Number of Cruises: n/a
Cruise Line: Celebrity
Sailing Date: August 22th, 2006
Itinerary: Baltics and Russia
I was the group escort and seminar facilitator for a group of 37 travel professionals traveling to the Baltic on a 12-night cruise.
Getting to the Ship:
The cruise departed Amsterdam, the Netherlands, so I flew into Amsterdam two days early just to be sure that I (and my luggage) would arrive in plenty of time to make the departure time. As it turned out, I was glad that I had done so because good old American Airlines once again lost my luggage. It seems every time I fly American through Dallas/Ft. Worth and end up connecting to one of their "partner" airlines (BA in this case) that they can't seem to get the luggage there. Once I flew American connecting to LACSA to Costa Rica. I went 4 days on a cruise before my luggage showed. American to Iberia, 2 days. American to Varig, 1 day and so it goes. I waited around the Amsterdam airport for the next flight (3 hours) and still no bags, however, the baggage agent did find them in London and promised to have them delivered to my hotel. So I made my way to the Renaissance Amsterdam Hotel, checked in and took a short nap after not sleeping on the overnight flight and took a walk looking for a place to have dinner. My luggage showed up in my room when I returned.
As a side note, my Bose head set broke on my last flight to Europe in July and when I contacted Bose they replaced the headset with a brand new one that included a new case and fittings. The sound the new headset generated was even better than the last set. If you fly quite a but, these head sets are well worth the investment. They block out unwanted noise and deliver high quality sound no matter if you are using a CD player, Ipod, your computer or any other device. The head sets even come with adapters for airline head sets so that you will never need to buy another head set. No, I do not work for Bose, but when something is an excellent product with excellent service I want to recommend them.
After a good night's sleep, I spent the day taking pictures for PortReviews.com's Amsterdam page and then had dinner before turning in for the evening. After exploring Amsterdam the entire day, I came away with a whole new respect and attitude for Amsterdam. While it hasn't been one of my most favorite cities, I discovered so many wonderful areas that were so picturesque and beautiful that I vowed to spend more time to really get to know the city. I slept great and after breakfast made my way to the cruise terminal to check in for the cruise and to see the new Century.
Century Docked in Oslo
I had sailed the Century on this same itinerary last year (2005) and was looking forward to seeing the changes that had been made to her. She had just come out of dry dock after a 55-million dollar makeover. The very second you enter the ship's new atrium area the improvements are obvious. Many of the public areas have been redesigned and completely rebuilt, all of the cabins have been upgraded with quality bedding, new carpet, in-cabin wi-fi access and many new features like flat screen TVs, new bathroom fixtures and showers, just to mention a few. The ship is gorgeous and very enjoyable to cruise.
The Bottom Line
I loved this particular cruise experience. Everything about it (for me) was wonderful. The ports give one a great overview of the Baltic region and the ship itself is a great experience. I would highly recommend the Century for those looking for a port intensive cruise of the Baltic on a smaller ship. If you haven't cruised the Baltic and only have two weeks, this is your cruise!
I was in an inside cabin on deck 10 all the way forward. Choosing an inside cabin on this run makes lots of sense. The sun stays out quite late and rises quite early. One can sleep soundly in an inside cabin without the affects of the sun bothering them. I had a queen sized bed with a night stand on either side. The new bedding is wonderful with a high thread count and pillows that were extremely comfortable. The telephone (with an excellent voice messaging) system was on the port nightstand and both had reading lights. A master on/off switch for the lights was located on the wall directly under the window. On the side of the cabin in front of the bedding was a large desk housing two sets of drawers with three drawers each. Note that there is only one 110 volt outlet, so you will definitely want to bring an extension cord with multiple outlets (there is also an European 100 volt outlet that you can use an adapter to convert to US 110 volt standards). Above the desktop (plenty big enough for my notebook computer, printer, speakers and cds) was a large mirror with excellent lighting. Behind the mirror is the cabin's safe with a small cubby on either side for storage and three large shelves for additional storage reside above the safe and cubbies. There is a great deal of storage in this area.
Cabin 1002 Interior
The other side of the cabin houses a small circular table. A refrigerator stocked with sodas, water, champagne and liquors is available, but be aware you are going to pay as you use the items. On the shelf above the refrigerator is the cabin's flat screen television. The television offers several channels of entertainment including CNN. More storage resides above the entertainment area. There is quite an ample amount of closet space with two separate closets to use. The most forward contains a full length of shelves with three drawers on the bottom while the right side has a 1/2 length hanging rack for shirts or whatever, and three more drawers below the hanging rack. The other closet had a full hanging rack for dresses or longer items with a large amount of storage on top of the rack.
