Cruising the Baltic has been on our Bucket List for a long time but we were planning on waiting a few years before we visited. All that changed when we happened to see a sale price on Princess Cruise Lines for a June cruise at just over $100 per person per night. When we saw the price we booked a cruise immediately!
Getting To and From the Ship
Our cruise began in Copenhagen, Denmark. Our hotel was in downtown Copenhagen near the Tivoli Gardens and we had planned on taking a taxi to catch the ship. However, the morning of the cruise we had breakfast with a couple from Australia who recommended the Red Buses as a convenient way to get across town as well as a excellent way to see some of Copenhagen’s sites. We took their advice and toured Copenhagen in the morning on the Red Buses. Then when it was time to board we took the Red Buses shuttle to the port. It worked wonderfully!
To top it off, when we returned 11 days later we caught the Red Buses again (at no additional cost) and rode it to our hotel at the Bella Center. Using Red Buses certainly worked well for us!
Our ship was the Regal Princess. She was built in 2014 and and can carry 4926 passengers and crew. The ship is 1073 feet long and weighs in at 141,000 tons. All statistics aside, this is a beautiful ship with lots of places to relax and with a little less “energy” that we’re used to on the Carnival ships that we usually cruise on. In fact, the entire shipboard experience was more subdued than on a Carnival cruise. This isn’t a good thing nor a bad thing…it’s just that the entire atmosphere was calm and there weren’t as many rowdy events as we are accustomed to. For this cruise it was perfect!
One of my favorite places on the ship was the adults-only Retreat area which was decorated in sea colors of blues and greens. However, the Baltic in June is cold so we didn’t spend much time outside while the ship was under way. Instead, we spent a lot of time inside and one of our favorite spots was the Crooners lounge which overlooked the Piazza and featured live music each afternoon; primarily a string quartet or a soloist.
We also enjoyed the port information talks in the evenings; learning about the following days’ fun and getting tips on how to debark and return. This was especially important for our visit to Russia! We typically ended our day by visiting Club 6 where we would watch old rock n roll music videos and close out the evening with a nightcap. Again, so much different than our typical Carnival cruise days!
Our first port of call was Oslo, Norway. The pier is next to the Akershus Castle which served as Nazi headquarters during their occupation of Norway. (It now houses a Resistance Museum.) Our first order of business was to find a geocache which was hidden near the cannons in the castle courtyard. We then wandered into the harbor area to visit the Nobel Peace Center.
We took an excursion in the afternoon which took us to the Vigeland Sculpture Park and the National Gallery. The sculpture park has over 200 of Gustav Vigeland sculptures: all nude and in strange poses. We’ve never seen anything like it!
The National Gallery features works by Norwegian painters to the present day and includes “The Scream” by Evard Munch. Here we learned that this painting represents a scream that Munch heard after two friends left him on a bridge. I think he got his point across quite well!
Our next port of call was Warnemunde, Germany. Although there are many things to see and do in this historic city, we opted to catch a train to Berlin. This excursion involved a 2 hour train ride to the city and then catching a bus which dropped us off in the Gendarmenmarkt which is located in the former East Berlin. Here we were given a sheet with instructions on the pick up point and time, along with embassy contact information. Beyond that, we were on our own.
We have been to Germany before, but never to Berlin and during this visit we wanted to concentrate on the area which was in the former East Berlin including; Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin Wall, and the Brandenburg Gate. But first, we had to find a geocache near Checkpoint Charlie. Finding the cache was easy, but signing it discretely was tough due to all the crowds. Finally, there was a gap in the crowds allowing us extricate and sign the cache before quickly replacing it. Whew!
Next up was Checkpoint Charlie itself. We could tell when we were getting close when we saw a checkpoint sign along with a crowd around a hut in the middle of the street. Making our way through the crowds we saw what appeared to be two GIs at the checkpoint. However, we were soon disappointed to see them hamming it for photos with the tourists; obviously these were just two guys in GI costumes. Somehow, it just didn’t seem right for those kinds of antics at a spot with so much tragic history.
From here we headed west on Zimmerstrabe, past the Trabi Museum and finally to the Topography of Terror. This outdoor museum is located on the bombed-out ruins of the SS and Gestapo Headquarters. This site has several exhibits including a permanent exhibition in the trenches excavated along Niederkirchnerstraße. Here are panels which show the progression of Nazi propaganda and its effects on Berlin under the Nazis. Above the exhibit looms one of the longest remaining sections of the Berlin Wall. Walking through these exhibits provides sobering and horrifying look the results of man’s intolerance against their fellow man. After viewing the exhibits we stopped at the old section of the Berlin Wall. I couldn’t help to wonder how many people had died trying to get past this section of the wall. We decided to try to bring a little light into this dark and dismal monument to oppression by leaving a Bee Kind Rock next to the wall.
