It was long overdue. Going on a sea cruise had or has been on my travel wish list for a long time. I have quite a few friends who are avid cruisers and I really wanted to taste it. So how did I experience my first time cruising?
Destination is my priority and Russia and the Baltic States were a blind spot on my map. Not anymore. After researching brochures and asking people, including the travel agent at Cruisewinkel.be, Steve and I booked a stateroom – which sounds better than ‘cabin’ – on the Serenade of the Seas, a cruise ship of Royal Caribbean International.
Why a Baltic cruise? First of all to enter Russia, you need a visa. But if you book shore excursions with the cruise, you don’t need one. There’s an arrangement for such excursions with Russian authorities. So we did just that.
Also, Russia has a ‘difficult reputation’. The Russian Federation forbids the promotion of non-traditional families in the presence of minors, also called ‘gay propaganda’. That doesn’t sound welcoming.
Then there’s the language barrier. All that made sense to visit Saint Petersburg with a cruise and an pre-organised guided tour. But I’ll elaborate on Saint Petersburg in a coming post.
The journey started in Stockholm, Sweden; sailing to Helsinki, Finland; two days in Saint Petersburg; one day in Tallinn, Estonia; one day in Riga, Latvia; one full day at sea (‘sea day’ or ‘cruising’) and back to Stockholm. Again, I will elaborate on these destinations in future posts.
Located on the 9th floor and with a balcony, the stateroom or cabin was larger than we expected. A bathroom with shower and decent water pressure. A reasonably sized bed. Plenty of storage options. An empty fridge for your purchases and a television.
We were happy to have a balcony and used it at least once a day. Perfect to escape the crowd.
We decided to take a drinks package and the ‘ultimate dining package’, which meant all alcoholic drinks under USD 12 were included and we could dine at the speciality restaurants each and every day.
There are many options. Giovanni’s Table is the Italian option, Chops Grill is a ‘new American steakhouse’, Izumi is an Asian fusion restaurant. We also tried the gastronomic experience Chef’s Table.
Steve and I were really happy with that choice. The ‘ultimate dining package’ cost us $24 per day and was totally worth it.
It meant we could avoid the ‘My Time‘ dining at Reflections, the main restaurant seating 1,200 (!!!) of the just under 2,500 passengers on board. We did that once. Loud music, singing and participation kept us away.
Windjammer buffet restaurant was perfect for breakfast and lunch. The variety of food options is laudable. There’s also Park Café for in-between eating. As Café Latte-tude wasn’t included, we didn’t try.
Food is good, varied and rich. It’s also plentiful. You will gain weight on cruise. There’s no escaping carbs an desserts. There are enough options not to eat the same thing twice. I sinned only once, eating twice a cheeseburger.
One downside is we didn’t try local food in Helsinki, Tallinn and Riga. That is very contrary to my travel principles. But we were stuffed. And food was included on board.
We had a drinks package which came as early booking promotion so I don’t remember the price. Our package included drinks under $12. So there were many wine and cocktail options open to us. You could find us at the Solarium Bar, Schooner Bar, The Safari Club or grabbing tea or coffee at the Park Café.
There are other bars. Sky Bar was always closed. The Vintages wine bar was located in the Centrum, the central cilinder. But because there were many activities, concerts and performances there, we found it too noisy. Yup, Steve and I looked for quiet spots. So we avoided the Vortex night club. And we were too old for the Fuel night club for teens…
The gym is located on the 12th floor with a front view. It’s quite impressive to work out with an ocean view. The gym is well equipped, clean and professional. There are a few classes to take. It was never crowded.
There are three pools on board. One at the back with a super happy fun slide for kids and teens. It was closed.
The main pool includes to jacuzzis. It was a playground for fun and activities.
But we indulged at the Solarium pool for 16+. Quieter. It has a greenhouse glass roof so the temperature inside is more constant.
Activities and shows
There are many. We avoided them as much as possible. And that is perfectly possible.
We saw two shows in the Tropical Theatre, which seats some 750 people. One night we saw a ‘musical film to stage’ show by the in-house dancers and singers (which you could find on the yellow pages) and we also attended the ‘Stars of St Petersburg‘, a group of kozak like folk dancers and singers.
Crew members are ever so friendly. Some play an act, for sure, but many have a real talent for genuine kind service.
Organisation and information
With just under 2,500 passengers there’s an absolute need for rules, organisation and information.
You can’t just do what you want on board. Opening hours of the gym, the pools and bars are strict. There’s a curfew for teens under 18. You must behave and that is imperative when you have 2,500 passengers and some 750 crew members in a relatively small area.
The ‘Cruise Compass‘ is your guide for the day. It tells you when the ship arrives in a city, when you can disembark, when you need to be back, the opening hours, the activities and shows, when to adapt your watch etcetera.
On the closed circuit television there’s a an information show starring the cruise director. There are regular announcements in many languages. We heard a lot of Spanish by the way.
Royal Caribbean is an American company (but registered in Liberia and sailing under the flag of the Bahamas) and it shows. Life on board is very American and it shows. You must be able to live with that.
Sometimes all this timing and organising feels ‘stressful’. The stress is relative of course. But it felt that way, sometimes.
One obsession on board which became an annoyance was washing hands. I understand the importance of hygiene on the closed community which a cruise is, but the way washing hands with this gel you find everywhere is enforced is infantile.
2,500 passengers is a lot. Yet, there are only a few occasions when you notice that. At check-in and check-out, in the main restaurant, at breakfast sometimes and on the sea day.
But you can escape the crowd easily. There are enough quiet spots on the ship not to notice the hordes of seniors, children, teens and parents of those.
The sea day, a full day at sea without going ashore, is interesting. On such a day you truly realize how many people are on board. There’s no risk of getting bored. There are many activities scheduled.
But on the sea day the pools were closed just before 4PM. It seemed the right moment to clean them. Really? On a sea day, when you need to entertain every passenger? It felt wrong. Someone asked why and the answer was “cleaning”, but that was certainly a lie. Everything is well organised but cleaning the pools would happened on the busiest day, simultaneously? No lo creo.
At first, I wasn’t going to buy WiFi on board. But with the sea day in mind I decided I wanted to stay connected. Because why not?
It is expensive. I payed $31.99 for 48 hours and that was a promotion. Internet on board goes via satellite, where 4G is turned into WiFi. That explains the price.
I was warned WiFi on a ship is frustratingly slow. It is slow, but not frustratingly. It definitely is too slow for streaming, but I don’t stream much. I want to be connected.
This is the first of a few posts about this cruise. But as a first conclusion I can state it was a success. Yes, there were some aspects I liked less, but these may be specific to the Royal Caribbean way of cruising.
Steve summarized it best: “cruising as a mean of getting to your destinations: yes. As a purpose: no.”
Indeed. Destination and itinerary are primordial. I won’t cruise because of the cruising. I will – happily – cruise again because it brings me to places I wouldn’t go otherwise.