Overview:First things first: After seventeen prior cruises over as many years, Celebrity's brand new Millennium was for us the most fabulous ship on which we have ever sailed. It is bigger, classier, more opulent and simply more beautiful than anything we have ever seen before. This includes all the newest ships from Princess, Royal Caribbean and Renaissance, our basis of comparison. It is a splendid ship indeed.
Arguably, this may have been the finest all around cruise experience we have ever had.
We found this crew to be the best in the business. Celebrity offered their top people from their other ships a chance to work on their new flagship. This level of experience was in evidence in every way, every day.
In this review, I will leave to others impressions of the video game arcade, the top-deck sports activity center, and the cigar-smoking club. We also had no occasion to use the spa nor the pool, although we walked by it. Others seemed to like it. Because the therapy pool is filled with hot, chlorinated sea water, there were signs warning that swimsuit colors might fade.
Like most modern cruise ships, the Millennium had a large number of bars, all very nice in appearance, with opportunities for dancing or just looking out the window at the sea. We visited one or two, but have no particular comment other than the fact that no one should be disappointed with the facilities.
The weather was particularly good for us. We had two or three days with brief afternoon showers and the evening in Copenhagen was rainy. The skies were sunny some days and cloudy on others. Daytime temperatures were pretty close to normal for this part of the world, that is, in the mid to upper 60s.
We spent some time in the after-dinner shows, but not a lot. So, I plan to offer details more aligned to what we specifically did and what to expect for future cruisers with the hope that such information will be helpful, will answer any pending questions, and alleviate any concerns they may have.
One comment concerning shore excursions: Two years ago, we sailed a similar itinerary on RCI's Splendour of the Seas. Since we did a lot of the "must-see" sightseeing at that time, we didn't want to do the same thing all over again. Therefore, to get a more complete picture of our impressions of what to do in each port of call, you may want to consult both this review and my Splendour of the Seas review from 1998.
Getting there:We live in the Los Angeles area and we always like to eliminate any uncertainties of connecting with the ship when we travel. We decided to fly in two days before sailing. Because we used frequent flyer mileage, we were limited to Monday to Thursday travel. This required us also to stay on in Amsterdam two days after the cruise was over.
Amsterdam is a particularly delightful place to visit, so these few extra days we were able be there were very much appreciated. You can easily see the highlights of Amsterdam in the time we allotted.
Baggage Delays:As a counterpoint to all of this, we heard a couple of days into the cruise that more than 25 families never got their luggage from the airport. These people presumably flew in the day of embarkation. Some (but not all) had their luggage shipped to them at the first port of call two days later in Oslo. Some got it later than that. It's possible some never saw their luggage at all. (What a mess!) We heard there were a lot of upset people.
When we transited the North Sea Canal (see below), and while the Millennium was at rest in the lock, they ran a gangway across to the top of the lock. A delivery van pulled up and porters ran out to retrieve more luggage that had been sent by land from Amsterdam. This event took place two hours after we had already sailed away (almost an hour late) from Amsterdam.
We later heard stories that a significant number of people "missed the boat" and didn't board in Amsterdam. Most of these poor folks eventually caught up in Oslo, 2 days later. Whether their baggage was with them, I cannot say.
On the final day of the cruise we heard about a poor soul who NEVER got her luggage. Naturally, since Celebrity didn't lose it, any replacement stuff she had to buy was at her own expense. If she bought replacement clothing in the shipboard shops, it would have cost her a bundle since none of their merchandise is anything that one would think of as low-cost. [Editor: A plug for the purchase of TRAVEL PROTECTION INSURANCE which has coverage for purchasing necessary items if baggage is delayed and/or lost.]
It doesn't seem to us that that this was a Millennium problem but more of an airline problem. Supposedly there were storms in the US east coast gateways just before we sailed and many flight connections were missed. Here were people flying in the airlines' busiest season, a record number of people heading for Europe, and hoping for a precision connection for themselves and their baggage to make it to the ship on time.
If I dispense no other advice in this review it is to arrive at the embarkation point one or more days early, recover from jet lag, assure that you have all your baggage, and get ready for the main part of the vacation which is the cruise itself. Couple that with a very nice and interesting travel destination like Amsterdam, and it becomes a real plus.
There is a misconception that the cruise line will hold up departure of the ship if passengers who booked their air arrangements with the cruise line are late. This is simply NOT TRUE. Oh, they may wait a half hour or possibly even an hour, but more than that - not likely. There is a lot of invested money and a lot of passengers out there just waiting to go.
Amsterdam:Schipol Airport (pronounced Skip'ole) is one of the models for the new notion of airports-as-shopping-malls. It was one of the first airports in the world to be built this way, and many have since copied the concept. You can spend quite a bit of time there shopping. Conde Nast magazine once reported that as duty-free shops are concerned, Schipol is one of the few airports that offers true savings.
We like to obtain local cash…guilders in this case…from an ATM machine. This gives the most favorable exchange rate. Schipol has ATMs all over the place. There is even a machine in the baggage pickup area. I got my cash while waiting for our baggage to arrive.
Getting through the airport and out into a taxi was quick and painless. The cab fare to our hotel, the Amsterdam Hilton, was $25 with tip, cheaper for two than messing around with a bus.
