Monday, August 27, 2007

Final Thoughts - Using Common Sense on Cruises

This is basically where I vent about things that really annoyed me on the cruise. I'm trying to be funny about this, and a bit snarky's the only way I can blow off steam. But some of this advice is good for travel in general, not just for cruises. What this boils down to is - have respect and consideration for your fellow passengers/travelers. It's not all about you. Respectful and considerate people seemed to be few and far between on this trip, and I'm just trying to be honest here. I don't want to give the impression that cruises are absolutely fabulous and relaxing and wonderful. They are also very stressful a lot of the time.

Some people really love cruising. I don't believe I'll ever be one of those people. I'm glad we had the experience, though...and I'm not at all sorry we did it. I would consider taking a cruise again under different circumstances.

So, without further ado:

* For the love of all that is holy, DO NOT WEAR A SPEEDO! The only exception to this is if you are an Olympic swimmer or diver. Our eyes do not need to be assailed by the site of your saggy, furry 70-year-old body stuffed in a plum smuggler (Lance's phraseology, not mine). And to the guy who had his t-shirt tucked into his Speedo…well, great hopping horny toads! You are NOT all that and a bag of chips. None of you are Adonis, so please wear something sensible to the pool. There is such a thing as swim trunks, and I imagine they are probably more comfortable.

* If flash photography is not allowed, PLEASE LEARN HOW TO TURN OFF YOUR CAMERA'S FLASH! If you do not know how to do this, you have no business owning a camera. If you have a camera where that isn't possible, don't take pictures. There is a reason why flash is not permitted, and there are no exceptions to this rule. Do you want to be partly responsible for ruining some of the world's great art? By the way, flash photography isn't even necessary in many cases (and ruins photos sometimes)…for most of the cruise, I didn't even have the flash turned on, and most of my pictures turned out just fine.

* If 300 people are trying to photograph the same thing at the same time, it is incredibly rude to jump up next to the famous landmark to have your picture taken with it (especially if you give the camera to a person who has no clue how to operate one, and spends 5 minutes trying to set up the shot). 299 people do not want a picture of you, and we don't really have time to wait, given the way we are rushed through the various sights. You don't have to be in EVERY picture to prove that you were there. (You will notice that I'm in very few of the cruise photos - and Lance in even fewer - and when I am actually posing with something, it's because nobody else was trying to photograph it at the time.)

* Don't criticize the tour guide because he/she doesn't "think in English" (whatever that means…I'm quoting directly here). He/She is not a native English speaker, so what do you expect? However, he/she speaks 2-3 other languages fluently, in addition to his/her native language. How many languages do you speak? Yeah, I thought so. And to the lady who complained that the road signs in Norway were not in English...learn Norwegian, then. Besides, you weren't even driving.

* Do not talk while the tour guide is talking. Some of us would actually like to hear what he/she is saying. Thank you.

* If you hate a certain religious/racial/ethnic group or someone of a different sexual orientation, it is wise to just keep your mouth shut about it, instead of broadcasting your prejudices to all and sundry, especially in the presence of the tour guide. (And really, you should avoid a cruise altogether, since people from all walks of life are on the ship with you.) It's bad enough that Americans don't have the best reputation in the world right now, but you are only making things worse (and your fellow Americans aren't liking you much either). Also, don't take the tour guide to task on the gaps or contradictions in her history…she grew up under a Communist government, so her version of history is different than ours. You don't have to be a jerk about it and try and make her feel only succeed in making yourself look stupid.

(Why do some people even step foot outside their homes, let alone go to foreign lands?)

* If you are kindly requested numerous times by the cruise line to dress conservatively (no shorts and sleeveless tops) and not make yourself stand out during the shore excursions, it is wise to follow that advice. If you decide to wear your American flag t-shirt in Russia, don't complain when you are swarmed by panhandlers and aggressive street vendors. You are essentially wearing a big bullseye on your shirt. This also makes you a prime target for pickpockets. This is pretty much the case for travel anywhere outside North America. Unfortunately, traveling in a group makes you stand out anyway, whether you're trying to or not (which is one of the things I hate about it). But don't make things worse for yourself. Have some common sense.

* There is a reason that antibacterial hand gel is located in all the dining areas. You can't miss it…there are about a dozen bottles of it situated at various points in the room. The rest of us would appreciate not sharing your germs and being possible victims of Novovirus. Thanks.

* The ship has rules. Follow them. This means not coming dripping wet from the pool into the buffet (swimwear is not allowed there for a reason). This means not drinking from glasses or bottles in the jacuzzis (which we saw constantly). This means not saving seats in the lounges or theater for your friends. Also, don't talk loudly to your friends during performances. If you want to chat, leave. We came to see a show, not to hear you gossip and laugh.

And finally, I'll end with something positive:

* Don't be afraid to sit with strangers while you're on the cruise. You never know if they could end up being friends. We didn't exactly make lifelong friends from this trip, but we ended up sitting with some really nice people and had some great conversations.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Baltic Cruise, part 5: at sea and Copenhagen

August 19 - At Sea

I woke up with my right eye severely swollen. I'm pretty sure it was the makeup I was wearing the night before (I don't wear makeup very often because it annoys me, but up until now, it never really annoyed my skin). Lance didn't want to go to breakfast with me looking like I was punched in the face (this would've been a good time to order the free room service...too bad you have to order breakfast the night before). I put several anti-allergy drops in my eye and put a cold compress on it, and within half an hour, it looked almost normal. So we went to the buffet.

I don't really know what Lance was doing late in the morning, but I was in the Princess Theater at 10 AM for a cooking demonstration that was given by the Maitre d'Hotel and one of the executive chefs. They demonstrated 2 Italian dishes - Penne All'Arrabiata and Scampi Fra'Diavolo - and one of the pastry chefs demonstrated a very easy Black Forest Cake that can be made with a store-bought chocolate sponge cake. (If you are interested in any of these recipes, leave me a comment.) After that, one of the other chefs came out and sang a song for us ("Only You" by the Platters)...I think in order to work on a cruise ship, regardless of your job, you have to know how to sing or be otherwise talented. Anyway, the demo ended with a tour of the Capri Dining Room galley. Lance was really glad that he didn't go to the demo with me, because they asked wives to volunteer their cooking-novice hubbies to go up for the Scampi Fra'Diavolo, and I would've volunteered Lance in a heartbeat. HAHA. And he would've retaliated by adding extra crushed red pepper to the shrimp...of that, I have no doubt (the wives had to taste test their husbands' efforts).

Around 12:30 or so, we had lunch and lingered on the deck for awhile, since they had live music playing. It was mostly calypso stuff (and some reggae), which seems more appropriate for a Caribbean cruise. But it was nice, and it was sunny and pretty warm that day, so we could almost imagine that we were cruising the Caribbean.

At 2:30, I went up to the sports deck to participate in On Deck for the Cure, the Princess Cruises version of the Walk for the Cure. We had to walk 35 laps around the track (5 kilometers). Of course, we also had to donate the money for the walk, rather than soliciting donations...hehe. It was $15 minimum and we got free baseball caps. Most importantly, it was for the fight against breast cancer, so I was happy to do it.

That took about an hour...and it was a rather boring hour. I didn't have any music to listen to and there's not much that's interesting to look at when you're way out at sea. Some ice sculptor was carving a fish out of a 200 lb. ice block on deck 14, which I could see from the track, but it wasn't that thrilling to watch.

Once I was done, I met up with Lance, who had been lounging around in our cabin, and we got ice cream. Yeah...undo all that hard work, I know. No Death by Chocolate for me this time. (You pay extra for this ice cream, by the way, but the price is comparable to Baskin-Robbins, so it's not unreasonable...unlike the price of drinks.)

