Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Iceland, Scandinavia and St. Petersburg, Part 3. July 9-18: Our Nordic Cruise

National Cruise Lines' Norwegian Star
We boarded Norwegian Cruise Lines’ (NCL’s) Norwegian Star for our Nordic cruise and found our outdoor stateroom in the forward section of Deck 8.  We’d cruised with NCL before (most recently to the Caribbean in early 2011 on the Norwegian Gem), so we were already familiar with the configuration of NCL’s vessels and the facilities available on them: both the Norwegian Gem and the Norwegian Star are 965 feet long, weigh somewhat over 90,000 tons, carry between 2,300 and 2,400 passengers and approximately 1,000 crew members, and boast among their many amenities a large number of restaurants and bars, a spa and fitness center, a jogging track, a swimming pool, hot tubs, a theatre, a casino, shuffleboard courts, an art gallery, duty free shopping, and much, much more.  On both ships, our cabins were similarly furnished with a double bed, a desk, a table, two chairs, a stall shower, a sink, a toilet, a television set, a mini-bar, and ample storage space in drawers and closets.

Versailles Restaurant.  The main dining room on the Norwegian Star
As it turned out, however, we enjoyed our recent cruise on the Norwegian Star much more than the cruise we took on the Norwegian Gem in 2011 but that had nothing to do with the ships themselves nor with our cabins nor with the activities or food provided on the two vessels: based on all those factors, the two cruises would have to be rated as roughly equivalent. The food on both ships was ample and tasty, though not great, and the entertainment and sports facilities on both were just about what one would expect to encounter on cruise ships of this sort.  No, the difference in our reactions simply came down to the routes the two ships traveled and the weather we encountered: the first three days and last two days of our cruise aboard the Norwegian Gem were spent at sea in cold and dreary weather as we traveled from NY to the Caribbean, docking in between (in admittedly much nicer weather) in San Juan, St. Thomas, Antigua, St. Martin, and Tortola.  By contrast, the weather during our Norwegian Star cruise was glorious both during the two days we spent at sea and in all the ports we visited.  And, most importantly, all of the ports we visited on our Nordic cruise – Copenhagen (Denmark), Warnemunde (Germany), Tallinn (Estonia), St. Petersburg (Russia), Helsinki (Finland), and Stockholm (Sweden) – were far more interesting and enjoyable than the handful of Caribbean islands we’d dropped in on two years earlier. To be sure, San Juan, St. Thomas, Antigua, St. Martin, and Tortola provide pleasant respites from New York’s cold winter weather but for the committed traveler they really don’t hold a candle to Copenhagen, St. Petersburg, Helsinki and Stockholm.

The Stardust Theatre on the Norwegian Star
I’ve always felt that people who enjoy cruising fall into two categories: (1) those who enjoy cruising for its own sake and (2) those who enjoy cruising primarily as a means to an end.  Those in the first category derive most of their pleasure from being at sea, dining in a ship’s several restaurants, drinking in its bars, attending shows in its theatre, gambling in its casino, swimming in its pool, bidding for art at shipboard auctions, shopping in the ship’s duty free shop, and so on.  Sure, they enjoy visiting the ship’s ports of call but such visits are, at best, just the icing on the cake.  Indeed, many of them enjoy cruising even if the ship is cruising to “nowhere.”

Those in the second category, on the other hand, see cruise ships primarily as floating hotels whose real value inheres in their transporting travelers from one port to another in the most economical fashion, both in terms of time and money.  No checking in and out of hotels, traveling to and from airports, boarding and disembarking from planes, checking and collecting baggage - all of which adds up both in time and money to much more than it costs to get from one port to another via a cruise ship.  And yes, those in this second category will frequent a ship’s restaurants and bars and often many of its other facilities as well, such as its fitness center, spa, pool, casino, or theatre, but such visits are only incidental to those cruisers’ main purpose which is to be transported from point A to point B in as pleasant, efficient, timely, and economic manner as possible.

