What We Did On Our Summer Vacation, Day 11 (Stockholm)

Saturday, August 25 was our last port stop on our 9-day Baltic Sea cruise, not counting our final stop at the end back in Copenhagen. We docked in Nynäshamn, a port some 40 miles outside Stockholm, for the simple reason that Stockholm doesn’t have the capacity to dock every cruise ship that wants to pay a port call. There’s absolutely nothing in Nynäshamn other than trees and rocks, but we weren’t there to see the port, anyway. Our real destination, obviously, was Stockholm proper.

We took a bus from Nynäshamn to Stockholm and I must have been pretty tired, because I fell back asleep on the ride. All those days of running around crowded museums and cathedrals and such were catching up to me. When we got to the city, Stockholm turned out to be Paris, only set on a bunch of islands separated by stretches of water. Very cosmopolitan, modern city. Carole and I both thought it looked beautiful.

Only, there was a serpent in the garden. There was ongoing unrest from the extreme left. Or the extreme right. Or the extreme someone. And a big public protest/riot/assembly was planned for that Saturday… and the Swedes were taking no chances. Everywhere our bus tried to go, we ran into police barricades. Or police officers on foot. And at one point, police officers on horseback. Our poor tour guide was getting more and more apologetic with each attempt the driver made to get us to our first stop on the itinerary, the Stockholm city hall (where they give out the Nobel Prizes, among other things).

We finally got there after over an hour of backing up and trying side streets and going around and this and that and the other. And the Stadshuset, as it’s called locally, turned out to be worth the wait. The building was erected in the early 1900s but was constructed to look much, much older. The architect had something of a sense of whimsy and incorporated numerous off-the wall-design elements and art fixtures. Changes were made here and there along the way during the 12 years it took to build the place, resulting (for example) in a “Blue Hall” with nothing blue in it.

After that, we went to see the wreck of the Pride of the Swedish Navy, the Vasa — which had been so over-built and so over-weighted and so badly designed that it rolled a bit during its very first voyage, took on water through open gun-ports, and sank to the bottom of Stockholm harbor before it’d even traveled a mile. The ship sank in 1628 and was located again in the mid-1900s, when serious recovery efforts were begun.

They have the ship all pieced back together, with as many original fittings and materials as possible, in an enormous building. Various floors of the building give you vantage points to see the bottom of the ship, the deck of the ship, the rigging and superstructure of the ship, and so on. It’s a beautiful ship and an admirable restoration job, but still, one can’t entirely resist the urge to giggle at the whole sinking-on-its-first-voyage-before-even-leaving-the-harbor thing.

We had lunch on our own after seeing the Vasa. Our guide had the bus park in a busy downtown district right around the corner from a Swedish royal palace, and gave us what time he could to go find restaurants, forage, and come back. I’m sure we were originally allotted a lot more time, but the whole driving-around-Stockholm-running-into-police-barriers thing ate up a lot of the morning, and that left us in a hurry. We had to scoot by any number of nice little cafes with street-side tables and find a place we could get food to go. We wound up scarfing open-faced sandwiches and salad from Styrofoam containers while sitting on a curb around the corner from our bus.

We got to drive around a little bit more after that; we were taken to one harbor overlook where you could see just about the whole city, all the interconnected waterways, and an amusement park. Photos ensued. Then it was back to the highway and the drive back to the ship in Nynäshamn. I was groggy and tired and slept the whole way.

Once we got back to the ship, it was actually still early enough that we had time to visit the ship’s coffee shop/patisserie and then relax on the deck for a while before dinner, which was kind of nice. Dinner was a repeat at the “Le Bistro” restaurant. Carole likes that place, but for some reason I didn’t find anything appealing and ordered a cheeseburger and fries off the kids’ menu. Then it was the usual — wandering around the ship, doing not much of anything. The following day would be a day at sea as we headed back to Copenhagen, and then our cruise would be over the day after that.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What We Did On Our Summer Vacation, Day 10 (Helsinki, Finland)

Friday, August 24 brought us to Helsinki, Finland.

