Philip M. Haggerty
Number of Cruises: 9
Cruise Line: Princess
Ship: Regal Princess
Sailing Date: 2003
My name is Philip M. Haggerty and my wife is Edith Goble. We are both retired
and this would be our ninth cruise since December 1999. We first sailed on Carnival’s Elation to the Mexican Riviera; then on the now defunct Commodore Line’s Enchanted Isle through the Caribbean, followed by Celebrity’s Galaxy, also to the Caribbean. The next cruise was the more adventurous Cape Horn transit from Santiago to Buenos Aires on Celebrity’s Mercury. We then did an Alaskan cruise-tour with Princess on the Princess Sun. We next went back to the Caribbean on Norwegian Sun and followed this with a Panama Canal transit aboard Celebrity‘s Infinity. This spring we sailed from Barcelona to Venice on board Millennium, another Celebrity ship. With 79 sailing days on 5 different cruise lines, we feel we have become fairly well educated on the world of cruising, and hope we can share some thoughts and information of value. We have reviews on this site of every cruise from the Galaxy Caribbean cruise in October of 2001, although you may have to open “additional reviews” to read our older efforts.
OUR CHOICE OF THIS CRUISE
More and more cruise lines are adding land components to their cruises. They realize that their customers, having traveled some distance, want to take advantage of being in a foreign location by spending some time in these locales to which they might not return, either prior to or following the cruise itself. Princess, as well as Holland American, has long done land tours attached to their Alaska cruises, which have proved very popular. We very much enjoyed the Alaska cruise/tour we did with Princess in May of 2002. We stayed over in Venice for one extra day following our Celebrity Mediterranean cruise this past May, and thought that we should have done one additional day there, although we had spent a week in a time share south of Barcelona prior to the cruise and loved it. Of course these cruise line add-ons, as additional profit sources, are not inexpensive. However, as we found out; they can be very convenient and worth while, especially if the land tour involves internal travel beyond the debarkation or embarkation ports.
On this Baltic cruise Princess offered two pre-cruise tours, one to England and France and one to middle Europe. We have spent time in England, and the France component did not appeal to us. On the other hand, neither of us had been to any of the central Europe cities on the land tour and they have always been on my list of places to see. Also, although we could never have known it in advance, the horrendous heat wave conditions which struck England and France in the first weeks of August, made our choice of middle Europe the right pick.
The land tour itinerary was:
August 2 - Arrive in Budapest - 2 night stay
August 4 - tour bus to Vienna - 2 night stay
August 6 - tour bus to Prague - 2 night stay
August 8 - fly to Copenhagen - Board Regal Princess
The cruise itinerary was: August
8 - sail at 7:00 P.M.
August 9 - at sea
August 10 - Nynashamn/Stockholm
August 11 - Helsinki
August 12 - St. Petersburg
August 13 - St. Petersburg
August 14 - Tallinn, Estonia
August 15 - Gydnia/Gdansk, Poland
August 16 - at sea
August 17 - Oslo
August 18 - Disembark at Copenhagen
PRE-EMBARKATION PREPARATION - AIR TRAVEL - INSURANCE
There are always choices presented in settling on air travel connected with cruises. In many cases the embarkation and debarkation cities are different, so round trip tickets are not an option. When we took our South American cruise, we were able to do a round trip on American Airlines from Phoenix to Dallas to Santiago and return; using Lineas Argentinas to make a short “commuter” hop across the Andes from Buenos Aires to connect in Santiago. This worked out well, both in terms of price and convenience. On our recent Mediterranean cruise Celebrity arranged flights to Barcelona and returning from Venice resulted in an overnight hotel stay in Los Angeles on our return, after a flight stopping in Paris and Atlanta before arriving at LAX, a very stressful and not particularly cheap flight. I don’t blame Celebrity too much because their original flight offered from Venice was cancelled by Delta shortly before our trip. For this cruise’s air travel I was able to find an agent/consolidator who booked us on Lufthansa direct to Frankfurt and then on to Budapest, with an SAS/Lufthansa flight from Copenhagen back to Frankfurt for the direct return flight to Phoenix. The price was less than Princess’ offer, and could not be matched for convenience. We enjoy Lufthansa, believing it to be the best long distance carrier available for most destinations, although I have never been able to use their website for booking.
We do buy insurance, but do it through a separate vendor, in our case a company called CSA. By doing it this way we are covered for the air carrier and any before or after extensions as well as excursions which are not cruise line provided. We do not purchase the full amount of the fares since that ups the premiums considerably, but buy enough to be comfortable if we would have to cancel past the refund date(s).
One of our fellow land tour passengers had about $1500.00 worth of just purchased gifts and goodies stolen from her hotel room in Prague. Homeowners insurance would probably cover that, but would result in the policy being rated up at time for policy renewal, while that does not happen with separate travel insurance.
OTHER PREPARATIONS- CLOTHING
We had brought a “normal” amount of luggage on our Mediterranean cruise, but after hauling four heavy pieces, not to mention back packs and hand luggage from time share to hotel to ship in Spain and then ship to hotel to airport in Venice; Edith insisted in cutting back this time. Then we read the instructions from Princess relating to the land tour. We were advised that the flight from Prague to Copenhagen was subject to a 20 kilo (44 pound) weight limit, and this was not a limit per bag, but a limit per passenger! Anything above that would be subject to an overweight penalty of up to 10 Euros per kilo. Princess hired a tour company, Kuoni Travel, to run its land portion, and I e-mailed them to find out if the limit was enforced. Their reply was that they could not promise that it would not be enforced, although there was inconsistency in following the limit. The carry on limit is 5 kilos (11 pounds) per person. The result was a very firm determination to reduce the clothing carried, and to eliminate any heavy objects such as our favorite hair dryer. I decided that for the first time, I would not bring my tux for formal nights on board, bringing only a dark blue blazer and grey flannel slacks. Edith cut back on her long dresses also. We also knew that Princess, unlike Celebrity, has passenger laundries on their ships. The other concern in the choice of clothing arose from the fact that we had no way to predict the weather over a fairly extensive portion of Europe. We opted to dress for cool rather than for warm conditions, with a heavy cashmere wool jacket and lots of long sleeve shirts on my part and similar clothing for Edith. I did not bring any shorts, for example and only two short sleeve shirts as last minute choices. As things turned out, we did pretty well, although we did not anticipate that the heat experienced on the land tour would place the drain on clothing that it did. I certainly would have carried two more short sleeve shirts and a couple of pair of shorts had I anticipated the hig
h temperature. The basic concept worked out well though; we did not need as much clothing as we were accustomed to bringing in the past, and we will probably maintain that standard in the future.
