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!    

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Iceland, Scandinavia and St. Petersburg, Part 2. July 5-9: Copenhagen, Denmark

Cafes along the canal in the Nyhavn waterfront district of Copenhagen
Our flight from Reykjavik to Copenhagen left Keflavik International Airport at 8:30 AM on Friday, July 5 and arrived at Copenhagen Airport, Kastrup on time at 1:25 PM the same day.  (The flight itself took only two hours and 55 minutes but there is a two hours time difference between Reykjavik and Copenhagen.)

We took a taxi from the airport to the Hotel Maritime, located in the Nyhavn waterfront district.  When we paid our driver with a credit card, he advised us to try to avoid using our credit card in Copenhagen because Copenhagen imposes a tax on credit card transactions; instead, he suggested that we exchange some of our US currency for Danish krona and pay for any purchases we might make in Copenhagen with krona, thereby avoiding the tax. We took his advice and withdrew 2,000 krona (about $350) from a nearby ATM machine on the following day and that did, in fact, allow us to avoid taxes on what otherwise would have been credit card transactions.  But here’s the rub: when we got back to the US, I compared the exchange rate I got on my ATM withdrawals with the exchange rate I received on my credit card transactions and guess what?  When that’s factored in, it all turned out to be a wash: the poorer exchange rate on ATM withdrawals almost exactly offset the tax I otherwise would have incurred on credit card transactions.  What you lose on the curves, you make up on the straightaway.

And now back to our hotel.  Its location couldn’t have been better: it was in the city center on a quiet street within a few blocks of the Nyhavn canal, the Royal Library, the Royal Theatre, and Christiansborg Palace.  The hotel’s staff was pleasant and helpful.  And the buffet breakfast included in our room rate turned out to be more than ample.  But, despite those three positives – location, staff, and breakfast – the room itself was quite disappointing.  It was small, cramped and poorly-appointed and I’d be hard-pressed to recommend the hotel for that reason.  Fortunately, though, we spent little time in our room so the disheartening hotel accommodations failed to dampen our spirits.

Dining in the cafes in the Nyhavn district
In the late afternoon, after settling into our room, we left the hotel and ambled over to the Nyhavn, seating ourselves at Ved Kajen, one of many nearly indistinguishable outdoor cafes lining the canal.  For our first meal in Copenhagen, the choice was almost forced upon us: I ordered a plate of three kinds of herring, Sue ordered a plate of two kinds of smoked salmon, and we shared.   Very Danish and very delicious.

Copenhagen is a picture book city, what with all its wonderful fountains and statues, canals and sidewalk cafes, and its extraordinary architecture that makes one feel that he is visiting a medieval kingdom.  It is like living in a fairy tale and we played it to the hilt, two carefree wanderers in a foreign land.

Overhead rides at Tivoli Gardens
Sue did have her heart set on seeing two things in Copenhagen – Tivoli Gardens and The Little Mermaid - and we made a special point not to miss either of them.  On Saturday, July 6 we took a public bus to Tivoli Gardens, the world renowned amusement park that is reminiscent of the Golden Age of amusement parks - a combination of the Coney Island of my youth, including Steeplechase and Luna Park, with a soupcon of Disneyland and Six Flags thrown in for good measure.

Tycho Brahe and me at Tivoli Gardens

That was an easy day (we did take a bus, after all) but the next day, Sunday, July 7, was rougher: we walked from our hotel to the The Little Mermaid and back, a distance of about four miles, weaving in and out along the way to visit various churches and the Gefion Fountain – and, of course, to break for lunch.

The Gelfion Fountain in Copenhagen

A family of swans swimming near The Little Mermaid only served to underscore the fairy tale that is Copenhagen.

The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen
On Monday, July 8, we again wandered about a bit aimlessly seeking (unsuccessfully) to find the old stock exchange, being turned away from the Jewish Museum (we’d hadn’t realized it was closed on Mondays), but managing to find the Christiansborg Palace – and yet another pleasant café for lunch.  That was our last full day in Copenhagen and, having pretty much o.d.’d on fish over the previous few days, we opted for an Indian food buffet for our final dinner.  It was more than we’d bargained for: 22 separate dishes, including kofta curry, lamb birinyi, beef curry, three different chicken dishes, and a wide variety of vegetables, salads and breads.  An unusual but enjoyable end to the second leg of our vacation.

On the morning of Tuesday, July 9, we checked out of the Maritime Hotel and took a taxi to the cruise ships pier.  We were welcomed aboard the Norwegian Star and finally were ready to begin our Nordic cruise.  I’ll tell you about the cruise in my next post.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Iceland, Scandinavia and St. Petersburg, Part 1. July 1-4: Iceland

For some time now, Sue has longed to visit the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, while I have hoped to tour Scandinavia.  This year we determined to do both, booking a nine days cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Star that took us from Copenhagen (Denmark) and back again, touching down along the way in Warnemunde (Germany), Tallinn (Estonia), St. Petersburg (Russia), Helsinki (Finland), and Stockholm (Sweden).  The cruise included two days in St. Petersburg and one day in each of the other ports, which was just what we were looking for.

Since were planning to embark from Copenhagen, however, we decided to spend another four days in that city before sailing off to Germany, Estonia, Russia, Finland, and Sweden, reserving a room at the Maritime Hotel in the Nyhavn waterfront district.  And since we’d be flying to Copenhagen from New York via Icelandair, which permits a free stopover in Iceland along the way, we opted to spend another four days in Iceland before continuing on to Copenhagen, reserving a room at Room With a View Hotel in Reykjavik for the duration of our stay in that country.

