CRUISE REVEW and PORT GUIDE (lengthy)
BACKGROUND: I am in my late fifties and with my wife have been on sixteen previous cruises on six different cruise lines. What follows is a highly personalized review, with travel suggestions for the budget-minded cruiser. Since this review is quite lengthy, I have HIGHLIGHTED paragraphs with a key phrase in all caps so that the reader can skip down to any topic of particular interest. I will begin with general cruise information, followed by specific Star Princess information, and end with suggestions for independent port of call excursions.
Please remember that prices and itineraries change, and some of the following information may not be accurate at the time of your cruise. Although our cruise was on the Star Princess, the general cruise information and the port information given in this review should be useful to any cruiser on a Baltic itinerary.
LAST THINGS FIRST: In summary, this is a very enjoyable 10 night, port-intensive cruise on an enormous (109,000 tons, 2600 passengers, and 1100 crew) but well-designed and well-run ship, cruising round trip from Copenhagen, and calling at easy-to-enjoy ports in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.
PROs: Very reasonable cruise price ($1,100 per person for the best inside cabin category including all port fees and taxes, which is especially important now that the dollar is worth so little in Europe); great ports of call (each is or was an historic capital); ease of making inexpensive independent shore excursions (great public transport); ease of communication (almost everyone in Scandinavia speaks English).
CONs: Expensive airfares to Europe in high season; expensive visas (or non-visa shore excursions) in St. Petersburg; distance from the dock to the city center in several of the ports; different currencies in almost every port (more about all of these issues later in this review).
ITINERARY: This cruise begins and ends in Copenhagen, with stops at Nynashamn (for Stockholm), Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Tallinn, Gdynia (for Gdansk/Danzig), and Oslo. This itinerary alternates between Oslo and Warnemunde (for Berlin) based on departure date. The disadvantage of this itinerary is that only a part day is available in Stockholm, Tallinn, and Oslo. The advantage is that this cruise begins and ends in the Baltic area, and one does not waste cruise days (and expenses) repositioning from England or Holland to the Baltic Sea. There are two days at sea, near the beginning and end of the cruise, to recover from jet lag and excursion fatigue.
SECTION 1 -- GENERAL CRUISE INFORMATION
WHY CRUISE IN EUROPE: European cruises tend to be expensive relative to North American cruises, especially when one adds the cost of airfare from the U.S. However, cruising is a way of controlling your costs by pre-paying most of your expenses in U.S. dollars. In addition, most European cruise ports are user-friendly and can be thoroughly explored for about $10 per person (see port sightseeing suggestions below).
Some of our favorite cruise lines like Celebrity and Holland have recently priced their European (and Alaskan) cruises out of our market, but Princess offers some very reasonable cruise fares in this region, and we were very happy with the quality of this Princess cruise. Ironically, while on this cruise I received an e-mail from Princess advertising that their subsequent Baltic Star Princess cruise departures were being discounted even further, beginning at $800 per person (I don't know if port and tax were included) for an inside cabin during late May and June, 2005. Such news is always frustrating for those who have already booked and paid for a cruise, but cruises are like stocks or airline tickets - someone has always paid less than you did, so don't sweat it. If you did your homework, you still got a good value.
WHY CRUISE THE BALTICS: European cruises are ideal for some itineraries like the Greek islands, the Turkish coast, or the Norwegian fjords. For sightseeing in Europe I usually prefer a land-based vacation because most of the great cultural centers are not easily accessible by cruise ship (Paris, Berlin, Madrid, and London are all too far from the nearest port for an easy day trip). The Baltic nations are an exception - because of their sea-faring history, each of these nations placed its main city on the coast, and each of these cities has its own unique flavor.
CHOOSING A SHIP: Once you know where you want to cruise, the next major question is which ship to take. Part of the decision will be the price. Unfortunately some cruise lines no longer allow travel agents to discount fares as they did in the past. As a result, we switched to Princess.
Our only previous Princess cruise was on their small and elegant Tahitian Princess. We were a bit worried about the large size of the Star Princess, but when we looked at the space ratio (which is a rough estimate of space per passenger based on the ship's tonnage and passenger capacity), we relaxed. There were a few times when embarkation or disembarkation at ports of call was slow because of the ship's large size, but we never felt crowded onboard.
SPACE RATIO is an indication not only of the adequacy of public areas but also the roominess of the average cabin. In general, luxury ships have space ratios above 50. Premium ships are usually in the mid to upper 40's. Most standard ships are usually above 40. Mass-market ships are often in the 30's.
To determine the space ratio of a ship, use the brochure or the internet to find the ship's tonnage and divide this by the average passenger capacity (two per cabin, not the maximum capacity). For example, the Star Princess is 109,000 tons, divided by 2,600 passengers gives 42 tons of space per passenger (tonnage is a measure of enclosed space rather than weight).
Space ratios can be a surprise. The new Caribbean Princess class of ships has essentially the same hull and public areas as the Star Princess class of ships, but the Caribbean class adds an entire extra deck of passenger cabins, so their space ratio (36.5) is significantly less than that of the Star class, even though the ships look alike. Space ratio is not always reliable, but often we use it to provide an estimate of cruise ship comfort.
