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Baltic Cruise - August 2009

We still enjoy cruising, but not for cruising sake. To really enjoy being on a ship for two weeks we feel that we need to visit interesting places as well. This was brought home by the Caribbean cruise of a few years previous when the ports of call were by and large disappointing.

So the idea of six Baltic ports in 12 days was an appealing one. It gave us the opportunity to relax on board the Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas as well as visit some world famous cities.

Our overall impression of the cities was one of a mixed bag and the following comments are very generalised and will be expanded during the rest of this travelogue.

Copenhagen - A disappointment. At first it seemed a very interesting city but by the end of the day we felt it was a touch mundane

Stockholm - We had too little time in this lovely Swedish capital and could have done with an overnight stay. The picturesque old town and the wonderful waterfront scenery made it a delight.

Helsinki - Helsinki grew on us when we began to find its character late in the day after some rather run of the mill areas.

Tallinn - Tallinn in Estonia is a fairytale city of great historic interest and this was our second visit, having previously been well over 30 years previously

St Petersburg - When we say we never want to return to St Petersburg it isn't intended as a slight on this Russian city. This was our third visit and three times is enough despite the fact it is still one of the great European cities.

Oslo - Oslo had a wonderful character and feel to it and we had far too little time to explore it. A whistlestop tour that left us wanting more.

So to start at the very beginning.

Day 1 - Sunday August 9th

We always like sailing from Harwich. Harwich may not be greatly picturesque but it is very accessible to where we live in Norfolk. So the hassle of getting to the ship is very much diminished. We left plenty of time to get there and found parking very easy and efficient with heavy cases being dropped off prior to parking the car.

Last time we sailed from Harwich the parking was free. This time it was over 70 for the 12 days. Certainly a sign of the times, although last time we went with a different cruise line and that could well have had something to do with it.

Getting on board took over an hour and was rather uncomfortable as we had to join a long queue. It was quite stuffy and unpleasant but getting well over 2,000 people on board in a relatively short time can prove a logistical headache, so it's something you just have to put up with. Pre-registering on-line is supposed to speed up the process. The problem is virtually everyone does this nowadays so you still have to wait in just as big a queue. Having said that it undoubtedly does speed up the overall process.

Despite having only an inside cabin we found it to be more spacious than we expected. The bed was enormous and there was also a lounge area. The shower and bathroom was small but functional and the shower was easily controllable which is not always the case. One of my favourite moments of an entire cruise is usually followed quite speedily by one of my least favourites.

I love sitting with a plate of food in harbour knowing that in a couple of hours you will be sailing off into a 12 day adventure. It's the promise of things to come. Jewel of the Seas has a self service restaurant called the Windjammer. It gets  very crowded but we soon found that by carrying our food outside we could eat at tables in the fresh air.

Food full, we then had to go through the farcical lifeboat drill. I understand the need for this but it is excessive. Thousand of penguin-like people are forced to stand around for an eternity at muster stations whilst crew check that they are all "present and correct." The main problem is the claustrophobic feel of being herded together in padded lifejackets. But it isn't this that I have a problem with. My hatred of this stems from the fact that if there is a true emergency there would be panic on board. People just wouldn't wander in orderly fashion to their particular station. Manners would go out of the window to be overtaken by blind panic. Still it has to be done.

Once we had recovered from the drill it was time to get our bearings by having a look round the ship ahead of it beginning its journey. First feelings are that we have been on more interesting cruise ships, but it's early days.

We had opted for the first dinner sitting at 6 p.m in the Tides restaurant. Disappointed on three counts here. On our form we had asked to sit on a table of 12 as we enjoy meeting new people. We were on a table of six which rather suggests filling in the number is a pointless task. Then our table was right at the end of the restaurant with a better view of a corridor than the main part of the restaurant (of course somebody has to sit there and we were probably just unlucky). Then we found the food average. Before setting off we ran off a review of the cruise which stated that the food was disappointing. I would agree with this assessment as throughout the cruise the choice was limited, the sweets were often tasteless and the menus were confusing. Having said that there was nothing hugely wrong with the food. The two sittings for dinner were timed at 6p.m and 8.45 p.m. One just too early, the other just too late but with 2300 to feed I'm sure there was no other alternative.

One of our favourite parts of the day is showtime. which on the Jewel for the first sitting takes place at 9 p.m and lasts an almost uniform 45 minutes. Tonight was disappointing due to the fact that it consisted mainly of the cruise director (more about him later) introducing the various entertainment people who droned on about kids' clubs etc. The entertainment part of the show came towards the end of the 45 minutes and was much more enjoyable.

Day 2 Monday August 10th

A day at sea and that's always a nice and relaxing way to start a holiday off. We always find that once you have looked at the programme it becomes quite a hectic day. We fitted in crazy golf, a table tennis tournament, some reading, plenty of eating, a number of quizzes and quite a few other things.

Today was the first round of the progressive quiz which takes place on each sea day. We teamed up with some very pleasant people to make a larger team and after day one found ourselves in second place with a decent score. The rest of the week saw us go downhill and I'm not sure we ended in the top 10 teams. So here I have to talk about the cruise director. I spent the whole holiday trying to work out what his Christian name was short for. Never got round to asking him. I have to say Joff Eaton was excellent. It took a while for us to tune into his sense of humour but once we did it was very amusing. Throughout the trip his good humour and sense of fun made shows, quizzes and anything else a delight.

To be continued.

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