Number of Cruises: n/a
Cruise Line: Royal Caribbean
Ship: Splendour of the Seas
Sailing Date: July 1998
Itinerary: Scandinavia & Russia
Splendour of the Seas (Royal Caribbean)
Scandinavia & Russia (7/98)
The following is a review of our cruise on Royal Caribbean's Splendour of the Seas on the Scandinavia & Russia 12-day itinerary.
The ship sailed from Harwich, England on July 24, 1998 and returned to Harwich on August 5. Ports of call were Oslo (Norway); Stockholm (Sweden); Helsinki (Finland); St. Petersburg (Russia); Tallinn (Estonia); and, Copenhagen (Denmark). Both St. Petersburg and Copenhagen were overnight stops, staying aboard ship.
Whenever we take a cruise, and this was our 15th, we try to arrive at the port of embarkation at least one day prior to sailing. This helps eliminate any anxiety about making connections and also gives us an opportunity to catch up on any jet-lag. It also allows us to enjoy still another destination.
We’ve been to the UK a number of times over the years, so we decided this time to go to Belgium, a country we had never visited before. We decided to fly into Brussels direct from the US.
We live in Orange County (CA). We flew from nearby John Wayne Airport to Chicago where we connected to a non-stop flight to Brussels. We had allocated a little more than two days to be in Belgium. It was highly recommended to us that we pass over Brussels, a nice place but otherwise a commercial and governmental city like many others, and instead spend our limited time in Brugge.
Brugge (usually rhymes with "rouge", but as we found out, not always) is a small, popular town of medieval origin, located about 70 miles north of Brussels in Belgium's Flemish countryside. It's less than 10 miles to the shore of the North Sea. The climate in July is usually quite cool and comfortable.
From Brussels airport, a shuttle train runs every 15 minutes to each of the city's three railroad stations. At the "Midi" station, we connected to a train to Brugge, a journey of about an hour. Most European trains are comfortable, clean and operate at high speed. The train to Brugge was no exception.
Arriving in Brugge, we took a taxi to the Hotel Acacia, a small, clean, centrally located place that we discovered on the Internet. It's a part of the Best Western chain and reservations can be easily made using a "800" toll-free number. The Acacia isn't a five-star hotel, but we weren't necessarily looking for that, so we had no complaints.
The hotel isn't air conditioned (few medium-priced hotels in northern Europe are), so even though it wasn't very warm we experienced a lot of street noise through the open windows. There are a lot of motorbikes and noisy diesel-powered vehicles in Europe. Also, some people wind down their night of partying at 4 AM on the street beneath your open window. We heard all of it.
Brugge is small, and a visitor can walk everywhere. Like Stockholm and even St. Petersburg, Brugge is often referred to as the "Venice of the North" because there are several canals similar to it's more famous namesake in Italy. Brugge is also is a quite old city, and most of the buildings we saw were very well maintained.
One of the more unique things about the place is that as nice as it is, you can see most of it in one or two days and move on. Also, it isn't overrun by tourists, especially as you would find elsewhere in Europe in the middle of the summer. We would highly recommend a short visit.
We were surprised that everywhere we went in Belgium and in Scandinavia too (but not in Russia) graffiti was everywhere. Not unlike what we find in L.A., not particularly artful, and very surprising when found in places where you feel people have high standards and the cities are uniformly clean. An explanation given us by a tour guide that we had in Copenhagen was that these cities all have relatively small police forces and they just can't be bothered chasing after the graffiti vandals.
The day prior to embarkation of the Splendour, we left Belgium for England. We took the train from Brugge back to Brussels and connected to the Eurostar "Chunnel" train to London, where we spent the night.
Taking this high-speed train, rocketing across the farmland of Belgium and France and then under the sea is a terrific experience. The elapsed time from Brussels-Midi station to Waterloo Station in London is 2hrs. 49min. The door-to-door from the center of both cities is probably comparable to going by air, but it's so much less hassle, so much less in and out when taking the train. Besides, traveling at speeds of 186 mph over land is something to experience. The speed is comparable to the French TGV trains (the TGV and the Eurostar trains are almost identical), and quicker than the Japanese Shinkansen Bullet Train.
On a mid-afternoon train on a Thursday, our train was more than three-quarters empty. Evidently, the private company that runs the operation has a long way to go before the Eurostar will become a paying proposition.
We've been to London many times in the past. It remains one of our favorite cities. In fact, on two prior European cruises that we took, we routed ourselves through London just to be there for a few days. This time we chose Belgium for our short extra excursion, but London is still a great place to stay while on vacation and prior to a cruise.
Harwich (pronounced Haa-Rich) is located about 70 miles northeast of London, and there are several ways to get there including BritRail from Liverpool Street station. The train station in Harwich is directly next door to the cruise terminal. We opted however to take the Royal Caribbean chartered bus, a $55 (each way), 2 hrs.10 min. journey from the Victoria Coach Station in downtown London. RCI also offers the same service for the same price to and from London's Heathrow Airport. The ride from Heathrow takes 3 hours. The $55 fare is truly exorbitant compared to the cost of a public bus on the same route, but overall it's handy and simple to arrange, and it would be especially worthwhile for people having a tough time going it alone in strange places.
