The last sea day is always bittersweet – remembering a great trip, but saying good bye to new friends and the crew who took such good care of us during our brief time on board. There were, of course, activities galore. We also had a final gathering of our Cruise Critic Roll Call members. It was great to have the chance to connect and share our experiences during the cruise.
The last day also means packing our bags and generally preparing to leave. I ended the day trying to answer the “World’s Hardest 60s music Trivia” and trust me, it was HARD! But a lot of fun.
I also took one more opportunity for a massage before leaving the ship and heading for the next part of my adventure – Paris!
After going under the Ostbroen Bridge, we were now sailing on a northern course through the Sound that divides Denmark from Sweden. The narrowest part is 2.3 miles and separates the Helsingborg, Sweden from Helsingor, Denmark – and the Kronborg Castle in Helsingor. What’s special about this castle? It is considered the setting of Shakespeare’s Hamlet!
The Celebrity Constellation docked at the Langelinie docks – a great location that has shops, restaurants and is an easy walk to the famous Little Mermaid statue. It is very easy to find your own way around Copenhagen – and I was looking forward to wandering around the city. Of course, it is also important to have a plan on what you want to see – and I had a plan! Because of the location of this dock, there are several ways to get into the city – a port shuttle, Hop On – Hop Off bus service and local transport located an easy walking distance at the end of the pier.
The first attraction to see from where we were docked is the famous statue of the Little Mermaid. This statue has been damaged several times – and it is no wonder. It is very close to shore. However, everyone wants a picture — and it is just expected to take one or two when in Copenhagen!
I hopped on a bus that took me into the city centre, passing highlights including Tivoli Gardens, the gardens and amusement park founded in 1843 and the Town Hall and, of course palaces. But, let’s remember, I had a plan!
I decided to go to the Christiansborg Slot (aka Palace). This is a very large collection of buildings that are used for official State events – and it includes my first goal of the day: the Royal Stables. I was surprised, when I got there, that the doors were wide open and I could just walk into the gardens are areas behind the façade. In the back, there was an area that looked to be a parade area. And soon, I found out what it was really used for – training horses for pulling the royal carriages! I watched as a pair of horses pulled a carriage, doing patterns like figure eights as they trotted around the area. It’s so cool when you find exactly what you are looking for so easily!
The entrance to the stables was easy to find – the door was open and there was a sign to mark the entrance. I followed another couple into the stables where we were met by a very tall Danish man. He informed us that they were not scheduled to do tours of the stables today, however, since there were just three of us, he would show us around the stables, then let us into the carriage house. His only request was to ensure we locked the door to the carriage house as we left. WOW!!! We learned all about the horses, where they come from, how they are trained, etc. Then, he unlocked the carriage house and left. Each carriage had a plaque with a description of the carriage and sometimes a picture of when it was used. Let’s just say, I was in heaven!
After this, I wasn’t sure what I should do next – It was like I was blown away and all my plans could not match what I got to experience. So, I did what I do best – I wandered around the streets a bit where I found the gardens behind the National Library, the Senate buildings, and a church with the serpent steeple. Wandering is good, but I thought it was time to see more of Copenhagen.
So, I took a canal tour and saw more of the city from a different vantage point.
And I took a lot of pictures of things I found interesting. Copenhagen is a beautiful city. I ended my day in Copenhagen walking from the park near the Little Mermaid statue back to the ship. What a wonderful day!
Once on ship, it was our last formal night – and everything was sparkling. I met some friends at the Martini Bar before dinner and enjoyed a fabulous dinner with my regular table in the dining room. The production show was “Celebrate the World” and was a lot of fun.
Since this was my first sea day in almost a week, I did not have a “habit” of what to do – like I had on other cruises. But, I easily got into the pace of reading, sitting in the Solarium, and just relaxing. Of course, on the ship there are always activities galore. But the real highlight of the day happened at the dawning of our next day – literally at midnight. The sky still held traces of the sunset and our ship was passing under the Ostbroen bridge that spans the Baltic Sea and connects Denmark to Sweden. So, at midnight, I was out on the top deck in a dress that I finally had to tie the skirt so it would not blow up around me taking pictures of the bridge. Pretty cool!
After the whirlwind of St. Petersburg, I was looking forward to a slower pace. Unlike other cruises I’d been on, this was now our 5th port day in a row – my last cruise was a transatlantic cruise on the RCI Vision of the Seas from Brazil to Portugal and had 6 straight “sea days”. Guess I got spoiled from that! Fortunately, this day we docked in Tallinn, Estonia and I was on my own to explore – no pushing to see all the highlights.
