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Serenade - Baltic - June 30, 2019

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Posted (edited)

I'm going to post a brief trip report on my Baltic cruise on the Serenade of the Seas, departing from Stockholm on June 30. I won't report every detail of shore excursions - those are often discussed in the Northern Europe ports of call forum - but I will include a few photos.


From where I live, flying to Stockholm entails a convoluted routing, but in the summer it's practical to drive to Newark and fly from EWR, a four-hour drive without stops or traffic problems. As I did for a previous trip from EWR, I parked at Corporate Airport Parking, which is not too hard to find and provided good service.


The reason for flying from Newark was to get a nonstop flight to Stockholm-Arlanda. I chose SAS, partly because the aircraft would be an A330, a plane that I like, but especially because SAS offers premium economy (SAS Plus) and it was on sale when I booked. On air-travel boards, frequent SAS flyers say that Plus isn't a good value, but on a transatlantic flight, on sale, it certainly is: wider seat, drinks, wifi, and fairly good meals included. SAS also gives Plus passengers lounge access (only to its own lounges, not partner lounges). I did stop into the lounge at EWR for a snack, because departure time was 5:25 p.m. and that could mean dinner service at 8:00 p.m. The SAS lounge was fairly busy, with flights to Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Oslo all departing within a short span of time, but seats were available. The food isn't anything to brag about.


There were fairly long lines for immigration and customs at Arlanda, but they moved reasonably quickly. Tip: be careful not to get into a line for EU, EE, and Switzerland nationals unless you qualify.


There are lots of ways to get into the city from Arlanda. I tried out the Arlanda Express, the most expensive (other than taxi). It is fast, quiet, and has almost no passengers, but if you want to transfer to the T-Bana (metro) is isn't as convenient as the commuter rail at about half the price. The reason is that the Arlanda Express goes into Stockholm Central station, while the commuter rail arrives at Stockholm City station, which is right below T-Centralen, the main T-Bana station. Boarding or leaving any train at Arlanda entails a surcharge of SEK 120, included in the Express fare.


I was staying at the Victory Hotel in Gamla Stan (old town), a one-stop trip on the T-Bana. Gamla Stan T-Bana station has no escalators and most travelers use the stairs, but there are small, hard-to-find elevators, which I used, having a fairly heavy rolling bag. The Victory Hotel is in a building that is about 400 years old, and is one of three hotels in a group with a common theme. The others are the Lord Nelson and the Lady Hamilton; Nelson's ship was the Victory. It is nicely updated and wildly loved by customers, not because of the building but because of the staff. It's decorated as if it were a nautical museum and all the rooms are named for Swedish ship captains. Here's the tiny room that I had:



I will mention that almost all the paving in Gamla Stan is cobblestone or brick, so a rolling bag is somewhat difficult to maneuver and definitely noisy.


On the afternoon before embarkation I went to a concert in the foyer of the opera house. Even the foyer is an impressive venue. Here's the program:


I posted on another site that I had chosen the right part of Europe to visit, because that day it was 75° F. in Stockholm and 113° in Paris. However, because of humidity, the group had to omit all the Italian works - they said that the lute couldn't be kept in tune.


At least in the neighborhood around the opera house they take music seriously:



The next morning I headed to the Frihamnen cruise terminal by the local bus, number 76. This entailed rolling my luggage from the west side of Gamla Stan to the east side, in other words, a noisy procedure but fortunately Gamla Stan is not very large. From the bus stop it is several minutes' walk to the cruise terminal. Here's the obligatory shot of the ship:


All my prior cruises were on NCL, and NCL passengers had told that RCI cabins were smaller than NCL's (but the food was better). My booking was for a non-balcony oceanview, and having had that type of cabin last year on the NCL Gem, which is of similar age and size, I intended to make a comparison. However, I had a successful bid on an upgrade and my cabin was a "spacious balcony oceanview."



My cabin steward seemed to have a hard time with the idea that I was occupying a large cabin alone.

Edited by kochleffel

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Dining - I had been signed up for fixed seating, early, but at some point it changed to My Time. I think this was because there was a large group requiring kosher food, for which they cordoned off part of the dining room on deck 5. Except for one night, I was always seated alone at a two-top, and almost always with the same waiters.


My conclusion was that the food was, indeed, better on RCI, although not by enough to be decisive in choosing a cruise. There were fewer main-course selections than on NCL, and in particular only two - strip loin and roast chicken - that appeared every night. The dinner service, on the other hand, was significantly better and also much more consistent. I didn't venture into specialty dining.