So what we initially planned as a short getaway to a few Scandinavian capitals and the Hermitage Museum suddenly had turned into an 18 days journey on land and sea in which we’d ultimately visit seven different countries.

The first leg of our trip took us from JFK to Keflavik International Airport, located some 40 miles outside Reykjavik.  Our flight was scheduled to leave New York at 2:05 PM on Monday, July 1 and arrive in Keflavik at 11:40 PM the same day (flight time is only five hours 40 minutes but there is a four hours time difference between NY and Reykjavik) but, not unexpectedly, our flight was delayed before takeoff for nearly an hour.  But, equally unsurprisingly, we arrived in Keflavik almost exactly on time, since all of the airlines seem to have built just enough extra time into their schedules to allow for such seemingly inevitable delays.

Iceland suffered a major banking crisis in 2008 and the country was virtually bankrupt so it is astonishing to me that prices in that country remain as high as they are.  But the fact is that they are and it begins right at the airport: a taxi from the airport to Reykjavik costs about $120 but, fortunately, we’d been alerted to that and arranged for a private car to pick us up at the airport for less than half that amount.  (There are somewhat cheaper alternatives available through public buses but our baggage was heavy, we were arriving at close to midnight, and we’re not quite as young as we used to be.  So, at least for us, this was clearly the right choice.)

We arrived at close to midnight but, it being July in Iceland, it was still so bright out that it might well have been mid-afternoon.  Our driver was right on time, brought his lovely daughter along with him for company (and to assist us with our luggage), and delivered us promptly and safely to our hotel, Room With a View.  We’d alerted the hotel that we’d be making a late arrival but we probably needn’t have bothered: it was still light out, people were about, the small hotel’s concierge was only temporarily detained assisting other guests who were checking out to find public transportation, and we were quickly settled into our room.

Our room (or, rather, our two-room suite) was well-appointed with a pleasant living and dining area and a separate bedroom.  It was clean, the queen size bed was quite comfortable, the hotel itself was very well located on Reykjavik’s main street, and the staff was friendly and helpful.  A little pricey, to be sure, but after all, this is Iceland.

We spent the next day (Tuesday, July 2) exploring the city, lunching on excellent fish and fish soup at Caruso, a charming Mediterranean restaurant located just a few blocks from our hotel.

Caruso Restaurant in Reykjavik, Iceland
In the evening, we strolled down to the Old Harbor and dined there at Saegreifinn – The Sea Baron, a simple, traditional spot,  justifiably known both for its outstanding lobster soup and for the variety of grilled seafood that it serves on skewers.  I opted for the grilled whale meat, which may hve been politically incorrect but was delicious (much like beef).  Somewhat less adventurous than I am, Sue chose grilled cod.  We both enjoyed the lobster soup.  We’d heartily recommend both restaurants: Caruso and Saegreifinn.

On Wednesday, July 3, we decided to explore a bit outside of Reykjavik and booked a half-day tour that took us to the Gullfoss (Golden) Waterfall, the Geysir hot springs, and Pingvellir national park.  The Golden Waterfall was a bit disappointing: the falls are massive and I understand that when the sun is shining, magnificent rainbows often form above them; unfortunately, the sun wasn’t shining much on the day we were there and we had to make do with just the falls themselves.

Gullfoss (Golden) Waterfall

The Geysir geothermal area was, however, terrific.  Today the original “Geysir” (which gave its name to the very phenomenon) seldom erupts but at regular intervals the nearby “Strokkur” spews a column of water and steam up to 30 meters high.  It’s a most impressive performance.

Stokkur erupting in the Geysir geothermal area.
We lunched at the Geysir restaurant located on the grounds (I tried the traditional Icelandic meat soup which was quite good) before continuing on to Pingvellir national park.  The park is the birthplace of Iceland’s first parliament, Alpingi (believed to be one the world’s first parliaments, if not the first) and is also home to some extraordinary geological formations tracing back to the collisions between the tectonic plates.  The remnants of Alpingi didn’t do much for me but I found the geological evidence of the collisions between the tectonic plates to be absolutely awe-inspiring.

Geological evidence of the collision of the tectonic plates in Pingvellir.
Thursday, July 4 (Independence Day) was to be our last full day in Iceland and we picked two things to do not normally associated with the birthday of the United States: we swam in one of Reykjavik’s many thermal pools and followed that with a visit to The Icelandic Phallological Museum.  What pubs are to the Brits and Irish, pools and spas are to Icelanders who visit them regularly not merely to swim, but to meet and gossip and generally enjoy the fellowship and camaraderie of their neighbors and friends.  We found a facility within walking distance of our hotel that included a lap pool, a steam room, and a couple of hot tubs; it was just what we needed.

Just a few blocks from the pool, The Icelandic Phallological Museum, reputedly the only museum of its kind in the world, gives testament to the notion that there really is no limit to what man will do (or at least collect).  Exhibiting a collection of more than 200 penises and penile parts (including all the land and sea mammals that can be found in Iceland) as well as about 300 penis-related artistic objects and practical utensils, the museum sees itself as making it “finally possible for individuals to undertake serious study into the field of phallology in an organized scientific fashion.”  Serious or not, the museum was fun and I’m glad we got to see it.

Preserved specimen of an elephant penis in The Icelandic Phallological Museum
Early in the morning of Friday, July 5 we flew from Reykjavik to Copenhagen.  I’ll be telling you all about that next leg of our trip, the time we spent in Copenhagen, in my next post.