This is a perfectly magical medieval town that will let inspiration move you – if you are open to the experience. I was one of the first people off the ship and looking forward to visiting the old city centre of the capitol of Estonia. Once off the ship, there is little information centre and craft shops. There are many ways to get to the city centre – a port-sponsored shuttle bus, a Hop on, Hop off bus, a local bus or tram, and it was really only about a 20 minute walk. The Information Centre can help you decide the best way and will even sell a Tallinn Card which will get you all day transit and admission to many museums. Knowing I would be walking a lot within the city, I opted for the bus which stopped at a flower market just outside one of the gates into the walled city.
When I got there people were opening shops and setting things up for the day. It was quiet – a perfect time for walking and soaking in the atmosphere. I love wandering through the cobblestone streets and just being drawn to things that looked interesting or different. Wandering the nearly empty streets was a wonderfully peaceful start to the day.
I headed through the main square then up to Toompea Hill, which includes a castle that was first built in the 13th century and the Alexander Nevski Cathedral. The cathedral was built in the 19th century, but in the style of 17th century Russian Orthodox churches. Inside are the mosaic icons similar to the ones I saw in St. Petersburg. I also earned some “brownie points” by helping a lady with a baby carriage go up the stairs to the cathedral (couldn’t believe how many people pushed her aside…)
Close to this church is the Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin, which is also known as Toomkirk (Dome Church). It is the oldest church in Tallinn, dating from 1219. It has several tombs with stone-carvings and a baroque altar. I wanted to spend more time here, but it was getting organized tours for 3 cruise ships were now starting to crowd the streets and churches.
I decided to duck down a side street to get away from the crowds and found a little piece of home – the Canadian Embassy! And what was even better, it was close to the overlook from the wall. I then just wandered through the streets – and along the walls of the city, finally making my way to the opposite side of the city and close to the Fat Margaret Tower.
From here, I was discovered I was on Pikk Street – a main street that had several interesting things, including the Oleviste Church, St. Olaf Church, the former KGB headquarters and guild houses such as the House of Blackheads, a merchant’s guild.
At this point, I wanted to find Katherine’s Pikk – a street that was supposed to have a number of craft vendors. After a few wrong turns, I finally found it (I had to find it as it is my name!). As I walked down it, talking to some of the vendors and looking at various hand-knitted items, I saw a sign for the St. Catherine of Sienna Dominican Monastery. Leave it to me to find something dedicated to my patron saint – and discovering why this street was called Katherine Pikk. (NOTE: ok, that may NOT be the reason, but it is a good story and I’m sticking to it!)
The rest of my day was spent wandering through shops, grabbing a snack at a café and then heading back to the ship. At the port, I was drawn into the little craft stores for one last look. OK, maybe it was the guy wearing the Viking Horns that caught my eye! Or maybe it was a good place to take a picture of the Celebrity Constellation. All I can say is that it was a perfect day.
I would recommend Tallinn for so many reasons – but one of the best is it is so easy to do this on your own and just enjoy all it has to offer.
For day 2, immigration was much easier. Our passports had already been stamped for the two days we were in St. Petersburg, so all the immigration officials had to do was check the passport stamps that were lined up right next to each other on the last page of your passport. Easy!
Our trip this morning was to head to Peterhof Palace & Gardens. Our guide wanted to get us there as early as possible so that her little “army” could be one of the first groups to enter the palace. When the van dropped us off, she told us not to stop for pictures – we would get the opportunity to do this later. Instead, she led us in getting our morning dose of “Russian exercise”, by getting us to walk very quickly to the entrance to Peterhof. And, it worked as we entered, got our special “booties” on, and became the second group to tour the palace. Again, like Catherine’s Palace, everything was “over the top.” We also learned a lot about how much damage was done to the palace during the Second World War – and how much had to be restored in order for us to see the beauty of this building.
We then got to see the gardens. The main fountain that lead to the Grand Canal was based on the gardens at Versailles, however there are some major differences, the biggest being that all the statues around the fountains are covered in gold-leaf and the grand canal opens up in to the Baltic Sea, making this one way to come to the palace from St. Petersburg. Also, the fountains are powered through a system of gravity – no electricity. We were still a little early, so the fountains were not on yet, so we got to see more of the gardens. These gardens were made for pleasure and for surprises.