On the night we were staying over at St. Petersburg, only the deck 4 dining room was open, and was all My Time, because some passengers would be coming back late from excursions and others would need to eat early before evening excursions. Deck 4 is ordinarily used for the fixed seating, with large, shared tables. This was my only experience in this cruise with sharing a table at dinner and it didn't go entirely well, because others at the table couldn't resist introducing politics. As far as I could tell, it came entirely out of the blue, although I am slightly hard of hearing and could have missed something that led to it. I was just finishing the main course - we did not all order at the same time and some of the others had already finished - and I left at that point.


Breakfast was also in deck 4 of the Reflections dining room, with large, shared tables. At breakfast, most mornings, there was no common language at the table, so there was little general conversation. I'd guess that 30% of the passengers were from Europe, especially Spain, and almost 10% from South America. All ship-wide announcements were given in both English and Spanish; the captain was a native speaker of Spanish and did the Spanish versions of his announcements himself.


I had only one or two breakfasts and only two lunches in the Windjammer. I was generally pleased with the food, and even more pleased that I was always able to find a seat. My strategy for eating alone in a buffet is to bring a jacket and a book or a gear bag and set them down before going to the serving area, so that I have a seat to come back to.


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Day 2 - Sea Day. Our CC Meet & Mingle was on day 2, the only sea day. It was held in the Vortex lounge, forward on deck 13, a much larger venue than needed. I was a little surprised that RCI was represented only by an assistant cruise director; when I've attended one on NCL, there were always eight or ten officers including the captain. This seemed odd because RCI organizes the M&M itself, while on NCL it's up to the passengers to compile a list and then approach NCL to schedule it.


I had to leave the M&M before it ended because I had a reservation for the Endless Galley Brunch. The "endless" part refers only to sparkling wine or mimosas, and while I am not sure that they were really endless, I was offered somewhat more than I wanted.


The main part of the event is a galley tour, which I liked. At the end I asked one of the chefs how the ship was provisioned, because I had already noticed that fruit and vegetables were of higher quality than is typical in the U.S. He told me that meat and most staple ingredients are sourced from the U.S. but all fresh fruits and vegetables were obtained in Europe. I didn't ask specifically about fish, but from the menus I can say that, wherever the fish came from, not all of it came from the Baltic Sea, if any.


Galley tour pictures:





I work in a building with a commercial kitchen where everyone is required to wear gloves at all times. During our tour I noticed that everyone handling food after it is cooked, such as making salads and appetizers or portioning desserts, wore gloves, but those working food still to be cooked did not.


We learned that the kitchens function essentially 24 hours a day. This doesn't mean that chefs are working everywhere all the time; since all areas were spotlessly cleaned, I concluded that cleaning was done throughout the day, whenever an area was clear. For example, some meat is put on to roast overnight at a very low temperature, but after dinner service is completed and the overnight dishes are set to cook, there would be no more work in that area until morning. Baking appeared to go on at almost all hours, and we were told that there were only five bakers for the entire ship.


The brunch part of the Endless Galley event was served to all of us, about 15 people, at one large table in Reflections. Some of the choices are the kinds of items found on RCI dinner menus, a substantial meal for 11:30 a.m., while others, such as waffles, might be found on a breakfast menu.



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Day 3 - Visby. Visby is a medieval town on the island province of Gotland, part of Sweden but originally a German Hanseatic trading city. Gotland is popular with Stockholm residents as a vacation spot, and houses inside the town walls are almost fantastically expensive. To my eye, the old parts look very German.


This was probably the poorest street in the medieval town but now a tiny cottage there would probably cost a million Euros:


We were there during Almedalen Week, named for a park in the town where it became Olof Palme's custom, when he was the prime minister of Sweden, to give a speech each summer. This started when news reporters besieged his family's summer home on the neighboring island of Fora; he refused to allow the intrusion on his family and refused to talk with them there, but promised to talk with them the next day in Visby. It has become a week-long (or longer) political festival in which each party then represented in the Swedish parliament has one day for its own seminars and speeches. This meant that the town was full of political operatives, easily recognized by their expensive clothes and hair styles, and news reporters, equally easily recognized by their scruffiness:


We had set up a walking tour with Aiden MacFarlane, an eccentric Scot who supports himself by giving English-language tours on Visby. Usually he gives a walk-up tour each morning at 11:00, nominally free, meaning that at the end you pay what you choose. During Almedalen Week, when there are very few ordinary tourists, he gives tours only by arrangement. Ours was scheduled at 9:00 a.m. and when we got there he seemed to have pickup up a few other people. He was flustered by the number - I think he is phobic about crowds - and by the general conditions in town, with some areas cordoned off for security and others just unusually crowded.


