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Trip Report: Unforgettable summer cruise to the Baltics

Trip Report: Unforgettable summer cruise to the Baltics

Old Oct 6th, 2006, 05:58 PM
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Trip Report: Unforgettable summer cruise to the Baltics

First off, my apologies for posting this report so late. I started a bulk of this trip report back on July 9, but then life got in the way. Work then got in the way of life (my project, which I had worked on since 2001 is now complete and open to the public, but while those who worked hard on the project werenít invited to the big party, everyone else who didnít were, and were praised to high heaven!). Now Iím taking classes to take me out of work at a decent hour, while I enrich my curious mind and prepare for something new.

I know cruising isn't this boardís cup of tea, but it is slowly becoming something I love. We returned on July 3rd from our 2 week cruise to the Baltics this summer for my mom's birthday. It was an unforgettable trip where we went to countries we never thought weíd actually visit, even though we (or at least my mom and I) dream plenty about those places.

<b>Luggage:</b>
While the ghost of last summerís lost luggage situation haunted us this year (Alitalia from JFK to MXP, then MXP to GOA), we had to quickly get over the situation. After all, we were flying to our destination on a non-stop flight, and were embarking on a 14 night cruise (and 2 night London stay afterwards). Learning from our lesson last summer, we packed as light as being on a cruise would let us. At least I did. I brought a weekís worth of clothes that I happily recycled (whoís going to know?) and made use of the laundry service on the cruise ship. Our family of 4 survived on 1 26&quot; luggage (parents and me), 1 21&quot; luggage (for my uncle and his needs), 1 garment bag (for all our formal wear), and 1 bag I carried with all their medications and other needs (this would become our souvenir bag as the trip progressed).

<b>The trip begins:</b>
My family of 4 (my mom, dad, uncle and me) left the night of June 16 on Virgin Atlantic, and arrived the next morning where we set sail on the Celebrity Constellation. As we purchased our own airfare during the Virgin Atlantic sale last February, we found our own transportation to the Dover docks (although one may purchase cruise transfers through the cruise line ahead of time). For this, we used Woodford Chauffeurs (http://www.woodfordchauffeurcars.co.uk ), and had a wonderful driver and companion in Tony. Of course, since it was a short flight from JFK to LHR, we were jetlagged and slept the entire way. Not that the highways of any country are really worth the sights.

We did wake up in time to see the beautiful white cliffs of Dover. It really needs to be seen in person to be truly appreciated. To see the cliffs throughout the day, from sunrise to sunset, was quite enchanting.

BTW, our trip from London Heathrow to the Dover cruise port was a little less than 2 hours. We were able to happily find all our luggage riding the luggage carousel (I had to chase them all down by myself while my uncle looked on and pointed to them AFTER I found each piece - ARGH!!!). We met our driver, Tony, at 8:20am right outside departures, and by the time all was said and done (ATM visit, finding free space and loading luggage) we were on the road at 8:30am. We would arrive at the cruise port around 10:20am. Too early for check-in, but we got to be first on line for check-in!

The Celebrity Constellation is a beautiful and immaculately kept ship, and I would recommend all to try it if you should ever decide to go on a cruise. Check-in was super fast, security was security, and we were met in the beautiful atrium with a glass of either champagne, white wine, or orange juice. Everyone there couldn't be nicer. It was the start of a beautiful cruise.

Since our room was not to be ready until 1pm, we were encouraged to roam the ship and get something to eat. This is not the beginning of a glutton-fest for my family (as it was for some others), but we would be spoiled by food instantly appearing at will without actually having to cook. We finished eating just as an announcement was made to all that our rooms were ready, a little before 1pm.

Our room had a balcony in the aft, or back, of the ship, which made my motherís day. In fact, this is the type of room sheíd like to have each time we cruise from here on out, but itís not possible for our itinerary, at least not for her birthday cruise next year. Weíve already booked our next cruise on board and received a $200 credit, with our room picked out and everything.

