What is it like to take a cruise in Scandinavia and Russia?
Far away – but totally worth it
Taking a Baltic cruise is a trip of a lifetime. The itineraries are varied but usually call on Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, St. Petersburg for sure. The cruise season runs June to July or August (ships reposition around September). Be prepared for daylight well past midnight. Be aware that things tend to be more expensive than North America, so plan your budget accordingly to avoid sticker shock.
Keep reading to get some travel ideas for your Baltic cruise vacation. Although you may choose a different ship than me, perhaps you can get a feel for what it is going to be like.
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One week prior to departure, I got cleared for the cruise. After finding a willing and able friend (Jessica) to join me on the cruise we scurried to take care of last-minute daycare issues (we both have young children), and we needed to rearrange our schedules. Luckily we have passports and are able to pull a trip together at short notice (as well as accommodating husbands.) I found a roundtrip air ticket for $1,200 to travel from Los Angeles to Copenhagen. The Copenhagen airport was very nice, modern and orderly. The Princess team at the arrivals/baggage area was very helpful. Probably the best meet and greet team that I have seen to date.
We could have purchased the Princess ship transfer for $48.00 each but we opted to go it alone and paid $60 for a private cab instead. The taxi driver was equipped to take credit cards. We considered taking the train but decided against it at the last minute. The train looks easy enough except for the last stop where one would have to wait for a taxi (not that many around) or walk to the ship. When we arrived at the ship we experienced some confusion because we did not have our bag tags yet. Soon enough we were crossing the gangway and embarking the vessel at 4:30 pm Friday, May 30th, 2008.
PORTS OF CALL
- Copenhagen, Denmark 8:00 PM
- At Sea
- Stockholm, Sweden 10:00 AM 5:00 PM
- Helsinki, Finland 10:00 AM 6:00 PM
- St. Petersburg, Russia 6:30 AM
- St. Petersburg, Russia 6:00 PM
- Tallinn, Estonia 7:00 AM 1:00 PM
- Gdansk (Gdynia), Poland 9:00 AM 6:00 PM
- At Sea
- Oslo, Norway 7:00 AM 2:00 PM
- Copenhagen, Denmark 5:00 AM
The shore excursion office is very busy on Crown Princess. We opted to do our own city tours and found that most of the cities were very easy to walk around. We used the recommendations of Mr. John Lawrence, our port lecturer as a guide. The ship provides adequate maps and general information about currency, customs, and local life. The only city that requires a tour in St. Petersburg, Russia. St. Petersburg shore excursions run from a two-day extravaganza to more doable smaller doses. Russia requires a tourist visa for US citizens. The ship can act as a sponsor for a Visa if needed. This needs to be done months in advance. A lot of people liked hiring the car option that is listed on the shore excursion offerings. The most popular tour and a sold-out tour was the two day St. Petersburg option. If this is something that interests you, make sure to pre-book.
We arrived and went directly to the ship. This waterside city of Copenhagen is packed with old-world charm alongside some of the world’s most Avante Garde architecture. We found that Copenhagen is a vibrant, modern city with a long and fascinating history.
Getting into the city by foot was easy. But make sure that you know which pier the ship will dock if you plan on meeting friends.
The Swedish capital, Stockholm, is not only Scandinavia’s largest city but also its most enchanting, with its centuries-old alleyways and squares being spread across an archipelago of 14 islands. We visited the Nobel Museum, the Royal Palace and the Gamla Stan. We enjoyed the hop-on/hop-off boat. We used the credit card and did not bother with the currency. The weather was perfect.
We took the bus from the port that was arranged by Princess for $10 roundtrip. The 10-minute ride was nice and the bus dropped us off at a central location. We walked through the esplanade, visited some sites then took an hour boat ride around the cluster of promontories and peninsulas. We learned a lot about the 450 years old city. The city was clean and offered wide avenues lined with buildings echoing centuries of architectural excellence from Gothic through to art deco and cutting-edge contemporary.
Russia, St. Petersburg
Situated on the Gulf of Finland and spread over numerous islands in the Neva Delta, St Petersburg is a city of arched bridges, winding canals, wide boulevards, elegant palaces, impressive squares, and ornate churches. We took a canal tour called, “Venice of the North” on the first day and then a tour to The Winter Palace and the Hermitage Museum on day 2. It was glorious. We did not have to wait in a long line to get off the ship. It was great. Make sure to have a photocopy of your passport.