We had no issues whatsoever getting off the ship, unlike the Grand Guignol folly back in St Petersburg. Our Finland “exclusive tour” was another bus tour to see the sights… both in Helsinki, proper, and in the quaint little town of Porvoo a half hour away to the east. Oh, and, we bought anti-perspirant in a Finnish supermarket.

Helsinki is a medium-sized city (600,000 or so people)… or at least, it felt that way. We didn’t get the sense of being in a big urban megalopolis. That might be because for the first time in a few days we didn’t have to fight enormous crowds. There weren’t any Must See stops that every cruise ship would ferry its passengers to, and consequently, we had a much more relaxed day where we didn’t feel like we were going to get trampled.

Our tour guide took us to the Helsinki Cathedral, where we parked and walked around the Kruununhaka neighborhood and harbor. There were all manner of street vendors next to the harbor and we bought some really nice sweaters from a local weaver… two for Carole, one for me. Then we got back on the bus and continued on to the Sibelius Monument, a funky modernist sculpture of metal pipes commemorating Finland’s greatest composer.

Then we were off to Porvoo, a small arty city known for its medieval architecture and chocolate shop. We parked the bus and walked around, bought chocolate, visited the old Porvoo Cathedral, paid money to use the facilities at a local for-profit bathroom, and finished our stop by dropping in to the local supermarket to buy antiperspirant.

Funny thing about taking a cruise to Europe and being bused all over various cities… it doesn’t really afford you an opportunity to replace essential toiletries you may have run out of. One would think that there’d be a little shop on board the ship where you could buy toothpaste, antiperspirant, aspirin, and so on, right? Nope. There were shops where you could buy absurdly overpriced watches and jewelry and “art” and so on, but no “convenience store” equivalent. And none of our stops in other cities had taken us within shouting distance of a convenience store or pharmacy either.

I’d run out of antiperspirant on the second day of the cruise and had been using Carole’s, but hers was kinda low also. We were gratified to be given some “walking around” time in Porvoo and even moreso when we stumbled upon the K-Citymarket. They had everything an American market would have — and amusingly, all the antiperspirants were labeled entirely in English. It appears that rather than relabel health and beauty products for each country, manufacturers just have done with it and label everything in English and call it a day.

We headed back toward Helsinki from Porvoo and had lunch at an estate hotel called Haikko Manor, right by the water and surrounded by trees and huge grassy lawns. We had the usual: meat, potatoes, bread, salad, vodka… and reindeer salami. Which turned out to be pretty much like any other salami.

Then we headed on back into Helsinki where the main thing left on our itinerary was visiting Temppeliaukio Church, a church carved out of the rock of a hill in the middle of the city. Lest the idea of a “church carved out of the rock’ imply a little chapel or something — think again. It was huge inside. Enormous organ, natural light coming in from high windows, row after row of seats… you had to have a ticket to get in and there was no shortage of people, both tourists and locals, coming in to admire the place.

And then it was back to the ship to decompress, have dinner at the “La Cucina” Italianesque specialty restaurant, and then the usual routine — wandering around, having a drink, and so to bed.

Our overall conclusion: Finland is a very polite, clean, quiet little country, one that we wouldn’t mind visiting again sometime. That said, we can’t really claim to have a thorough understanding of the place from one day’s (or parts thereof) wandering around.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What We Did On Our Summer Vacation, Day 9 (St Petersburg)

Thursday, August 23 saw us still in St Petersburg — Day 9 of our vacation and day 5 of our cruise. We spent the day back onshore, dragging around St Petersburg and environs looking at gilt. The Russians of the Russian Empire period never saw anything they didn’t want to cover in gold leaf.

We spent the morning at a Peter the Great palace, Peterhof, west of the city along the Gulf of Finland shore, took a hydrofoil trip back into the city (really!), had lunch — and vodka — at another sit-down restaurant, and then got dragged around the rest of the afternoon to Cathedral X and Palace Y and so forth. There definitely came a point in the afternoon where if the tour guide had asked “Who’s absolutely sick of seeing one church after another and wants to just go back to the ship” there’d have been a stampede for the bus.

