TRANSATLANTIC : NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA to HARWICH, ENGLAND BALTIC COUNTRIES: RUSSIA, FINLAND, ESTONIA, SWEDEN, DENMARK, & NORWAY BACK-to-BACK May 3 - 19 & May 19 - 31, 2003
When a doctor prescribes fresh air and rest --- go cruising. This 28 day back-to-back cruise was all relaxation and new and fascinating ports. These were our third and fourth cruises on the Grandeur of the Seas, which makes 14 RCI cruises. We've experienced the health benefits of one or two week cruises before; however, we found four weeks' health benefits to be increased exponentially! That's it. . . . do what the doctor orders!
Since we've written and published on the Grandeur before, concerning her common areas and art work, this review will concentrate on service, food, recreation and primarily the many new ports (for us) during the 28 days.
EMBARKATION We flew into New Orleans May 2nd and stayed overnight at the Hilton Riverside on the Mississippi River. New Orleans was in full bloom with the scent of magnolias every where. This charming city needs no introduction, since her fame is epic. From our hotel window, we saw the Grandeur sail in at 4:30 am, all ablaze in lights, she is really glorious. After a five minute cab ride to the pier, we waited with other Crown & Anchor members for priority boarding. The computers were down for a short period, after that glitch, boarding was quick and easy. Our friend, Hotel Director Tony O'Prey (New Zealand), was on the dock and we knew we were headed for a great cruise.
Departure was delayed to accommodate late flights.
THE SHIP Captain Michael Lachtaridis (Greece) has reason to be proud of his gorgeous ship, which is 916 ft. long, with a 106 ft. beam, a 25 ft. draft and has a gross tonnage of 74,000. She carries 2446 passengers and a crew of 760; however, on the first leg of the cruise, there were 1,600 passengers; 850, or more than half of them, were repeaters and 200 were either Platinum or Diamond members of Crown & Anchor Society. Actually the Grandeur is perfect in size -- stable in the water and easy to circulate. Thanks to Mr. O'Prey, her condition is excellent, from the Viking Crown Lounge (Deck 11 with its life size Viking Armored Warriors) to the elegant Great Gatsby Dining Room, South Pacific Lounge, Casino Royale, Palladium Theater and her five deck tall Centrum with balconies. The crystal canopied Solarium is where Vincent spent his early mornings in the hot tubs. Great for a healthy rest!
Captain Michael soon became a favorite of the passengers through his daily announcements at noon. The messages were repeated by the smiling passengers who enjoyed his humor (i.e. "Well, I must congratulate my navigators, because after four days at sea, they have found Bermuda. It's not easy you know, because it is a small island in a vast ocean")! We had smooth sailing all the way, with many days of flat seas and felt safe in the hands of our capable Captain, even when the ship was surrounded by thick fog. His humor is refreshing, but his "steering" (not driving) is legend.
Decks 2 & 3, and the forward half of 4 are all staterooms. The Gatsby Dining Room is aft of Decks 4 & 5.
Deck 5, forward is the main floor of the Palladium Theater; next is the Casino Royale and midship is the Purser and Explorations desks, while aft is the balcony of the Gatsby.
Deck 6, forward has the balcony of the Palladium (Watch out for columns, when choosing seats, since some block the view of the stage.). Midship are the Boutiques, Photo Gallery, and Elevators (Birdcage style). Toward aft is the Conference Center, Schooner Bar and the South Pacific Lounge.
Decks 7 & 8, are all suites and staterooms, except for beside the elevators where the Library, Card Room and Computer Center are located.
Decks 9, 10 & 11, are all Public Areas: Deck 9 forward has the Windjammer Cafe (buffet dining), midship is the main pool, solarium and toward aft the Ship Shape Spa. Deck 10 has the Youth Centers forward, the jogging track, and the upper level of the Spa. Deck 11 holds the beautiful multi-level Viking Lounge with a wonderful view of the sea.