There are several little buildings, each for a specific purpose. One was a “pleasure house” where you could have a romantic rendezvous. The servants would not know who was there, yet meals would be “raised’ to the “pleasure room” when called for by those using this building. There were also some trick fountains – a little gazebo or a bench that, if you did not know the secret, you would step on the stones and get splashed by the fountain – or you could walk safely and sit on the bench or in the gazebo and then be hidden from prying eyes. There was also a building that was used to house Catherine before she finally ceased the throne and locked up this “prison” that held her. And, because the grand canal opened to the sea, there was a pier on the Baltic.
The true magic came with the fountains were turned on and started to dance. Sparkling water cascading from golden statues and tumbling down the steps into a pool – it was an overwhelming and glorious sight! As we left Peterhof, we did get the take the final pictures that our guide promised us – our last look at this amazing building.
We then headed back to St. Petersburg and for our next adventure – taking a ride on the subway. Now, if you live in a big city and ride on a subway daily, like I do, this may not seem to be a “highlight”, however the subways in St. Petersburg, the subway is a magnificent example of the Soviet building and propaganda. The subways are vast museums with sculptures that celebrate the workers, the army and the heroes of WWII. They are very deep because they run below the rivers and canals that crisscross St. Petersburg, and I am very glad that we were able to add this experience to the day. Even the escalator was interesting, as it was one of the longest and fastest I’ve ever been on. I’m sure the locals on the trains were wondering why the silly people would want to partake in something they do every day – but truly it was a fascinating experience.
Getting back into the van, I had to move everything I’d left on the van so I could take the subway. As with all subways, pickpockets are prevalent. However, as I tried to arrange my seat, my pocket camera slipped off my wrist and I heard it hit the floor of the van. I tried looking for it, but it was not under my seat – at least where I could see. So, I had a bit of a panic as this meant I would have no pictures of the subway!
Our next stop was a noble family’s palace, the Yusupov Palace. There are a couple reasons this is an important palace to visit. One is that this was the home of one of the four conspirators that lured Rasputin to his death and the place where he came and was ultimately shot in the alley outside. Second, it had a theatre where they still do performances by music and dance troupes.
Next, we went to a traditional Russian Orthodox Church, St. Nickolas. This was an active church that remained active even during the Soviet Regime. Our guide’s father had been baptised in this church. She explained more about the iconography that is an important part of the church and some of the traditional ways to properly enter and worship. There was a service going on while we were there.
By now, it was past time for lunch. We opted for another traditional and local option. In addition to the “pies” that we had on the menu the day before, we also had “Russian ravioli” which I would describe more like perogies or dumplings stuffed with meat and served with sour cream.
Our last stop was the Peter & Paul Cathedral & Fortress. This was the oldest part of St. Petersburg – the original fort used to define and defend the city. With its walls is the St. Peter & Paul Cathedral which is the final resting place for the monarchs of Russia, including all the members of the last Romanov family. It also has a resident cat.
Once we got back to the ship, there is a final place to buy Russian souvenirs: dolls, lacquer boxes, Soviet military memorabilia, etc.
Then it was back on the ship to head to our next port of call.
My final thoughts on St. Petersburg:
It is a city of dichotomies – large ornate palaces and museums, and bland, stark housing blocks. Stunning churches, yet religion is not necessarily an important aspect in everyday life, especially for young people. The subway is good, but again a few of the stations are museums in their own right. I loved the food and the vodka! The people do not seem to smile much – at least not until you get the chance to get to know them.
I highly recommend using SPB Tours. They know the city, and can navigate and easily change an itinerary based on the group’s needs and what is going on in the city. Our tour guide was amazing! Thank you, Viktoria and Catherine!
The Celebrity Constellation finally docked in St. Petersburg. I wasn’t really surprised at how early we docked. According to the schedule, we should be able to disembark the ship at 7 AM; however given what we would have to go through at immigration, I figured the ship would have a lot of paperwork as well.
Also, because everyone would be trying to head off the ship at 7 (or close to 7) there was an “express breakfast” being service in the main dining room, in addition to the buffet. I figured the buffet was going to be a real nightmare, so I thought I would try the express. Not sure what I was expecting, but it was not the “express” I thought. Basically, it was one menu that included scrambled eggs, bacon sausage, toast, juice and coffee. Should be fast, right? Well, we still had a bit of a wait but at least there was none of the frantic mad dash that would be happening at the breakfast buffet. With breakfast done, it was time to try to get off the ship.
To get into Russia still takes Visas that can be very expensive and take at least 3 months to obtain. The easier option is to arrange a tour. If you opt to take one of the many offerings of the ship, that is taken care of for you. If you opt to arrange a more private tour, the tour company should also arrange for this as part of the package. Again, working with members of our Cruise Critic Roll Call, several vans were arranged with SPB Tours. This is an amazing organization and I highly recommend this tour company. Viktoria and her staff did everything to make this an experience to remember. They even told us what documentation we needed to have to get off the ship – and that we should be allowed off the ship at the same time as the ship’s tours.