<b>The cruise begins</b>
We left Dover on time, I think. I donít remember much after this. After my mom and I walked all around the ship and took a tour of the spa, I just stared at the waters and left in time to dine in the main dining room, San Marco, where we had a quiet table for 4 by the window during the late seating, just as we had requested for my mother. It was her birthday trip, and she was to be spoiled!

<b>Day 1: At Sea</b>
We tried to order breakfast in our room, but I guess we were more tired than we thought. I woke up to accept our breakfast order at 6am, and then promptly went back to sleep. Only my uncle woke up to eat the breakfast we ordered. I must have slept until 1pm. It was so nice to be rocked to sleep. I walked around the top deck to soak in the fresh air. Today was formal night, so I had to break out my black dress, the only formal dress I took with me. One was enough, especially since it was a simple black dress. No need for huge trunks of clothes here! A 26&quot; suitcase and a garment bag held all my mom, dad and I needed for the 2 weeks.

<b>Day 2: Oslo, Norway</b> <i>7am - 2pm</i>
I tried to wean my old people off cruise excursions, but as my mom walks with the aid of a walker, we could not obviously cover as much ground on our own in our limited time in Oslo. Sigh. So, I broke down and purchased a tour being offered by a local. It was a nice tour, for $20 USD per person, the tour took us to see some city highlights (not old town, which disappointed me), allowed us to spend some time in Vigeland, and time to spend in 1 museum (Vikingship, Kon Tiki, or Fram). We chose Vikingship, as itís something my dad and I have always talked about going to see it, and we were not disappointed. It is a bit sparse, but to see the details in the carvings and the craftsmanship, it was superb. I was disappointed that we couldnít also see the Kon Tiki and the Fram. I definitely needed more time in Oslo, and I stand ready to return with an Oslo card!

<b>Day 3: At Sea</b>
I donít remember what I did here. I think I just bummed around the ship and enjoyed a bit of shopping on board. Attended some lectures on our ports of call, walked around the top deck, took advantage of our balcony. Had dinner. While my parents and uncle ate 3 square meals, I was still on my usual 1 Ĺ meal per day. Not that the food didnít appeal to me, I just donít eat when Iím not hungry. The food was excellent on board. I think today was also the day my mom convinced me to book shore excursions so that the traveling would be much easier for her. She did so by promising to come back with me to any port I found fascinating. She would come to regret this promise, as she is my preferred travel partner, and I loved all the cities. And, I have her promise on tape Oh, I also received as a gift from my parents a beautiful Italian made gold bracelet which I wear daily now...

<b>Day 4: Stockholm, Sweden</b> <i>9am - 5pm</i>
We spent the morning on our own, sans tour. This was perfect as we got to get completely lost in Gamla Stan (old town), discovered some quiet squares with beautiful sculptures, and then went back to the Royal Palace in time to see the Changing of the Guard. Those Guards are serious about their space. Make sure you listen to them even if theyíre squishing you impossibly against stone pillars. They will step on you and walk into you as they perform their guard duties, and itís not their fault youíre in their way! It was a fun ceremony to watch, and we wished we had a little more time on our own to explore, but we had to get back to the pier for our Ice Bar and Panoramic Stockholm tour. The Ice Bar, located in the Nordic Sea Hotel, was worth a visit for my mother and me, it wasnít so much my dad or my uncleís cup of tea. They dressed us up in ponchos with gloves as the bar is kept at a brisk -5 degrees celcius so the bar, made of ice from the Torne River in Northern Sweden. I found I didnít need the gloves and took many pictures. I had a fun drink made with Absolut vodka, while my mom had orange juice, both served in cups made of the same ice from the Torne River. Never did ask what happened to our cups. And of course, we couldnít take them out as souvenirs.