FOOD & SERVICE The Hotel Director Tony O'Prey has a very well trained staff which insures excellent quality of food and service. In the Great Gatsby Dining Room, we had table 18A for two, with top notch service from our waiter Habib El Abed (Tunisia) and his assistants Helena Maslejova (Slovakia) and Decima or "Dee". The meals were nicely paced and everything the proper temperature, considering this station was the farthest from the galley. Maitre d' Yusuf Cavdar (Turkey) kept a close eye on everything, not only at the Captain's table (where we dined elegantly and deliciously with Captain Lachtaridis), but also at every table in the restaurant and in the Windjammer. Asst. Maitre d' Anna Frankowsa had a memory for details that made every meal pleasurable; she always went the extra mile.
The TransAtlantic crossing had menus aimed to the American passengers' taste, while the Baltic trip had new menus to accommodate the many British and European passengers. These menus had numerous offerings and variety including vegetarian dishes and calorie counting Ship Shape items: Appetizers: Escargot, Spring Rolls, Grilled Portabellos, San Padre Crab Cake, Festival of Fruits (with Lychee nuts) etc.... Soups: Roasted Sweet Potato Soup, Crab & Shrimp Bisque, Thai Lemon grass Soup, N.E. Clam Chowder, etc.... Salads: Caesar's, Boston Mimosa, Oak leaf and Escarole, Cobb Salad, Titanic Salad (a` propos) etc.... Entrees: Filet Mignon, Duck a L'Orange, Sesame crusted Salmon, Pasta and Shrimp, Broiled Lobster, Lamb Gremolada, etc.... Desserts: Baklava, Chocolate Profiteroles, Apple Pie, Berry tart (or any tart, pear, apricot, all were great), Caramel Custard, Swan Puffs, etc... etc... etc...
The food in the Windjammer was varied and fresh, but we prefer the dining room because trays are hard to handle for us. On board there is great ice cream and cookies (Macadamia nut, Oatmeal raisin, Pecan sandies, Chocolate chip, etc...), all fresh daily. We also lunched at the Solarium with Pizza, Hamburgers, Hot Dogs and French Fries.
Room Service is terrific on board, 24 hour, fast and fresh. We had full American Breakfast daily served in our stateroom --- what a way to start the day! RCI aims to please, and we feel that almost everything exceeded our expectations.
CABIN During the transatlantic crossing we had Stateroom #7108 with balcony, and excellent service from Cabin Attendant Colbert Bodden. He placed a Chaise Lounge on the balcony for Vincent, and he kept our cabin spotless and homey.
During the second stage of our trip, throughout the Baltic Sea, we were in wheelchair accessible Stateroom #3606, a large airy ocean view room with a huge bathroom/shower (8'X8') equipped with safety rails etc. This cabin was in beige and pastels with one picture of a lakeside garden on the wall. Simple, but nice. Roy Slate, our cabin steward, was exceptionally polite and took great care of us. Thank you, Roy!
ENTERTAINMENT The entertainment on board is in the capable hands of Cruise Director John Blair; he gives "110% effort." His show "A Tribute to Neil Diamond" should not be missed. Other headliners whom we enjoyed were as follows: John Christie in "The Best of R & R;" concert pianist Craig Dahn, a student of the great Liberace, in red sequined jacket and shoes, he played a Pagliacci air that was memorable; Italian tenor Renato Pagliari had a wonderful voice, but we wished he had sung more operatic arias than pop.
The RCI Singers and Dancers were exceptionally good in "Tapestries: A Tribute to Carol King." The murder mystery "Lethal Libations" was funny and engaging. Social Hostess, Katrina Blair (Mrs John Blair), was excellent and so was John. This couple goes all out to entertain the passengers and their efforts are appreciated. There are many other games like the usual bingo, contests, athletics, etc..., going on every day. There is something for everyone.
PORTS OF CALL Most of these ports were new to us and we enjoyed the lessons in geography and history. We flew into New Orleans from Miami on May 2nd. We don't like to fly in the same day as departure, if we can help it. We had supper at Mother's (Home of the "Poor Boy") and loved the ambiance of this great city --- Jazz and the French Quarter.
May 3, 2003: New Orleans, Louisiana. Departure was delayed to accommodate a late plane with cruise passengers. We sailed down the Mighty Mississippi River and all was lovely until we passed "Gnatville." Vincent innocently opened the balcony door and bugs swarmed into the cabin. We attempted swatting them for 10 minutes, but quickly realized we needed help. The Purser sent up an exterminator, but, even after playing cards for an hour in our pajamas in the Card Room down the corridor, we still could not return to sleep there. We slept in another stateroom, thanks to the Purser, but, most of all, we learned a lesson about "Ole Man River."
