CruiseCritic Member Reviews of GUIDE-GURU Private Tours in St. Petersburg
We used Guide Guru in St.Petersburg and Berlin. They were fantastic! I know that they don't get much discussion on Cruise Critic so I wanted to make sure others consider them. They will match the Alla Cruise Critic price if you ask. We paid $260 pp for a 2 day "comfy" tour including lunch both days.
The reason I went with them is that their groups are smaller, no more than 10 people versus Alla's 16. We were travelling with my parents who needed wheelchairs for the Hermitage, Catherine's Palace and Peterhof. Guide Guru provide the wheelchairs. The guides wew very accommodating ensuring that we were be able to see as much as possible without holding up the other 4 people on our tour. The guides were very informative.
If you are looking for a smaller group, do not hesitate to use Guide Guru.
For the bus tour to Berlin, we were put together with other St. Petersburg tour companies to fill (26 people) a bus. The guide in Berlin did a great job.
We chose the Marina because of the Baltic itinerary. We were not disappointed. The stops were wonderful. St Petersburg was the highlight. We booked three days with Guide-Guru Tours. My husband was skeptical, but ended up loving the personal attention. The tour days in St. Petersburg were the highlight of our trip. Our tour guide, Tatiana, knew how to avoid all the lines and get us through all the places effortlessly. She would go ahead, purchase tickets, and by the time we reached the entrance she ushered us in. She was an amazing guide and we had a very small group. Eight of us the first day, six the second and just my husband and I the third. I will never take a large group tour again after the wonderful experience we had. It is impossible to see the sights in and around St. Petersburg in a large group. We saw twice as much as many of our shipmates. An extra bonus was that booking through Guide-Guru cost less than half of what some other fellow travelers paid! We contacted them via the internet and set everything up months in advance. We were able to pay in US dollars which saved up some $$.
The Marina is a wonderful ship. The crew bends over backward to make sure your needs are met. I did not see one crew member without a smile and an offer to help you in any way. The food is delicious especially in the specialty restaurants. My husband said he had never tasted such a delicious piece of roast beef as he had in "Jacques" ,and we eat at fine restaurants frequently. The ship is a perfect size, never any crowds anywhere. We booked a Concierge level room. There was a lounge and several bags of laundry were included in the price. Also, we were able to book our specialty restaurants a month before which I appreciated. I would book another cruise on this ship without hesitation.
We used Guideguru when our cruise had a three day stop in St Petersburg about 2.5 years ago. There were excellent in all respects.
We were very specific in what we wanted to do each day. We did not wish to have a standard tour that most agencies were offering. They were very efficient (in terms of email responses) and helpful (in terms of helping me understand timings/distances and working with me to reschedule the itinerary accordingly).
Specific things we did in St Petersburg:
visit the Faberge Museum (strictly controlled by appointment only since one group is in each room on their own at any point in time). The Faberge Museum provided their own guide in Russian and our Guideguru guide translated everything into English.
ride on the St Petersburg subway. While we had a car take us around, the guide and driver were in contact by cellphone so knew how to meet up at a given spot
visit a local market (you can literally see every part of cow totally disassembled at the meat counter)
made reservations for us at restaurants that we specified for lunch. We definitely wanted lunch at the Caviar bar at the Grand Hotel Europe. Just look up which restaurants you are interested in from TripAdvisor
a drive to Peterhof Palace but a return trip by hydrofoil with the same car meeting up at the hydrofoil terminal to take us back to the ship.
an early morning entry to the Hermitage Museum for private tours before the general crowds were allowed in.
we also did not want very long days and be back at our ship for 3 pm every day since we had separate evening events organised by our cruise ship.
Our local guide was excellent and was happy to move at the pace we wanted. We wanted a private tour for just the tour of us and so it really felt like a local friend showing us around town.
No hesitation is recommending GuideGuru. We found that other local firms tried to encourage to take their standard tours rather than draw one up from scratch with us.
Not relevant to river cruises where you would already have Russian visas. GuideGuru is on the approved list of tour firms allowed to take tourist arriving by cruise ships stopping for 72 hours maximum to visit without needing Russian visas. Only applies to cruise ships.
We chose the 12 day Stockholm to Amsterdam Whimsical Waterways tour. We arrived one day early in Stockholm to explore the city and stayed at the Hotel Kungsträdgården, very will situated and excellent accommodations. Hotel breakfast was included and well above expected with hot items, Swedish specialities, extensive breads, excellent fruit.
Embarkation was smooth though delayed two hours. Disembarkation in Amsterdam was announced to be ahead of schedule and included about 1 hour total of waiting in lines to leave the ship and then to get taxis. Those using the more costly transport services provided by the Oceania were able to proceed much more quickly.
We were upgraded to a B2 stateroom 7065 in the center of the ship. At no time did we experience seasickness though I am prone. This room is connecting. While locked, through the door we could hear toilet flushing and cans of soda being opened! The bathroom is spacious and the room well appointed. The bed is very comfortable with high quality sheets. The veranda is lovely and was enjoyable as we entered and left Oslo, for sunrises and sunsets etc. I made special requests for drinks in the fridge and they were able to find almost all of them.
The With OLife promotion we selected 4 excursions, $400 OBC and internet. Having internet access on the ship was nice to check email, send photos, read the paper. To those who complain about connection speed, I would suggest looking up Louis CK's appearance on Conan O Brien under "Everything's amazing".
We chose excursions in Helsinki, Oslo, Copenhagen and Gydnia. Of these, only Gydnia we could not have done on our own. It is an industrial port and would require some transport to either Gdansk or elsewhere to be worthwhile. Other ports including the three we did with Oceania excursions are possible to do on your own. We chose Guide Guru for St Petersburg and were very pleased with the excellent price for a small group tour, the pleasant tour guide, wifi on the van, comprehensiveness of visit and flexibility of small group (6).
Food on the Marina was excellent in all venues. Service is sometimes slow in the Grand Dining Room and specialty restaurants, whether you eat degustation style with multiple courses or not. We notice that service begins to slow as the assistant waiter tends to take over for dessert service. In the GDR, Red Ginger and Toscano, waits for dessert and coffee were quite long. Terrace buffet has excellent food as well with lobster, steaks and sushi always available. During the cruise, there was a Russian night and a German night at Terrace which is nice considering that cruising does tend to limit opportunities to sample local cuisine. Terrace and Waves offer options to eat outdoors to enjoy views especially when sailing out of Stockholm, into Oslo through the fjords, etc.
Each of the speciality restaurants has extras that make the experience more 'special' but the chopstick choices, hot towels, tea choices in Red Ginger seemed overly fussy.
Having lived in Paris and having studied cooking, we found Jacques to be exceptionally good with French classics with excellent execution and service. Lobster thermidor, gratin dauphinois, terrine foie gras, all excellent. Some items were mistranslated though. Brandade de merlu is incorrectly translated as chilean sea bass. (The chilean sea bass in Red Ginger is excellent.)
