What We Did On Our 2018 Summer Vacation, Day 6 (At Sea)

Monday, August 20 was the sixth day of our vacation, and the third day of our nine-day Baltic Sea cruise. It was one of our two “sea days” — days without a port call — and we spent it transiting the eastern Baltic Sea, having left Rostock, Germany around midnight the night before and not arriving in Tallinn, Estonia until the morning of Tuesday, August 21.

Sea days are kind of nice when you’re in a sunny tropical latitude: you can laze by the pool, hang out at a bar, wiggle your toes, whatever catches your fancy. It’s a little different when you’re at, say, 57 degrees north latitude in mid-to-late August; even if it’s not actively chilly it’s not necessarily balmy swimming weather either. That didn’t stop us from having a good time, though. We just didn’t spend much of it on the water slides and so on!

We started the day with a nice breakfast and then had a couple’s massage in the “Mandara Spa”. I assume you know what a “couple’s massage” consists of — two side by side tables, two masseuses, and at the end they always have you join hands before slipping out to let you get dressed again. It was the same massage you’d get at a Massage Envy or someplace similiar, only it cost a lot more because cruise lines know common sense and thriftiness go out the window when tourists have made up their minds to indulge themselves.

Our two masseuses were Russian and Ukrainian, both female, and were contract employees who were on board to do massage after massage after massage, week after week after week. (Life as a cruise ship massage employee isn’t all that glamorous — you’re not allowed to circulate in the public areas, so you’re either working or you’re all the way down on one of the below-water decks in a tiny cabin in the “crew area”.) Taking photos in the “Mandara Spa” area is frowned upon for obvious reasons, but you can see photos from CruiseCritic here. Our massage room looked a lot like this, only with two tables.

Then we went up on the top deck (deck 17) and played around on the “Ocean’s Edge Ropes Course” (CruiseCritic photos here). Carole and I have done ropes courses in various places; there’s one up north of Stowe, Vermont that we like that we’ve done a couple of times, for example. A ropes course is made up of various obstacles — swinging bridges, ziplines, tightropes, and so on — that you navigate while securely strapped to a safety line. Our ship, the Norwegian Breakaway, had one up on top, and it probably sees a lot of use when the ship is cruising to and from Bermuda or in the Caribbean. Since we were in the Baltic, the crew only opened it a few times, on our two sea days and for short stretches on in-port days. It was kinda fun, all except the bit at the very end. To get off the course, the final obstacle was a not-very-well engineered short zipline that tended to leave riders halfway between stops, dangling in the air. (If you rocked a bit and/or reached up and pulled yourself along, you could get to the end.)

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Then we had lunch at one of the onboard restaurants, “Wasabi“. They had sake, sushi, miso soup, and so on. It wasn’t one of the included-in-the-fare restaurants, but it was worth it. For the amount we paid, we had a nice meal, well presented and tasty.

The Breakaway (and other NCL ships of its size) has three kinds of restaurants: dining rooms that are included in your fare that include full table service and so on, a buffet area up on top that tends to resemble a cattle stampede at certain times of the day, and “speciality restaurants” that you can go to for an extra price. We did specialty restaurants every night for dinner except for the night we were stuck on a train from Berlin and the night that we had a special Cirque-du-Soleil-style dinner show in the “Spiegel Tent” performance theater. Most of the specialty restaurants were good; only one was kinda disappointing. Unfortunately, it was that one that we went to on Monday evening at the end of our “sea day” — “Ocean Blue” (photos here). Ocean Blue is a new offering that NCL is rolling out on their cruise ships — a “super premium” seafood restaurant that costs more than the other “specialty restaurants”. Despite the extra fee, we found it very, very blah. Carole’s fish was so overseasoned and “fishy” tasting, for example, that she actually sent it back. Her comment was “If they’re going to charge a lot extra for the speciality seafood restaurant, the least they could do is have people who know how to cook seafood working there.”

But that said, “Wasabi” — our lunch stop — actually was pretty good.