Cabin 1002 Bathroom
The bathroom was quite large enough to be comfortable. The shower was quite large compared to other ship's showers and the hot/cold water control allowed for precise temperature control of the shower. The new shower curtain arrangement allows for much more room while taking a shower than the old arrangement did. The new sink is large and the counter top quite large. There are two shelves for additional storage and the entire area is mirrored. A hair dryer adorns the wall over the toilet. On the hallway side of the bathroom are several shelves that house the various towels for use in the bathroom. One word of caution however, there is about an eight to ten inch step to enter the bathroom from the hallway that could be a problem for those with any mobility restrictions. There is also a six to eight inch step into the shower. I would strongly suggest that you bring a night light that can be plugged into the 110 volt shaver outlet in the hair dryer. In this way, one could make a safe passage to the restroom during the night without having to turn on the light to negotiate the necessary steps thereby affecting the other person in the cabin.
A Tour of the Ship:
The Century's Jogging Track and Sunning Area
Deck 14, The Sunrise Deck
The best way to investigate the Century is to simply explore her deck by deck. So, if you will join me we will go to the forward stairwell and make our way to deck 12, go outside and climb the stairs to deck 14 where we find one of the Century's sunning areas and its jogging track. Aft on deck 14 (we need to return to deck 12 and then climb back up to deck 14) we find the Century's Basketball Court.
The Basketball Court
The basketball court is available for everyone's use. However, I never saw it used the entire time I went by it. From here we will go back down to deck 12 (there is no deck 13) and start our pictorial tour.
Deck 12, The Sport Deck
The Hemisphere Lounge
All the way forward on deck twelve is the Hemisphere Lounge.
The Hemisphere Lounge Dance Floor
This is the Century's disco and is a large venue that also doubles as the observation lounge.
The Hemisphere Lounge Viewing Area
It offers wonderful vistas when entering or departing a port and is also a great place to get away from everyone on days at sea to relax, read or simply watch the ocean go by. There is a large bar with bar stools by the dance floor and numerous tables and cubbies to relax in. Exiting the Hemisphere Lounge, we come upon Xtreme.
On the port side of the Hemisphere Lounge is the teenager's venue known as Xtreme. This offers teenagers both a meeting venue and also a video game room. This was a huge hit with the children of our cruise.
The Mast Bar
The Mast Bar overlooks the pool area and offers an intimate place to meet for drinks while enjoying the sunshine and the pool area.
The Century's Pool Area and Sun Deck
Moving aft outside on deck 12 we enter the sun bathing area above the pool compound on deck 11. While the official jogging track is forward on deck 14, many people used the deck surrounding the pool area on deck 12 for walking and jogging, as well. The Sky Bar that existed before the renovation has been turned into some additional suites and is now cabins rather than an additional dining venue.
Deck 11, The Resort Deck
The Aft Deck Behind Islands Cafe
By exiting through the aft doors, we enter the aft fantail and outdoor dining area for the Islands Cafe. I took breakfast here on a number of occasions and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is well protected from the elements and a pleasure to enjoy.
The Islands Cafe Bar
One could always order their favorite beverage from one of the many waiters that worked from the Islands Cafe Bar located on the aft fantail.
The Islands Cafe Buffet
The Islands Cafe is the main buffet area and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast finds 3 separate complete hot and cold buffet lines serving typical breakfast fare. There is also a continental buffet line for those not wanting hot items.
Island Cafe Pasta Station
An omelet station and waffle station are favorites with many people, as were the pasta stations where made-to-order pasta would be prepared upon request.
One of the Island Cafe's Drink Stations
There were four drink stations that were open 24 hours a day. In the morning they served breakfast juices and then punch, lemonade, passion fruit juice and such for the balance of the day. Coffee was always available. While the water dispenser was always available, many people had a difficult time using it as it required one to hold the glass in a particular position. I suspect that this purchase was one the sounded like it would work better than it actually did.
The Island Cafe Salad Bar
Lunch in the Island Cafe found 3 complete buffet lines, a grill line offering hamburgers, hot dogs and such and a reasonably good salad bar that I enjoyed quite a bit..
The Islands Cafe Sushi Bar
Then there was the sushi that was served from 6pm. While the selection was somewhat limited, the sushi was excellent.
Casual Dining in Islands
Dinner usually found sushi available (excellent, by the way) and also the ship's alternative dining restaurant. The port side of the Islands Cafe was turned into a complete restaurant. There was a suggested additional gratuity of $2 to dine there and reservations were necessary. We dined here on night and had an enjoyable meal. The menu is similar to the Grand Restaurant's and the service similar, however is gives one the impression that this is where the waiters train their skills before going to the Grand Restaurant.
The Outside Grill
Right in front of the Islands Cafe is the Outside Grill. This venue serves hamburgers, hot dogs and daily chef's specials that changed each day of the cruise. The quality was excellent. The Outside Grill was always open from noon into the early evening and provided something to munch on if other dining venues were closed. Hint: Order your cheese burger with melted cheese and they will take considerable care to make your sandwich warm and toasty.