Peterhof is known for its fountains. The palace itself is really nice, a lot like the Catherine Palace that we’d seen the previous day… only with even larger crowds. When we got there, the line to go in was around the block, with one tour group after another slowly shuffling through metal detectors and stuff. We wound up at the end of the line and our tour guide looked very disheartened until she found the right person from her company to call and they got us moved up front (we’d paid for the “exclusive” tour and part of that, apparently, had been paying to bypass lines). But even so, holy cow, there wasn’t room to sling a hamster, let alone a cat, anywhere in the entire place. We were actually kind of grateful when we’d seen the key stuff inside and could go out to the palace grounds to see the fountains.

The fountains at Peterhof are really something. There’s the Grand Cascade, which is enormous — it’s basically the whole front approach to a very large palace. There’s the Chess Mountain fountain. There’s the “trick” fountain that sprays people when they sit down on the benches nearby. And then there’s fountain X, fountain Y, fountain Z — we found out that it is indeed possible to have “fountain fatigue”.

The hydrofoil trip back across the Gulf of Finland was fast and efficient — it’s a good way to commute between St Petersburg proper and the areas along the south shore of the gulf. We were back in the city in no time, had lunch (chicken, potatoes, salad, vodka, and sparkling wine which may or may not have been champagne), and then were off to see (ticking ’em off on my fingers, one by one) St Isaac’s Cathedral, the Peter and Paul Cathedral (we met a very nice cat there), the Church On Spilled Blood… heck, there were probably a few more in there but we’d gotten cathedral fatigue too.

We got taken to a shop that had very expensive versions of the same cheap-ass souvenirs the sold back at the port (we didn’t buy any) and then went back to the ship. Dinner that night was at the on-board speciality steakhouse restaurant, “Cagney’s”, which wasn’t bad but wasn’t overwhelming either. Then we wandered around the ship, had a drink here and a drink there, and crashed.

Only, that wasn’t the end of it. After a nap we looked out the window and saw that the ship was passing a Russian Navy base on the isle of Kronstadt — the name deriving from the period when it had been a possession of the Swedish Empire. It was a little startling to see what looked like about half the Russian navy parked a stone’s throw off the port side of the ship. We took a photo or two (they didn’t come out well, as it was getting pretty dark) and then went back to bed for the night. We sailed overnight to our next port call, Helsinki, in Finland.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What We Did On Our Summer Vacation, Day 8 (St Petersburg)

On Wednesday, August 22, the Furrs sailed into the grips of what had once been known as the Evil Empire: Russia.

St Petersburg, Russia, to be exact.

And I remember the first words I uttered as opened the stateroom curtains and looked blankly toward the shore: “That’s one tall building.” The Russian need to overcompensate for perceived inferiority had once again reared its head: they built the tallest building in Europe miles north of the St Petersburg city center, surrounded by … nothing, looking for all the world like an invading spaceship that had come in for a landing.

That said, we were in St Petersburg for two days, with an overnight stay allowing for extra time to enjoy the city and its environs. We had two days of tours (the exclusive small group tours, which as we found out in Estonia, didn’t mean we’d avoid crowds) booked. On the first day, we were going to be taken to the Catherine Palace twenty miles south of St Petersburg proper, then bus back to the city for lunch, followed by an afternoon at the legendary Hermitage Museum (which is anything but a small hermitage. Jeezum crow, that place went on for miles).

We originally hadn’t had anything planned for the evening of our first day, but Carole had spotted a “folklore dance show” excursion that we could go back out to in the evening, and that had sounded interesting enough to sign up for.

On the second day, we were going to go see a second huge palace, the Peterhof, known for its elaborate fountains, and then we take a hydrofoil back to the city, and then get trundled around to a series of lesser cathedrals and palaces and things. It all sounded good in principle, but in execution, it ran us ragged. We were dead beat by the end of each day.

Of course, before any of this could take place, we had to get off the ship and through customs and border security. In every other port on our itinerary, entry had consisted of walking off the ship, down a dock, and waving idly at the customs employees in their little shed. Not so in Russia. Russia has some of the toughest visa requirements in the world and frustrating-as-hell border controls to go along with them. Even if you’re on a cruise ship and the cruise line has sent all your information to the Russians in advance, you still have what can turn into a multi-hour wait to stand in lines and go one by one up to a window where a bored Russian guard asks you strange questions and decides to let you in. (No, we couldn’t and didn’t take pictures.)

