WHERE: Baltic and highlands cruise
WHEN: June 25-July 19, 2015
St. Petersburg's glitter
The Vassa in Stockholm
Days last forever in many countries so be prepared for sunlight as early as 4:30 a.m. and as late as 11:30 p.m.
You’ll need about 7 currencies although many tourist places took Euros and US dollars. Be frugal as when you change your money back (which is easy), you’ll lose quite a bit.
Tough to pack due to hot/cold temps, sometimes on the same day. Layers work; prepare for rain.
Unless you REALLY REALLY want to see Berlin in a blur, the travel from Rostock is not worth it, in time or cost.
City cards: we bought the Cope and Stockholm cards, which are cost-effective if you really like museums.
Accommodations: Holland America Eurodam, Neptune suite. Built in 2007, the ship felt aged. Tamarind restaurant was terrific; internet painfully slow.
Alnwick castle is "the second largest inhabited castle in Great Britain after Windsor...with quidditch broom riding lessons."
The Little Mermaid "is a little anticlimatic knowing it's been damaged/stolen and replaced multiple times."
Catherine's Palace is "breathtaking with its Versailles modeled mirror room and recreated Amber Room."
Nine countries in 24 days!
June 25, 2015-July 19, 2015: Holland America Eurodam to Denmark, Norway, Scotland, England, Germany, Russia, Finland, Estonia, Sweden
Wonderful trip overall with so much variety, from mountains to fjords, cosmopolitan cities to historic villages, highlands to lowlands, creatures to crown jewels. We wondered about handling 24 days at sea, together, but happily enjoyed the entire journey.
Standout highlights (chronologically):
Stavenger, Norway: Dock is downtown of the charming town, famed for the cruise to Lysefjord and pulpit rock. Alas, our ship excursion was on a gray day with only a peak at the peak. (Could have driven ourselves to the rock.) Pretty cool Norwegian Petroleum Museum. Note: Norwegian fjords are much like Puget Sound.
Lerwick, Shetland Islands, UK: Tender to shore. We had arranged a car and drove to the southern tip to Sumburgh Head, where we sighted three puffins, several Shetland ponies, numerous sheep and other creatures and crossed an airport runway. Pretty barren so fairly safe to test driving on the wrong side of the road on the wrong side of the car.
Greenock, Scotland: Easy 20 minute walk through the small town to the train station for a 40 minute ride into Glasgow (the first one arrived at 7:30 a.m.) The “hop-on-off bus” takes about two hours for the full overview of Glasgow.
Portree, Isle of Skye, Scotland: Tender to shore, taking about 20 minutes. The literature didn't do justice to this area, the most northern major island--we should have arranged for a car as no taxis about or cars available. We took the 10:45 tourist 60X bus that makes a couple of stops including at the intriguing Dunvegan castle, home of the chiefs of Clan Macleod for 800 years. Folks lined up starting at 10 and many couldn't get on.
Invergordon, Scotland: Our second ship excursion, to see lakes and castles and loch ness. Comfy bus, good guide. Of note: snow up in the mountains; pretty Loch Ness; 14th century Urquhart castle military ruins; brief viewing at Culloden Battlefield, site of the last battle on Scottish soil; Cawdor Castle, which had beautiful gardens and sculptures.
South Queensbury, Scotland: At the shore is the Hawes Inn, where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Kidnapped; the rest of the town is tiny. We easily get a taxi to Edinburgh for $22 pounds (the big bus shuttle is $10 each and you have to wait for it to get filled). Terrific town dripping in history and views from every vantage point (especially liked the Sir Walter Scott monument with its multiple tiers of platforms).
Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Ship excursion to Alnwick castle (pronounced Annwick), the second largest inhabited castle in Great Britain after Windsor, inhabited for 700 years for the Percy family, now Dukes of Northumberland. Site and furnishings are gorgeous, and often used for filming including as Hogwarts and for the Christmas episode of Downton Abbey! Castle is designed to entertain kids, including archery and games and quidditch broom riding lessons. The lovely modern gardens are a 10 minute walk out the back door.