The Pool Bar
Moving forward from the Islands Cafe we enter the pool area and then the pool bar area. There is entertainment by the pool, but it was never crowded because of the fact that the weather was quite cold most of the cruise. However, I did manage some Jacuzzi time, but it was brisk when I got out.
The AquaSpa Entrance
This was my only disappointment with the changes made in the rebuilding of Century, however, I understand why they were made. The thalassotherapy pool complex has been removed and generally replaced by more treatment rooms and Persian Gardens. This makes the Aquaspa much larger and spacious, but I really missed the T-pool.
The AquaSpa's Beauty Salon
The first thing you pass as you make your way to the spa check-in is the beauty salon. Man, was this place busy! Every time I passed it there seemed to people waiting to get into a chair.
The Entrance to the Fitness Center
The Fitness Center now has its own entrance is is much larger than the old one.
The Century's Aerobics Room
Adjacent to the AquaSpa's check-in counter is the Fitness Center. It consists of a rather large aerobics workout area,
The Free Weight Station in the Fitness Center
a small free weight area,
The Weight Machines
some weight machines, however note that there is no biceps machine. Other than that, there is enough to accomplish a maintenance workout.
The Cardiovascular Machines
and some cardio equipment.
The AquaSpa Cafe
On the port side of the AquaSpa is a specialty dining venue that is open for breakfast and lunch. Specializing in healthy dining, the AquaSpa Cafe was a hit with many.
The AquaSpa Cafe Fresh Fruit Selection
I loved the fresh fruit selection and always stopped by to pick up a piece of fresh fruit to enjoy. Fresh fruits of all kinds were offered and enjoyed.
Deck 10, The Penthouse Deck,
Deck 10 is all passenger suites.
Deck 9, The Vista Deck
Deck 9 is all passenger suites.
Deck 8, The Panorama Deck
Deck 8 is all passenger suites..
Deck 7, The Entertainment Deck
The Celebrity Theater
Starting all the way forward, the Celebrity Theater is the main entertainment venue on the Century. This is the location of the production shows and headline acts. Many of the shows for late seating passengers are scheduled before dinner making the evening seem longer and more friendly.
Moving aft from the Celebrity Theater we pass the intimate Michael's Club. This is a wonderful place to relax, enjoy the piano music of Michael Rhodes, a very talented pianist and singer.
The Ice Martini Bar
The Ice Martini Bar replaced the Sports Bar that resided here before the Century's make over. I loved this bar simply because "chill" music was the sounds of choice. The lighting changed every few seconds and the service and drinks were excellent. Our group took the center section over each night prior to dinner for a social hour and it worked out great. (Note the round sofa in the center and chairs facing it)
OnLine@Celebrity Internet Cafe
Celebrity's Internet Cafe is operated by an independent company that offers computer classes onboard during the cruise that are very popular. While the access speed on the computers is sslloooowwww, the wi-fi access in the cabins operates at an acceptable speed. There are also bulk packages available that allow for the base per minute price of $.75 to be lowered down to $.50 per minute with a pre-purchase of 500 minutes. This is a major improvement over the Internet services that were available on my last cruise and while not up to par with Royal Caribbean's Internet packages and speed, it is acceptable if you bring your own wi-fi enabled computer.
More Computers with Internet Access on Deck 7
Outside of the main computer room there are 4 more computers that are available 24 hours a day for Internet access. Note that these computers are quite slow.
The Boulevard Shops
Moving aft still from OnLine@Celebrity we enter The Boulevard shopping area. There are a surprising number of stores on The Boulevard and they always had saleson for one product category or another.
The Boulevard's Liquor Store
The logo shop had an incredible array of products to purchase, as did the liquor store.
Another Store on The Boulevard
The Fragrance Store was also very popular as were the general stores, jewelry and clothing stores.
A View of the Grand Foyer (The Boulevard is on the Top Deck)
Leaving The Boulevard, we pass the top level of the Grand Foyer, which is very attractive and the central heartbeat of the Century.
The new Grand Foyer is beautiful a great place to meet people before debarking the ship
The Fortunes Casino Entrance
Moving aft we enter the Fortunes Casino. I am not a gambler, but man, was this casino packed.
The Gaming Tables and Slots
The slots were always busy and there seemed to be a great amount of table play, as well. I guess there were some winners in the group.
The Crystal Lounge
All the way aft is the Crystal Room. We had our arrival cocktail party in the Crystal room. This is one of the main entertainment venues on the Century and was very popular during the 50s and 60s party.
The Bar in the Crystal Lounge
There is a central bar area within the Crystal Lounge that is an excellent place to meet oeple for conversations.