Afternoon tea is enjoyable. The finger foods do not vary much, but are done well. Tea service goes from 4 until 5pm where Horizons quickly transforms to Happy Hour. One leisurely afternoon, we stayed conversing with new friends from tea to happy hour. Unfortunately, no one cleared our table of tea service, even after our happy hour drinks arrived. The staff seem to be perfunctory to their duties with cocktail staff were unwilling to clear tea service from our table. We asked the server twice and then floor manager Vikram who seemed to be more interested in chatting and flirting with other servers than clearing the table, but were ignored.
Entertainment is not a strength on Marina with shows every night in the Lounge at 9.30 or 9.45. Every other night, there is a production show. Other nights, there was live music, either vocalist, a musical duo or on one evening the ships classical pianist. This show was particularly disappointing as it turned out to be an interpretive jazz and contemporary concert with commentary. There is however a lending DVD selection and an excellent library. Live classical music in the lounges is quite nice.
I attended one enrichment lecture on amber. The speaker was not the most vibrant, but the presentation was informative. No spotlight was ever put on the speaker, leaving me unsure of what he looked like!
The fitness room is well equipped. I was able to get a machine every time I wanted. The fitness room fridge is stocked with cold water, Gatorade and Vitamin Water. The steam room and sauna are available to all guests at no charge. On the at sea day, these rooms were crowded, but otherwise, I was the only one each time I visited. These however close at 9pm at the same time as the spa, although I would have wished them to be open a little later.
Though not perfect and perfect should never be the expectation, service is very good to excellent. Our steward Anna was lovely and although I say perfect is not to be expected, I found her service to be so.
The crowd on this cruise was mostly older retired couples, but this is not to say exclusively so. There were a few families, a few 'younger' couples and a few group of friends. Everyone who enjoys cruising and good food in a relaxed atmosphere would be comfortable here I think.
The value of Oceania is in the inclusiveness of most dining and beverages.
I must admit, the Oceania forums on CruiseCritic being at times a bit snarky, that I was wary about meeting people on the ship, afraid there would sniping or putting down of others. I am happy to report that the cruisers I met do not seem to be those that are active on the forums and everyone we met on the cruise were quite nice, normal and down to earth.
We wanted to see the Scandinavian/ Baltic cities and this was the easiest way to do it. We were traveling with adult sons, so they were interested in the ports more than the cruise itself.
We've sailed with Royal Caribbean several times, so we are mostly comparing our experiences to those ships.
The best: Ports were great (Tallinn a surprising favorite) but DON'T pay for the cruise excursions. Ridiculously over-priced. They try to make you believe that you can't see St.Petersburg unless you take one of their excursions because of the required visa but the fact is that almost any tour group can get your visa as long as you book in advance. (We booked with Guide Guru and they were terrific.)
The "freestyle dining" is both good and bad. You can always get mediocre food at any time of the day. Our best experience was in Aqua, one of the free dining rooms, where the staff was so much better than the rest of the venues we wondered what was going on. Our worst experience was at the French Bistro, where we ended up paying over $250 additional for terrible service (the waiter spilled our wine twice and we had to ask him to mop it up as it was dripping on us), horrible ambience (the waiters used a table right behind us to clear & scrape dishes with so much noise we couldn't carry on a conversation) and semi-edible food (we couldn't even eat the creme brulee because it tasted like they had left out the sugar & cream and simply put a glaze on eggs). The Market Cafe (buffet) was fine for breakfast or a quick lunch. Some people with children seemed to like it for dinners but the food was very mediocre and sometimes downright awful.
Cagney's Steakhouse was very good, but pricey. Ginza was good for Asian food and the sushi (extra cost) was very good. O'Sheehans is fine for drinks or bar food but everything else is fair to poor. Versailles was another bad experience for us. We waited 10 min to just get water while the waiters all stood around talking to one another. We finally asked someone who looked like he was in charge if he could get our waiter. 10 min later we were still waiting so when he walked by we asked him again and he acted very put out with us and said, "He's coming" very rudely. And the award for the very worst service goes to the Mojito Bar where we sat for 15 minutes while waiters walked past us. Finally went to the bar where the bartender (who had us in view the entire time) told us that the waiters did not wait on the tables there but only took drinks to people seated in the adjacent restaurant. We ordered Mojitos and they were the worst ever. Undrinkable. The soda was totally flat, and they seemed to have no syrup. When we took them back to the bar and very politely mentioned that the soda might be flat, the bartender said, "What do you want me to do about it?" We asked if she had more soda and she opened another can, made new drinks and then slapped them on the bar without any apology. They were the second worst mojitos ever.
The bottom line seems to be that the staff knows they aren't getting tips and they act somewhere between bored/exhausted and downright rude. (You get charged a $13.50 service fee/day that is then distributed.) Maybe the staff is overworked and it was the end of a long cruising season but most staff members (especially in the restaurants) have terrible attitudes. At the help desk, the staff mostly doesn't know the answer to simple questions (like what time you have to be back on the boat) or are downright rude.
Ironically, when we complained about the noise in our rooms (see below), the senior staff went out of their way to make sure we were satisfied.
We chose Celebrity Eclipse as we had cruised with them twice before and we could not fault the ship or the service . It was second to none , a really 5* ship.
I am very sorry to say that the usual standard expected from Celebrity was a little lacking this cruise. The Baltic cruise including St Petesburg is amazing but very tiring as you will have back to back excursions for serval days and it takes it toll! When we got back in the evening we just wanted to kick back and relax but you are on a cruise ship so you should make the most of It! With this in mind we went to the evening theatre shows.
This is where it all got very disappointing, on previous cruises with this ships entertainment was brilliant , like watching a west end show! but this cruise they were really abysmal !! No good productions, no west end musicals , no great sets , most nights were just a single performer, ie: single comedienne ( we're no sets or backing performers were required).
These shows are an integral part of the entertainment on ship and Celebrity need to keep up there game or cruises will change ships!! Fellow passages where already commenting at dinner how disappointing they where and how other ships have been much better!
The other change we noticed was that the staff in the self service restaurant very very complacent they couldn't even tell you what the food was or what was I it.
I would like to add that the cabin staff where brilliant as always but Customer Relations and the Shop Staff could learn a thing or to from them!
I love the Eclispe and will still rate them at the Top but they need to keep there eye on the ball or this could change!!!
We chose the cruise purely on embarkation port, destination and price - we didn't consider one cruise line over another. We were looking forward to eating lots of fabulous food and waddling off the cruise weighing at least half a stone more - but I think we lost weight because the food was, frankly, very disappointing. We booked the cruise 18 months ahead of time to ensure we had "my time" dining and wished we hadn't bothered because on day 3 we gave up on the "posh" dining room and ate at the "free for all" buffet for the remaining 9 days of the cruise.