He told us that on Gotland there were more than 80 13th-century churches, many still in use, and that only one church has been built at any time since the 13th century.


Because of all the politicians, Visby also fills up with companies and organizations that want to influence politicians, both large Scandinavian businesses and a few demonstrations:


Our tour ended at 11:00 a.m. I wanted to go back to several places to try for better photos, but it soon started to rain hard. (Visby is the sunniest place in Sweden and the weather forecast was only a 10% chance of rain.) Everyone got drenched walking back to the ship. I had a rain jacket but my cotton trousers took two days to dry and my sneakers three days. The camera equipment in my gear bag wasn't harmed, but a Kindle Fire worked only intermittently for the rest of the cruise and for a week afterward.



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Day 4 - Tallinn. Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is another medieval city. Historically, the lower town was also a German trading port, while the upper town was where Estonians lived. That distinction somewhat persists, with the national government being in the upper town but the city government in the lower town.


I didn't book an excursion for Tallinn. It's possible to walk from the cruise pier into the heart of the lower town and, if don't mind a climb, continue to the upper town.


I set my camera incorrectly and so have only a few photos.


I was surprised to see this memorial to Boris Yeltsin.


Tallinn was the first place I did any souvenir shopping, and my main purchase was Vana Tallinn.



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Day 5 - St. Petersburg. For the first of two days in St. Petersburg, I was signed up for a Jewish Heritage tour that others in the roll call had set up with Best Guides. There is really not a lot of Jewish heritage in St. Petersburg, first because the city was founded only in 1703, and second because for a long time after that Jews weren't allowed to live there.


Our first stop was the Hermitage, not specifically for Jewish interest, but because the tour agency could get us in early, with no waiting. We saw a selection of the well-known works -- our guide said that to see everything in the Hermitage briefly would take about eleven years. She also pointed out the few works that might be relevant to a Jewish tour, starting with this painting by Giorgone of Judith after beheading Holofernes.


We spent some time in the Rembrandt gallery. It is fair to say that Rembrandt was the most Jewish painter who wasn't Jewish: as a starving artist he lived in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, the cheapest area, and painted his neighbors.


From there, we went to Yesod, basically the JCC, with offices of Jewish social-service and other organizations, preschool, and programs for children and the elderly, most of which were on summer hiatus.


"Hesed Avraham" is an organization that helps the Jewish elderly, iirc.


We then visited the Jewish section of the Museum of Ethnography (interesting but unremarkable). And the Choral Synagogue:


Kosher market, Jewish bookstore, and souvenir shop outside the synagogue, with sign mixing Cyrillic and Hebrew letters:


We stopped for lunch at a branch of Teremok (Теремок in Russian), a Russian fast-food chain where the specialty is blinis with almost any filling imaginable. They make them like French crêpes bretonne : large and folded square, not rolled. Our guide obtained a printed English menu and ordered at the counter for us.


Although everything we saw was interesting, what made the day was talking with our guide, a young Jewish woman with a daughter in a Jewish preschool (not the one at Yesod). We learned a lot about life in St. Petersburg from a resident's point of view, as well as about Jewish history there, and some things you wouldn't expect in a tour. For example, she showed us her "internal passport" - a multi-page booklet required to go anywhere in Russia, and noted that it no longer contained the notorious Page 5, which identified the holder's "nation," different from nationality in that her nationality is Russian but her "nation" would have been listed as Jewish, in former times often a barrier to employment and higher education. I had a little more time to talk with her because the others in the tour were also visiting the Faberge Museum and it worked best for us to wait for them in a café.


I did not book an excursion for the evening. The most popular was probably to the Faberge Museum. There were also options for a ballet performance and for a Russian folk show. Also a "white night" boat cruise on the canals, too late at night for someone of my age. I would have gone to a classical concert, but ballet leaves me cold, and I predicted that the ship would have a Russian folk troupe come aboard and perform in the theater, which was correct.



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Thank you for doing the review. There aren't many of this part of the world and is one of the cruises that is on our 'to do' list

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Following... Wonderful review so far. Question --- When were you able to sign up for the "Endless Galley" event and what was the cost? Thank you

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1 hour ago, wikoffclan said:

Following... Wonderful review so far. Question --- When were you able to sign up for the "Endless Galley" event and what was the cost? Thank you


The "Bottomless Galley Brunch" (that seems to be the correct name) was $35 and I signed up for it on April 2, three months before embarkation. I don't remember when it was first available in the Cruise Planner.