Deck 6, The Promenade Deck
Century's Grand Restaurant
Moving down the aft stairwell we arrive at the entrance to the Grand Restaurant. This is a very elegant restaurant that we thoroughly enjoyed every evening.
A Grand Restaurant Table Setting
Our Assistant Maitre d', waiter and assistant waiter were all excellent. The wine stewardess was better than excellent. She remembered everyone's wine and had it waiting as soon as you sat down. During the evening, she would always know when a fill up was necessary and there was never a moment that folks were looking around for her attention. The dining was excellent from my perspective. An excellent menu was offered each evening and the presentation was wonderful. All in all, I would give the dining experience two thumbs up. We had arranged for doing round table seating where we could dine at any of the three tables that we had blocked for the group and the service at all of the tables was excellent.
Moving forward from the Grand Restaurant one enters the Rendez-Vous Square, a wonderful bar and entertainment/dance venue. Rendez-Vous Square offered many nooks and crannies in its layout making it a great place to meet people.
Rendez-Vous Square Dance Floor
The band that played in the Rendez-Vous Square was very popular and tended to be the place to be before dinner.
The Century Art Gallery
Leaving Rendez-Vous Square we go through the art gallery. All of the paintings displayed here are also on the auction block during the art auction that takes place several times throughout the cruise.
The Photo Gallery
On the port side of the Century forward of the Rendez-Vous Square is where the photo gallery is located. I have to give the photo staff credit as they were not at all invasive and very respectful of everyone's privacy.
The Cova Cafe
We made the Cova Cafe our meeting spot before leaving the ship in ports. Everyone else decided to crowd the stairwells waiting for the ship to be cleared while we enjoyed a coffee, latte or cappuccino. The specialty coffee drinks are inexpensive and they were also well prepared, however there were no "to go" cups so that you could take a latte with you as you can on Royal Caribbean. There were more shops on deck 6 of the Boulevard.
The Century's Library
The library was very popular on this cruise and was heavily used.
Just forward of the library was the ship's cinema and meeting facility. I never attended a movie here, but many made it a point to see every one.
More Internet Access Forward of the Library on Deck 6
Across and forward from the Cinema, there are more computers available for Internet use. All in all, there must have been 30 or 40 computers available for Internet usage between Celebrity@Sea and this area.
The Aft Card Room
On the port side of the ship, one finds the Card Rooms. There is the aft card room,
The Center Card Room
The center card room,
The Forward Card Room
and the forward card room. We held our seminars in the forward card room and it came off great. The card rooms are great for cards and also private meetings.
The Celebrity Theater
Forward past the forward elevator banks is the entrance to the Celebrity Theater. This is the main showroom on the Century and offers great sight lines and acoustics.
The Century's Promenade Deck
On the exterior of deck 6 one finds the ship's promenade. This is a great place to lounge and read a book. Blankets were available for those that wanted to snuggle up to watch the ocean go by.
Deck 5, The Plaza Deck
The Century's Guest Registration and Tour Desks
Moving towards the center stairwell and going down to deck 5, we are presented with the Century's main registration desk, tour desk and bank. The Registration Desk staff were very friendly and helpful,
Since many of the countries on this itinerary use their own currency, the bank plays an important role for those going out on their own. The process of exchanging money on this cruise was painless and very efficient.
New to the Century is Murano Restaurant. Murano is fashioned after the alternative fine dining restaurants on the Millennium class ships, but I found it to be different. I have had mixed experiences on the Millennium class ships fine dining alternative restaurants because it seemed that the dining experience was more about the presentation than the meal itself. On one occasion, the "performance" went sour and it turned into a painful dining experience for everyone at our table. Our waiter was simply more into his performance than our dining pleasure. Enough said.
Our dining experience in Murano was a solid 10. There is simply no way it could have been improved upon. Everything about the experience was memorable. Look, if you are into fine dining, don't walk, run to make reservations in Murano the second you board the ship. It is that excellent! One couple in or group dined there 5 different times and would have dined there every night were they able to get reservations. There is a $30 per person service fee to dine there, but they could charge $60 in my mind and it would still be a bargain.
The Grand Restaurant
All the way aft on deck 5 is the lower floor of the Grand Restaurant. The Grand Restaurant offers a wonderful dining experience, however some in our group found the fish entrees a little off the mark. I thoroughly enjoyed the fish, but then I love all kinds of fish and found the new tastes very much to my liking. I guess it depends on your aptitude for experiencing new tastes and textures.