LAND EXCURSION PREPARATIONS
Like all cruise lines, Princess offers a wealth of information about the land excursions it offers. Anyone traveling to Russia should know that if you are not part of a formal tour, you will require a Russian visa, and the cost is around $125.00 per person. Canadians should check on visa requirements in Poland and Estonia also. As might be expected, given the overnight stay in St. Petersburg, the offerings for land tours there were extremely broad and provided a pretty wide range of choices. We ordered three in advance in St. Petersburg; the Hermitage Museum (which cannot be adequately covered in less than several days - but you have to see it anyway), a ballet which, while not the Kirov or Bolshoi, was still a very professional group, and three palaces outside the city. For Helsinki we chose to pre-order a trip to Jean Sibelius’ home, followed by a short music recital. In Gdansk we ordered a Malbork Castle tour and then stopped in Gdansk for shopping. Princess does not charge you for these tours until you take them, or at least until the deadline to back out has passed. You should be aware that if you sign up for some tours which require special arrangements such as planes, helicopters, or long distance van trips; that the cancellation date may be some time before the tour date, and should be closely checked. This is true of any cruise.
We did not see much other than standard city tours in Stockholm, Tallinn or Oslo, and did not order or take any formal tours. Unlike many of our previous cruises, I did not try to locate any land tours on the net. There are some issues associated with this do-it- yourself tour planning. You have to be sure that the locally offered tour will be able to be at the pier or close by. You must be sure it will get back on time. For example, we were in Gdansk on a day that was both a political (Solidarity) and religious day of celebration. Traffic through Sopot and Gydnia was terrible, and we got back as they were taking the banners down off the gangway. But since we were a sponsored tour, they would have waited for us. If you are on your own and late - you might not get on board. If you pre-pay a privately booked tour in advance, you might lose your money if the provider does not show up. It has never happened to us, and you can do some checking in advance, but I have heard of it occurring. I found that in Alaska the tourist season is so short that there is no way you can beat the cruise offered prices. Having said that, we have found some great, and some pretty good off ship excursions or other events on our own and on the net. For example, on this trip I bought tickets to a concert in Budapest, which was delightful. We also attended the opera in Copenhagen, and while the seats were not great and there was a lot of spoken dialogue in Danish, it still was a very well sung presentation in a great old opera hall.
Also, most European cities tend to have geographically small centers of interest, often starting at the railroad station, and relatively easy to reach on foot. They usually provide good tourist offices with maps and other information, normally without charge. And we like the idea of being on our own, able to stop for coffee when we wish, and not herded with the pack. On this trip I brought my good camera, a Nikon N-80 SLR; and took a lot of pictures while wandering around.
I did try some research on restaurants in Prague, Vienna and Budapest, as well as Copenhagen. The problem is that you need a really good city map if you find recommendations in books like Frommer’s, Fodor’s, The Lonely Planet, Rick Stevens
Guides etc. We had a good map of Copenhagen from our prior visit, but did not think it worth while to invest in maps of Budapest, Prague and Vienna. Since we were staying in well known hotels in these cities, however, I went to their various websites and brought up location maps so we would get some sense of where we were. I did come up with some names and actually followed up on a couple of them.
The format for this review will be to describe the land tour on a city-by city basis, followed by a general Regal Princess description, and opening comments on the start of the sea portion. This will be followed by a port and land tour recounting of our six cruise stops prior to returning to Copenhagen. I will spend some time on Copenhagen, even though it was not part of the cruise, because many people will want to spend time in this charming city either before or after a cruise. Then I will close with overall comments and suggestions.
THE LAND TOUR - OVERVIEW
We arrived in Budapest on Saturday afternoon, August 2. We were transported from the airport by bus and met with our tour guides at the Marriott Hotel for a briefing on the process. We stayed at the Marriott for two nights and went by tour bus to Vienna on Monday, the 4th, where we stayed at the Vienna Inter-Continental hotel for two more nights. We left for Prague on Wednesday, August 6 where we stayed at the Prague Renaissance Hotel for two nights. On August 8 we flew via SAS to Copenhagen.
There were about 60 of us on this tour, and we were divided into two groups with a bus, driver and guide assigned to each group. The tour provided a number of places to visit, breakfast every day, some other meals, and luggage transfer. We were responsible for some meals at our own expense, and had the “opportunity” to buy some special event tickets and trips, for cash, if we so chose. The luggage system was interesting. We were told to divide our bags so that there was one bag which would not be provided to us on the tour, but delivered to us at the Prague Airport just before boarding. The other bag would contain what we needed as we traveled. Our hand luggage, in our case backpacks, would also be brought along, and transported with the selected tour bag by the tour company. In other words, we were able to get on and off the buses at the hotels without handling luggage, and the pieces would be delivered to our rooms. This luggage handling and transfer aspect is extremely convenient, and makes the traveling much easier.