CRUISE REVIEW WEB SITES and their cruise forums can provide an excellent guide, but since you are reading this you probably already use them. Among my favorites are www.cruise-addicts.com, www.cruisemates.com, and www.cruisereviews.com. They all offer a wealth of information in addition to their reviews and forums, and some have e-mail alerts regarding cruise bargains and cruise industry news. Planning a cruise is sometimes half the fun, and these web sites are a good way to do this.
FINDING THE BEST CRUISE PRICE AND AGENT: The internet has revolutionized cruising. There are several web sites with excellent information about cruise opportunities, with information about ships, itineraries, and current prices. I often refer to www.icruise.com, www.cruise.com, www.cruisetar.com, and www.cheapertravel.com. The latter is the site of Pavlus Travel, which provides excellent discounts on name brand land and cruise operators. We used Pavlus to book this cruise, and relied on their web booking engine, which offers an additional discount to the price. We have always been happy with Pavlus's service and prices.
Unfortunately, some major cruise lines are trying to block agents from offering discounts, and more and more often prices are not available on the net - one must call the agent to price the cruise. In the end, this means we will either be cruising less often or will switch cruise lines (as we did for this cruise) to those cruise lines whose prices are more transparent (and a better value). PRE-CRUISE PREPARATIONS: Besides making sure that your passport has an expiration date more than 6 months after your last travel day and that you have any visas necessary based on your nationality and ports of call, the best preparation is to PACK LIGHT and to buy (or copy from your library) maps and guidebook INFORMATION ABOUT PORTS OF CALL. I am always amazed by the number of cruisers who travel unprepared for what they will see and do in ports of call. Travel is an education, and that education should begin as soon as you book your cruise.
PACKING LIGHT is easy. My wife and I each travel all over the world with only a regulation (21x13x8 inch) airline carry-on bag with wheels, even when cruising. This allows maximum flexibility and peace of mind.
When cruising I take three outfits: one formal, one informal, and one casual. The formal outfit is a black suit with white shirt and tie; the informal is a sport jacket with matching shirt and slacks; the casual is a knit shirt and nylon pants. I wear black shoes with rubber soles. In the tropics I add a T-shirt, shorts, sun hat, Teva-style sandals, and umbrella. In cool climates I add a turtleneck, polypro sweater/jacket, a warm cap, and a Goretex-type rain jacket/windbreaker.
My wife's travel clothes are analogous - she packs cocktail slacks and a designer jacket for formal wear; a sweater, blouse and black slacks for informal wear; and a knit top and nylon slacks for casual wear. She also takes a pair joggers, Teva-style sandals, and (on cruises) low heels.
Microfiber clothes don't need ironing and they can be hand-washed in the evening, towel-wrung, and hung in your room at night (we pack a few lightweight plastic hangers for this). The clothes will be dry by morning. Leave your blue jeans at home (you're not that young and they're not that practical). Don't worry about impressing any "fashionistas" onboard your cruise ship -- they are more interested in what they themselves look like than what you look like.
A GOOD GUIDEBOOK with maps makes all of the difference when traveling, even on a cruise. I recommend Rick Steves guides for major European cities and Lonely Planet guides for great maps and details about every other corner of the world. Not having a guidebook makes a cruiser dependent on package tours, which are usually high quality but relatively expensive, and they may not cater to a cruiser's personal interests. Photocopy the guidebook chapters about your ports of call so that you can carry just a few pages ashore and discard the copies (or give them to your steward for his/her shore leave) after you have used them. Pre-cruise reading is the best investment you can make in getting the most out of your vacation.
JOHN LAWRENCE, the cruise director on our Star Princess departure deserves special mention at this point. He provides the very best port of call information we have ever encountered on any cruise. He does it with clear directions (and photos) of how to travel to (and within) each port city on your own using public transportation. He includes great background and sightseeing information for each port. Fortunately his presentations are repeated on your cabin TV the evening before each port of call. He deserves the NOBEL PRIZE for cruise directors! None of our previous cruise directors has come close in this important service.
AIRFARE: Perhaps the greatest downside of European cruising is the high price of airfare from the US to the embarkation port, especially since the European cruise season overlaps the high season airfares. We have had better luck purchasing our own airline tickets rather than relying on the cruise line. As an example, we were quoted $1350 per person for airfare from our local midwestern airport by the cruise line, and that does not allow a choice of airlines or routings (unless surcharged). On the net we found that one-stop airfares were $1150 and two-stop airfares were $850 for the dates we needed.
In the end, we drove farther to a hub airport and took Icelandic Airlines for $680 per person. The limiting factor in our choice of airlines was that the cruise begins disembarking at 0600 but Princess recommends not taking any return flight before 1130, which left us few options for any airport near our home.
A small airline like Icelandic can be a problem if there is a delay since there are few or no alternate flights to get one to the cruise dock in time. That is not a problem when one purchases air through the cruise line. Staying overnight in Copenhagen before the cruise might be an enjoyable insurance against delays or lost baggage.
Icelandic Airlines is very strict about carry-on bag weight - no more than 10 pounds, which is the weight of a good quality carry-on when empty! We are used to their games and simply empty our carry-ons into our day packs, check the empty carry-ons, and take the day packs onboard the plane. Ironically, the overhead bins have been almost empty on our flights. Because of this policy against our carry-ons and because of their "thin" coverage of European routes, we would certainly never recommend Icelandic Airlines to friends. We try to avoid Icelandic Airlines when we can, but it did the job for us in this case.