Wednesday, August 2nd, 2006; Amsterdam, The Netherlands; Casual
Once I was aboard the Century, I made my way to my cabin (#1002). I was located on the starboard side, all the way forward in an inside cabin and was quite happy with my accommodations. I had a rather large group of travel professionals with me so I spent the afternoon making sure that everything was under control. I met with the group coordinator (Ngauhira) and reconfirmed all of the group's details. I am glad that I had, as there were some minor changes that needed to be made before delivering the "Welcome Aboard" flyers. Once the flyers were delivered, I made my way to the Islands Cafe for a late lunch. Celebrity does a wonderful job in their buffets and always offers a fish entree and vegetable side dish. Today it was Ling Cod and fresh peas and carrots. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
I returned to my cabin and spent the afternoon working, preparing for the up coming seminars and cruise. I was ready for our 7:30pm cocktail party and made my way to the Crystal Room, met with Ngauhira (the group coordinator on the Century) and began greeting folks as they arrived for the cocktail party. I was really impressed with the quality of the agents in the group and recognized some of them from past cruises. We stayed at the cocktail reception until it was time to make our way to the dining room and find our tables. The Grand Restaurant is absolutely wonderful. We had a total of 6 tables for our group and they were quite close together. The assistant Maitre d' greeted us, as did our waiters and assistant waiters. Everyone was in an excellent mood and we began the first of our wonderful dinners aboard the Century. We had so much fun that first evening that we ended up closing the restaurant. I slept great.
Thursday, August 3rd, 2006; Day at Sea;
I was up early, took breakfast in the Islands Cafe and made my way to the most forward card room for the first of our seminars. I always love the first seminar, as everyone gets to know one another and it is really the beginning of a great experience. Today's seminar was no different. After our coffee break we got down to business and never looked back. I was exhausted from the seminar. I then took lunch in Islands Cafe and enjoyed a wonderful dining experience on the aft fantail dining area in the sunshine. I didn't realize it then, but I kind of set the trend for the cruise. We enjoyed such excellent weather that dining in the fresh air of the aft fantail became my favorite thing to do for breakfast and lunch.
I was up and dressing for dinner with the Captain with plenty of time to spare and felt wonderful My tux came back from the cleaners in record time HINT: I take my tux onto the ship without getting it cleaned from the last cruise and get it cleaned using the "same day" express service on the ship I am on. In this way, it always looks great for the formal night. I met some folks from our group for cocktails in the Martini Bar and then made our way down to the Rendez-Vous Square to meet Mahala (the Century's wonderful Captain's Club Hostess) and the other members of our dining party. After a social cocktail period, we made our way to the Captain's table and a very enjoyable dining experience. I was unsure why I was invited and wrote it off as simply a random "Elite" experience. The other members of the dinner group were staying in the top suites. We were done dining with enough time to join our group for dessert and coffee. The evening was so pleasant that I decided to have a nightcap in Michael's Club before turning in.
One of the Hundreds of Structures in the Norwegian Folk Museum
4th, 2006; Oslo, Norway;
I was up early, enjoyed breakfast in the Islands Cafe and went back to my cabin to get ready to meet some from our group in the Cova Cafe to get off the ship and explore Oslo's open air museum and other sights that I had not yet visited in Oslo. After leaving the ship and walking to the ferry terminal (such as it is) we boarded the ferry that traverses the harbor to the other side. It is funny, everyone was heading to the Viking Ship Museum, which I thought was completely underwhelming and we were the only ones that followed the sign to the Norwegian Folk Museum in Bygday. This open air museum turned out to be an excellent experience as it features the cultural history of Norway through the construction of hundreds of old Norwegian structures that were moved to this huge site. Included in the museum is a large Norwegian farmyard complete with animals and cultivation of typical gardens. There were many people dressed in period garb roaming around the museum making it all that more realistic. The Norwegian Folk Museum is much more interesting than the Viking Ship Museum and is reason enough to ferry over to the Bygday Peninsula. After exploring the museum we took the ferry back into downtown Oslo and visited some of the more traditional sights that we had missed on prior visits. The government buildings, palace and parks are worth seeing, but should be on a lower priority than some of the other sights. We made our way to my favorite restaurant in Oslo, Vin Og on the waterfront to enjoy a glass of wine and some artichoke hearts. This is a great place to sit and watch Oslo walk by in a non-stop stream of interesting people.
The sail out of Oslo is not to be missed. It takes about two hours to hit the open sea and the beauty that surrounds the fjord passage is often overlooked and under valued by most passengers. I find the scenery even more interesting and beautiful than Alaska's Inside Passage or New Zealand's fjords. Make sure to make the time to enjoy the sail out of Oslo. Our group met in the Martini Bar for a social hour before continuing into dinner and a wonderful time with our waiters and an excellent meal.