At 5:00, after I showered, we went to the Passenger Talent Show in the Vista Lounge, expecting comedy gold. Anyone could sign up for it, so we figured there would be people who only thought they were talented, but were actually horrible and unintentionally funny. That's what we were hoping for anyway (you know, kind of like American Idol auditions). But the 7 participants were actually really really good (there was this one amazing young girl who played outstanding classical music on the piano). This one brave man sang a Chinese opera, which was actually kind of uncomfortable (he sounded like he was being tortured to death very slowly), but he had a good voice and you had to give the man props for having the guts to sing it.

The talent show was less than an hour, as are most of the shows on the ship, so at 6 PM, we were able to catch a showing of The Astronaut Farmer in the Princess Theater.

After that, we had dinner and then went back to our stateroom to pack up the suitcase (they collect your suitcases the night before the cruise only keep out what you need for overnight and the following morning). We put our suitcase out in the hall and it was collected immediately...I had to admit, it made me really nervous to part with the luggage, particularly when there were still several hours left of the cruise. We had special colored and numbered luggage tags that determined what group we were in for disembarkation. We were scheduled to be one of the last groups to leave the ship, on account of our flight out of Copenhagen being so late.

We went to see a show and then dragged our weary selves to bed.

And thus ended our last full day of the cruise. Arrival in Copenhagen was scheduled for 5 AM the following morning.

August 20 - Copenhagen, Denmark

We weren't scheduled to disembark until 9:15, so we had the clock set for 7:30. I woke up before then, because they made an annoucement when we arrived in Copenhagen and then at 5 minute intervals as they were calling groups to disembark. The announcements can be heard in the hallway outside our room, so it was muffled, but I'm a light sleeper.

Lance woke up early too, and we made our way to the breakfast buffet with what was left of our stuff...they wanted us to vacate our rooms at breakfast. The buffet was filled with insane numbers of people...more than I had seen at any other time. I was worried we wouldn't find a table, but we found one in an overflow area.

Disembarkation was an absolute nightmare. After breakfast, we had to go down to one of the public rooms on deck 7. They had CNN on the big screen in the Explorers Lounge, so we went there to wait. They called our group about 15 minutes late, so we didn't leave the ship until 9:30. We were led to a bus and once it was full, we were driven to the airport.

Instead of going directly to the airport, they took us to a special area set up for the cruise lines. All of our luggage was being kept in a giant tent, divided by the luggage tags that we were given. So we had to go to the Pink 4 area, since that was the color and number of our tag, and find our luggage. Fortunately, that went quickly (and we got to go past the line of people waiting for luggage, because we were 2 out of only 4 people flying Air Berlin). Then we were herded into this hangar and divided into lines based on what airline we were using. Fortunately for us, we were put into the shortest line (those flying back to North America would end up waiting in line for hours to check in for their flights, and some of those people had flights just shortly after noon).

Even though our line was short, it took forever to get through it. They even passed out free bottles of water, figuring we would probably die of dehydration before we were able to check in. We finally got to the end of our line, and were told that we were in the wrong line (they apparently put us in the British Airways line instead of the "All Other European Airlines" line). So we got into the other short line, but only one employee was working it, and she kept leaving her desk. So we waited. And we waited. Finally, we got checked in and our luggage was taken from us again. We took a shuttle to the airport, bought a train ticket, and were on our way to the center of Copenhagen.

By some miracle, we got there around noon. We figured we had a good 5 or 6 hours to kill before we had to be back at the airport (and we were already checked in for the flight, so we could go straight to the security checkpoint). It was lunchtime, so food was first priority. I had briefly studied a map of Copenhagen, so I knew that the main train station was directly across from Tivoli Gardens. But we came out on the backside of the station, so we had to walk around to find Tivoli. There was a Hard Rock Cafe right next to it. Lance was excited about this...until we found out that their grill was broken and they couldn't do burgers. So we went to Burger King, against my better judgment. I wanted to eat actual Danish food (smorbrod, for example, their famous open-faced sandwiches), but Lance wanted something comforting and familiar. I gave in (and was sorry a few hours afterward when it felt like I was kicked in the food and I do not get along). I should say that Copenhagen (and Scandinavia in general) is ridiculously expensive. We paid the equivalent of $8 for my crispy chicken sandwich value meal (value - HA!), and only slightly less for Lance's double cheeseburger value meal.

As we were stepping into BK (which just happens to be by the town hall, which is right by Tivoli), I noticed that the hop on - hop off tour buses picked up people right by the town hall. We decided to go that route because then we could get off wherever looked interesting and walk around. We had no particular agenda for Copenhagen, and that's the way we like things. I hate being confined to rigid schedules and itineraries, and Lance hates it only a little less than I do.

So we took the "Mermaid Tour," which is, of course, named for the famous Little Mermaid statue. We stayed on the bus until that stop (and it's funny, but the bus took us right back to the Star Princess), got out, and then walked a little bit to another spot on the bus route (Gefion Fountain and St. Alban's Church) and caught the bus again at that point. Within two minutes of getting back on the bus, I was enticed to get off again by the sight of Amalienborg Palace, the winter home of the Danish Royals. Now, I know I said before that I was sick of royal palaces. And I was. We didn't go inside. But the square was so beautiful, and the elegant Frederik's Church, with its huge green dome, was just begging us to go in and take a look. So we did. Lance was attracted to a street just off the square, which had several embassies, so we poked around there. And that area also has the ultra-modern opera house, one of the most expensive in the world, which is located on the island of Holman.

Back on the bus, and I was stricken again a few minutes later with the need to be off the bus. We had arrived at Nyhavn, the colorful and irresistable old harbor, lined with medieval gabled houses and sidewalk cafes. We didn't get off the first go round, but Lance decided we should take the bus tour again and go back to Nyhavn and get off (even though, as it happened, Nyhavn was only a 5-10 minute walk from the place where the bus started). So we did the bus tour again, which actually seemed to go faster the second time (since we already paid once, we didn't have to pay again), and we hopped off at Nyhavn and walked from there to the neighboring shopping district, which winds its way back to the area with Tivoli and the town hall. Copenhagen is actually an easy city to navigate and it's very compact (I got a free city map at the tourist office, but it unfolded to this huge size, so it wasn't very convenient...after awhile, we didn't care about losing our bearings anyway). We could've walked to all the sights we saw on the bus tour, and it would've been a reasonable distance. But it was raining off and on, so I suppose taking a bus some of the way was for the best.

It was late afternoon as we made our way through the main shopping area, stopping in every souvenir shop we could find. We were looking for another Christmas ornament, which were easy to find everywhere else we had been, but pretty scarce in Copenhagen. We finally struck gold at the last souvenir shop on the street. They had special edition Hans Christian Andersen glass bulbs which depicted scenes from his famous fairy tales. I wanted to get The Ugly Duckling since that was really the only one of his fairy tales that I know. But Lance thought it had to be Christmassy, so we ended up getting The Little Match Girl. It came with a little booklet of her story in different languages. (I was only vaguely familiar with the story, and now having read it, I find it kind of depressing.) So that's one of the more unconventional ornaments we've gotten from our various travels, but I like it. It shows that we were in Copenhagen, but it also gives us something cultural.

I just want to say that I REALLY LOVE Copenhagen. This city rocks! I'm pretty sure Lance liked it just as much as I did, and like Stockholm, it's a place we'll want to visit again (and next time, I swear I will make a side trip to Helsingor so I can see Elsinore Castle (real name: Kronborg Castle), which inspired Shakespeare's Hamlet).

It started raining pretty hard as we were leaving the souvenir shop, so we hurried to the train station, making a quick detour at 7-Eleven so Lance could get a soda. Then we were on the train and off to the airport. By then, I was feeling very nauseous from lunch, so I wasn't sure I wanted to eat dinner (not that we could really afford to anyway, with what little kroner we had left). But after sitting awhile, my stomach calmed down some, and I got a blueberry muffin and a chocolate milk, which cost around $8. Ouch.

Our flight left around 8:30, and we got back into Dusseldorf at 9:30, crossing our fingers that we would make the 10:00 S-Bahn to head toward home. We managed to get there with 10 minutes to spare, and arrived back in Geilenkirchen just before midnight.

