By the time we were ready to board the Oceania Marina in Southampton after a wonderful four-day visit to England, I thought to myself: how could this trip get any better? Well, it did.
Because Caden changed his courses mid-year he had to make up credits over the summer which interfered with his getting a summer job, so what to do? Travel, of course! We had thought about going to Alaska but once Caden got his Ancestry DNA back and discovered he is 4% Norwegian (I am as well) we knew we were off to Europe. We both prefer colder weather so this was the ideal choice. There was only one big decision to make: good food or people his age? The two are, apparently, mutually exclusive. Caden, bless him, chose good food. I was nervous about a cruise as my only other experience was two separate cruises in the Caribbean where I was desperately sea sick both times. Even on some of the roughest seas I was fine on this trip.
It was nice to get on board and settled in. Everyone boarded in shifts and we waited in the Terrace Café until our deck was called:
The wait wasn’t too long and we were allowed to our room after a quick lunch. My priority? Unpacking and laundry! I wasn’t the only one with the same idea. Many of us spent a few days in the UK before boarding. I met some lovely people in the tiny laundry over the course of my three separate trips to wash clothes over the course of the cruise.
My other priority was converting Caden’s hair from the brassy gold back to his natural darker brown. Arun, our butler, took him to see his roommate Luis who happened to be a hair stylist at the Canyon Ranch spa on board. An appointment was made for the next morning. Since we were going to have a full day at sea it was a sensible time to do it.
Once everyone was on board we were all called down to one of the bars to go through a safety talk. This was when we realized that there were a number of alumni from mid-west universities on board. So many hats, sweatshirts and t-shirts boasting Buckeyes, Cornhuskers, Badgers, Hoosiers, Fighting Irish and more. They were all very, um, enthusiastic, an interesting spectacle to be sure.
Our first meal was at “Jacques” a very chi-chi French restaurant. We elected to share tables for all specialty restaurant dinners. This was our first experience with a couple from Palm Beach, Florida. It can only get better from here!
I have always been interested in cultures that are not my own (Canadian, of Scottish and Irish descent) and enjoyed reading many stories set in Scandinavia and northern Europe while growing up. I also did a project on Catherine the Great in high school that really ignited my interest in Russia, St. Petersburg specifically. It’s remarkable how interests sparked early in life influence interests and decisions later on. I have always been curious and want to take advantage of this time to sate my questions and learn what I don’t know yet. (The more I learn the less I know and the more questions I have – funny that.)
CRUISING THE NORTH SEA
What can you do on a ship in the North Sea? Plenty. First order of business was to return Caden’s hair to it’s more natural state. (Ah, so nice to have him back not looking like an Oscar statue!) After that he went off to play ping pong with some of the men he’s met on the trip.
I took myself off to a wine tasting. Red wine is not my thing but it was something to do. I sat next to a wine expert from Vancouver who very kindly humoured my lack of wine knowledge. At the end I did manage to like the best of the bunch – a Zinfandel from California. It really was good – but not good enough to convert me!
Our first meal in the Grand Dining Room found us in a quiet corner where we hoped to see the sunset. At the next table were an older couple from Miami. They were lovely and we enjoyed a great conversation. Caden was in his element asking questions – and getting answers. We then went into the Marina Lounge to check out the entertainment, “The Brille Factor”. It was dreadful.
Under the light of the full moon, I finished reading Curtis Sittenfeld’s collection of short stories: You Think It, I’ll Say It. (Almost too relatable, uneven, stories.)
I got up at 5:30AM. No reason why, maybe just excited that it was our first port of call. I tried to sign onto the internet (for which I paid $250US) in order to participate in #augustbreak2019 and couldn’t. My plan to learn more about and participate on Instagram in August did not start well!
Breakfast arrived at 7:30 and we enjoyed our “usual”: orange juice (Caden), cranberry juice (me), scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, croissants, fresh fruit and Earl Grey tea for me. Caden headed to the gym and I headed back under the covers. I got up way too early.
Our first big tour was Oslo and it set the stage for a lot of what we would learn are priorities in the Baltic: social programs, conservation, progressive green technology, love of the outdoors, focus on the community rather than the individual – they already have in place many of the values and programs we in North America struggle to fully embrace.
Our guide was lovely and the bus went from one very high hill with a panoramic view of the city on one end (you can see the ski jump in the photo above) to the other side of the city to the ski jump. The modern architecture is very stark and the older architecture more ornate. There is no medieval area as it was destroyed in flooding.
We woke to much bluster and wild swells. After breakfast Caden got a call from his friend Wayne (guessing his age at 75+) asking him to be his partner for shuffleboard. It was cancelled due to weather so they played ping pong instead. Caden returns to our room and finds a copy of Gretchen Rubin’s book on Winston Churchill outside our door. Jeffrey (guessing 80+) who had dinner with us the other night was raving about the book and promised to drop off his copy. No word on who won ping pong but it was crazy with the winds. Caden went off to the gym. And me? Well, the movement of the boat caught up to to me and lulled me back under the covers.