We also felt that the cruise line were trying to "nickel and dime" us at every opportunity. We did have a bit of a fight with customer services over the mini bar in our room. There was no price list for the contents of the room fridge and, since we had paid up front for all our drinks, we figured that the water and soda in the fridge was included in the drinks package. Then to our surprise, a week into the cruise, $60 had been added to our account for "mini bar" ! Had they been adding the charges from day 1 we'd have been aware and stopped drinking the water in the fridge (we could get bottled water for free from any bar on the boat since we'd already paid for our drinks up front). We figured that the "mini bar" staff likely deliberately omitted to leave a price list so that we'd be charged and they would then get their 18% gratuities. We felt conned.
The ship also looked rather "tired" in many places with rag-like curtains/blinds in the dining room and broken fixtures in some bars. The bar staff were fantastic, however, and they were a major redeeming factor for us, making our post-dinner evenings thoroughly enjoyable.
Friends were already going and we decided to give cruising ago and joined them. We loved the whole experience but there were a couple of things that could have been better. The ship was lovely and even though there were so many people on board there were always areas of solitude.
The main dining room menu was very limited and the food was not always very good - we choose to go to the Oceanview cafe instead some nights.The service was excellent and all the staff were helpful and cheerful.
The cabin 6101 was extemely comfortable but very noisy when coming into port due to the platform opening which was at 03.00 one morning which woke us up with a start! I will not be booking a forward cabin next time.
The entertainment was fine and short so it fitted around dinner and drinks.
Copenhagen and Rostock were lovely. Tallinn was very busy but interesting but I should have done more research before going as we missed some highlights as the maps we had were not great. We did these 3 places independently with no problems. We booked Guide Guru for our 3 days in St Petersburg and they were great and we learnt so much.We booked a private tour for the 4 of us as one of our group has a mobility scooter and the guides went out of their way to accommodate his needs. We did not get off the ship at Helsinki as it was very wet and then we were delayed going through the Archipelagoes and did not arrive until 19.00 in Stockholm so only did a Celebrity coach tour on the morning of disembarkation to delay the wait at the airport.The airport is very limited so take a good book!!
As I searched all the reviews as a first time cruiser I will admit to being a smoker and can reassure any other 1st timers that there are areas to go that are kept clean and are comfortable - if it is not too windy!!!
I came home feeling totally relaxed and looking to where to go on our next cruise!
We chose this review partially because my Great-Great-Great Grandparents emigrated from Sweden to the US. This cruise itinerary gave us the opportunity to spend some time in the old “home country” as well as some of the neighboring countries.
As word of advice to future cruisers and this itinerary – a lot of walking is involved. We saw several people struggle with the physical activity involved. Much of the walking is on cobblestone and could be somewhat uneven.
Another reason we chose NCL was because of their “free-style” cruising and dining options. The options available for dining allowed us to vary our menu and we took advantage of three of their specialty restaurants, Cagney’s Steakhouse, Moderno (Brazilian) and La Cucinia. The other evenings, we rotated between the Aqua and Versailles for dining. We booked our dining reservation times weeks before embarkation, so it was just a matter of arriving at the time of our reservation. We never had a wait of more than about 5 minutes. The food was absolutely amazing.
We took advantage of an upgrade offer and chose a suite. We later realized that suites come with butler service. Cipriano (our butler) absolutely spoiled us. Every afternoon, he would bring a plate of snacks, whether it be sandwiches and chips, cookies, assortment of cheeses or fresh cut fruit.
The entire staff went out of their way to make our cruise enjoyable.
The highlight of our trip was our tour in Saint Petersburg. When planning our tours for Saint Petersburg and not wanting to book the shore excursion through the cruise line, we found Guide Guru. At this time, Guide Guru is probably one of the best kept secrets of shore excursions.
We only wanted a one day overview of Saint Petersburg, not a full two day excursion. We chose the tour "Baltic Inspiration - Light" for our day tour. After clearing Russian immigration, our tour guide "Anna" and driver "Dmitri" met us outside the port doors.
We were the ONLY people to book this tour, which meant we had a PRIVATE tour guide and PRIVATE driver. Our day was AMAZING. Anna was extremely knowledgeable and well versed in our tour. We went to an amazing restaurant for lunch where we experienced Pelmeni, which is dumplings stuffed with meat. While on tour, we toured the Spilled Blood Church and the Hemitage. Both of these were to say the least, breathtaking.
For our second outing that evening, we chose the "Canal Cruise." We met our evening tour guide "Tatiana" and once again our wonderful driver from the day "Dmitri." We were the ONLY two who had booked this tour, so once again, we experienced a private tour. Tatiana was also very knowledgeable of what was on our tour. During the canal cruise, we were given headsets and a receiver to listen to the commentary of the sights from the canal cruise. As an added bonus, Tatiana brought along Vodka, juice and a cookie/cake, which turned our cruise into a "Vodka Canal Cruise."
Both of our Saint Petersburg tours were simply amazing. Our guides were extremely knowledgeable and friendly. The guides were very protective of us as foreign visitors to their home, and made sure to make us feel safe and away from those who could take advantage us.
We fully recommend Guide Guru for tour. They have made us a fan for life and we will look for them on any future travels.
The “Best of Berlin” tour is a long and tiring day. A 2 ½ hour train ride from the port into Berlin, and of course return, bookend the tour. But, we were able to see many of the historical sites in Berlin.
For Tallinn and Helsinki, we chose one of the “Hop-on-Hop-off” tour buses. As a word of advice, remember there is more than one “Hop-on-Hop-off” bus tour operating. Pay attention to which company you have purchased tickets and the graphics on the bus.
We realized that the time spent in Stockholm would be limited, but at least we were able to get a quick overview. We chose the “Old Town, Ice Bar and Vasa Museum.” We discussed scrapping this tour and doing one of our own with a “Hop-on-Hop-off” but decided to stay with the booked tour to make sure we returned to the ship on time. We definitely want to return someday to Sweden for a longer stay by land. This tour left the ship at about 9:30 and returned around 3:30. We were surprised and a little disappointed that a stop for a quick lunch was not included in this tour. The tour guide keep telling us of the famous Swedish smorgasbords and Swedish meatballs, and all that did was make us want some.
The disembarkation day was made somewhat, and unnecessarily hectic, with their schedule. We were not supposed to leave (based on color tag) until 8:00. Around 7:30 the announcement came over the speaker that it was time for the “blue tags” to disembark. We weren’t quite ready, but rushed off of the ship, only to find that we had to wait another 30 minutes or so for our transfer bus to the airport to arrive. So “hurry up and wait” also applies to the cruise line.
Overall, we thoroughly enjoyed this cruise. The dining options and food was amazing. This is our third cruise with NCL and have booked our fourth for 2017.