The arrival in Budapest was the low point of the land tour. One of my bags did not make the transfer at Frankfurt, and two other tour partners, one a grandmother with her granddaughter, and the other a family of four, likewise had no luggage at all. The driver of our bus did not speak English, but did point out a desk handling the baggage delay paperwork for a considerable number of other passengers with the same problem. The driver was pressured by one of the other passengers in our group to go to the hotel before we could complete our claim process, and we had no idea if anyone would return for us. Our lost baggage group was walking out of the terminal when we saw a lady with a Princess sign who spoke English and was able to assure us that a bus was on the way. Our bus finally arrived and we made the 20 minute trip to the hotel to meet our guides. Since people were arriving from various locations in the U.S., flights were coming in at intervals, and the guides were accustomed to separate groups. We were provided with our room keys without check-in, as was the practice at all stops. Check-out was required only if you ran up a hotel bill for your own purchases. Our guides were Mary from California, now living in Munich, and Constance from Vienna. Both have been in the business for a number of years and were extremely efficient and knowledgeable. We heard that Lufthansa had consciously decided not to load one of the luggage containers on our flight because of weight considerations, and would ship it on a later flight that day. My bag was delivered at about 7:00 that evening.
There was a general briefing of all the tour people at about 6:30, and we were on our own for the rest of the evening. The Hotel is a first class Marriott, right on the Danube, and our room had a good view of that lovely river. I had been suffering from a slight stomach ache since leaving Phoenix, despite the pretty good airplane fare provided by Lufthansa, so we skipped dinner. I had booked tickets for a concert that night. It was held in a once private residence large enough to be called the Danube Palace, on a street not far from the hotel. Inside this building, but certainly not occupying all of it, was a small concert hall, with an orchestra seating about 200-250 people and a balcony holding another 100 more. The music was provided by a chamber orchestra of about 24 musicians, accompanied for two selections by a soprano. Our seats were in the front row of the balcony, the best in the house, and cost 8900 florins each, which came to $85.11 total for both tickets on my credit card bill. The concert featured a number of short pieces by Bartok, Liszt and Kodaly of course, Strauss and Hayden among others. The whole affair lasted about one hour and forty-five minutes, with intermission, and was a most delightful way to start our trip and relax from 24 hours of travel. We strolled back to our hotel via a pedestrian walkway along the Danube, where there were many pedestrians and people dining at riverside cafes. We decided that we liked Budapest, despite the airport problem.
I slept well although Edith had mild jet lag. We had a typical, and very good European buffet breakfast with the great benefit of being able to eat at an outside terrace overlooking the river. At 9:00 we boarded our buses for a 3½ hour city tour, accompanied by a local guide in addition to Constance (who would be on our assigned bus for the balance of the tour). We stopped three times for photo ops, which abound. The city is very attractive, with beautiful views on the Buda (west) side of the Danube, which is the hilly side. The imperial period of Budapest came during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which ran from the early 1800s until 1914. Most of the grand architecture dates from that period, and it is spectacular. The only problem was the fact that it was very hot. I saw a street temperature sign reading 37C which is 98.6 Fahrenheit. We would love to spend a week or so in Budapest in the fall or spring.
One of the couples with us on our bus were Boris and Debbie from Fountain Hills, Arizona, practically neighbors.
We skipped lunch and later had a pastry and coffee at the Gerbaud coffee house and cafe, a well known and recommended spot in a nearby square. It was very reasonably priced, as was the ice cream sold by many local vendors. The rack rate posted in our hotel, however was 226€ plus tax of 15€ for a total of close to $300.00 at the then current exchange rate. After coffee we strolled around the pedestrian only streets in the shopping center, although, as it was Sunday, only about half the stores were open. We had a decent tour-provided dinner on the Buda side and then took a separately purchased boat trip up and down the Danube at night. It was very delightful seeing the buildings on both sides lit up, and observing many river cruise boats, both traveling and docked. These vessels are very long and shallow, and spend from one to two weeks on the rivers. They can be quite nice in the public areas, although we could see into the cabins and noted that they were smaller than on normal cruise ships.
The next day we left our luggage outside our room to be picked up while we had breakfast, and then boarded our bus with our permanent driver, Harry from Vienna.
Vienna is about 130 miles (as the crow flies) west and slightly north from Budapest. There was a short delay at the Austrian border, but only because a couple of our party members applied for VAT credits on purchases made in Hungary. The lines for the truckers were horrendous, our driver saying that it often took more than one full day for a truck to cross. Hungary has voted to join the EU, easing the border crossings considerably, but it will take a while to implement the system and even longer to get the Euro in place.
The countryside began very close to Budapest, and remained the same almost all the way to Vienna, rolling hills with farms. We noted that at several places there were special bridges across the autobahn which were covered with greenery and had no roads at either end. These are special bridges for deer to cross the road without danger to themselves or posing a hazard to high speed drivers. There are probably parts of this country which could beneficially consider this tactic.
Since Constance is Viennese she was able to provide an in depth commentary as we drove through the city to a very old restaurant for an excellent lunch. We then had a local guide board the bus as we went to see the Schoenbrunn Palace. This was a “summer” palace which was outside Vienna at the time of its original construction and use, primarily by Empress Maria Theresa of the Holy Roman Empire during her lengthy reign from 1736 to 1780. It was a very impressive building and grounds. We then arrived at the Vienna Intercontinental, a quite nice four star hotel, centrally located. We had a couple of hours to clean up and relax and then went to a concert show at a local palace. This took place in a large, extremely ornate late baroque room with a small orchestra dressed in period (1890) costimes, and with 2 singers and 2 dancers providing additional entertainment. The selections were very light Strauss (Johann - not Richard) and some Mozart pieces. This was an extra for which we paid separately, The audience of about 1000 people were exclusively from tour groups, and the whole thing was somewhat overpriced, touristy and a little too cute, although pleasant. We had not had dinner so we went to the hotel bar for a light snack. There we joined a delightful tour couple from Bakersfield, Fred and Beverly, who had not gone to the concert and were having a hamburger, which Beverly said was the best she ever tasted. The next day we went to downtown Vienna, but most of the stores did not open until 10:00 and we had to return to the hotel for our Danube trip to Melk at 11:30. We took our bus to a pretty riverside town called Durnstein about 30 minutes upstream (west) from Vienna, where we boarded our river boat. The major problem with the trip was the heat. The covered seating portion of the boat had only one window which opened, and that did not provide much of a breeze. The rear deck and top deck were both in the hot sun. I ended up standing by the gangway entrance which provided some breeze and gave me some
photo opportunities, but without any seating. Some of our group ordered a lunch, which was a mistake I think since it arrived only shortly before our complimentary pastry and drink. All in all, an uncomfortable trip. The monastary at Melk however is certainly worth a visit. Its construction is “high baroque” from the middle 1700s, and the chapel is one of the most strikingly ornate churches I have ever seen. The buildings and grounds are all very beautiful, and it is an operating monastary with about 30 monks in residence. We returned to Vienna by bus. European buses do not have very strong air conditioning, but every little bit helped.