~~ Click here for the final photo set (cookie for you if you've looked at them all) ~~

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Baltic Cruise, part 4: Helsinki and Stockholm

August 17 - Helsinki, Finland

Let me just start off by saying that Helsinki was our least favorite of all the destinations. I was a bit concerned when the Lonely Planet guidebook I brought along proclaimed that there are few must-sees in Helsinki (it recommends Helsinki more for its atmosphere and the liveliness of its people than for its architectural, artistic and cultural virtues). Lance and I, having only 7 hours in Helsinki, certainly couldn't get a true sense of the local flavor. And that's too bad, because I think I might have liked Helsinki more if I had been able to spend more time there (days, as opposed to hours). It had some bright spots, but I think you have to dig deeper to find the city's true beauty...and you don't have that kind of time on a shore excursion.

To Finland's credit, they are on the euro, so it certainly made things easier on us. It was the only time during the cruise where we didn't have to exchange money.

We took the "Helsinki City Highlights" tour, which visits the Sibelius Monument, Senate Square and the Temppeliaukio Rock Church. There is a little time for going to the Market Square, which is a thriving and colorful area where tourists mingle easily with the locals. Our time there was much too brief. That is the one area in the city where we could get the briefest taste of Helsinki's ambience.

Mostly, we were on the bus, as per usual. Our guide, Anna, pointed out things of interest on the way. We passed the Olympic stadium, site of the 1952 Summer Olympics (if you've read all my posts, you might remember that the Winter Olympics that year were held in Oslo). We drove along the coast for a brief time and she pointed out some embassies and ambassador's mansions...and we went past some parks. The parks in Finland are pretty.

Our first photo stop was at the Sibelius Monument, which honors Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. I'm not sure how many people outside Finland are familiar with his music, but he is certainly a national hero to them. He wrote Finlandia, one of their most patriotic songs, which was banned by the Russians when Finland was part of the Russian Empire (they generally played it anyway, but changed the title to avoid censorship). Anyway, the monument is pretty's made up of a bunch of huge steel pipes (it's supposed to represent the forest, or something), and if the wind blows right, the pipes make a sound. Well, it was windy that day, but there wasn't any sound coming from it.

Our next stop was at the Temppeliaukio Rock Church, a church built into solid bedrock. It was built in 1969, so it's not exactly steeped in history. The acoustics inside are very good, one of the reasons this church is famous. The organ was playing at the time we were there. But it's very plain inside...kind of interesting, but not much to look at, really. The novelty of it is how it was built, and that's pretty much it.

Our last stop was at Senate Square, which has two prominent features: a statue of Czar Alexander II (you should remember him from my St. Petersburg post...he's the one who was assassinated where the Church on Spilled Blood stands now) and the Tuomiokirkko (Lutheran Cathedral). We went inside and it was very plain. It's much prettier outside. Neither of us felt that the inside was worth our time, but I photographed the two things inside the church that stood out. I don't think we even spent even one minute looks much smaller inside than it appears on the outside.

(There is the Russian Orthodox Uspensky Cathedral in Helsinki too, which is the other major church in town. We didn't visit it, but it is probably worth checking out, especially if you haven't already been to Russia. You will see it in the background in a couple of my photos.)

We had half an hour or so around Senate Square, so we went to the Market Square nearby. The Market Square is on the waterfront, and that is the heart of Helsinki. It's open everyday, and this is where the locals come for their produce, fish, meat, cheeses, flowers, and handicrafts. Lance and I found a handpainted wooden bell Christmas ornament for our tree. We couldn't stay here long, and we grabbed the bus to go back to the ship.

We had discussed staying in town (since that was an option) and taking a public shuttle bus back to the ship. It was easy enough to do, but in the end, we decided against it. It was windy and I was feeling a bit chilled, and as much as I liked the Market Square, I didn't have a specific reason to stay there.

So we were back on the ship early in the afternoon, and we got together with some other people in the Wheelhouse Bar for a rousing game of Outburst. Our team lost (by one point), but we still got a prize - Princess Cruises lanyards (2 for each of us). Whoopee. If any of you plan to take a Princess cruise, let me know and I'll send mine to you. It makes it much easier to carry around your cruise card, once you punch a hole in your card so you can attach it (and why buy one in the Princess boutique when I'll give you mine for free?).

The ship set sail around 4 PM, and the wind was pretty bad, so the water was really choppy. This was the first time I experienced any actual motion sickness, although I didn't get sick. And it actually wasn't that bad at first. Around 4:30 or so, I decided to go to the gym and do a workout before dinner...that was a bad idea. Between the boat rocking and the elliptical machine, I got extremely dizzy, and I gave up on my workout after 20 minutes. I stumbled back to our stateroom...I had to keep my hands pressed against the walls to keep from falling over as I made my way down the hall toward our room...that's how dizzy I was. I took a shower, we had dinner, and then I laid down for a bit. There was a show I wanted to catch that evening, and I wanted to get there early because I had a feeling it was going to be a full house.

And it was. Lance went off to the casino again for another blackjack tournament. I enjoyed an absolutely amazing concert by LiveWire, a husband and wife duo who play Celtic music. She's a fiddle player and he's a guitarist/bodhran player. They do traditional Irish folk/pub songs, as well as contemporary songs with a Celtic twist. They were really fun and incredibly talented, and got a standing ovation at the end. They were backed up by the Star Princess orchestra, who held their own just fine. I was especially impressed with their Riverdance finale (yes, I am aware that some of you reading this are rolling your eyes just about now).

Anyway, catch them on a cruise near you. They spend most of their time performing on various cruises. Must be an interesting lifestyle.

After that...bed. The ship was still rocking, and so was my stomach. I never took any of the motion sickness pills that I brought, and when I woke up the following morning, things were considerably calmer...

...which brings us to...

August 18 - Stockholm

Lance and I were surprised and delighted with Stockholm. We desperately want to go back. It's an incredibly beautiful and colorful city (especially its breathtaking Old Town), and one of the few European capitals untouched by the war, so everything is well-preserved.

Our guide was Marina, who was Swedish, but with a strong Russian heritage (in fact, she spoke fluent Russian in addition to English). I liked her a lot. After the guide we had in Helsinki, who spoke in monotone, Marina was a refreshing change of pace...although most of the other people in our group didn't like her, because they seemed to be hard of hearing and she was pretty soft-spoken.

We unwisely chose the "Royal Palace and Old Town" tour...not considering at the time that we would be weary of touring palaces after St. Petersburg. And even though this palace was completely different from those we saw in Russia, and beautiful in its own way, I couldn't stand being in there. We didn't have access to much of it anyway, because it's more for state functions than it is a museum. Several Princess tour groups were there as well as several from Holland America. We had very little room to move, and it was a wall of humanity. I was feeling very stifled and near panic...I freak out in large crowds, particularly in enclosed spaces (hence, one reason I hate guided tours). And Lance and I kept getting separated. (No pictures from inside the prohibited.)

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before we even entered the palace, we took a walk through part of the Old Town (Gamla Stan), which charmed me to my very soul. That was my favorite part...I could've stayed out there and ignored the palace altogether, just wandering down the narrow streets and poking into the quaint little shops. I took note of one shop that sold Christmas decorations, so when we got a little free time at the end of the tour, Lance and I went back there to buy our Stockholm ornament for the tree. Sadly, we didn't have time to visit the 13th century cathedral next to the palace (Storkyrkan - The Royal Cathedral), which I had heard really good things about, and I was interested in seeing the life-sized St. George & the Dragon sculpture (I took a photo of a replica of it that was nearby). There was a line to get in and it would've taken too long.

In hindsight, we really wished that we had taken any tour that included the Vasa Museum. This museum displays the ship that sank in Stockholm in the 17th century (it sank almost immediately after it set sail for the first was too top-heavy). The ship was pulled up from the sea over 300 years later, barely decayed at all, and is now on display. It's a gorgeous ship (from pictures I've seen of it), and we were really interested in going to this museum. We had hoped to have enough time at the end of our tour, but we didn't. We only had about 90 minutes after the tour ended, so we decided to just go back to the ship. I wanted to walk around town some more, but there were thousands of people everywhere...I couldn't deal with it anymore. This was our last shore excursion, and it was a relief, because they really are very stressful, and I think the Stockholm excursion was probably the most stressful of them all.