We used Guideguru in St. Petersburg on our cruise last summer. We used them for both days. We were very pleased with the service and the tour. Our guide was excellent!
Apologies for not doing this yesterday but I was operating on no sleep for 48 hours. Train from Budapest to Vienna took 6 hours and almost didn't make my flight to Stockholm. Once safely aboard I began the serious business of having fun. This blog will document my impressions of O. I have been accused of being an Azamara cheerleader so I am going to make some comparison as I see them. I am traveling with 10 friends that I met on AZ so ... I will try to stay focused on making "fair and balanced" assesments.
First of all - embarkation was a bit disorganized and strange. Instead of allowing folks to just go to the checkin - everyone milled around in front of security while they called out boarding priority. Thank God I was in a PH or I would still be in line. LOL. It was a little bit class structured and I was surprised.
Once aboard I had a nice lunch at the cafe. Weather was lovely and I met some CC'ers and enjoyed a martini. My favourite lunch!!!! Got into the suite by one .... Lovely! Roomy!! Totally indulgent.
Dinner was amazing in the Terrace. Fabulous. Food as good as at cc party now. Music and free drinks. They have been great. Gotta go. More later.
I am 16. I pretty much organised this cruise, mum paid and brother (14) came for the ride Embarkation at Dover was easy. The check in queue moved quickly, and there was a short wait to board, but the process was all very efficient.
During the day, the pool had quite loud music playing, whether it was live or not. The music was usually played over and over again. The pools were good, as was the slide. The lounges were spacious. In my opinion, Spinnaker was the best, as it provided quite a variety of seating, and a number of activities. The teen club wasn't fantastic and a lot of the activities didn't materialise. I would recommend going on the first couple of nights, just to make friends. I had no issues with any of the public rooms, and had no bad experiences.
Our room was set up just to a double bed when we arrived, and this was quickly rectified to a twin bed. When the third bed was pulled down, there wasn't much room to move around. The bathroom was functional, nothing flashy, but it did the job. The balcony was a great investment.
I have read horrors of dining, but there was no issue. We mainly ate at the Garden Cafe, which had a new selection of food every day. The food was tasty. Blue Lagoon offered a 24h service, but had a small menu and was the same every day. Azura and Tsar's Palace have the same menus, which changed every day. The food was of good quality and the service was excellent. We only went to two cover charge restaurants. Teppanyaki for $25 was by far the best eating experience I have had. It was well worth the cover charge. I recommend chicken. The other was Chin Chin ($15). The food here was fantastic, and very filling.
The shows were of mixed quality. Cirque Bijou was fantastic. The Jean Ann Ryan company shows were probably the best (they did Cirque Bijou). The two comedians didn't have much of an act, and mainly picked on the audience. Word of warning. Sit at the back, and don't come in late, or leave early. You will be picked on. The crew show was ok. It was interesting to see some of the faces you had picked up on the cruise. The Fountains production was hilarious.
The service throughout the ship was excellent.
We didn't do any NCL shore excursions. They seemed quite expensive. I would highly recommend a private tour for St. Petersburg and would highly recommend Guide Guru.
Drinks were generally expensive. The cheapest bottle of wine (for my mum) was $28. This turned out to be a lot cheaper than buying it by the glass. Tea, Coffee and water was available at the Garden Cafe for free all day.
We could have had a similar cruise with another company at the same price, but it would have been an inside room. We liked the freestyle aspect of NCL.
SAINT PETERSBURG: This is the one port of call where I would NOT recommend you try to wing it. First of all, you would have to obtain a visa to do so, and then what? You are docked in an industrial port many miles from anything you want to see, and at each attraction you will stand in line for hours while those of us on tours zip right in ahead of the throngs of independent visitors. My recommendation is that you do as we did and book a private tour. It cost us about half what the cruise line shore excursions charge (we paid $260 for 2 full days; $234 for those with student IDs and also for our octogenarian grandparents), plus we had a comfortable midi-van for 20 people with a private guide rather than a big bus with at least twice that many people being herded about. We used Natalia at Guide Guru and I would recommend her highly (feel free to mention my name): www.guide-guru.com
We just returned from a 12-night Baltic Cruise aboard Norwegian Jewel. This was our family's 9th cruise (4 on Norwegian, 3 on Royal Caribbean, and 1 each on Celebrity and Carnival). In our group we had 20 people traveling, 18 of whom "did the cruise together," and a mother and daughter who preferred to spend time alone outside the group. Of the 18 who hung out together, we had 2 grandparents in their early 80's, 7 seasoned adults (late 40's to early 60's traveling with their kids), 4 young adults in their early 20's (all single), and 5 teenagers between 14 and 17.
PRE-CRUISE: While it's possible to fly transatlantic overnight and make your way to Dover to board the ship in one Herculean effort, this didn't appeal to our group as we'd be starting the cruise exhausted. Instead, one family flew to London several days ahead to do some sightseeing, and the rest of us flew to London two days before the cruise. This gave us an overnight in London to collect our wits and start recovering from jet lag, and then we took the train to Dover and spent a night there before boarding the ship. TIP: We selected a hotel near Victoria Station in London to help reduce the friction factor of travel. Victoria Station is the collective melting pot for the Gatwick Express Train, the Heathrow Airport Coach, and the train to Dover. By staying at a hotel within easy walking distance of Victoria Station, we never had to worry about finding enough taxis to move a large group and their bags about town, nor did we have to haul our cruise luggage up and down stairs between platforms in the London Underground. The Tube is enormously convenient if you are traveling light, but it would be a nightmare to negotiate with large suitcases. Keep that in mind when you make your travel arrangements. There are several reasonably priced small hotels and guest houses near Victoria Station; contact me if you would like more information.
In Dover we stayed at the Churchill Hotel (managed by Best Western) which has the perfect location right down on the waterfront and which offered us a good price for a comfortable night's rest (beware of the sea gulls; our friends left their bedroom window open and went out to eat, then returned to discover a wily gull had apparently popped in and enjoyed unwrapping and eating their tea biscuits, leaving crumbs all over the bed!).
STATEROOMS: Norwegian Jewel is a beautiful ship; this was our second cruise on Jewel. We also sailed a 12-night Mediterranean Cruise on this ship in 2007. Our group was divided between interior and oceanview staterooms. The balcony cabins are a little larger, but we all managed in the smaller rooms which are cramped, but well designed with good storage space if you follow a couple simple rules. #1) Don't try to live out of your suitcase. Unpack as soon as your bags are delivered; put things away in the closet and drawers, then stash your suitcases under the bed. #2) Repack dirty clothes that you do not plan to wear again as you go instead of allowing them to pile up around your cabin. This will also make your packing at the end of the cruise a breeze because most of it will already be done. TIP: I bring Downy dewrinkler spray in travel sized bottles (available at Wal-Mart) to keep our clothes wrinkle-free, but on this cruise NCL was offering some very good discount prices to press clothes, so a couple of the guys got some of their shirts pressed - $2 per shirt I believe it was.