<b>Day 4: Helsinki, Finland</b> <i>9am - 5pm</i>
We took a cruise tour, went past horse farms in Sipoo, took a specially chartered steam train (by the name of Lili) to Porvoo, explored the town on foot for about an hour (a cute little town by a very scenic river, the old town is now a museum-like setting selling mostly to tourists), and had lunch at the beautiful Haikkon Kartano near Porvoo. Haikkon Kartano was a home frequented by the Russian Tsars, with a very picturesque garden in the back. On our return trip, we passed by some Helsinki landmarks such as the rail station, the Sausage building, stopped at beautifully acoustic Stone Church (where a choir from Tempe, AZ was finishing up a European tour) and the grand Lutheran Cathedral (which was amazingly sparse yet beautiful on the inside).

<b>Day 5: St. Petersburg, Russia (Day 1)</b> <i>arrived 7am</i>
Finally, weíre in Russia! We had booked these shore excursions about 2 months prior (done online) since we were so excited about our prospects. We were not to be too disappointed. To disembark the ship here, one must either have a shore excursion with the cruise ship who secures a blanket visa for those who joined an excursion <b>or<b> you have to have your own visa, secured through a private tour or your own devices. Then you must pass the nice band playing <i>Stars and Stripes<i> to the immigration booth where you must hand over a copy of your passport, your real passport and your shore excursion ticket/visa, whereupon the immigration ladies stamp your passport on the very last page very neatly yet quickly and hand you a boarding pass which you must return when you pass them again. Any loss of this boarding pass will incur a fine of $50, plus a lengthy explanation involving the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the loss.

We took a shore excursion that took us to Moscow, which we thought would be the highlight of our cruise. And it still was, in a way. The morning started off super early, as we needed to meet at 7:15am for our morning flight. We were given 2 St. Petersburg guides and 2 cruise line escorts. Traffic was horrendous getting from the pier to St. Petersburg airport, where we had to catch a 9am flight. And believe me when I say the entire group was rushed; very short bathroom breaks, and I think we cut the lines for security 3 times!

The flight was uneventful (which was great), and we got to Moscow a little before 11 am. Traveling to downtown Moscow took about 90 minutes as there was no traffic, and seemed faster as there were plenty of Pepsi billboards with David Beckhamís handsome face dotted throughout the thruway. Something was being said then about Stalinistís functional architecture, but with Becks showing up every 5 minutes, it was all blah blah blah to me.

We get to the area near Red Square and begin our jaunt into the famed Metro stations of Moscow. The subway stations in Moscow, while more beautiful than any ones Iíve yet seen, were not filled with the chandeliers that I was told to expect, so in that sense, I was a tad bit disappointed. My parents, who werenít told to expect anything of grandeur found the stations to be beautiful works of art. We lost one person in the train which annoyed our Moscow guide, but our St. Petersburg guide set off in search of the lost person, and succeeded in record time.

As we got out of the station to walk to Red Square, it started to rain, so the group was made to take the fastest walk theyíve ever needed to make. The entire group must have almost gotten lost about 10 times because the Moscow tour guide walked so fast, and there were a few turns to be made before we got to the Mall next to Red Square. We couldnít step into Red Square as it was closed. That resulted in us not being able to see St. Basilís Cathedral up close, which was what I really wanted to see. I think the Moscow tour guide did take the rest of the people the long way to go and see St. Basilís Cathedral, but I think she walked too fast and lost 95% of the group in the Mall as we tried to navigate the crowds and focus our eyes on our tour guide and not the sales around us. Thank goodness we were told to focus on a certain store across the Mall as a meeting point at our appointed time (1:20 pm), as that is where all of us headed once we realized we were all left to our own devices.

The Moscow tour guide then comes to fetch us at the appointed time and heads to our next destination, Hotel Metropole, but she walks too fast and nearly loses 50% of the group. She succeeds in losing 3 people this time. Our St. Petersburg guide sets out again in desperate search for the lost, but is unfortunately unsuccessful. The Moscow guide said the lost would have to find a way to catch up to us as the group needed to leave, which horrified me and those around me. Thankfully, the lost found their way to the hotel and all was well. We all looked after each other from then on, knowing our Moscow guide was not to be depended upon.