The restaurant in downtown Vienna which we had scouted out on our morning walk was closed because of “kitchen problems”. We walked around for a while, seeing mostly Italian restaurants and cafes with limited menus. We finally decided on the Sacher Hotel. The main dining room was booked (one of our tour couples had booked a table from their home in Chicago before they left) so we ate in the “casual” restaurant. This hotel was founded by the son of the man who invented the famous Sacher Torte in 1832. The main meal was quite nice, and the torte delicious, and not as sweet as some served in the US.
The drive from Vienna to Prague, by direct route, is about 180 miles, mostly north and slightly west. One of our group had packed his passport in his luggage which was on a separate mini-van preceding us and did not mention it until we were stopping at the Czech Republic border. There was no way he was going to get through the border, but Constance was able to contact the mini van on her cell phone and bring it back to the border. She and the man got off to wait while the bus went on with the rest of us. We detoured to visit a town in the Czech Republic called Telc, pronounced “Telch.” Shortly before we arrived, Constance with the passenger and his passport caught up with us. Telc is a very delightful, “restored” town, somewhat quaint, but pretty. We had a good lunch and then went, first by narrow country roads, and then an autobahn, to Prague, arriving about 5:00.
In Prague I called an attorney friend from Phoenix whose firm has had a branch in Prague since 1990. Claudia had been asked to go there a couple of years ago to manage an international arbitration on behalf of the Czech Republic involving a Japanese bank and a major default. We met Claudia at our hotel, the Prague Renaissance and went by taxi to a restaurant across the Moldau River. Our dinner party consisted of Claudia, her husband, a young lady who worked for the Phillips Electronic Company, and two friends of Claudia from Boston who were also travelling through Prague. The restaurant is called the Palfy Palace and was very delightful as well as reasonably priced. We learned a lot about Prague, and it appears to be a delightful place to live. This was one of the most pleasant visits of our trip.
That night I discovered that I had left my tie carrier with three of my favorite Jerry Garcia ties in Vienna. The next morning I called the Intercontinental and persuaded housekeeping to go to our room and look. The ties were there, and the hotel promised to send them to Phoenix. They arrived here about three days after we returned home.
That day in Prague we went on a city tour. Our local guide was cheerful and very knowledgeable. When I mentioned to him that I had a live recording of “Ma Vlast” or “My Country” by their national composer Bedrich Smetana, played by the Czech Philharmonic in 1990 and conducted by Czech conductor Rafael Kubelik when he returned home after 41 years of self imposed exile to protest the Communist regime; he was delighted and told me he had attended that concert. The recording, on a Supraphon disc, No. 11 1208-2, is immensely moving and powerful. The tour was very good and the weather cooler, although apparently warm by local standards. We then went on a river cruise on the Moldau, or more properly, the Vltava. We had the boat to ourselves and were provided a very decent buffet. It was not a long trip, but pleasant. After relaxing for the rest of the afternoon we went out for our farewell dinner. The restaurant was very attractive with a high ceiling and full length windows looking out on the street, which provided a marvelous feeling of space, light and elegance. The food was quite good also. As in our previous dinner evening meal in Budapest, we were offered a choice of two entrees, meat or fish. By the time we finished dinner, it was bedtime.
THE CRUISE BEGINS
Since our flight did not leave until 12:20, we had a leisurely breakfast. Our “cruise” bags had been returned to us the night before, and we did some repacking. We said goodbye, with tips, to our drivers and guides - the rate of tipping having been suggested in the material sent by Princess. Our luggage was weighed in at the check-in counter, and we had no problems as we were under the limits. There were some who evidently did not read the advice, or chose to ignore it, and two couples paid more than $300.00 each in overweight charges.
The flight to Copenhagen is about an hour and fifteen minutes and, unlike Budapest, Princess had its arrival act at the airport very much together. It is a busy, cosmopolitan and quite modern airport, but we got out and on the bus and to the pier in less than an hour. Check in at the dockside was as fast as any we have ever had, we simply walked up and processed our minimum of paperwork immediately thanks to the pre-embarkation documents we had submitted by e-mail. Despite what the Berlitz “Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships 2003” says, Princess did not provide an escort to our cabin. We had a standard veranda cabin, No. B256, on Deck 8. The veranda was small, with two plastic chairs and a small table. It was solid on one side and partially walled on the other. There was plenty of drawer space. This was the first ship we have been on in which our luggage did not fit under the bed, but there was enough closet shelf space for our comparatively small bags. We had one arm chair, a desk with side chair and a small table with a very small TV. The bathroom was “standard small” as on most ships, with very adequate shelf space for cosmetics and similar stuff, and a shower. The walls were rather plain with two paintings. The lighting was adequate, but the controls a little confusing. The hair dryer was at the desk, not in the bathroom. There is a safe, which we routinely use for my camera, extra cash and our passports. The Regal Princess is older than virtually every other ship we have been on, the ancient Enchanted Isle being the only exception. It holds about 1580 passengers, and we were told that it was filled to capacity for what was the final Baltic trip of this season.