We left Stockholm in the afternoon, and we spent 5 hours passing through the Stockholm Archipelago, which is the most beautiful waterway in the world. Stockholm itself is comprised of several islands. These were somewhat like the Norwegian fjords we had seen a week before, only they were prettier. Lance and I stayed on deck for more than 2 hours to watch the scenery. We were just amazed that people would live on some of these islands! They seem so cut off from everywhere else, but of course, anyone who lives there must get around by boat. But it's not like these islands had markets, or even churches. Most were too small to support villages...some only had one or two houses on them.

That night was the final formal night, and the Horizon Court, for once, was not swarming with the starving masses. We took advantage of this and sat there after dinner for a pretty long time. Again, we opted out of the formal night, but Duggie Brown was giving an encore performance, so we dressed up in the nicest clothes we had and went to see his show. Lance was a bit self-conscious since most everyone was in formalwear, but there were a fair number of people in casual clothes, so it wasn't too bad. Anyway, Duggie Brown's second performance wasn't nearly as funny as his first, so we were disappointed.

After that, it was back to our room. Our cruise was about at an end, but we still had a full day at sea, and there were a lot of good activities planned.


Okay, photo time...this set has about 85. They're all unretouched. Fortunately, most of them were actually taken outdoors or in places with good light. A few of them are dark, though. Sorry about that. I'll fix them up in Photoshop eventually.

~~ Click here for photos ~~

Baltic Cruise, part 3: St. Petersburg

August 15 - St. Petersburg, Russia (day 1)

We arrived early and quietly into St. Petersburg, with a couple of boats that met up with us in the middle of the night to guide us through the Russian waterway toward our berth. Lance and I were up very early, since our tour began at 7 AM. We were able to watch the sun rise over the harbor. Our berth was about 6 miles from St. Petersburg.

We signed up for the Grand Tour of St. Petersburg, the most expensive tour, which is 2 full days and covers the must-see sights. The first day promised to be warm. In fact, they announced before we disembarked that the high temperature was expected to be 87 degrees and we had about 93% humidity. These two days would be the hottest of the cruise.

As we disembarked, a small band was there to greet us, playing songs for American dollars. We went through customs, which isn't a big deal, really. You have to have a photocopy of your passport, which you hand to the Russian authorities, who then stamp your passport and give you a red card, a cruise passenger visa, which you must return when you come back to the ship later on in the day (there's a fine if you lose this card). We made it out to the line of busses and met up with our tour guide, Elena, who proved to be an absolutely wonderful guide, as well as very tolerant, given the ignorance and rude remarks made by several people in our group over the course of the two days.

The first thing we did when we arrived in St. Petersburg was board a rickety open-topped sightseeing boat, which took us through the canals. Even though it was barely 8 AM, the crew served us champagne, which was very good. It felt decadent. We enjoyed all the sights along the canals, including some of the major ones (Hermitage, St. Peter & Paul Fortress, etc.). What I remember the most though was a little boy who waved at us from a bridge, and then proceeded to run to every bridge that we passed under so that he could wave at us. He ran a alongside our boat for a good mile or two. After our tour, he waited by our disembarkation point, and collected tips. Apparently, several young boys do this during their summer vacations...they make quite a bit of money this way. We didn't give him any money though.

That seemed to be a recurring theme in St. Petersburg. Everywhere, everyone wanted your money, and they didn't care if it was rubles, euros or dollars. We had pushy vendors thrusting their wares in our faces. We saw more bands performing at tourist attractions for tips (we heard a lot of the Star Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful). Now I know what out of work musicians do in St. Petersburg.

But I digress... After our canal cruise, we went to the Hermitage. It is absolutely impossible to see this entire museum if you are only a visitor in St. Petersburg. It is so massive, that it takes 9 years to see everything if you only stare at each item for 30 seconds, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you've ever been to the Louvre...well, the Hermitage more than gives it a run for its money. It is THE MOST INCREDIBLE museum I have ever seen. This museum is located in the Winter Palace of Catherine the Great, who dearly loved the arts. She started the Hermitage as her own personal art collection, and it expanded from there. We spent about 90 minutes in there, but there was a cast of thousands inside (all the other tour groups were there too), so it was difficult to get through. It's not air conditioned either, so it got really uncomfortable inside, but aside from that, I was suffering from sensory overload. The Hermitage is truly the epitome of visual intoxication.

You can take a virtual tour of the Hermitage, but it's not quite the same as going there.

We needed a break after that, and fortunately, it was time for lunch. We were taken to this restaurant called Bellini's, which sounds Italian, but isn't. We didn't eat in the restaurant itself...rather, we were put in this huge banquet room that seated hundreds. All the people on the Princess tour were eating there (there were several busses of people on the same tour). We had 3 glasses: one water, one wine, and one tiny one with vodka. I tried a tiny sip of the vodka and I swear, that stuff would peel paint off your walls (in fact, I'm not quite sure it wasn't turpentine...Lance compared it to rubbing alcohol). Needless to say, I passed. The wine was good though, and Lance shared his with me since he doesn't drink it (and wine is uber-expensive on the ship, so I will not pass up free wine when it is offered). On our starter plate, we had smoked salmon, a salad (cucumber, tomatoes, and peppers), and they passed out platters of chopped pickles and pickled cabbage. I ate some of that, and it was really good. They had bread and butter at the tables too. After we cleared our first course, they gave us 2 tiny blinis (pancakes), one topped with sour cream, the other topped with red caviar. I had never had caviar before, so I braved it...and it wasn't bad. It wasn't exactly good either, but I ate it. Most everyone at our table scraped it off. Then we had the soup course, which was just potato soup. The meal was not exactly exotic or anything...we had a simple chicken dish with mashed potatoes and steamed veggies. Dessert was a scoop of vanilla ice cream with berry sauce, really refreshing on such a hot day. A Russian musical group performed for us while we ate. They were pretty good, and of course, they tried to sell their CD after we finished eating.

We didn't get back to sightseeing immediately after lunch. The bus stopped at Red October, a souvenir shop (and I'm sure Princess is getting kickbacks from this place, because all the busses stop here for shopping). They had all the typical Russian souvenirs you would expect: nesting dolls, fake Soviet military paraphernalia, Faberge egg knock-offs, etc. Lance and I found a nice handpainted egg to hang on the Christmas tree and then we got back on the bus. They had everything there from the very cheap to the top quality, so I suppose it was a decent souvenir shop.

After that detour, we were on our way again. Next stop: St. Peter & Paul's Cathedral, which is the centerpiece of the fortress. This is the burial place of the czars, and we saw the graves of Peter the Great and his family, among others.

This was our last stop of the day, which was probably just as well, considering most of us were hot and cranky (at least the bus was air conditioned). We were taken back to the ship, where we had to stay, being sans visa. There were evening excursions, such as private Hermitage tours and a night at the ballet, but we never signed up for those. Princess had a special treat for us anyway - the dancers and singers from the famous Troika restaurant came on the ship to perform for us. That wasn't until 8:15 though, so we had time to kill. Lance and I went swimming for a bit, and then we had dinner and went to the ice cream parlor, where I stupidly ordered a concoction called "Death by Chocolate," which was aptly named. Lance ordered one too, and survived. I spent a good deal of the evening clutching my stomach and moaning. I love chocolate as much as the next person, but a brownie, chocolate ice cream, hot fudge, and chocolate chips were just too much (and the whipped cream didn't help either). I slept for about an hour before the Troika show, and was feeling much better by then.