But take our word for it; it wasn’t fun. And we, at least, got a bit of priority — all the tours that had been set up by Norwegian Cruise Lines got to go through security first; only then did the passengers who had booked their tours on their own get to go through. (You couldn’t go onshore under any circumstances without a ticket for a scheduled tour offered by a licensed vendor.) We understand some of the folks who decided to save money by booking their tours directly had a two-hour wait.

A note about money in St Petersburg: Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to withdraw cash from a Russian ATM, especially the ones lined up at the cruiseport just after you go through customs. As far as we can tell, they’re not real ATMs and exist only to steal your information. We tried to withdraw some rubles using our American bank card and even though a sign on the machine said you could do that, each time we tried the system took our PIN, asked us what account to withdraw from, etcetera etcetera… then said the transaction had encountered an error. Or words to that effect. So we gave up.

Well, it turns out that starting the moment I tried to withdraw rubles at the port, persons unknown started trying to buy $400 and $500 worth of goods from the Nike online store using our debit card information, goods to be shipped to Russia. Our bank promptly put a freeze on the card, which meant that things like our utility bills that were on automatic draw didn’t get paid until we got back and found out what was going on. (The bank was supposed to have sent us an email if something like that happened, but never did, so we only found out when we got back.) We weren’t out any money as a result of the attempted thefts, but the Russians tried multiple times over multiple days to use our card info. And since the only place we tried using it in Russia was in that ATM at the cruiseport… and since the attempts started that day… well, draw your own conclusions.

We found, later, that our regular credit cards could be used in stores… and even street vendors, like the guy we bought a music box from at the Catherine Palace were set up to use them. (We also found that just about everything in Russia was absurdly cheap. A McDonald’s Happy Meal sold for about $1.05 American in Russia, once you converted the price in roubles into dollars at the official exchange rate. No, we didn’t eat at McDonald’s. There were posters everywhere advertising McFood and the McPrice. The only place we went that wasn’t cheap was a large store we were taken to on our second day there. They were selling faux Faberge Eggs, vodka, Russian matrioshka dolls, furry hats, and so forth — all for about ten times the price that the vendors in the shops at the cruiseport proper were charging.

Anyway…

Once we were finally off the boat and in our little bus, we had about a half hour trip from the port to the Catherine Palace. This afforded us a look at some really grim looking Soviet-era apartment buildings near the port and along the route. It turned out later that a lot of St Petersburg was lovely and scenic and had great architecture, either from the Imperial era or from the post-Soviet years… but that didn’t mean that all the Soviet monolithic apartment blocks had just up and vanished. They were all still there and still occupied. And there were a lot of ’em.

The Catherine Palace was immense. It was located in the Pushkin area, south of St Petersburg proper. Construction of the palace had been started by Peter the Great’s wife Catherine. Tsarina Elizabeth tore a lot of it down and started over, spending money like water and basically bankrupting the country. Catherine the Great, who more or less succeeded Elizabeth (it’s complicated) regarded the whole thing as a tacky white elephant. But that said: Huge palace. Grounds that went on for miles. Room after room with elegant fittings, furniture, art, etcetera. After a while one got sort of numb to it all. (The Russians, to give them credit, had done a tremendous job of fixing the place up again after the Nazis shelled the hell out of it.) It didn’t help that we, of necessity, had to be rushed along if were going to see it all, to say nothing of the endless encounters with other tour groups and their guides all shouting in a veritable Babel of languages.

We had lunch back in the city at a restaurant (“Troika“) that turned out to be the local naughty cabaret (but not at lunchtime) where we were served the traditional Eastern European tourist lunch: chicken, potatoes, salad, and vodka. Carole didn’t want her vodka and gave it to me; I promptly spilled it on the white tablecloth and wound up sopping it up with some bread, which I then ate — an action I dubbed “the most Russian thing ever.” It was while we were going to and coming from the restaurant that we got to see a lot of the new St Petersburg, including the street with all the expensive foreign car dealerships lined up along it, one after another.