The ship has a shuttle to Tynemouth train station, worthwhile as the town is sweet, on the north sea with an ancient monastery and huge flea market on Sundays.
Copenhagen, Denmark: Great walkable town that we got to know well. Of course, the Little Mermaid, which is a little anticlimatic knowing it's been damaged/stolen and replaced multiple times; canal tour (remarkably minimal leeway under the bridges); views from Our Saviour Church with its winding exterior staircase, and the round tower, with the oldest functioning observatory in Europe; Rosenborg Palace (where you can photograph the crown jewels, unlike most palaces); Tivoli, the second oldest amusement park in the world.
Note: The cab from airport to ship at the far dock is $55-$60 US and takes more than 30 minutes. Beware: the hop-on-off buses are all a little different and not all are reliable. We were among the first to be enticed on board--we didn't leave for an hour.
Tallinn, Estonia: Spectacular feast for the eyes! About a 20 minute walk from the dock. Wonderful old wall, numerous churches, colorful buildings, lots of artisans in medieval garb, tons of trinkets (wools, Vikings, sheep, linen, felt). Many viewpoints including the dome church tower, the St. Olav tower (which was the highest in the world in 1500; does not open until 10), and the old wall.
St. Petersburg, Russia: Dock is unattractive, some 30 minutes from town by bus. We had paid extra for the small group two-day tour (no more than 20 in a van). There were many lines, starting with customs, which provides you a visa/pass and a stamp.
Day one began with the glamorous metro, then the intriguing Yusupov Palace where Rasputin was assassinated in 1916, wrapping up with the Hermitage museum--an impressive but grueling gallop that includes 2.5 miles in 353 rooms over four buildings amid a million other tourists. Difficult to really appreciate the art.
Day two featured Catherine’s Palace, breathtaking with its Versailles modeled mirror room and recreated Amber Room; Peterhof, the Czars’ summer palace on the shores of the Gulf of Finland; hydrofoil transfer of about 30 minutes back to the city; inside St. Isaacs, the third highest cupola after St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London, says our guide; and inside the church of the Spilled Blood, built on the spot where Czar Alexander I was assassinated with the exterior modeled after St. Basil’s and intricate mosaics inside.
Click for more details on these two days in St. Petersburg.
Helsinki, Finland: Sunrise at 4:25 and sunset at 11:34! Old Town is about 40 minutes’ unappealing walk or a city shuttle for $10E each. We grab a cab for $15E to the market center, which is darling (try the vendace fish). Took the ferry to Suomenlinna, the maritime fortress, moderately interesting. Strolled up to the Olympic stadium, and over to the rock church (built into or out of the rock). The more we walked the more we liked Helsinki.
Stockholm, Sweden: Great city! Make time to watch views in and out of dock (which is unattractive). City shuttles for $10E each or take the city bus. Tourist kiosk is too small but we were among the first to arrive. You can activate or purchase Stockholm cards there, which allows you to ride all transit. Then take the No. 1 or 76 buses into town.
Day one: Royal Palace is nice but do not wait for the changing of the guards: takes almost an hour and is fairly boring. On to Sodermalm, and up many steps to the skyview gondola restaurant that has a great view. Ferry to Djurgarden (beware: they pack you in like NY subways): spectacular Vasa museum (ship sank in 1628 on maiden voyage and is perfectly preserved); fun Abba museum (you can be the fifth member and see your video later!); Skansen, the back-in-time park with Tuesday night singalongs for 10,000 people.
Day two: We get going at 8:30 and taxi to city hall (negotiated to 250 from 300 K) with the goal of the 9:30 ferry (ticket booth opens at 9) to Drottningholm, the summer palace. It’s not worth the hour-long ferry ride with vast but barren grounds, a famed Chinese pavilion (opens at 11), and the oldest theater still in use (guided tours start at 11). Reservations needed: The city hall tower only allows 30 people at a time and I did not get in; and the ice bar, inside the Nordic C Hotel, only allows 60 at a time ($205K including a drink in an ice glass)--I did get in and it's a "should do" novelty.