Well, there was some sort of a delay and I’m not sure why but we finally got off the ship and headed to immigration. And here was our second delay. If seemed that, if we were on private tours, there were only 3 immigration lines opened – the rest were “dedicated” to the ship’s tour. Now, I could be wrong about this, however there seemed to be two streams of people going through the doors.
Russian immigration is an interesting thing. You can almost time it. It takes 60 seconds to process each person. You stand behind the yellow line until the green light indicates you can go forward to the booth where a lady that does not smile looks at your passport, immigration form, tour tickets and tour confirmation. She then takes half of the form and stamps your passport on the last page, preferably at the top corner – precisely at the top corner. Then the gate opens and you are in Russia.
SPB tour agents met us at the front doors of immigration and we were given our vans and tour guides, I was in Catherine’s group and our driver was Andrew. There were 16 people in our van – a perfect size for a tour group. Catherine has been leading tours for 13 years. She studied linguistics and knew more about the English language than most English speakers. She also had a connection to Toronto, as she was the translator that assisted a Toronto architect who designed the new opera house in St. Petersburg. And she was amazing!
Our first stop was to see the sphinxes that adorn one of the bridges in St. Petersburg – and to put our hands in the mouth of the griffon so that we would have good luck on our journeys in Russia. I love traditions like this, but trying to get a picture of the griffon without people I did not know was a challenge!
Next, we drove to Palace Square and St. Nickolas Cathedral which we going to be the site for a celebration for the 310th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg. From there, it is a short drive to the Hermitage Museum. It was, of course, packed (however if you have faced the crowds in the Louvre, it is similar). The building itself is truly over the top. This was used a palace – actually there are 5 buildings or palaces that make up the Hermitage and somehow we made it through 4 of them!
This is also where we learned the depth of our tour guide Catherine’s knowledge. Not only did she know the history, but she was also well-versed in art and art history. She also asked us where we would like to spend more time – with the Italian Masters or Impressionists. I was very happy that the group opted for the Impressionists (always my favorite). This did not; however stop her from showing us some of the highlights of the Italians. On our way to the Impressionists gallery, I noticed a painting that seemed to be tucked away in a corner. Something about that light made me stop and examine the description – a Caravaggio! After my first trip to Malta and seeing Caravaggio’s Beheading of St. John in the Co-Cathedral, I’ve been fascinated by his work (thanks again to another excellent tour guide who had a special love of Caravaggio’s work).
But back to the Impressionists! I was very happy and the Gaugin and Matisse pieces were especially nice to see.
Since this was my first museum in Russia, it was also my first experience with the “Russian grandmothers” – the elderly ladies who sit quietly in the rooms until you do something stupid, like use flash cameras or try to touch something. They reminded me a lot of the Greek grandmothers I upset so much in Athens (I guess putting a stuffed monkey on a statue to take a picture is not appropriate). Let’s just say I did not upset any grandmothers on this trip!
Next, we headed to the Church of the Resurrection, also known as the Church of the Spilt Blood. This is an over-the-top Russian Orthodox Church and was painstakingly reconstructed after WWII. Catherine’s grandfather actually worked on some of the mosaics, so we got to get a personal insight into this. It is an amazing building, both inside and out.
Lunch was at a local restaurant where we could get Russian “pies” (she called them perogies, but they were different from the Slavic ones I’m used to). They were more like pastry with some sort of stuffing – meat, chicken, mushroom, apple, etc. This was a place where locals would go for lunch, so it was fun to order from the counter. I tried a meat pie, which was delicious.
We next drove out of Petersburg to the town of Pushkin. This was the home of my palace (oops excuse me) Catherine’s Palace. In order to tour the building, we had to put the stylish booties over our shoes. Our tour guide said it was really to help polish the floors (I think I’ll get some of the booties for my cats and see if it helps clean my floors!). Once we were all “boot-ied”, it was time to see this beautifully restored palace. Room after room was more impressive than the next. Dining rooms were set with china, silks covered the walls, ornate furniture and carvings filled the rooms. Then we got to a room that strictly forbid ANY pictures. This was the infamous Amber Room. All I can say is WOW! To all my amber aficionado-friends, you would never want to leave. (I wonder if there is a garnet room somewhere for me?) We then walked through the gardens, after depositing our special booties, of course. I wish the weather was a little better as it was rainy and a bit cold, but I loved the lushness ad green of these gardens. As we left, there was a man playing a flute – it created a fitting atmosphere for the afternoon walk in the gardens.