MONEY MATTERS: One advantage of cruising is that most expenses can be charged to one's shipboard account, which is billed in US dollars to one's US credit card. If one's credit card is in some other currency, the ship will make the currency conversion before charging. I do not know what the conversion rate is, and suggest that any non-US cruiser look into this before agreeing to credit card charges onboard.
A useful alternative is to take travelers checks in US dollars and cash them on board as needed. There is no fee for cashing them and one gets full value in US cash. Just be careful to count your cash - twice I have been shorted $100 by the purser when cashing travelers checks, and one of those times was on this cruise. Luckily I caught it both times. There is no receipt for these transactions, and you will have no recourse once you leave the pursers' desk if there has been an error.
While in port, we always rely on ATMs. They are widely available in Europe and work well with our local bank cards (make certain your card has a 4 digit pin, which is the standard around the world). Do NOT use your credit card or your shipboard account for a cash advance on the ship or in port - this carries a hefty fee (3% or more) and possibly additional interest. Using a credit card for purchases is fine, but keep in mind that VISA now charges a conversion fee of 1% for all transactions in foreign (non-US) currencies.
SECTION 2 - STAR PRINCESS INFORMATION
PRE-CRUISE BROCHURES: Princess has useful pre-cruise information in its brochures regarding what to expect on board, how one can be reached while cruising, etc. It also has a separate beautiful brochure detailing its shore excursion options for the Baltics. Even if you do not take their excursions, this brochure will provide you ideas for your own independent shore excursions, and it makes a great resource for photos and captions if you "scrapbook" your travels. Both these brochures should arrive with your pre-cruise documents.
I also like to tear out and pack the sales brochure deck plans for the ship, since these are more detailed than the pocket guides you will find in your cabin. These deck plans are great for selecting your cabin and for the first day or two onboard when finding one's way to the library or dining room or internet salon can be a challenge.
My only major complaint about Princess Cruise's pre-cruise information is that it includes absolutely nothing about the initial location of the ship. They assume one will purchase their airport to ship transfers (which cost a great deal more than public transportation). Some cruise lines are wise enough to include the name of the dock and directions how to reach it. Princess should print the name and location of its embarkation docks so that independent travelers can find them by taxi or other public transport.
PRE-EMBARKATION: The Star Princess docks at Copenhagen's Orientkaj (Orient Quay) which is north of Copenhagen's center. It is in the Frihavn complex, but that complex is several miles long. We met several passengers whose taxis took them to the Langeliniekaj, which is a popular cruise terminal (near the Little Mermaid statue), but which is two miles from the Orientkaj. One person we met on the cruise said that she and her mother were dropped by their taxi at the wrong quay, and they had to walk the two miles along the waterfront with their suitcases since they could not find another taxi.
GETTING FROM CPH AIRPORT TO THE SHIP CHEAPLY AND QUICKLY BY TRAIN: This could not be easier, and it costs less than $5 per person (taxis are about $40-50 I believe, but the taxis do take credit cards). On arrival, get some Danish Kroner (in May 2005 about 5.8 DKK to the dollar) at any ATM in the arrival area, and walk to the train ticket window in terminal 3 (just follow the signs - it is well-marked). Ask for tickets to the NORDHAVN (not Noorport) Station. This station is about 6 blocks (an easy 10-15 min walk) from the ship - you can even see the ship from the train platform when you arrive. It is best to take the airport train (which leaves every 15 minutes) a few stations past central Copenhagen station to the Oosterport Station, and then switch platforms to for the local train to Nordhavn Station (which is only one stop farther). There are escalators/elevators in all train stations, so baggage is no problem. Traveling by train from the airport to the ship was so fast and easy that the Princess transfer passengers who were on our flight actually arrived at the ship by Princess bus shortly after us.
At the end of the cruise, take the same train connection back to the airport. You can ride from Nordhavn Station to Oosterport Station, buy your ticket there, and switch to the airport train (ticket machines are on the platform at Nordhavn Station, but we preferred dealing with the agent at Oosterport Station).
This is very important at the end of your cruise because taxis are inadequate on the dock and the taxi line had hundreds of people when we got off the ship. We sailed right by the taxi line, and went from our cabin to the airport check-in line in just under one hour.
EMBARKATION: Once we were at the ship, embarkation went smoothly. We were given numbers based on arrival time, and were allowed to sit and wait until called rather than standing in a long line. It pays to complete all cruise documents in advance, since one qualifies for express check-in that way. This can be done by internet, mail, or fax, and is explained in your cruise documents.
We arrived at the airport at 1pm, were in our cabin by 3pm, and then went back into central Copenhagen for a canal cruise and sightseeing before returning to the ship at 7pm. This meant that we missed the boat drill, but the purser allowed us to join the late arrivers' boat drill the next morning. I would not want to cruise without going through a boat drill on each ship.
FELLOW PASSENGERS on this itinerary seemed to be predominantly American (English is the onboard lingua franca, even among the polyglot crew), with a significant minority of UK/Commonwealth and Asian passengers. There were quite a few Chinese passengers, which underlines the new wealth that is to be found there. Entertainment and most other activities are conducted in English, but shore tours are available in a variety of languages. Most passengers seemed to be in their 60's and 70's, with some younger and quite a few older. There were about 2 dozen children aboard, all well-behaved and well-cared-for by the onboard youth program. The number of children will probably be greater during summer departures when schools are not in session.
