My wife and I just returned from our 10 night Baltic Cruise on board the Star Princess. Whilst our memories are fresh we thought it might be useful to write a review before we forget any of the ideas we want to mention. The review is split into 2 parts : the ship itself; and the ports of call.
I was celebrating my 40th birthday, and my wife just a couple of years younger. We thought we would be just about the youngest passengers - in fact that was not the case at all. There were several couples in their twenties and thirties, plus a lot of large family groups, ranging in age from zero right up to grand parents. It was right in the middle of the summer holidays which probably also added to a younger overall age group. All that being said, we felt it was good to have a large range in ages - it meant that activities on and off the ship were targeted at all people, and gave a lively feel to proceedings.
As far as nationalities of passengers : at a rough guess I would say approximately 60% were American, 25% European, and a reasonable number of Mexicans.
Now onto a review of the ship :
Boarding : We boarded extremely quickly. We arrived at the port at 1.30pm, and within 10 minutes were in our cabins. Princess and the Danish authorities deserve praise for the speed of this. It was slick, and very efficient. Likewise, our luggage arrived just minutes after that. Very impressive. As for the timing of other passengers, it was fairly equal through-out the day. Most boarded between the 1.00pm and 4.00pm slot.
Cabin : we took a risk and booked an inside cabin. We are glad we saved the money. The cabin was really quite spacious, nicely decorated, and never for a minute did we feel claustrophobic. There was a very large amount of hanging and clothes space. Where the window would have been, there was a large mirror. This was the first time we had ever had an inside cabin, and we would do it again (on this ship). The money saved, approximately US$300 per person went a long way to paying for the shore excursions, drinks on board etc. One important note : on this Baltic Cruise you only have one day at sea. The rest you are on shore. This negated the need for a window or balcony. Trust me you are going to be out all day, and have no time for sitting on verandah's!
Food : this is a touchy subject, as everyone has differing opinions on cuisine. For us, we felt this was the weakest part of the cruise. Yes, you have several dining options, but none of them we felt was really that impressive (as far as taste goes). That's just our opinion. Don't expect top quality. We've had better on other lines. However, full marks to Princess for its "Personal Choice Dining." This eliminates fixed seating. You can dine in the main dining rooms at any time you wish. There are pros and cons to this. If you don't book, you can expect to stand in line for some time. Conclusion : make sure you reserve in the morning for the time slot you want. You are allowed to, and you'll be glad you did. For those that didn't you'll be given a pager, and have to wait in line. There is traditional fixed seating for those that prefer. Early and late sitting. This is in a separate dining room. Same food, just you have to stick to your times.
A brief summary of the various food and drink outlets :
Horizon Court - this is the buffet restaurant. Open 24 hours, with a wide range of food. Quality - what you would expect from a buffet line. Dinner is definitely better than lunch, which was fairly poor. Breakfast is good. Most people dined there for breakfast.
Portofino & Capri - these are the 2 main dining rooms, split onto different floors. There is no staircase linking them, so you have to go to one or the other. These are Personal Choice Dining only - meaning no fixed seating - so you turn up when you want. But remember to book if you don't want to wait. The vast majority of people ate dinner in these 2 rooms. You are allowed to book a table for just the 2 of you if you want. Likewise for 4. The menu changes nightly, but some items remain each night. For example Steak, Caesar salad, and some other items are available any day. Food quality is ok, but not exceptional. The good : lobster thermidor, beef Wellington. The bad : soups. Either very thick and starchy, or salty. Note - the breakfast here is good. A la carte, and relaxing. If you are not in a hurry to get out at the beginning of the day it provides a very civilized way to start.
Amalfi - the fixed seating version of the above.
Sabattinis - alternative dining. $20 per head. Italian theme and menu. We would like to say it felt up market in there, but alas it didn't. Difficult to pinpoint exactly why. The décor is ok, the service is good, the ingredients very good. It just fell short, somehow. They bring you a succession of courses. We lost count how many. Maybe seven or eight. Including various appetizers, soups, canapés, pasta, and your main course. We went there for a break from the main dining rooms. We went once.