We fall squarely into that second category and so for us this cruise was a great success – notwithstanding the fact that the ship’s food never did soar to gastronomic heights and we never did bid for art at auction or play the slot machines in the casino or go on the ship’s pub crawl.  The cruise got us from Copenhagen to Warnemunde, Tallinn, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, and Stockholm and back to Copenhagen and that’s what we really wanted.

But enough pontificating.  Here’s how the cruise actually evolved:

At 5 PM on Tuesday, July 9, we set sail from Copenhagen.  The Market Café is the ship’s largest restaurant, serving enormous buffets for all three meals of the day.  We had dinner there that night and breakfast there the following morning, before our arrival in Warnemunde, Germany.  For our first breakfast, we focused on the large array of cheeses, pate, herring, smoked salmon, cured meats, and rolls and pastries before us but had we chosen to, we could have had our fill of omelets, scrambled eggs, French toast, bacon, sausage, hot and cold cereals, yogurt…the list just goes on and on.

A street in Warnemunde, Germany
We arrived at Warnemunde, a small town of fewer than 8,500 people, at 7:30 AM on the morning of Wednesday, July 10.  Warnermunde itself doesn’t offer much of interest to the tourist: it’s a seaside resort with some nice beaches and quaint fishermen’s houses, mostly surviving on fishing, ferry traffic, trade, and handicrafts – in short, not the sort of place that one would make a special effort to visit.  Recognizing the limited attractiveness to tourists of Warnemunde itself, NCL does offer three to five hours tours to Rostock or Wismar or Bad Doberan and even a 13 hours tour to Berlin (entailing a 3 ½ hours train ride each way – in effect, exactly what we sought to avoid by cruising rather than using some alternative means of transportation). None of that appealed to us so we just walked from the ship on our own after we docked and strolled the streets of Warnemunde.  This was certainly not one of the high points of our cruise but I don’t think we lost anything by not having availed ourselves of one of the Rostock, Wismar, Bad Doberan, or Berlin tours instead.

We returned to the ship in the late morning, lunched at the Market Café and had dinner there as well.  The next day, Thursday, July 11 was a day at sea – a celebratory day at sea, actually, since it was my birthday!  We lunched that day on hamburgers and hot dogs at The Grill, the ship’s casual buffet restaurant adjoining its swimming pool and we dined in the ship’s main dining room, the Versailles Restaurant.

Old castle turrett in Tallinn, Estonia

We arrived at our next port-of-call, Tallinn, Estonia, at 9 AM on Friday, July 12.  Tallinn, with a population of just under 400,000 is a much more interesting place than was Warnemunde.  Estonia has only been completely free for the last 16 years, i.e. since the collapse of the old Soviet Union.  Prior to that (since the 1200s), it had been ruled by the Danes, then the Germans, then the Swedes, then the Russians, then the Germans again (this time the Nazis), and then the Russians again (this time the Communists).  Tallinn’s history was thus one of continuous warfare, rebellions, and reconstructions but, despite that, it has maintained its charm with its winding cobblestone streets, churches and medieval red-roofed houses to such a degree that it appears on the UNESCO World Heritage List of as a living museum.

We booked NCL’s three hours “Scenic Tallinn” tour which took us through the cultural heart of Tallinn, Kadriorg Park, and the Song Festival Ground, and past the Forest Cemetery, the sixteenth century ruins of St. Bridget’s Convent, the Estonian Russalka monument and the summer residence of Count Orlov.  The tour was worthwhile but still not what we really booked the cruise for (that would come over the next two days).  We returned to the ship which set sail for St. Petersburg at 5:30 PM.

No visas are required to visit Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Finland or Sweden, but Russia is another matter.  In order to visit the country on one’s own, one must have a visa and that is not only expensive but time consuming to acquire.  But there is a loophole: if one chooses to visit Russia as part of a tour group, organized by a cruise ship that is docking in Russia for no more than 72 hours, no individual visa is required.  The Norwegian Star would be docking in St. Petersburg for about 35 hours.  So our choice between visiting St. Petersburg on our own or doing it as part of an organized group was basically made for us: organized tours it would be.