We had made arrangements to stay at the Hilton on both legs of our visit to Amsterdam. This is a very fine hotel located in an upscale residential neighborhood just south of the central part of the city. We got a very good rate using our Hilton Honors membership.
Like elsewhere in Europe this year, the dollar is very strong, and buys a lot in Holland. Most things are dramatically less expensive than we recall from only two years ago. The hotel is forty years old but was completely renovated in 1999. I would recommend it. The rooms were very spacious, modern and relatively inexpensive.
[We like to communicate back home via email using our notebook computer when we travel in Europe and elsewhere. Earthlink, our ISP, has a local dial-up number in Amsterdam. The hotel had American-style RJ11 telephone jacks but with reversed polarity for which an adaptor was needed. Getting on to the Internet was as easy as anywhere in a city hotel in the US. The international charge for Earthlink use however was 15 cents per minute. Also, the Hilton charges 25 cents per minute for a local call, so we didn't stay online for very long. Just so you know that it was very easy to do.]
Amsterdam is a nice, clean city of more than 700,000 inhabitants. We enjoyed the visit immensely and I suggest that if time will allow, arrive sufficiently early to take advantage of what the city can offer for a few days.
We had made a prior arrangement with another couple to hire a van with driver for a 4-hour tour. (Eurolimo B.V. Tel: 020-631-1063 / Fax:020-631-5794). We saw most of the city highlights as well as a short ride to a lakeside resort named Volendam. The latter was a very touristy place, but quaint and pleasant to visit nevertheless.
The driver, a fellow named Martin, did a very fine job of showing off his city. This was a first-rate experience. I would recommend this service. It cost us $105 per couple including a generous tip.
We have traveled extensively in Europe over the years. Amsterdam in the summertime in our opinion is one of the finest destination cities one can choose. It would be a shame to fly in and fly out just to connect with the cruise ship because we feel that Amsterdam has more to offer than any other city on this itinerary.
Getting On Board:The Millennium sails from the brand new Amsterdam cruise terminal which is located close to downtown, just behind the Central Railroad Station. There were some comments on the internet that the boarding process was "chaotic". This was definitely not the case.
We were assigned a priority number when we arrived, and they called people in sequence. Celebrity Captain's Club members (one prior cruise plus a $35 fee to join) are given a "0" priority and allowed to wait in a cordoned off area apart from the general population. Suite passengers also waited here. Refreshments were available for everyone while we waited.
We arrived at the terminal at noon, and we were among the first to get on board the ship at 12:45. We were individually escorted to our cabin (#2151), a practice that seems to have been abandoned by some of the cruise lines in recent years. Our baggage showed up at the cabin door by 3:00 PM.
The Ship:Throughout the cruise, the seas were pretty good. Regardless of the sea conditions however, the ship rode the water absolutely without peer. Except for an occasional bump here and there, in particular inbound to Poland when the seas were high and our speed slow, there was never any sense of motion. This doesn't mean it can't happen, but it didn't happen on 14 days of our cruise. We saw one person wearing a transderm patch. We heard nobody complaining about seasickness.
Sleeping at night, whether at the dock in St. Petersburg or moving through whitecaps at 24 knots, there was no detectable difference, at least not in our cabin. Just a faint hiss from the air conditioning system. Our cabin was located about two thirds of the way towards the stern, on a lower deck 2.
More than likely, contributing to the smoothness were the GE gas turbine powerplants. These big "jet" engines drive generators that produce electricity. The electricity is fed into large electric motors that turn the two 21 ft. diameter propellers. Unlike other ships that have large reciprocating diesel engines, the gas turbines have no inherent vibration to be transferred to the vessel.
The only time any vibration is felt is briefly when the side thrusters are used, when either docking or pushing away from the pier. The Millennium, like many newer ships, does not require the use of tugs to aid in maneuvering.
The ship's tenders were never used. All ports at which we stopped had docking facilities.
The Cabin:As is our custom, we had booked the lowest of the low inside cabin rates nine months previously, Category 12. We elected to "take whatever they want to give us". We found out three weeks before sailing that we were given a 5-category upgrade to an outside cabin located amidships on Deck 2.
Deck 2 is good because any ship rides the water better lower down. Our cabin was also level with the dock and we were able to enjoy looking right into the eyes of all the crowds of people who came out to visit the Millennium at every port we visited.
We established a friendship with a couple who had a minisuite with a very large balcony located at the stern of the ship. It was really something. On the other hand, as a couple they paid $4000 more for this cruise than we did. It probably was worth having from their standpoint, but to us it meant we could go on still one more cruise in the future. We were happy with the savings.
Our cabin was quite nice, brand-new of course, and with a large, round picture window measuring perhaps a little larger than 1 meter in diameter. The cabin is 170 sq. ft. in area, a little bigger I think than comparably priced cabins on Princess and/or Royal Caribbean.
When we arrived, the beds were already assembled in the king arrangement we had requested. A personalized welcome message was waiting for us on the screen of the 17" TV and the ice bucket was full.
There is a combination safe, two 110V US-style electrical outlets and two 220V round-pin European-style outlets. I understand that the larger suites have a VCR for which videos can be borrowed. The suites also have an internet access jack, but I never found out how that works nor whether anyone ever used it.
There are two robes in the ample-sized closet. The shower is unusually large for a ship, with a shampoo dispenser on the wall. The head in general is typical in size and layout for a shipboard facility on a new ship. There is a hand lotion dispenser and a hair dryer, the latter a wand-type on a flexible hose.