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Thank you! Looking forward to more of your review. Will be there next year on Jewel OTS!!

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Day 6 - St. Petersburg. The only excursion I had booked for our second day at St. Petersburg wasn't until the afternoon. This worked out well, because I was tired -- not so much from the long day just before, but because of the many hours of walking in Tallinn the day before that. As it was a port day, there was no MDR lunch and I lunched a little early in the Windjammer.


The tour I chose, booked through RCI, was one that combined a visit to the Yusupov palace with a canal cruise. I had read Prince Yusupov's account of the assassination of Rasputin when I was about ten years old and had wanted to see the place ever since, even after learning that there is doubt about his version of the story.* The group from our ship was enough for two buses, and at the palace the guides divided us further into four groups, two from each bus, because although the palace is very large (the Yusupovs were probably wealthier than the Romanovs!), the rooms having to do with the assassination are small. Each group visited those rooms at a different point in the tour, with the large public rooms before, after, or both.


The rooms that are the alleged site of the assassination have wax figures depicting the conspirators and Rasputin himself.


Here is a photo of Rasputin after his body was pulled out of the canal. There was water in his lungs, and it's possible that, even though he was first poisoned and then shot, he died of drowning.


The canal cruise was less of a success, because it had started to rain hard. St. Petersburg may be the "Venice of Russia" but it has only about 55 sunny days a year. The rain eventually stopped and many people went up on deck for a better view and better ventilation, but if you do that, you have to stay seated because of the many bridges. In that connection, people staying in St. Petersburg late the evening before had been warned that almost all the bridges are raised overnight to allow access farther into the city for cargo ships.


We were slightly late getting back to the ship, and our guide said that her headquarters had been in touch with the ship about our arrival time. We were by no means the only tour group returning at the last minute.


* So this was a bucket-list item for me. I achieved another such item in a cruise last year, seeing the Chapelle du Rosaire (Matisse Chapel) at Vence in France, during a port call at Cannes.

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Day 7 - Helsinki. I had booked a historic highlights tour through RCI because it included the Seurasaari open-air museum. There are also open-air museums in or near Stockholm and St. Petersburg, but this was the only one that I visited.


We started with a few sites in Helsinki and happened to see the antique tram that runs only on summer weekends, as this was a Saturday. It's not totally a tourist thing, as it operates on regular routes. No picture, because a bus passed before I had the camera ready.


Then the Rock Church. This is a modern church carved out of a rock outcropping and is very popular with tours, but it functions as a regular church.


Seurasaari was the main element of the tour. It's essentially a museum of Finnish rural life, with buildings moved from all over the country and placed in a naturalistic setting that is a lovely park on its own. We started with coffee and cinnamon rolls in a pavilion; every Nordic country claims to make the best cinnamon rolls and to drink the most coffee. The rolls were, indeed, very good.


I don't have many pictures, because the guide moved us along so quickly. Seurasaari is very large.


The windmill would have been for grinding grain, not pumping water. There's also a water mill near it, but we were galloping too fast for a picture.


A church moved to the park:


And a wedding party waiting for the bride:


We were back at the ship at 2:00 p.m. and I headed to the Windjammer for lunch, as usual choosing a seat and leaving my jacket and bag there. Then I went to the art auction, which had its preview at 2:00 and was just beginning when I got there at 2:30.


A word about shipboard art auctions. In general I don't think they're good values, but it varies a bit. One of my friends on another cruise has bought three or four pictures from the Park West galleries on board, although not in the auctions, and I think that she paid a fair price for the ones that I saw. On the other hand, I think that many of the pictures are wildly overpriced. I have never bid in one, but I like to see what others bid on, and there's free champagne. Once, on another ship, we were invited to tag any pictures we were interested in with a Post-It. I did tag two and neither was brought up for auction.


I have no love for Park West, but I think they were treated badly on this cruise. One art auction was cancelled because of a conflict with another event scheduled into the same venue (oops!), and this one, the last, was scheduled for a time before the all-aboard time for the day, so many passengers were still ashore, just returning, or having lunch. Small audience and nothing sold, but considering what they brought out, nothing deserved to sell. Park West is still pushing Peter Max heavily in spite of the recent scandal.


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Posted (edited)

Day 8 - Disembarkation. At Frihamnen I carried my luggage off and walked to the bus stop to get the #76 back to Gamla Stan, where I was staying another night at the Victory Hotel. I was glad, by the way, of that, because I had left my bifocals in my room a week before. I emailed the hotel as soon as I noticed this, and they replied that they had them and would keep them at the front desk. I can read with no glasses at all and would usually wear distance lenses for sightseeing (I can't cross a street without glasses), but it was uncomfortable to have no backup. In a previous cruise, I broke the distance glasses on shore on Mallorca and didn't have the other pair with me; if you ever need to know what Superglue is called in Spanish, it's labeled Superglue.