While the interior and oceanview rooms are on the cozy side, the bathroom design on NCL is better than most other ships in this class. The showers have a glass door (no icky shower curtain that sticks to you while allowing water all over the bathroom floor), and there is decent counter space for toiletries. A hairdryer is provided, and the electricity is wired for 110 small appliances. I believe there was a plug for 220 as well (please check on that to be sure).
FREESTYLE DINING: There are two main dining rooms with open seating for dinner (NCL's signature "Freestyle" Dining). Tsar's Palace is the larger and dressier of the two, while Azura is smaller and more informal, although guests are requested to not wear jeans or shorts at night (especially Tsar's Palace and the specialty restaurants). We found to our disappointment, however, that despite posting the dress code in the Freestyle Daily, the rules were not well enforced on this cruise (two years ago the dress code was enforced on Jewel, which made the dinners onboard more pleasant). Both main dining rooms serve the same menu on any given day. We made reservations for the first formal night (Tsar's Palace) and also for a surprise birthday party for my husband (Azura), but otherwise never had reservations in the main dining rooms, and never had to wait to be seated despite that we regularly had a sizable group eating together.
If I had one criticism of the main dining rooms, and I offer this reluctantly, it was that the service was slower and uneven on this cruise by comparison to two years ago. The exception was my husband's birthday party where the staff in Azura could not possibly have knocked themselves out more to make it a success. Otherwise it seemed as if the main dining rooms were a bit short staffed, and my hunch is that this is a cost savings measure on the part of the cruise line as they tough out the recession like the rest of us. We paid a little less for this cruise than we did for our 12-night cruise on the same ship exactly two years ago, and I don't know about you, but I am paying more these days for just about everything from gas to food at home compared to a couple of years back. The travel industry is trying very hard to weather the storm, and in the process they surely must be forced to cut a few corners here and there to stay afloat while offering folks like you and me a swell vacation, and doing it at a price cut. All in all the meals in the main dining rooms were delicious and the staff was both cordial and attentive.
Jewel also has a cafeteria style buffet, alfresco dining at the Great Outdoors, Blue Lagoon is open 24 hours a day for burgers, chicken fingers and fish and chips fare (the teenagers and twenty-somethings regularly went there for a "second supper" in the wee hours of the morning after dancing the night away at the disco), and a tapas bar that serves light fare if you are not especially hungry. These are all included in the price of your cruise. Additionally there are a number of specialty restaurants onboard, each with a modest cover charge: Mama's Kitchen Italian, Tango's TexMex, Chin Chin Asian with an adjacent Sushi Bar, Teppanyaki Japanese (like Benihana or Kanpai of Tokyo), Le Bistro French and Cagney's Steak House. We ate at both Le Bistro and Cagney's on this cruise and both were excellent. The doting service was measurably better than the main dining rooms, but of course, for a cover charge one expects better. On our 2007 cruise on Jewel we tried Tango's (immense burritos) and Mama's, the latter not being as splendid in our opinion as Impressions Italian restaurant on Norwegian Dawn. There are electronic boards throughout the ship that offer updates on seating availability so that in a pinch you can check to see which dining room or restaurants are full and which have room for your party. Two families in our group were able to make last minute reservations at Teppanyaki (one family even went twice!), which is often the hardest specialty restaurant to nab because of its small size and the "show" that goes along with dinner.
Breakfast and lunch are offered in a dining room (Tsar's Palace I believe?) but we preferred to eat at the Great Outdoors. There was always a substantial selection of tasty dishes available plus fresh fruits, made to order omelets at breakfast, and salads at lunch. We enjoyed The Great Outdoors, even if it was just for a cup of coffee or tea, taking in the fresh air and the passing sights. Freestyle Dining worked like a charm on this cruise.
TRAVELING WITH KIDS: Although we still have teenagers in our group, none of them used the teen center on this cruise as they are all "veteran cruisers" and have no trouble meeting others their age onboard. Having offered that caveat, Norwegian ships offer a marvelous staffed program for kids from toddlers through teens divided by age group. My own kids claim that they have enjoyed the best counselors on NCL ships. Note also that while most cruise lines start their little kids' program at 3 years old and potty trained, NCL has organized programs for 2-year olds where parents are given a beeper to be paged when needed for a diaper change (no staff on any cruise line can change diapers due to health regulations). All cruise lines end their teen program at age 17, which can often leave the 18-20 year old crowd in limbo ... they cannot participate in the teen activities, but they are also not allowed in the adult venues either. On most NCL ships (I believe the exceptions are Alaska and Hawaii where the ships remain in US waters) your 18-20 year olds are allowed to hang out in the adult disco and bars and if you sign a consent form, they are permitted to have beer and wine onboard (no hard alcohol). Perhaps we are lucky, but our kids in this age bracket have not abused this privilege and they have a terrific time joining in with the early 20's crowd dancing and going to the clubs at night.
NCL initiated a change in their booking policy on this cruise which caused considerable last minute heartburn for our group. In the past we have been able to book our kids in the cabins next door to the parents. We have sailed NCL for years and never had any trouble reserving 3 and 4 staterooms for a large family; in fact, this is one of the reasons we liked NCL. When I set up this group last November, that booking policy was still in place. When I went to pay all the final bills in April, however, I discovered the policy had changed, and now NCL is requiring all staterooms to have someone over 21 booked in each cabin (I was told that this has always been the policy, but I know for a fact that this is not the case as we are not newcomers to NCL). This new policy is a nightmare for large families because we need more than 2 staterooms for a family with only 2 parents over 21. In the end we had enough people in the group to shuffle folks around on paper, sometimes placing people who had never even met in the same cabin in order to show somebody over 21 in with each under 21 passenger (all involved were people we knew ahead of the cruise who agreed to this of course), but what if we had not had a surplus of older people in our group? Would we have had to cancel our cruise at the last minute? As it was, once onboard, it was like an episode from a Pink Panther spoof with people swapping rooms the first afternoon - crazy! I am hoping NCL will come to their senses and change back to their former policy (and change the online check-in which they have also monkeyed with, to the detriment of family travel). NCL is in every other way so well suited to families; it would be a shame to have to cross them off my list, giving all our business to Royal Caribbean and Celebrity (among others) who remain family-friendly in their booking policies.