May 4, 5, & 6th: Days At Sea, we had a wonderful rest and sailed 1,727.8 Nautical miles to Bermuda.
May 7 & 8th: Overnight at King's Wharf Naval Boat Yard, Bermuda. Arrival: 4:00 pm (The QEII left early and we docked at 3:00 pm). Departure: 1:30 pm the next day. From King's Wharf most guests took the ferry to Hamilton to see the Harbor Fest. The Clock Tower and the stone masonry were interesting. Pink sand beaches and English gardens make this a beautiful island. Available Shore Excursions: Scenic Bermuda by Rail and Bike ($67), Glass Bottom Safari ($36), Eco Tour by Kayak ($53), Trolley Tour ($25).
The next four days were at Sea.
May 9, 2003: While sailing East there was a thick fog surrounding the ship all day. Visibility was only one quarter to one-half mile. Sail on!
May 10, 2003: the fog lifts. May 11, 2003 Happy Mother's Day. May 12, 2003, there are dolphins following the ship.
May 13, 2003: 1,948.8 nautical miles to Punta Delgada, Azores (Portugal). Arrival: 7:00 am. Departure: 2:00 pm. Tours available: Fire Lake & Ribiera Grande, 3.5 hrs ($37); Village of Sete Cidades & Wine Tasting, 3.75 hrs ($44); Sete Cidades & Crater Lake for 3.5 hrs ($37) is the tour we chose. We visited beautiful volcanic mountains and a crater lake. There were many "happy" cows, as the Tour Guide called them, and stunning flowers growing wild (calla lilies, ginger and hydrangeas, etc). The white buildings are trimmed with black lava rock. The side walks are mosaics made out of black and white rocks (a preview of Lisbon's side walks). The tourists were happy too, after sampling the local fruit "brandies" and wines.
May 14, 2003: At Sea and this was the first time we saw white caps on the Atlantic Ocean. There were dolphins again following the ship. It was 788.9 Nautical miles to Lisbon, or a total of 4,457 from New Orleans.
May 15, 2003: Lisbon Portugal. Arrival: 7:00 am. Departure: 12:00 noon. Available Excursions: Tour of the city 3.75 hrs ($46) was our choice, with an excellent overview of the city and historic information; a must see is the Monument of the Discoveries with Prince Henry the Navigator leading the column. Other tours included Hiking for 4 hrs ($79), Biking for 4 hrs ($89) and Jeep Safari for 4 hrs ($89).
May 16, 2003: At Sea.
May 17, 2003: Lisbon to Le Havre, France is 914.6 Nautical miles. Arrival: 8:30 am. Departure: 10:30 pm. This city is excellent as a starting point for tours throughout central France and Normandy. Available Tours: Taste of Paris: 10.5 hrs ($111). Be prepared for two long rides and a short time in Paris. Beaches of Normandy: 10 hrs ($154), historical site of W.W.II. Mont St. Michel: 10 hrs ($165). This Abbey was built on a rock by the sea and has a charming village with cobblestone streets etc.... Alabaster Coast, Entretat & Fecamp: 5 hrs ($64). Scenic Chalk Cliffs and the Home of the famous Benedictine Liquor invented by Monk Bernardo Vincellio in 1510. There are many other tours: Versailles, Chateaux & Gardens of Normandy, Honfleur (where Monet painted) etc.... We opted to stroll around Le Havre, playing native with two baguettes tucked under our arms! We enjoyed window shopping and seeing what the French are really wearing and buying this season (Lots of khaki and beige with lace, romantic and fluttery for women and sporty with zippers every where for men). Le Havre to Zeebrugge, Belgium is 195.1 Nautical miles.
May 18, 2003: Zeebrugge, Belgium. Arrival: 10:00 am. Departure: 7:00 pm. Available Tours: Brussels Sightseeing, 8 hrs ($130); Antwerp: 8.15 hrs ($130); Ghent & Belgian Chocolate: 4 hrs ($69). We chose to visit Brugge on the advice of several Belgian passengers we met on board. We had a wonderful day; we took the Blankenburg train into town (only 20 min. & handicapped go first class with special assistance in the train stations). We took a local tour from the town center, and ate in the Market Place Square in the De Beiaardier (The Bell ringer), where a young 21 year old Chef Kristof wowed us with grilled shrimp salad, filet mignon and Belgian waffles like we never had before! Then, of course, we shopped for Belgian lace and dolls.