I was happy to receive a note from Erica with places to explore in Copenhagen and was looking forward to the tour. Unfortunately a Pride Parade, seven cruise ships at once and preparations for an Iron Man triathlon caused much disruption so we were only able to tour as much as the congestion allowed. This is definitely a city I want to visit again for more than a few hours – a few days, at least.
What grabbed my interest? The recycling plant that is soon to have skiing on the roof – how innovative! The Opera House with high diving competitions off the roof – crazy! (I will say, Opera Houses are a big deal in this part of the world!) The Royal Square with it’s rococo architecture was stunning in it’s size and symmetry – the Marble Church was breathtaking as well. And, what is with royal guards and the beefeater hats?
We enjoyed another lovely meal in the Grand Dining Room and then it was time for me to head to bed as soon as the ship departed at 10PM and the motion got to me!
When we woke we had already docked in Warnemunde, Germany. Many passengers had already left for the 12.5 hour trip into Berlin and back today before our departure at 9PM. I opted not to have us spend 8+ hours in a bus!
It was a bleak and rainy day. I learned quickly that my windbreaker is not a water breaker when greeted by torrential downpours as we departed for Rostock. Of note: it was Sunday and everything was closed with the exception of the local McDonald’s and a bakery in town. Our visit to the church was delayed as services were underway so we switched our visit of the church to the brewery.
It was fascinating to be in a part of the world that was once behind the Iron Curtain. Downtown Rostock, across from the miracle church, St. Mary’s, (it survived all bombings of the Second World War – though everything around it did not), has a definite bleak Soviet flavour – and the weather did not help. There were groups of wet visitors with umbrellas all over town as we visited the University; convent and church; the statue made of melted coins; the colourful homes lining the main street; stories of medieval life and how deadly bad the water was making beer the only beverage safe to drink; everything in Rostock being done in 7s, the Fountain of Joy (“Porn Fountain” to the locals); the McDonalds which was the first Western company to start up when the wall came down and a trip to the local brewery.
The Astronomical Clock was a delight. Built in 1472 it is the only one of it’s kind still in working condition (with original parts). At the very top there is a bit of a “stage” where, on the hour, there is a performance of the apostles crossing before Jesus for a blessing before entry into heaven, and the last, Judas, is shut out. (It is quite comical as the door slams shut.) The next level is the clock with daily time, zodiac, moon phases, and month. Below it, the large white disc is a calendar, which is valid until 2150 (as of 2018 this table replaced the 4th version, which lasted from 1885 to 2017). It is a remarkable feat of engineering, math and patience. 1472! Wow.
Way off in the distance was the Medieval Swedish town of Visby. We were unable to dock. Of course, being on a ship with a group of Americans, the conspiracy theories were rampant. It was a gorgeous sunny day and the deck chairs were full for the first time! I found one where I could read my book and watch Caden play ping pong with his buddies.
Miraculously a text came through from Jessica who let us know that the pups were doing just fine.
Our tour started at 11AM and I was looking forward to it: another peek into the other side of the Iron Curtain. A big deal, mentioned by every tour guide so far is the importance of being a UNESCO World Heritage site – Tallinn is one such site. Our guide was fascinating as she explained the history of Estonia and what it was like to be a non-productive worker in a Soviet system where there was always 100% productivity and yet nothing on the store shelves. (Communism exhausts people of their spirit – but not of their violence.) Her stories were bleak at best.
The first stop was an old convent and then across the street to the Olympic sailing venue. The highlight was, of course, the medieval portion of the city high on a hill behind thick stone walls. The ornate Russian church, in fact, all of the churches were all unique. Caden enjoyed watching everyone walking their dogs through the park and the pink city hall. It was a lovely visit and I know it’s on the top of Caden’s list of places to return.
Once back I took a couple of loads down the hall to the laundry then joined Caden at “Waves” for a late lunch. I enjoyed my usual: a surf and turf sandwich (lobster and beef tenderloin) with fries and the cole slaw that never arrived. It was a beautiful sunny day and we spent our time on the deck until we have to get ready for dinner. It’s all about the food! Living life meal-to-meal.
We were seated in the larger (and louder) main body of the Grand Dining Room. Wayne, and his wife Marsha, are seated at a large table next to us with a group of Nebraska alumni. Maria, the head sommelier stopped by the table. I love that she remembers me from class and makes an effort to speak to us. She was happy to be arriving home in the morning.