ENTERTAINMENT: Norwegian has the best entertainment at sea, and Jewel was excellent both this year and back in 2007 too. We have seen superb magicians, jugglers, comedians, and singers in the main theater, plus they always have a quiet piano bar or guitarist (our cruise had both) playing in one bar or another throughout the evening. The pianist, Michael Chio, in particular was wonderful - nobody whispered a word over drinks when he played Phantom of the Opera. In addition to their main shows, often the entertainers put on a cabaret on another night in a smaller venue, such as a magician act doing a big, glitzy show one night in the theater, and then a more intimate sleight of hand cabaret for a smaller audience in a lounge another night.
The Jean Ann Ryan Company put on performances like you will see nowhere else at sea. Most cruise ships have competent Broadway / Las Vegas style reviews, but in my experience, not up to what you will see from the Jean Ann Ryan Company. On the 12-night cruise they put on two high energy shows with singing, dancing, and some gymnastics. But where they really shine is their cirques; on Jewel it's the Cirque Bijou. Gymnasts fly overhead, East European aerialists are exquisitely agile and graceful, and the singing and dancing are spectacular - everything from Latin to Bollywood to Irish Riverdance. Bravo! Norwegian Jewel also has its own show band onboard (no canned music for theater shows like on some ships). On our cruise we were delighted to discover the band was Rama 111 from Poland. We had seen them before (Norwegian Majesty, Christmas Cruise 2006), and we were so impressed then that we bought their CD. They are apparently quite well known in Eastern Europe as they play all the jazz festivals there. As a show band they can play anything from country to Broadway and pack a wallop, but we were especially glad that they had occasions on our cruise to play a few sets in Spinnakers - big band one day, jazz or bossa nova another - a welcome change for many of us from the rock and roll band (Crossroads) that played more often than not at night in that club.
There was also a string quartet on the cruise which played classical selections (unfortunately often in the Atrium Lounge which is too noisy with people passing through - a pity because the quartet was quite good), and a Latino guitar trio that offered a wide range of music in their sets. On Norwegian Jewel there is a wide variety of entertainment to carry you through until about 1am daily, and after that usually the only people still going strong are the younger generation tearing it up dancing in Spinnakers at the late night disco.
ONBOARD ACTIVITIES: We enjoy participating in the trivia competitions, which usually got a good turn out on this cruise. Bingo also attracted a crowd, although that isn't our scene, nor is the casino. In fact one of the things that I appreciate about the design of Norwegian Jewel is that the casino is completely self-contained, and you are not obliged to walk through it to get places like on most ships. Norwegian doesn't go in for cultural or naturalist talks onboard like some cruise lines (Celebrity comes to mind) and we would go if talks of this type were offered. They did have assorted seminars on wine / beer / and martini tasting. We did the martini class and it was fun, not to mention getting a bit loopy sampling the drinks. Two of the most accomplished Jean Ann Ryan dancers, Svetlana and Roman, offered dance lessons. We attended one session and they did a first class job. There was lots of humor to keep it fun, and they didn't skimp on offering detailed instruction with personal attention. I have remembered the steps (now if my husband will join me on the dance floor we may have accomplished something!). I could do without all the overhead loud speaker announcements, but given that sometimes people even in our own group hadn't read their Freestyle Daily, I guess half the ship would never know anything that was going on if they didn't make announcements. We also found that the ship seemed to always have muzak playing ... I don't remember that from our cruise on Jewel in 2007, and we preferred the quiet over hearing recorded background music all the time.
Here's some information on the ports of call:
COPENHAGEN: On European itineraries we tend to wing it rather than book cruise line shore excursions. In Copenhagen we walked over to Tivoli; the adults enjoyed a light lunch while the kids did some rides. Then we went to Nyhavn and did a canal cruise. It was enjoyable, but Copenhagen is a large city and we discovered we spent a fair amount of time just getting from here to there, hobbling over cobblestones past lots of buildings that we often could not identify. The grandparents did the HoHo (Hop On Hop Off double-decker bus) and I think they got the better deal in Copenhagen. In addition to being taken round to see the narrated highlights of the city, they had a convenient stop at Nyhavn for everyone who wanted to take the canal cruise or enjoy a canal side pub, then hop back on the bus to the port. For $25 (US) the HoHo here is a good deal - take it.
WARNEMUNDE: We loved this port of call! Hundreds of people opted for pilgrimages into Berlin, and I use the word pilgrimage advisedly because the trip is long and arduous (that night onboard it was dead as a doornail. If the Berlin folks were not penitents setting out for the journey, they perhaps wished they'd done something else in port as they collapsed from exhaustion after). About half our group got up and out early enough to catch the ferry to Rostock and we had fun there. The kids played at a city park (teenagers and 20-somethings having a hoot - helped to offset that none of them had a decent night's sleep the night before), we walked the city walls and ate lunch outdoors in the beautiful old Hanseatic town square, then paid a visit to the maritime museum. Warning - they don't speak English at the museum. Fortunately my husband speaks German and one of the staff was delighted to give us a private tour. We returned to Warnemunde mid-afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful little seaside resort village; the other half of our group spent the entire day there. We swilled a couple pints at the sidewalk cafes and met some German couples who were either there on holiday, or were catching an Aida cruise from Warnemunde the following day. This is a charming, relaxing port. Unless you just have to get to Berlin right now for some reason, skip it on the cruise, and take your trip to Berlin another time. It's a LONG way from Warnemunde.
TALLINN: Another absolutely delightful town. We were fortunate to arrive on a sunny, warm day with a marvelous youth orchestra playing in the town square. We pulled up chairs at a sidewalk cafe and stayed awhile over refreshments to enjoy the performance, which was outstanding (mostly violins and accordions - hundreds of them). Tallinn's old town is a magical fairy tale place full of turrets and pointy roofed skinny buildings along narrow, twisty cobblestone streets. It's small so you can't get lost, and each turn offers more eye candy to those of us whose countries (US and Canada) only date back a few centuries. Tallinn was a Hanseatic town, like Rostock, but more of the original medieval city remains intact here (it helps that it wasn't bombed to smithereens during World War II). Make the most of your visit by having lunch at Olde Hansa. The restaurant has no (apparent) electricity - it's dark inside with candles and the menu is about as medieval as the atmosphere - we loved it:
SAINT PETERSBURG: This is the one port of call where I would NOT recommend you try to wing it. First of all, you would have to obtain a visa to do so, and then what? You are docked in an industrial port many miles from anything you want to see, and at each attraction you will stand in line for hours while those of us on tours zip right in ahead of the throngs of independent visitors. My recommendation is that you do as we did and book a private tour. It cost us about half what the cruise line shore excursions charge (we paid $260 for 2 full days; $234 for those with student IDs and also for our octogenarian grandparents), plus we had a comfortable midi-van for 20 people with a private guide rather than a big bus with at least twice that many people being herded about. We used Natalia at Guide Guru and I would recommend her highly (feel free to mention my name):
I was able to work with Natalia to customize our tour (impossible with a cruise line shorex) so we got to see exactly what we wanted to see for the amount of time at each place that suited us. The first day we spent the morning at Catherine's Palace, and the afternoon seeing the gardens and fountains at Peterhof plus the inside of Montplaisir, and ended the day with a stop at Saint Isaac's Cathedral before heading back to the ship. An evening program was available but we passed on it because we knew the older members of our party would be tired, and the teens and 20-somethings would want to enjoy the social activities onboard the ship in the evening. The second day we did a bus tour of the Nevsky Prospekt, took in a long visit at the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, then visited the Hermitage for a few hours and topped off the day with a relaxing canal cruise. There has been much discussion about cruise ships making life difficult for passengers who book private tours, so heads up on this matter! Natalia warned us about it, and true enough hundreds of people on OTHER cruise lines have been hassled if they did not book shore excursions with the ship. I am pleased to say that Norwegian is one of the very few cruise lines which did NOT interfere with us trying to disembark and join our tour as soon as we docked. Evidently most other cruise lines have been telling their passengers that the Russian authorities insist that they clear all the cruise line shore excursions through immigration before allowing any private tours or independent travelers to disembark. This is baloney! It's a perk the ship is offering to passengers who bought their tour from the cruise line at the expense of others; it has nothing to do with Russian immigration policy (they could not care less whether you are on one tour or another so long as your documents are in order). On Norwegian Jewel those who had private tours were asked to use one gangway and NCL tours use another, but as far as I could tell this was mostly to help them keep their own tours organized as groups. Immigration the first day was slow for everyone, but we were being processed just the same as everyone else. On other cruises I have read that passengers were delayed by as much as 2-3 hours before being allowed to disembark. I would be livid!