There were notices warning not to use an iron in the cabin. However, the electrical system could handle 1500 watts; a typical travel iron uses 700 watts.
My understanding is that there was no laundromat on board. My wife asked me to mention that she doesn't travel to Europe to do laundry. Next day and second day dry cleaning service is available.
Dining:The first thing we did when we got into the cabin was to call the upscale alternative dining Olympic Restaurant and make reservations for dinner. We chose the third formal night, which happened to be our wedding anniversary. In order to accommodate everyone, the reservations staff will allow an initial reservation for only one night, but they will accept a waitlist reservation for any additional nights. They forewarn you that the special dining is 3 hours in duration and the cost is $12 per person. We walked by the place on the second day, and there was a large line waiting to make reservations. I imagine the Olympic was a pretty hot ticket.
The next thing we did was to seek out the maitre d' for the main dining room. Although we knew we had the late (second) seating, we did not have a table assignment indicated on our cruise card. We had to go to the dining room, wait in a short line, and request a table. Since there were just the two of us, we requested a large table by a window. No problem getting it. We were there early, before hardly any passengers were on board and knew what they had to do. There were notices around that the second seating was already filled.
If you have a choice, ask for a table at the center rear of the room on deck level 4 or 5. There is a very large panoramic window there which provides a beautiful view of the sea while dining. The dining room also has large and very attractive window shades that are raised and lowered electrically depending on the sun streaming into the room.
This main dining room, called the Metropolitan Restaurant, is 2-tiered, really quite beautiful and well arranged. A string quintet plays soft music through most of the dinner, and the music is piped to all parts of the large room. The galley is on the 3rd deck of the ship, the main floor of the dining room on the 4th deck, and a "balcony" floor on the 5th, the latter of which is about 2/3 the size of the main floor.
The waiters hustle their trays to and from the galley on fast-moving escalators. All works smoothly until one of the waiters drops a tray on the escalator, an event which supposedly happens with some regularity. They then have to shut down the escalator to clean it, this takes about 15 minutes, and causes some chaos in traffic flow.
Last year we sailed on Renaissance, and we enjoyed the cruise very much. However, all meals on Renaissance are open seating. Thus, you never have an opportunity to build a relationship with the serving staff. On this ship, our non-open seating dinners added a lot to our enjoyment of the cruise. Whenever there is open seating, you run a high risk of spending your dinner with some serious stiffs. There were some open seating breakfasts and lunches on the Millennium. For us, a few of these were totally unrewarding encounters with fellow passengers who were too old, too young, too boorish, etc. We just ate fast and got out of there. Meals are open seating when the ship is in port, usually only breakfast and lunch. We found the open seating dining room service - usually marginal on other ships - to be first-rate on the Millennium.
The dress code for this 14-day cruise were three formal nights; four informal (jacket & tie); and the balance of the nights casual. On the first formal night, I would say that approximately 50% of the men wore tuxedos; 25% wore dark suits & ties; the balance free-wheeled it including a guy in a red windbreaker over a tee-shirt and a fellow wearing khakis with hushpuppies. On one of the informal nights, we saw a tee shirt and jeans, but no windbreaker. The guy evidently didn't want to overdress.
There is "alternative" casual dining in the Ocean Café on deck 10 for those wanting to skip the main dining room. Reservations are required. We never tried this out, however. It is in the same room where the breakfast and luncheon buffet is usually served.
We are not serious wine drinkers, even though we had some wine with dinner on occasion. Thus, we really can't comment on the wine selection. However, the list seemed to be extensive and the prices seemed to be comparable to what we had seen elsewhere.
The food quality and presentation was outstanding, what we remember from previous Celebrity cruises. In our opinion, we feel Celebrity remains a definite cut above what one would find on Royal Caribbean, Princess and Renaissance. No reasonable person should be disappointed by the food.
TheOcean Café which is the buffet on the 10th deck can get crowded at certain times, such as when everyone comes back from a half-day tour at the same time. However, the operation runs very efficiently, there are ample serving tables, and many waiters around to conduct you to an empty table. The buffet food was good, with an additional selection of hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza.
The Olympic Restaurant:My wife an I dined in the Olympic on the night of our wedding anniversary. We thought it was a terrific meal and a grand experience. Even though it was a formal dress night elsewhere on the ship, the Olympic advised us in advance that their dress code was jacket and tie only. Celebrity charges $12 per person for the experience, a trivial sum really. The room is beautiful. The service is impeccable. The meal requires a three hour investment in time in order to enjoy it properly.
There is only a single table turnover each night, and they will accept reservations (as I recall) at any time in a 7:00 PM to 9:30 PM window. I believe the largest group they can seat is six people. The room isn't very large.
The waiters (and there are several) serve dinner wearing white tie and tails. These men are a cut above even the excellent staff in the main Metropolitan Restaurant. Friendly, forthcoming and helpful, just great. They work on salary, and no tipping is allowed nor expected.
Like most fine restaurants, wine is a major component of the experience. The menu features premium (i.e., relatively expensive) wines. The menu recommends wine by the glass or by the bottle depending on the meal you select. They make it clear from the outset that it is not necessary to order wine, and if you do, it is not necessary to order what they recommend. There was absolutely no push to order wine. Also available is the same wine list used in the Metropolitan if that's what you prefer. We ordered a bottle of mid-priced wine, and it was presented with great ceremony. We enjoyed this even though, again, we are not serious wine drinkers.