Then they took us to the Hermitage museum, right in St Petersburg proper on the banks of the Neva river. (It’s called the Hermitage because back in the day, it was very very exclusive.) The museum is situated in a network of linked palaces and buildings and the collection is just enormous. They don’t have room for everything to be on display, but what they do have on display runs the gamut from ancient Egypt to renaissance Italy and France, neoclassical and impressionist stuff from the 19th and 20th centuries… I mean, basically they have everything worth collecting in the entire Eastern hemisphere. And crowds in proportion to the size of the collection, crowds upon crowds upon crowds. Imagine Walt Disney World on the busiest day of the year, only in an art museum, and give everyone cameras and an urge to photograph everything they see. And that’s the Hermitage.

Now that I’ve seen both the Catherine Palace and the Hermitage, if you asked me to recommend only one of them for a future trip to St Petersburg, I’d definitely choose the Hermitage. Its art collection was absolutely first rate. It wasn’t all paintings, either. Lots of sculpture, statues, artifacts, antiquities, doodads, thingamabobs. You could spend days there and not really do it all justice. Even if there weren’t crowds you’d need days.

After the Hermitage, we went back to the ship and had dinner and a quick swim to refresh ourselves, then rushed right back out to get back through customs for our trip to the “folklore dance show”. We didn’t know if the Russians, just to be Russians, would make us take just as long to get through security as we had earlier (although we knew there would be a lot fewer people going through at 6 pm as opposed to 8 am), but since we’d already been through once and had a certain piece of important paper tucked into our passports (I don’t speak or read Russian, so for all I know it said I was a piano tuner from Addis Ababa), the trip through security took about five minutes.

We were bused to an older district of St Petersburg and taken to a building they identified as the General Assembly House of the Officers of the Army and Navy (aka the Officers House), a lovely concert hall on Liteyny Prospekt, where a nightly show called “Russia through Fairytales” was presented. Tour groups were their stock in trade and it was obvious from the way the employees spoke to us that some groups had paid for the vodka-and-wine-and-crudities-during-intermission and some hadn’t and Heaven help you if you tried to help yourself when you weren’t supposed to. We absolutely loved the show. It was everything we hoped for; the troupe of male and female dancers dressed in what we assumed was classic Russian garb leapt and pirouetted and danced and tumbled and we were worn out just from watching them. We would happily have purchased the souvenir DVD but the sour lady at the table selling them didn’t take any form of plastic and we didn’t have enough paper money in any currency she took on us. C’est la vie.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What We Did On Our 2018 Summer Vacation, Day 7 (Estonia)

Tuesday, August 21, was the seventh day of our vacation, and the fourth day of our nine-day Baltic Sea cruise. We would spend the next four days in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Finland, stopping off in Estonia’s capital Tallin, then spending two days in St. Petersburg, Russia, and then finishing with a day in Finland’s capital, Helsinki.

We didn’t know much about Estonia before stopping there, other than that it was one of the three Baltic republics illegally annexed by the Soviet Union after World War II and which declared independence in the first phase of the dissolution of the USSR. Oh, and that they’re culturally and linguistically related to the Finns to the north as opposed to the other Balts in Latvia and Lithuania to the south. Tallinn turned out to be a charming city, with an Old Town up on a hill overlooking the harbor, a massive concert venue for the every-five-years Estonian song festival, and lots of shopping and tourist-friendly restaurants to visit.

Ask us what our main memory of Tallinn is, though, and you’ll probably get “holy crap, the crowds”.

See, they let a lot of cruise ships come to town at the same time!