HELSINKI: I am sure Helsinki is on the itinerary due to its convenient location, but in my opinion there isn't enough here to warrant a full day of sightseeing. Since there wasn't a priest on our cruise (disappointing, as in the past we have had priests on our NCL cruises), we spent our Sunday morning seeking out and attending Mass. Fortunately the church was located along the HoHo bus route so that's what we did, although in 20/20 hindsight the HoHo here is expensive (25 euros or $35 and change at today's exchange rate) and frankly not worth it because there is so little to see, and the docks are not that far out for most folks (not the elderly) to just walk into town. After Mass we wandered through town and saw the humungous Lutheran Cathedral (very plain - not worth the hike up all those stairs unless you are into huge, plain white buildings). From there we walked over to the lovely conservatory-styled Kappeli Cafe near the gardens. It's charming, but OUCH, I paid about $100 bucks for four of us to have a snack / light lunch (ie a croissant filled with tuna salad or a slice of pie) with coffee or cokes. We then strolled over to Uspenski Cathedral (Russian Orthodox) which was beautiful, though small after the spectacular churches we visited in Russia. We took the HoHo out to the rock-cut church (Temppeliaukio) but it was closed so we didn't get to go inside. All in all we exhausted Helsinki in a couple of hours. It was very clean, which was nice, and everything was in tip top repair (given how expensive everything was, small wonder they have the resources to keep the place tidy and maintained), but I could enjoy similar countryside vistas visiting Wisconsin, and find livelier pubs there at a better price. If I had my druthers we would have skipped Helsinki and gone straight to Stockholm, spending the extra day (or even just an extra half day) with an overnight there instead.
STOCKHOLM: I was worried that with a 4pm sailing time we would be cut short here as we could have easily spent two days at this port. In the end, how much you will have time to see depends on where you are docked, and if you are planning a Baltic Cruise, this is one of the questions you need to ask. We were docked at Stadsgarden which is right in the center of town. It could not possibly have been a better location. Many cruise ships however, including Norwegian Jewel in 2010 I believe, dock at Nynashamn which is way the heck outside of Stockholm (it really shouldn't be called Stockholm at all it's that far away). Check them out on Google Earth and you will see what I mean. In our case, we were in the heart of the city, and the HoHo ferry (a real bargain at something like $12 or $13 per person) docked literally about 30 feet from the bow of our ship. The HoHo circuit runs continually at half hour intervals with stops at most of the places anyone would want to visit. We spent half a day at the Vasa Museum (the actual 1628 galleon raised from the sea - it's a magnificent ship to behold and the accompanying museum exhibits are superb) and then had to choose whether to do the Nordic Museum next door, or Skansen, or Gamla Stan, and opted for the latter. It was a very low-stress fun day. Once back onboard we understood why we set sail at 4pm rather than crowding the dinner hour. The sail away through the Stockholm Archipelago was magnificent, and it goes on for hours before the ship reaches open water. We nabbed prime seats up in Spinnakers, and the views were awesome. Sometimes the shipping channel cut in so close to wee little islands that it seemed like we were cruising through people's front yards; on one occasion a couple of pugs came out to bark at the passing ship, the way dogs do at cars back home. Awhile later we spotted a deer swimming between islands. Immense ferries passed by us like any two vehicles on a thoroughfare, sounding as the ships slipped past each other. It was a splendid finale as we departed our last port of call heading back to Dover.
Please feel free to contact me directly (JBFLeBlanc@aol.com) if you have any questions about Norwegian Jewel, or about Baltic Cruises.
In addition to the ships reviews I found it helpful if I knew a little more about the reviewer, so first a little information on me. We are a gay couple, 51 and 49 years old. This was our fifth cruise (but our first straight cruise.) We are seasoned travelers and roll very well with the punches. We tried to do this trip on a budget and were delighted with the entire trip. Let's go over some of the details.
Passengers. In round numbers there were 800 people from the United Kingdom, 700 from the United States and 750 from 46 other countries. Because the ship sailed from England it is an easy trip to the pier for many people from the UK. Of the over 2200 passengers, 720 were members of Royal Caribbean's Crown and Anchor Society (had previously sailed with Royal Caribbean and signed up for their frequent sailors club.) The average age was probably early 60's although in the Kid's Parade before one of the evening shows there were 30 to 35 young children.
While the ship was fairly full it never felt crowded. The only waits I saw for elevators was right outside of the theatre after a show let out and that is to be expected.
Itinerary. For people who are not frequent world travelers or used to the ways of the Western World, this is a great itinerary for you. Tallinn Estonia let's you dip your toe into a foreign culture, St Petersburg is pretty much the opposite of the Western World and the remaining cities ease you back into your Western ways.
Weather. The two cruises prior to ours had great weather (read sunny) with temperatures in the 80's (Fahrenheit). Unfortunately we had overcast skies with rain almost every day. One of the sea nights we had 150 mile an hour winds (as reported by the captain) yet the ship was surprising steady. We had a balcony on the 10th deck and wind was blowing rain water into our cabin. The staff was wonderful in responding immediately to vacuum up the water in our cabin.