There are four choice-columns on the menu, and wherever appropriate, the food is prepared tableside. First you choose an appetizer or soup or salad from one column. Then an entré from another column. There are many choices in each column. After the entré, a cheese cart is wheeled over. Finally, a dessert choice and petit fours.
Don't miss it!
Celebrity plans to continue this concept on the Infinity, the next ship in this class. The name of the restaurant will be different as well as the décor, but otherwise it will operate in the same manner. They have been satisfied with the passenger reception thus far.
Entertainment:We attended a number of shows in the 3-deck high Celebrity Theater. The theater was the largest and nicest shipboard showroom we had ever seen. It is absolutely magnificent, with never a problem getting a seat. The ship's entertainers were quite good and the headliners who performed were equally entertaining. We attended about half the performances.
In our opinion, one does not take a cruise for the live entertainment. It's there, and after a day of touring and running around in general, if you want to be entertained that way, you go to the showroom. However, Las Vegas it is not and will never be. After all, it's still a cruise ship with a dozen other things to occupy your time.
The Celebrity Orchestra that played in the showroom as well as for dancing on occasion was first rate. I must especially commend the "Caribbean" band, Onyx. They were about the best we have heard on any ship.
Passengers:There were more than 2000 passengers on board. The majority were American, but many other countries were represented too. For example, there were a lot of Spaniards, Italians and also more than 400 Greeks on a business convention for their employer, a pharmaceutical firm. In general, the age distribution aboard ship was a lot younger than our usual experience, with lots of couples in their 30s and 40s, a lot of that to do with the Greek contingent. No shortage of older folks to be sure, but not the dominating AARP contingent you find on many other cruises.
Extra Expenses:The cruise lines seek out new and unique ways of generating revenue. The cabin TV now features a variety of recent pay-per-view films as well as X-rated movies, all at $8.99 each. It is possible to restrict access to the porno films.
The price of photography has gone up. Standard 4" x 6" prints are now $6.45. The boarding-the-ship photo was available only in a 6" x 8" print which cost $10.95. At one formal seating, the photographer took a picture of each member of a couple, individually. Thus, if you wanted a picture of yourself and your spouse, it was necessary to buy two pictures instead of one. Fortunately from our point of view, the photographers were not as in-your-face as on other ships, and this was a definite plus.
There is a mild push to get you to buy bottled water at the start of the first on-board dinner. This despite the fact that all the fresh water on board ship is made from an exotic watermaker, a distillation system that uses waste heat from the engines. Thus, ordinary shipboard tap water is about as pure as one would find in a hospital. Nobody bought and the guy never returned.
In Russia, the passengers are given ample warning about not drinking water ashore with the recommendation that bottled water be taken off the ship instead. Of course, none of this bottled water is free. You would think that if the well-being of their passengers was of sufficient concern that the ship would provide water rather than sell it for the dollar or less they must make on each sale.
The TV has several free movies available for viewing throughout the day. The attractive on-board cinema was having problems with the operation of the audio-visual equipment but about halfway into the cruise, the problems were apparently solved. Movies were shown in the cinema two or three times daily after that. The free movies on the TV and in the cinema seemed to be about 1-2 years older than what could be rented at Blockbuster. The pay-per-view movies were about 2-3 months older than Blockbuster.
The TV is interactive. For example, you can click on the screen choice of which shore excursion is of interest to you, and that selection instantly appears. Then, you can order it directly from your TV. Quite simple and painless, really. You can also order room service meals using the TV.
Money:There is a convenient on-board "bank" at the purser's desk where, among other things, they exchange currency. Money can be exchanged for the currency of the next port of call, but only one port at a time. In comparing the rate the ship used vs. the official exchange rate at the time, the fee for doing this service was about 7%, about the same as you would pay in a hotel. You pay this fee in both directions, both buying and selling foreign currency.
American cash for purchases onshore is the preferred method of payment in Russia and in Poland. In Poland, 5% discounts are available for the use of US cash vs. using a charge card. In other locations, most stores will not accept anything other than local currency. Street vendors everywhere will take dollars with pleasure.
At each port stop before sailing, there was an on-board clerk from a company called Global Refund who was returning VAT charges incurred onshore. This is a commercial service also found at European airports. They take a few points off the top for what they do, and of course some additional money for foreign exchange. This is a very profitable operation for them, sufficient to have someone there clerking all of this. Customer service has nothing to do with this operation. If not a lot of money is due back, it was a convenient way for the passenger to go. If someone bought something major, that skim fee might be painful.
Bargains abound for Americans on purchases in Europe because of the decline in the value of the Euro as compared to the dollar, as much as 25% in recent months. I bought a pair of expensive Mephisto shoes in Helsinki that I had been eyeing in the Nordstrom store at home. Same shoes, less than half the price. A friend bought an expensive Breitling Swiss watch in Amsterdam for more than 50% off list.