SMOKERS can be a problem on European cruises, but were not on this cruise. The dining areas are non-smoking, and portions of the lounges are well-marked as non-smoking areas.
DRESS CODE: Passengers are well-dressed in a country club sort of way. Few people wore shorts except to the gym, in part because of the cool weather and in part because shorts are not common in northern European cities. Although there are more suits than tuxedos on formal night, many women wore gowns or elegant dresses (one of our favorite activities on formal nights is to sit near the photo sessions and watch the portraits being taken, then see the results on display the next day.). There are only two formal nights -- eight of the ten evenings are "smart casual" rather than formal. I wore a sport jacket on casual evenings and my wife wore a dressy sweater simply because the dining rooms tended to be cool. Some of the days at sea and in port were quite cold in May, and we were glad to have layers to adjust between overcast skies and sun. We had only one day of heavy rain (and were glad to have Gore-tex jackets and umbrellas), and the remaining days were partly cloudy or sunny. There were no warm days, but this will change for later cruise departures.
THE SHIP: Much has been written about the Star Princess and her sister ships the Grand Princess and the Golden Princess, so I will not go into too much detail here. The Star Princess is huge, but almost all activities are on deck 7 (Promenade deck) or are near the atrium on decks 5 and 6, so it is easy to find one's way around. The buffet and large pools (one indoor, one outdoor) are on deck 14 (there is no deck 13). The Skywalker lounge is on deck 17 aft, and only two elevators (of the four aft) go this high. The ship is tastefully decorated in low-key beige and light blue, without much glitz (except for the casino, which was surprisingly empty most of the time). There is a small but easily enjoyed art collection in the stairwells.
THE CABINS are comfortably efficient. Instead of the long narrow format found in many newer ships, these cabins are split into a bath/dressing area and a sitting/sleeping area. This configuration is ideal since one can rise early, bathe, and dress without bothering one's mate in the sleeping area. In addition, the walk-in closet does not have doors, so there is no interference between bath and closet doors. Shelf space is narrow and enclosed. There is an abundance of closet space with numerous wooden hangers, which thankfully are not the hookless type found on some ships. A small 4-digit programmable room safe provides security for cash and passports.
CABIN SELECTION is a personal decision. Some cruisers complain that the balconies are staggered so that each deck can look down into the balconies of the lower decks. Personally, I think this adds sunlight to the balcony space. Some have said that aft balconies offer more privacy and wind protection, but I do not know if this is true. I would avoid the few balconies on deck 8 forward, which are surrounded by the promenade deck upper walkway, giving little privacy. The lower deck balconies are larger than those on the upper decks due to the staggered arrangement. I would avoid cabins directly under the gym and laundromats, because of potential noise. Our cabin was directly under the spa pool. I was worried about possible noise from the pumps, but no noise was detectable. Because there is little to see while Baltic cruising and because the ship docks at industrial ports away from the city centers, this is one cruise where I was happy to save money and choose an inside cabin. The absolute darkness available with inside cabins is great for jet-lag and excursion-fatigue naps during the day.
THE PUBLIC AREAS are adequate to handle the large number of passengers. Rarely did we have to skip a show because a theater was full. The main POOLS may not be large enough for a sunny Caribbean cruise, but they were little-used this far north because of the cool weather and perhaps because of the incessant loud muzak that was played around them. The GYM is small but has about a dozen weight-machines, a small free-weight area, ten treadmills, and ten cycles or ski-tracks. Fortunately the aerobics area is walled off so that the usual blast of gut-thumping music is muted during these classes. Unfortunately the gym has three TVs which usually run on three different channels, so bring your earplugs anyway. The LIBRARY has small collection of books but a wonderful honor system - there is no book sign out or threat of fines. The CABARET THEATER AND LOUNGES have loud (but not painfully loud) good music, but few people danced on this cruise, unlike most other cruises with passengers of the "Sinatra" age. The MAIN THEATER has very good sightlines and comfortable seating (it can be chilly, so take a sweater). The SHOPS have a nice selection but seemed quite expensive. They augment the enclosed shops with "sidewalk sales" around the atrium, for those whose are threatened with shopping withdrawal symptoms between ports of call. The INTERNET salon is busy even though it has about 30 terminals (and a few more in the library). This is in part because frequent cruisers (6 or more cruises) on Princess get free internet access. Otherwise, the internet rates are quite high ($.35 per minute on our cruise was advertised as a "special" rate). The internet response times are quick enough, but unfortunately Princess does not allow you to compose your messages off line and then cut and paste your messages quickly on line. There are no receipts for internet use, so track this on your own - you will be surprised by the size of your internet bill at the end of the cruise. The PHOTO GALLERY is near the lounges and dining rooms, so this can be a major bottleneck at dinnertime. The photos are good quality, but quite expensive as on most cruises. People seem to do almost as well with their own digital cameras, and there is a small digital vending machine to burn discs and make prints. The ART auctions are standard for cruises. The art is left visible for browsers through most of the cruise.
