Baltic Cruise Trip Report

Amcan Travel cruises with Holland America through the Baltic Sea visiting northern Europe, August 2006.

Day 1: USA to London

Arrival in the morning. We took the tube from Heathrow to Kensington and left our bags at the hotel before noon. Since we bought a 2 day London Plus rail pass, we got out of the town to get to Cambridge (photo, Cambridge street scene). It is really a lovely college town. The Backs around the center and the flat-bottom boat floating on it reminded us of a scene from the movie, Chariots of Fire. We had a picnic on the riverbank soaking up the summer sun. Exhausted after two day's travel plus the outing, we retired quite early.

Day 2: London to Harwich, Great Britain

After a nice hot breakfast in the hotel restaurant, we walked around the Kensington neighborhood, a high-end residential area. The Kensington Palace and its park (photo, Kensington Park) is just a few blocks away with lovely pound, swans (photo, swans), flower garden, numerous sculptures and a Princess Diana Fountain.

We checked out of our hotel by noon and took the train to Harwich to board the Rotterdam of Holland America. The ship carries about 1300 passengers. We were on the waiting list for a free upgrade and we got it, from an inside cabin to an outside cabin with the promenade outside our window. At dinner we met our six tablemates: two older couples from Marin County and a younger couple from Phoenix.

Day 3: Day at sea

We found it nice to have a break and just not do anything important this day. We went to review art auction pieces, participated in a trivia with two other couples, from Chicago and from New Jersey. Our team won the game, so everybody got a Rotterdam mug. Barbara took a sauna while Richard practiced his sax in the cabin. We missed a food preparation show and a political talk given by the lecturer on the ship, a political science professor from Cape Town University. Apparently the topic and his theory were quite controversial which resulted some lively conversation at the dinner table.

Day 4: Oslo, Norway

We woke up early to a scene of the beautiful fjord that is the sea route into Oslo (photo, Oslo Fjord). We docked right next to the Akershus Fortress and walked into town through the ancient defense front (photo, fortress) with cannons pointing the bay. We strolled through the old town to the Royal Palace (photo, palace) which is rather plain. We rode the metro a couple of stops out to the Munch Museum. We both like Edvard Munch's paintings, through Barbara knew little about him other than his famous "Scream" painting. The museum is in a suburban multi-cultural neighborhood next to a park. Then we visited the Vigeland Sculpture Park (photo, sculpture park) and were both thrilled to see those bigger than life granite and bronze figures. Finally we stopped at the National Museum where we saw more Munch paintings, which seemed to us to be more the cream of his works. We barely made it back to the boat before the gangway was raised for sail.

Day 5: Aarhus, Denmark

Aarhus is a lovely college town and Denmark's second largest city after Copenhagen. We had our first experience of their free CityBike (photo, riding around). You find the bikes in special locked racks, insert a coin to release the bike. We rode them all over the town on mostly flat, sometimes cobble stone streets. We went all the way to the Aarhus University campus, a nice open college of some 30,000 students, very spacious, clean and green. We had a picnic lunch under big willow trees, watching young moms with baby out for a stroll and feeding the ducks and birds along the river. We rode our bikes up through the Botanic garden on the edge of the town and saw some exotic flowers and plants. We finally reached a high ground where an old post mill (photo, mill) stands near the giant Folklore Village, a local tourist attraction. We returned the bikes at the city center stand, got our two euros back, and rode a shuttle bus back to our ship.

Day 6: Warnemunde and Rostock, Germany

At the Warnemunde port, many of our fellow passengers opted to take the long land tour to Berlin, a seven-hour round trip train ride plus 5-6 hours in Berlin. We had spent a few days in Berlin back in 1999, so we stayed at the resort town of Warnemunde which is actually a seaside resort and suburb of Rostock. We got off the ship and found the train station right next to the pier. So off we went with two Rostock Cards, which allowed us to ride unlimited train and bus for 12 hours in the area. After a brief linguistic difficulty with the bus driver, he managed to drop us off right at the town center (photo, Rostock center). We walked up through the outdoor market in front of the City Hall and looked in on St. Mary's Church, which features Europe's Only still-functioning astronomical clock (photo, clock). It's an engineering marvel from 1472. We took a break for a snack, then continued to St. Peter's, a Lutheran church with simple design featuring some very modern stained glass works showing scenes from Jesus Life. We took the tram back to the train station, and rode back to Warnemunde, where we walked on the sandy beach promenade. It seemed to us a rather unusual German experience, since we never linked warm sandy beaches with Germany before. It is a very popular summer vacation destination for locals.