A 3-hour bus ride can be onerous under the best of conditions. Even though we had been in Europe for several days already, we can imagine how tough this must have been for people just stepping off a transatlantic airplane ride. Nevertheless, the gleaming, white Splendour waited at the end of the journey, so somehow you get through it.
London in itself is not usually used as a port for cruise ships, so whether you use any of the typical English ports of embarkation such as Dover or Southampton or Harwich, you somehow still have to get to the ship. All the more reason for considering staying an extra day or two at both ends of the cruise to catch up.
We've been on the Legend of the Seas in the past, so we were familiar with what to expect from the literally identical Splendour. We enjoyed both ships. Since both of these ships, and RCI in particular, typify the state-of-the-art these days in mid-range cruising, we were not disappointed. The ship and the service were fine.
I don't plan to devote a lot of the content of this review about the ship itself since a lot of that has been written by others and is a highly subjective topic anyway. Rather, I plan to devote most of the review to the itinerary, one which is much less commonplace than, say, anywhere in the Caribbean. In that light, I hope the reader finds this report useful and will be encouraged to try it for themselves.
This sailing of the Splendour was a sellout and carried 1,936 passengers with more than 1,200 from the U.S. An additional 350 were from the U.K. and the nationality of the balance of the people onboard was spread over 28 other countries.
When you check in, RCI now puts a small sticker up in the corner on your cruise card which indicates how often you have sailed with them. A Crown & Anchor Society member with 2 or 3 prior sailings gets a gold sticker. More than that, you get a platinum sticker. The gold sticker is worth a 5% discount for some non-discounted shipboard purchases. The platinum sticker is worth 10%.
This was the only "giveaway" we discovered. In every other case, RCI, just like their competition, finds new and novel ways to extract ever more money from their customers. It wasn’t always that way.
The Captain of the vessel is a man named Johnny Faevelen. Unlike cruise ship captains we have encountered in the past, this fellow is quite young for his profession, probably in his mid-40's. Very urbane, very witty in his announcements, and he represents his employer very well. He is Norwegian, drives a Harley that he keeps on board, and speaks English almost without accent. At the farewell show, he was out front in a song and dance routine with all the other entertainers.
Other captains we remember from the past made their ship announcements in accents that were either unintelligible and/or sounding as if they were Pronouncements from God. This guy was very cool, really good in his interface with the passengers and everyone we spoke to looked forward to his daily announcements.
The first full day is spent at sea. This is good because it allows the cruiser to become familiar with the ship and what it has to offer. It's also an opportunity to wind down, recover further from jet lag, etc.
The in-cabin TV was excellent with several newer movies running all the time and CNN and/or British Sky-TV available throughout the cruise. There was also a daily facsimile summary of the NY Times directed towards American passengers and a similar sheet towards the British people on-board.
The second night...the end of the first full day at sea...is formal dress for dinner. Formal attire is also suggested for the dinner a couple of days later.
There is a third formal night just before the end of the cruise. A couple of semi-formal nights, and all the remainder are casual dress.
We enjoy dressing up. I bought a tux some years ago, and other than an occasional wedding, the only opportunity I have to use it are on our cruises. Thus, I look forward to the occasion.
Although it is optional for men to wear either a tux or a dark suit on the formal night, once again we did our eyeball survey of the number of men going for the tux. We guessed it to be about 75%. For what it may be worth to know, we sat at a table for ten, and all the men wore a tux.
RCI offers a lengthy assortment of shore excursions. You are given an opportunity to look these over and choose and pay for whatever you want to do approximately 7 weeks prior to sailing. You can always try to buy shore excursions while already on board the ship, but this raises uncertainties about whether the packages you want will still be available. We bought all of our excursions well in advance.
Unlike Caribbean cruises, most people we spoke to were using shore excursions almost exclusively. Nevertheless, taxis queues were present at the pier everywhere we went, except in Russia.
There is a comprehensive currency exchange service operating aboard ship. RCI sells foreign money and then will buy it back when no longer needed. No doubt this is a profit center. The currency of all countries along the itinerary can be exchanged, with the exception of Russian rubles and Estonian kroon. Taking either of these currencies outside each respective country is illegal. As we later found out, the only use we had for rubles in Russia was to get into some public toilets.
We noticed an ATM machine installed on Deck 5 of the Splendour. It was not yet in operation, however. The logos of all the usual ATM services as well as Visa and Master Card were on the machine. We’re not sure how it’s going to work. Most certainly, this too will be intended as a moneymaker for the cruise line and not necessarily put there just a convenience for their passengers.
Traveling in Russia
The St. Petersburg tours were extensive and varied, and it had been highly recommended to us that if we were ever to take advantage of what the cruise line offers that we do it in Russia. There are a couple of very good reasons for this. First, no visa is required by the Russian authorities if you tour with a group. A visa costs $40 per person and must be obtained well in advance of arrival. Thus, any apparent savings by going it alone is significantly minimized.
The other reason is that as all the newspapers report, there is a certain amount of lawlessness in Russia these days. This is supposedly most evident to tourists going off the beaten path, so to speak.
The shore excursion preview channel on the cabin TV goes on for a bit concerning do's and don'ts while in St. Petersburg. Especially mentioned is avoiding carrying large purses; the recommendation to leave jewelry behind in the cabin safe; the necessity of hiding money on your body rather than in your pocket; the dangers of going off by oneself; the fact that few Russians speak English; the hazards of riding in taxis, etc.