{insert look of stunned surprise here}

Long story short, Tallinn’s tourist spots were crowded. As in, there were at times over a dozen tour groups, each being led by a different tour guide carrying a pole with a number on top, all trying to cram into or navigate through the same space. Some groups were large, some were small. Ours was one of the small ones — we had, again, paid for the “exclusive” small-group tour that allowed a maximum of fifteen people. That sure saved time on roll calls as our guide checked to see if we’d lost anyone. But heavens help us, that didn’t mean we didn’t deal with crowds and thousands upon thousands of other tourists anyway. And yes, those other tourists had just as much right to be there as we did. But unfortunately, the upshot of it all was that it was hard to enjoy the city as much as we might’ve — everywhere you turned, there was another herd of tourists stampeding toward you — and we didn’t even get in to one of the major attractions, the Russian-constructed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. We got in line with everyone else to fight our way up the steps into the cathedral and after a half hour, we were just on the doorstep when … it was time to turn around and go find our guide to move on to the next stop on our itinerary. (We hear it’s a nice cathedral.)

But we did see some nice things — the stadium for the song festival, the Old Town up on a hill, St Nicholas’s Church where they put on an organ concert every day for the tourists, the medieval walls of Old Town Tallinn, the fairytale quaintness of Town Hall Square… it was all very pretty and scenic. And crowded. We had excellent sunny, clear weather the day we were there, with highs in the mid-60s (Fahrenheit), and our tour guide was very competent with a pretty good command of English. So all in all, it was a good day.

We had lunch (chicken and potatoes, with beer) at a little restaurant off Town Hall Square and eventually wound up in the (crowded) shopping district, where Carole got a lovely hand-woven wool cape for a surprisingly low price. I know what you’re thinking; it was probably mass-produced in Korea and shipped in, right? We don’t think so. The woman we bought it from, in a little stall just off Müürivahe Street in the Old Town Tallinn, didn’t have any two of the same design and claimed she’d made it all herself and could answer questions about her technique. Prices in the places like Estonia, St Petersburg, and Finland were just low compared to what we’d pay for things back home in the USA.

We ended the day back on the ship, of course, and had dinner at the specialty restaurant called Teppanyaki. Teppanyaki (as you may know) is a style of Japanese grill cooking that focuses on entertainment with juggling and witty repartee between the chef and the diners. We’d done a Norwegian Cruise Lines teppanyaki restaurant once before, in Hawaii, and had been disappointed. Our chef was light on banter and basically just cooked. Not so on the Norwegian Breakaway. This guy was amazing. He was Filipino but had excellent English and even better juggling skills. He could toss an egg over his shoulder and catch it on the edge of a cleaver held behind his back — and not break the egg. (The food was good, too.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

What We Did On Our 2018 Summer Vacation, Day 4 (All Aboard)

Saturday, August 18 was the first day of our nine-day Baltic Sea cruise aboard the “Norwegian Breakaway”, a big-ass cruise ship decorated from end to end in New York-oriented stuff. Most of the year it serves the New York market, but for some reason did a series of back to back summer 2018 cruises out of Copenhagen in the Baltic Sea. Our itinerary called for us to stop off in Berlin (which is well inland, requiring a multi-hour train trip at the start and end of the day), Tallinn (Estonia), St Petersburg (Russia), Helsinki (Finland), and Stockholm (Sweden). To get that up to nine days, two days were spent at sea not doing a port call, and we spent two days moored in St Petersburg. All in all, nine days.

That Saturday, we got up, had breakfast, packed up and checked out of the Axel Guldsmeden, and took a taxi up to the cruiseport on the north side of town. Boarding was painless and our bags made it to our room within a couple of hours. We poked around the ship, found (oddly enough) a two-lane bowling alley with skee-ball games nearby, got our reservation in for a couple’s massage on the “sea day” we had scheduled after our day in Berlin, and had dinner in one of the “specialty restaurants” on board (the quasi-French restaurant called “Le Bistro”). I couldn’t tell you what the heck we ate, but we got pictures of it all anyway.

Carole is a skee-ball goddess, incidentally.