We spent the afternoon doing not much of anything — wandering around the ship, having a drink at a couple of the bars (for some reason, the cruise line had thrown “unlimited drinks” in with our fare, but we didn’t exactly go on any major bar crawls), and just looking at the water going by. I had wondered if we’d be close enough to the Polish, Lithuanian, or Latvian coasts to see anything during the day, but we never really were. We saw plenty of other ships going by, both cruise ships and big cargo vessels and tankers, but very little in the way of land. We must have been too far out in the Baltic to see anything. We found the ship’s decor kind of amusing, parenthetically — during our explorations we discovered a bar called “Spice H20” that was decorated with lots and lots of New York-themed art — maps of Fire Island, signs pointing to Rockaway Beach, and so on — a reminder that the ship normally cruises out of the port of New York.

“Spice H20” was a nice bar; it was designated Adults Only so people wouldn’t bring their kids there and it was never very crowded. (To be fair, there really were very few children on the cruise; that may be because our cruise coincided with the start of the school year back in the USA, and it may be because a nine-day Baltic tour isn’t really the kind of thing you spend thousands of dollars to drag an 11-year-old along on.) Had we been on a Caribbean cruise, we’d probably have gone there more than once, but given that our trip wound being “get up early, spend all day on a tourbus seein’ stuff, go back to ship, eat, crash from sheer exhaustion” our first stop was our only stop.

After our stop at the bar, we had dinner at Ocean Blue. The less said about that, the better. But then after dinner we had a really awesome experience: the ICE BAR!

There’re “ice bars” in various northern European cities (and elsewhere too) where the bar, the chairs, everything is made from ice. The Norwegian Breakaway had recently added one of its own, built into a giant freezer like one would use to store sides of beef in and so on. You had to sign up in advance to go in because it wasn’t very big, but when we went by after dinner there wasn’t anyone signed up for the next couple of slots and so they able to slot us right in. They had us pick out some warm overcoat/cape thingies from a rack (we went with boring silver capes, but they had some truly God-awful day-glo leopard patterned options for the visually challenged), charged our room card $20 each (to cover our drinks), and shooed us on inside. The bar was sponsored by Svedka vodka and all the drinks were made with either Svedka or Inniskilling ice wine. The glasses themselves were cones of ice inside clear plastic cups. The room was decorated with New York-inspired art and furniture (the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, and so on). The bar was staffed by one friendly cruise employee who found our glee at the whole experience infectious. He even gave us extra drinks, plus one for our stuffed animal penguin, Adelie, who’d come along on the trip on news that the cruise ship would have a special penguin-friendly area. She loved it. (Her drink was non-alcoholic, of course.) The Ice Bar was kept at something like 15 degrees Fahrenheit, so when we came out Jay’s eyeglasses promptly froze over in the humid air.

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We finished our day with a show called “Burn the Floor” — dancing and singing and so on by the ship’s crew of entertainers — where photography was strictly discouraged. We got a picture of the ship’s senior officers, though, before they had us put our phones away. Our captain was Swedish, but almost everyone else in the ship’s daily operations crew was Filipino or Eastern European. “Burn the Floor” was a typical high-energy, well-choreographed cruise ship singing-and-dancing show, with multiple costume changes and various performers getting star turns. Those crewmembers were mostly American and clearly had years of experience in entertaining half-drunk cruise ship passengers. The audience (us included) loved it.

And then, kinda tired from all the running-around we’d done all day, we went back to the room and crashed, and found that the ship’s steward assigned to our room had, predictably, set up a towel animal along with the next day’s newsletter. Our stuffed animals (Theo the moose, Adelie the penguin, and Sheldon the seal) were kinda confused about the strange visitor.

Then we went to bed. Next stop: Tallinn, Estonia!

What We Did On Our 2018 Summer Vacation, Day 5 (Fear and Loathing in Berlin)

Sunday, August 19 was the first full day of our nine-day Baltic cruise, and when I say “fulI” mean full.

