Background: My wife and I are in our 50s. Our adult son, age 28, traveled with us. We are seasoned travelers. Our last cruise was on the Star Princess in Alaska last year.
We flew into London from Phoenix a day early in case there were any problems with our flight. The next day we met the RCI rep near the baggage claim at Heathrow Airport at 8 a.m. We were bused to another terminal so that we would be loaded on the regular buses to Harwich. We didn't like being left in a smoke- filled room waiting for our bus to arrive. The bus trip to Harwich took about two and a half hours. It gave us a great view of the English countryside. (Our recommendation: book your own van to Harwich. You'll find it cheaper and more comfortable.)
The embarkation process was very smooth. The cruise line had plenty of help to show you where to go and to check you in. We were on the ship in less than 30 minutes
Absolutely beautiful! We went to our cabin to drop our carry-on luggage, and found it was clean and ready for us. We went to the Windjammer Café for lunch. (We noted that in each elevator, the day of the week is noted in tile on the floor.) There were no lines and the food was good. We found our way around the ship very easily. The Centrum in the middle of the ship was amazing. Try going up to the Crown and Anchor lounge on the top deck. You can look straight down to Deck 4. We loved the Schooner Bar -- a great place to relax and look out over the water. Be sure to ask for the complimentary cashews. It was too cold to use the pools, although many guests sat in the Solarium, which was nice and warm.
We were in cabin 7080, a balcony cabin with one upper bed over ours. It was a little cramped for three adults but we managed. There was plenty of closet space, though, and plenty of nooks and crannies to place things. The balcony had two chairs and a small table – a nice place to sit and view, very relaxing. The bathroom was typically small, but the shower was very nice, with a rounded glass enclosure to keep the water from flooding the bathroom floor.
Our cabin attendants, Jesus Kahn and Marie Flores, did an outstanding job keeping our cabin clean and straight. They always had a smile and something nice to say when they saw you. The cleaned the cabin while we were off in the morning and had it turned down when we retuned from dinner. They were great. If you needed extra towels or anything, they were quick to get it. They also did a great job in making towel animals. Our wait staff at dinner was just as outstanding. Iskra from Bulgaria and Ronald from Peru did an excellent job. Ronald always knew what we wanted with beverages, breads and rolls without asking. Iskra made sure we were happy with our meal; if not, she would replace it immediately. If we couldn't decide on a meal or dessert, she would bring them all.
We ate breakfast and lunch in the Windjammer Café. In port, we would make an effort to eat at a local restaurant. Breakfast was great. I enjoyed the omelet bar. They made me lox, eggs and onions daily. The only problem was that in the morning, was there was usually no ice and the Coke machines were not operating. By the way, the Coke card was worth the cost at $82 for the 12 days.
Lunch in the Windjammer was hit or miss. They always had a great selection, but several times, the hot food was just warm or cold. They did make great mashed potatoes. The pastry chef deserves a medal, as the desserts were awesome. A little-known secret is the Seaview Café, located right above the Windjammer Café. They make great fish and chips, hamburgers, soups and sandwiches as well as chicken strips and chicken wings. It is all made to order and served hot. You can also go to the Lattetudes Bar and just order the desserts out of the case, no charge. The Googlehoft was excellent.
We didn't go to all the shows, but the comedy of John Martin was the best. He is an English comedian (as were all the comedians on board). He kept the audience in stitches. Another comedian was Jeff Stephenson, a very funny guy. My wife went to the show ‘West End to Broadway' and found it very entertaining. Rainer Hersh put a comical spin on classical music, very funny. We were also entertained with a flyover by a MIG jet the day after leaving Tallinn. It must have been less than 50 feet above us, and stayed around buzzing the ship for about 20 minutes. The other entertaining event was going under the bridge that connects Sweden and Denmark -- very low clearance; be on the top deck for that one.
Oslo: We took excursion to the Hadeland Glassworks and Viking Museum in Oslo. It gave us a great tour of the countryside. Buy the seconds in the main building at Hadeland. Going on this tour didn't give us enough time to visit the downtown area.
Copenhagen: We took the ship's shuttle to downtown, and found an Internet Café near Tivoli at Boomtown down the street (ask any local). We ate lunch at Magasins Department Store, top floor -- pretty good local fare. You'll find a neat grocery store in the basement.
Stockholm: We took the ship's shuttle again and walked around the old city. It's small enough to get around without taking a tour. There's great shopping in the city. Ahlen's department store has great buys in glass and souvenirs, and another good grocery store in the basement.
Helsinki: We took the ship's shuttle downtown, and found a Big Red Bus tour at the shuttle stop. For 25 euros, they take you on a two-hour tour of the city. It gives you a good overview of the sites and lets you off downtown at the shuttle stop. Go to Stockman's Department store for shopping right down the main street.
St Petersburg: Take as many tours as you have time for. If you don't have a special visa, it's the only way off the ship. We loved the City Highlights and Pushkin tour. The palace at Pushkin was beautiful and the lunch provided was very good. We had a wonderful guide named Tatiana, who spoke impeccable English. (She was an English professor at the local university.) She always put a neat spin on her commentary, and was a great help in negotiating with local merchants. We took a water tour on the second day; we would've liked to go on the technology tour but it was sold out. Book your tours early. If you have a chance, look into booking tours with a company called Red October. You can customize your tour and the more people you get to go with you, the cheaper it is. They also arrange a group visa for you.
Tallinn: We took the free shuttle to the old town. Everything is within walking distance. Rick Steve's Scandinavia is a good book for walking tours for each of these cities. We found an Internet Café inside a bookstore across from the flower stalls. We noted that the sweaters they promoted were pricey.
Debarkation: The last day, a British customs agent came on board and handled all the passports, so getting off in Harwich was a breeze. We got off the ship early, since the tag color they gave us was based on our flight times. The problem was that after finding your luggage, you had to find a porter to get it to the buses.
Criticism: Money Mike's suggestions for shopping didn't live up to expectations. The bargains he advertised were not always there. In the ship, the area around the bars was very smoky. Only the dining rooms and theater were not. The Windjammer Café needs to keep the hot foods hotter.
Positives: This is a great ship. It was easy getting on and off at all the ports. There was great food in the dining rooms and in the Seaview Café, and impeccable service from everyone on the ship.
We would definitely repeat this cruise -- maybe in 2006.