We boarded the bus and headed to the Kremlin, a beautiful sight to behold in my opinion, even though it looks like a fort. It was upon visiting the Kremlin that I realized the Kremlin wasnít just one building, but a city of buildings behind a wall. Very cool. We visited the Armory which held some Russian thrones and crowns, the coronation dress of Catherine the Great, the carriages of the Russian Tsars, amazing Faberge eggs and gifts from European Royals arranged by country. We then headed off to some Russian Orthodox Church, passed some other beautiful buildings and then made our way out of the Kremlin to find our bus. As we waited for our bus, my mom spied a guy selling these cool fold-up hats, which my mom got 2 of (for 5 US Dollars), so we could be twins. As we finished making our purchase, and my mom realized she wanted more, the bus arrived, and thus her shopping ambitions came to an end.

As our bus driver wanted to get us to our next stop, the restaurant for dinner, as fast as he could, he made a turn across quite a few lanes of traffic and suddenly stopped the bus. None of us knew what was going on, just wondered why we were blocking traffic still, and before we knew it, our driver had paid his ticket and was free to go, and this was explained away quite quickly.

We made it to dinner in one piece. Still donít know what the place was called, but we had some of the best beef stroganoff any of us had ever had. Our course started out with red wine, mineral water, and the traditional shot of vodka, which most of us sipped throughout our meal. It ended with a pretty good ice cream topped with strawberry sauce. Mmm...

We start heading back to the airport at this point, passing more Stalinist architecture this time (less talking done by the guide, so I concentrated more on the buildings, plus, no David Beckham posters to distract me this time), and we make it with plenty of time to catch our 10pm flight back to St. Petersburg.

We all had to make our way through Moscow airport, secure our own seats with the help of the nice ladies at check-in, and then wait for our airplane to be ready. I never did mention about the runways in Russia. All the airplanes are parked in neat rows in the middle of the airport, so one needs to board busses in order to get to your airplane. And everyone walks up the stairs of the airplane like in the movies Iíve seen from the 50's. Even though Iíve done this bit in Rome, Florence, and Madrid, it was still a strange experience. I leaned over to my mom and asked her if this was how she used to board planes, but she prodded me with her cane.

This plane was different from the plane we took from St. Petes to Moscow. There was a middle section, but no overhead compartments for the middle section to place their stuff (all stuff had to be stored at the rear of the plane, on your own. Plus, there was really no one to help you find your seat. One was supposed to sit in front of the seat that held your seat number, not sit so that you could see your seat number, which confused all of us tourists. One unique thing I found on both flights was the seats tip forward, so as you were getting off the plane, there were rows where one would not see a seat in the upright and locked position. A very strange sight for this frequent flier.

Our flight made it back to St. Petes around 12am, where it was still light, but not bright light. More a dusky light, aka a White Night. It was beautiful. As we waited around for our standard airport bus to take us to the terminal, someone next to me was caught smoking. Not a word was exchanged. The airport lady snatched the cigarette from the hapless guyís mouth, threw it on the floor, rubbed the fire out, and then pointed to a sign very meanly that said NO SMOKING - PLANE REFUELING (caps per the sign, not my own emphasis). Just as well, the airport shuttle came, and we all got on before anything else could happen.

The ride back to our ship was very serene. We got on our bus at 12:20am, and I just looked out the window. Itís been everything Iíve wanted to experience...the midnight sun. I was hoping weíd not get back to the ship until a little past 1am (the sun officially set at 1am), but with no traffic, we made it back right at 1, yet it was still the same dusky light out. We went through security, gave back our disembark card and got another stamp on our passport, and went back to the confines of the ship for sleep.

<b>St. Petersburg, Russia (Day 2)</b> <i>Setting sail at 6:00 pm</i>
No sleep for the wicked. We had to be awake at 5am so we could get ready and meet at 7:00 am. And we made it, even had a little breakfast for my uncle procured from the buffet upstairs. Today, we were only(!) going to see Catherineís Palace and Pushkin. Traffic was lighter today, and we made it to Catherineís Palace in what our tour guide said was record time.