FAVORITE PLACES ONBOARD: We especially enjoyed the wrap-around promenade deck (decks 7 aft and 8 forward) for walking. The Sky-walker lounge (deck 17 aft) is a great place to enjoy the sailaways in a cozy environment with 360 degree views. The pizza station and omelet station (deck 14 forward) were just around the corner from our cabin. They were little-used because they are distant from the buffet, but we were happy to have them nearby for quick snacks in our cabin.
ENTERTAINMENT options are impressively extensive on a ship this size. All of the musicians and most of the performers were very professional and quite enjoyable. A string quartet plays in the atrium in the evening, adding a touch of class to pop classics. I wish Princess would allow their quartet to give a real concert (classical music, onstage, with no microphones) during days at sea. Theater and cabaret performances are often scheduled mid-evening, with some repeat shows later for traditional diners. If you like evening entertainment, I suggest the anytime dining option for maximum flexibility.
DINING is a pleasure and exceeded our expectations. We chose traditional dining, late seating (8pm), since we like to know our waiter and discuss menu options with him/her. The presentation may not be as elegant or the service as formal as on some premium cruise lines, but every meal was a pleasure. The waiter also acts as wine steward (there is no sommelier visiting the table). The dining rooms are single story and separated, unlike the multi-story atrium dining rooms on some ships. We found the paneled alcove ambience of our dining room very pleasant. We usually opt for a table for two for intimacy and relaxation at the end of the day, but on this cruise we were placed at a table for eight. Our tablemates were a delight, in part because each couple was from a different country and so there were no incompatibilities due to sports or political allegiances. My respects to the Maitre d' for such insight in assigning tables.
We used the buffet at breakfast but usually skipped lunch and had dinner in the dining room. The buffet's port and starboard dining areas are large attractive, but the two buffets are in alcoves which seem quite small for the number of passengers onboard. The buffet food itself was always nicely presented and tasty. There are no specialty buffet options like the pasta station, stir-fry station, and specialty salad stations one finds on some ships. We appreciated the fact that the buffet offered food throughout the day, so that when we got back from shore excursions we could have a snack or pastry, which were always delicious. Surprisingly, there is no free ice cream station - this is surcharged at an area near one of the pools. We did not mind, since good ice cream is available everywhere at home.
The Italian (Sabatini's) and steakhouse (Tequila's) surcharged restaurants never seemed busy when we passed them, but we never ate in them and have no first-hand impressions. One friend said that Sabatini's offered tastings of so many items on their menu that she was unable to eat anything more by the time the main course arrived. She said the food was very good though. Tequila's has a Mexican décor and live Mexican music. Perhaps its emptiness reflected the fact that many cruisers associate Mexican fare with comfort food rather than upscale dining. It is probably more popular on Caribbean itineraries.
HEALTH issues are taken seriously by Princess. Before boarding one must sign an affidavit attesting that one is free of Norovirus symtoms. Washrooms have handwash reminders and are designed so that one does not have to touch the door handle when exiting. Gel dispensers are available (but not easily seen) near the buffet areas, which is important since many people have handled the serving tongs before you. I always gel my hands after going through the buffet line and before eating.
SAFETY is also taken seriously. Passengers are screened each time they return to the ship, and there is a security perimeter around the ship at each dock. Security guards in uniform are discreetly positioned around the ship, which we appreciate since we were previously the victims of theft (my wife's bag) on a different cruise line.
In spite of al the recent press about anti-American feelings in the third world and in Europe, we have never felt unwelcome in any of our extensive travels. The world may have strong opinions about what America has become in recent years, but we as individual Americans are still treated politely and are often greeted warmly.
SECTION 3 - SCANDINAVIAN AND BALTIC PORTS OF CALL ON YOUR OWN
As I mentioned earlier, Star Princess cruise director John Lawrence deserves a special prize for his excellent port of call lectures, which give detailed information on what you will see if your are on a group shore excursion, and how to see it on your own if you prefer. His talks are reprised nightly on the ship's TV system and are worth watching. I wish other ships would do the same - most shore information is geared to shoppers, with emphasis on the cruise line's "approved" stores. It is depressing to think that for some people shopping is the most fulfilling activity after traveling thousands of miles to a foreign country.
The Scandinavian Baltic ports each have their own currency, but ATM's are widely available (ideal for small transactions) and credit cards are widely accepted. Prices can be high, but many of the best sights are free. Some museums may be closed on Mondays (or other days), so your plans may need to adjusted. Again, make certain that you have a good guidebook (Rick Steves or Lonely Planet), and make copies of the appropriate chapters to carry with you on shore. Also, make a copy of the current exchange rates for the various currencies. The Wall Street Journal has this, or you can find this on the internet. It helps to know how many zlotys (or whatever) you want dispensed. We rarely took out more than $20 worth of any currency.
Except for Russia, we did not carry our passports ashore (too valuable). We make extra copies of the photo page and carry that instead. The ship's key card is enough id when going through security. Take along a day-pack with a snack (plus water in Russia, water elsewhere is safe) and a rain jacket or umbrella. Pickpockets can be a problem anywhere (especially in Tallinn and Gdansk), so take only a small amount of cash and keep valuables in a money belt under your clothes. One woman on our cruise lost her wallet while in a church - the pickpocket unzipped and re-zipped her purse without her even noticing.