Our next stop was no less sorrowful: the Holocaust Memorial – The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Here are 2711 concrete slabs covering about 5 acres. The most common being that of a graveyard. To me, the slabs look like a huge graveyard which serves as a testament to all the lives wasted and stolen by the Nazis. It’s yet another chilling reminder of how inhumane man can be to man.
Just a short walk away is the Brandenburg Gate and there was a big festival going on with street vendors and musicians everywhere. However, our mood was quite somber and reflective after those three stops and we really weren’t in the mood for entertainment and laughter. Instead, we found a street-side restaurant where we grabbed a quick meal before going to our pick-up point for our train ride back to Warnemunde where we reboarded our ship.
This wasn’t a fun visit for us, but it was almost a pilgrimage and memorial to our fathers. Mona’s dad served in WWII in France, Belgium and Germany. My dad served in post-war Germany and at one point was stationed near Checkpoint Charlie.
The next day was a sea day and we went to the breakfast buffet as normal; however, our entrance to the buffet was not normal in that the attendant insisted that we wash and purify our hands before entry. Odd…but okay. Then we went to get our plates and the attendant there insisted on handing us our plate and silverware instead of letting us get our own. More odd! The oddness continued with the buffet cooks not allowing us to get our own food and we weren’t allowed to fill our own water glasses. Color us perplexed!
The mystery was solved when we went back to our room and found a note explaining that almost 100 cases of norovirus had been diagnosed onboard. To counter the virus the Captain had directed all the changes in the dining room along with directing shipmates to avoid handshakes, promoting the use of hand sanitizers throughout the day, and avoiding use of public restrooms. We also saw crewmates repeatedly sanitizing handrails, tabletops and any other common-use facilities.
Starting that day the Captain began reporting on the outbreak every day around noon. The crew’s efforts must have worked because within two days the number of norovirus cases began significantly declining and within four days there were no cases onboard. Even though there were no more onboard norovirus cases the crew continued the sanitation measures through the end of the cruise.
This was our first encounter with norovirus onboard a ship and we were very impressed with how the Captain and crew handled the crisis. We also applaud how our fellow cruisers responded to the new sanitation requirements. Well done, Regal Princess crew and passengers!
The next morning we awoke to see medieval towers off the port bow. This meant we were in Tallinn which is the capital of Estonia. Tallinn’s old city dates back to medieval times and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to a massive stone castle called Toompea Hill which is where Estonia’s parliament sits.
Our goals for Tallinn were simple: find a geocache or two and wander the city’s old streets. It turned out that finding a geocache wasn’t easy as we had expected. We ended up with three “Did Not Finds” before finally making a find outside St. Nicolas’ Church. But, in the meantime we got to wander all over the old town, walking on streets that date back to the 1200s. We also got to go up the ramps to the top of Toompea Hill in Upper Town where we got our first view of onion domes on the Alexander Neveky Cathedral. Afterwards, we went back to the Lower Town where we found a sunny spot at a restaurant on the Town Hall Square to enjoy a beverage and watch people.
One of our key criteria for a Baltic cruise was to find one that had an overnight visit in St. Petersburg, Russia. I’ve long been fascinated with Peter the Great and the great city that he built from scratch. St. Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great to build a Baltic port and to establish closer ties to Europe. He designed a city based upon canals and waterways modeled somewhat after Amsterdam. Today’s city has over 50 waterways and over 500 bridges. St. Petersburg was the capital of Imperial Russia from 1712 until 1914 and has so many must-see sights such as the Peterhof Palace, St. Isaac’s Cathedral and Catherine Palace. However, before we could see the city we first had to go through immigration.
Unlike most port cities, St. Petersburg requires cruise visitors to go through immigration and unless you are on a cruise line-sponsored tour you must have a visitor’s visa. We didn’t have a visa so we booked Princess tours for both days of our visit. The lines for getting through immigration were long with at least 30 or 40 people in line ahead of us. As we neared the control point we could see the reason for the long and slow-moving lines. This was not a simple nor quick in and out procedure…each immigration office went through each and every passport, studying each page and carefully comparing the passport photo with the passport holder. All this was done in silence and with no smiles. After about 30 tense minutes we were through and headed for our bus!