Anyway...about Troika - it's a cabaret-type show, but it featured some traditional music and dancing. They gave two performances, and we caught the earlier one. They announced afterwards that the performers were going up to the buffet to have dinner. No kidding...not long afterwards, I was in the hallway on our floor waiting to catch an elevator, and all the dancers came stampeding out when the elevator doors opened, nearly crashing into me in their mad dash for Horizon Court (it turns out that they had different performers for the 10:15 show, so the 8:15 dancers didn't have to worry about eating and then performing right afterwards).

That was the end of the night for me. Lance was down in the casino that evening...I think there was a blackjack tournament. I stayed in our room and watched some TV and read.

August 16 - day 2

Our objective first thing in the morning was the magnificent Peterhof Palace, which is famous for its Grand Cascade, an absolutely stunning fountain that gets its water from the Gulf of Finland. We had about a half hour drive to get there, so most of us dozed off in that time, but I would hate to miss any photo opportunities, so I fought off the urge to nap.

There was a mini marketplace set up in the parking lot of Peterhof, with food stands and merchants selling their wares. All around the entrance, there were musicians playing and men shoving pashminas, nesting dolls, and faux Faberge eggs in our faces. We were told that many of them are pickpockets or work in cahoots with them (not just at Peterhof, but at any major tourist attraction), so to watch our valuables.

Once inside, we had to slip special booties over our shoes to protect the floor, and we proceeded with our tour through the palace. Other than the Grand Cascade, it lacked the wow factor that the Hermitage had…at least for me, it did.

Our group walked around a little outside too (that was the best part anyway). We actually found a quiet spot in the gardens that was not crawling with tourists. The gardens gave all the tour groups an opportunity to spread out, which was good, because the crowds were ridiculous. Princess needs to stop timing these groups to all arrive in the same place at the same time (and that goes for the other cruise lines that were there too).

Once we left Peterhof, we made our way into the center of St. Petersburg to visit the incredible St. Isaac's Cathedral. We had passed it the day before and saw its golden dome all over town. Finally, we were going to see inside.

It is the largest church in St. Petersburg, and it takes your breath away. You can't possibly know where to look when you're inside (luckily, you don't have to worry about tripping over pews as you're looking up at the ornate ceilings...Russian Orthodox churches do not have places to sit, as standing or kneeling only is allowed). This church is so beautiful that the French architect who designed it, a Catholic, requested to be buried here. He was denied that request, because of his religion.

After we left St. Isaac's, it was lunch time, so we were herded into a palace that has been converted to a restaurant. Again, all the tour groups were convening there for lunch, but instead of us all being seated in one big room, we were placed in several different rooms. And since it was a palace, the rooms were beautifully decorated. (The place was called Last Palace, in case anyone is interested.)

Lunch, once again, was nothing terribly exotic. I skipped the vodka completely this time...they didn't have it already on the table, but they came around to pour it. I had wine and water. Our plates had smoked salmon (again), some weird croquette made of shredded carrots and potatoes, and a piece of toast with red caviar on it (I scraped it off this time). We had cream of spinach soup, followed by some kind of fish with white sauce, green beans, and fried potatoes. They served what they said was strawberry tart for dessert, but it was definitely cherry...they just got their fruits mixed up. After two lunches here, I am still confused as to whether these meals are authentically Russian. Obviously the vodka and caviar are. ;)

After lunch, we walked off part of our meal by pounding the pavement a few blocks to the most exotic and colorful church in St. Petersburg - the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. It is so named because it was built on the site where Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 (someone finally succeeded in killing him after several other attempts had been made on his life). The church was consecrated 100 years ago, and had banners announcing its centennial celebration. Inside, there is a shrine built over the exact spot where the czar died. Like St. Isaac's, the Church on Spilled Blood is not really a church so much as it's a museum.

We ended our Grand Tour of St. Petersburg with a visit to Yusupov Palace (I should mention that there are over 600 palaces in the city before I explain why we went to this one). Yusupov Palace is famous because this is where Rasputin was murdered in 1916, a monumental event in Russian history. It was a beautiful palace, but by then, I was really kind of tired of touring palaces. It had a small theatre though, which was lovely (and performances are still given there), and a wonderful music hall, where we were serenaded by a quartet. I took a short video of the performance (one minute), although I think the sound quality is a bit off, and it doesn't help that two women sitting behind me were talking and laughing through the performance (GAH! I got so sick of all the rude people on this tour).

After our tour of Yusupov, our time with Elena was at an end. She saw us to passport control at the dock, and then we boarded the Star Princess, getting ready to head toward Helsinki. As we pulled out of our berth, the band that had greeted us on our first morning was there to see us off. They played Anchors Aweigh, which made us laugh, and they waved goodbye (and I suppose they also expected money to come showering down at them from the decks of the ship).

As we left St. Petersburg, we were told that we would be passing by a formerly top-secret Russian naval base - Kronstadt - which is now open to the public. In fact, the people at Kronstadt have been trying to get Princess Cruises to dock there so that they can get more tourism, but it's too far from St. Petersburg (it took 90 minutes to get there from the time we left our port). While Lance and I waited to see Kronstadt, we just stretched out on some lounge chairs and enjoyed the cool breezes coming off the Baltic...we didn't have books to read or anything. It was nice to just sit and do nothing. We eventually arrived at Kronstadt and the cruise director was on the bridge, pointing out specific things on the base and giving us a little historical background on it. It was actually very interesting, as I hope my photographs will show (and to think, 20 years ago, I would've gotten shot for taking photos of it!).

And that ended our time in to Finland!

Okay, now it's time for pictures. I have to say that I'm not entirely pleased with this set. I was always trying to photograph over peoples' heads, while walking (sometimes, we had to keep moving), or in bad light (either too much or not enough), so some of these photos suffer from camera shake or are crooked. Also, there are a lot of them that don't have labels...I just can't remember what every building is (and I looked up several as I was labeling). There were SO MANY palaces and things to see, it's just impossible to know them all unless you live there. I labeled the important stuff, anyway. Also, in many photos, it appears that I have the place all to myself. That was hardly the case, but I'm pretty good at photographing places to make them look empty. But you will see the crowds in some of them.

There are around 150 photos in this set. Most of them are not retouched, but I had to retouch the Troika pictures because they were pretty dark.

~~ Click here for pictures ~~

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Baltic Cruise, part 2: Gdansk and Tallinn

Monday, August 13 - Gdynia/Gdansk, Poland

Our day in Poland began early, so Lance and I were up before dawn to get ready for our shore excursion. We docked in Gdynia, which makes up part of the Tri-City area (Gdynia, the resort town of Sopot, and Gdansk).

We had chosen the Gdansk On Your Own tour, where the bus drives us through Gdynia and Sopot (not sorry we missed these, as neither town seemed to have anything that captured our interest) and through some of Gdansk until we reach the Old Town. There, we are dropped off and allowed 4 hours to explore on our own. This was ideal for us, because normally I really hate guided tours...I'm more of an independent traveler.

As we were driving toward Gdansk, our guide, Witek (a fresh-faced 19 year old who didn't even have his tour guide license yet), told us a little bit about the town's history and its most recent past with Communism. I thought Gdansk was pretty depressing. There was a lot of graffiti and run-down buildings and ugly Communist-era apartment complexes. The Old Town, however, is splendid...colorful and amazing and wondrous. It was rebuilt after almost complete destruction in World War II (Gdansk, in fact, is the site where the first shots of WWII were fired, at a place called Westerplatte). There are plenty of places around Gdansk that still haven't been cleaned up since the war, so we saw a few bombed-out shells of buildings here and there.

Once we were dropped off just outside the Old Town, Lance and I walked down what is called "The Royal Road" (AKA Long Street or Dlugi Targ in Polish), the route the kings and emissaries traveled when they came into Gdansk. It's a breathtakingly beautiful street, full of colorful buildings with very detailed paintings on their facades. It's flanked on both ends by gates: the Golden Gate and the Green Gate, which is now a gallery. There were two primary spots of interest in this street: the Old Town Hall and the Neptune Fountain.