Our last stop of the day was to a Russian gift shop before more driving through the city on our way back to the ship.
My evening was topped off with vodka and a performance by a Russian troupe.
That was a long day – and there is still more. The last thing I noticed is that even with 18 hours of daylight, once the sun was down, it was still “light” outside. It never got dark. I think I kind of understand what is meant by Russian White Nights.
Helsinki was never a place I thought I’d be drawn to go. It has long winters and I really do not know a lot about it. A friend of mine is now living there and told me I’d like Helsinki and I do have to say, he was right. Also, it is a very laid-back city, so a nice stop before we head to Russia.
It was also had to get really good information about what to expect at the port. Not that I did not find out where we would be docked – that was easy! But not sure of what services might be available to us. Like how close is it to “town” from the dock and will there be any transportation? One of the things that most cruise ships do is push their own shore excursions. While I understand this, it would be nice to have a little information for independent travelers. [Note: On the first cruise I took on the RCI Brilliance of the Seas, the person who managed the ship’s preferred port shopping services told people who were going into Athens on their own that he was going and would help independent travelers get into the city centre – and introduce them to some of the shops that he works with. While I did not go on this, I do remember the shops he mentioned because one of them is my favorite place for Greek clothing.]
Anyway, back to Helsinki…
When I got off the ship, there was a port-sponsored shuttle bus and 2 Hop-On, Hop-Off bus companies. Also, had I known, it was a very short walk to a tram that is part of the local transit system that goes into town (I did not find that out until returning to the ship, so there is something to remember). Instead, I teamed up with a couple from Pennsylvania and we opted for one of the “HOHOs” and were soon whisked into town. We did get a nice overview of the city, going past major “hot spots” and taking lots of pictures.
Then, we settled on getting off at the Train Station (that was supposed to be a real highlight) and walking around a bit. Well, while the train station was ok and had some interesting architectural details, I expected something more. It was described as “a favourite building in town, with an unusual, dark monumental design with giant Egyptian figures out front that have inspired set designers — including those who created Gotham for the first “Batman” movie.” I think we were on the wrong side and it was time to respond to the “call of nature”. Of course the WCs were on the opposite side of the building from where we entered – then there was the dollar Euro needed to enter what was not the posh-est of WCs (I’d HATE to see what they would look like without the dollar charged!). Now, though, we were on the opposite side of the building, so when we walked out, we could see why this was a really cool building!
In fact, there is a lot of interesting architecture all around Helsinki. Senate Square is another place where people meet – and has a beautiful cathedral. The church was “busy” most of the day with weddings, so I did not go inside, but I loved taking pictures of this building.
From Senate Square, we walked to Market Square, which is right next to the harbour.
This is a great place for fresh fruits and veggies as well as handicrafts of all kinds. We spend a lot of time talking to the craftspeople and learning about how they made their different types of crafts. One of the artisans had a familiar accent. I finally asked her where she was from – and how she made her way to Finland. We learned that she was form Santa Barbara, California and she fell in love with someone from Finland – and now she was creating one-of-a-kind felted scarves and other accessories. Another woman was selling hand-dyed and woven clothes. I bought a turquoise scarf from her – the colour is amazing.
There were also several food vendors. One of them stopped us and offered a taste of smoked fish and smoked reindeer meatballs – and we decided to try a meal. I got the meatballs with was served with roasted potatoes and veggies – and it was more food than I could eat for only 8 Euro! My friend got a plate of Finish “paella” (never thought I’d see that). She said it was good, but could have been spicier. I think I’ll stick with paella in Spain!
Across the street from Market Square was a nice park. We kept hearing music and found out there was a Big Band competition going on. The day was warming up and it was nice to spend some time in the park and listen to different bands – and just do some people watching.
I also saw a puppeteer and watched him as he entertained the crowd – and tried to interact with some of the children.
The street along this park has a collection of very high-end shops. It is truly a shopper’s dream. Fortunately for me, I’m not really a shopper, so I was not tempted. I just liked being out, walking the streets and seeing the sights. I also enjoyed the weather – by the afternoon, it was sunny and warm. Soon – too soon – it was time to head back to the ship.
My feet were tired and I knew the next few days would be very “walk-heavy”, so I decided to try out the thalassophy pool – a nice, relaxing pool similar to a hot tub – but larger with spaces to “lounge”. It was a nice way to end the day, especially since we were losing an hour to adjust the clocks to Russian time. I tried to sleep but I was excited and nervous about our next stop: St. Petersburg, Russia.