Tipping:Based on the ship's recommendations for tipping, allow $11 per passenger per day as a minimum to cover all "tippable" personnel. It is expected that tips be paid on the last day of the cruise in cash. There are limited opportunities to acquire US dollars onboard ship. The "bank" will cash traveler's checks but not personal checks. The ATM wasn't operating throughout the cruise, and presumably there would be a service charge if and when you could use it. You can get up to $1500 cash on your account in the casino, but there is a 3% charge for the service.
I can't think of any reason why tips couldn't be paid in part with left over foreign money, but we used US dollars that we brought with us anticipating this expense.
A New Ship:There were a number of rumors circulating around on the Internet before sailing that this ship was beset with all kinds of mechanical problems that might require cancellation of future cruises in order to remedy the difficulties. We saw no sign of this. Talking to crew members, they said seemingly quite honestly that they were not aware of any deep problems. Some minor anecdotal issues were discussed, mostly for their humorous value.
No, the ship performed perfectly as far as we were concerned. It left on time, it arrived on time, and other than one or two occasions when the seas were a little rough, it rode the water as smoothly as any ship on which we had sailed before.
There were a couple of minor "problems" we personally had with this new ship. The cabin toilet failed to flush properly a few times. We called the room steward and a plumber showed up in less than five minutes to fix it. We also had to pull our cabin door hard to lock it, and the spring loaded hinges on the cabin door made it seem quite heavy to open. Supposedly this is a common problem on the ship which they plan to rectify in time.
If there were other, deeper issues, these were down in the bowels of the ship and not evident to us as passengers. Everything seemed to be running as smoothly as it could be.
Other Features:There is an expanded shopping area called The Emporium. The shops are similar to what is found on other ships, but simply more of them, considering the size of the Millennium. Most of these are "designer" name-brand shops, which means their merchandise is even more expensive than that found on other ships. These shops always remind me of what you find in upscale Las Vegas hotels. They are beautiful shops selling beautiful goods, but you see few people in there buying anything.
Each night at sea there were "sales" of this or that commodity, and these seemed to attract people. The shops may be doing better than I imply. We just weren't in them enough to notice one way or the other.
Michel Roux, the French chef who lends his name to the cuisine on Celebrity ships, has become even more prominent with Celebrity than in the past. I understand his wife christened the Millennium. One of the Emporium shops now bears his name and carries his designer cookbooks and cooking utensils.
We did notice such things as the on-board ATM machine never working. We've been on several recent cruises with ATM machines, and in every case the machine never worked.
There is a CD listening room onboard called "Notes". The listening equipment was not operating. We learned that on the last day of the prior cruise fifty CDs were stolen from their boxes by passengers. The cruise line was trying to sort out how to handle this, so in the interim, the service was shut down. We also learned that many of the books in "Words", the self-service library, had been pilfered as well.
So goes the world.
The casino appeared to us to be larger than anything we have ever seen onboard a cruise ship before. In fact, it approaches the size of a casino found in a small hotel - it is very extravagant, resembling in décor what you find in Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas.
Computers and Telephones:There is a well arranged Internet computer center on board. Twenty PCs are equipped with wood-framed flat-screen monitors and located in a glass-walled semi-circular room with a view of the sea. The glare from the windows presents a problem during the daytime until someone comes along and pulls down the semi-transparent shades.
The computers have several applications available including MS Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Use of these applications is free. You can print from these applications (when somebody remembers to put paper in the printer) and you can also save to a floppy disk. Not all the floppy disk drives were operating properly, however.
You can also bring message and graphic attachments written from a laptop to a floppy and email them using the Millennium Internet computers.
You cannot write a message in Word, copy the message to the Windows clipboard, and then go online and paste message into an email in order to save time while online. The reason given is fear of virus introduction to the system. I fail to understand this. It certainly helps to maximize your time online.
On-line cost is 95 cents per minute. I think this price is unreasonably high, so much so that you see people using the facility only occasionally. Most of the time it stands empty. I'm convinced that eventually the price will have to fall to increase revenue. If it were reduced, say, by half, I think the center would get a lot more attention.
For example, the ship-to-shore telephone service from the cabin which costs $9.50 per minute is now almost half of what it used to be only a couple of years ago. On-shore calling cards as well as cellphones have certainly added to the competition of long-distance calling, and that helps to drives the price down.
The satellite link on the shipboard computer provides for downloads at 256K and uploads at 60K. The built-in email software allows sending to a single recipient and a copy to another recipient, but that's all. You can use a webmail service such as MailStart to send email to multiple recipients.
There are some instruction sheets printed out, but we never saw a person in attendance at the computer center. We got on-line a few times, and other than the high cost and the fact that the satellite link wasn't working a good part of the time, we found the service to be satisfactory.
Computer classes are advertised and offered in another area. 1-hour courses are available in Word, Excel, as well as some basic training in Windows. The cost for a 1-hour course is $59. Courses can be repeated free of charge.
Since there were a lot of European passengers on board, you saw a lot of cellphone use aboard ship when we were in port. Most cellphones on the 900 MHz GSM system can roam freely throughout Europe. Standard 1900 MHz GSM US cellphones won't work in Europe.
Oslo:Oslo is a relatively small city at the north end of a long fjord. It is the smallest capital of a major country in Europe. The Millennium requires almost three hours to transit the fjord from the open sea. The surrounding countryside reminds us of some of the waterfront communities in Puget Sound or possibly the coast of Maine.