We felt we didn't need this kind of grief intruding on what was to be for us a long anticipated and not inexpensive vacation. We didn't need this potential for aggravation. We had never been to Russia before, so anything the cruise line would show us would be fine and we weren't in need of refining it further and trying to see anything beyond that. So, we signed up for four half-day tours in
We also opted for a 1/2 day tour in Oslo, and a full day tour on our second day in Denmark. (More on these tours below.) This cost $636 for the two of us for our package of a limited number of shore excursions. In Stockholm, Helsinki and Tallinn, we decided to take advantage of the shuttle service offered by RCI to the center of town. We did some advanced research, and we went it alone. This decision turned out to be extremely attractive alternatives for us.
Advantages of Cruising
We take cruises on a regular basis and sometimes have felt that we might be missing something by the brief and cursory visits to the various ports that, by necessity, a cruise allows. Also, the question always comes up as to whether all the obvious logistical advantages of cruising are really that important? After this particular cruise was over, we came once again to the realization that: a) the advantages of sleeping in the same bed every night are considerable and b) for our tastes anyway, we'd rather visit a half-dozen places that we might never see again than go to one or two places and examine them in the greater depth that only a land tour would allow.
Further, traveling in Europe these days is very expensive. We really have come to believe that a cruise is a true bargain by comparison. There are also "ancillary aggravations" that an American has to deal with in Europe. For example, everybody smokes, and there is no such thing as a smoke-free section in a restaurant. It bothers me to have to pay $1.50 or more for an 8 oz. glass of water with dinner. You want another, they add another $1.50 to your bill. It bothers me to sit down to a $50 (cheap!) dinner and have to pay extra for bread and butter with my meal. It bothers me that you don’t get ice unless you ask for it (one cube) and if you say "a lot of ice", well, you'll get two cubes.
I acknowledge that these are the unique and somewhat quaint things that make Europe "charming" and which are therefore broadening to the traveler. In my case however, a lot of this stuff tends to gets old in a hurry. That’s why when you get aboard a ship like the Splendour, you just know you’re going to get what you’re used to, that with which you’re familiar. In other words, when you order a glass of ice tea aboard ship, it isn’t going to be carbonated (as it is on shore).
We have friends who recently took a fully conducted bus tour of Northern Europe. Their vacation was as long as ours and in fact they spent more money overall to take it. Among many other places, they visited Amsterdam and they visited Paris. I asked if they spent any time in Belgium (since we were planning to be there) and they said only the time it took for the bus to drive through it; they never stopped.
Our first stop on the beginning of the third day of the cruise was in Oslo. We arrived in the early morning, but our time in port was somewhat limited, with departure scheduled for 3 PM.
Oslo, while quite large geographically, has less than 500,000 inhabitants and is small as European capitals go. We were there on a Sunday and for the most part, the city was closed up if not deserted. The weather when we were there was superb, and the cleanliness and tidiness of the city was impressive.
We opted for the "City Highlights" 3-1/2 hour tour. No regrets there. We were conducted to the Vigeland Sculpture Park, Norway's top tourist attraction. Very worthwhile. We also stopped briefly at the Holmenkollen ski jump built for the 1956 Winter Olympics. We drove through the Oslo suburbs to get there, passing expensive hillside homes along the way. From the top of the hill, we had a nice panorama of the city below. Finally, we stopped at the Oslo city hall, an art museum in itself. Several levels of the building have murals depicting life and history in Norway Oslo has rebuilt their waterfront in recent years, and they call it Aker Brygge. This area is located just behind the city hall building, and is reminiscent to us of Pier 39 on the San Francisco waterfront. There were a few shops and cafes open, but for the most part everything was closed up, just like the rest of the city on Sunday.
Norway offers the tourist hand-knit ski sweaters, hand-made felt boots and slippers, some glassware and porcelain. The one unique and inexpensive thing to take back is a troll. Trolls are found everywhere in shops in Norway. We bought one to take home as a conversation piece. A nice sized troll costs about $20. The same size troll costs more than twice as much in the gift shop aboard ship. From Aker Brygge, it was just a short walk back to the ship. There was a nearby museum dedicated to the Norwegian resistance to the Nazis during World War II, but there wasn't sufficient time to get over to see it. Sailing away from Oslo, the Splendour retraced its course from early that morning, through the Oslo Fjord, reaching the open sea about 3 hours later. This fjord is a narrow passageway with small fishing villages on either side. It reminded us of traveling through the San Juan Islands on the Washington State Ferry.
The classification of RCI ships that includes the Splendour and the Legend are built for speed. This gives the line more flexibility in setting itineraries. The run from Oslo to Stockholm is a good example of this. From the data screen on the cabin TV, we could see that for the most part we were tripping right along at 24 Kt. Most cruise ships operate at about 17 Kt.
Traveling at this rate of speed requires the use of all five engines pushing out a total of 77,000 horsepower. The captain had forewarned us on several occasions that we would feel vibration at these speeds, and indeed we did. He said that this is normal, so even though the seas were pretty quiet, the vibration was always there when we were going fast, especially close to the stern.