We are docked by 9AM and will stay in port overnight. There was a lot more buzz as everyone needs not only their stateroom key card but we all must have our passports. Security is tight. I have to admit disappointment when all I could see from our stateroom were cruise ships and grey highrise buildings. I thought, OMG, is it going to be all grey and depressing? Ugh. Well, we got off the highway and made a turn and WOW. So much colour on the buildings: bright pink, powder blue, soft yellow, mint green and so much gold. St. Petersburg is not what I expected from the books I’ve read. The whole city is over-the-top ostentatious, on the surface.
Caden had a great conversation with a boy in one of the souvenir shops – he’s 17 and wants out. He asked how much it cost to go to school in Canada. After doing the conversion to Rubles it looks like it’s out of the question ($1.00CDN = 48.36 RUB).
The canals and the bridges were many – as well as wires, so many wires, though I don’t actually recall seeing any trolley cars. There was a lot of traffic. No one was getting anywhere quickly – except on the canals.
Of note: I found it fascinating to hear the difference in tone from our Rostock and Tallinn tour guides compared with our Russian guide – especially when talking about physical damage during WWII. No mention in St. Petersburg about lives lost or the effect on people though that was the primary focus in Tallinn and Rostock.
We got back to the boat and Caden joined his buddies for a few games of ping pong. I love that he is enjoying his time – and that the old men are teaching him that strategy goes a lot farther than strength and endurance!
Caden is a cocktail kind of guy so the bartenders – seeing that it was going to be a slow day – made up a few martinis. Vodka does not set well with me, but Beluga? So good!
We had a late dinner up at Toscano, the Italian restaurant. It was tasty. We sat with a couple from the mid-West. He was a retired high school teacher (on the ship with classmates from Notre Dame), she still teaches special needs students. It is a lot of fun to learn about people and how they live their lives.
Had us visiting the incredible Fabergé museum that I’ve been wanting to see since I read Princess Daisy back in 1980! The whole museum was absolutely remarkable. All of the treasures are exquisite – the attention to detail astounding. I’m so happy Caden got himself a souvenir egg!
We returned to the ship where we attended a Russian vodka and caviar tasting up in Horizons. I’d not been up to this area before and the entertainment was fabulous! So much better than the awful pianist/singer in Martini’s.
I have always believed that the number of cranes seen in the downtown core of any city was evidence of a robust economy. Well, if that’s in fact true, Helsinki is on fire!
We drove through the downtown core and out to Tamminiemi which used to be one of the three official residences of the President of Finland. Saunas are a big deal and the one on the property was pointed out to us. Apparently you go in, get heated up then jump in the frigid water after! Holy heart attack.
We then went to Sibelius Park where there was a remarkable stainless steel-tube monument to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. What it represents is left up to your own interpretation.
The Rock Church – constructed in bedrock – was breathtaking and definitely a place I would go if 1. I went to church and 2. I lived in Helsinki.
We drove through the robust downtown which is filled with thriving designer and high-end stores. We ended up at Senate Square which is dominated by an imposing (and beautiful) Lutheran cathedral. It was a short walk to an open air market where I hoped to find a gnome figure for my sister who collects them. No luck. Back to the bus where we waited a few minutes. All I could hear was Cold Play “Viva La Vida” – then I found the source. Throughout our trip the music has been almost exclusively American and British. Interesting.
Back on board we met up with some friends we had made earlier – and spent the day with at the Fabergé museum. It’s hard to believe that the trip is coming to an end.
Our last dinner was delicious, of course. I had Caden test the wine – it met his approval.
Everything got packed and left outside for pick up sometime during the night. We will be one of the first off. Standing on our balcony we were able to see a flotilla of cruise ships in front of us as well as behind – all on our way to Stockholm.
I was reluctant to have the cruise end. It is so nice to leave the door open and hear the crash of the ocean and enjoy the cool breeze.
I have greatly enjoyed getting up early each morning of our trip as the ship slows down. I take a look at the area surrounding each port – I like to think it gives me an insight into the character of the people who live in those spaces. The views have been stunning and informative. I always ask myself “could I live here?” and then “why?” Not that I’m planning on moving to the Baltic, but it is a fun exercise. Gliding into Stockholm was no exception, lots of thoughts came to mind.
We made a plan to be off the ship for 9AM followed by a 4-hour tour of Stockholm. We were hoping that by 1PM we’d be able to check into our room. Unfortunately that was not the case, we were unable to check in until close to 4PM.
In the meantime we had a lovely tour of Stockholm which is another city made up of islands and canals. I do love how rivers and canals play a vital role in each of the cities we’ve visited. It makes me wonder how different things could be at home if this was more the norm? We in North America seem to look at things as a nuisance or problem that needs to be conquered whereas in Europe they have a more (literal) go with the flow approach. As I am directionally challenged, I love the idea that you can’t get too lost as long as you don’t cross a bridge!
