“ Royal Caribbean / 12 day cruise covering Scandinavia and the Russian Baltic „
We have been checking off items in our copy of 1000 Places to See before you Die for a few years now. It was partly in pursuit of this that we chose this cruise of Scandinavia, the Baltic States and Russia. However, it is clear that we will never complete the entire book; unless you start shortly after you are born, it is unlikely that anyone would. Looking at some of our fellow cruisers we had doubts that all of them would even make it to the end of the cruise!
It seemed almost that a prerequisite of boarding the ship for this cruise was that you had to have need of a walking stick, crutches, a walking frame or a wheelchair. Why this should be the case for a visit to Scandinavia and the Baltic I have no idea. How many of them expected to partake of the various excursions on offer was a mystery. Many trips stated that they were not suitable for less than fully able-bodied guests. It all served to make us feel in the first flush of youth!
The cruise cost us around £1,500 each and that was before all the extras, and on a Royal Caribbean cruise there are definitely going to be extras! That's why it's usually a few years between our cruises, waiting for our pockets to recover!
Our ship, Jewel of the Seas, departed from Harwich on Spring Bank Holiday Monday. We would need to drive there and leave our car in long term parking. Parking (£74) didn't need to be booked in advance. We were directed to the parking and there our luggage was unloaded and taken to the ship whilst we were taken there by coach. We aimed to arrive at 2.00pm, as instructed, but it turned out that we could have turned up at just about any time that day; people had clearly been checking in from as early as 11.00am, just as well really as no one could be sure what sort of traffic problems might be encountered.
The emergency muster drill took place before the ship left the dock and, as we watched from the ship's rail a Scottish pipe band lined up to bid us farewell with such predictable classics as We are Sailing.
Jewel of the Seas
Our ship this year is one of the smaller ones in the RC fleet. Designated "Panama" class, it is as long, broad and with as much draft as is allowable to enable it currently to be just capable of passing through the Panama Canal, even though we wouldn't be going anywhere near it on this trip! This still means that it is a relatively small ship, carrying just over 2,000 people.
One thing that you need to be aware of is that this ship is not a non-smoking ship. No only is smoking allowed but there aren't even areas specifically set aside only for smokers, where their smoke cannot spoil the enjoyment of non-smokers. In areas such as the Safari Club, the outer raised area is for smokers and consequently non-smokers are surrounded. The stink of smoke is very hard to avoid and permeates throughout the ship. Had we known about this problem we probably would have thought twice about taking this cruise or, at least, a cruise visiting this region, with Royal Caribbean.
The other problem with this ship is that even when the wind isn't blowing very hard, the wind whistles through the superstructure. Even on the pool deck the wind is usually quite strong, despite the surrounding windows. There simply aren't enough windbreaks and so if a couple of doors are open at the same time the wind blasts through.
We had elected to take an inside cabin this trip, having always had outside cabins, with a balcony, in the past. We figured that it wasn't worth the extra expense, considering we really use the cabin for little more than sleeping. However, what we hadn't appreciated was the effect that the morning light has on your waking patterns. We were finding ourselves sleeping in longer than we normally would have done, simply because there was no light clue as to the time of day!
The other problem we had was with the toilet. Nine times out of ten it simply wouldn't flush. At times we had to resort to using the public toilets around the ship. We reported the problem several time but it was never satisfactorily fixed.
Be aware that the electrical sockets on board are all European and American so you will need adapters.
Ports of Call
I have written individual reviews of each of the ports of call we visited so what follows is just a summary of the highlights.
Without a doubt, Copenhagen is one of the most beautiful cities on the planet. It was our first port of call.
We headed for the popular Nyhavn district, renowned for its bars and restaurants. Here we took a one hour canal cruise for 60 Krona (£7) per person. We also had lunch in Nyhavn at the Gasten & Galionen, which we can very much recommend.
After lunch we walked over to the Tivoli Gardens but didn't go in as there is a charge and we didn't have enough time to spend to justify it, so we walked from there across Copenhagen City Hall Square and into Favergade, one of the city's main shopping streets. Finally, we walked up to the Rosenborg Castle gardens to enjoy the sunshine.
Stockholm is a very enjoyable place although, in general I find it's architecture somewhat "solid". It is also a very big city, spread, as it is, over hundreds of islands, many with only ferry connections between them.
Our coach from the ship dropped us off just outside the Opera House and on the other side of the bridge from the Old Town, Gamla Stan, which I really wanted to explore, so we headed there first.
It was here that we had an excellent lunch in the open in a small square in the sun and sheltered from a chill breeze. Whilst here on Gamla Stan you can also see the Royal Palace.
We headed back towards the heart of Stockholm, back across the bridge and then turned left to take in the World-famous Stadshuset, the Town Hall, which hosts the Nobel Prize dinners.
Then we wandered back and up one of the main shopping streets, Drottninggatan, to Vasaplan and the Nordic Sea Hotel and its Absolut Icebar.
