We sailed the Grandeur of the Seas, August 23, 2003, leaving from Harwich England.
We bought air through RCI which included transfers. They were waiting for passengers at the airport, downstairs from the customs area at Gatwick. They will ask to take your luggage and you won't see it again for hours. If you need something earlier keep it with you. The bus ride to the port at Harwich is 2 1.2 hours. Our bus had broken a/c so it was a very uncomfortable ride. Check in at the port went quickly and we were able to get into our cabin at 12:00 p.m. which is when we arrived.
Sunday was a sea day as we sailed to Oslo. The North Sea had 8-13 foot swells so it was a bit rough. We enjoy this though!! There is a lot of ship traffic in the North Sea and Baltic which is interesting. We had our Cruise Critic party at 11:45 which was a lot of fun meeting those we had been talking with for months!
Monday we arrived in Oslo to sunny skies and 65 degrees. We were off the ship at 7:10 a.m. We do all the ports independently. We didn't dock where we were supposed to by the fort, but instead at the ferry terminal. We walked into town and found tram #12 and took it to Vigeland Park & sculpture garden. It went to Frogner and stopped due to construction, but it was only a 5 minute walk to the park. The tickets for trams and buses are expensive, $4.30 per ticket, good for l hour. We ended up using it for 2 hours with no one checking. It was 8 a.m. and the park had few people in it. People on bikes riding to work and a few gardeners. It was so peaceful, a wonderful way to enjoy it before bus loads of people arrived! From the road directly in front of the park we caught bus #20 and rode it to Bus #30 line. The drivers will help you if you ask which stop to get off at. We then took bus #30 straight to the Fram museum. We used our original bus ticket for all 3 of these rides. It would be best to get an Oslo card which covers admissions and transport. We didn't since I couldn't find it that early. You can buy this ahead of time on-line and not worry about wasting time looking for it early in the morning. The Fram opens at 9 a.m. so it's important to go here first. The ships papers said it opened later, ignore this. At 9:30 we walked next door to the Kon Tiki museum. Both these museums are worth seeing. A 15 minute walk from here brings you to the Viking Ship museum which has 3 old Viking ships. This was the least impressive museum of the 3, although it has a huge parking lot so this is where the cruise ship tours come. We then walked to the Outdoor Norwegian Folk museum. This is only a 5-6 minute walk from the Viking museum. We enjoyed it a lot, although some houses were closed.
We then ferried across the bay to the main harbor and walked to the City Hall. City Halls are very important sights in these countries. We were able to see the wood carvings outside and the first floor, but the important 2nd floor was closed due to election day. We were told it had been open in the morning. From here it's a 10 minute walk to the National Museum where we saw "The Scream" and Munch's other paintings. This is a free museum but you must check your backpack in free lockers. We then walked down Karl Jhons Gate, not to attractive, but found a department store selling tourist items. I bought a troll that I loved! Get the paperwork to get the VAT back. They are very good returning it on the ship just before you sail as long as you have the paperwork. They give you the refund in US$'s.
We then went to the Cathedral, then to the Akershus Fortress where the Norwegian Resistance Museum is. It is a good museum, but the English is written in small letters and it's a dark museum, so is difficult to concentrate on. I liked the resistance museum in Copenhagen better. We had walked for 8 hours but had seem so much! This is a very expensive city. Cherries $9 lb., slice of chocolate cake $10, child's t-shirt $30, postcard, $1.25 for one, Ouch!! We sat at the back of this ship on deck 5 to watch our sail away, past beautiful small islands with summer homes on them, don't miss this!
Tues. Sea Day We slept a lot, catching up still and getting ready for the hectic schedule to come.