We started our visit with about a 30 minute drive to Catherine Palace. This opulent Rococo structure was built in the 1750s, covers about ten football fields and used over 200 pounds of gold for the gilding. The palace is dazzling inside and out, but it’s all a reconstruction done since WWII. That’s because the Nazi’s occupied the palace during the Siege of Leningrad and looted the palace before setting it on fire when they were forced to retreat. Everything had to be rebuilt; even the famed Amber Room is a re-creation but you would never know it by looking at it.
Afterwards, we toured St. Petersburg in the bus, finally stopping at the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood; so named because Tsar Alexander II was attacked and fatally wounded here by anarchists. His son, Tsar Alexander III built the church on the site and the spot on the road where his father was wounded is inside the church. The church has quite a history; with it being shuttered by the Communists, used as a morgue during WWII and even serving as a vegetable storehouse. Today it’s a museum of mosaics having one of the largest collections in the world, second only to the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis.
For our second day in St. Petersburg we chose a cooking class. We left the ship a little early because we wanted to shop in the terminal. Once again we walked up to immigration and attempted to pass through. Nyet! And this time the officer took Mona’s passport from her and went to another officer to talk. They talked for several minutes and kept pointing at us. Finally, they walked up to us and said in perfect English, “You are too early. You must go back to the ship and return in 30 minutes.” Somehow they knew what tour we were on and didn’t want us to have even a few minutes of unescorted time in the terminal!
The cooking class was so much fun! The teachers didn’t speak English so an interpreter had to tell us what was happening. We learned how to make varenyky – a stuffed dumpling like pierogi. They also taught us how to drink Russian vodka…5 shots worth!
Our visit to Russia was much too short and the first day was packed with too many stops and too many people. I would love to go back for more personalized tours with more time at the places we visit.
We cruised into Helsinki in the early morning threading our way through the hundreds of islands that line the channel. What an incredible welcome to this beautiful country. We then boarded a tour bus that wound around the city showing us all the main sights to see.
We got off the bus at the Senate Square and then headed to Market Square to find a geocache. There was a street fair going on here so we decided to have lunch at one of the food stands. What to have…what to have….pulled moose? Reindeer sausage? Salmon? Whitefish? So many choices!
This is Finland’s 100th year of independence and they are doing a lot of sprucing up in advance of their big celebration later this year. Hard to believe this country is so new! This is a very low-crime country and the standard of living is very high with free education through college. They even pay students to go to college! There is definitely something to be said about the Scandinavian way!
We were steaming into Stockholm in fog…heavy fog. Fog horn fog. Slowly the fog began to lift and we saw an island…then another island…then LOTS of islands! This is when we learned that the Stockholm Archipelago has over 30,000 islands. Sometimes those islands were so close that it felt like we were in the Panama Canal.
Today, we felt like walking so we disembarked and headed to the city. Luckily, they have painted a blue line on the sidewalk showing you the way. Unfortunately, that blue line ends about a mile from the city at an intersection. You get to choose. We chose poorly. We walked about a half a mile out of our way.
Finally, we got to Gamla Stan, the old city. This city dates back to the Viking days and was formally established in 1252. Much of the old city remains so it’s full of charming buildings and little nooks and alleyways. We visited the Royal Palace and the Stockholm Cathedral and a church or two before sitting down for our Swedish meatball lunch. It was a beautiful sunny day and perfect to sit outside and bask in the sun.
Back on the ship and on our way out of Stockholm we again marveled at all the islands. Some were tiny and almost barren; while others had beautiful homes and outbuildings. All islands seemed to have one thing in common….a pair of swans. Beautiful!
Return to Copenhagen
Finally, it was time to end our cruise. We had been on the ship for eleven days and had visited seven countries throughout the region. This was indeed a fantastic voyage on a fantastic ship. I would love to do this cruise again and spend more time enjoying the splenders of the Baltic, but for now, memories and photographs will have to suffice!
Our ship was the Regal Princess and you can find out more about Princess cruises here: Princess Cruise Line. There is a wide variety of rates for the same cruise depending upon when you go. You can save lots of money by going in the off season.
We found a lot of good information about East Berlin here: Free Tours By Foot
Here’s where you can learn about Bee Kind Rocks.
And if you’re interested in Geocaching go here: geocaching.com