How often are you lucky enough to cruise on a ship you have not cruised on previously to ports that you have never visited before? Not often I would suggest but I have just been that lucky. Boarding Royal Caribbean’s ship Brilliance of the Seas at Harwich was simplicity itself and I was on board in less than 30 minutes from leaving the carpark. Cabin 8003 an inside no view on deck 8 was spacious with king size bed, 2 seat settee, dressing unit and lots of drawer and hanging space. The bathroom had everything that was needed and the toiletries by Gilchrist and Soames excellent.
Time to attend my muster station for the safety/boat drill prior to sailing. This over it’s time to explore the ship. With the sun shining and the temperature hitting 22c I make it as far as the Sky Bar where people have congregated for a ‘Sail Away’ drink. The air is thick with excitement as regular cruisers and first timers alike prepare to say goodbye to Harwich. With 3 long blasts from the ships whistle we move from the quayside and slowly make our way to the open sea and our first port of call Copenhagen.
That night I dine in the main dining room, Minstrel. Starters of Shrimp Cocktail, Minestrone Soup and for mains, a large steak, cooked to perfection with Crème Brulee to finish all washed down with a very acceptable Zinfandel Blush. An excellent first meal.
Tonight the clocks go forward an hour so it’s time to try out that King size bed. It really is amazingly comfortable and I’m soon asleep. Waking next morning it’s 8.30am and time to try the shower. It’s a delight with a powerful jet. Time for breakfast and the Windjammer Buffet on deck 11. The selection from the various food islands makes for difficult decisions but eventually I succumb to eggs, bacon, tomato, baked beans, hash browns, corned beef hash and try convincing myself that it’s a fairly healthy option but fail. Coffee, tea, juices etc. are available either from wait staff or at one of the ‘Thirst Quencher’ stations that are placed in the area.
Today we have a sea day as we make steady progress towards Copenhagen. There’s lots to do apart from sun bathing and relaxing by the outdoor pool or on one of the reclining loungers in the solarium, an area beautifully laid out with an Asian theme of pillars, elephants and lush vegetation. For the more energetic the gym’s situated at the front of the ship with running machines, weights and other apparatus for those that feel the need, plus classes of Yoga and Pilates. It’s good to know that after all that exercise the Vitality at Sea Spa is close by for that relaxing massage or body treatment. There are quizzes, demonstrations, lectures and much more to while away the time. Children are especially well looked after with their own programmes. Royal Babies and Tots for the under 3’s, Aquanauts for 3 to 5, Explorers 6-8, Voyagers 9-11 and Teens 12-17. A great program giving mum and dad time to relax knowing their children are in good hands.
The day passes quickly and dinner time arrives followed by a visit to the theatre in time to see a ‘Tribute to Abba’, an excellent performance by the ships theatre company that earns them a standing ovation. It has to be said that the entertainment was consistently good throughout the cruise.
Next day we arrive in Copenhagen and I decide to do my own thing. Walking from the dock area takes me to the famous sculpture ‘The Little Mermaid’ from here it is onwards to Churchill Park where is housed the sculptured bust of Sir Winston Churchill. Located across the park is the Church of Saint Alban and the Gefijun Fountain with Norse goddess Gefijun and her 4 oxen towering above it. Then through the archway into the Kastellet Fortress which has been beautifully preserved. Now time to start heading back to the ship past modern apartments built on reclaimed waterways. We sail at 4pm for our next port of call, Tallinn, Estonia where we arrive after a further day at sea and putting forward our watches another hour.
Taking the ships shuttle bus to the centre of Tallinn I follow the crowds. Soon to be transported from the modern city to the old with beautifully preserved buildings, cobbled streets, an area with charm from a bygone age. Shops selling clothing and souvenirs amongst restaurants, cafes and stalls displaying everything from souvenirs to antiques. A horse drawn carriage awaits hire with more people interested in photographing the dark red carriage with white leather interior than hiring it. Several hours later my pedometer shows I have walked 5 kilometers so it’s time to ride the next shuttle back to the ship where the wind is gusting up to 45 mph. Sailing at 5pm we cross the windy Baltic Sea towards Russia and in particular St Petersburg where we will dock for 2 days.