Like most modern cruise ships of the size of the Splendour, we felt virtually no motion through out the 12 days of cruising, except for the last day. Heading back to Harwich we encountered 15 ft. seas and gale force winds in the North Sea. However, the motion of the ship wasn't all that much and we never heard anyone talk of seasickness.
Because a combination of low tide and high wind produced shallow water in the Oresund strait between Copenhagen and Malmo, the ship had to detour around Zeeland Island to the west which added an extra 120 NM to our journey. Having to make up this wasted time, it was necessary to maintain a 24 Kt. speed all the way to Stockholm.
We arrived in Stockholm on time at 9 AM. We were scheduled to depart was at 5 PM. The temperature was in the low 70's and the sky was cloudless, at least for most of the day. It was a beautiful day to be in Sweden. We wanted to try to capture the flavor of the city outside of the confines of a shore excursion tour bus. We took the $8 (R/T) shuttle bus that RCI operates into town. It leaves the ship every 15 minutes, is of 15-minute duration, and drops you off in front of the Ahlens Department Store in the center of things.
We walked to the Stockholm City Hall. An interesting building with a beautiful park adjacent, located on the estuary of Lake Malaran. This is the place where the Nobel Peace Prizes are presented each December. We would have had to wait an hour for a tour to commence, so instead we walked over a bridge to Gamla Stan, Stockholm's Old Town. Narrow streets, small shops and cafes, historic buildings.
We decided to take a self-guided tour ($10) of the Royal Palace. While there, the changing of the guard ceremony was going on which we watched and videotaped for a while. It was impressive to see.
There weren't very many tourists in evidence considering that this was the middle of the summer. Most of the local people we met in stores spoke English well enough, and the younger people speak it almost without accent. Everyone we met was very friendly, and we found this to be true of all of Scandinavia.
Language was never a problem for us anywhere, except in Russia. Stockholm is quite a bit larger than Oslo, but the streets of both cities were absolutely spotless. We found ourselves wondering why this is so, not only when compared to cities of comparable size in the US but also in other parts of Europe as well.
From Gamla Stan, we walked over a bridge back to the mainland and proceeded up Drottningatan, a street many blocks long which has been turned into a pedestrian mall. This was a great street for people watching, especially the handsome Swedes of all ages. We stopped at a sidewalk cafe for lunch and eventually found ourselves back at the Ahlens Department Store.
We browsed the store briefly, but nothing jumped out of us that we couldn't have found at home, probably for a similar price. We didn't make an in-depth study of it, but it seemed prices in Sweden were relatively high if US dollars were to be used.
Currency conversion was necessary if you wanted to buy anything for cash, although all the usual credit cards were accepted wherever we went. ATM's were commonplace, and we had no problems obtaining Krona from our checking account back home. Using a credit card to buy souvenirs and an ATM card to withdraw walking-around cash is the most economical and convenient way to travel in any foreign country these days.
We were back on the ship in plenty of time, and we sailed for Helsinki promptly at 5 PM. Stockholm is located at the top of the delta of a large lake. It took us more than 4 hours to cruise from the city to the open sea, passing literally thousands of islands, both moderately sized and tiny, most all of which were seemed to be uninhabited.
Throughout most of the cruise, it didn’t really get dark until well past 10 PM. We enjoyed watching the sun go down through the very tall dining room windows of the Splendour while having dinner. This was very nice. The ship has electrically operated remote control shades that are adjusted to keep the sun out of the eyes of the diners.
We arrived in Helsinki on a cold, rainy and blustery day. The visibility was no more than a mile or two and the air temperature remained in the 50s all day long. We took the shuttle bus ($8 R/T) into the center of town. In eight days in Europe thus far, this was our first rainy day, although it tapered off in the afternoon.
It would also turn out to be our last rainy day although we had short showery periods here and there. Also, the weather was uniformly cool along our route, with temperatures getting up into the 70s only on one or two occasions. Our days at sea were much too cool to do anything on the outside, especially with the breeze while under way. Although the pool water temperature was maintained in the low 80s, few adult people took advantage of it.
Helsinki is an interesting city, very clean like the others, and about the same size as Oslo. We spent the day in the center of town, visited a church and a square, walked a lot in the rain, and bought a number of things to take home. As elsewhere, the people were friendly and handsome. We found most things (including clothes items in a major department store) to be a bit expensive compared to what we are used to paying at home.
The central city market square is just a couple of blocks down from the shuttle stop, and flower and produce sellers usually set up in the morning, and crafts vendors in the afternoon. However, because of the rain, there were very few occupied booths in place and we spent little time there. It probably would be a good place to visit on a better day.
We were told that it might be worthwhile to buy some Russian things, such as the Matryoshka stacking dolls, in Finland rather than wait to get it in Russia itself the next day. We found a store in the central part of Helsinki, on Senate Square, selling Russian artifacts. The items they offered and the prices they were asking weren't particularly tempting to us. We decided to wait. It was good that we did.
Most countries in Europe have a Value Added Tax (VAT) of about 20% on purchases, money which can be reimbursed to tourists under some circumstances when leaving the country. A minimum purchase at a particular store is necessary before the VAT refund kicks in, and in Finland we spent enough to be able to benefit from the refund policy. For a couple of hours prior to sailaway on the Splendour, a person located near the shore excursion desk took care of the paperwork and gave you a cash rebate on the spot. This was not an RCI operation. The person was employed by a private company that took a few percentage points off the top of the refund to pay for their service. From our standpoint, it was worthwhile and convenient.