Wed. Stockholm Heavy rain in the a.m. but cleared at 10:30 am. 65 degrees
Beautiful islands sailing into Stockholm. We arrived at 9 a.m. so had time to enjoy the sail in. There is a Tourist Info Office right at the dock in a small red building. We bought the Stockholm card here. This is a good buy at 220 crown. Again, the admissions add up. We walked in the downpour to Slussen Ferry Dock for the ferry to Djurgarden where the Vasa museum is located. It is an easy, but 25 minute walk to the ferry. Get off the ship and walk along the water toward town. You could take the ships bus to town and if it's summer take a different ferry over, which wasn't running in late august, or take the bus from there. We were dropped of the ferry at Tivoli and walked 5 minutes to the Vasa. It opens at 10:00 a.m. and we arrived at 10 sharp! We spent 50 minutes at this museum which is excellent! We then walked to the Nordic Museum which is right across the street from the Vasa in a large brick building. We really enjoyed this museum, it's different from most with Christmas exhibit, shoes, china, clothing. Quite interesting. Next we walked a short way, 6-7 minutes to Skansen Outdoor museum. Again, this is excellent, but quite large. You can't possibly see everything here in a short time but it's worth seeing what you have time for. We did find the reindeer!! We spent 45 minutes here. From Skansen we took bus 47 (bus stop right in front of Skansen) to the City Hall at the city center. We asked driver to tell us when to get off. He did happily and pointed to us which way to walk! It's past the train station. You must go on a guided tour here and the next was at 2:00 p.m. It was 12:30 so we should have gone to Gamla Stan first. We had to walk back to Gamla Stan and onto the Royal Palace where we saw the changing of the guard. The guards talked softly to the tourists. I had never seen that done before! We went to the Armory to see the large coaches and wooden sleds. We then walked in Gamla Stan, shopping a bit in this delightful area of small streets. This is the Old Town of Stockholm. We walked back to the City Hall for the 2:00 tour. This is a ways, so had to really rush. We had a tour of the Nobel Prize Banquet hall and city hall council meeting room. It was a good tour, although a little long. Back to the Royal Palace for us and a tour of the Treasury with it's small but beautiful crowns and swords. Then we had a bit more time for Gamla Stan, and a walk back to the ship. My legs desperately needed a break after all the walking we did today!
Thursday Tallinn Sunny/rainy 62 degrees
We were very tired after yesterday, but still got off the ship a bit before 9:00 as soon as we could. We docked early here. I wanted a Tallinn card but there is no TI at this dock. Ask for directions to Terminal A where you can buy the card. We got the card that is good for museums, not the one with the tour included. One man we knew on the cruise could never find the meeting point for the tour and was told it's very hard to find. This city is easy to get lost in. To find Terminal A walk from the ship toward town and shortly upon leaving the gated area turn left. You're heading for the ferry terminal D. walk toward it, but when you can see Terminal A turn left towards it. It's not far. 10 minutes at most from the ship. Inside terminal A is a TI and money changing station. Buy and Sell at good, fair rates. They bought US$'s at $14Kroon and sold for $15 which was only a 3% markup. We only changed $20 USD and got 280 EEK. It was all we needed for the day! The 6 hour Tallinn card covered all museum entrances and buses. We never needed a bus. The card was 60 EEK or $4 US. We walked to town, a very easy walk, past Fat Margaret. They have excellent Matryosha nesting dolls at many shops here. Expect to pay around $55-60 USD for a nice stack of 5 though. We walked through the Old town up to Toompea, Tallinns fortified hill. The view is superb!! Postcard girls are everywhere. Buy postcards from them, they are so sweet. We met on from Georgia. She's trying to support herself and eventually follow her older sister to the US. Excellent sites here are kiek in de kok, with a photography exhibit, medieval cannons left over from the Livonian wars, and other interesting exhibits. St. Nicholas Church with WW II ruins behind it, Dome Church, Russian Orthodox Church, Holy Ghost Church with old outdoor clock, Estonian History Museum, Tallinn Town Museum, among others. At each site, they wrote down the # of our Tallinn card. There is still plenty of time to wander and shop. It's easy to get lost here, which we did a lot. The shop selling CD's of Estonia Music was gone, empty shop now. I asked a waiter at Old Hansa, a restaurant many enjoyed, where I could buy CD's. He told us of Black Market ones under the bridge between Old town and New town! Visit a pastry shop for the best cookies! .35 each, for a cake base, fruit filling, meringue and then covered in chocolate!!