The ship docked within a 10 minute walking distance of the center of the city. Our day of arrival was absolutely beautiful, about 70 degrees with just some scattered puffy clouds. It seemed many Norwegians recognized the rarity of the day's weather, and a large number of people were in the outdoor cafes, sunbathing in the park or walking along the waterfront pushing along their children in strollers. Many small boats were out as well, even though I thought it was a workday. Like so much of Europe, in Norway in the month of August many workers are on holiday.
Having seen many of the must-see attractions on our last visit, this time we stopped by the WWII Norwegian Resistance Museum. It is located adjacent to the ship, and it can be easily seen in half an hour. We then walked to the center of the city, just a few blocks away, where several of the streets have been converted to pedestrian malls. The streets were filled with people.
In Oslo, the streets were spotless and the crowds sparse. Norwegian people, are a very handsome bunch. It's fun to walk around and look at them all.
I tracked down an Internet café located in the basement of a record store. I was online for almost an hour downloading more than seventy email messages and emailing friends and family our picture postcards for the day.
Afterwards, we walked to an area called Aker Brygge located just across the harbor from the Millennium. It is reminiscent of Pier 39 in San Francisco. We had a nice lunch in a harborside outdoor café, and then bought some souvenirs and gifts to take home.
The Millennium sailed at 3 PM for Stockholm. As we headed south down the fjord, the ship's pool area was packed with people enjoying the warm sun. Way down below us Cigarette-type power boats were pacing along as we moved down the channel. Onyx, the outstanding reggae band on board was belting out the perquisite Barbados tune, "Hot, Hot, Hot".
Except for the green hills, it sort of looked a little bit like sailing away from Miami, it sounded a lot like Montego Bay, and we had to remind ourselves we were in Norway, just a short distance from the Arctic Circle.
Stockholm:Even though we were in Scandinavia two years ago, these are all great cities that can capture attention for a longer period of time than the single day that cruising permits. Stockholm is a very attractive "water" city, more than twice the size of Amsterdam and four times the size of Oslo. Everything is very clean, the streets, the cars, the buildings. Oslo seemed to us to be somewhat sleepy, but Stockholm seemed to be racing along.
Oslo is a three hour sail up a long fjord. By contrast, Stockholm is at the top of a glacial archipelago of 24,000 islands in a delta fed by a large lake, and here too it takes three hours to transit to and from the Baltic Sea. Even more than Oslo, the approach to Stockholm reminds one of the San Juan Islands, between Anacortes, WA and Victoria, BC. Most of the islands appear to be uninhabited, but occasionally you get to see some rather sumptuous looking summer homes.
The Swedes, and in fact all the Scandinavians, have a tough winter. Not so much because of the cold but rather because of the limited number of hours of daylight in December and January. The sun rises at about 11 AM, and by 2:30 it's pitch dark again, or so we were told. This is why the summer days have so much value and Swedes seem to do all they can to maximize what they get out of these days.
In the morning, we spent 3 hours on the ship's shore excursion of a sightseeing tour by boat, It was very worthwhile and we saw a lot of the city and the surrounding area and took a few pictures. We returned to the ship for lunch (can't miss that!) and in the afternoon we went to the center of town using the free shuttle provided by Celebrity.
The sightseeing boat excursion arranged by Celebrity was very convenient because the boat docked at the very stern of the Millennium. Taking a similar excursion privately would have required a trip into town and seeking out a sightseeing boat operator on your own. I have no feel for how much money, if any, would have been saved by going it alone.
My wife checked out some Orrefors crystal goblets in NK, a large department store, but they were only marginally less expensive than the same thing in the Costco store back home. Certainly not enough savings to justify shipping nor even carrying.
It doesn't seem that difficult to locate an Internet café in any of these cities. You just ask a young person, they all know where they are.
Speaking of Scandinavian young people, all are very good looking and speak English almost without an accent. The internet cafés are all populated by young people, many of whom can't afford a computer of their own.
We got online in Stockholm for a half-hour for 20 crowns. That's about $1.80. Money very well spent. The online connection was a high-speed ISDN line or something similar - much faster than a 56K modem. Windows commands are all in the local language and the keyboard is a little different than you are accustomed to, but it is possible to deal with it.
Helsinki:Helsinki is a compact city situated on a peninsula that juts out into the Baltic Sea. It is further north than any other national capital in the world. Finland has become a major player in the world's "new economy" and Helsinki has become a place synonymous with hi-tech industries (Nokia, and others). The people are dynamic and their approach to life is bold. You can sense this when you are there.
We docked in the morning at a pier located 15 minutes from town. Free shuttle service is provided to the center of the city. Adjacent to where the Millennium was moored, is the Kvaerner Shipyards, the builder of most of the vessels operated by Carnival Cruise Lines. The new Carnival Spirit, a huge ship looking even larger than the Millennium was under construction there. [Editor: The Carnival Spirit is actually rated at 5,000 tons LESS than Millennium.]
We elected not to take a conducted tour because we were a bit familiar with the place from our prior visit. The city is good for walking around and the weather was fine.
We located an Internet Café in a library just a couple of blocks from the Stockmann's department store. We could go on-line using a speedy ISDN line, and we sent out emails and attached pictures, all free of charge. It was a library, after all.
We walked down the beautiful Esplanade, visited the market place at the end just in front of the Orthodox Church, walked the couple of blocks up to the ornate Lutheran Church and the Senate Square. We had lunch at an upscale place on the Esplanade called Kappeli. The food was quite good and the diners seemed to include some of the local movers and shakers.
