives you to assemble in a particular room on the ship to be assigned a gangway pass. No gangway passes are needed. Just walk right off the ship using the forward gangway on deck 4. There are then 3 lines to go through passport control. One of these lines is designated for independent tour passengers and the other two are designated for Princess tours. Princess will try to make you stand in the line for the independent tours; however, if there is no one in the other lines you can go through passport control there. The people in the passport booth don't care which line you go through. We disembarked at around 7:10 am to meet our guide at 7:30 am. We were through in 10 minutes. Note that the line for passport control does form outside so if it is raining you'll need an umbrella or raincoat.
A highlight of our 2 days in St. Petersburg was the canal cruise. The city is beautiful as seen from the canals. We happened to do the cruise on a sunny day and it was wonderful. Alla had arranged a private boat for our group of 8, so we did not have to share the boat with other passengers and our guide used the microphone on the boat to explain the buildings and bridges we were seeing.
Unless you really feel you need to see the Amber room, I would skip Catherine palace altogether, it was so crowded with tour groups going through it. The excursion to Peterhof gardens was wonderful. We toured through the Catherine Block of Monplaisir palace on the grounds of Peterhof, which was not crowded at all and was very enjoyable. The Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood is not to be missed! But once again you will find crowds here. Beware of pickpockets; one of our party had her wallet stolen.
Tallinn: Our port stop in Tallinn was from 7 am to 1pm. After two exhausting days in St. Petersburg it was hard to be motivated to get off the boat at 7am. We slept in and did not see too much of Tallinn. Took the Princess shuttle bus ($5 each way), which takes you to the edge of "old town," a pedestrian only area with cobblestone streets. It is picturesque, but very touristy, and we were accosted several times by people selling souvenirs. We made it as far as the Town Hall Square. There is an interesting museum in the Town Hall (75 kroon family ticket, local currency only).
Gdansk: In Gdansk we signed up for a Princess tour as that seemed the easiest way to travel from the port in Gydinia to Gdansk (about a 45 minute trip). We happened to be there on Aug 15th and locals were celebrating the Catholic holiday Assumption of the Virgin Mary as well as the anniversary of Solidarity. The city was very festive and packed with people. Because of the holiday, St. Mary's church was only open to tourists limited hours, and as a result, it was super crowded. St. Mary's church is the largest brick church in Europe and worth a visit. We had a nice lunch of pierogies in a café in Gdansk. We tried several kinds and I recommend the mushroom pierogies!
Warnemunde: We arrived on a Saturday and it was sunny and in the mid-60's. We took advantage of the long port stop to sleep late while about 2,000 of our fellow passengers got up early to board trains and buses bound for Berlin.
We walked into Warnemunde (it was about a 10 minute walk from the ship) and were in luck because the fish market was open (it is just to your right before you cross the canal). Try the sandwich of herring, lettuce and onion on a roll, you won't be disappointed!
After crossing the bridge over the canal, we turned right and walked along the Am Strom, a pedestrian street that runs along the canal and is lined with cafes, ice cream parlors and souvenir shops. The atmosphere was very festive and the crowd was mostly German. We turned left near the lighthouse and walked out to the beach. The beach is very wide and clean. People were flying kites, playing beach volleyball, and sunbathing. It would be a good idea to wear your bathing suit under your clothes because there were not any places for changing, and bring towels from the ship. Or, if you fancy bathing in the buff, walk down to lifeguard station 5, which is the nudist beach. After sunbathing, we had an excellent lunch at the restaurant in the Kurhaus, an open-air cafe on the second level that overlooks the beach.
Overall, Warnemunde was one of our favorite port stops even though we did no sightseeing whatsoever.
Copenhagen: As noted above, there was no port stop in Helsingor. We arrived back in Copenhagen on a Sunday, which was unfortunate because most of the stores are closed Sunday. We took a taxi from the ship to the Town Hall Square and then walked to the Danish National Museum (Nationalmuseet). I highly recommend this museum, though we only did the ground floor, which takes you from Danish pre-history through the Vikings. There are some fascinating things on display. It was a warm day and the museum was not air conditioned so we had lunch at a nearby café. After lunch we took a look through the Dansk Design Center, which the teens especially enjoyed. We returned to the ship for our last night on board. What a great trip it was!