Day 7: Tallinn, Estonia

We found downtown or old-town Tallinn offers about the most medieval town atmosphere we've enjoyed in a long time (photo, old Tallinn). We were able to cover a good deal of the town on foot in the single day. We walked passed the Fat Margaret Tower (photo, tower) and got to St. Olev Church. There we climbed up the tower to take panoramic views of the old town, graceful ancient buildings with steep salmon-colored tile roofs, much like a fairy tale city. However, this beautiful town, along with the entire country has had great suffering, first under Danish and Swedish rule, then under Germany and Russia, followed by German occupation in World War II, and finally under the USSR til 1990. Then a third of the city's population gathered for a lengthy powerful singing action and practically sang the Russian rulers out. All this history is proudly displayed at the City Museum. On the way back, we passed by a decaying giant statue of wild west Indian dressed in a bear hide (photo, incongruous indian), which dominates the top of the stairs to the city stadium. At the dinner table, Barbara conspired with our tablemates to bully Richard into playing with the piano man at his open mike night. When we finally got to the lounge at 10:30pm after dinner, all the other sitters-in and karaoke buffs had retired. Richard sang a song anyway, accompanied by his own sax and the piano man, then played solo on his sax as the encore (photo, a little silliness on-board).

Days 8, 9: St. Petersburg, Russia

Russia is a mysterious country for a lot of American tourists, and Holland America does a good job of helping passengers enjoy it in a way that's comfortable for them. About 90% of our fellow passengers had booked organized tours with the cruise, since this is the only way to set their feet on Russian soil without going through the trouble of getting their own visa. We had come prepared, having arranged visas in advance through Seattle's Russian General Consulate. When the ship docked, we were ready to disembark, and managed to get off ship during the 15 minutes window of 7:30-7:45am. After 7:45am, the ship off-loads the organized tours onto 20 different buses to visit the city in various itineraries. We found a little shuttle bus that mainly transfers workers inside the giant commercial docking area during the day. At the port gate we found a second passport control, and then we are on the street of St. Petersburg. We immediately got lost and went to a close-by hotel. The front desk clerk was a nice girl with a little English, and she showed us how to get to downtown in one bus ride. We arrived at the entrance of the Hermitage (photo, Hermitage) 30 minutes before opening time. In line we met a nice young couple from Germany, currently working in Moscow. We knew we want to spend as much time as possible in this palace-turned-museum compound and indeed we did. We had visited here three years ago but were rushed through. This time we determined to spend as much time as as we might want. The collections are truly amazing. The square behind the palace apparently is a popular wedding ceremony site and we viewed some happy newlyweds dancing, surrounded by family and friends, from the museum window (photo, revelers).