We found the internet in Tallinn! A unique experience. We had asked at the TI in town center where it was. She gave us directions of which street to go to. We did, but couldn't find the internet. Asked at the spa, and hair salon on this street. They didn't know. Well, I finally found it, next door to the hair salon. It's a single door, looks like an old Russian apt. building. On the small sign if you look carefully it says internet. The shops right next to it don't even know it's there! Walk up 4 flights of steps in this old building, and down a long, old hallway with many doors. At the end of the hall is an excellent internet center with 5-6 computers. High speed. 30 minutes was $1.50!!! Great after the .50 a minute internet on the ship. It was an easy, relaxing walk back to the ship.
Friday St. Petersburg, Russia!! Partly cloudy 57 degrees
Again, we didn't want to do ship tours. We looked into and got information from Red October and Denrus. Both e-mailed us their itineraries and prices, which were quite high. It was still early and we couldn't find anyone to team up with. Then I saw posts about Palladium and heard many good things about them. You do need to get Russian Visas, but their prices were great for 2 people. $10 hour for guide and $12 hour for car and driver. We decided to go with them for part of the time. They gave us free visa support. We e-mailed our information and they faxed the necessary paperwork. We filled out the application and sent it along with Travel vouchers and a passport sized picture, I cut from a mat finish, photograph I had taken with $100 each and our passport to the Russian consulate in New York via Fed Ex. 2 weeks later we had our passports back with the Russian Visas inside. Follow the instructions and it's not bad at all. It was so exciting, now we could go tour on our own and have total freedom to do what we wanted!! Almost everyone I corresponded with said don't do it, it's to hard. Well, it wasn't hard, but easy the way we did it. We did have to plan ahead a lot though.
We had Palladium pick us up at the ship the first day. They need a gate pass to do this which is $25 a day. We were going to meet them at the port gate, which is very easy to do, but decided to have them get the pass for l day so they could return us to the ship at 11 p.m. that night. A wise choice. We met at 8:30 a.m. but we got off the ship as soon as we were allowed so we wouldn't be behind many people on ship tours going through the same custom lines. There are only 2 lines. We had NO problem with customs. They looked at our visa, stamped the white paper attached and sent us on our way. We waited outside the customs house for 30 minutes for our guide. It would be okay to meet at 8 a.m. if you want. Our driver and guide were excellent! Elena, our guide was so smart, had so many facts to tell us. She has been only married for l year and has traveled a lot outside of Russia. We think she was from a well to do family. The guides must have individual passes for each site you visit, and they must take a test every year to renew their guide passes. We could have not been happier with her services. I had some phrases for her to translate for us into Russian for the time we'd be on our own, and she happily did it. We started out with a city tour covering everything imaginable. We also went into several churches and saw services going on. Quite interesting. Each church was different from the last. We stopped at many sites and took pictures. It rained a bit. Then we drove out to Peterhof, stopping at Chelsma Church on the way. It's a pink and white striped church, looks like a candy cane! Small and quaint. We went inside during the service. In front of this church new drivers were taking "drivers ed" and learning how to do 3 point turns, etc. It was fun to see. We saw very old apt. buildings along the roads, and summer houses with their gardens. They also looked old to me. We saw Peter and Paul cathedral across from Peterhof, a large and beautiful church. We loved Peterhof and it's fountains! Don't miss this, a real highlight. We had plenty of time to walk the gardens and see many, many fountains, and the trick fountains the kids were enjoying. Yes, we got wet here!! There are bathrooms here but you must get the tp in the lobby area first. None in the stalls. Most people didn't realize it and were without! We had local currency and need it to pay for admissions and restroom facilities. After Peterhof we drove back to St. Petersburg where we had Palladium drop us off at the Hermitage. We had bought tickets ahead of time on the internet. This way you don't have to stand in line. It's also good to take pictures with. Elena took our e-mail confirmation and used her guide pass to walk us in that entrance, right to the ticket window without waiting and got our tickets. This was so nice of her, over and above service! She wished us well, gave us some tips on what to see, although I had the Lonely Planet book and had it all planned out. We were here at 1:30 p.m. There weren't many people here since it was lunch time. We checked our backpack. In this area there is also a money exchange desk. We changed more US$ into rubles. The exchange rate was very fair. We had started with $100 US$ amount we changed at our airport bank into rubles. We used the lonely planet map of the museum which I had highlighted all the rooms we wanted to see. It was easy to follow, we felt we saw all of the highlights with no problem, spending about 3 hours here. It wasn't hot, and when we needed to ask the Russian women in the room, guarding