Dr. Stephen Scheinberg
Number of Cruises: 6
Cruise Line: Princess
Ship: Regal Princess
Sailing Date: June 29th, 2003
Our flight on Air Canada, Montreal to Copenhagen was long and uneventful. It was a bit of a drag to be routed through Toronto but there was no direct connection from Montreal and the price was considerably better than on alternative carriers. We took the reasonably priced Princess transfer from the airport and spent a couple of hours over coffee in a hotel while the ship was readied for boarding. The registration process at the harbor was the quickest we had ever experienced and we were on board within minutes after leaving the bus.
We were on our fourth Princess cruise but all of the others had been on the smaller, older but comfortable Royal. We also have taken two cruises with Holland America including one on their Rotterdam VI. In other words, we do not have an extensive basis for comparison. We took an outside cabin with “obstructed view”. This meant that we had a tender in front of us which partially blocked our view. We do not spend time looking out the window but do like the light and the possibility of checking the weather. The cabin size was comfortable, excellent drawer space and adequate room for hanging clothes. We were surprised that the nice queen size bed had no room underneath for suitcase storage. This meant we had to pile our cases up in a corner, which was a small inconvenience. The bathroom was a bit cramped and there was only a shower, no tub.
The public areas of the ship are very nice but we missed the large library and card rooms of the Royal. We found it difficult to find a place to just sit and read in a quiet area. The Princess theatre, for films, was comfortable. We saw “About Schmidt” and since we both have just retired there was some identification with the plight of Jack Nicholson’s character, especially when he turned off the lights in his office for the last time. Regal’s show lounge is big and comfortable with good sight lines to view a thrust stage. Entertainment was the usual mix of comedians, acrobats, jugglers and the canned Princess shows performed by a good cast. The highlight for us was singer-pianist Phillipa Healy who gave one wonderful show in the theatre but we were also able to catch her in one of the lounges on several occasions. She is a lovely young lady who deserves a splendid career. Her soprano voice is not that of a lounge singer and seems better suited to the musical stage. In fact she did have a lead in Les Mis on the West End.
Regal’s casino which didn’t interest us is at the top, on the Sun Deck which also has the best inside viewing area. This means that if you want to have a drink and watch the scenery you will be annoyed by the ringing of the slot machines. Too bad.
The main and serious problem of the Regal is its plumbing. We were fortunate (although our toilet exhaust did not function one night) but heard too many stories of bathroom backup and too many of the public washrooms were often flooded and closed. These public restrooms were also not cleaned often enough and that was very surprising.
We took second seating in the dining room and opted for a table for eight. We found the food well prepared and too plentiful. I always compare to hotel dining rooms rather than small restaurants and Princess does better than the hotels. I wonder if they couldn’t do a little more seasoning however. One night several of us ordered escargots and garlic flavor was conspicuously absent. I realize that the kitchens are preparing for the bland taste buds of most Americans but surely they could place an asterisk next to better seasoned dishes.
On the Lido deck there was a Pizzeria which we did not try and the usual buffet or cafeteria style dining. We found the breakfast buffet somewhat more limited than on the Royal and we found the post luncheon buffet did not have a salad bar. When we arrive back on the ship after a late tour, we often like to have a good salad so as not to compromise our dinner appetites. Regal provided mainly sandwiches and desserts.
I want to add a word about our impression of fellow passengers. We found this to be the most multicultural cruise we had been on. My guess is that post Sept. 11 Princess is making a greater marketing effort outside of North America. We heard Spanish all around the ship and there were also many Asians, Israelis, and Russians on board. There were some Spanish language tours scheduled and often bilingual announcements on the public address system.
Our first full day was spent at sea as we wended our way to Stockholm or more precisely Nymnashamn which is about an hour out of the city by train or bus. I gather that Princess lost her spot in Stockholm after canceling out last year. This means that with only one day to see the city, one has to spend two hours traveling. One might think that Princess would lay on a well priced shuttle but instead they added a “tour” at $56 U.S. per person, an unpardonable rip off. We took our luck with the train which was about a 15 minute walk from the ship and we enjoyed it but not all of the passengers are physically up to the walking or are intrepid enough. It was a dull drizzly day in Stockholm and we opted for the canal tour of the city. We had been in Stockholm before but had not seen it from that vantage point. Following the tour we went into the old city, Gamla Stan and spent a short time rubbing elbows with our fellow tourists.
Our next stop was Helsinki. We took a city bus into town and did our own walking tour of the port area and downtown. We bought all day bus tickets at the port but should have bought them on the first bus but were misinformed by tourism people at the dock. We took a bus out to the stone church, a church built into a mountain and we heard a little piano concert there. We would have liked to have heard their organ but our timing was wrong. We then caught another city bus to an outdoor folk village located on an island and it was a lovely summer day to do this kind of excursion. We found our way back to the ship without any misadventures.