The other main attraction in the town center is St. Mary's Church, which is the largest brick church in the world, and can hold 25,000 worshippers, although when we went inside, it didn't look that big. One of the most noteworthy treasures is the large crucifix that hangs near the altar. The sculptor who created it, as legend goes, nailed his son to a cross so that he could replicate the agony of Jesus' face (I heard this, I think, from our cruise director, but I can't find a source to corroborate it). There is also a medieval astronomical clock, and supposedly, the clockmaker's eyes were gouged out after he created it, so that he could never make one better than that. (I'm so glad I didn't live in medieval Poland.)

I liked walking along the river, where the ships came into Gdansk. The most noticeable sight here is Zuraw, a giant wooden crane from the 15th century, which was once used to hoist cargo onto ships. It now serves a purpose as part of Gdansk's Maritime Museum.

Lance and I didn't really do much in Gdansk. We just enjoyed ambling down the streets and I peeked into amber shops as we went. There is a big market for amber in the Baltic region, and for Gdansk in particular, and amber shops lined each street in the Old Town. Mariacka Street, which ends at St. Mary's Church, is the best place in town for amber shopping, and also considered to be the most scenic street in Gdansk (I liked the Royal Road better). It also has the oldest house in Gdansk, a tiny dwelling that is now a bed and breakfast.

Had we prepared better, we probably would've taken one of the boat tours to Westerplatte, but by the time we thought of it, we didn't have the time.

There seemed to be markets going on everywhere in Gdansk, and the town was swarming with people, particularly along the riverfront. We noticed many of them had their Princess Cruises stickers on (we took ours off, since we didn't want to be obvious as tourists). We were still obviously identified as Americans though, because some shady looking guy approached Lance on the street and offered to exchange his money. We already had zloty though, so we ignored him and moved on (and even if we didn't have zloty, we surely wouldn't be stupid enough to exchange money with a stranger on the street).

We didn't eat many meals off the ship during our cruise, but we had one here. I insisted that we had to eat pierogi, and I knew just where to go. The best pierogi restaurant in town is Pierogarnia u Dzika, so we went there around the time it opened, and ran into several other Star Princess passengers who were also grabbing a bite (apparently, word got around about this restaurant). Lance and I ordered one plate to share - Russian-style pierogi - which are filled with cottage cheese and herbs. The service was good and very fast (faster than you can get McDonald's here in Europe) and the pierogi was delicious.

We still had a little time after our light meal, so we browsed the souvenir shops until we found a place that sold Christmas ornaments. We bought a handpainted glass one with Zuraw on it, and then went to our meeting point for the bus. On the way back to the ship, Witek had the bus driver take us past the longest apartment building in the world - a Communist-era building that spans over 1 kilometer long. He said that people hate to live there, because the apartments are tiny and thousands upon thousands of people live in that one building. It also looked delapidated and falling into disrepair.

We got back on the Star Princess early in the afternoon. There was a pretty long line for boarding this time, and the lady behind us in line was whining very loudly about how she couldn't find any pierogi places in Gdansk. Lance and I were trying to stifle our laughter. HELLO! DO SOME RESEARCH! There is something called, and if you type in "Gdansk, Poland," all these wonderful websites come up that tell you what to do and where to eat, etc. And even if you don't have internet, it's mentioned in the guidebooks (it's a HUGE pet peeve of mine when people don't read up about places before they visit, and then have the audacity to complain that they don't know what to see or where to eat...if you're investing that kind of money in a trip, you should know what you're getting, right?).

Anyway, once we got back to our room, Lance decided to go to a free gaming lesson in the casino. So while he was learning to play craps, I headed to the Portofino dining room for their afternoon tea. It was really quite posh. The waiters came by with trays of little finger sandwiches, pastries and cookies, and they had musicians playing some classic tunes like "Moon River." I would've stayed longer, but because I was there alone, they seated me away from everyone else, right next to the waiters' station, and I felt like a leper. But I had some delicious little bites to tide me over to dinner.

I don't really remember how we spent that evening, although I suspect Lance was at the casino (he spent a few evenings there playing Blackjack)...I know there was one night where I just wandered around the ship, listening to the music in the various public rooms. That could've been the night we left Poland. I know for sure that I attended the cruise director's lecture on Tallinn. Lance wasn't with me for that, but they show these lectures on the Princess channel later on in the evening, so he caught it then.

August 14 - Tallinn, Estonia

We weren't scheduled to arrive in Tallinn until after lunch, and we had to set the clock forward one hour, so we slept in to make up for that lost hour. There was an arts & crafts project scheduled in the Wheelhouse Bar at 10 AM, so I went to that. We made little gift boxes out of construction paper, without using any tape or glue. It was dead easy, and I made a little blue box. I was so proud. :)

We went on deck to watch the approach into Tallinn. The Old Town sits up on a hill (part of it, anyway) and we got a gorgeous view of it as we slipped into our berth. We docked next to a Royal Caribbean ship, and it was funny, because the people on our ship started making observations about that ship (one kid remarked about the giant slide in the kid's pool on the Royal Caribbean ship...the Star Princess had a tiny slide in a tiny kid's pool). People on the Royal Caribbean were waving at us and we were waving back.

Lance and I scheduled the EZ Tallinn tour, and we had hoped to have some extra time to explore the city on our own. But we found that impossible to do, since there wasn't a lot of time left after our tour, which took longer than it should have. Our guide was Marko and the driver was named Georg, and they took us through all of Tallinn. It's a very nice town. Tallinn, in fact, was a revelation. I expected it to be very much like Poland, with a bunch of depressing and ugly Communist buildings and a lot of graffiti. But in fact, it's very clean and thriving and modern. We saw very few areas that looked run-down. Tallinn looked very prosperous compared to Gdansk. I have to say that this was one of my favorite places during the cruise, but we picked a horrible tour. We very briefly went into the Old Town (which was, in my opinion, the best part). Tallinn's Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It's one of the few European old towns that was untouched by the ravages of war, so it's remarkably well-preserved.

The tour took us past such sights St. Brigit's Convent, which is now in ruins. I didn't get a photo of it, because we were on the wrong side of the bus. We went past the Russalka Monument, which is a memorial to Russian sailors that died off the coast of Tallinn in the 19th century. We stopped at the Estonia Song Festival grounds, which is an important place for the Estonian people, because this was the site where 300,000 Estonians gathered to sing their national anthem, which was banned by the Soviets. It was their act of defiance toward the end of the Communist era. I took photos and bought a couple of souvenirs there. We also stopped near Kadriorg Palace - built by Peter the Great for his wife - but never actually got within sight of the palace. We had a brief photo stop to see part of the gardens, which are the most famous part of the palace.

We drove by the site for Olympic boating events from the 1980 Moscow Olympics...these events were held in Tallinn. The Olympic Village is now a hotel. No pictures of this, because it was a typical ugly gray concrete Soviet building.

Our last stop was the Upper Town, an area of the Old Town known as Toompea, where the Estonian Parliament is located. Across from the pink palace (Toompea Castle, the seat of government) sits Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Church that is reviled by most of Tallinn's citizens. They wanted to tear it down, but it's good for tourism, so it remains. We visited this cathedral, although our tour guide refused to step foot inside (comparing notes with those on other tours, their guides also refused to go in).

We went in one other church, the Lutheran St. Mary's Church (also known as the Dome Church or Toomkirik), which was founded by the Danes in the 13th century. It is the oldest church in Estonia, and pictures weren't allowed inside.

And that was basically all we got to see in the Old Town. I was bitterly disappointed, because the pictures I saw in the cruise director's slideshow looked so tempting...the cobblestone streets were just begging to be explored.

Immediately after we got back to our stateroom, we grabbed our dirty laundry and high-tailed it down to the laundromat. We got a notice that the Star Princess would be shutting off the water supplies to the self-service and main laundry facilities, in order to conserve water while in St. Petersburg. So we figured that everyone would be trying to do their laundry that evening. Our timing could not be better. We found an available washer and dryer (note to potential cruise passengers: go to your local laundromat and pick up a tiny box of detergent to pack in your suitcase...bring your own dryer sheets, this stuff is expensive on the ship...and I thought ahead and brought our own)...and no sooner were we in business than half a dozen other people came in with their laundry (there are only 4 washers and dryers per self-service laundry, and there is one on almost every deck except the one we stayed on). HAHA. Lance and I congratulated ourselves on our impeccable timing...we're good like that. Although, don't do what Lance did...he thought he could get change down in the casino (the change machine in our particular laundry room was out of quarters), but he got slot machine tokens instead, so we had to go spend those later. HAHAHA.