As usual, we went on a self-guided tour to orient ourselves as soon as we dropped off our back packs and other hand luggage. My practice is to take along one of the full size brochures, or at least that portion which has the ship’s deck plans. Princess provided a small “Pocket Guide”, but it was not in the cabin, only at the purser’s office. Our first stop is usually to find the library, which was a small place on Deck 8, nowhere nearly as large or as well stocked as the library on Sun Princess. We next located the main dining room, which occupies only one level on Deck 7, a deck which it shares with three bars, the photo shop, two stores and the main show room. Deck 6 has cabins, the movie theater and the other 2 stores. The Plaza Deck 5 has only a patisserie and what Princess still calls the Purser’s Office, rather than Guest Relations like most lines. The atrium connects the two levels of shops and the Deck 5 services. Deck 8 has a large Stage Door bar and dance floor, the Library as noted, a card room and the entrance to the balcony level of the show room. Decks 9, 10 and 11 are virtually all cabins. Deck 12, the Lido Deck, has the buffet, the main pools and deck chair area, and a pizzeria, with the forward part being taken up with the ship’s officers’ quarters and the bridge. There is no Deck 13, as usual, and Deck 14 has the youth center aft, a promenade track and the Dome Casino forward, which has a dance floor and a large seating area with windows facing forward. There is no open deck area with a forward view, a major defect in our estimation. The gym, oddly enough, is midships on deck 2, without any outside view. It really is a pretty poor effort, and this showed in the lack of use and the cancellation of several free classes for failure to have even four attendees. On every other large ship we have been on the gyms were on upper decks, usually with views forward, and had fairly high attendance, especially on sea days. Our Deck, 10, has a large laundry with 10 washers, 10 dryers and four i
roning boards with irons. The only charge is for soap. There is another laundry on Deck 5. We found ours most useful after the high clothes usage necessitated by the hot and sticky land tour. We appreciated our veranda the more because of the very limited outside deck space, although there are teak walking decks on either side of Deck 7.
The general impression of the physical arrangement and condition of the ship is “good utilitarian.” There are three elevator banks with three “lifts” each, and the stairs are to each side. This left a small and rather drab lobby area at each Deck landing with no decoration. There were art works in each stairwell, but they were not well presented, nor were they particularly good. The carpeting, although perfectly clean, had signs of staining. The aft elevators run from Deck 5 to Deck 12 and the buffet. The center bank runs from Deck 2 (the gym and beauty salon) to Deck 11. The forward elevators go from Deck 4 to Deck 14 - the Dome Casino. Getting around was a little contrived, but not much worse than most ships. The quality of the furnishings and furniture was not bad, just not very exciting. Regal Princess is not a bad ship, it just leaves some things to be desired when it comes to style and elegance. The ship is 811 feet long with a gross (displacement) tonnage of 70,000, and with a passenger capacity of 1596, there is a space ratio of 43.85; which is not bad, although some of the space utilization could be better.
Life boat drill was at 5:30 and we were permitted to remain seated in various lounges and bars, and not go outside to stand beneath the life boats. We always choose the first seating for dinner, and went to our assigned table, not always true on first nights.
It was a table for 8, but on this night there were only two other couples, Bob and Patty from Milwaukee, and Maureen and Dolores, friends from the Bay area. Everyone will get along well. I chose a seafood puff pastry, which was pretty dry, overccoked and without much flavor. First dinners never seem to live up to normal standards. I went outside after dinner as we were sailing away to see if we would pass under the new bridge which connects Denmark and Sweden, but I was told it was not on our route. It seems that instead of sailing directly south into the Baltic, ships of our draft must go north, the east and then south around Zeeland, the island in which Copenhagen is located, before it could get out into the Baltic proper. I then joined Edith in the show room for the usual opening night abbreviated show and unabbreviated introductions by the cruise director. The show featured some Chinese acrobats who were very entertaining. We went back to our room and decided we needed extra blankets because of the air conditioning. Several attempts to reach Housekeeping, Room Service and even the Operator were unavailing, so I finally went down to the Purser’s office to get some action. The extra bedding is actually kept in the cabin, but in a locked cupboard for some reason and after a short while someone came to open it and provide extra covering.
ON OUR WAY
The next day was a sea day, always a good way to start a cruise. After some time in the laundry, we had lunch in the main dining room and joined a couple who had come all the way from Copenhagen! At dinner we were joined by a family of three from Denver, Clarence, Marie and their adult son Ron. Our waiter was Joel from the Philippines and his assistant was Jun (the spelling is correct), also from these islands. They also had a table of ten behind us, which was occupied by a single family. This meant our wait staff had 19 people to cover; which unfortunately made service a rushed job most of the time. We had noticed this on Star Princess also. Celebrity manages to staff the tables so that the waiters and their assistants have more time and can actually chat with their guests. Joel and Jun tried very hard, but the setup was not conducive to very comfortable service or relaxed dining. This dinner was formal, and I had lobster thermidor, which on retrospect was one of the two or three best entrees on the cruise. Both Bob and Patty, as well as Edith order off the vegetarian menu, and Bob is not hesitant about requesting extras or special orders. The show was a typical mini Las Vegas review called C¢est Magnifique and was fine, although I dozed through part of it. The theater filled up very quickly. Sight lines downstairs are all pretty good, but the railings in the balcony cut across the stage view at some point from every seat.