Impressive sites include the golden spires of St Peter and Paul Cathedral, the magnificent gleaming dome and grand colonnaded façade of St Isaac’s, to the colorful multi-domed Church of the Resurrection.
We never could get over the fact that it never gets totally dark. Due to its northerly latitude, the sun never dips far enough below the horizon to create total darkness.
This port is very close to Old Town. Very easy to create your own tour. Follow the crowds into Estonia’s ancient seacoast capital. The Old Town offers winding, cobbled streets, and a historic city center. The walled old town is divided into two parts: Toompea Hill was the residential area of the aristocracy and gentry in the old days, while the Lower Town operated independently.
Poland is another city that passengers might want to pre-book a tour. We took the train from Gdynia into Gdansk. We found a change booth at the train station to convert some US dollars. Just make sure to pay attention to the names of the stations and plan on not very many people speaking English. The train ride was a destination in itself.
Gdañsk is an important port, situated at the mouth of the Vistula River on the Baltic Sea, and throughout its history has been a major trading center. It is the best known of the Tri-City complex that it forms with the modern seaport of Gdynia and the fashionable beach resort town of Sopot.
We were only in Oslo for a very short period. The shops were mostly closed but the harbor was bustling with activity. This expensive city is remarkable. It is charming and legendary. The sail in and sail away are truly amazing. Oslo, situated at the end of a 70-mile (110km) long fjord, is Norway’s capital and its largest city, rich in culture and folklore with a fascinating Viking history.
Cruise Information: Princess Cruises, Crown Princess
Our inside (gasp) cabin was an on the Plaza deck (deck 5), 224. The cabin was small and very cramped. Also, there were random noises that startled me awake nightly. We reported the noises and with a lot of consistent calls to the front desk, we could have moved cabins about 4 days into the trip. We opted to stay put and ignore the noises. The cabin turned out to be in a prime location especially since it was very close to the main piazza area, the International Café, wireless internet (yes I brought my laptop) and the gangway. Our cabin steward was fantastic. He was generous with the toiletries, accommodating to our late nights and very professional. We set sail for Stockholm, Sweden at 8:00 pm.
Once settled in, we headed for the Welcome Aboard Buffet. Fellow cruisers were not happy that the staff had to serve all the items. In fact, prior to getting a plate, a staff member disinfected each passenger’s hands (yea!). The cruise prior to ours had a nasty outbreak of a gastro-virus. The food was varied and the flow of the lines was nice. Instead of a linear buffet, there were two sides of the Horizon Court serving the same food. The food was good. After getting a bite to eat we explored the ship.
To say the ship is huge is an understatement. There are about 19 decks and when looking up from the ground one is dwarfed. The ship was built in June 2006. She has a passenger capacity of 3080, 1200 crew members with a gross tonnage of 116,000. The ship is 951 feet long. There are 1557 total cabins with 1105 of that outside and 452 inside cabins. There is ample space for passengers to roam without feeling the crunch of the crowds. Overall the public rooms are sophisticated and well appointed. There is a good mix of country club casual and contemporary design throughout. The ship is clean and spacious.
Crown Princess is a member of the Grand-Class of ships. Crown Princess is an immense floating 5-star resort. The most impressive assets of the ship are the amenities. The piazza-style atrium is a crowd favorite. Princess says it best when they describe the piazza as “a bustling hub of the ship with a street cafe atmosphere, featuring live music and entertainers throughout the day and evening.” The Italian-inspired décor is charming.
The upper deck is devoted to outdoor living spaces. The Calypso Reef and Pool has a shallow area where passengers can watch “Movies Under the Stars” on a 300-square foot LED screen. The Terrace Pool (adults only) is a traditional pool area that offers fabulous views over the ship’s stern. The Neptune Reef and pool area are surrounded by two whirlpools. The Lotus Spa Pool offers a small sheltered pool, two hot tubs, and two outdoor showers. The Lotus Spa Pool has a current-machine for one person to swim laps against.