Next we came to St. Petersburg. We had booked three excursions in advance. The advantage of the excursions is that you do not have to purchase a Russian visa. Since we booked the cruise late in the day, we would have paid more than $100 each for the visas and were uncertain that we could locate our own guide. In any case, we lucked out and had wonderful guides on our tours but not all passengers were so fortunate with their guides. On our first morning we did a walking tour of the city. The bus took us in, past beautiful old churches and other older buildings, as well as too many neo-Stalinist apartment blocs. I know that the city had been cleaned up for the anniversary and we were seeing it at it’s best but it still looked rather shabby. Our first venture was into the subway where our two guides shepherded 26 of us at rush hour to see their beautiful metro. The depth of the system is impressive and that is due to the fact that the city was built on marsh lands. No one suffering vertigo should attempt to go down on the escalators. Marble stations with friezes and iron work are impressive but not beautiful. The trains themselves are not bad but far from Montreal standards. They still do not allow photos to be taken in the metro which is I suppose a trace of leftover Soviet era paranoia. We exited near an indoor food market where the guides gave us 30 minutes to look around but 15 would have been enough to show us the variety now available in Russian markets. Then we had coffee and sweets at a restaurant near the city center which was pleasant but not informative except to indicate that those who had money could find good eating places. We walked for about three or four blocks down the famous Nevsky Prospekt, the main street of the city. The tour ended near a flea market where Russian dolls, enameled boxes and other trinkets could be purchased.
After a quick lunch on board we departed on a tour bound for Peter’s palace, the Peterhof. I am not a great palace enthusiast but I did like the gardens with many fountains, a cascade, and some statuary. Once in the palace we had to put on cloth slippers (shmates) over our shoes. Two young people helped me pull a couple on over my size 13 gunboats. I felt I should be paid for helping in the cleaning of the floors with those rags. I did not rage “off with their heads” as in Versailles but still opulence always bothers me when I think what it took to provide the czars with all this finery. There is no one stylistic imprint on this building as the different rulers added baroque, rococo, etc., as they saw fit, to the palace. We were told that the interior of Catherine’s palace is more impressive but we couldn’t fit it into our plans.
The next day we had a splendid tour of the Hermitage. Our guide Anna was terrific. Of course we could not see all two million plus pieces held by the museum but she did a great job of showing us highlights of their collections. I especially enjoyed their impressionist collection which is especially strong on Matisse. It would be nice to spend two or three days in this wonderful museum but even our 2.5 hours gave us a marvelous introduction. Of course the museum which includes the Winter Palace is on the river Neva from which the Aurora fired the opening shells of the Russian revolution at the palace.
Talinn, Estonia was for me the most pleasant surprise of the cruise. After a short walk from the harbor we found a beautifully preserved old medieval town. Not the least attractive feature was the many young Estonian girls who spoke excellent English and were there to sell postcards and help tourists. We rambled through churches, antique stores, a market, etc. Sandra also found an apothecary that sold a lactaid product. She has looked, without success, for such a product in Spain, Argentina and elsewhere but found it here in the area that many of our ancestors came from. The pharmacist told us that a significant percentage of Estonians are lactose intolerant.
Gdansk, Poland was a bit of an adventure. We gave five dollars to a taxi driver to take us to the railway station in Gydinia, the port for Gdansk. We changed twenty dollars into Polish currency at the railway station and purchased tickets at about $2.50 for the round trip. A short walk took us to the rebuilt old town. The trouble is that it was all rebuilt after WWII thus you have a kind of Disneyland construction although an impression of authenticity is given by the use of much of the old brick. Still we had a nice day until the rains came and then we sought shelter in a café. I had a Polish sausage, about 14 inches long, with rye bread and hot mustard, together with a beer for about $2. I expect that when the Euro comes in the prices will not be as good for us. I should add that Sandra went into a shop and found a nice cotton pants suit which she bought at a very good price. We took the train back to Gydinia and paid the taxi with our Polish currency, still leaving change from our $20. This was rather cheaper than the tours offered by Princess.
After Gdansk we had another day at sea on our way up to Oslo. This was our third trip to Oslo and so we had already seen much of it but the Princess schedule allowed for only half a day there. I think this is poor planning and probably frustrated a good many passengers. We landed there on a Tuesday which is the only day that the National Gallery is closed but I suppose most of the Regal’s passengers did not have that as a priority, unfortunately we did. We went instead to the Museum of the WWII Resistance and I thought it was a bit propagandistic in its intent and not too enlightening.
We returned to Copenhagen on the 9th and went to our hotel “The Mermaid” which supposedly has three stars but does not deserve it. Our friends were first in a small, dingy room with a small double bed which had a poor mattress. We were in a larger room which could have used refurbishing and it had two very narrow single beds. Breakfasts were very good with nice offerings of cereals, soft boiled eggs, cold meats, herring, breads, Danishes (of course) and strong coffee. The best thing about the hotel was its location near Tivoli, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, etc. We enjoyed the city, its galleries, palaces, walking streets, a Beethoven concert at Tivoli and shopping. The best meal at a good price we had was at the Ankara, a Turkish buffet next door to the synagogue.
It was an interesting and enjoyable cruise. We recommend it, with the reservations noted above. We hear that the Regal may be taken out of the Princess line and perhaps they will offer another ship on the Baltic service or do a thorough overhaul of her plumbing. We did not want to take Holland America’s Noordam which does the Baltic run because we have not heard good things about her, nor did we want to pay big money for the pricier alternatives. Hopefully Princess will also do some better port scheduling in the future.