The Ship. I absolutely love this class of ship. In the middle of the ship is the Centrum which is an opening from the 4th to 11th decks. To me it gives the ship a heart. You regularly pass this area and immediately get an idea of what is going on aboard the ship. The ships design features lots of wood and primarily a blue color palate. It makes it feel like a ship. With other ships we have been on the design felt more like a large hotel rather than a ship.
Food. I am a pretty simple eater and I found the food to be quite good. Some other passengers were looking for more variety and I can understand that. Imagine going to the same restaurant every evening, I think it could get boring, that did not bother me. While the main dining room menu tended to be a meat, chicken, fish, pasta option every evening I was please with all of my selections. It would have been nice to see a salad entrEe one evening. The menu is slanted towards an American palate and any complaints I saw about the food tended to be cultural differences. Huge difference between American bacon and British bacon for example.
We tended to have breakfast and lunches at the Windjammer Cafe which is their buffeteria. Nice selection of foods.
We signed up for My Time dining which is Royal Caribbean's attempt at providing open seating. On our previous cruises they were always open seating for dinner, you just show up between 6:00 PM and 9:00 PM and were seated. With My Time you make a reservation for a time and that is your time for the entire cruise. Our reservation was for 6:45 PM and we showed up between 6:40 and 7:00 PM each evening. We always had a table for two and frequently ended up in conversation with our neighbors. The My Timer's we spoke with preferred My Time as many of the tables were for two. It can be challenging to have dinner with the same people every night if you have nothing in common with them. For people that cruised ten years ago, gone are the days of lobster dinner or the Baked Alaska parade but I did not miss those items.
We purchased a Wine and Dine package which in theory gives you a savings off of purchasing individual bottles of wine. We purchased 5 bottles of their Platinum Package for $125. After the third bottle I cross checked our selections with another wine menu that had prices on it. I found the wines we were choosing were regularly $26 or $27 a bottle, not much of a savings.
Entertainment. This is the one area that could use some improvement, especially the Production Shows. The singers, dancers and musicians were good, the overall concept needs work. Their West End to Broadway show raced through too many songs and made some strange changes to others. "With One Look" from Sunset Blvd was never meant to be a duet. "Masquerade" from Phantom of the Opera is too strongly associated with that show to be used in their City of Dreams show. Would suggest that the West End show focus on three popular musical and do several songs from those three shows.
Individual entertainers like Pete Matthews, Charles Back and Jacqui Scott were excellent. Others like Tenors Unlimited sang well but when trying to have a "rat pack" attitude with out the audience caring for them first, them came across as arrogant Americans. Contrast this with Pete Matthews who did a prat fall off of the stage early in his act. The audience felt sorry for him and that meant he had them in the palm of his hand to take us where ever he wanted to and he did a great job
Activities. I stepped outside of my comfort zone and tried a few of the ships activities during sea days. Did a pull off oil painting class, attended an arts lecture, and saw the Houdini style underwater escape, ice carving, bakery challenge and a close up magic show. All were well done.
Ports Tallinn. This was the only city in which we did a ships tour package. Most people enjoy their ships tour and it has its advantages. For example, if a ships tour is late as four different busses were in St. Petersburg, they hold the ship until all the ships tours have returned. When you are on your own and are late returning to the ship, they do not hold the ship for you. On the flip side, doing a bus tour with 40 usually is a lot of hurry up and wait and the costs of the tours can be high.
For Tallinn we chose to do the ships Walking Tour of Tallinn. The three and a half hour tour of Tallinn ended up being over two hours of shopping. We went into one church, stopped a three viewpoints. Now as I know the lay of the land I would have only taken the shuttle bus from the ship into town and explored on our own.
St Petersburg. Without going into a lot of detail, it is possible to obtain a Russian Visa to explore St Petersburg on your own but I would strongly recommend a private guide. This being our third trip to St Petersburg we wanted to see some new things. We hired a guide through Guide Guru and I highly recommend them. At no cost to us they obtained the Cruise Ship Visa for us, met us on the pier and showed us everything we wanted to see for the two days. The cost was $650 each including tip. We had a very knowledgeably English speaking guide, a newer Toyota car with separate driver. The only extra cost we had was for lunch on the second day. The benefit of a private guide is amazing. At the Hermitage we went straight to the front of the line. In the drive over to the museum the guide asked what we would like to see in the museum, we told her and she took us to the artists or medium (sculptures) that we were interested in. Several times we would walk into a room and be the only people in the room. The guide was so knowledgeable, she could talk about the artist, what inspired them or what to look for in the painting. My partner who has the business mind was thoroughly enthralled with the Art History lesson.
One thing we saw that was not open in our last visit in 1994 was the Church of the Spilled Blood. The entire inside of the church (now museum) is covered in small tiles. Highly recommend a stop there.
We also did non touristy things like going to a Russian version of Wal Mart and then later a coffee house. As we also like old trains we went to an incredible train museum. Our guide had never been there and we were pleasantly surprised at the wonderful collection of Russian trains.
Helsinki. We took a shuttle bus from the ship into town ($10 a piece round trip, American dollars accepted.) When purchase a Helsinki card which provided public transportation, many museum admissions and a bus tour were all included in the card price. If you choose to see the city on your own, do take the shuttle bus into town.
Stockholm. The ship docks away from the town. Some people walked it but the pier is in an industrial harbor area and easy to get lost. Rather than buy shuttle tickets, the Hop On Hop Off bus people pull right up to the ship. Shuttle bus was $12 per person round trip and the Hop On bus was $25 per person for the day so for $13 more we chose that options. (They took American dollars.) We had also bought a Stockholm card prior to leaving because we were in the city on a Sunday. The Stockholm card provided admission to the Vasa Museum, City Hall tour, Canal Boat Tour and the Museums of the Royal Palace.
Copenhagen. The ship docks next to the Little Mermaid statue. Again we purchased the Hop On bus tickets, got an overview of the city and then explored Tivoli Gardens, walked the canals and city streets on our way walking back to the ship.
Oslo. The Hop On bus stops at the ship and went to where we wanted to go: Vigeland Sculpture Park, The Kon Tiki Museum.
Overall we never exchanged money except one ruble withdrawal at a Russian ATM machine to pay for lunch on our second day there. Otherwise everyone else took dollars or a MasterCard.
It was a wonderful vacation. 12 nights is a perfect length to cruise and these were all interesting ports.
Other passenger complaints. I noticed that an overall a component of people happiness with their trip came down to a perception of value. As with the airlines, it appears no two cruise passengers pay the same price. As soon as one finds someone who paid a lower price, it tended to sour the more expensive passengers mood. For example we met a couple from Australia who had booked the cruise almost a year in advance. We booked less than three months in advance. I did not say anything because he had already talked to other passengers but I realize he paid more for his 4th deck interior cabin that we did for our 10th deck balcony cabin. But to me, we had to pay a much higher air fare so it all works out in the end. The cruise lines do reward their frequent passengers so sign up for their clubs.