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Cruising Europe and the Baltic Sea

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I had an opportunity to cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) sailing on the beautiful Getaway this past September. The 9 night/10 day Baltic Sea cruise departed from Copenhagen, Denmark and included ports of call in Warnemunde (Berlin) Germany, Tallinn Estonia, St. Petersburg Russia, Helsinki Finland and Stockholm Sweden before returning to Copenhagen.

Day 1. Overnight flight from Detroit to Copenhagen

It was with great anticipation my wife and I boarded our flight from Detroit for Copenhagen via Amsterdam. We pulled away from the gate and promptly parked on the tarmac for 90 minutes because of fog in our connecting city. Needless to say, the delay was just enough for us to miss our connecting flight. Oh, the joys of travel!

Not a worry, we were scheduled to arrive in Copenhagen very early on the morning of the cruise with our cruise departing at 5:00 pm. We got our airline tickets re-issued for a later flight and off we went with thoughts of the awaiting adventure in our minds.

Upon landing in Amsterdam, we hurried to our connecting flight. The airport was extremely busy with all the weather-related flight delays. Having passed through Passport Control mid-terminal, we arrived at our gate as they were beginning the boarding process for our flight to Copenhagen. We handed our passports to the gate agent to issue our boarding passes and was told there was a problem with one of the re-issued airline tickets and we had to go to a special airport location to have it fixed. Long story short, we missed the connection but were scheduled on a 12:15 pm flight the same day. With several hours to kill we enjoyed the airport lounge, thankful for our membership, and tried to relax. As the hours ticked by, the lounge became less congested. Finally, flights were getting caught up and people were flying out.

Then the unthinkable happened! Our 12:15 pm flight was delayed with expected departure at 2:35 pm. If you’re keeping score, we are now 0 for 3 on our scheduled departures. Thank you Mother Nature! Our new arrival time in Copenhagen was shortly after 4:00 pm. Would we make the ship? They pull the gangway 30 minutes before departing and everyone is to be onboard no later than one hour before departure. It looked bleak. Even travel professionals are not immune to flight delays.

We land in Copenhagen and “walked with a purpose” to baggage claim and much to my utter joy, the NCL people were still there waiting for us! They told us to grab our luggage and hurry to the meeting place to get to our awaiting vehicle for the ship.

Happy ending to the initial flight woes? Not quite. The baggage carousel kept spinning bags around and around, but ours never came. No luggage! Now the NCL people are getting a little frantic due to the time. I hurriedly filled out the lost luggage forms with the airline for our three pieces. I was told by the airline they were still in Amsterdam. They said they would get them that night and have them delivered to our first port of call the following day.

We ran with our NCL greeter to the van. The driver made a heroic effort driving us through now rush hour traffic but no way would we be at the pier at 5:00 pm. Calls were made to the ship. Red lights were run, speed limits were exceeded and our NCL escort was frantic. We screeched to a stop and were told to run through the cruise terminal, which was completely empty, and go directly to the side of the ship where they had a portable gangway waiting. We climbed aboard not showing any documents except our passports. We made it!

Of course, it turned out to be 5 days into our cruise before the luggage eventually showed up but hey, what the heck, we were on our home away from home, the new Getaway. NCL was super nice providing us with expedited, complimentary laundry service to clean the limited wardrobe we could accumulate from shops on board.

I’m very happy to report, even without our luggage, upon boarding our cruise ship and for the full duration of the cruise, everything was beyond excellent!

NCL Getaway

Day 2. Warnemunde (Berlin), Germany

Typical of most ports in Europe, they are industrial with many container ships, vehicle ferries, freighters and a few cruise ships. This port is a few hours train ride from Berlin with the train conveniently located a short walk from our ship, the Getaway. We purchased an excursion with NCL to do an all-day adventure to Berlin. The train ride was pleasant, comfortable and very scenic as we breezed along through farmland, villages and towns. Upon arriving in Berlin, we boarded our deluxe motor coach and did an orientation on Berlin as we headed to our first stop. Our city tour of Berlin covered the top ten highlights of the city. Photo stops included the East Side Gallery, a 3/4 mile section of the Berlin wall, Checkpoint Charlie and at the Bebelplatz, one of the most beautiful squares in the city. We saw Potsdamer Platz where the first hole in the Berlin Wall was made and which today is a block of glass and steel skyscrapers. At the Holocaust Memorial, we stopped for photos and wandered through on our way over to the Brandenburg Gate.

After enjoying a traditional German pub-style lunch at a local restaurant, we had an outside visit of Charlottenburg Palace, the oldest surviving Prussian palace. We went into the former western part of Berlin, where we passed by the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church and saw the Victory Column commemorating the Prussian victories before transferring to the train station for our return journey to the Getaway.