THE CITIES - STOCKHOLM
We landed at Nynashamn, a port about 60 miles south of Stockholm . Cruise ships can dock in Stockholm proper, and I see no reason why Princess could not have; other than a desire to limit possibly higher port fees. In any event we tendered to shore (our only tender port) and walked down to a railroad station to catch a commuter train to Stockholm. The round trip fare, which included day long tickets on local transport in Stockholm, was about $11.60. Be sure to ask for the senior’s discount, and the tickets are sold at a convenience market opposite the station. It was a beautiful day and every Swede in the country who was not working was out in the sun. The countryside on the way in consisted of farms with rolling hills and trees, reminding one of our upper Midwest. No wonder the Swedes who came to the U.S. felt at home in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The stores opened at noon, and we did some looking through NK, Sweden’s largest department store, which was at a Bloomingdale’s level of merchandise. The city has a number of canals offering photographers great shots of buildings and palaces. We saw the Royal Guard, with band, marching to the Royal Palace. We found a canal side cafe near a bridge, and while all the Swedes seized the seats in the sun, these Arizona types luxuriated in the shade of a beautiful tree. Everyone speaks English, and we had no trouble making our connection in the Central Station to return, after walking around some more. Stockholm has never been subjected to war, and is a delightful city in the summer. The return train was jammed, and we could not get seats, but got back to our tender in plenty of time.
FINLAND AND HELSINKI
We had signed up for an afternoon tour in Helsinki, which actually took us out of town. The port area is large and there is no convenient way to walk to town, so we simply waited on board until after lunch. While looking out from our veranda I could see a cruise ship with the trademark winged funnel of a Carnival ship. When I put my binoculars on it, and it was partially concealed by buildings, I thought that the hull side I could see looked somewhat scruffy and dirty. When we left on our tour we passed it and saw that it was the Carnival Miracle, scruffy because it is still under construction. It is in the water and probably will be finished in time for the winter Caribbean trade. Our tour was the Sibelius Tour, taking us to the home of Finland’s greatest composer. He built it for his wife Aino, and it is called Ainola after her, in 1903. He lived there until he died in 1957 and she remained there until her death in 1969 at age 97. It is a country home, not huge, but nicely built, with a number of very attractive rooms, and a beautiful, if small garden area. It looks down a hillside, and is very quiet, a feature Sibelius demanded so he could compose. After the tour we went to a small hall a few miles away where we listened to a concert by a piano and violin student duo from the Sibelius Conservatory. They were both lovely young ladies and the music was delightful; closing of course with the composer’s famous “Finlandia.” I found it very moving played as a duet by two of his countrywomen near his home. What we could see of Finland in general and the portion of Helsinki we saw impressed us very favorably. All signage is in Swedish in addition to Finnish, since Sweden ruled Finland for over 700 years and Swedish is taught to all children. English is also learned by many students, and German is understood by some. Russian is not favored given the adversarial history between the countries. The country does well financially, with income brought in from ship construction and Nokia. I noted that we saw only one police car in Helsinki, but then we had seen no policemen at all in Stockholm.
Our itinerary called for an overnight stay in this dramatic city. As I noted, you have to visit it through a recognized tour or pay a hefty visa fee. The number of shore excursions offered was very large, including flights to Moscow for those so inclined.
Most however opted to see one or more of the museums and palaces, and take in one of the evening entertainment events. The Russians have a passport control office on the dock and stamped our passports, giving us a card which we had been instructed to keep track of, since we had to turn it in going back through the control office before being allowed to re-embark. We went to the Hermitage Museum in the afternoon. It is one of the largest museums in the world, and a very impressive place. Our guide was a knowledgeable art historian. There is simply so much to see that a three hour tour, under very crowded circumstances, does not do it justice. I was surprised to find that the collection of French Impressionists, put together and donated by a Russian businessman shortly before World War I, was as extensive and good as it was. It was tricky trying to photograph exhibits and paintings (permitted as long as you don’t use a flash) and keep up with the group. When we left I went out into the immense courtyard to get some shots of the building and its setting. There were probably 150 tour buses, all jammed together, and it took a while for everyone to get back on the right bus. Driving through the city is depressing. Most of the post WWII construction is in terrible shape, the automobiles are in very poor condition, and the people do not look happy. The original palaces along the Neva River, constructed after Peter the Great told his nobles to build their homes there after he founded the city in the early 1700s, are very beautiful.
After we returned to the ship we ate a fast meal at the buffet since we had to return to the ballet that night. Many people were doing the same thing since there also was a folk dance show, so the buffet was crowded and only one side was open. This was lax planning on the part of the hotel staff, since they should have realized that many people would be catching fast meals at the buffet. The ballet was held in a classic old hall, with comparatively limited orchestra seating and four levels of balconies. Our seats were excellent as Princess seems to have the knack of getting good seats for its people. The ballet was Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” and the production by the Moscow State Ballet was first class. I personally feel that Ballet Arizona’s prima danseuse, Yen-Li Chen-Zhang, would have done a better job than the Russian dancer as the Princess, but the male dancers were superb and all the rest of the company extremely strong and precise. The costumes were superb and the live orchestra excellent.
The next morning we left early, after watching Holland America’s Noordham dock behind Orient Lines’ Marco Polo which had arrived the day before. The palaces were on the Gulf of Finland about 30 miles south of the city, and in an area which had not been damaged by the German siege of the city, which lasted almost 3 years. Although the first palace, the Marienbaum, was undamaged, it was also not restored, and showed a lot of wear and tear. Nor did it have much by way of furnishings or decorations. The next “palace” was pretty small, but attractive. The Chinese Palace was much more interesting, well preserved and furnished. All three were very close to each other and we could have seen them all on foot if the tour had allowed it. We returned about 1:00 for a late lunch; and we sailed at about 6:00. People who had gone to the Peterhof and Catherine’s Palace spoke well of them; but everyone thought the city itself was very drab.
What you actually see here is the Old City, which has been carefully restored as a major tourist attraction. We did not go into the main city itself, which is fairly sizeable. The Old City is only a short walk from the pier, and while a number of walking tours were offered, we simply went on our own and wandered about, taking pictures in a highly photogenic locale. This is a delightful place, with many fascinating buildings and several churches, including an Orthodox Cathedral, which was holding a service attended by a number of Estonians, mostly women in traditional head shawls. The cars were often very new, there were busy workers, the tourist office was well staffed and very much up to date; in short, everything seemed up beat and together. I realize that this was a tourist center and that the country would put on its best face, but their ability to do it well is probably a reflection of the rest of the country. We had to leave by 12:00 which we regretted. The Seven Seas Mariner was docked next to us.