It was one hell of a long day. We docked in Warnemunde (the port of the city of Rostock), on the coast, and took a train three hours south to Berlin. We were driven all over the city in a motorcoach (with frequent stops to get out and poke listlessly at things) and then…

Well, that’s the fun part of the story.

Our second to last stop on the route was the Kurfürstendamm, the area of former West Berlin that has all the shops and that served (kind of) as “downtown” when West and East Berlin were still separated. Only it was Sunday. In Germany, everything closes on a Sunday. Why’d they schedule a stop in Berlin on a day you couldn’t do any shopping? Well, the Norwegian Cruise Lines Baltic Nine-Day Cruise lasts, um, nine days … and the cruises are scheduled back to back to back, so I guess it was inevitable that one of the cruises would have its Berlin stop on a Sunday. When the stores are all closed. But… that didn’t stop our tour guide (a otherwise lovely woman) from telling us we had an hour and a half to “explore”.

But then we went off to the train, right?

No. Then we went to a park that wasn’t on our itinerary, a park dedicated to the history of the Berlin wall, and hung out there for a bit. Then we got back on the motorcoach and headed off to the train. Or did we? No, we drove in big circles through Berlin neighborhoods and eventually wound back up at that same park. Our guide says “Isn’t it wonderful? We get to spend more time here!”

At that point I stuck up a hand and said “Um, is there a problem with the train or something?”

And she flushed and said “well, yes.” She had been trying her damndest to keep us happy since she (like a lot of tour guides) got a lot of her income from tips (she didn’t say that directly, but we inferred it), but she could only do so much. It turns out that our train from Berlin back to Rostock was stuck behind another train that had a mechanical problem, and who knew when our train would finally get to Berlin?

We finally made it back to the central train station at 6:30 pm or so, naively thinking now we’re gonna get on the train and decompress only to find out the train was still an hour out. We didn’t actually get to board our train until something like 7:30 pm and we weren’t back in Rostock, at the ship, until close to 11 pm. Thank God we’d booked our excursion via the cruise line; they’re contractually committed to holding the ship until all their excursions are back. (Which turned out to be, oh, most of the ship. A couple thousand of us, from the looks of things, got off that train.)

We were all absolutely exhausted. One wouldn’t think that riding around all day on a motorcoach would wear you out, but it’d been a hot sunny day and a long one as well. (The ship kept the buffet-style restaurant up on Deck 14 open well past midnight to take care of all the late-arriving passengers, by the way.)

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So, okay, did we enjoy our time in Berlin? Did we see anything interesting? Yes. For the most part we did.

Dozens of tour groups exited the ship, all wearing little stickers with numbers identifying which tour group you were with. We all took the same train south. One group got off at a concentration camp; the rest of us continued on to Berlin. Our group was #11… the exclusive Best of Berlin tour group. We signed up for the exclusive Best Of… package of shore excursions which cost more, but which came with a guarantee that our group would not exceed 15 people. That sounded good and all: fewer people competing for the guide’s attention, fewer people to wait for at the end of each stop. What we hadn’t counted on was the sheer press of other tourists from our ship and from other companies, meaning that every stop, even the “quick” ones, turned into an elaborate production complete with shoving and cursing in multiple languages. (Yes, we know that we were tourists too. We tried to be nice.)

It was a hot, sunny day, not a cloud in the sky — and that made it a bit more tiring than it would’ve been, but we certainly saw lots of interesting things. The glare of the sun made it hard to take photos; the sun always seemed to be directly behind whatever I pointed my camera at.

We started at the Berlin Wall — a remaining section (see map) of it, that is, on the Mühlenstraße. Zillions of tourists and dozens of buses were all there to see the legendary barrier between the two Berlins. The Berliners have turned a large remaining swath of the wall into a public art exhibition called the East Side Gallery. You could also go around behind the Wall to a large grassy area between the Wall and the river Spree… which took on a bit of a different light when our guide said “Yes, during the Cold War this was all a minefield. To escape, you’d have to go over the Wall” (she pointed east) “then make your way through the minefield with the guards shooting at you” (she pointed where we were standing) “and then cross the Spree” (she pointed at the river). At that point in the border, the Spree was the actual boundary between the Soviet and Allied sectors of Berlin; the death belt between the river and the Wall were all on East German territory.