We arrived in St. Petersburg at 8 AM on Saturday, July 13, remained docked there until 7 PM on Sunday, July 14, and had a variety of tours to choose from.  One of those tours was only 2 ½ hours long, another was as long as nine hours, and most of the others were between three and five hours long. In terms of difficulty, the tours were rated from Level 1 (Easiest) to Level 3 (Most Strenuous).  In making our selections, we were guided by three considerations: (1) we didn’t want to be out on any individual tour for more than five hours; (2) we preferred the less strenuous tours to the more strenuous ones; and (3) notwithstanding (1) and (2), we definitely weren’t going to miss the Hermitage Museum.

What we ended up selecting was the “City Highlights and St. Peter & Paul Fortress” tour, a four hours Level 1 activity for the afternoon of Saturday, July 13 and the “Hermitage with Gold Room” tour, a five hours Level 2 activity for the afternoon of Sunday, July 14.  They both turned out to be just what we’d hoped they’d be.

St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia

The “City Highlights and St. Peter & Paul Fortress” tour took us to the city center, the exteriors of the Winter Palace and other buildings of the Hermitage Museum, the St. Peter & Paul Fortress (which includes a glorious cathedral housing the remains of nearly all the Romanov monarchs including Nicholas II, the last Russian tsar, and his family), St. Isaacs’s Cathedral and the Church of the Spilled Blood.  And the “Hermitage with Gold Room” tour, an overwhelming and exhausting experience but well worth it, provided us with the opportunity to view masterpieces by Da Vinci, El Greco, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse and most of the other greatest painters of all time, most of which we had never seen before and probably would never see again.  It was a real “bucket list” experience.
Matisse's Dancers at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia

Following our afternoon at the Hermitage, we returned to the Norwegian Star which,  an hour and a half after our re-boarding, set sail for Helsinki.  We arrived in Helsinki at 7 AM on the morning of Monday, July 15, eager for a taste of what the Finns had to offer but still so tired after our time in St. Petersburg that we opted to take a relatively short “Easy Helsinki” tour rather than embark on a longer or more strenuous excursion.  This worked out just fine for us: we got to see the neo-classic buildings in Senate Square, the Lutheran Cathedral, Parliament House, the National Museum, Finlandia Hall, the new Opera House, the Olympic Stadium, the truly remarkable Jean Sibelius monument, Embassy Park, and the open air market.  (And we did it with a minimum of walking!)
Sue at the monument to Jean Sebilius in Helsinki, Finland
And so it was back to the ship as our cruise was nearing its end.  We set sail that night at 5 PM, arriving in Stockholm (which was to be our last stop before our return to Copenhagen) at 8 AM.  For our final port-of-call, we decided to tour the city largely on our own via the Hop On Hop Off Bus (intending to hop on and do a minimum amount of hopping off).  And so we did.  We got the very briefest look at what Stockholm is like, driving past City Hall, the Vasa Museum, the Old Town and the Royal Palace and the Stockholm Cathedral.  We would have liked to have spent more time in this charming city but all good things must come to an end and our cruise was just about over.

A farewell view of Sweden from the deck of the Norwegian Star
We set sail late that afternoon at 4 PM and spent the entire next day at sea, arriving in Copenhagen at 7 AM on Thursday, July 18.  We disembarked quickly and boarded a bus to the Copenhagen Airport, Kastrup (our baggage had already been sent on ahead to the airport).  When we arrived at the airport, we found our luggage right away and had plenty of time to spare before our return flight to JFK via Icelandair (with a stopover in Reykjavik) was scheduled to leave at 2 PM.  That flight left on time and arrived on time in Reykjavik where we had a brief layover before boarding the second leg of our return flight from Reykjavik to JFK at 5 PM.  We arrived at JFK at 7 PM, found our bags, zipped through immigration and customs, hailed a cab and were home by 9 PM.

We were exhausted (given the time difference between NY and Copenhagen, we’d been up for approximately 22 hours) but we were home.  Would we do it again?  In a New York minute!    

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