Entrance to Christiania
Saturday, August 5th, 2006;
Copenhagen, Denmark; Casual
Wanting to do something a little different on this visit to Copenhagen, we set out to explore the free zone known as Christiania. Christiania was created as part of the hippie movement back in the 1960s and has changed little since then. It is recognized as a "free zone" within Copenhagen and operates as an open commune complete with its own political process. The first thing one notices when entering Christiania is how familiar the place looks. Growing up in Southern California during the 1960s, it reminded me of the very heartbeat of the era.
"Pusher Street" in Christiania
The main drag in Christiania is called "Pusher Street" (yes, drugs are legal here) and the businesses look like 1960 era makeshift dwellings complete with drug art on the walls. The residents are locked in a 1960's time warp and the overall experience is mind bending. While Christiania only resides within 100 acres or so, it feels much larger. There are several blocks containing curio shops of all descriptions. There are many open air restaurants and several bars along the main street. If you lived through the 1960s, make it a point to visit Christiania.
We departed Christiania and made our way back toward Nyhaven to located a restaurant that had been highly recommended to us. We had a very enjoyable lunch before making our way back to the ship in time for its 5pm departure. Our group had already come together and everyone was enjoying each other's company. Our cocktail hour before dinner was being attended by both dinner seatings and was very enjoyable. Dinner was another outstanding experience.
Sunday, August 6th, 2006; Day
at Sea; Informal
I awoke to a stellar day and planned to make good use of the sunshine to sit by the pool and relax. So far, the weather on this cruise had been hot and sunny. This was in direct contrast to the forecasts of cloudy and rainy skies that everyone on the cruise had been told to expect. After a quick breakfast in the Islands Cafe, I made my way to the pool area and set up my lounge chair for the day. While the day was wonderful, it went by all too quickly. Before I knew it, it was time to start getting ready for our cocktail party and then on to Murano for a dining experience in the elegant alternative restaurant on the Century. We excused ourselves from the cocktail party and made our way to Murano for what was to be one of the finest dining experiences I had ever had. We were greeted and sat at a table for two and the experience began. I am not sure that I could put my finger on the specific reason that the meal was so enjoyable, but I suspect that it was the patient care of our waiter, the superb presentation of each course, the preparation of my favorite dishes and just the total ambiance of the evening. I simply loved it and would recommend Murano without reservation to anyone. For those that have read my reviews of Millennium class ship's alternative restaurants know that I am not all that easy to please when it comes to elegant dining. Murano has it right.
Monday, August 7th, 2006;
Stockholm, Sweden; Formal
We were up early, took the ship's shuttle into the center of Stockholm and were focused on seeing the Vasa Museum as we had heard that it was well worth the effort to see it. We walked past the palace and towards the far end of the island that the palace resides upon and then boarded the ferry over to the island where the Vasa Museum is located. We arrived right at Tivoli Gardens and then made our way across to the Vasa Museum. We could see the ship's masts sticking out of the top of the museum, but we were greeted by what seemed like thousands of tour groups standing in line to enter the museum. Not being one to relish the idea of long lines, I decided to visit the Vasa Museum on my next visit to Stockholm. We had seen signs for the Skansen, an open air museum that houses over 100 structures from Sweden and since we had enjoyed the open air museum in Olso so much, thought we would give it a try. It always amazes me how wonderful, but overlooked some attractions are. Skansen is well worth a visit and is very interesting indeed. We just scratched the surface, but enjoyed every minute of it. I would make it a point to go back on a future visit to Stockholm. We stopped for a mediocre lunch at one of the sidewalk cafes on the way back to the Tivoli area and then boarded the ferry back to the island that the palace resides upon. We just made the last shuttle back to the ship.
After dressing for dinner, we met our group in the Martini Bar and then most of our group attended the repeaters (Captain's Club) party before going to dinner. I was surprised at how few repeaters there were on this particular cruise, but enjoyed the ambiance of the party. Formal dinners are always my favorite. The ladies look so great and are so much fun to enjoy. We were doing round-robin dining and we sat at a very fun table for this meal. We laughed, told stories and generally had a wonderful time. We lingered until we were just about the last people to leave the restaurant.
Tuesday, August 8th, 2006;
Helsinki, Finland; Casual
I awoke to another hot and sunny day and since our stay in Helsinki was short, I decided to simply stay on the ship to get some work done. The day had a familiar pattern. Sit in the sun, take a Jacuzzi and then sit in the sun some more. I had been working on a new book and having chunks of creative time with no interruptions made this day very productive for me. The balance of the passengers started returning to the ship and my solitude was lost so I eventually made my way to my cabin and continued to work. Around 6 pm I visited the Sushi bar that was set up in the aft section of the Islands Cafe and enjoyed some fresh sushi. I love sushi so much that it is difficult for me to stop enjoying it. So I tore myself away from the sushi and returned to my cabin until it was time to get ready for our cocktail party. Everyone loved their experience in Helsinki and the evening was charged with the excitement of visiting St. Petersburg, Russia. Since I was departing early in the morning, I slept great.