May 19, 2003: Zeebrugge to Harwich, England 103.9 Nautical miles. New Orleans, to Harwich, 5,679.1 Nautical miles. Arrival at Harwich meant disembarkation for most passengers, but not for more than 70 passengers, which Captain Lachtaridis dubbed "Frequent Floaters." We sailed on to the Baltic Sea and the Nordic nations. Harwich "Sail Away" was marvelous with a troop of kilt clad bagpipers in the McCallister Tartan (red with thin blue and green lines). Their show lasted for over an hour dockside. More about Harwich on our return.
THE SECOND LEG OF OUR JOURNEY May 20 & 21, 2003: At Sea. The somewhat shallow Baltic (especially after the deep Atlantic Ocean) proved to be very calm and flat throughout this trip.
May 22 & 23, 2003: St. Petersburg, Russia (overnight). Arrival 3:00 pm. Departure 6:00 pm, the next day. Sunrise 5:32 am, Sunset 10:49 pm (c. 17 hr. day). This city on the Neva River was founded by Peter the Great "as a window to the West" in 1703, and was celebrating its 300th year anniversary, with a spruce up for a visitation by many world leaders which occurred the days we were there, with President Putin hosting formal receptions. The "White Nights" of Russia are amazing. This phenomenon we experienced throughout the trip with days lasting up to 18 hours! When traveling with the ship tours no visa is necessary, but if going off alone a visa is necessary. There was a band at the port to greet the ship and it set a wonderful musical background.
Available Tours: Pavlosk & Classical Concert, 3.5 hrs ($98); St. Petersburg Ballet, 3.5 hrs ($69); White Night River Cruise, 3 hrs ($69). We took the Hermitage Museum Tour 3.5 hrs ($56), but it was much too short for such an incredible place (5 linked buildings with more than 3 million exhibits). We got an overview at a rapid pace of numerous pieces of art collected at a rapid pace! Each display room had an elderly dour woman keeping an eye on the collections; but sadly, they did not speak any foreign languages, nor seem to be able to indicate directions or know details about the art work.
May 24, 2003: Helsinki, Finland. Arrival 7:00 am. Departure 6:00 pm. Sunrise 4:24 am, Sunset 10:10 pm (c. 18 hr. day). Helsinki is home to the Kvaerner Masa Shipyards (builders of many RCI ships including the Voyager Class ones and birth place of this ship, the Grandeur of the Seas). Helsinki's Senate Square has government buildings designed by C.L. Engell to resemble St. Petersburg. Among several available tours, we chose the City of Helsinki Tour, 3 hrs ($40). The most interesting sight was the Rock Church, carved out of a stone and with a copper tube ceiling which accounts for its wonderful acoustics. Annually it attracts over one million visitors to its religious services and concerts. While visiting we enjoyed the Bach Toccata & Fugue played by the church organist. It's quite impressive. We learned how to say "Good bye" in Finnish "Hey, Hey." But we wish we hadn't, because both the people and the area are beautiful.
May 25, 2003: Tallinn, Estonia. Arrival 7:00 am. Departure 6:00 pm. Sunrise 4:27 am. Sunset 10:17 pm (c. 18 hr. day). This former USSR country is now the best port for shopping. Norwegian wool sweaters ($20 and up) and Russian collectibles are in abundance. This has a fairy tale like old town section, but there are also vestiges of the USSR too, with the huge housing projects for Russian workers, who settled here during the Soviet domination. Tours: We took the Panoramic Tallinn by Coach, 3 hrs ($28). We saw many turreted castles, the "Tower of Fat Margaret" and a very modern downtown. The Manor Houses of Estonia Tour, 6 hrs ($84) and the Countryside Cycling & Old Town, 5 hrs ($67) are two other popular tours.