This would be our most extensive tour, virtually all day. We docked in Gydnia, a port city of no special merit. Nearby is a smaller city called Sopot, which is mostly a tourist and vacation town. Then you come to Gdansk, which when I was growing up was a League of Nations Protectorate called Danzig. It has long been a major port, and after the war became the center of Poland’s ship building industry. It was the workers from this city who created the Solidarity movement starting in 1980 under Lech Walesa, which eventually wore down the Iron Curtain. Unfortunately the economy has been in decline for a while, with high unemployment. Our tour was to the Malbork Castle, about 40 miles east of Gdansk. This castle was the headquarters of the Teutonic Knights who controlled the Baltic from the 1200s until the middle 1400s. The castle has been the center of battles over many years, and was virtually entirely destroyed at the end of World War II, so what you see is almost 100% restoration, with only a few original partial walls and arches remaining from the 13th century. It is an impressive structure none-the less; but very crowded with tourists. Our guide, who was from Gdansk, knows just about all of the history of the area and was dedicated to sharing that knowledge with us. There is a small, but interesting amber museum in the castle, and a good amber store for those interested in this jewelry. Poland probably has the best selection anywhere, although Edith did find a nice piece in Tallinn. We were provided a lunch which would have been suitable for a construction worker, but quite heavy for mere travelers. Neither Edith or I finished our meal. On the way back we stopped in Gdansk at an older section of town with a large square full of shops. Edith bought another amber piece there, but you have to be careful. Fortunately she knows what to look for.
We suffered a slight rainfall here, but not enough to disturb us much. We heard some singing in the square and walked over to see a group of adult male singers who turned out to be the Bremen Seamen Singers from Germany. singing German folk songs which Edith understood and remembered, to her delight. On the way back the traffic was slow, especially in Sopot, which was jammed with a holiday crowd, and seemed a nice little town. We arrived as they were taking the signs down from the gangplank; although no cruise line would never leave a ship sponsored tour group behind.
After our second sea day, we arrived on Sunday in Oslo for a half day visit. The ship docked at a pier in front of the historic and striking Akershus Fortress, built to guard the harbor. It was only a short walk to the town hall and square, which fronts on the harbor. From there it is an easy stroll to go through this extremely attractive town, which we did without benefit of a tour. Unfortunately all the stores are closed on Sunday, but we did see the guard at the palace, and a great many very attractive public and private buildings. The city is spotlessly neat. We heard from others that the Vigeland Sculpture Park is most interesting as is the Viking ship museum. We thought that prices in the store windows seemed high, and found out that this was true when we considered buying two cups of coffee at a pier side cafe, only to realize that my $10.00 had not bought enough in Krone. I settled for a single cappuccino and cookie at MacDonald's, which ran $6.25. We read in the paper a few days later that Oslo is the most expensive city in the world, but with full employment, and a minimum wage of over $8.50 an hour, the Norwegians seem to be doing well. Edith went off with Patty to see if they could find a flea market while I walked around the battlements of the Akershus Fortress and took pictures of the fjord and lots of small Norwegian boats. We sailed out of the harbor at about 1:00 and the 50+ mile trip down the Oslo Fjord is serene and beautiful. Again this was a striking city we would like to enjoy at greater leisure.
Even though Copenhagen was our termination port, it seems appropriate to discuss it in this review, since most of our fellow passengers spent one or two days here. Copenhagen is a relatively large city, and appears much more active commercially and socially than either Stockholm or Oslo. Despite its population, much of the activity is centered in a fairly small area, easily navigable on foot. Unless you are a Dane, in which case you do it by bicycle. The Central Railway Station, the famous Tivoli Gardens and the Radhuspladsen, or town hall square, adjoining each other in a row. The famous Stroget, which is a pedestrian only shopping area leads off the Radhusplasen, and goes for more than a mile of shops, from the very touristy to strongholds of great Danish design such as George Jensen and Royal Copenhagen China. The Stroget also has pedestrian loops with more shops and ends in a square called Kongens Nytorv. On this square you find the Kongelige Theatre with the Royal Danish Opera and Ballet, the Hotel Angleterre and the Nyhaven Canal which has a pedestrian walk filled with cafes attached to restaurants in the old port area. From there is is a short walk to the Royal Palace. The official tourist establishment, which cheerfully calls itself “Wonderful Copenhagen Tourist Information” provides a marvelously detailed map. There are a wide range of museums, and some beautiful churches. We know the two Danes who have operated a very successful group of stores in Arizona called “Copenhagen”, and they told us we had to see the Louisiana Museum. They were right. The Louisiana is a museum of contemporary art located in Humelbeck, about 35 miles north of the city on the Ore Sound which separates Denmark from Sweden. We were told that we could get round trip tickets from the Norreport Station near our hotel, which also would provide admission tickets to the Museum, and we bought them for slightly less than $40.00 for two people. The Museum has expanded greatly from the original house, which got its name from the owner who was married, is succession, to three ladies, all named Louisa! The site and grounds are absolutely beautiful, with marvelous landscaping, striking sculpture, and great views of the sound. The newer buildings are low, and with glass fronts, fitting into the landscape as part of it without disturbing the picture. Even the cafe, with its outdoor terrace, was excellent. We went there on our second day in town, arriving about 9:30 and walking to the museum. It did not open until 10:00 so we walked up the street and found a path down a hill to the Sound shore, where people were bathing.
The train trip was very comfortable, and the Danish Railway cars on this suburban type train, were as efficient in providing information as any we have seen. The country side was as we remembered from our earlier visit, green and neat.