The spa is connected to The Sanctuary, an adult’s only outdoor deck area. On our cruise, this area was wasted since it was not a warm-weather destination. The lounge chairs were very comfortable and the private spa area was gorgeous. However, a $3.00 charge for wait service was a bit of overkill. In addition, the $20 daily fee or the $10 half day fee to use the space was also a bit extreme. The Sanctuary should be included in the cruise price. The food on the menu looked delicious and I was hoping that they would serve this cuisine in other locations on the ship. The spa food suited my taste but since I was not participating in the Sanctuary experience, it was not available. The area does promote relaxation but at a steep price.
The Lotus Spa was ok. The thermal suite was in a bad location and there was no need to purchase the separate steam bath packages as the women’s locker room offered both wet and dry saunas. A little disappointing that they did not create the thermal suite area with sweeping ocean views. The spa was nice with the usual menu of services. The Fitness center had state of the art machines, treadmills, bikes, and classes. The Sports deck had a basketball/tennis court, and the Princess Links nine-hole putting course (hosting incredible views.) There were also virtual golf simulators which were a lot of fun.
Crown Princess has a nice Internet center. There are many signs all around warning passengers that the connection is not broadband and that it can be very slow. Despite the warnings, many people attempted to sign up and got very frustrated. There is a small library. Read the daily Princess Patter to confirm the hours of operation to avoid disappointment. The onboard shopping is plentiful. On this cruise, some of the best bargains were had onboard. The art gallery is located on the Plaza deck and there are opportunities to participate in art auctions. Hearts and Minds Wedding Chapel is available but must be prearranged. There are two live webcams onboard so make sure to tell your friends and family so they can watch where you are.
Our Cruise Director Billy London did an excellent job. He was funny, competent and seasoned. He celebrated 30 years at sea during our voyage. Each morning there was a live broadcast from Cruise Director Billy and he went through the Princess Patter to distribute all pertinent information. We had great full production shows with live dancing and singing. There were jazz musicians, pianists, comedians, acrobats, magic shows, cooking demos, and local entertainers from the various ports. The port lectures and resident expert onboard was Mr. John Lawrence. He spoke live about each port and his lecture replayed on the Princess TV channel throughout the day.
Crown Princess has a lot of smaller venues that hosted unique performances. Crooners is a centrally located martini bar located off the main piazza. The staff was exceptional especially the native French bartender named Florian. Larry Dunsmore played an exciting string of hits with his nightly one-man show. When Larry was not playing, he was busy getting the crowd involved with a “raise your hand if you….” type game that thrilled the audience.
Tradewinds is another watering hole offering refreshments on the open deck while gazing at the beautiful scenery. Other locations to relax and unwind are the sophistical piano bar called the Adagio Lounge. This lounge is a bit of a walk and away from the main piazza area.
The Adagio seemed to serve Sabatini’s restaurant. Skywalker’s, located high over the stern, has outstanding views during the day and at night it is the late night spot to dance and adjust to the time change. There is a minimum age for Skywalker’s at night and a bouncer to enforce the age limit. Club Fusion is the ship’s third major live entertainment venue. This area is useful for dancing, playing games and meeting friends. The Wheelhouse Bar had beautiful woodwork and was a big hit with smokers. The live music was very nice.
Of course, there is also a casino and one night it was designated smoke-free. Gatsby Casino has slot machines and gaming tables.
A whole new level is reached with Princess and the Personal Choice Dining concept. Guests can enjoy a savory appetizer paired with a glass of wine at Vines, or they can take in the expansive top-deck views during an Italian extravaganza in Sabatini’s. Princess has long been known for its array of alternative dining opportunities.
Alternative Dining is available at Sabatini’s and the Crown Grill. Both venues offer the finest ingredients, the best service, and impeccable food. Quality of product is hands down better than most of the run of the house offerings in the dining room. Book ahead to get the best selection of reservations. Nominal fee with gratuity is added to shipboard account.
Lunch was always available in the Dining Room or the Buffet. A typical dinner menu had at least twenty selections, not including the Dessert Menu which usually had upwards of ten offerings.
