Torrential rain! Very busy Bank Holiday traffic! The usual road works on M1 and M25! Our journey to Tilbury took nearly three times as long – at one point flying to the first port of call, seemed the only option!
But, once at Tilbury, calm was restored. We were greeted by porters who took our luggage from the car, a crew member who escorted us to passport control and we then boarded, in plenty of time; once aboard we were escorted to our cabin and our holiday began.
Our inside cabin – I had booked the cheapest and taken advantage of the Buy One get One Half Price offer so was delighted when a few weeks before, we had a free upgrade – was quite roomy, well-appointed and spotlessly clean. We went to the welcome tea, and watched our departure through the continuing downpour then returned to our cabin where our suitcases were waiting, ready to be unpacked.
Having cruised on this boat before, I was pleased to see that the high standards had not diminished: every crew member greeted us as we moved about the boat; the food was well prepared and served in both restaurants; there was a varied programme of talks, craft classes, quizzes, deck games, dance and fitness classes plus the entertainment. The entertainment ranged from full musical shows in the lounge each evening, classical interludes throughout the afternoon and evening, with cabaret spots in the late evening followed by disco into the early hours. If none of this appealed, there were many comfortable areas to sit and chat, or just to relax and watch the world go by.
We visited 6 ports – Copenhagen, Warnemunde where a coach trip to Berlin was offered, Tallin, St.Petersburg, Stockholm and Helsinki!
The ship offered many excursions at various prices; we took advantage of the trip to Berlin which was a long day being just over 2 hours each way, but what a day to remember! Our escort kept us entertained with details of the day and served us a snack plus tea as we travelled; a local guide joined the coach and his detailed and most informative commentary took us to all the famous points of interest – the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, the preserved Wall being most poignant for me. Lunch was in a wonderful restaurant directly under Berlin main train station. Then on to our boat trip along the very busy waterway where bullet holes in the buildings on the West Bank were sad reminders of the division of Berlin. A city of many sad memories in my lifetime, a city being developed, a city of contrasts; a city I’m pleased I have visited and recommend.
St.Petersburg. My first excursion was to the Yusupov Palce for a tour and a night at the opera. The group of 44 was split into two so we had a very private tour of this beautiful palace where Rasputin’s life was ended. A string quartet played as we climbed the stairs on our way to the ballroom; here a pianist sat at white Bechstein grand piano and played superbly for about 15 minutes while champagne was served; then we went down to the private theatre – a theatre in miniature with 8 seats in a row, 8 rows, two boxes close to the stage and at the back on first floor level, a sumptuously decorated “royal box”. The orchestra was on stage and accompanied four opera stars who performed a varied programme of arias from a wide selection of composers. This was the highlight of my cruise; the intimacy of the small group, the feeling that we were being royally treated, the contrast with the story of Rasputin’s death, all contributed to a wonderful evening.
Other evening visits were to the ballet or a folklore evening; everyone I spoke to, praised their choice and were as delighted as I was with the Opera evening.
The second day, I opted for Summer and Winter Palace of Catherine. The summer palace was out of town and was fascinating as most of it had been destroyed but had been restored by skilled craftsmen using black and white photographs to its former glory – the Amber room whose walls were a mosaic of Amber was amazing; the dining tables and china ( guests were given pieces as a souvenir of their meal with Catherine); the richness and opulence inside was reflected in the ornate gardens. Music was everywhere! A toy soldier band of 4 entertained us as we queued; in the acoustically superb garden house a quartet sang, and in one area of the garden the pianist from the Yusopov Palace played the flute – all hoping for donations.
On to lunch – something to forget – then to the Winter Palace, which is now the Hermitage Museum. This was another beautiful interior where many treasures are exhibited; a whirlwind tour gave time to see a few of the highlights.
Back to the Marco Polo in time for dinner and an entertaining if you had any energy left. I needed to pinch myself to realise I had been to a beautiful city with so many superb buildings and a rich culture that had been locked behind the Iron Curtain for so much of my life.
At the other ports, there was either a complimentary shuttle bus to the city centre – in Helsinki there was a 5 euro return fare – and/or hop on hop off city tour buses; many passengers took advantage of these services to make their own way.
Visiting so many countries, I was concerned about currency changes but sterling and euros were acceptable at most outlets; in Helsinki market – a delight of local produce and goods including real fur items – many stalls had machines for card use! On board as usual everything is charged to your account via your cruise card which is also used for security on disembarkation and embarkation at all ports – when it is swiped, your photograph taken by passport control as you board, is displayed on computer screens manned by a crew member.
Tipping, always a sticky question, is quite easily solved on board; there is a pre notified charge added daily to your on-board bill (£5 per day on this cruise); this is put into the “pot” which is shared equally among the crew ensuring that those you never see but whose service is paramount to your journey, receive a share. You can opt out of this by completing a form at the end of your trip. As I was sharing with my daughter – this was part of her 50th birthday celebration – we decided that I would contribute to the pot but she opt out and use that money to reward our cabin steward always on hand to help, our restaurant waiter and his assistant who, after my request for cream with my coffee on our first night, brought me a small jug every evening.
One passenger described the ship as “homely” and I agree that the warmth and friendliness of everyone makes you feel at home – warm and comfortable but also very special.
Both my daughter and I thoroughly enjoyed this cruise, my 4th her first as we had the freedom to take part individually or together in such a wide variety of activities or just relax or pamper ourselves in the Spa; a holiday I wholeheartedly recommend.
If you feel you might be sea sick or have any medical needs, I recommend that you take your own remedies and supplies as medical charges aboard are high, it is private medical care; travel insurance is essential and check what is covered and how costs will be paid as any on board medical care is charged to your account as you leave the ship leaving you to wait until the insurance company settles the claim.
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