You can get a refund on purchases made in a EU country by having paperwork stamped in another EU country when you are heading home. You mail the paperwork back to the store where you bought the goods. There was a prominent VAT refund desk in Terminal 3 at Heathrow, and they took care of the VAT refund on a purchase on some lace material we bought in Brugge. It was a speedy process.
On a number of occasions, we used the laundry and dry cleaning valet service that the Splendour provides. We found the prices and the quality of service comparable to a good quality dry cleaner back home. This proved to be an advantage in packing. We didn't have to take as much along with us; we got it cleaned along the way.
Also, we've gotten in the habit of packing all our things in large roll-around duffel bags that we bought at Price Costco for $29.95 each. They weigh next to nothing and store flat at home. My wife uses large plastic bags and crumpled tissue paper in the arms of jackets to pack all our clothes. It's a technique she picked up from Martha Stewart on TV. Everything...all 88 lbs. of it...came out wrinkle-free except for my tuxedo jacket which required some touching up by the Splendour dry cleaning service (for $2.25).
In anticipation of our visit to St. Petersburg, before going ashore we stripped ourselves of our jewelry and any pickpocket-able items. I wore a money belt in which I carried several hundred dollars in cash and a Visa card. I carried the cameras and the stuff we eventually bought in a backpack. Our dinner companions said they pretty much did the same thing.
As mentioned, we were scheduled on two RCI shore excursions on each of the two days we were to be in port, a total of four excursions with brief return trips to the ship for lunch.
Our first glimpse of Russia was memorable. Since we had an inside cabin, our first look was up on deck in the morning. I saw on one side of our ship the docked Royal Princess. On the other side, the NCL Norwegian Dream. It almost looked like we were in Ft. Lauderdale. Down below on the pier, a small brass band was playing "I Left My Heart in San Francisco". It was stirring to know that we were finally in a land that not so long ago was referred to as the Evil Empire.
Despite this beginning, it was quickly evident that Russia is still a paranoid and troubled society. Every passenger’s passport was checked by two uniformed officers, first going out and then when returning to the Splendour.
Ship’s security seemed to be an ill-defined science. Other than the Russian passport checks, elsewhere a glance at the passenger’s cruise card is all it takes when you reboard the Splendour. There is a airport-type metal detector portal that you must pass through, but this was used only sporadically. Even when used, people were walking through carrying cameras, purses and other metallic materials, so the alarm sound is going off continually as they pass though. No one seems to notice or care, and you just keep on walking. There is also an airport-type conveyor belt that takes all hand-held items and passes them through an x-ray machine, but I could never figure out for what purpose. For example, in Oslo and on the second day in Copenhagen the x-ray machine was in use. In all other ports, including the two days we were in Russia, it wasn’t operating. Go figure.
Being in Russia
The weather in Russia was great, with partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the mid-70s. Our morning excursion was a city highlights tour. In the afternoon, we were bused out of town about 15 miles to Tsarskoye Selo, also known as Catherine’s (Summer) Palace. The place was later re-named by the Soviets for the famous Russian poet Pushkin, who had lived nearby. The Soviets didn’t want to do anything to dignify the monarchy, even though it was a national treasure. Visiting St. Petersburg was an exciting experience. First of all, we are really here! Really not knowing what to expect, we made some quick observations:
Most of the people, certainly the younger ones, look like "regular folks", especially when you see them rushing for the Metro at the end of the working day. It’s hard to imagine that there were so many decades of "us against them." Very sad to contemplate, actually. And, it’s evident that these highly civilized people who have contributed so much are struggling to have a better life, against political and economic issues that are no fault of their own. For their sake, as well as our own, I guess, we should hope they make it. The buildings are magnificent to see, but very shabby when viewed from the outside, and you don’t have to be right on top of the buildings to see this. Not as bad as, say, Mexico City, but somewhat worse than what you see in Athens or Istanbul or Caracas downtown. Certainly nothing like the Scandinavian capitals we had just visited.
The harsh weather and the severe air pollution in the city takes its toll, but fresh paint seems to be a luxury that no one can afford. Our tour guide told us that many of the apartments were quite nice on the interior despite the exterior appearance.
There may be slums here in the same sense that you would see them in Latin American countries, but we didn’t see any. Nevertheless, there are poor people in abundance, with old beggars near the tour bus parks. However, the younger people seem moving on in an upwardly striving mode. The streets are in great disrepair, even worse than parts of Manhattan. The weather, of course, takes its toll, and coupled with the lack of public money to fix potholes, etc., it makes for a rough ride going down the street in a bus. Despite this, the streets were very clean.
As tourists on a shore excursion, we were pretty much sheltered from the city at large. Security people were in evidence at the major tourist attractions, some even wearing bulletproof vests. How much of this is window dressing and how much is indicative of a relatively lawless society at large, we cannot say. We never had an opportunity to mingle with anyone but street vendors in controlled areas, so we have no way of knowing. There were groups of young men hanging around here and there, but they could have very well been pedestrians. The streets are filled with old, rusted out Russian cars called Ladas that look like Fiat 128 sedans from the ‘70s. There are also new and good looking Mercedes E-type sedans, which according to our guide are operated by suddenly rich "New Russians", whom most of the Russian people fear as their Mafia. The argument goes that nobody could make that much money in so short a time unless they were criminals. Probably true.