it, where stairs were etc. they were very helpful. We used hand signs to communicate! They even smiled! We left the museum and found a bench just outside in a small park by the building and sat and had a lunch I had brought from the ship. We were in St. Petersburg with no guide eating lunch at the Hermitage! It was a thrill! It's important to bring bottled water also. We walked to St. Isaacs next, found it easily, bought tickets, no line. Buy the tickets up the steps on side opposite the Bronze horseman statue. Don't stand in line with the Russians on the street. You must also buy a separate ticket for your camera if you want to take pictures. Do so. Excellent mosaics here but not as good as Church on Spilled Blood. We shopped at the street market across the street next. They were getting ready to close up, but I bargained well and got 2 sets of very nice Matryoshka nesting dolls, hand painted for $50. They started out asking for $50 USD each, but I got 2 sets for that price in the end. They'll bargain if you get more than l. I had wanted 3 so it helped in the bargaining, but ended up with two. They like USD, but the rate is same for rubles or $, no mark up for $. We asked them for directions to the Moya, yes they spoke English well! We walked here following the canal. We felt like we were walking in an older Paris, very simular. We felt very safe, just had to watch for traffic. We went to the Moya canal where the bridge crosses Nevsky Prospect. Here we joined others for a canal cruise. 1 hour for $7. They would wait until the boat was full before they'd leave. There is a small canal side cafe for drinks as you wait. We only waited about 20 minutes. It was a small boat, holding about 20 people at most. The guide was a Russian woman giving the tour live for over an hour of non stop talking. They thought she was quite funny also! We couldn't understand a word, but it didn't matter a bit. We cruised the small canals and the Neva. It was excellent. It was getting cool so they gave everyone a wool blanket, and when it started to rain just a bit, they handed out umbrellas! This was great fun. We had theater tickets later for a folkdance show at Nikolayevsky Palace at Truda Square, 4. This was an excellent show, the best folkdance show we've ever seen! The had many, many costume changes, dances and singing. Even a comedic guy in a costume after intermission, falling on people, including me in the audience! It was great fun. They show was 2 hours with a break for champagne, vodka, fruit, and desserts. Before the show though we went to the Astoria hotel and cleaned up. Then we walked through the city some before going to the Palace. We knew where it was since Palladium showed us the location earlier in the day. It was very close to the Neva river west of St. Isaccs. At 11 p.m. our driver from Palladium picked us up at the palace and drove us back to the ship. The streets were deserted so we were happy not to have to find our own taxi back.
Saturday St. Petersburg, cloudy, no rain, 57 degrees
Today we met a walking guide at the port gates. To get to the gate from the ship was simple and free. The taxis usually will charge $10 to go to the gate. They may ask for more, but $5-$10 is usual. If you want to go for free, simply get on the old port bus. The bus stopped right in front of the ship to the left of where all the tour buses line up for ship tours. There is a blue wooden building that is the bus stop. We waited about 10 minutes for the bus to arrive. As we were waiting 2 employees from the ship also came and waited with us. When we asked the purser on the ship where the bus stop would be, they said, no, no you don't want to use the bus, it's very old. We told them we didn't care if it was old, but they wouldn't answer our ?. Just must find it on your own, but it's very easy to spot. We hopped on the bus and 5 minutes later it was at the port gate. It was free. Customs at the ship was again easy, and the Russian customs official even laughed with me at my passport picture, which looks nothing like I do today! And who said they don't smile! You show your passport again at the gate. Keep the blue paper with your cabin # on it that the ship gives you the night before you arrive in Russia. We passed on through and met our walking guide, Olga Stepanova. I had found her on the internet, she is also recommended highly on the Fodders sight. She usually uses a car and driver, but that's not what we wanted. We wanted to tour by metro and bus. We had thought about doing this on our own, but we still had so much to see we decided before we left to use Olga to help us get around quicker. She's a fully licensed guide and I sent her a list of what we wanted to do ahead of time. She charged $10 an hour, a bargain. We walked from the port gate straight out to the street where we crossed the road and she flagged down a mini-bus. It's just a van that is used as a mini bus for people. I think it was #41, not sure though. The 2 people who worked on the ship ended up doing the same thing, but got the next bus. We took this mini-bus for .50 each to the center of the city, to the metro. Rides inside the city are .25. We took the metro to Kuznechnyy rynok indoor market. It's a fruit, vegetable, meat, dried fruits, flower market. We had great fun here. The dried fruit stall had 3 men working in it who were just delighted at us Americans being there. They sold us fruits and told us they were Saddam Hussein figs! They knew they were punching our buttons!! We had a fun time with them though. I got one dirty look from the artistic vegetable stall