At the Berlin Wall.

Brandenburg Gate

Checkpoint Charlie

Day 3. Cruising the Baltic Sea

After a full day of sightseeing in Berlin, we were able to relax on the Getaway as we sailed to Tallinn, Estonia. Getaway is 145,655 gross register tonnage with a guest capacity of 3,963 with a crew of 1,646. She is 1,068 feet long and was built in 2014. The ship offers a wide variety of activities.

The outdoor sports complex provides a basketball court, climbing wall, mini-golf, bungee trampoline, water slides, jogging track, an aqua park for the kids, sun deck, pools and Jacuzzis. There is also a “Ropes Course” to climb up, down across and even walk the gangplank over the side of the ship. Of course you have a safety harness on, but it is great fun.

The Mandara Spa contains the fitness centers that are very large, beauty salon, a barbershop, and treatment rooms for a full menu of services from massages, body wraps, facials, acupuncture, manicures/pedicures and many other mind and body treatments to soothe and rejuvenate you.

Sea day, like evenings are when the casino is open for those that want to test their luck playing Blackjack, Craps, Roulette, Texas Hold ‘Em and Poker plus loads of slots. You can shop till you drop with several options available on the Getaway.

There is a selection of 14 bars and lounges on the Getaway and the entertainment is exceptional including Broadway productions of shows like Million Dollar Quartet, Burn the Floor and even a Cirque du Soleil production of Dreams and Steams. Lounges abound with dueling pianos and Vegas-style lounge acts.

The Entertainment Staff onboard always has something going on to keep you amused and entertained from Bingo to Karaoke to audience participation games and deck parties.

Needless to say, when you are spending a day at sea on NCL, you can do it all or you can do nothing at all. The choice is yours!

Day 4. Tallinn, Estonia

Leaving the port in Tallinn, we had a 10-minute walk to reach the walled old town. We spent the morning wandering the cobblestone lanes stopping for coffee and scones, enjoying the street performers and people watching. Many interesting shops and boutiques were available to purchase quality merchandise from clothing to prints.

Cobblestone street in Old Town Tallinn.

Day 5-6. St. Petersburg, Russia

In my opinion, of all the excellent experiences on the cruise, St. Petersburg was definitely the highlight. To get off the ship, you must have a visa. Applying can be a tedious process but when purchasing an excursion, you are able to travel on a group visa, which is included in the price of the excursion. We opted to join an extensive two-day tour through a local Russian tour company. It was guided both days by Elena, a university professor in St. Petersburg.

Over the two-day period we had a city highlights drive tour which takes in the city’s most famous and beautiful buildings and historic monuments: the tip of Vasilevsky Island, the log house of Peter the great, the battleship Aurora, Nevsky Prospekt, Arts Square, Ostrovsky Square, the monument to Catherine the Great, the Alexandrinsky Theatre, the Yeliseevsky grocery store, the National Library, the Russian Museum, the Gostinyy Dvor department store, the Kazan Cathedral, the Admiralty, the monument to Peter the Great, the Mariinsky theatre, and St Nicholas’ Cathedral. The tour gives a comprehensive view of the historic city center and acquaints you well with the city. On the way to some suburban estates, you will drive through residential areas where the majority of St. Petersburg’s residents live.

One of our stops was at the subway station, which is the deepest subway in the world. The escalator ride was long and interesting. Once inside, we took the subway to the next stop and marveled at the mosaic artistry on the wall, the marble floor and spotlessly clean stations.

Escalator leaving the St. Petersburg subway.

Mosaic in Subway station, tracks are to the right.

We stopped at the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral for a visit inside, went to Peterhoff for a tour of Fountain Park and the Upper gardens, returning by hydrofoil. We went inside the Catherine Palace, visiting the Amber room. There was a boat ride which did a slow sailing along rivers and canals of the city allowing us to view the city’s beautiful architectural ensembles, squares and bridges from the water level.

Peterhof Fountains

The royal summer estate of Catherine Palace.

We did guided excursions in the Church on the Blood, Yusupov Palace: this former residence of the noble and monumentally wealthy Yusupov family (thought to be as rich as the tsar) was Prince Felix Yusupov’s favorite residence in the capital. The palace boasts beautifully recreated interiors including furniture, art and a palatial theatre. It is one of the few aristocratic homes in the city to have retained many of its original interiors. The Yusupov Palace was the scene of one of the most dramatic episodes in Russia’s history – the murder of Grigory Rasputin. The story of this historic event unfolds before your very eyes when you visit the Rasputin exhibition, included in the tour of this fascinating palace.