Stockholm is beautiful and clean. Full of architectural contrasts. A totally walkable city though we did have a driver and tour guide take us to all the highlights.
While we waited for our room we ate a delicious meal (where better to get Swedish meatballs?) in the restaurant of The Grand Hotel which is where we were staying. We then took a walk outside by the canal boats. It was sunny and hot – the hottest day of the trip. Then back to the hotel bar to wait for our room. Once checked in, Caden fell fast asleep for a couple of hours. From our room, I watched the sun set over the palace. The location is fantastic. We had a quick meal of sandwiches for dinner and then it was time to get ready to fly home in the morning.
Oceania Marina was my third cruise. The first two were in the Caribbean (Cunard Countess, 1989 – 800 passengers; and, Royal Caribbean Oasis of the Seas, 2012- 5,400 passengers) on which I got sick, both times. I am grateful that for whatever reason, even on rough seas, I felt fine throughout our trip to the Baltic. The Marina holds 1,250 passengers (double occupancy) and it was a nice size. Nothing ever felt cramped or tight. 4.0/5.0
Service was exemplary everywhere. Our butler Arun was good natured and helpful; the housekeeper, Elizabeth was lovely. Wait staff, bartenders, security, crew, everyone was polite and around when you needed them. 5.0/5.0
Food was plentiful and with little exception always good. I liked the idea that in the specialty restaurants we were given the option to sit at a share table. In every instance we elected that option in order to get to know people. I wonder why people would elect to sit with strangers when they have no interest in getting to know them? That was our first experience and I’m happy to say things improved from there. 4.5/5.0
Excursions chosen were more of the “appetizer” variety. Neither Caden nor I had ever been to any of these places so we wanted to have an overview to decide whether or not to return. Coordination of passengers going ashore was always efficient with no rush or delay. All of the tour guides were knowledgeable and fluent in English. There were a couple of times we arrived in a place where there were 5+ other ships in port, a national holiday or a big event which added to traffic – instead of completing the tour the bus driver would skip over parts to get us back to the ship at the 3.5 hour mark. All excursions are as outlined in the initial pamphlet with accurate cautions made clear. 4.5/5.0
Entertainment was experienced in the Marina Lounge once and it was awful. The singer in the Martinis bar, I had to experience far too often, was either new or just plain bad. The band in the Horizons bar was fabulous. 3.5/5.0
Experiences like the wine tasting was fabulous, something I never would have considered doing at home. Caden took a lesson in blackjack at the casino. The caviar and vodka tasting was fun, too. 5.0/5.0
WiFi was dreadful. Not that I was on a cruise to be on WiFi but it was the first time I was that far away from home with one child while my other three (plus dogs) were not with me. When I left home I felt confident that should Claire need me to help with her move that I’d be available, I was not. It was difficult to be that disconnected and in a position of “what if” especially with the wonky time differences. The worst part? I paid $250US for the privilege of no WiFi – and no refund. 0.0/5.0
Embarkation/Disembarkation was smooth and efficient in both Southampton and Stockholm. 5.0/5.0
The Grand Hotel in Stockholm is in a spectacular location. The public rooms are lovely. We had to wait an hour for our room on a day that was unseasonably warm and I was dressed for seasonably warm. Our room was starkly Scandinavian (as expected, and can be so beautiful) but I didn’t expect the chairs to be in such shabby condition I was afraid to sit on them. The bathroom was gorgeous but Caden couldn’t figure out how to turn on the heat in the shower. The beds were clean and comfortable. (Another example of resting on previously earned reputation and location.) 3.5/5.0
The Grand Hotel Restaurant was bright and lovely. The staff was open and friendly. We had a delicious lunch and the next morning a scrumptious buffet breakfast before we left for the airport. 5.0/5.0
The Grand Hotel Bar was desperately understaffed in the evening and the room was full. It took a long time to get any service and then a long time to receive our food and drink – and the bill. The sandwiches were lovely. 2.0/5.0
Overall the cruise, along with the trip to the UK, was a spectacular once-in-a-lifetime trip. Are there things I’d do differently on my next cruise? Yes, of course. I’d get out of the cabin more often and meet more people, go to the Canyon Ranch Spa a couple of times, go to Horizon’s rather than Martinis, take advantage of more of the experiences offered. I chose to relax on this trip, read a few books, sleep when I was tired, eat when I was hungry. It was just what I needed for right now.
While we were in the UK and Baltic, the rest of the family were enjoying adventures of their own: Claire moved to Halifax, and played a dodgeball tournament in Austin, TX; Cole enjoyed and excelled in his course at the University of Sienna, Italy; and, Chloé survived a regular rotation of 11-year old campers at Onondaga and learned many life lessons I believe will serve her well this next school year.
Now we’ve settled into a couple of weeks of routine and I’m happily unpacking all of the photos + stories of the summer. It truly filled my soul.