Curiously, it seems we took few if any actual pictures of our stateroom on the Breakaway. I guess when you’ve done a few cruises (we have done four) the staterooms all sort of start to look alike. Ours wasn’t that big despite being a “mini-suite” — the “suite” aspect of it was mostly in that we had a fairly large bathroom with a hotel-sized shower (cruise ship showers are usually about the size of a small phone booth). More to the point, our “mini-suite” entitled us to access to the “thermal suite”, a large quasi-private area directly below the ship’s bridge with a hot tub, a saltwater pool with waterfalls and jets, a sauna, a steam room, a “salt bath” room, and so on. It was indoors, with large windows looking directly ahead of the ship in the direction of travel. I have no photos of that, either, because we were strongly discouraged from roaming around the area with cameras and cell phones. (Much like the rules in a fitness club locker room.) On those days where we weren’t being rushed around onshore by one tour guide or another, we enjoyed just hanging out in the thermal suite and watching the Baltic slip by. (You can see beaucoup photos of the place on the Cruise Critic website; evidently they were allowed to take photos for publicity purposes on a day guests weren’t there.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What We Did On Our 2018 Summer Vacation, Day 3 (Tivoli)

Friday, August 17 was our first full day in Copenhagen and the last day before we embarked on our nine-day Baltic Sea cruise. We kept things simple and didn’t try to do too much; mostly we wandered around the legendary Tivoli Gardens amusement park and dodged a couple of showers. Tivoli Gardens is the second-oldest amusement park in the world, dating back to 1843. (The oldest is also in Denmark, for what it’s worth.)

In a nutshell, Tivoli Gardens is like a large park with ponds and trees and grassy areas and a couple of concert pavilions, with restaurants and carnival-style amusement park rides scattered here and there. It’s located smack dab in the middle of downtown Copenhagen and we got the impression that a lot of locals have season or yearly memberships and drop by in the evenings to see shows or to walk around the paths. It’s not the sort of thing I’d take a bunch of hyperactive kids to; they’d get bored pretty quickly. The high point of the day, for us, was watching a very nice Commedia dell’Arte show at the Pantomime Theater. Commedia dell’Arte is silent (no speaking lines) buffoonery mixed with ballet dancing. It stars Pierrot, a clown dressed in all white, Harlequin, a trickster dancer dressed in bright colors, and a cast of others. We liked it a lot.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What We Did On Our 2018 Summer Vacation, Day 2 (Arrival)

Day 2 of our Baltic Sea vacation was our first day in Denmark. Our red-eye flight from Chicago got us to Copenhagen at 1 pm local time, which actually worked out well. By the time we got our bags (all four made it! yeah!) and caught a train from the airport to Copenhagen’s central rail station downtown, it was 3 o’clock and we could check right in at our hotel a couple of blocks away.

Hotels in Denmark are a bit different from what we’re used to back in the States — they (mostly) don’t have air conditioning and you don’t see as many chain names as you would back home. We wound up in a boutique hotel called the Axel Guldsmeden, two blocks from the train station (this was in fact the main reason I picked it; we didn’t have to worry about taking taxis to and from the hotel) and three blocks from the legendary Tivoli Gardens amusement park.

The hotel was comfortable and far-from-cookie-cutter, with “Bali-esque” decorations and quirky room features like a stone bathtub with handheld shower and no shower curtain. They had a breakfast buffet you could add to your room for a pretty decent fee and that way we had a Danish-style breakfast (albeit without any danish) each morning without having to venture out.

We didn’t do a whole hell of a lot our first day what with having arrived on a red-eye and all. We walked around and looked at things and took pains to stay out of the way of the gazillions of cyclists that were absolutely everywhere in Copenhagen. They didn’t move at the batshit dangerous speeds we’d been told to expect, but you had to watch out nonetheless — stepping out into a street blindly just because you didn’t hear a car coming was not advised.

We walked past the Tycho Brahe planetarium, walked by but not through the Christiansborg palace (Carole had a fun time walking on the decorative tiles in a pool at Bertel Thorvaldsen Plaza), and wound up getting ice cream in a little shop on the waterfront along the Nyhavn canal. It was a beautiful sunny day, but we were pretty zonked. We walked back to the hotel, had a light dinner in the little brasserie attached to the lobby, and passed out.

Everyone spoke English, by the way. Most of them spoke it very, very well. The only people we met who didn’t speak English were tourists from elsewhere in Europe, some of whom only spoke French or German. As far as we knew, anyway.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.