COPENHAGEN: If you arrive a day early you will have adequate time to see the highlights. For orientation I recommend picking up a city map and some Danish Kroner when you arrive at the airport. ATMs are also available in larger train stations and in shopping areas. Begin with a canal tour with Netto Badene company. It is only 30 DKK ($6) and lasts about 90 minutes. You can catch it at Nyhavn, the little mermaid statue, or below the Holmen Bridge, whichever is most convenient. Just look for their docks and signs. They run hourly in the summer till about 5pm. Another company offers a similar tour for 50DKK, with all the same stops and nothing extra for their price.
A stroll down Stroget, the pedestrian center of the city, from Tivoli gardens to Nyhavn is a pleasure in good weather. Tivoli itself is over-rated and can be skipped. The Rosenborg Palace is small compared with the palaces you will see in Russia, but the castle and gardens are pleasant and the crown jewels are fun. If you are into revisiting the '60's hippie scene, a walk through Christianstad (on a nearby island, reachable by bus) will take you through a safe and fun marijuana-era time-warp. I honestly have never visited the art museums in Copenhagen, but they are near the center of town and quite accessible. The Glyptotek is the best known of these. Since we had only a few hours between our arrival (3pm) and sail-away (9pm), we simply took the boat tour and Stroget walk, and then did our boat drill the next morning by permission of the purser.
STOCKHOLM (FROM NYNSHAMN): Stockholm is a great city but the visit on Star Princess is cut short because it anchors at Nynashamn an hour south of the city (by train or cruise bus) and one must wait for tender passes - which leaves little more than half a day in the city even if one starts out early. Tender passes are nominally available at 0700, and independent travelers are supposed to be able to tender ashore easily between 0700 and 0730 when the tour groups are supposed to leave, but the tender arrangements for independents were disorganized and disappointing. We were ready at 0645 but barely made the 0805 train to Stockholm. Hopefully Princess will do a better job in the future.
Once ashore, it is a 15 minute walk to the left (south) to the small Nynashamn train station. Tickets are available for 95 Swedish Krona ($14) at the small kiosk just before the station (which takes credit cards). Tickets for seniors are 45 SK ($8). These tickets are good for the entire day, including all public transport in the city. The train takes an hour each way (it is a suburban commuter line with many stops) and runs every hour (0735, 0805, 0905, etc. northbound; 1250, 1350, 1450 southbound; beware, the latter is the last train which will get you back to the ship in time; verify schedules in case of changes!).
The train arrives at Stockholm's central station, where you can pick up a transport map. Near the station to the northeast is bus #47, which will take you to the famous Vasa ship museum (opens at 1000), the Nordic museum, and Skansen (the open air folk museum). If you have not seen it before, I recommend the Vasa followed by Skansen (good weather) or Nordic museum (bad weather). The same bus #47 will take you back to the city center for a walk through historic Gamla Stan (old town) and a visit to the Royal Palace (the interior does not compare with Russian Palaces, although the armory museum is famous for those inclined). There is a musical/military changing of the palace guard at mid-day, but time is so limited that I would rate this a skip since it can be seen elsewhere. The one other sight of interest is the famous city hall, where the Nobel prizes are awarded. For architecture buffs, the one-hour tour (1000 or 1200) is worthwhile. Although most museums and the city hall charge $10-$15 entrance, the Stockholm card is probably not worth it since you already bought a transport card and shore time is limited.
HELSINKI: The Star Princess docks in an industrial area to the southwest of the city center, but public transport is ideal - the bus stop is only 50 meters from the dock. Bus #16 goes along the esplanade to the farmer's market and harbor, and bus #14B goes north to the national museum and rock church. I recommend the former, since the latter do not open till 1100 and 1000 respectively. Helsinki is on the euro system, which makes purchases easy. An all day bus pass is 5 euro ($6.50) for a single, and 8 euro ($10.40) for a couple or family traveling together. The bus driver does not sell these, but ours took us to the farmers market for free, where we bought a pass at the small ferry terminal (the ferry to Suomelinnen island and all trams and buses are included in the pass) at the east end of the farmers market. Alternately, the tourist information office is in a yellow building just west of the market and opens at 0900. Free toilets are available (ands so is free internet access) in the small museum next door to the tourist information.
In Helsinki I would start the day with a walk through the farmers' market for good photos and souvenirs. Then take a look at the senate square (the large Lutheran church does not open till 0930 and is stark inside), then up to the Russian Orthodox church (opens at 0930) where you can discreetly photograph the icons (no flash). If the weather is fine, consider a walk on Suomelinnen island, the historic fortress for which Helsinki was built. Walking tours are available, but one can do it on one's own. It is actually two islands joined by a small bridge. The ramparts and views are pleasant, and ferry connections are frequent since commuters live on this island too. Free toilets are near the dock by the archway. A grocery store for picnic provisions is through the archway and up the hill.
Back in Helsinki, the underground "rock" church is very interesting, especially acoustically (there will be recorded music and occasionally a morning concert). Within walking distance of the church to the northeast is the national museum, which is also very enjoyable. A no-brainer is to hop-on-hop-off the 3T or 3B tourist trams, which travel in a circle past most of these sights, clockwise or reverse. Personally, I prefer to take regular trams and buses for the few sights not within walking distance. Buses 16 and 14B can take you back to the ship anytime.