There was a lot of bustling street traffic, street cars, and pedestrians, all people seemingly in a hurry to get to their next destination.
Helsinki is still another fine Scandinavian city offering a lot to see and enjoy in the few hours we were there.
St. Petersburg:It's just a short overnight cruise from Helsinki to St. Petersburg, the second largest city in Russia. However, in appearances you could just as well have gone from one planet to another.
St. Petersburg is a beautiful city, but, because of the lousy economy, the condition of the building exteriors is very poor, many of the streets filled with pot-holes, and the parks are overrun with weeds. So much culture, such a contribution to civilization, reduced to this.
It seemed however that appearances at least were better than when we were here two years ago. This was especially the case in the commercial areas, near the center of the city. Go a few blocks away from the main streets, and things were still pretty shabby, not unlike Manhattan. There is just no money to deal with the deteriorating infrastructure, but they are trying.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is from St. Petersburg, so the local people are hopeful they will get their fair share of infrastructure improvement funds. In the past, they feel a disproportionate share of this money has been directed towards Moscow.
The streets are filled with old, rusted-out Soviet Lada cars which strongly resemble the Fiat 128 sedans built in the late 70s. Among these, you see many shiny Mercedes and Audi cars, undoubtedly owned by the so-called "New Russians."
From the top deck of the Millennium, we could look out across the vast harbor, the largest in Russia. Several traveling cranes were transferring cargo from ship to shore. It seemed the cranes were operating at only a small percent of available capacity, more than likely an entirely different scene than the one that existed during the Soviet glory years more than 10 years ago.
On the first day, we opted for a 4-1/2 hour city tour with an extended visit to the Peter & Paul Fortress. We also stopped briefly at St. Isaac's Cathedral, the historical warship Aurora, the orthodox and picturesque Church on Spilt Blood, and the Smolney Convent.
The Crown Princess and the Marco Polo were berthed alongside the Millennium. Closer into town, on the Neva River, we passed the super opulent Silver Wind and the very small Renaissance VII. There was some talk that in a few years, all ships will be allowed to tie up closer to the city.
For the evening of the first day in Russia, we had pre-purchased tickets for the Folklorio Concert. This concert turned out to be one of the highlight events of the trip for us. The group was called the Krasnoyarsk Dance Company of Siberia, and the show was held in a nondescript concert hall in center of the city. The seats were hard and the audio visuals were marginal. Still, it was wonderful.
Whereas the city itself can be depressing in places because of its rundown condition, this show put on by high energy young dancers, singers and musicians was totally exciting and uplifting. Everyone in the audience seemed to enjoy it as much as we did.
Later that night we had another unique "cruising" experience. That is, we sat out on the aft deck of the Millennium in relatively mild air at midnight, watching the remains of a "white nights" sunset, and enjoying some pepperoni pizza, right here in Russia. What a scene!
On our second day in Russia, we took a tour to a restored imperial palace called Pavlovsk, located far out in the countryside. It involved a 1-hour ride in each direction. It was OK, but the only reason we chose to go there was that we had visited the other attractions on our prior visit.
My wife and I have a melancholy pang in the heart each time we visit Russia, wishing well for these "ordinary" people who are having such a tough time getting by.
Tallinn:Tallinn, the capital of the small Baltic republic of Estonia, is a great place to visit for a few hours. If someone set out to build a theme park in Orlando called Medieval Times, they could simply make a duplicate of Tallinn. Except this is no theme park, it's the real thing.
The city lies due south of Helsinki, only 53 miles away across the Baltic Sea. Estonia has been an occupied country for many years, most recently annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 at the beginning of World War II, and then occupied by the Nazis during the war.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union 10 years ago, Estonia became an independent nation along with the neighboring Baltic states of Lithuania and Latvia. Compared to some other countries in the former Communist bloc (such as Poland), the country has come a long way since then
It is not a thriving city in the sense that Helsinki seems to be, but it is a much tidier place to the eye than St. Petersburg.
Celebrity provides a free shuttle into town, not much more than a mile away. The shuttle drops passengers at the large modern Hotel Viru found at the edge of the Old Town. In the hotel, money can be exchanged. (It cannot be done aboard ship.) Dollars are not widely accepted in Tallinn for purchases, but charge cards are welcome in most shops and restaurants.
It is possible to "do" Tallinn in 2-3 hours. Although we didn't dine there, we saw a number of cafes that looked inviting.
In the two years since we were here last, it seemed to us that there has been a lot of refurbishment in the old town. There are still some parts of it "under construction," but mostly it is really nice and well done.
We sailed away from Tallin, looking forward with some anticipation to our upcoming and unwinding day at sea.
Gdinya & Gdansk:These two cities are located about 15 miles apart on the northern Baltic coast of Poland. The Millennium tied up in Gdinya, a commercial seaport town. Free shuttle service into downtown Gdinya is provided by Celebrity, just a 10 minute ride away.
Gdansk (formerly known as Danzig) is a much larger city and has much more to offer. Gdansk is a 45 minute $30 taxi ride from the ship. There is really just a single shore excursion offered, a city tour of Gdansk. We heard that 40 buses were needed to haul all the Millennium passengers who signed up for the tour into town. Since the ship was to sail early at 3 PM, we opted for the excursion as the best way of getting it done.