Catherine's Summer Palace in Pushkin (Just One of Many Rooms)
Wednesday, August 9th, 2006;
St. Petersburg, Russia; Casual
We had arranged a local tour to Puskin followed by a walking tour of St. Petersburg and had obtained Russian visas in order to strike out on our own. This proved to be an excellent decision. I was up quite early and after breakfast, met with our small group and made our way through immigration to meet our driver and guide for the day. After the "hellos" we departed the cruise terminal and made our way into St. Petersburg's downtown area. We drove by many of the sights on our way to Pushkin and ended up stopping at a hotel so that we could get some rubles from the ATM located in the lobby. A memorial celebrating the workers and soldiers of WWII resided in the square in the center of the street and caught our eye. We made our way over to it and it was a very moving experience. The Germans occupied the area just outside of St. Petersburg for over 4 years and the devastation and death that occurred was appalling to me. After a sobering visit, we made our way back to our car and on to Pushkin. I had visited Catherine's Palace before but was surprised at the amount of construction that was taking place. We toured the palace and its grounds and then also toured the gardens associated with the palace. I am not sure how many hundreds of acres make up the palace gardens, but it is immense. After Catherine's Palace we visited a nearby palace known as Pavlov's palace. While not as outrageous as Catherine's Palace, it reflected the shocking lifestyle the rich led while the vast majority of the population of St. Petersburg suffered in agony.
We stopped for a beer at one of the local pubs in Pushkin and this proved to be one of the most interesting experiences for me. The prices were dirt cheap and I am quite sure that no one in this pub had ever seen a tourist, much less an American before. It was great to experience the local culture. We had a lengthy discussion with our guide, a 56 year-old lady who had lived through the crumbling of the Soviet Union and openly preferred the old way as it had been. It was quite an interesting discourse. We stopped for lunch in St. Petersburg at a restaurant that our guide suggested and I was somewhat disappointed. Since our guide needed to leave us for the day, our driver stayed with us. After leaving the restaurant, we received a telephone call from Stan with Denrus wanting to hook-up for the afternoon. We met him by St. Isaac's Cathedral and decided to take a long walk through the back streets of St. Petersburg. We ended up in one of Stan's favorite hang-outs, a large bar that was full of locals winding their day down. After a beer or two we moved on the get something to eat at an English pub that Stan knew of. We were extremely tired after getting up so early and after a bunch of conversation decided to call it a night and made our way back to the ship. I slept great.
Thursday, August 10th, 2006;
St. Petersburg, Russia; Casual
I slept late and after breakfast, we decided to go back into St. Petersburg on our own. After clearing immigration, we negotiated for a taxi to take us to Nevsky Prospkt, St. Petersburg's busiest commercial street. Nevsky Prospekt dates back to the 1700s and its architecture is simply stunning. The shopping isn't bad either. We walked the length of Nevsky Prospekt and then down one of the canal streets to the Church of the Spilled Blood and the flea market that is located there. In one underpass that traversed Nevsky Prospekt knock-off software was being sold for roughly $8.00US per DVD. I was shocked at how available the software was and that entire libraries were available so inexpensively and openly. There were also movies and music available at unbelievable rates. We settled into a sidewalk cafe for a couple of hours just to enjoy the sunshine, a bottle of wine and watch the citizens of St. Petersburg go about their busy schedules. It was the most fun I have ever had in Russia and I would do it again in a heartbeat. We found that most people spoke at least some English, as it is required when they go to high school. After a lingering afternoon, we regretfully started our trek back to the ship. We had arranged for the gentleman that brought us to Nevsky Prospekt to pick us up on the return trip tot he port, but I really didn't expect him to show. I was amazed to see him waiting for us at the appointed meeting place. We were back on the ship with plenty of time to spare. We enjoyed sharing St. Petersburg stories at the cocktail hour and at dinner. Everyone had a wonderful time in St. Petersburg and we had postcard perfect weather to boot.
Friday, August 11th, 2006;
Tallinn, Estonia; Informal
While we had an extremely short visit to Tallinn, I decided to walk into town and see what I could see. I was surprised at the commercial development that has taken place in Tallinn over the past couple of years. There are more shops, street vendors and generally more activity than ever before. Also, the prices are creeping up across the board. While Tallinn is still a good place to shop, it is losing the edge it once had. Tallinn is a wonderful village that everyone enjoys. Its pedestrian streets meander every which way and every turn offers another wonderful photo opportunity. Back on the ship, I enjoyed a late lunch in the Islands Cafe and then spent some time by the pool in the afternoon sunshine. It was amazing how perfect the weather had been during this entire cruise.
