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Scandinavia, St Petersburg, Tallinn, Amsterdam

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This was our first ever large ship cruise, and I admit that we were a bit apprehensive. But it was wonderful. We have always wanted to see the Scandinavian capitals and especially St Petersburg, Russia. We got the opportunity this year and booked the Celebrity Century June 27, 2006 sailing for 12 days out of Amsterdam and return. Frequent flyer miles got us to Brussels from US west coast. Train to Amsterdam where we pre-extended for 3 great days. All in all, we are very happy with the result of the trip. I don’t know how, but we were upgraded from a window (guaranteed) to a veranda. Not at all hard to take.

We are primarily interested in the history and cultural background of the ports. We basically looked at the ship as a conveyance to get us to the various ports of call. A very nice conveyance at that. But to us, the ship was not the trip, as it is for some folks. (Some did not disembark, even at St Petersburg. That amazed us.) To each his own, just trying to give some background on me.

The food was terrific, as one might expect, and the service was impeccable. For dinner we always went to the formal dining room. We enjoyed our table mates. I wore the tux on the three formal nights, and enjoyed it. On hindsight, we would change from the second seating. The late hour and early rising for shore trips were tiring for us. Sorry to say, we took in no entertainment. Stopped in on one, and found it mediocre at best. Never went back. Probably missed something good.

The Cruise Critic get together was on the first day out of Amsterdam. It was attended by about 20 passengers and so well worth the effort. I thanked the Celebrity people profusely. Our Celebrity representative answered so many questions, especially for us going on private tours in St Petersburg. Highly recommend all sign up and GO to this little added bonus feature. Great!

In addition to Amsterdam (our second visit), we called at Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, St Petersburg, Tallinn and Oslo. We relied heavily on Michelin Green Guide to Scandanavia and Finland, and the DK Eyewitness Guide to St Petersburg, Fodor’s Talk Boards, the Cruise Critic talk board, and the local tourist information centers for the attractions to see at each port. Ship’s historical/cultural information was frustratingly lacking; almost non-existant, except for where to shop, which helped in that regard. Except for St Petersburg, we took no organized tour, instead relying on our own abilities learned over the years to see things on our own. We stayed away from the crowds as much as possible and never felt rushed or herded.

Amsterdam: Stayed at Hotel Ambassade on the Herengracht Canal, away from the noisy, touristy, depressing and sleazy Dam Square area. Went to Riksmuseum, Rembrandhuis, Ann Frank Huis. Had great dinners and hung out at Liedseplen cafes for the world cup matches. Went on a canal tours and enjoyed ice cream and pancakes.

Copenhagen: 0700-1600. Ship shuttle ($10 return) to Kongens – Nytorv. HOHO bus not yet running (8am) Walked to Amalienborg, church, then to Rosenborg Slot. Took the self guided tour (65kr each). We really liked the Slot and the extensive gardens. Numerous nannies and parents out strolling and playing with small children. Enchanting. Walked Ostengade, big sweater purchase. Lunch was a dream. Open faced sandwich at a Nyhavn outdoor cafe. What a treat enjoyed by no one on the ship’s excursions that I talked to. Shrimp, plaice, caviar, Tuborg, all accompanied by a street jazz band.

Stockholm: 0900-1700 Ships shuttle ($10 return) to Gustav Adolfs Torg. Walked to Nybroviken for ferry to Vasa. Ferry does not run til ten. No problem; Bus 47 from Nybroplan. Vasa was highlight of Stockholm. Hand out in English was our guide. Short movie. Highly recommended to all. Very good lunch in museum café. Not enough time for Skansen, regrettably. Ferry to Gamla Stan; walked and shopped. Bought Pipi Longstocking doll and book for granddaughter. Really enjoyed the medieval Gamla Stan.

Helsinki: 0900-1800 Pleasantly surprised. More to enjoy than expected. Shuttle ($10 again) to town, got on red double deck bus 22Euro. Running commentary around town by spry 80 year old lady was a hoot. Senate Square to very active flea market. Amazing open faced sandwich on Pohjois Esplanadi at Hotel Kamp’s outdoor café. Beer was Lapin Kulta, or Lappland Gold. Waitress said is “only thing that’s gold in Lappland.” Loved walking the Esplanadi. Sun out, 78 degrees, everybody is happy, happy, happy. It’s Sunday. I liked my brief introduction to Finland. Must go back.

St Petersburg: Two days 0800-1700: Highlight of our vacation. Used the services of Alla Tours, arranged by internet prior to the cruise. I put together a group of 11 for a small van. Saw lots more than any of the ships excursions, at a fraction of the cost. Saw all the usual sites, too numerous to list here, including canal and river tour. Fantastic lunch at Podvorie Pavlovsk after Catherine’s Palace. Did use the ship’s excursion for the evening ballet, as Mariinsky was not showing ballet. Our day guide from Alla Tours, Elena, was outstanding, we all loved her. Hermitage impossibly crowded-was not enjoyable. July 4th in Russia! All passengers that I talked to who used a private guide service were pleased with their tours. Red October, Denrus, or Alla Tours. Not so with the ship’s excursions. Spotty reviews.

Tallinn: 0700-1400 Definitely the surprise jewel. Shuttle ($5 one way) to Viru Gate; walked back. Love medieval towns like this and Bruges. Tourist info center gave us map and walking tour guide. We walked the whole place. Fantastic lunch on the main square, at Troika Restoran. Waitresses were cute, friendly and fun. My stroganoff was excellent.

Oslo: 1330-2100 Viking Museum via ferry from near where ship docked (walked). Walked to Frammuseet. Bus 31 to town. Walked around downtown area. Shopped at well stocked and large kiosk adjacent to ship and walked medieval castle next to ship (Akerhus).

Brussels: Train from Amsterdam after 8am debarkation, arrived 1400. Stashed luggage at Gare Midi, 3,30 Euro/bag. Walked to nearby Gran Plac, enjoyed mussels in white wine sauce, and pancakes with ice cream, of course. Bought the requisite chocolate. Train to Sheraton Airport Hotel for good night’s sleep before 10am flight home.Total transit hours to west coast 25 hours, and we were beat.

With only a few hours in each port, I felt it important to make sure we saw what we wanted to see. We did a lot of homework, and quickly decided that the ship’s excursions weren’t for us. We got to see a lot, and at a fraction of the cost of the ship’s tours. Not for everyone, I know. We probably missed some attractions ourselves. Many of our mates were very happy with the ship’s excursion. Point is, do some homework and you will have a good chance of an enjoyable land excursion and less chance of being disappointed.
Hope this helps some of you considering this itinerary and wondering if you can go off on your own. Yes, you can.

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