Tequilas - their 2nd alternative dining. It's Tex/Mex. $15 per head. The steak here is excellent. The cuts are presented to you in advance. Sizes are large. We had the sirloin. It was possibly one of the best we have ever had. The service also is excellent. Just about every passenger we met, spoke highly of the restaurant. Just 2 downsides - 1/ the portions are huge. We gave up halfway. I suspect most others did too. 2/ Ambiance - the restaurant is almost in an alleyway, midships. You almost feel like you are seating in the main hallway. Shame that, as the food is excellent. The wait staff are Mexican and very personable.
Pool Deck - there is a pizza stall, and separate burger stall. Both are popular from lunchtime onwards.
Ice cream stand - contentious point this - it's not free. That seemed to upset a lot of people.
Other facilities :
Show lounges. The Star Princess has 3 of them. The main theatre and 2 others : the Vista Lounge and Explorer Lounge. Full marks to Princess for this. Most evenings there is a good cross section of entertainment.
Bars - the "Wheelhouse" on level 7 is a nice wood paneled club. Alas, no-one seems to go into it. Could be the band. Shame really, as we liked the place.
There is a sports bar on level 5. The only place you are allowed to smoke cigars. So people did. If you are a non-smoker, this will put you off. There is a lot of smoke.
Again, a shame, as it's nicely themed. For those who want to party late into the night there is a disco right at the rear of the ship, in a strangely shaped room, perched right out of the back of the ship, over the water. Quite unique.
The decks - this part deserves special mention. There is a huge amount of space for lounging, swimming or just lazing about. There is a main outdoor pool, a covered one (which was kept shut for the Baltic cruise as weather is too cold) a smaller outdoor pool at the back, which has terrific views out to sea, another mini pool by the gym, and a variety of Jacuzzis dotted around the place. A huge choice. Whilst on the subject of being outside, don't forget that half the year this ship cruises the Baltic. Temperatures are quite cool. Mostly in the 16C - 21C, with the occasional hotter day. This means a lot of the outdoor facilities are for the hardy, or those wearing a lot of clothes!
Kid's Club - again this deserves praise. They have extensive facilities for children aged 3 upwards. They split the kid's into 3 age groups, thereby being able to target activities best suited to them. Kid's will have an excellent time.
Internet - there is a dedicated room with at least 15 terminals. Cost is 35 cents per minute. There are also 2 terminals in the library. Same cost. Princess does offer wi-fi capability for those with a laptopb; in the main atrium, but the range must have been poor, as we saw people huddled in 1 spot, as they couldn't roam very far at all. Speed of connection in the internet room is slow. Count on it taking 10 - 20 minutes to collect your mail, read it, and reply back.
Casino - one of the smallest we have seen. But I think Princess has got it right, as this was possibly the least used room of the entire ship. They have all the tables you would need, so if you do gamble, it's all there.
Health Spa, & Gym. Very extensive, and nicely done. The gym was popular. Massages less so. They are quite pricey.
Formal night - you'll get 2 of these. Most people make an effort, with a lot of the men wearing tuxedos, or smart suits.
So that's the ship. In summary, we like the ship. It's big, but easy to navigate. If you want classy, then you may be disappointed. It's pretty much a 3½ star affair. But if you want facilities, it's impressive.
Now onto the ports of call. I shall keep this fairly short, as it's simple for most people to get the facts on the web.
Copenhagen - this is where the cruise starts. It's a very pretty city. Compact and easy to walk around. Lots of historic stuff, and plenty of canals. Reminded us a little of Amsterdam. The locals are extremely friendly and polite. Easy going, with excellent English. Of all the cities we went to, we probably likes the Danes the most. We flew into Copenhagen 3 days before the cruise. That's too long. The city is small, and can easily be covered in 1½ days. Big note : it is expensive. As you will find out, this is not the place to do your shopping. It's the place to look at.
