As first-time cruisers, we found it very helpful to read information to help us plan our trip. Although we are veteran travelers, cruise etiquette was something we knew little about. We are also grateful to have a good travel agent who knows how to match her clients with an appropriate trip. It's important to know what you want before booking. If you have kids, a good children's club is essential. Ask specific questions. What is the average age of the passengers? What languages are spoken? What kind of entertainment is offered? Know your priorities.
I always do my homework before leaving for a trip and I find it helps make things run more smoothly. Since we would be visiting so many ports, I bought a small notebook and wrote down the basics of each country - language, currency, tipping and so on. I later found out that small leaflets would be delivered to our rooms before arriving at each port containing similar information.
Since my husband Moshe and I were traveling with our two daughters, aged 7 and 12, we didn't want to feel pressured to get to the ship in one day. This is especially true during "high season" when air delays are common. We flew from Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel directly to Heathrow Airport in London, a five-hour flight. Heathrow operates a shuttle bus service called "airbus" which is an inexpensive way to reach a number of central locations in downtown London. The buses are double-decker with plenty of space available downstairs for luggage. We stayed at the Holiday Inn in Mayfair, a two-minute walk from Piccadilly Circus. There were lots of passengers from our cruise staying there as well. The hotel doesn't have a lot of facilities, but you really don't need them for a short stay. There are plenty of restaurants and coffee shops within walking distance.
The ship is docked at the Harwich (pronounced Har-rich) International Port. RCCL has a shuttle bus service from central London, but at $55 one way (and there were 4 of us), we decided to take the train. This would have been a good option if we hadn't had so much luggage. It turned out to be a real schlepp. Liverpool Station, where you get the train to Harwich, is a half-hour taxi ride from Piccadilly. There are only two direct trains to the port daily. (This is not written on the rail information web site.) Another problem is that the older English train stations do not have elevators or ramps. This may cause a problem for some passengers who have to carry heavy suitcases up flights of stairs. The train is a fun way to see the English countryside, but don't do it if you can't manage your own luggage. Once in Harwich, there are porters to assist you. The train station is located directly across from the dock.
We arrived at the same time as busloads of passengers from South America. Check-in took us some time, but it was courteous and orderly. Uniformed ground stewardesses walk around answering any questions. The large check-in hangar also has chairs and toilet facilities. Make sure you have completed all the forms at home! This will make check-in go faster.
Once you have completed the check-in, you are issued blue "credit cards" which serve as both charge cards aboard ship and identification for re-boarding. They need to be activated next to the conference center at least one hour before sailing. The purser will ask for a credit card. All onboard purchases will be automatically charged to your account. There is no check-out. You have separate room card "keys." Children are issued blue cards with a hole punched in them. This means they will not be able to buy alcohol or gamble. $25 "Coke" stickers are available if you want your kids to have unlimited soft drinks.
I thought there might be someone to show us to our room, but there wasn't. This is one BIG ship and it took us a couple of days to really know our way around. Luckily, each deck has a model ship map. Our cabin was located on Deck 7. I was afraid we'd feel more movement, but it didn't seem to make much of a difference.
I had heard from veteran cruisers that cabin attendants basically were there to attend to your every need. On this ship, duties were obviously divided up. If you want a cup of tea or some crackers, you need to dial Room Service. If you want a headache tablet, you either go to the Purser's desk, medical clinic on the first floor or the pharmacy corner of the duty free store on Deck 4. The stewards clean the cabins and deliver the laundry. Our stewardess was a friendly woman from Jamaica. She delighted in arranging the pillows differently every morning to entertain the kids. They soon found where she kept her stash of chocolates! The cabin was cleaned twice a day. We asked for ice in the room and it was supplied morning and afternoon - no problem.
On board there is a lovely library where one can borrow books on the honor system. Directly across is the card room where cards and board games are available. A full service photo center is open every day on the Deck 6. There are also numerous lounges and bars. My favorite was the Viking Crown on the very top which doubles as an observatory.
The outdoor pool is not large but not too many people took advantage of it anyway, as the weather in Northern Europe is chilly. There are plenty of lounge chairs and big pool towels available. At one end of the pool is a bar. A self-service counter is open almost around the clock for coffee, water and tea. Inside the beautiful solarium is another pool with two whirlpool baths. It hit the spot after a long day of touring.