As people start to make a little money, many other brands of cars are brought in as used vehicles. The import duty on used cars is 100%. People are free to travel, but few have the money to do it. People are now free to leave the country permanently, but only if they have the funds to do it and also have to have a destination country willing to receive them.
Prior to getting off the tour bus at one of our stops, at the very ornate Church on Spilled Blood, our tour guide warned us to be on guard for Gypsy pickpockets who were supposedly working the crowd. We saw a couple of people whom we might consider to be homeless, begging for money, some young women with infants strapped on their back, and I suppose these were the Gypsies. Never having seen a Gypsy before, we can’t say with certainty. But they didn’t bother us, or at least were no more intrusive than what we’re used to back home.
Shopping in Russia
It seems there were endless opportunities to shop from street vendors. They are everywhere. Not having a visa, we were unable to head off by ourselves to look for hidden treasures, even if we wanted to do that. We were just wanting to buy some souvenirs for ourselves and family back home, and the street vendors have these kinds of things available in abundance.
We’ve shopped the Caribbean, New York City, the Middle East and Hong Kong. The Russian street vendors were mostly young people, very friendly and polite, especially those who had stalls. Those walking around the sidewalks where the buses stopped were more aggressive, but not impolite nor terribly intrusive. St. Petersburg is a long way from Cairo or Istanbul or Mexico.
Like Tijuana, you stop at 3 or 4 stalls, and you’ve shopped the whole town. Everybody sells the same thing, and at the end of the day, their prices are all the same. There seemed to be about a 15% bargaining window on all prices initially quoted, especially if you were buying a few of the same thing which gives the buyer more leverage.
The big item is the Matryoshka nesting doll. These come in different qualities and sizes, and prices range from next to nothing on up to a couple of hundred dollars and more. Most of the dolls we saw were about seven to ten stacks deep, were attractive and of pretty good quality to our untrained eye, and could be bought for less than $15 each.
You put one of these dolls on a shelf at home, and you can be virtually certain that none of your house guests will ever have seen one before. Take some more home, a low cost and easily packed gift, and your family will love you for it. They are really unusual.
Towards the end of the day, when the buses are leaving, 7-piece Matryoshka dolls could be bought 4 for $10. Even the shop on the Splendour was selling dolls for less than $20 each (but no nicer than the $2.50 versions on shore), but they did this only after we sailed away from St. Petersburg. Some method to this, evidently, and nothing to do with customer service..
Other Things to Buy in Russia
The ubiquitous lacquer boxes vary in price mostly by size, and cost anywhere from $10-$50. Sure, you can buy absolutely perfect lacquer boxes, true works of art, for many hundreds of dollars. None of the street vendors sell this kind of quality, and we had no means to find them anywhere else even if we wanted to do that. The boxes we saw were attractive and would look well on a tabletop in anybody’s home.
You can buy on the street a military garrison cap festooned with two dozen military pins for $5. Steel flasks, watches, hats and other Red Army memorabilia are sold everywhere. Tee-shirts that are novel in the sense that you won’t see them anywhere else cost $5. Shawls and scarves, souvenir books, topaz jewelry, lacquered wooden eggs and spoons...that covers most of what you’ll see. We had read some comments from other travelers on how to pay for all of this. Some said crisp US bills of large denominations, others said crisp US bills of small denominations, etc. In fact, it doesn’t matter. No one seemed to care about the nature of the money, although it’s evident the Russians prefer cash transactions with American money. They make change for you from a large wad of bills they pull out of their pocket. Is the change counterfeit? I looked at a $10 bill we received in change, and it seemed OK to me. Bottom line is we never had a problem with the change.
Some of the street vendors have a little homemade, unofficial-looking Visa / Master Card sign hanging in their booth. Even though they apparently will take credit cards, it’s evident that cash works better and allows the buyer to get the best deal on whatever he’s buying. The only time we used a credit card in Russia was to buy a $25 coffee-table book with an American Express card at the Hermitage Museum gift shop. No problem.
The official exchange is 6 "new" (devalued) rubles to the dollar. It’s also officially against the law to use foreign money on the street. However, all the street vendors quote prices in dollars. There is no reason to exchange money. If you buy a substantial amount of goods from a vendor, just ask for a few rubles in free change that could be used in the public toilets. In the Tsarskoye Selo and the Peteroff museum gift shops, the little price signs are in rubles, but they will take dollars there as well. These museum shops sell the same things as the people in the street but they are less inclined to bargain. Also, their prices are a little bit higher. It must be the overhead cost of the rent.
We ended up taking home fourteen nesting dolls. (We had brought along an empty backpack just for this purpose.) They proved to be delightful and well-received gifts for everyone at home, both young and old.
Tsarskoye Selo and Peterhof
Our second tour on the first day was to Tsarskoye Selo, also known as Catherine Summer Palace. It’s located about 15 miles out into the countryside. On the following day, we visited Peterhof, or Petrodvorets, the summer home of Peter the Great, also located outside St. Petersburg. Both were devastated by the Germans during the War, and both are in a state of restoration. Peterhof seems to be further along and besides has nicer looking grounds with many beautiful fountains. We preferred it a little better.