We would have loved to have visited the Vasa Museum, where a salvaged 17th century warship is preserved, much as is the Mary Rose here in the UK in Portsmouth but sadly we didn't have enough time.
Our third port of call. We have been told that the Stone Church in Temppeliaukio (Temple Square) is worth a visit. A more aptly named place it is hard to imagine. The initial view of it, as we walk up through a small garden that acts as a divider between the two sides of Fredrikinkatu, is of a sort of cave, with a very wide entrance.
Our next destination was the Sibelius Memorial. This is about a kilometre away up Mechelingatan, an easy walk, and set in a park which is also named after this world-famous son of Finland.
Afterwards we wander off behind the memorial to a small, beautifully decorated café (Regatta) set beside an expanse of water. Leaving, we walk back through Sibelius Park over to Mannerheimintie and head back in the direction of the city centre, passing along the way the Opera House and wandering through the park in which it is set, around the edge of the lake. This leads on past Finlandia Hall, to the Forum and the Central Railway Station.
We headed for Helsinki's Lutheran Cathedral, set atop a huge flight of steps off Alexandersgatan. Here we are quite close to the port and so we ventured over in that direction. What we find on Kauppatori is an outdoor market.
From the market we wander back though the gardens between Norra and Sodra Esplanaden to where the coach will take us back to the ship and on to St Peterburg.
St Petersburg had been the primary incentive for us to book this cruise and, mindful of it's reputation, it was the only place where we booked organised excursions.
We started off with a visit to the Yusupov Palace where the murder of Rasputin took place. To call this a palace is perhaps stretching thinks a little: it's really just a very large house situated in the middle of other similar buildings on a street on one side of one of St Petersburg's many canals.
The guide made the most of the story of Rasputin and that infamous night, as we toured the rooms featured in the story. An interesting visit and I'm glad we did it.
We followed this with a canal and river cruise lasting well over on hour, which enabled us to see many of St Petersburg's famous sights from a point of view that wouldn't otherwise have been available to us.
The next excursion took us out of St Petersburg to Pushkin City and the Alexander and Catherine Palaces. We saw only the royal carriage collection at the Alexander Palace but the tour of the Catherine Palace took in, amongst other things, the World famous Amber Room and an entertainment by dancers in period costume in the huge Ballroom.
This was followed by a meal in the Pavilion, whilst we were entertained by opera singers giving us renditions of popular classics.
Our third excursion was a walking tour of St Petersburg, visiting many of the famous buildings and monuments. Fortunately the weather was good. The tour took about two hours.
Our final tour was once again out of St Petersburg, to the Peterhof, the palace complex on the other side of the Gulf of Finland from the city. An amazing place and, probably, the most enjoyable of all of our excursions. The Peterhof site is huge and a half day is far too little to see everything.
Our return to St Petersburg was by Hydrofoil, across the Gulf, a unique and entertaining experience.
Tallinn is a small, very old town, surrounded now but the much more modern and nowhere near as attractive new city. The old town is amazing, full of narrow alleyways, cobbled streets and still standing city walls.
We wandered the streets, making our way slowly up towards the Toompea area, the upper town, with its vantage points providing incomparable views over the town. Here there are also a cathedral and a church, providing extreme contrasts between the ornate decoration of the Russian Orthodox and the puritanical simplicity of the Lutheran.
Tallinn's old town is wonderful place and well worth the visit.
Our final stop and our second visit to Sweden. To be honest, all we had been told we should visit was the old town (Haga) so that's where we headed first. An attractive district with many wooden buildings original to the city. But, on a Sunday morning there wasn't much going on.
Very close by is a small park with steep hill surmounted by an old defensive redoubt - Skansen Kronan. The views over the city from the terrace surrounding it are superb. Although closed we managed to wangle a look inside at what is now a restaurant.
We walked back towards the city centre, taking a circuitous route around the outside of the canal, through the Kungsparken park. Eventually crossing over the canal we found ourselves at the Saluhallen indoor market. Close by we stopped for refreshments before wandering on, ending up at the huge Nordstan shopping mall, where we bought some stamps for our postcards.
We exited the other side and saw before us the Gothenburg Wheel, a sort of scaled down London Eye. We decided to round off the day with a trip on the Wheel.
I'm sure there is more to Gothenburg than we managed to pack into just one day but to be honest we found it the most disappointing of al of our city visits.
Although we were glad we had taken the cruise and seen so many of the places we had wanted to see, overall we were somewhat disappointed with our ship, especially the maintenance issues and the lack of smoker segregation. I do realise that in this day and age it is generally the older generation that are the smokers and if truth be told, the average age on this cruise was probably quite high. The number of passenger being wheeled around in wheelchairs, still smoking like chimneys, is testimony to the self-destruction this awful habit reeks on the human body.
Copenhagen, St Petersburg and Tallinn were the high-lights of the cruise. These I would be happy to visit again, especially St Petersburg.
Value for money though? Probably not. Of course, had the weather been a lot better then I might be feeling a little more generous. Our next cruise, if there is one, will definitely be to somewhere much hotter!