Theatre in Yusupov Palace

St Isaac’s Cathedral: One of the most impressive landmarks of the Russian Imperial capital and dominating the skyline of Saint Petersburg, you will immediately be transfixed by the glistening, gilded dome of this architectural wonder. St. Isaac’s, designed by French architect Auguste Montferrand as the city’s main church and largest cathedral in Russia, features an incredible facade richly decorated with sculptures and massive red granite columns. The interior is adorned with incredibly detailed mosaic icons, paintings, and a stunning iconostasis (the icon wall that separates the altar from the rest of the church) decorated with 8 malachite and 2 lapis lazuli columns. Saint Isaac’s was closed in the early 1930s and reopened as a museum. Today, church services are held here only on major ecclesiastic occasions.

The most amazing attraction is the State Hermitage Museum. The museum is one of the five largest art museums in the world. It comprises five buildings filled with the finest collections of all main European art schools. The collections had originally been started by Catherine the Great and only grew larger over the generations. Today, the museum contains around 3 million exhibits and has 3 separate departments located in different parts of the city.

Gold Room, Hermitage Museum

Day 7. Helsinki, Finland

We decided to do the Hop-On Hop-Off bus tickets in Helsinki. We received our map showing the various stops and were then free to get on and off as we pleased. This was an excellent way to see the city. We rode the entire circuit from our starting point at the ship to get a “lay of the land” and determine where to get off and to better judge the needed time at each stop and to get back to the ship in a timely fashion. Each passenger is provided with earbuds to be able to hear the multi-lingual audio guide explaining the attractions at each stop.

Hop-On Hop-Off in Helsinki.

Our first stop was at Temppeliaukio Church (The Church of the Rock). Excavated directly into solid rock, the Temppeliaukio church is situated in the heart of Helsinki, at the end of Fredrikinkatu. Because of its special architecture, the church, completed in 1969, is one of the main attractions in Helsinki. The church hall is covered with a dome, lined with copper and supported on the rock walls by reinforced concrete beams. The interior walls are of rugged rock and rubble wall. Before noon, the light spreads from the row of windows surrounding the roof periphery to the altar wall, where an ice-age crevice serves as the altarpiece. Due to its excellent acoustics the church is a popular venue for concerts.

Rock Church, Helsinki

Other stops brought us to the Sibelius Monument, Olympic Stadium, Sea Life Aquarium, Parliament, City Centre, the Swedish Theatre, the Esplanade/Market Square in downtown and the Flea Market. There are 20 stops all together including the 3 cruise ship piers.

Esplanade in the heart of Downtown Helsinki.

Day 8. Stockholm, Sweden

The Nynashamn port is about an hour’s ride to Stockholm. Upon reaching Stockholm, we opted to visit the Vasa Museum. The Vasa is the only preserved seventeenth-century ship in the world, and a unique art treasure. More than 95 percent of the ship is original, and it is decorated with hundreds of carved sculptures. The 69 meter-long warship Vasa sank on its maiden voyage in the middle of Stockholm in 1628, and was salvaged 333 years later in 1961. For nearly half a century the ship has been slowly, deliberately and painstakingly restored to a state approaching its original glory. The three masts on the roof outside the specially built museum show the height of the ship’s original masts. Today the Vasa Museum is the most visited museum in Scandinavia, with over one million visitors a year.

There are ten different exhibitions around the ship to tell about life on board the ship. The film about the Vasa is shown in 13 different languages. In addition there is a well-stocked shop and a pleasant restaurant. Tours of the museum take place every day.

Vasa

Stockholm is home to the Nobel Prize and features the Nobel Museum. Stockholm City Hall, with its spire featuring the golden Three Crowns, is one of the most famous silhouettes in Stockholm. It is one of the country’s leading examples of national romanticism in architecture. The City Hall was designed by the architect Ragnar Östberg is built from eight million bricks. The 106 meter tall tower has the three crowns, which is the Swedish national coat of arms, at its apex. Behind the magnificent facades are offices and session halls for politicians and officials, as well as splendid assembly rooms and unique works of art. Stockholm’s municipal council meets in Rådssalen, the Council Chamber.

The great Nobel banquet is also held in City Hall. After dinner in Blå hallen, the Blue Hall, Nobel Prize laureates, royalty and guests dance in Gyllene salen, the Golden Hall, with its 18 million gold mosaic tiles.

A Golden Hall Mosaic, Stockholm City Hall

Stockholm City Hall where Nobel Prize is presented.

Day 9. Cruising the Baltic Sea

Our last day at sea enjoying all that the NCL Getaway has to offer.

Day 10. Copenhagen, Denmark

Departing the ship for what was an uneventful flight back to the USA.

Mike Jackman About the Author: Mike opened International Tours in 1984, which he owned and operated until merging with Classic Travel in the summer of 2016. Email Mike: mike@classictravelusa.com