Stockholm - you get here on Day 3, (as day 2 is at sea.) It has been mentioned elsewhere by people reviewing the cruise that this will be your most frustrating port of call. Why? Because you are not being dropped off in the heart of the city. You anchor at Nynashamn, which is 1 hour from the city. By the time the ship has dropped anchor, dropped the tenders, ferried you ashore you have already lost 1 hour. You then take a train into Stockholm which takes another hour. By this time it's 9 o'clock. You have to leave by 2.50pm or you'll miss the ship. Just over 5 hours in Stockholm is a crime, as it's one of the highlights of the trip. Beautiful city, so much to see, and so little time. Whilst we were there, HAL Westerdam was in town. And I mean in town. They docked right in the centre, not like us at Nynashamn. Praise to HAL for that. All the above being mentioned, you will really only have time for 2 things in Stockholm - 1/ The Vasa museum - an excellent place that is built around a huge galleon that was hauled up from the ocean bed 2/ A walk round the historic area, called Gamlastan. Very scenic, and gorgeous little boutiques
Helsinki - for us, this was a disappointment. Less pretty than Stockholm or Copenhagen. You will struggle to find something to do here. There is a nice harbor front, where you can watch the boats go by. Some of these take you to the outlying islands. We took a boat to the zoo. Nice trip across the harbor. Shame about the zoo.
St Petersburg - this is the longest port of call. You get 2 full days. You'll need it, as St Petersburg is a large city, way too big for you to walk. The attractions are very spread out, and you'll need transport. Added to which the Russian authorities don't want you just walking anywhere. The ship offers tours. We elected to get a visa in advance and use a private tour company. For us, this worked out great. For $340 per head, this was just a little bit more than the ship's tour. However, ours was just the 2 of us, in a Mercedes Benz. No coach loads of people to wait for. With army style precision, we were able to get around, and see the sights for as long or as little as we liked. On day 1 we say all the normal sights in town, and on day 2 we went out to Catherine's Palace and Peterfhof. The guide spoke great English, and was exceedingly knowledgeable.
Tallin - this is a real gem of a place. The Estonian people are exceedingly friendly, and their little city if very pretty. They go out of their way to give you a good time. You only get half a day here, but that's just about enough, as it's small and easy to walk around. Don't bother to get a ship's tour, as within 10 minutes your in the heart of town, and will want to walk around at your own pace.
Gdansk - or Danzig as it's sometimes called. Again we didn't take a tour. We used the ship's shuttle into town, and then walked around at leisure. You'll find Amber everywhere. Gdansk is probably your best place to do shopping. Prices are noticeably cheaper than elsewhere, for the same thing.
Warnemunde - this port offers a real dilemma. Princess uses it as a launch pad to take you to Berlin. Problem is, that's 3 hours away, and costs approx $300 per head for the various tours. So 3 hours in each direction, adds up to 6 hours, in 1 day, and a lot of money gone. Everyone will have their own opinion on whether it's worth it. As for us, it came at the end of the cruise, and we opted not to go to Berlin. The result : a boring day in Warnemunde, which whilst vaguely nice, doesn't warrant a whole day there. And here's the rub : you stay at this port the longest. From 7.00 am to 10.00pm. (Could have really used that time in Stockholm.) The verdict on all of this: either you sit in transport for 6 hours and spend $300 per head, or stay locally and get bored!
So that's the cruise. We enjoyed it. We don't like spending endless days at sea, so this itinerary is perfect for us. Almost every day is a new port. However, just realize that you'll get on average 5 hours in each city.
Special mention to the Cruise Director, John Lawrence. His shore notes are superb. Very detailed, and factual. He's not a good comedian though! So you'll have to put up with his aging gags. It's worth it, because his port knowledge is excellent.
As you can see we took almost none of the ships arranged tours. This decision was made as most of the cities are very walkable. If you are able-bodied I would definitely advise it. Those who chose the tours saw the same things as us, but were stuck in buses, and attached to very large groups. No time for shopping, or dashing off to see something you want to see.
The weather was mostly ok, and typical of the Baltic, for that time of year. Take layers of clothing with you, and an umbrella.
Would I recommend this cruise : yes. But please Princess, sort out Stockholm. It's a crime to allow passengers so little time.
Any questions, contact me at email@example.com