The palaces have ornate gardens and grassy areas, but if you look closely and you’ll see that even though the lawn is mowed short, half of it is mowed weeds. You would never see such a thing at, say, Versailles, although in principal these palaces were built at the same time for the same purpose. It’s kind of sad, really.
There are six or eight-piece uniformed bands playing all kinds of music wherever you go, all for dollar tips. In fact, they play very well, and you start thinking that these people could possibly be members of an orchestra or from the conservatory supplementing their income. In this instance too, it was very sad to witness such a thing.
Our final tour on the second day was the Hermitage Museum, a must see for any visitor to St. Petersburg. You can spend days, weeks, or even months there, but we had a 2-1/2 hour quick overview, and for us at least it was enough.
Overnight in Russia
We elected to stay on board the Splendour the evening we overnighted in Russia. A movie was shown in the 42nd Street Theater, one of only two shown during the entire cruise other than what was shown on the small screen cabin TV. Two evening tours were offered: the Kirov Ballet (a presentation of highlights), and a folklorio show. We spoke to people who had attended one show or the other, and all were satisfied. In both cases, the audience was confined to cruise passengers, from either the Splendour or the nearby NCL Norwegian Dream. Thus, further evidence of the plan to keep visitors at arm’s length from the general population.
The next day after leaving St. Petersburg, we stopped in Tallinn, Estonia. It’s a small city, about the size of Oslo, with medieval origins. We didn’t expect much, but were very pleasantly surprised. It was really a delightful place. In many ways it looked better and less run-down than St. Petersburg. Tallinn suffered badly throughout its history, especially from the Germans in World War II and from the Russians immediately thereafter. Until 1991, Estonia had been annexed by the Soviet Union along with the other Baltic states, Lithuania and Latvia.
Tallinn (rhymes with pollen) is located about 30 minutes from the port city of Muuga where the Splendour docked, and RCI provides free bus transportation into the city. There is a compact old town in the city center, with narrow, twisting cobblestone streets, ideal for walking. We "did" Tallinn to our satisfaction in about 3 hours.
As compared to St. Petersburg, the port at Muuga seemed much better put together, and with better access roads. We later learned that part of the Soviet submarine fleet was based here during the Cold War, and thus the port area was built-up to support this activity. We were told that a rusting, mothballed fleet of submarines is nearby, but we didn’t see this.
Tallinn seems to be just in the early stages of courting tourists, with few stores and other businesses in place that cater to travelers. There were some street vendors selling local crafts. It also seemed that most tourists come by cruise ship from other locations in Scandinavia, probably from Helsinki, just a short ferryboat ride away across the Gulf of Finland. Judging by bilingual signs, there probably are some German visitors as well. In our walking about, most of the people we saw were from the Splendour. At 3 PM we set sail for Copenhagen, our last port of call, where we were scheduled to arrive at 7 PM the following day. We were to stay overnight in Copenhagen and then depart for Harwich at 6 PM the day after.
The food on the Splendour was ample and good, but nothing particularly special. To us, it was ordinary and not as imaginative as what we remembered from the Legend two years ago, and not as good as what we experienced on the Dawn Princess 6 months ago. Having said that, the waiter begged for an excellent rating on the last day out, not only for himself but for the chef as well! He said that a less than excellent rating for the chef would reflect badly on himself. We gave the waiter an excellent report because he deserved it. We downrated the cuisine as unimaginative, because overall that’s how we felt about it. The other four couples at our table, all high-time cruisers, felt the same way as we did.
I can argue with passion my belief that cruise comment cards are a scam perpetrated on passengers by the cruise lines. In short, I feel they serve no purpose and I believe they are never read. The reason I feel they are used at all is that management believes that if you give the customers a venue for complaining, they will feel they had a better time than if they thought nobody cared.
We’ve been cruising regularly for more than 20 years. I can’t think of a single change that cruise lines have made over the years that has been for their customer’s direct benefit. In every case, changes have been made to reduce costs and/or charge passengers for something that in the past was free.
Just southeast of Copenhagen, we had to traverse the same shallow water strait, west of Malmo in Sweden, that caused us to make a wide detour earlier in the trip. The captain carefully explained that we had a small window of time when we could pass through the strait, and that we would have only 2-1/2 feet (yes!) of water under the keel of the Splendour.
The swimming pool was drained as well as the ballast tanks so that the ship could ride higher in the water. We picked up our pilot and proceeded ahead at what seemed to be a walking pace, between marker buoys only about 300 feet apart. It took us more than an hour to get through this area. A long suspension bridge combined with a long underwater tunnel is under construction in this strait which, when completed, will provide a direct land link between Denmark and Sweden. Supposedly excavation from the tunnel is adding to the problem of the shallow water.
The Splendour docked at the south end of the Langelinjie Dock. This pier is a popular spot for families, strollers and skaters on in-line rollerblades on the relatively warm summer evening that we arrived in Copenhagen. The entire length of the pier has it’s landward side lined with shops, mostly of the kind that would attract cruise shoppers at the last minute. It is not unlike the Havensite Mall in St. Thomas.