Right off the solarium is the beauty center and spa with a state of the art exercise room. The best kept secret for peace and quiet is the private deck next to the solarium. On the deck above the pools there is a track which circles the whole ship. At the very end is a mini-golf center.
The main dining room is called "The King and I," and is split on two levels joined by a winding staircase. We reserved the first seating which turned out to be a mistake because we were usually rushed in order to get to a 6:30 p.m. dinner. None of us were particularly hungry after a late lunch, either. We were happy to have the Windjammer Café located next to the outdoor pool. Buffet or informal meals are available, as well as afternoon tea. It is an excellent option for children who don't like a fuss. Hamburgers (not so great), hotdogs (better) and pizza (dry) are available at the snack bar in the solarium. The teenagers on board were there day and night.
We expected wonderful food and were disappointed. We certainly enjoyed the food better at Club Med. Like almost everything else on the ship, the menu is geared for (older) American tastes. While the food wasn't bad, it wasn't exciting or imaginative, either. Moshe and I felt it was uneven. I quickly learned that the fish dishes were the best. The beef in any form - steaks, hamburgers or stews - was dry and chewy. Breakfast was typically American with bacon and eggs, cereals and toast. There were trays of overly-sweet sticky Danish, too. I longed for a simple warm croissant and a cup of good café au lait; even a good bagel would have been great. With all the cheese in Europe it was hard to find a decent slice. Breakfast in the dining room was slow and disorganized, but there was a little better selection than at the Windjammer.
We only had lunch in the main dining room twice. It was satisfactory. I selected pasta, which needed copious amounts of salt and pepper. Lunch in the Windjammer reminded me of my college dorm buffet. Only the last day did the chef bring out the spices for a Mexican lunch. The restaurant was packed . . . could someone take a hint?
Dinners were fair to good. Once again, the menus were unimaginative and the food was bland. The caesar salad hadn't a trace of anchovy or lemon juice, and the crabcake looked and tasted exactly like the frozen vegetarian patties Israelis throw in the micro. The prime rib was nothing like I ate in the States. I stuck to the salmon. Desserts were good. The chocolate and hazelnut soufflé was excellent.
The coffee on the ship was so bad, I couldn't drink it. Our waiter told us they used coffee concentrate in the machines. I believe it. Even the espresso was weak. I'm not sure a sniffer dog could identify what RCCI serves as coffee.
I was expecting something more English in character. We got the "dorm" snacks of chocolate chip cookies, brownies, rice pudding and cold-cut sandwiches. They were tasty, but got tiring after a while. Tea bags are served with mugs of boiling water. Oh, please! One of my biggest peeves was the lack of teaspoons. Except for the main dining room, guests had to use wooden stir-sticks. Little long-life creamers were also used instead of real milk. As this was an expensive cruise, I didn't appreciate these McDonald-style touches. The only milk provided for cereal at the Windjammer came in long-life milk boxes. One had to pour the milk through the straw. Really, there is no excuse for this.
Pizza, hamburgers and hotdogs could be ordered at the solarium until 3:00 a.m. You could get a limited Room Service menu, but it was nothing to write home about. There was no midnight buffet except for one evening. That didn't bother me because I don't want to eat anything heavy at that time of night. My husband said that the one midnight buffet was wonderful. I would have appreciated a place where I could have gotten the kids an ice-cream, some fruit or a small sandwich.
Every evening, the stewardess delivers the ship's newsletter called The Compass. Read it. It's full of information about what to do and when to do it. You can be as busy or idle as you like. The ship offers the usual fare of bingo, bridge, shuffleboard and so on. I would have liked some more lectures or cooking demonstrations. There are no "behind the scenes" tours of the ship, although you can see a videotaped program in your room. Since this cruise is so port intensive, many activities are not necessary. The mini golf center is nice; try to pick a time when it's not so windy. We all thought it was unreasonable to charge passengers to play.