Catherineís Palace, or Tsarskoye Selo, is a beautiful blue palace nearly destroyed during WWII by the Germans who had taken over the palace as a barrack. It was painstakingly restored over the years by the Communist party, and there are still parts of the palace still in stages of disrepair.

What can be said of this beautiful palace? It reminds one of Versailles, very grand, breathtaking, in Baroque style. Before oneís bougeois feet can step into the grand staircases, and thus the grand rooms of reknown, one needed to put on a pair of bright purple booties. The grand staircase is completely of marble (surprise), and there are 2 adorable cherub statues. The one to the east is waking up, the one to the west is sleeping, very allegorical. </i></i></b></b>
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Old Oct 6th, 2006, 06:20 PM
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Interesting that Fodors didn't make the corrections I made (it was supposed to have ended in Oslo, with more to come), and now what I say here will lose a little in the reporting.

I wanted to share that I discovered the arcades our first day on board. As many were shooting games, I would spend many days here shooting while waiting for my family to ready themselves for dinner. Even in my glamorous black dress and strappy heels. I'm sure it was quite a sight, had anyone discovered my now private cubby hole.

More to come as the remainder still needs to be typed up...
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Old Oct 7th, 2006, 08:17 AM
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Thanks for posting this.

We (family of 4) have been toying with the idea of going to the Scandinvavia/Baltics next year, and would like to bring my in-laws. But they are in late 70's/early 80's and travel at a much different pace than we do with our two kids. I'm thinking a Baltic cruise might be a good compromise. Honestly, I'm not crazy about cruising, but I think this would be a great option for us and would make wonderful memories for everyone. Can you tell me if there were many kids on the cruise? I'm sure there won't be as many as the Caribbean, but it would be nice if ours weren't the only 9 and 10 year olds!

Thanks!
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Old Oct 7th, 2006, 03:36 PM
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Hi Issy, your kids won't be the only kids on board, at least from my experience on that cruise. It could be different depending on month of travel and cruise line. Celebrity did have an awesome kids program from what little I did see. Didn't seem cheesy.

I would think that a cruise would be a good compromise for travelers w/different stamina. From what I observed of my other cruisers, while many took shore excursions, many also took to the streets on their own. Depends on your comfort level really.

I have to say, I was like you at one point, not too crazy about cruising. But give it a fair shot, you might change your mind just like I did!

I'd be happy to answer any other questions...
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Old Oct 7th, 2006, 06:05 PM
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I love your trip report. It sounds like you had a great time. Would older teens like a trip like this?17 and 20. Our 9 yr old fits in anywhere,she is the actress in the family. About the boys, is there an older kids schedule on the cruise?
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Old Oct 7th, 2006, 06:24 PM
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Saturday nights staying home reading trip reports is not pathetic. You are a good daughter. Can't wait to read more.
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Old Oct 8th, 2006, 02:59 PM
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Anamaria: I think at those ages, 17 &amp; 20, they would most likely be on their own schedule. It really does depend on what they like. While at sea on my ship, there were arcades, basketball courts, tennis courts, ping-pong tables, virtual golf, swimming pools and a gym we could use to pass the time, along with lectures on the next port of call. When in port, there's so much to do, there shouldn't be a worry. I did notice that a lot of parents took their children on shore excursions, and choosing the right shore excursion was paramount to a family having a great time. For Celebrity, they did have recommended ages and fitness levels for certain shore excursions, which are given to you ahead of time.

In any case, I would recommend going over to cruisecritic.com for more info on kids as I'm not really a kid anymore, and I didn't travel with kids. Most there will tell you there is plenty for kids of all ages to take part in.

Thanks Job816. I've yet to finish my report...I'm obviously not done yet with our 2nd day in St. Petes. There was something funky with my Fodor's posting Friday night and it didn't make a single change I made! BAH!
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