It was just a five minute walk from the gangway towards the stern of the Splendour to the little waterfront park that honors Hans Christian Andersen. At the waters edge is one of Copenhagen’s most famous attractions, the Little Mermaid statue.
The thing to do the first night we were in Copenhagen is to visit Tivoli Gardens. Along with 1,500 of our fellow passengers, we bought $16 shuttle tickets from the shore excursion desk which included admission to the park and roundtrip bus transportation from the ship. The last shuttle back to the ship was at 12:30 AM. There was a very small fireworks display that lasted only about 2 minutes around 11:30 PM, and the park emptied very quickly after that.
We were very pleasantly surprised by Tivoli. It was a beautiful night to be out and about, and the park was crowded. Tivoli is nothing like an American theme park. Rather it’s more like a carnival at a state fair, except this park has been in operation for almost 150 years. There are medium-thrill rides, bandstands with first-rate free entertainment, and many classy-looking restaurants with indoor or outdoor seating. Some shooting galleries, bumper car rides and stuff like that. Lot’s of trees and beautiful flower gardens. Relatively few fast food places and also relatively few groups of teenagers roaming about as you would be more likely to see in the US. I think the main reason is that Tivoli has been here for such a long time. It’s far from being a novelty to local residents.
Copenhagen is a lot like all the other cities we visited in Scandinavia in the friendliness of the people, the cleanliness of the streets, and the interesting and unique things each has to offer the visitor. Perhaps because Copenhagen was our last stop on the cruise, we felt that it was just a little nicer than all the rest. We felt that Copenhagen would be a good place to re-visit and perhaps spend a little more time than a cruise would allow.
To the Countryside
The following day we had opted for an all-day tour to the countryside to visit two castles. Our ride began with a brief city tour with a photo-op stop at the Little Mermaid statue and then at the nearby Gefion Fountain. Then we drove for about 45 minutes north of the city to the small village of Hillerod, the location of the Fredericksborg Castle. We toured the grounds and the rooms and found it nice but somewhat subdued when compared to all the ostentatious opulence of the palaces we had seen in Russia.
From here we were taken to a hotel located on the shore, just a mile or so north of the village of Elsinor. We were treated to a very sumptuous smorgasbord. I personally found this to be excellent because I enjoy smoked fish and pickled herring and other Scandinavian delights that we found in abundance. On the other hand, my wife and some others we had spoken to don’t care for "fishy-tasting fish" so they had less of a selection. Nevertheless, they found a good choice in sliced meat and cheeses.
From the hotel, we were driven a short distance to the Kronborg Castle at Elsinor, presumably the place Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote Hamlet. The castle was impressive to see, but we could view it only from the outside. On the way back to Copenhagen, we passed many expensive waterfront homes on the north side of the city. Finally, we were dropped off for an hour by Holmen’s Canal in Nyhavn in the center of town. This is a restored area with boutiques and cafes lining both sides of the canal, and it is the scene invariably pictured in any travel brochures describing Copenhagen. The bus was waiting at the appointed hour and we were taken back to the ship. This particular tour wasn’t cheap ($118 per person) but considering it took all day, including an excellent lunch, it wasn’t that inconsistent with other shore excursions offered on this cruise.
We sailed for Harwich soon thereafter, heading north, passing Elsinor and Kronborg Castle once again. Another full day at sea, and we were back at Harwich the following morning.
A cruise like this (as compared to a Caribbean cruise) is "port-intensive", which means you make a lot of potentially interesting stops and there are opportunities to see as many of the sights as possible in the short time allowed in each city. In our opinion, there is infinitely more to see and do, say, in Copenhagen than in the Cayman Islands. Cayman and a few other Caribbean islands are nice, but this is Europe. Truly comparing apples to oranges.
We find this kind of touring is where a cruise vacation shines. You hang up your clothes in the closet only once, and you expend no time nor energy checking in and out of hotels nor getting to and from train stations and airports. Even though we had 3 full days at sea, the main purpose of this itinerary is much less for the rest and relaxation and more for sightseeing. Nevertheless, there were these sea days available which we found to be ample time to enjoy what the ship has to offer, just relax with a book, or whatever else is needed to unwind a little bit when on vacation.
When we traveled earlier in the trip from Brugge to London, while it was interesting with the Eurostar and all that, it took most of the day, cost a lot of money, and we really didn’t accomplish a thing except going from point A to point B. We also expended a lot of energy dragging baggage carts, going up and down train station escalators with bags, eating fast food on the fly, etc. With a cruise you have none of that. The ship moves while you sleep. That night when we took the bus back to the ship from Tivoli, it was after midnight and we had had a long day. In the distance from the bus, we could see the ship lit up like a Christmas tree. We got off the bus, flashed our cruise card to the security guard at the gangway, and two minutes later we were in our cabin getting ready for bed and the next day.
Alternatively, we could have had a nightcap at the favorite bar we discovered on one of the upper decks, we could have danced a little in the disco, we could have walked on the promenade deck, and finally crashed whenever we chose to with almost no unnecessary energy expended beyond simply having a good time. We’ve experienced this late-arrival feeling in other places in the past, and in our view it’s at moments like this that a cruise really is so worthwhile.
If I can add to any of the observations I made in this review, please do not hesitate to send me an email.
Paul Jaffe email@example.com