We left Tallinn at 6, bound for St. Petersburg. Shortly after we left port, the captain came on the loudspeaker and announced that a lifeboat had been dispatched to pick up a passenger who missed the ship. They were very adamant about us being back onboard half an hour before departure, and made it clear that they weren't going to be held up for late-comers or stragglers. I guess it's good that I'm not the captain of the ship, because I would've left her there. But many of us watched as the lifeboat went back to shore and then returned, and applause started once the boat was lifted back up onto the ship. I'm sure the woman was mortified, and will never be late for anything ever again.

That night, Lance and I went to the Vista Lounge to see the comedic stylings of British funnyman Duggie Brown. He was really hilarious, and we very much enjoyed his show.

After that, it was off to bed, as we had to set the clock forward another hour, and be up before dawn to begin our 2 day Grand Tour of St. Petersburg.

Here's the next photo installment...some of the photos were taken through bus windows or without flash (most museums and churches prohibited flash photography), so the photos may have glare or be a little blurry. I haven't retouched any of these, as I have so many photos and not enough time, so some of the church photos are a bit dark.

~~ Click for photos ~~

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Baltic Cruise, part 1: Copenhagen, Oslo, and at sea

August 10 - Copenhagen, Denmark

Lance and I got a very early start even though the Star Princess wasn't due to set sail until 9 PM. Our flight to Copenhagen from Dusseldorf was at 6:30 AM, and we took the train from Geilenkirchen, so we left at 3:16 AM on the train. This resulted in us not really going to bed that night at all. I took a long nap from about 7:30-11:30 PM or so...Lance slept for an hour around dinner time. So groggily, we got ourselves through, and Lance rewarded himself with a nice nap on the flight, which was less than an hour.

We got into Copenhagen airport around 8 AM (the flight left a bit late out of Dusseldorf) and very quickly got our luggage. There was a counter with the Princess Cruises logo, which was presumably where we were to meet up with the agent who was to assist us with the transfer to the ship. But nobody was to be found (although the Holland America agent was there at their respective counter), so we walked all over baggage claim until we found a person in a Princess Cruises uniform, who led us to another person outside customs, who led us to another person, etc. etc. Through this process, we dropped off our luggage and found our transfer bus.

Once the bus was full (this took awhile), we set out into Copenhagen toward the area where Star Princess was berthed. I was getting excited at the brief glimpse I got of the city. We got there so early...surely we would have time to do some sightseeing prior to setting off.

I thought wrong. The Star Princess berth was a million miles from anywhere, and once we got off the bus, we were herded into a holding tent, where they gave us some tea or coffee and made us take a number and sit. Lance and I were lucky...we were in the 3rd group for boarding, so once they actually started checking people in (which was between 11 and noon...we had been in the tent for at least two hours), we were one of the earliest groups. We were issued our cruise cards, and then we were allowed to board.

Our room was on deck 14 (Lido), which is (no bias here) the best deck on the ship. It's basically the main deck, with two pools, 4 jacuzzis, several bars, a pizzeria, an ice cream parlor, a hamburger/hotdog grill and...the best part...THE 24 HOUR BUFFET! We settled into our cabin, which didn't take long, because our luggage had yet to arrive. We grabbed some pizza for lunch, took a quick walk around the ship (we determined that everything else important was on deck 7 - Promenade, and deck 6, which is where the casino was located), and then took a nap. Our steward woke us up when our luggage arrived a few hours later.

So basically, we hung out on the ship all day, which was cool. Lance bought the $3.95/day "all you can drink" Coca-Cola offer because he drinks so much soda and the prices on the ship for it are ridiculous...and he got his little souvenir Coca-Cola cup for refills, so he was good to go. We had the boring Muster Drill, which is a requirement on every cruise, but also very important. We ate at the buffet in the evening (we somehow got scheduled for late seating in the formal dining room, and Lance hates all the pretentiousness of the main dining areas anyway) and spent some time in our cabin unpacking and hanging up clothes. We watched part of a movie in our room (we have no television at home currently, so having TV is quite decadent for us). We set sail at 9, so we made sure to be on deck for that. With very little fanfare, we were off, heading toward Oslo.

August 11 - Oslo, Norway

We slept in the next morning and woke up to a damp and chilly day. The hamburger joint had an omelet station set up for breakfast, so we ate there and had a leisurely morning. We weren't scheduled to arrive in Oslo until after lunch, but we were quietly slipping through the fjords for hours, which were just beautiful. We watched most of it from the Promenade Deck, and I had my camera with me.

When we arrived in Oslo, we pulled up right in the center of town, next to Akershus Castle, which is the only building in Oslo (I think) that still exists from medieval times. The city hall, which is quite unattractive, was only about 5 minutes away. We had a brief tour scheduled called EZ Oslo, which was just a 2 hour bus tour around the city, so we were excited to be so close to town, because we planned to do some exploring on our own. I liked this tour. Our guide was Anna and our bus driver, in typically Norwegian fashion, was named Thor.

While I didn't find Oslo to be beautiful - it's not full of old buildings - it is elegant. A Norwegian acquaintance of mine, who hails from Bergen, told me that Oslo has no soul, but I don't think I would agree with that. There is a definite spirit in the town...a certain atmosphere that I could just feel everywhere we went. That was most apparent at Holmenkollen, the huge ski jumping site where Olympic events were held in 1952. Oslo residents love and cherish this place because of their deep and abiding love for sports, and it's going to be torn down next year, so I feel fortunate that we had the chance to see it. It will be replaced by a new, more modern ski jump. The views from up there were astonishingly beautiful.

The tour stopped at Holmenkollen and one other good scenic point for pictures, but mostly we just drove around the town. The waterfront area is being totally reconstructed, so Oslo's skyline is punctuated by cranes. We passed the main shopping area, which is on Henrik Ibsen Street, an avenue that comes to an end at the Royal Palace, which Lance and I later visited on our own (not inside).

Anyway, after the drive around, we were dropped off at the ship and Lance and I began our own exploration of Oslo. At this point, a motorboat grand prix was taking place around our ship, so there were a lot of people at the harbor area. We walked into the shopping area and up to the Royal Palace and back. I was getting peckish, so we stopped in a 7-Eleven (they had tons of these all over odd, but they don't serve Slurpees) and I bought a delicious piece of toffee cake and a postcard.

We then walked around the grounds of Akershus Castle. There was a military wedding going on there, so we didn't have much access to it, but we did go into the Museum of Resistance, which documents the Norwegian Resistance Movement during WWII. Unfortunately, we got there 10 minutes before closing, so we couldn't spend a lot of time, but at least the admission was free.

Before getting back on the ship, we browsed the duty free shops right by the berth. We found an Oslo Christmas ornament (it is our tradition to buy an ornament at each place we visit together so we can reminisce as we decorate our tree), bought some chocolate bars (Norwegian milk chocolate is incredible...Lance brings some home for me whenever he goes TDY to Norway) and a Cola Light for me (because I don't drink very much soda and can get by with buying one at port).

We left Oslo early in the evening and set off toward Poland, which meant a full day at sea the following day. That night we saw a show in the Princess was with the Star Princess singers and dancers, and it was their homage to the movies. They had songs from classics from Singing in the Rain to Mary Poppins to Dirty Dancing and they also sang a number from Titanic without the slightest hint of irony. Overall, it was a very entertaining show. Afterwards, we went to some Big Band performance in one of the lounges and watched other people dance while we had a couple of drinks (Bellini for me, beer for Lance).

