So I was really excited after I pored over the maps and discovered the various ports we”re going to be sampling. And, yes, I understand that a cruise is just that, a sampling of what the country is like; but as a not-very-much-world-traveler, I figured a sample taste would be a great introduction to these different countries and cultures.
We’ve been reading a lot about the region; I especially recommend Rick Steves’ Northern European Cruise Ports (I have it in Kindle version on my iPad; Mom has the printed book so we can tear out the port sections and take them with us off for excursion days). The reading helped us to plan what excursions we wanted, both from the ship as well as the independent exploring we both enjoy so much.
For those of you reading this who don’t know it, Viking is a little different in that they include one *free* excursion at each port; I guess most other cruise lines (except some “expensive” ones) charge for all the excursions. Having the option of a non-cost excursion simplified things for our planning: most of those are basic, introductory guided tours, many of them done all or mostly on foot.
We found on our river cruise that the introductory tours gave us a chance to get a quick overview then we went out and explored more on our own. I’m hoping the Star’s included excursions are similar.
So, in light of the available excursions, here’s a summary of where we’re headed and a bit about what we’re looking forward to at each. And, if you have port advice for us or any other readers at any of these, please post in the “Comments” section below; I appreciate advice (really, I do, just don’t ask my family…).
Stockholm: Our starting point (in ship talk they call it our “embarkation”–see, for a cruise newbie, I’m really working on mastering the lingo). Mom and I arrive a day early in Stockholm, allowing us time to explore on our own, recuperate from a 16-hour-plus travel day and get our bearings (and hopefully sync our internal clocks to the nine-hour time difference. Note the operative word, “hopefully”). Lots of HOHO (hop on, hop off) buses and boats in this port. We’re looking forward to Gamla Stan (the old town) and maybe getting across the water (everything is surrounded by water in Stockholm; it’s an archipelago city) to an island that has a lot of museums, an historic park and an amusement park (I remember Prater in Vienna!).
Helsinki: Not sure what to expect here. I think it’ll be fun to see a country that’s proud of being independing only for the past 100 years. It sounds like a vibrant place with a great mix of old cultures (Swedish and Russian) and its own identity.
St. Petersburg: We’re here for two days. You need to have a visa to be in Russia unless you’re part of an “organized” tour. I checked out the tour agencies here and there seems to be a lot of competition for tourists. Lots of rah-rah pushing on forums for the “big” names in SPb (that’s how they abbreviate it) tour companies. Price was $250 to $300/person (USD) for a small group tour (up to 16 people) for two days. Mom and I opted to buck the system and chose a smaller tour company, Anastasia, and were offered a completely private tour for $305 each. It’ll be just Mom and I and a driver and a guide for both days. I had some people warn me that I should stick with the bigger companies, but all correspondence with Anastasia Tours has been great; they’ve followed through with our paperwork and I’m going into this with the idea that it will be a wonderful experience to be able to adapt the tour to our desires and really get to know the guide. We’re not big on spending two hours eating borscht in a crowded restaurant, so we’ve proposed doing a picnic one or both days. I’ll definitely keep you posted how these days go. Any tips on anything “different” to do in this port?
Talinn: I didn’t even know there was a country called Estonia. Sigh…again, my fourth grade geography was decades’ back, so perhaps there wasn’t one in those days. I’m looking forward to touring the lower town area and just enjoying the architecture and feel of this previously Soviet area. Lots of tourists buy amber here, I understand, but you have to watch out that it’s real amber and not some brownish resiny thing. I’m not thinking I’m buying amber anyway. And Mom, who’s a real fan of jewelry, puzzles over why anyone would want something with bug fossils or bits in it. I’m guessing we’ll not come home with any amber–with or without bug parts.
Gdansk. Well, I can’t type that without thinking of Lech Walesa and the boatyards. Again, this should be a good chance to see the modern liveliness of a former Soviet country. Any ideas for us at this port?
Warnemunde/Berlin. This one I’m conflicted about. Berlin is a three-hour bus ride from the port area in Warnemunde. One way! The bus into Berlin is one of the included tours so it wouldn’t cost us anything, except time. We’ve already seen a lot of castles last year, so staying in the port area and visiting the Schwerin Castle isn’t really appealing to us, so we’ll probably do the long bus ride to Berlin. I’d hoped for more free time in the city (we’re supposed to have three hours) to wander around and even take a walking tour from BerlinInsider but it doesn’t look like the timing will work. We’ll also be visiting on a Sunday, so that may limit some of the sightseeing (but hopefully keep the traffic in and out of Berlin to a lower level).
Copenhagen. Home of fairy tale writer Hans Christian Anderson and lots of fishing! Well, that’s my pre-visit thoughts of Copenhagen. Add the fish element to all of the next ports, I guess (the Hanseatic League and all that). Are Tivoli Gardens worth it (again, I imagine Vienna’s Prater and have some fun thinking of some very “different”–and much less-regulated–amusement rides than we have here in the USA)?
Aalborg: This port is one that is smack-dab in the middle of town so Mom and I will probably do our exploring here independent of any tours. I’ve checked out bus routes to take us across the fjord which splits the city in two and up a hill to ruins of an ancient Viking cemetery. There’s also a Viking museum there, Lindholm Hoje. I think it would be great to see the marker stones jutting out of the green hillside with the city below. I’ll tell you which buses worked for us if we’re able to do this.
Flam: This is in the midst of the fjords and the tip I’ve been given is to awake early this morning (really early!) as we come into the small town nestled between the steep, green mountainsides. Waterfalls supposedly tumble into the deep water almost year-round here. I’m hoping to be up on the deck with Mom, enjoying the early morning hours and the picturesque view. After our included tour (with a bus ride), we’ll be back in town in time to board a ferry heading up the Naeroyfjord to Gudvangen and then catch a bus back to the ship. We bought these bbb tickets on our own from the VisitFlam.com site (and saved a lot of money from the ship’s excursion). A wealth of Flam-region activities are available on this site and you can easily find prices and read the schedule to see if they will match with your visit.
Bergen: We disembark here after spending one night on the ship while it’s docked at port. After that Mom and I will be heading to a Bergen hotel (Radisson Blu Royal) for one night. Cod “made” this town, I understand, and the fish market is reputed to be a good one with lots of opportunities to dine al fresco on the fresh piscene. Oh boy! I’ve also heard, from a very good source, that this is a great place to buy an authentic Norwegian sweater. A bit pricey, perhaps, but I’ve seen one of these and it was lovely–classically Norwegian with a contemporary fit and style. What would be a better way to remember this vacation next winter than with a stylish sweater? And it’s certainly a lot better than bringing back some cod; I don’t think cod would age as well as a sweater.
Oslo: This is where we fly home from (well, really we leave from Frankfurt Airport–my favorite!–but from Oslo on to home it’s just passing through airports). We arrive in Oslo after a six-hour train ride from Bergen and over the “top” of the European continent and on to the city in time for a quick look-see and one night. The train ride sounds like a real winner, with lots of scenery (green forests and lakes, anyone?). Although Viking booked the train trip and didn’t opt for the upgraded “Komfort” class for us, I’m guessing the “quality” of the ride will still be pretty good: Europeans travel a lot by train and in my very small sampling, they seem to be well-maintained.
Have you visited any of these ports? Any tips to share with us and others? Put ’em in the Comments section below!