I would have recommended the Arabia china and crystal factory located near the north end of tram line 6 as a great place to shop at the end of the day, but the prices in dollars have gotten so high since our previous visits that even their outlet is out of our price range now.
ST. PETERSBURG: Visiting this great city by cruise ship is a very bittersweet experience. The good news is that one does not need a visa if one is with an approved Russian tour company (booked through the cruise line or booked independently). The bad news is that these tours are very expensive (plan on spending almost $200 per person per day for a comprehensive sightseeing tour whether booked privately for six people or booked through the cruise line for a busload).
A Russian visa costs US citizens about $200: $120 basic visa fee, more if expedited; $35 required support letter from a Russian agency, the cruise line will not provide these; $40 or more for a visa processing agency in the US if you do not deal directly with the Russians; $15 or more for fed-ex shipping. In addition, the ship docks at the industrial port (Kanonersky Island) which is isolated halfway between the city center and the summer palace (Peterhof), with a good two mile walk to the port gate and another mile walk to public transport. Special taxis are available from the ship, but these add about $30 each way to the city center. Regular city taxis are not allowed within the port complex, so it may take two taxi rides when returning to the ship independently.
In the end, I very, very strongly recommend booking a tour with a private Russian agency. These are much more personal (just a few passengers instead of a busload), they cover more territory in greater depth, they offer special options like lunch with a Russian family, and they cost about the same as the cruise's busload tours. Princess does offer private vehicles and guides for touring St. Petersburg, but these are charged against the ship account of only one of the passengers and are non-refundable. The private tours charge each passenger a pro-rated fee which is payable near the end of the tour. No deposit is needed to hold the privately booked tours.
I recommend using the internet to compare the shore excursion options and prices between the cruise line's web site and the private agency web sites, then make your reservations accordingly.
We booked with DenRus (www.denrus.ru) and were very happy with their service. We did not want to pay the price for a private tour for two people, so we asked DenRus to put us in touch with a small group at a lower price. We joined two other couples, and together had a private driver and private guide in an 8 seat Toyota minivan (with 8 functioning seatbelts, which is important when traveling abroad). Our guide and driver were excellent, and we were able to get off the ship as soon as it cleared (almost an hour after docking) and sight see non-stop from 0730 to 1800.
Passengers who took the ship's tours were disappointed when their waiting lines extended almost the entire length of the ship. There are only 8 Russian officials to stamp the passports of about 2,000 disembarking passengers, so consider an afternoon tour on your first day if you are taking any of the ship's tours. Our tablemates later told us they waited for two hours to get from the ship to their tour bus that morning! The ship may hold back visa passengers until all tour passengers have cleared, but they cannot legally hold back non-visa Russian tour agency passengers. We simply waited out of the way in the alcove at the bottom of the stairs on deck 4 forward and walked off with the first ship's tour group.
Since the St. Petersburg tours are so expensive and since we have visited St. Petersburg before on land tours, we opted to take a one day tour and spent the second day relaxing onboard the ship. In the end, we saw an amazing amount of the city in one day (Nicholas Church, Catherine Palace, city tour, family lunch, Peter and Paul fortress and church, Hermitage, and a quick Michael Palace visit) and were able to focus on the sights we found most interesting since we had our own guide. Because our group was only 6 people, we were efficient and did not have to wait for shoppers or stragglers.
In addition to DenRus, Red October (www.redoctober.spb.ru) has a good reputation. We chose DenRus because they were able to offer us a small group to join, to reduce our costs. If you have a Russian visa but still want a guide, I have heard good things about Peter's Walks (www.peterswalk.com) which I believe costs about $35 per hour for a private guide. (Peter makes a very good impression on the internet and I hope to use his guide service on a future land tour).
TALLINN: Star Princess has only a half day here, but the upper and lower old town can easily be seen in that amount of time, and it is an easy 15 minute walk from the ship (one can see the ship from the old town's ramparts). On disembarking, simply head west to the port gate, where you will find maps of the old town and even a modern shopping mall for last minute purchases. The way into town is reasonably well-marked - just look for the large round building next to the town's northern gate (it's affectionately called "fat Margaret" gate). Alcohol is cheap in Tallinn, so you can get some on your way back to the ship. We like the liquor prices (we used them on previous visits) at the RIMI supermarket, which is two blocks north of the McDonald's near the eastern gate of the old city.
Tallinn has some fine old churches and great panoramic overlooks. There are many nice shops and quaint streets. Sidewalk cafes (even McDonald's) have great atmosphere. Since there is no public transport, you will not need any local money unless you make purchases, which often can be made with a credit card. There is a good tourist information office two blocks south of the main square. They offer walking tours, but I believe the first tour leaves at 1100, which may not give you enough time to get back to the ship unless you break off early.
GDANSK (from GDYNIA): The Star Princess docks at Gdynia, which is a large industrial port. Virtually everyone continues on to Gdansk (Danzig to German speakers) by cruise bus or public train. The dock is about 2 miles from the train station. On disembarking, walk 100 meters to the right to catch one of the many local taxis. A full taxi with four passengers should cost about 16-20 Zlotys (about $5-$6 US should be enough) from the dock to the station. Some taxi drivers will be happy to offer a day tour, but we did not price this.