Saturday, August 12th, 2006;
Day at Sea; Formal
I awoke to another wonderful day and committed myself to enjoying the sunshine once again. After a quick breakfast, I found a lounge chair and settled in for the day. Since this was the last formal night of the cruise, our group got together for cocktails and then made our way into the restaurant for an outstanding lobster dinner. By now everyone was enjoying each other's company and the meal was representative of why traveling in a group is so wonderful. We all lingered over coffee and dessert not wanting the evening to end. A small group of us then made our way to Michael's Club for a nightcap. Since I was doing the last seminar in the morning, I called it a night before everyone else did.
Sunday, August 13th, 2006; Day
at Sea; Casual
I was up early for the seminar (which went quite well) and then spent the afternoon packing and preparing to return home. I had rescheduled my flight on BA through London's Gatwick Airport because of the terrorist activity that had taken place in England and was spending an evening in Amsterdam before catching Swiss Air connecting through Zurich. I was glad that I made the change early after the incident because BA had still not recovered and most of the flights from Amsterdam had been cancelled. We had our "business card exchange" and then made our way into dinner for one last meal before debarking in the morning.
Monday, August 14th, 2006;
Amsterdam, the Netherlands
I woke up to a rainy morning. The first rain of the cruise and I thought about how lucky we had been to have had such wonderful weather the entire 12 days. However, today was indeed rainy. I had agreed to share a taxi to the airport and met the small group to debark the ship. After entering the main cruise terminal, retrieving our luggage and making our way back to the main terminal to stand in the taxi queue in the rain, I could see that the taxi situation was in complete chaos. It was an unfortunate ending to the cruise, as the taxi queue deteriorated into everyone scrambling for any available taxi. It was cold, windy and rainy and the port authority didn't seem to care that people were pushing and shoving for the few available taxis. I left the area, crossed the street and hailed a taxi heading in the other direction and was glad to leave the chaos behind me. I arrived at my hotel, the Sheraton Amsterdam Airport Hotel and Conference Center and checked into my room. I would highly recommend as the prime airport hotel in Amsterdam. It is connected right to the terminal and offers great rooms, excellent service and everything one could look for in an airport location. Once I settled into my room I decided to make my way to Swiss Air to reconfirm my reservations and familiarize myself with their gates. After finding Swiss Air's terminal and gates I approached a gate agent and inquired if I could check in for tomorrow's flight. He was very gracious and offered to help me. After a bit he advised me that I would need to see the ticketing agent at their check-in counter. After much waiting, I was finally able to speak to her and she advised me that I needed a paper ticket for the flight. When I presented my e-ticket, she told me to see BA. I found BA who advised me to see American Airlines (the issuing airline) American Airlines was closed for the day so I went back to the hotel and called them. "Swiss Air should take the e-ticket" I was told. I went back to Swiss Air who again advised that I needed a paper ticket and that BA could issue one against the e-ticket.
Now folks, understand that this was right at the height of the terrorist situation in England and BA had cancelled virtually all of their flights from Amsterdam. Stranded passengers were aggressive and irritated. The employees were stressed beyond limits and had been working 16-hour days since the crisis emerged and were understandably grumpy. Getting BA to reissue a paper ticket seemed miniscule compare to the daunting tasks they faced. I clearly needed an edge to get it to happen. I purchased 3 cafe lattes and patiently waited for an opening to present them to the three agents working the BA desk. They were grateful, but suspicious. I waited for about 30-minutes and finally one of the ladies took pity on me and said she would help. She reissued a paper ticket for my e-ticket and I was on my way back to Swiss Air to check in for the following morning's flight. All in all, the entire process took me about 5 hours, but I was glad to know that I would be going home the next day. Unfortunately, there were a good number of folks that were not as lucky. I lingered around the airport until dinner time and then had a small meal before returning to my hotel and a good night's sleep. My wake-up call came and I was on my way home without incident (with the exception that American Airlines once again lost my luggage, this time in DFW)
So here is are suggestions if you are flying Internationally in the near future and want to avoid the typical hassles associated with such travel.
1. Fly directly to your destination city on a non-stop flight from the U.S.. This may cost a bit more initially for the airfare, but connecting in Europe is risky business at this point.
2. Fly to whatever city you need to fly from to Europe on a separate ticket and plan to arrive a day early, claim your luggage and recheck it onto the non-stop flight to your destination. For whatever reason interlined luggage seems to have a lower priority than luggage originating on a flight.
3. Book your airline tickets through a local travel agent even if they charge you for the service. Look, you never know when you are going to get stuck for whatever reason and having someone to call that knows your itinerary and overall travel plans that can pick up the pieces is more important now than ever before. Just ask some of the poor folks that waited to rebook themselves off of BA during the crisis.
4. Don't sweat it. Enjoy the process of travel and when things fall apart just realize there is a story waiting to be told when it is all over...and there will be an end to it.
Have a great cruise!