Evening entertainment consists of Las-Vegas type shows with the feathers and glitter. The "We are the World" revue could have fit nicely into Disney World. The lounge music/entertainment is clearly meant for the over 60 crowd. Not my cup of tea. The only show I enjoyed was entertainer Judy Kolba, who was a riot. The casino is large and not too crowded or smoky. There is a disco for the younger crowd, but it started very late and we were too tired to take advantage of it.
The Spa is a nicely-decorated and truly peaceful corner of the ship. Uniformed therapists and beauticians, mostly from the U.K. make you feel right at home. At $50 for a pedicure, $35 plus tip for a manicure, it's more than double what I pay at home, but it's worth a little spoiling. You can broil yourself in the sauna or steam room - separate for ladies and gents.
Ah, what can I say? This was the highlight of the cruise. The highly professional staff will keep your kids entertained and delighted from 9:00 in the morning until 10:00 at night. You can arrange extra babysitting before or after, too. The children have a whole floor fitted with video games, play areas, disco and more. My 7-year-old had such a good time she refused to tour with us after the second day. Kids are divided into groups by age. They receive their own special flyer with the day's schedule. Not only are the kids having a ball, they are learning too. The ship has a special science program where kids build volcanos and whip up space mud. Participants are rewarded with cruise dollars which they can cash in for prizes. It is obvious that the counselors love what they do. Hats of to the children's center!
"Recommended guidelines" are printed just about everywhere. RCCI reminds you over and over again that you are expected to tip. I really don't understand how this whole thing works. They advise you to give gratuities to certain staff members. Dining room waiters should be tipped as well as the cabin steward. Why not the restaurant staff or the kid's counselors? I'd rather pay a flat 15% service charge and get rid of the tipping system. I find it very annoying. Toward the end of the cruise, I felt the staff got too pushy about the tipping as well as the rating system. It was obvious that high ratings mean promotion or bonuses for the staff and they will court these marks.
Shops on Board
There are a number of shops on board carrying duty-free items, gifts and cruisewear. Prices are average. There are daily "sales." Be aware that the stores are closed when the ship is in port. There should definitely be a separate little pharmacy-type shop. Bring whatever you need with you or shop when you get on shore.
There are plenty of places to drink at any hour of the day. It is obvious the company makes plenty on liquor and they push both that and gaming. Using the credit card makes it easy for passengers since they don't need to carry cash. We are not drinkers, but some people we saw got pages of bar bills. The two piña coladas we did order cost (including service) over $12. There is a 15% service charge added to any drink, alcoholic or not.
Top Hat Lounge
The level of service on the ship was high. Everyone - from the pursers to the room stewards were friendly and helpful. They seem to especially like children and our youngest was spoiled rotten throughout the trip. Our waiter even offered to cut her food. It was the perfect balance of friendliness without intrusiveness. The staff comes from a variety of countries including Jamaica, India, Hungary and Turkey. All speak more than one language.
On port days, there is a foreign exchange center (next to the conference room.) Rates were generally better than what we'd get at the exchange centers in town.
Nationality and Language
Our particular cruise was quite international, with a large group from South America. There were lots of Americans, Canadians, Asians and Turks, as well. We were told that there were about 40 Israelis on board. All the ship signs are in English. The announcements were made in Spanish and English. The Compass was printed in a number of languages. There is an international host who acts as translator. There were many older passengers, but plenty of families with kids too. Everyone we met was friendly.
We enjoyed his daily announcements beginning with "This is your CAP-ten speaking . . ." He had a wonderful sense of dry humor - Norwegian style.
Although we didn't meet him personally, we thought he looked exactly like a television game show host. Someone from Hollywood should snap him up.
There are no self-service laundry facilities available. I sent out laundry twice and found the service and prices to be satisfactory.
What to Bring
Don't make the mistake thinking July in Scandinavia is like the Bahamas; it can be chilly. The weather changes quickly. It can be cold in the morning, sunny and warm in the afternoon, and rainy and cold towards evening. Carry an umbrella and a warm sweater while touring. When the ship is sailing, it can be windy, so a warm wind jacket is a must. Bring more long pants than short ones. There are three formal nights; the rest are either dressy or casual. Although some guests went all out with formal wear, some of the younger ones dressed more casually. If I were to cruise again with this company, I'd bring coffee and probably my own pillow too! It doesn't get dark until late at this time of the year (in Russia, the sun doesn't go down 'til after midnight, so if you are sensitive, bring eyemasks).