Arrival in St. Petersburg finds us some way from the city itself but it doesn’t really matter as unless you have a visa or are booked on a ship or private tour you wouldn’t be going ashore anyway. This day I am on a ships tour to The Hermitage Museum one of the largest and oldest museums in the world founded in 1764 by Catharine the Great and opened to the public in 1852. Comprising of six buildings five are open to the public. The winter Palace, Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage, New Hermitage and Hermitage Theatre are fascinating places where gold leaf, paintings by the Masters, beautiful furniture and decorations are the norm. You cannot come to St. Petersburg without visiting. From here it is onto the Cathedral of St. Isaac the 4th largest cathedral in the world and finished in 1858 after 40 years of construction. The huge dome is plated with pure gold and the ceilings covered by mosaics of exquisite design. This is another ‘must see’ site if you ever visit. Time for a late lunch after which there is time for some shopping of the famous Russian Dolls. The following day offers further tours but I prefer to relax on board after a previously long day.
Day 8 sees us arriving in Helsinki. Taking a tram from the port to the centre I change trams to another area of the city where a market by the sea is in full swing. Stalls cooking and selling fresh fish and seafood, locals and tourists enjoying a party type atmosphere. The Uspenski Cathedral with red structure and green spires stands on rocks overseeing the area. A few short minutes’ walk away is the outstanding Helsinki Cathedral completed in 1852 with its white walls, imposing columns, green domes and gold spires making for a sight to remember. Onto a final tram, a number 2, that takes you around the city enabling you to view the different areas before arriving back in the centre opposite the main railway station. Finally it is back to the ship and dinner in Chops Grill one of the ships specialty restaurants. The food here is some of the best to be found at sea. Crab Cake to start followed by a prime 12 once steak with pepper sauce that melts in the mouth and a selection of mixed ice cream to follow. Cheese and biscuits sir? No thank you I have no room. Leaving the restaurant I am aware that the waistband of my trousers are shrinking, must be the sea air!!
Next day is Stockholm. For anyone who has never sailed into and out of this Swedish capital you have missed a treat. I rate this second only to the sail in to Venice. What a wonderful city and so easy to explore not only with the ships tours but also the hop on – hop off buses and hop on – hop off boats that are moored where the ship berths. I decide to take the boat option and over the following 6 hours explore what is truly an amazing city. Walking through the cobbled streets of Gamla Stan (old town), The Royal Palace, Johannes Church, Tivoli Gardens and the Abba Museum, Kaknas Tower, City Hall, historic ships, a boat that was a coffee bar where a traditional jazz group played the list is endless and much more. Back on the ship we make ready for sea and the trip along narrow waterways taking us past secluded beaches, islands covered with forest and holiday homes that make up some of the 30,000 islands, rocks and inlets forming this archipelago. Dinner tonight is in Giovanni’s the specialty Italian restaurant. Oven baked Almond Crusted Scallops for starters, the pasta dish was Maryland Crab Ravioli and for a main I chose the Veal with Cheesecake and Cream to finish. The trouser waistband is definitely shrinking, it’s the sea air.
We are now heading for our last port, Skagen, a town on the northern tip of Denmark. A band is playing as we arrive at the quayside. This was the big surprise of the trip. Whilst of the other ports you have an idea what to expect no one knew what to expect here. Firstly we are the largest ship ever to visit. A trip into the town finds us amongst clean white houses with red roofs, reminiscent of a film set. Cafes and restaurants busy with not only passengers from the ship but also tourists who visit from France, Belgium, Germany and Holland. Seafood is the specialty and it is certainly not a good day to be a Crab. Shops with reasonably priced goods, well laid out gardens, a port that I want to visit again and bask in its wonderful atmosphere. Alas as I board the shuttle back to the ship I am suddenly aware that the voyage is over and the next port will be Harwich.
Time to reflect. This is a ship that in many areas exudes quality. The Asian themed Solarium, the smart two tier Minstrel Dining Room, the excellent Chops Grill and Giovanni specialty restaurants, Schooner Bar and Vintages Wine Bar, the theatre with some great performances by the ships theatre group. We visited areas that are about history and elegance from Copenhagen to the old streets of Tallinn, the beauty of The Hermitage in St. Petersburg to Helsinki, the memorable sail in and out from Stockholm to the surprise of Skagen. I met some wonderful people, thank you Helen for being my guide. Made new friends from Los Angeles. How good is Royal Caribbean? Ask a couple in their 80’s from Glasgow who were celebrating their 43rd cruise with this cruise line, I think that says it all. This has been a cruise to remember for all the right reasons. Thank you Royal Caribbean.