August 12 - at sea (bound for Gdynia, Poland)

The next day was a leisurely day at sea. I don't really remember us doing much, although we attended the cruise director's lecture on St. Petersburg late in the morning. Early in the afternoon, we passed under the Great Belt Bridge, which connects the Danish islands of Zealand and Funen. It used to be the longest bridge in the world. It almost looked like we wouldn't make it, but the Star Princess has passed this way many times. It caused quite a stir though...many people were out on the deck with their cameras (including me). It was a tight fit, but we made it. :)

I went to a seminar in the gym at 3:30, and since that evening was the first formal evening (we opted out), we had almost the entire Lido deck to ourselves. So we relaxed in the jacuzzi and I went to the gym too, since the gym was basically empty. That was our first day at sea...boring, but actually quite nice and peaceful.

Now, here are photos from those first 3 days...some of them were taken through rain-streaked bus windows, so excuse the raindrops in the photos. Coming up next: Gdansk and Tallinn.

~~ Pictures! ~~

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Gone Cruisin'

Look forward to a rather lengthy trip report and photos coming soon. We're about to get started on our 10 day Baltic cruise on the Star Princess.

Here's our itinerary:

August 10 - Copenhagen, Denmark (depart 9:00 PM)
August 11 - Oslo, Norway (arrive 12:30 PM, depart 7:30PM)
August 12 - at sea
August 13 - Gdansk (Gdynia), Poland (arrive 7:00 AM, depart 3:00 PM)
August 14 - Tallinn, Estonia (arrive 12:00 PM, depart 6:00 PM)
August 15 - St. Petersburg, Russia (arrive 6:30 AM)
August 16 - St. Petersburg, Russia (depart 6:00 PM)
August 17 - Helsinki, Finland (arrive 7:00 AM, depart 4:00 PM)
August 18 - Stockholm, Sweden (arrive 8:00 AM, depart 3:00 PM)
August 19 - at sea
August 20 - Copenhagen, Denmark (arrive 5:00 AM)

So expect to see a post on here within a few days after our return, once I go through all the photos, which will take some time.

I'm sad that we only get about 6-7 hours in each port (and probably 2 of those hours are going to be spent going through the chaos of disembarkation/embarkation). I expect this to be so much fun though. It's our first cruise, and we lucked out and got digs on the Lido deck, so we're close to the 24 hour buffet, 2 swimming pools (one is indoors) and jacuzzis, a pizzeria, and a hamburger/hotdog grill.

Hoping the weather stays nice. The forecast looks good for the first few days at least...low 70's for the high and cloudy, maybe some rain. I packed both sunscreen and a rain jacket. We should be prepared for all types of weather and situations...and it's important to pack clothes that can be dressed up or down, since there are so many events on a cruise that require being somewhat dressy (we're skipping both formal nights...packing formal wear is just too much hassle, and we'd spend all our time at the formal dinner wishing we were lounging around in our jammies anyway).

You can follow us on our cruise on the Star Princess Bridge Cam.

Friday, August 3, 2007

A couple of useful travel sites

I love Trip Advisor. I loved them before they even started sending me free stuff. That's the first website I consult when I'm looking at hotels. The reviews are very helpful in allowing me to determine if the place is crawling with roaches, or if it's top notch.

(It's especially helpful when you're a travel guide writer and you can only choose 2-3 hotels to include, out of several hundred in any given city.)

Anyway, I am a registered user of Trip Advisor. And I guess it has its perks, because in the past few months, I have received a backpack (with their logo on it, so I would never actually travel with it, but it's good for library trips, for example) and yesterday, a luggage tag. The luggage tag is especially nice, because I have a nondescript red suitcase with a black leather luggage tag, and people are always trying to abscond with it (the suitcase, that is, not the luggage tag). This bright green luggage tag with the logo will make it stand out more. (Aside: I have always wanted to get one of those luggage tags that say "THIS IS NOT YOUR BAG!" to put on my suitcase.)

So anyway...YAY! Free stuff! And it's just a darn good website. So go and check it out already.

I know it's already included in my list of Useful Travel Websites on the right hand side of this blog, but people usually ignore those lists.

Also, a shout out for Now, admittedly, I am a little biased, as I am currently working for this website as an independent contractor (in layman's terms, I am one member of their writing staff who is writing travel guides for use on the website). But my husband finds this website extremely useful. He can search airfares with it, and it will give him the lowest prices quoted by almost every travel booking site (expedia, travelocity, orbitz, etc.) as well as the prices quoted directly from the airlines. This saves you from having to do a price comparison on each site individually. He is now a fan of


In other news, we are leaving for our Baltic cruise ONE WEEK FROM TODAY!! And because I evidently don't have enough to do already, I've been obsessed with checking out the webcam from our ship, the Star Princess. It's currently doing a Baltic tour, but with a slightly different itinerary than the one we're doing (and it seems to be doing it in reverse). I first checked out the webcam a little over a week ago, and saw that the ship was in Italy. Then I watched its voyage from Italy to Copenhagen, from whence it departed on Tuesday. Most of the images were of the sea land (and occasionally, you can see one of the ship's decks). But yesterday, I looked on the webcam to find a beautiful image of Stockholm, Sweden! Today, it is in Helsinki, but you can't see much. I'm following it all the way through this cruise, and it will be returning into the port in Copenhagen the morning that we arrive there (we don't depart until evening). Anyway, it's making me really excited about the trip. I'm getting a little preview of what we're going to see.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Revisiting Valkenburg

The first time I ever visited Valkenburg was in December 2004, when I went there with Lance, my aunt, and my cousin to see the Christmas markets in the cave. Valkenburg is very festive at Christmas, but it's also a lovely that I wanted to visit again. I haven't had the chance to do so.

Until today.

I have an assignment to write an article about Valkenburg's caves for Geotimes, a publication of the American Geological Institute. So I went with my friend Christine today to do the tour of the cave. I chose to visit the Fluweelengrot (Velvet Cave), which is the same cave that I visited the last time. I wanted to see it without all the booths set up that were selling tacky Christmas tchotchkes. It was like I was seeing the cave for the first time.

There are also the Municipal Caves, but we opted out of taking that tour.

I have to say, the atmosphere was entirely different. You have to take a guided would be very easy to get lost in the caves, and in fact, two teenagers did get lost in them and died. The tour guide wanted us to imagine what that was like, and he turned out all the lights. Pitch blackness swallowed us, giving us the sense of what it was like to be trapped inside the cave.

Aside from a few lights here and there, and some candles, the cave is mostly unlit. During much of the tour, we were swathed in darkness (which is why some of my pictures came out weird...I waited until after the group had moved on before pointing my camera on something I couldn't see and clicking). The tour was in Dutch, but we had the benefit of a paper that explained everything in English, and the tour guide and one of the other tourists were both very helpful in explaining things to us in English.

My favorite part was the chapel, where secret masses were held during the French occupation of Valkenburg. There are also some beautifully elaborate carvings and paintings, which were generally done by the light of a candle or a small oil lamp. Many of the images in the cave were done 100-150 years ago. At one section, you can see the names and silhouettes of the American GIs carved into the stone...they hid in the caves with the locals during the waning days of World War II.

Some of the local buildings were made from the marlstone mined from the caves. The castle is the most prominent (no photographs of was covered in scaffolding), but I noticed that one of the local churches was made of that material too, as were several other buildings scattered throughout town.

The tour took about an hour, and afterwards, we had lunch (I don't really remember the name of the place, but lunch wasn't anything really special anyway...good, but standard stuff). We did a little bit of browsing in the shops. I bought some chocolates at De Babbelaer Chocolat & Sweets, and then we left.

Other than the driving to and from (always a pain for me), it was a great day. Perfect weather (although it's chilly in the cave, so bring a sweater)...couldn't have asked for better.

I'll post a link to the article once it's published.

(Disclaimer: Some of these pictures had to be seriously retouched because of how dark it was in the caves. The colors represented in the photos are not necessarily how the images appeared in person, but probably more accurately represent what the images actually look like with the benefit of full light).