After spending most of the day in the museum, we wanted to rush back to our ship to change clothes and pick up Richard's sax. The idea is, we have contact with a local jazz band that is popular in St. Petersburg and it might be okay to sit in for a tune or two. The return trip was rather an adventure itself, since we didn't exactly know the address or location of the commercial port. Our plan was to take the same bus (the number 22) back to the port, but the one we took only takes us to the edge of the town and it appears to be the end of the line. How could this be possible? Of course, we found no one who can understand our question. Barbara found a Chinese restaurant and figured maybe she can ask directions to the port in Chinese. The restaurant staff turned out to be mostly young local Russians waiters who spoke a bit English, but there was one Chinese-speaker, possibly the owner. They directed us to the bus stop to get on the 22, but once we got on the bus again we realized we were turning back into the city center. It was in the rush hour and the bus was in a traffic jam. Half an hour later, we were back to downtown. We decided this bus system was too confusing for us and we'd be better off and try taking the Metro close to the boat. We managed to get to a Metro station that (we thought) was the closest to the port. But there is no sign of the port and no bus and nobody speaks any English around us. Help! A restaurant waitress told us we just need to extend our arm out for a taxi and it would take us anywhere we want to go. We tried and finally a car stopped for us. There is no way to tell if it is a "taxi" or not, there is no sign outside or inside and no meter. The driver is a young Russian with a big smile but, alas, not much English. It is our fault to not have the port name in Russian. We sat in his car for about 10 minutes trying to tell him where to take us. Finally he was inspired to call his sister on his cell phone since she is studying English at college. So Barbara got on the phone with the sister and told her we want to get to the port. The driver got it and started driving, but we soon realized that he was taking us back to town again. We had to stop him, and got his sister on the phone again to stress that it is the commercial port (container port by their category) that our ship is at, not the passenger ferry and boat dock that is in the other side of town. At this point, we realized that Chinese restaurant people also thought we were going to the passenger ferry dock. What a mess! Finally, we got back to the ship and immediately turned around with Richard's sax back to town again. This time we taxied all the way from the port. Richard's friend Marco (met through the internet) is a New York native but has been in St. Petersburg for the last 15 years, married to a young pretty Russian lady and teaching English for a living. He introduced Richard to the band that plays at the Red Fox Jazz Club on Friday night. When we got there, the place was already full and the singer was singing a typical traditional American jazz number. When they took the break, we found out the singer doesn't speak any English, though he singsd the American songs with a Chicago accent. Richard jammed with them for a few tunes and the audience seemed like it quite well (photo, at the Red Fox Jazz Club). When the evening's music program was done, Marco invited us to his apartment, just a block away, in a builing where Anton Chekhov once lived. We shared beers and chat. Marco got on line to talk with young wife, currently studying in Paris, since her degree in speech therapy is (apparently) of little value in St. Petersburg. Sometime after midnight, Marco walked us out and got us a taxi back to the port. It was late, so we walked the 2 miles from the port gate back to the ship.

The next day, we rode a bus to downtown again. This time, older and wiser, we took one of the minibuses that goes directly to the nearest metro, from which we now knew how to return. Downtown, we took the canal tour on one of the many small boats that ply the extensive canals of the Neva River (photo, canal). Last time when we visited SPB, we were here in the cold March when the river and canals were still frozen. We passed the Cruiser Aurora (photo, cruiser) and saw the giant Hotel St Petersburg, where we stayed last time. We strolled through the center of town to St. Isaac's Cathedral (photo, cathedral). We climbed the colonnade, to have panorama view of this grand city and it was very impressive under the summer sun. Finally we walked back up Nevsky Prospekt and over toward the Church of Spilled Blood (photo, famous church), perhaps the most beautiful church of the city, before we returned back to the port and the boat in the mid afternoon. Our two days adventure became a good dinner topic at the table.

Day 10: Helsinki, Finland

Happy to enjoy a cloudless and warm day, we got off the ship to take a shuttle to downtown Helsinki. We walked through a city park thick with greenery and and statues down to the very center of town (photo, water nymph statue). There we boarded the 3T tram, which is considered something of a tourist tram since the route covers most of the famous city attractions. The ticket allows you ride around for one hour, so we got off the first stop at Senate Square (photo, church above the square). Our next stop was the Rock Church (photo, rock church), so called because it is indeed carved right out of solid rock. The interior is simple and elegant featuring a dome lined with a single copper thread, like the bottom of a giant basket when we look up (photo, copper thread dome). We also stopped at National Contemporary Museum housed in a unique building (photo, Museum of Contemporary Art) with delightful and rather playful interior. However, we found we were feeling just a little numb towards museums and their objects, since we were still recovering from the day at the Hermitage. The Helsinki Contemporary Museum, by comparison, is orderly, calm and clean. We went around the corner to admire the architecture of Saarinen's famous train station (photo, Helsinki Station). Surprisingly, today was the warmest day of our trip. Richard felt a bit off so he skipped dinner to sleep off his overheating. Barbara had to enjoy the ship's "dessert extravaganza" on her own.