Gdansk is historically well known as the home of former president and Nobel prizewinner Lech Walesa, as well as the birthplace of the Solidarity movement in the local shipbuilding facility. This labor action led by Walesa proved to be the undoing of Communism in Poland and eventually led to the collapse of the Communist governments in other countries in the Soviet bloc.
Gdansk was leveled by Allied bombing during World War II. Thus, everything historical that you see has to be viewed in the context that it has all been tediously reconstructed brick-by-brick in the intervening years. The city, as well as the surrounding area, appears to be very modern, clean and tidy, and begs comparison once again to what we saw in Russia a couple of days previously.
There are many churches and historically recreated public buildings that we viewed, but only from the outside. We abandoned the tour when we got to the city, more interested in the shopping.
During the first two weeks in August (we were there August 8th, 2000), the Polish equivalent of a county fair takes place in Gdansk. It seemed to us that the old town of Gdansk was nothing more than a vast flea market in search of an old city. On every street there were peddlers out in full force with their booths, selling everything from commodities used by Polish people to trinkets and souvenirs for tourists like us. It was actually fun to walk through and past the booths, looking at all the things offered for sale.
We learned that the big thing to buy in Poland is amber. We were advised by the ship's shore excursion people to not buy amber from street vendors, who often will be selling imitation stuff made of plastic. Instead it was recommended that we buy from established retail shops. This we did, and were satisfied with what our strong US dollar was able to buy. We got some nice, good quality jewelry.
We were also told to be on guard for pickpockets working the crowd. We took prudent precautions and had no incidents. Rostock & Berlin: The Millennium docked in Warnemunde, Germany, a small seaside resort located on the Baltic Sea, just north of the city of Rostock. We opted for the $295 per person all-day excursion by train to Berlin.
The train station is a five minute walk from the ship. We boarded an unimpressive, second-class chartered German train for the journey. The train was not air conditioned, but luckily the day was cool, and cracking the window a bit was sufficient for us to remain comfortable.
The elapsed time to Berlin was 2:40. A snack (a little of this and a little of that, but enough) was served in each direction. There was no water available for them to make coffee.
We were met at the railroad station by tour buses, all first class equipment. The overall operation was very precise, very well organized. Our American-born tour guide was excellent.
We visited many of the major sights in Berlin, stopping often for photo ops and for just walking around. At mid-day, we were taken to the Steigenberger Hotel, a high quality place. We were served a very nice lunch which was quite satisfactory, to say the least. After lunch, we were given a 1-hour + shopping opportunity on the trendy nearby Kurfurstendamm, the premier street for such things in Berlin.
In examining the bottom line as to whether the excursion was worth three hundred bucks, we would say yes, it was. Berlin is an exciting place with a lot of history and offers many things worth seeing. If you feel as we did that it is unlikely we will ever have another opportunity to visit there again, then being as close as the Millennium took us, it's worth a look. Considering the logistics of moving about, the meals, and the limitations we had in time and energy in getting it all done, we feel it was not a bad deal after all.
We didn't buy much while in Germany, just a few souvenirs. However, with the exchange rate now at 2 DM per dollar, some of the bargains to be had appeared to be irresistible.
As a sidelight to this, there was a small carnival taking place literally on the pier where the Milliennium was tied up in Warnemunde. The local townspeople were out with their families by the hundreds, to look at the ship, take a lot of pictures, blow horns and whistles, and shoot up a few fireworks when we sailed away at 10:30 that night. It was very stirring.
In fact, in every port in which we stopped, the Millennium in it's blue and gold colors seemed to be the biggest thing to hit town in quite a while.
Copenhagen:We remembered Copenhagen very well since our last visit, and it didn't disappoint us this time. It's one of our favorite places on this excellent itinerary through Scandinavia & Russia.
The Millennium docked at Langelinie Pier, just a short walk from the Little Mermaid statue, probably Copenhagen's main attraction. We took the free shuttle bus into town and walked the Stroget, a pedestrian mall great for people watching.
There was a big deal made about the shopping opportunities in Copenhagen but we found the prices higher on similar merchandise to what we had seen elsewhere. The moral of the story is if you see something you want to buy in, say, Helsinki, buy it there and don't expect better prices in Denmark.
We bought the $16 bus shuttle and admission ticket to Tivoli Gardens. We enjoyed this delightful place so much before, but unfortunately this time it was raining through most of the evening. Tivoli has several fine restaurants, and we had dinner at a place called Perlen, a place we would recommend very highly.
Disembarkation:We found the disembarkation in Amsterdam to be very smooth. We were off the ship at 8:30 AM and had our luggage in hand and were in a taxi twenty minutes later. Porters were readily available to offer assistance, the same young men who took our bags when we arrive two weeks before.
There are no immigration or customs re-checks when leaving the ship.
Schipol Airport is less than a 30 minute ride from the cruise terminal. For people traveling onward by train, the Amsterdam Central Station is just a short distance away, an easy walk but probably not so easy when managing luggage.
Photos courtesy of Paul M. Jaffe.
For lots more SeaLetter photos and information on Millenium, click HERE.
Paul Jaffe has written a number of cruise reviews for the SeaLetter, maybe none as detailed and complete as this one. Paul may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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