May 26, 2003: Stockholm, Sweden. Arrival 9:00 am. Departure 6:00 pm. Sunrise 3:54 am. Sunset 9:36 pm. (c. 18.5 hr.day). All along the way sailing into this capital city were many pairs of swans, lovely little islands and beautiful trees and countryside! Every passenger remarked on the beauty of this city and said it was the most beautiful among the ones visited on this cruise. Tours: We took the Stockholm and Vasa Museum Tour 3 hrs ($46). We had read (over 40 years ago in Life magazine) about this remarkable Flag ship Vasa of the Swedish Navy which sank on the first day of her maiden voyage --- August 10, 1628. The beautiful oak warship was raised 333 years later and restored to its full glory, marvelous wooden sculptures and all. No one should miss this, it far surpassed our imaginations. There were many other tours, but none of this unique character. Seen from port is a beautiful castle with a green copper roof, many tourists mistake it for the King's palace. In actuality, it is a home for the elderly and the Swedes are proud of the exceptional care they give to them. Rightly so!
May 27 & 28, 2003: Copenhagen, Denmark (overnight). Arrival 7:00 pm. Departure 6:00 pm the next day. Sunrise 4:08 am. Sunset 9:34 pm. (c. 17.5 hr. day). Copenhagen is the quaintest of all ports, with neat brick boutiques right at the port. Tours available: Tivoli Gardens by night ($18); Walking Tour 3 hrs ($36); Biking Tour 3 hrs ($57); City of Copenhagen 3 hrs ($39) was our choice of tour and it was nice. We saw the "Little Mermaid" in the bay (a tribute to Hans Christan Andersen) and the Amalienborg Palace (which is actually four "identical 18th century palaces").
May 29, 2003: Oslo, Norway. Arrival 9:00 am. Departure 6:00 pm. Sunrise 4:12 am. Sunset 10:09 (c. 18 hr. day). Sailing into the fjords was lovely, at times both sides of the ship had beautiful country side in view. This is the home of Sonja Henie, three time Olympic figure skating gold medalist and nine time World's champion. It is also where the first ski jump was constructed in 1892! Tours: We took the Oslo Highlights City Tour, 3 hrs ($40), which had a foggy start. We went to the Hollmenkollen Ski Tower which was used in the 1952 Olympics. The fog lifted and we just saw the top of the jump; looking up at it we had vertigo, we couldn't imagine skiing off it! This "Viking Capital" has an interesting Vigeland Park which contains a large number of granite and bronze statues by Gustav Vigeland. We plan to tour it on our next trip to Oslo. God willing. Hiking and the Nordmarka Forest, 4.5 hrs ($52) and Hadeland Glass Works & Viking, 5.5 hrs ($76) are other interesting tours.
May 30, 2003: Harwich, England and Debarkation which was easy. First to depart the ship are those with flights on the same day. Next, were those with connections to London like us. A 2.5 hour bus ride took us directly to our Hotel Royal Lancaster on Hyde Park. We had stayed there before and its a great location with wonderful service. We had Fish n' Chips at the nearby Archer's Pub, and it was so good that we returned on Sunday for a traditional British dinner of Roast Beef, spring vegetables, oven roasted potatoes and Yorkshire Pudding!
June 2nd we flew back to Miami, and our trip came to an end, but the memories are still bright. Now, that we have crossed off so many wonderful destinations, we have to add new ones to our future list of places to go and things to see: maybe, the South Pacific.
SUGGESTIONS 1. We have been truly blest with so many fellow cruisers helping with the wheelchair at times. We appreciated those who held the elevators for us, etc. We thank those in the restaurant who provided tables near the entrance. RCI provided cards to reserve the front seats on buses for disabled. However, there were still those few obnoxious people who elbow people out of the way and occupy front seats. Therefore, we suggest that front seats on the tour buses should be reserved for those people with mobility problems.
2. Another suggestion is in regard to the Italian dishes served on RCI ships. We have already suggested in other reviews that if the line wishes to offer Italian food, RCI should hire an Italian chef to train others in the "art" of Italian cooking and the use of proper ingredients. Again on this ship, with the exception of once or twice, the pasta dishes did not meet our expectations, mainly for the use of strange spices, not common in the Italian Cuisine. The food, otherwise, has been very good with flashes of excellence and with plenty of choice on the menu.
This has been a great cruise. We have already booked two other cruises on RCI ships, one in October on the Explorer and the other in December on the new Serenade. Happy Cruising!