We were well-prepared because the members of this family are lousy flyers. For most of the cruise, the seas were calm. If there are choppy spells, it is usually a matter of hours before things settle down. When the ship is moving full speed ahead, the ship does vibrate similar to an airplane. I don't mind choppy seas, except when I eat. Ask any cabin steward or waiter and they will give you their own recommendations about what to do if you feel queasy. Seabands which work on accupressure points are very helpful. I'd also recommend homeopathic seasickness pills which don't have the sedative effect of Dramamine.
There is a compulsory safety drill on the first afternoon. Being novices, we felt pretty silly when we hadn't the slightest idea what a muster station was. (I thought they said MUSTARD station.) Don't be embarrassed to ask. The staff is pleased to help.
Ports of Call
The real reason for the trip was to see Scandinavia in a hassle-free way. We figured it would be a lot easier than renting cars and changing ferries. It was. Royal Caribbean takes care of everything for you. Except for Russia, you don't need to even go through immigration. For those who do not want organized tours, shuttle buses are available for $4 pp one way.
After a whole day at sea, you wake up to the beautiful port of Oslo. I expected it to be a big city, but it reminded me more of a Burlington, Vermont On-The-Sea. As it was Sunday, all the stores except the ones catering to tourists near the dock were closed. The Splendour docks right in town. There is a nice pavilion next to the dock with phones, ice-cream stand and pricey sweater stores.
Don't bother going into town -- it's dead on Sunday. Best bet: take the shuttle ferry right in front of the Town Hall (a two-minute walk from the ship) to the Bygdoy Peninsula where the main attractions are situated. The Viking Museum is a must. We also enjoyed the Folk Museum which is a Norwegian version of Williamsburg. The promenade around the dock area is enjoyable. Oslo is unbelievably clean and beautiful. After the broiling heat of Tel Aviv, we enjoyed the crisp air; it almost felt like Autumn. I was sorry we only had one day there and hope to come back for a longer visit.
Sailing from Oslo, the ship sailed through hours of the most beautiful scenery you can imagine. There were hundreds of little hamlets and islands; I couldn't even break myself away to eat dinner. Bring a warm jacket, pull up a chair and enjoy every minute.
Stockholm is larger than Oslo and has a different atmosphere to it. We took the shuttle to the center of town and did the rest on foot. Royal Caribbean offers a whole array of shore excursions, but they are expensive. We also dislike touring with a large group of people. Since we did our homework in advance, we knew exactly what we wanted to see.
We saw the same sites as the tour groups and spent much less. We also had lots of time to wander around the little alleys, which are the best parts of Europe! The Old City in Stockholm is picturesque. The changing of the guards is much less formal and a lot more fun than in England. We had lunch in a Swedish coffee shop and it was very good. Almost everyone speaks good English in Scandinavia. You feel safe and most welcome as a tourist. If you can't find a menu in English, they'll translate it for you! Just watch out for the bicycle lanes!Just watch out for the bicycle lanes!
Both Norwegians and Swedes are tall and blond. They are especially patient with their children. They have excellent social services and it shows. The Scandinavians dress informally like the Israelis do. The women don't seem to wear much makeup. Prices are high, though, with almost 25% VAT. There is very pretty crystal for sale, but I've seen it cheaper in outlet stores in the States. The streets of the Old City are cobblestoned, so it is essential to bring good walking shoes.
Helsinki is more spread out than the previous cities. We had a two-hour private tour which gave us a good overview of the city. The Temppeliaukio (Rock Church) is a popular attraction and well worth a quick visit. Not to be missed is the Kauppatori Market Square, a colorful open-air market selling fruits, vegetables, fish and hand-made crafts. There is a food pavilion next to the market where such delicacies as canned bear meat and smoked reindeer can be bought. We stuck to the fantastic assortment of fresh berries and were very pleased. The stores were expensive, but we bought knitted children's items at moderate prices.