We went to the Royal Danish Opera performance of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” I had ordered the tickets, with some difficulty, via e-mail from home. We went to the “Bllletcentre” or box office next to the Kongelige Concert Hall the day before the performance. There were two queue ticket dispensers, which had two different queue numbers. I went up to the counter and was told that if I had ordered tickets and was simply there to pick them up, I would use one of the queue tickets, but I was there to buy tickets, I would use the other. The queue to buy was fairly long, but as soon as I took my pick-up ticket, its number was called. I had forgotten to bring my reservation number from home, but they quickly found my tickets and we were set. Unfortunately the tickets were for very bad seats, in the third balcony on the side, so we had to lean forward to see the stage, and only could see the left side with difficulty. Also, they were using the version which relies heavily on spoken rather than sung dialogue, and it was in Danish, so we had some difficulty following it even though we have both seen it several times. However, Mozart is Mozart, and the singing was excellent, although the staging was a little severe.
We stayed at a three star hotel called Ibsen’s, a few blocks from the west end of the Stroget area. It has about 100 rooms and a restaurant which served a buffet breakfast included in the price as is the custom in this type of European hotel. Our room was fairly large, with a good sized bathroom, and overlooked the street on the 2d floor. The lighting is a little odd. You have to stick a card in a slot next to the door and leave it there to turn on the lights. The tariff, including breakfast and tax came to $165.00 per night. This may seem high, but by European standards it is quite reasonable considering the quality and location. It is also reasonably close to the Tivoli Gardens. Since we had visited the Gardens twice on our last trip; we did not do so this time, but every first time visitor to Copenhagen should see this grandfather of all theme parks.
Don’t eat there though. The restaurants are expensive even by Danish standards, and not that good. We ran into two people from our land tour the night we arrived, and they were about to eat at Tivoli with another couple. When we saw them the next day, strictly by accident, they said that dinner had cost over $300.00 and was not close to being a very good meal. By contrast, we ate with Boris and Debbie at a pleasant restaurant called Copenhagen Corner on the Radhouspladsen for a lot less, although we did not have full dinners. Our best meal was in the Stroget area at a restaurant called Grabrodre Torv 21, which is also the address. For an excellent dinner with pleasant service and in the company of locals, it could not be beat. The price was a little high by Phoenix standards, but very reasonable by Copenhagen norms. One has to remember the norm is a la carte, with the exeption of perhaps one or two limited plat de jour combinations. All in all, Copenhagen is a great city, with delightful people, almost all of whom speak English at varying levels of skill, but without hesitation or any signs of annoyance. I would very much enjoy a return to Denmark to explore more of the country, and we recommend it to everyone.
Cabs in Copenhagen have credit card reading machines which will give you the same kind of receipt you get from a store. The fare from the pier to Ibsen’s Hotel cost $19.00, and that would be comparable, or perhaps a little higher, for a trip to any hotel in the downtown area. The fare to the airport was $32.00 and took about 20 minutes very early in the morning for a 7:20 flight. No tipping is required.
Our return was by an SAS/Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt, about an hour and fifteen minutes, and then our non-stop Lufthansa to Phoenix. One of our shipped bags had a pair of scissors which showed up on the x-ray. It arrived in Phoenix bound in tape, and was opened and inspected there causing some delay after we went through customs, although of course the scissors were not removed. Since we were not flying beyond Phoenix, but going to our home, which they knew, and taking the offending scissors with us anyway; this seemed very silly. No “air security” purpose is served by inspecting a bag after the flight is complete!
THE CRUISE EXPERIENCE
Despite some of the areas of dissatisfaction which we have noted; our overall evaluation of the cruise-tour was very good. We saw some truly beautiful, historic and fascinating cities, both on the land tour and the cruise. The land portion was very well run with excellent accommodations, reasonable food, and high quality guides, both at the “permanent” guide level, Constance and Mary, and the local tour guide level. We did not feel crowded or rushed at any time, and although the heat was annoying, this was summer and to be expected. It still was better than the 110° weather we left in Phoenix. We found that traveling with a small group on land, and then boarding the ship gave us a “companionship base line” on the Regal Princess that we don’t have when the first time we saw our fellow passengers was at the initial dinner on board. All of us land tour people were pleased to stop and chat with each other when we ran into each other on board.
Princess published Port Guides, mostly tuned to the shore excursions it was selling, but of some value anyway. The Princess Patter, the daily newssheet of on-board ship events is accurate, but limited in descriptions. The number of on-board activities was very limited and not too appealing to us. How many Trivia games or Karaoke “shows” can you stand. We were also disappointed at the failure to provide much by way of exercise classes. One class was cancelled due to “rough seas” when one was hardly aware of any motion at all in the gym on Deck 2. We did not attend any of the art auctions, although the advertising for them was pretty constant. The stores had some reasonable quality merchandise, but were limited in scope compared to Millennium or Infinity. At irregular intervals we received a world news sheet, published by the New York Times, 8 letter sized pages. It was excellent, but we only got it about four times on the trip, and we missed the daily world news sheets published (in several languages) daily on Celebrity.
We enjoyed one of the musical groups, the Newcomers Trio, composed of a husband and wife, he played sax and she sang, along with an electronic keyboard player. Their music was low key, soft modern jazz and very danceable. There was one pianist who played at differing locations, and seemed pretty good the one time we heard him. There was one show room act which deserves special mention. This was a husband and wife team. He is French, she is English. First of all they did a magic act, which was pretty good. Then she did a song while performing a slow, almost contortionist dance routine. He then followed it with a mime act in which he incorporated four people from the audience. It was hilarious. They closed with a brief magic routine. This was probably one of the best shows we have seen on any cruise.
There was one singer who pleased the audience, but who we found to be so over-amplified that we had to leave. This seemed a shame since we thought that otherwise he a was probably fairly entertaining. A comedian also got good reviews from some of our acquaintances, but we usually skip this type of act.
Our room attendant, William, was effic