Crown Princess’ full range of dining options includes:
International Cafe – The International café offers specialty coffee drinks and serves a changing menu of a la carte items throughout the day. Passengers may enjoy freshly baked croissants or beignets in the morning, gourmet panini sandwiches at lunchtime, afternoon tea or chocolate fondue later in the day, or pre-dinner tapas in the evening. An Italian gelateria will also scoop up assorted flavors daily and serve fresh homemade bonbons. Purchasing a coffee card is a great value as unlimited premium coffee, hot tea, and hot chocolate are included with the price of the card. Also, large paper cups are available and are useful to-go containers for shore excursions.
Vines – A wine and seafood bar that will tempt passengers in the evening with an assortment of fine wine and cocktail pairings accompanied by a selection of chilled seafood “cocktails”– appetizers including salmon, oysters, sushi, gravlax or other treats from the sea.
Crown Grill – A showplace eatery with an open, theater-style kitchen where chefs custom-prepare steamed shellfish — such as lobster, scallops, clams and mussels — and cooked-to-order steaks and chops. A $25 fee applies for dinner, some items may carry an additional charge.
Sabatini’s — Princess’ famed Sabatini’s Italian trattoria features a new top deck location aboard Crown Princess to offer fine dining with a view. The stunning new venue offers a grand entrance, views on three sides with dramatic vistas overlooking the wake of the ship, and open-air dining on the aft deck. An all-new menu, plus custom-made fine china and new stemware, makes this Italian extravaganza a fine dining experience to remember, which will subsequently be introduced in other Sabatini’s restaurants throughout the fleet. A $20 cover charge applies for the Sabatini’s dinner.
Main dining rooms — We had Anytime Dining. There are three restaurants. One serves traditional seating and two are focused on Anytime Dining. It seems that Princess has got it together with this non-traditional dining concept. We never had to wait to dine and we had our choice of eating alone or with others. The menus were varied but some of the provisions were a little less than perfect. However, due to our location in the Baltic, I was able to overlook the occasional wilted piece of lettuce. My most memorable meal was the scallops which were delectable with a melt in your mouth consistency. All items were varied, innovative, fresh and pleasingly plated. The food service was impeccable.
Cafe Caribe — This themed buffet captures the tastes of the Caribbean and beyond. Offers an alternative to Horizon Court. Has nightly dinner themes.
Horizon Court — A primary feature of Princess ships, the top-of-the-ship restaurant features floor-to-ceiling windows with stunning sea views as a backdrop for a quick breakfast or casual dinner. The Horizon Court offers a variety of buffet meals or snacks.
Trident Grill — For a quick poolside lunch, this outdoor venue is the perfect place for hungry passengers to get freshly grilled burgers and hot dogs for a tasty al fresco meal. And the American fare at the grill offered French fries and burgers. A nice break to the heavy food in the dining room.
Pizza and Ice Cream Bar — The homemade pizza was delicious! Poolside pizzeria serving Princess’ trademark Italian-style fresh pizza by the slice.
24-Hour Room Service — Princess provides 24-hour room service enabling passengers to enjoy breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in the privacy of their own staterooms or enjoying the view from their balconies. In addition to the always-available room service menu, passengers can also order special room service-only offerings, such as a special Champagne Balcony Breakfast ($30 per couple) and an elegant four-course Ultimate Balcony Dinner featuring delicate sweet lobster tails plus a full evening of special touches ($50 per person). We did not want to spend any extra time in our inside cabin so we did not partake in room service.
This was the easiest and fastest debarkation that I have ever had. The efficiency was astounding. We took a taxi back to the airport. There were plenty of taxis, probably because we were among the first to get off the ship. Princess pushes very hard for all passengers to pre-book their transfer to the airport. The process takes a little longer and you get one more chance to be herded with the masses and it costs more money. However, I did like taking the taxi and the fact that we were able to save money. The airport was a cluster of humanity though and I heard that if you take the transfer from Princess you might be able to avoid a lot of the crowds.
The ship was big. There were a lot of people. You only noticed the people during the sea days (there were only 2) when everyone collected in the same place – the piazza. But the ports of call and the amazing location made this a trip of a lifetime. The staff worked double time trying to accommodate bizarre requests and demanding passengers. I would recommend this ship and itinerary anytime.