Day 11: Stockholm, Sweden

Sweden gave us another hot and cloudless day. We arrived in Stockholm by mid morning. We didn't feel a rush to go anywhere, since Monday most of the museums are closed. We got to downtown (photo, Stockholm) and looked into a couple of old churches before catching the noon Royal Guard Change in front of the Palace. It was quite a ceremony, going on for almost an hour under the hot sun. The guards are decked out in starchy formal uniform, the brass band mounted on horses (photo, guards). They practiced some complicated maneuvers between the army and navy troops with the band in the background. The crowd of people watching cheered and applauded, especially for the pretty woman officer who was doing the high duty. After the ceremony, we walked back to the docks along a tree-lined waterfront with restaurants across the street. Trying to take a short cut, we got into a road which is blocked for vehicles, because the US Embassy is on this road. The entrance is equipped with a metal rise-to-block barrier that is ridiculous looking compared to the other embassies on the same street, so Richard raised his camera. After just one picture (photo, posing at the embassy), a plain-clothed person emerged from complete quiet and deserted looking gate to tell us we could not take pictures here though there is no sign saying so. We continued through a hugh open field park back to our ship. It was the final formal night so we dressed up a little for dinner.

Day 12: Day at sea

Today we slept in. After some breakfast, we went for the final trivia and the Original Vikings lost again. Richard went to attend a little political science and history talk about the USSR and its collapse, while Barbara went to the art auction. It was also the last night on the ship, so there was a lot of swapping of addresses going on at the dinner table. We hope we can keep in touch with our tablemates and have them join us next March for our China Shangri-La trip.

Day 13: Copenhagen, Denmark

We disembarked in the midmorning and caught a bus to our hotel in downtown, which is very close to Tivoli (photo, big ride)and the train station. After unloading our bags, we went to the National Gallery (photo, museum displays) where we ran into our tablemates from Phoenix. The gallery is the biggest in Scandinavian countries and free to visitors. We also visited the Danish Design Center across the street, and were very impressed with the young designers' ideas and samples. We looked around for some free bikes, but were not able to find any in the downtown area, except one which has got its own lock, the rider took it as the personal bike. We went to a pizza restaurant for dinner before back to our hotel room.

Days 14 - 16 (bonus days!): Copenhagen, Denmark

We woke up early hoping to get in a bit more sightseeing before flying home this morning. But we found out from the TV that there were arrests in London with a foiled attempt of blowing up several planes flying to US from London. It seems all the inter-European flights to London were cancelled. We spent most of the day calling our travel insurance people to have them relay the call to United Airlines' reservation center since United has no office in Copenhagen. After two hours on the phone, we finally booked a flight two days later, avoiding the London connection. We were also able to extend out hotel room for one night only (at $300 per night). Unlucky, we happened to hit the annual Copenhagen Fashion Show weekend and all hotels are sold out. During the rest of the stay in Copenhagen, since we had more time than we planned, we took the canal tour around the city (photo, canals) and out to the bay to see the Royal Yacht (photo, yacht). We visited the famous statue of the Little Mermaid from the tour boat, where we could only see her back and tail (photo, Little Mermaid). Later we took a tram out to where we could see her from the front (photo, the other view). One of the three nights we went to the Mojo Blues Bar where Richard jammed with the local musicians (photo, more music). Another night we had a drink at the legendary Library Bar of the Sofitel Hotel, where we heard a local Jazz trio. During the last two days we went to hear a couple of organ concerts (photo, church organ), since it is their festival season. The last night was spent at the youth hostel eating pizza and fries with people half or one third of our age. We like to think we know Copenhagen pretty well by now. The return flight was actually through Amsterdam and we boarded our flight with open clear plastic bags of just passport and tickets.