We moved on from the Wall to Checkpoint Charlie. You’ve never seen such a testament to who won the Cold War and who lost. Checkpoint Charlie was the single “legal” crossing point between the Allied and Soviet sectors after the construction of the Wall. After the Cold War ended and the Wall (mostly) came down, capitalist market forces swarmed in, erecting t-shirt shops and fast food restaurants as far as the eye could see. Actors set up camp at the (reconstructed, 1961-style) checkpoint booth with props and Cold War military costumes and charged tourists for photo ops. Visiting the Checkpoint (and, frankly, a lot of other areas in Berlin) was like visiting Times Square in New York City on a busy summer Friday afternoon. To us, it was an important historical site; to the Berliners, it was a valuable commercial opportunity they weren’t going to idly ignore.

Then we had lunch at a nice little sit-down restaurant called the Hopfingerbräu where we got a hot meal, beer (if we wanted it) and a chance to chat with our fellow passengers. We wound up having lunch most days with the exact same people — American tourists from the West Coast, for the most part — thanks to the whole small-group Exclusive Best Of… thing. It was all arranged in advance by the tour company; the restaurants we went to for lunch each day obviously had a standing contract to provide X number of tables and meals per day for tourists.

Then… what’d we do next? Let’s see: we went to Bebelplatz and saw the monument to the 1933 Berlin book burning. The monument was in the form of a library with empty shelves, set below the plaza and visible through a window set into the cobbles. We saw the Brandenburg Gate (complete with mobs of mindless tourists; we of course paid attention to where we were going and never got in anyone’s way) and some other random impressive-looking buildings that our tour guide went on at length about without our really processing it all. We moved on to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which has to be seen to be believed. It’s an intentionally stark multi-acre complex of 2,711 concrete slabs of varying heights. The memorial has received praise and criticism for its non-traditional attempt at commemorating something so utterly evil that words and traditional forms can hardly do justice. We had heard about tourists by the thousands climbing the slabs to take selfies, but thank heavens, nothing that incredibly tasteless was happening while we were there. We would have liked to spend longer there and view the underground interpretation center, but we were in the “we have to be back on the bus in 20 minutes” mode by that point. We stopped at the Reichstag, the pre-World War II home of the German parliament which was burned by the Nazis in 1933 (as a pretext for suspending the German constitution) and which was severely damaged during the war and left un-used until reunification. Beautiful building, extensively renovated and with a crystal dome designed by famous architect Sir Norman Foster after reunification… but we didn’t get to go in. No time. Had to keep moving.

We drove by the Berlin Victory Column (but didn’t get to stop), spent a few minutes at the Charlottenburg Palace (long enough to use the bathroom and buy a couple of sodas in the palace gift shop), and then headed to the Kurfurstendamm for our “final stop” and “shopping expedition”. Only nothing was open except for a few restaurants and a shop selling Christmas decorations. We were both hot and cranky and tired by this point and would have dearly loved to have been able to just drive back to the ship and take a swim and so on. Too bad about the whole “being three hours from the ship via train” and the “train can’t even get here because there’s another train broken down in its path” thing.

So, yes, we saw a lot of interesting stuff and got a limited sense of what Berlin is like as a city, but obviously, not a very complete one. We’ll have to come back some day and tour around under our own power, not limited by itineraries and tour guides and the lovely folks at the Deutsche Bahn (the German rail system, which, unfortunately, isn’t as efficient as one would hope).

Back at the ship at last after the lengthy delays, we were both very glad that the next day, Monday, was scheduled as a “sea day” where we’d be transiting the waters between Rostock and the Gulf of Finland. Our next stop would be Tuesday, in Tallinn, Estonia.