We had two full days in St. Petersburg. I wish we would have spent one of them somewhere else. The city was once beautiful, but years of communism and a lack of infrastructure today make it drab and depressing. This is the one place I would recommend not doing the city alone. We were warned to leave all valuables on the ship and I am glad we did, because we were pestered by beggars and Gypsy kids outside of the Hermitage. Language and food are a problem. Street signs and maps are only in Russian. Moshe was treated to lunch at an "exclusive" restaurant and could not eat the food. The once-beautiful buildings are crumbling. The street trams are so rusted, it is amazing they can still run. We were surprised to see that even at tourist sites, the buildings are not maintained as they should be.
The Hermitage has magnificent rooms and priceless works of art, but with no air-conditioning and sunlight streaming in, how long will they last? Travelers should know that it can get very hot inside the Hermitage. It is an enormous place; make sure you stick with your guide carefully. A visa is necessary for travelers visiting Russia independently.
After St. Petersburg, Tallinn was a breath of fresh air. It was the biggest surprise of the trip. Although Estonia was communist until 1991, it doesn't look or feel like Russia. It is part Baltic/part Scandinavian in character. A free shuttle service takes passengers on a 40-minute ride through pine forests to the entrance of the Old City. Tallinn is spotlessly clean and picturesque. You almost expect Cinderella or Snow White to come down from the castle to feed the sparrows. We did almost all of our shopping in Tallinn. We bought beautiful sweaters at half the prices wanted in Norway or Denmark. Don't pass up the linen, which can be bought by the meter, or manufactured goods such as tablecloths and jackets. English is spoken in the tourist areas. Credit cards are not a problem, but bring your passport for identification.
This was our last port of call before an additional day at sea on our way back to Harwich. Like Oslo, the ship docked in a good location, a five-minute walk to The Little Mermaid statue. Almost everyone expects this enormous thing, being the "trademark" of Copenhagen. In reality, it's the size of a small child.
Copenhagen is a large city. It's not as clean as Oslo, but just as charming. The best way to see it in a short time is to buy a day pass at one of the water taxi stations. There is one a stone's throw from the ship. The flat boats take you through all the waterways and canals. You can get off and on as you please to explore the different neighborhoods. The Danes are the most laid-back of the Scandinavians. They are open and speak wonderful English. They also smoke like crazy. If you want a bite, eat outside or you will need a gas mask. Don't be shocked if you see mothers leaving babies unattended in their prams while they pop into a store; it is common practice. You don't see bicycles locked all the time, either.
Royal Caribbean offers a night at Tivoli Amusement Park for $16, including shuttle. It was packed with families, teenagers and tourists. It wasn't all that clean and the food was greasy and expensive. Although it is Europe's oldest amusement park, it reminded me of a Danish Hershey Park, minus the big thrill rides. I wasn't impressed and I can't recommend you go for it unless you have little kids.
The staff aboard the Splendour is experienced in moving large numbers of people. Outside of Disney World, I've never seen such excellent organization. Passengers are given full instructions how to disembark and when. Luggage is color-tagged, making it easy to claim. Lots of porters are around to assist you onto the shuttle buses. We decided to take the shuttle service to Heathrow because we had an afternoon plane to catch.
Tips For First Time Cruisers
- Watch your budget and your waistline. It is easy to go overboard with both.
- Bring the medications you are used to.
- Bring warmer clothes than you think you'll need in July.
- Forget about all the junk you've been fed about cruises on "The Love Boat." The officers don't socialize with the passengers -- you hardly ever see them. Doc has office hours in the clinic. The Cruise Director is a glorified MC. There are many pursers on board who take care of the administrative tasks on board.
- Do your homework before the cruise.
- Don't be embarrassed to ask the crew if something is not clear.
- Expect to shell out a lot in tips. I'd advise putting this money aside before you sail.
We had a very good vacation. I would rate the cruise a "Very Good," down rating it from an "Excellent" due to the flaws with the food, fair entertainment and the annoying little things I mentioned before. With a little bit of improvement, the Splendour could get an 'A' from me; I'm wondering if management takes passenger comments seriously. The ports of call would get an 'A' rating. I'd give up Russia for another day in Norway, but other than that, we were very happy with the itinerary.
Susan Nachman-Srebrnik is a lactation specialist and nursing school teacher. She lives with her husband and two young daughters in a suburb of Tel Aviv, Israel and may be reached for questions or comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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