There was some agitation at the bus stop because many people coming from the cruise needed to buy bus tickets from a machine there. (Not all bus stops have the machines, so it is really better to plan for this. I used the SL phone app, but if you will use public transit more than twice in Stockholm, it is really better to buy an SL Access (stored-value) card at a T-bana station or a Pressbyran convenience store.) One couple needed a very long time to figure out the machine, and those behind them in line barely managed to buy their tickets before the bus came. It's permissible to board a bus through the middle doors, which is easier with luggage, and then walk to the front to pay, but not all drivers consent to it and the driver of this bus didn't.  Considering how much trouble people had buying tickets, this was probably prudent.


After leaving my luggage at the hotel and reclaiming my glasses, I went out for coffee before the Judiska Museet (Jewish Museum) opened at 11:00. There is not a tremendously long history of Jewish settlement in Stockholm and the collection is small, but the interpretation is brilliant, and surprisingly honest about Sweden's ambivalence toward Jews until 1943, when almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark escaped to Sweden.


Stacks of letters from the 1930s pleading with the Swedish government to admit Jewish refugees -- all answered no.


After that I went to the Vasa Museet, which is the #1 tourist site in Stockholm. The Vasa is a 17th-century ship that sank immediately after launching and  was raised and restored in the 1960s. A person could spent hours in the museum, because there are also extensive other displays.


The next morning I checked out of the hotel around 8:45 a.m. and headed to the airport for a 12:25 p.m. flight. This time I took the T-bana from Gamla Stan and transferred to commuter rail at Odenplan; I think it is probably easier to transfer there than at T-Centralen, but my reason was that it was what the SL app said to do, possibly because of better connecting time. On a Sunday the commuter train is quiet and uncrowded, but slower than the Arlanda Express because of stops.


At the airport I learned that the flight was delayed until 2:00, eventually 2:30. SAS was open about the reason: the inbound plane had trouble with some of the toilets. I was glad of lounge access and had a drink, snacks, and coffee while waiting, since a 2:30 departure would mean lunch on the plane around 4:00 p.m. The lounge at Arlanda is large and was less crowded than at Newark even thought Arlanda is a hub. A minor warning: allow plenty of time to get to the gate for a flight to a non-Schengen destination, because passport control for those gates can have long lines. Again, be sure not to get in a citizen line unless you have an eligible passport.


The flight, when it eventually took off, was uneventful. At EWR I was glad of having Global Entry, although it takes some ingenuity after you have your luggage to get to the GE line to hand in your customs ticket, because the regular lines block access to it. It was hard to call the parking lot for a pickup, because my phone took a very long time to find any signal, even outdoors. Once I had my car I drove about 25 miles and stayed in a motel, because while there was time for driving all the way home, it was about midnight by Stockholm time.

Edited by kochleffel

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General comments: As I said, I thought that the food in the MDR was better overall than on NCL - the best dishes on both were equal but RCI was more consistent, and the service was more consistent. Portions were also larger, which was not entirely a good thing: I had just lost 20 pounds and didn't want to regain any.


One bad thing was the excessively loud music, primarily in the Centrum - it was objectionable in my cabin, which was halfway between the Centrum and the forward elevators, on the first night, but after that the stewards closed the fire doors. What really got to me was the interlude of extremely loud music in the Reflections dining rooms on three nights . When I complained, a dining manager told me that nothing could be done about it ("preset" or "controlled by the singers"). All he could suggest was coming to dinner a little later, after it would have ended.


I thought that entertainment was better on NCL, and I didn't go to all of the theater shows. The best entertainment, or at least the most to my taste, were two jazz performances in the Centrum by an ensemble drawn from the theater orchestra. It helped that the Centrum, even though it is right in the middle of everything, is somewhat secluded, and doesn't have the masses of people milling around shouting (because those pesky musicians are making so much noise!) that the Atrium on NCL ships usually has.


I needed help once from Guest Services, to print an email message, and they took care of it for me. There were never any incorrect charges on my account, which I checked in the Royal app almost every day.


My next cruise is on Holland America, the one after that on the Radiance of the Seas.

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Thank you for your informative review, very interesting 

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Glad you had a good cruise!

Though flight delays suck, being over the Atlantic without working toilets would be much worse! Glad they got them fixed before you flew home!

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