On entering the Gdynia main station ("Glowny"), get some zlotys from the ATM at the far end of the ticket booths. The train to Gdansk costs 4 zlotys (about $1.25) each way (2.80 zlotys per segment if you get off at the seaside resort of Sopot or the famous cathedral at Oliwa). Gdansk train tickets are sold at the small "SKM" booth around the corner from the main ticket booths (the SKM line is small and sells its tickets separately from the major inter-city train lines). There are about 12 stops between Gdynia and Gdansk, and the trip takes almost an hour.
Once in Gdansk, take the pedestrian underpass east under the boulevard in front of the station, then walk a few minutes farther east to the St. Catherine's, St. Bridget's, and St. Nicholas churches. Of these, the latter is the best preserved but least famous. We were there for mass on Sunday, and it was jammed - the first time a cathedral came alive for us. From there continue east and south to the river, which has a nice walk to Mariaka Street (for cheap amber) and the nearby main street (for the city hall and St. Mary's cathedral. The city hall has a nice but small museum, and the cathedral has 400 steps to a beautiful view from the top of the tower for 3 zlotys ($1). Gdansk was completely destroyed in WWII, but it has been rebuilt in the old style and is a walker's paradise, just like Tallinn.
Amber jewelry is beautifully set and wonderfully cheap here, and if you did not buy your fill in town, more is available from dockside vendors when you return to the ship (they take zlotys, dollars, and euros - learn your exchange rates and bargain).
If you leave Gdansk by the 2pm train, you will get to Oliwa (on your way back to the ship) in time for the famous 3pm organ recital (free-will offering). At the Oliwa station, zig-zag west and north, cross the large boulevard, and keep the Oliwa park fence on your right for about a mile as you walk farther west and north to the cathedral entrance. After the recital you can walk and picnic in the park on your way back to the station. Trains leave about every 15 minutes. The seaside resort of Sopot is another stop on the same train line, but we have never been there.
OSLO: Because of the distance from Copenhagen, the star Princes only spends a half day in Olso, but it docks adjacent to the old fortress, within easy walking distance (10 minutes) of the city hall. Since museums do not open till 1000 or 1100, I suggest taking the tram to Frogner Park (the Vigeland sculpture garden) which is free and open 24 hours a day. There is an ATM at the east end of the city hall square (Handlesbank building, up the stairs and then around the corner). Alternately, walk to the west end of the square for another ATM and the tram station which has a vending machine selling transport day passes, which I are 60 Krone ($9.50) each. The tram station nearest the ship at the east end of the square does not have a ticket machine and the tram drivers do not sell day passes - they sell just single ride tickets. Each tram stop has a good transport map in its shelter.
Every time I visit Oslo I am moved by the Vigeland sculptures. They seem so much more human than anything by Michelangelo or other famous artists. I could spend a day in the park, but after an hour usually continue two tram stops north to the Majorsteuen metro station (T-bahn) for a ride on the #1 train westbound to the end of the line on a mountain overlooking the city and the fjord. One can take photos from the train platform and return to town by train. I prefer to walk 30-45 minutes downhill on a wide gravel pathway (lighted at night for cross-country skiers) to the Holmenkollen train station, passing a scenic stave church and the bottom of the famous ski jump on the way. Alternately, the Holmenkollen restaurant veranda, a short walk uphill from the Holmenkollen station, has gorgeous views overlooking the city.
I suggest then taking the train back to the national theater downtown, for a view back to the palace and a short walk to the national art gallery, which is behind the university plaza. The museum is closed on Monday. It has a very enjoyable (and free) collection of impressionists, and some fantastic paintings by Edvard Munch (including one of the four versions of the famous "Scream" - another was stolen from Oslo's Munch museum, hence the heavy security at both museums).
From the art museum, continue walking east along the main shopping street. The stores, parks, and people are all beautiful here. When it is time to return to the ship, walk back via the old fortress (Askerhus). The view of the ship from the ramparts is great (the ship dwarfs the fortress), and there is a back gate which leads down a short path to the pier at the south end of the fortress.
An alternative to the above Oslo options is to take the public ferry or bus from the city hall square to Bygdoy island, which has several museums, including and open-air folk museum, the Kon-tiki museum, the Fram museum, the maritime museum, and a Viking ship museum. Each of these has a separate entrance fee, but each is accessible on the Olso day card, which is expensive and is available at the tourist information office when it opens in the morning. We enjoy these options when we have more time in Oslo.
ENDING THE CRUISE: By now you are exhausted and ready to return home. Disembarkation in Copenhagen begins shortly after the ship is cleared (about 0615) and continues till about 1000. Passengers are given color-coded tags for their bags, which are left out in the hall the night before. I do not know how long baggage claim and clearance takes at the dock side since we have never cruised with more than a carry-on. I believe that baggage transfers to the airport are handled by the cruise line if you buy their transfer package.
Again, the cruise line suggests not booking any return flights from CPH before 1130. Again, for independent travelers the short walk and then train from the ship to the airport takes about an hour. Taxis are inadequate at dockside -- the lines are very long. With all the other cruisers flying home too, allow another hour for check-in at the airport.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Don't worry, be happy, and have a wonderful time on your cruise! Ed Schlenk (efschlenk at hotmail dot com)