when I took a picture here, but very friendly cheese ladies. We tasted the nasty, soft cottage cheese stuff. Not good. Olga couldn't figure out why we wanted to go here, but she took us anyhow! She has her opinions, but will comply to what you want. Just insist kindly, she's a pushover! Next we took the metro to Alexander Nevsky Monastery and Tikhvin Cemetery. I guess I made a mistake here when I took pictures in the metro. Greg and Olga were buying tickets, a card for 3 rides and I snapped a couple of pictures. A metro guard rushed out of his office looking for me. Saw me, but didn't know it was I taking the pictures, and left. Then I asked Olga if pictures were ok. They don't like them, but I could if not caught! The metro used to be used as a bomb shelter so they're still protective. The metro is very deep. Olga was great, she didn't talk nonstop, and we got to talk to her about her life, not just about the sites we visited. She's been a guide for 15 years. We found bathrooms at a hotel, nice and clean, then hopped a mini bus again, this time to Peter and Paul Cathedral and Fortress. We drove down Nevsky Prospect with Olga pointing out more sights, which we would come back to later in the day, walking. We had a good visit inside the cathedral seeing the tombs of Peter the great and family, the cells, and the fortress. I got my picture taken in the lap of Peter the Great statue with the small head and big body! Olga really doesn't like this statue, but I told her tourists do! We took the mini bus to the Church on Spilled Blood with the most beautiful mosaics we've ever seen! A camera ticket is very important here. After finishing our day in St. Petersburg, walking and seeing so much, Olga got a taxi for us back to the ship. We didn't want to do the mini-bus back on our own since we would have to transfer to a 2nd bus and we don't know which corners to catch them at. The taxi was only $10 to the port gate, where we again, took the bus back to the ship. A port gate guard came up to us this time and asked if we were Americans. We said yes, and he said he had a $20 US bill and could we give him change for it. We both thought, rightfully so, that it was counterfeit and he wanted to pass it to us, getting real currency. We refused, telling him we were out of US currency, that we had used rubles, which was true. He kept trying, but finally realized we weren't going to give him any $. We were almost at the point of thinking we would have to comply though, so we could go on. When the woman checking our passports here to go back inside the port was looking at them, he came into the office, grabbed them from her hands and threw them back at us. Oh well, we were on our way. We were very, very happy with our time in Russia. I had a list of many smaller things to see here and using Olga really helped us out.
Sunday Helsinki 57 degrees, cloudy
No time for rest, still exhausted, we were off the ship at 7:30 am. Helsinki runs shuttles from the ship into the city for $4 one way per person. No one knows the public bus also goes from the same location, but around the corner for 1Euro each. Just ask the guide at the Helsinki tourist bus there by the ship where to get the bus. We were in the West Harbor and took bus #16. The Helsinki site said it would be bus 15A, but it was nowhere to be found so we stopped bus #16 and this was the correct one. It drops you off on the Esplanade. We later, at the ferry to Suomenlinna, bought all day transportation passes for $4.80 Euros each. This is a great deal since many bus rides are $2Euros each. This pass includes the ferry. It was Sunday and very quiet in Helsinki. We did our own city walking tour, seeing Senate Square and the Lutheran Cathedral, Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Cafe Kappeli, which was quiet, not crowded. It's a pretty, but very small city. We shopped in the Market at the Harbor, buying some wonderful items! Great market. We then took the ferry to Suomenlinna island and the fortress. Boy was this place dead on a Sunday morning. Most things don't open until later in the day. I felt bad for those on tour we met here. They paid $60 for the tour. We ferried back to the harbor and walked to the Swedish Theater where bus #24 is. Easy to find. We took this bus to the end of the line which goes to a wonderful wooden bridge you walk across to Seurasaari open air folk museum. This place is wonderful. Smaller than Skansen in Stockholm, but everything was open, and the setting is so pretty. It's on it's own island. Many families were here for the Sunday morning, feeding the squirrels. After seeing most of the houses we walked to the connecting island which was having an ancient Viking Festival. It wasn't to good. We then went back to the bus stop. Walking over the wooden bridge, some cars drove by carrying people dressed as the wedding party for a wedding to be held in the church at the open air museum. We took bus #24 back to town, passing the Sibelius Monument. We saw it from the bus, deciding not to get off since time was running out and we wanted to still go to Temppeliaukio Church. The church in the rock. We got off the bus and walked to the Railroad station to take a picture of this fantastic building, then walked to the church. We got lost, so again asked for directions from a local who walked us part of the way there. This church has very limited hours on Sundays, so we were very happy to get inside. It's a wonderful sight. We walked back to the Esplanade to catch bus #16 back to the port, and arrived at 2:20. All aboard was at 2:30 so we just made it!
Monday p.m. Copenhagen 60 degrees, sun/clouds/rain
It was a sea day for much of the day, arriving at Copenhagen at 7 p.m. We rested, sure did need it. We wanted to walk to Tivoli. It was raining though so we wisely hopped on the public bus #26 which was at the pier. It would be a long walk for the evening so it was a good decision taking the public bus. We would have missed the entertainment at Tivoli if we would have walked there. You need to get passes to get off the ship so everyone doesn't get off at once. They let a lot of the independent people off at the same time they called the first bus groups. We loved Tivoli! We got a schedule of events as we walked in the main gate at the office to the left of the gate. Magic show, bands, pantomime, acrobats, rides, food, a great place. It's all lit up when the sun goes down. Great fun. We took the public bus back to the ship that evening.
We wanted to walk the city this day so left the ship at 7:30 and walked to the Little Mermaid statue. No one else was there so we got good pictures! We walked onto Nyhavn which we weren't to impressed by. It was early still, I'm noticed it was much more lively around lunch time. It's just a small area. We didn't buy the Copenhagen card here, didn't think it was a good value for what we had planned. The large fountain was disassembled, being redone. We walked to the Old Market, New Market area. Old market was a disappointment, not much here. Stroget was excellent though. Ecco shoe store with $60 shoes!!! I bought 2 pairs. We walked by the stork fountain, the old phone booth and much more, taking pictures. Stopped by the railroad station, then walked to City Hall. They were having a special handwork, art show which we walked through before it opened! Saw the famous clock through the shear curtains, then walked to Ny Carlsberg Glyptoteket museum which opened at 10 a.m. We arrived at 10, it was excellent and not crowded, had a wonderful Gaugin collection along with a lot of sculptor. Next we walked to the National Museum, again excellent. Don't miss the prehistoric section on the ground floor. The entrance is by the lockers, it's the best part of the museum and a bit difficult to find. It has bog people, rue stones and so much more. Walked down the Stroget again, stopping for a Carlsberg Beer rest! We then walked to the Rosenburg Castle. This looks to be far away on the map, but it isn't. Just ask for directions. We toured the castle and the crown jewels, in another area here. There is a nice, big lawn here you can relax on. The 3rd floor of the castle is the highlight, after the crown jewels. From here we walked to a church with frescos, could have skipped this, then onto the Resistance Museum by the fort. This is in a dark wood building, hard to spot at first. We enjoyed this museum much more than the one in Oslo. They won't take credit cards here without a European pin # so don't run out of currency. We used our last to buy tickets here. We walked back to the ship and got our VAT back at the shops across from the ship.
We met Captain Zini's Mother and Father in law on our Deck 8. They were wonderful people, his mother in law was so much fun talking to!!
This was a wonderful trip. So very much to see. We used Rick Steves Scandinavia book and Lonely Planet book also for planning. The best maps are in Lonely Planet. It took a lot of planning, but it was so worthwhile when everything just fell into place! I wouldn't do anything different, but we did come home exhausted.
We spent 3 days in London after the cruise. We saw Mama Mia, and Chicago and did a London walks Pub walk. We went to Brighton for a fun day, also with London walks, and went to Greenwich which is an easy trip and very worthwhile.
Hopefully this review will help some of you plan your ports independently!
Greg and Lorrie