Chris, Mary Jo, and their respective spouses have recently returned from a 15-day cruise that traveled to 8 countries: Sweden (Stockholm), Finland (Helsinki), Russia (Saint Petersburg), Estonia (Tallinn), Poland (Gdansk), Germany (“Berlin”), Denmark (Copenhagen, Aalborg) and Sweden (Stavanger, Flam, Bergin).
Highlights of the trip include visits to 7 different UNESCO World Heritage sites including the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, which is now Chris’s favorite art museum/palace.
Viking Ocean sponsored this trip because they are trying to get out the word that the company known for river cruises is also now in the ocean cruise business. A lot of the extras that they provided in the river cruise business like included shore excursions in every port, free beer and wine with meals, and free internet, have been carried over to this luxury cruise experience. The Viking Sea is less than a year old only about 6 months old, the second ship in the Viking Ocean fleet.
Hear about this great ship, wonderful crew, and amazing cruise itinerary on this episode of Amateur Traveler.
Viking Homelands Cruise
Temppeliaukio Church (Rock Church) in Helsinki
Russia Tourist Visa
House of Fabergé
Hike to Preikestolen – the Pulpit Rock
Dr Jeffrey S. Morton
- Historic Centre of Saint Petersburg and Related Groups of Monuments
- Castle of the Teutonic Order in Malbork
- Hanseatic City of Lübeck
- West Norwegian Fjords – Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord
- Historic Centres of Stralsund and Wismar
- Historic Centre (Old Town) of Tallinn
- Sweden: Stockholm photos, Landsort photos, Stockholm Archipelago photos
- Finland: Helsinki photos, Porvoo photos
- Russia: Saint Petersburg photos
- Estonia: Tallin photos
- Poland: Malbork Castle photos
- Germany: Lübeck photos, Wismar photos
- Denmark: Copenhagen photos, Aalborg photos
- Norway: Stavanger photos, Flåm photos, Bergen photos
Chris: Today’s episode is brought to you by Select Italy. Select Italy designs custom itineraries and books a whole range of products and services, including fascinating tours, romantic weddings, or honeymoon trips, along with ticketing services for museums and musical events in Italy. Visit selectitaly.com to learn more.
Amateur Traveler, Episode 525. Today the Amateur Traveler goes to eight different countries around the Baltic and North Seas, looks at six different UNESCO World Heritage sites and a number of other historic cities, all in 15 days on a Viking Ocean Cruise.
Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host Chris Christensen. This is going to be a long episode. We’ll hear more from our sponsor Select Italy in a while, but first, let’s get started.
I’d like to welcome back to the show, Mary Jo Manzanares from Travels with MJ, and my recent travel companion on a pretty amazing trip in Baltic. Welcome back to the show, Mary Jo.
Mary Jo: Thanks Chris. Great to be here and it really was an amazing trip.
Chris: And what we’re talking about is a cruise that we both did, sponsored, I should say by, Viking Ocean on…and I say the Baltic, it’s really the Baltic and the North Sea. And stop me if I’m wrong, but the countries that we hit would include Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Poland, Germany, Denmark, and Norway.
Mary Jo: That’s it.
Chris: There was really some chance that I would forget a country in there.
Mary Jo: Well, I was counting as you did it, because that’s the only way I can remember that there were eight countries.
Chris: And we’re going to talk about the Viking Ocean, which is actually an interesting story because this was a brand new ship that we’re on in that sort of experience. But first I want to talk about these destinations and this kind of Baltic cruise in general. There are shorter versions of this. We did this longer version that actually goes into the North Sea as well and this was the Viking Homelands Cruise.
My impression, and stop if I’m wrong, people have said to me, “Wow, that sounded like the trip of a lifetime,” and that was my attitude actually leading up to, during and after this trip.
Mary Jo: Definitely a trip of a lifetime. I know visiting Russia has been on my bucket list since college, and, of course, that was back when it was the Soviet Union. But I think it hits a lot of places that people might not want to invest going independently, and the cruise was just a great way to see and get a taste of some of those great destinations.
Chris: Well, and we say, “get a taste,” and I think that that’s probably setting expectations correctly for this type of trip. It really is a sampling. You’re in town for one day or two days in St. Petersburg, and I think that’s the only date that we had extra days, other than the fact that you and I were both in Stockholm a few days early because of the TBEX Conference that we were at. And really, it’s a chance to see a number of different places. And then I think we made a list, when we got back, of where did we want to go back to.
Mary Jo: We did too, and we sort of were making it as we were going along.
Chris: Let’s do that list first, and then let’s talk about some of the other ports, but let’s focus in on what were your favorites.
Mary Jo: Wow, picking favorites among so many great experiences. I really liked Estonia.
Mary Jo: And so did Tony, and that is someplace I think we’d like to go back and just spend some time in. And the other destination that I really liked was Alborg.
Mary Jo: And that is some place that I could see just going to stay for a couple of weeks, not seeing it as a tourist.
Chris: And Alborg is in Denmark, probably one of the least touristy towns we went to.
Mary Jo: Probably, and that’s I think, part of the charm is. It would be great to just go get an apartment here for a month and be as close to a local as you can when you’re not.
Chris: Well, and we should say that although you and I were both on the same cruise, in fact, when we had cabins next door to each other, we saw each other maybe every three days on this 15-day cruise, and we did different things. And so we’ll talk a little more about Viking, but one thing that we should say is that, in every port included in this particular cruise is a shore excursion, and there’s always at least one free shore excursion that’s included which is usually a sightseeing tour, a walking tour or something like that. In Tallinn, Estonia, you didn’t do that, I know. So you had a very different experience than I did there.
Mary Jo: We did. We have a friend who lives there and we’ve known him for a couple of years, and he is in the tourism industry. And so he basically has been living there now a number of months after visiting there regularly, and so he was able to take us around and show us his version of Estonia.
Chris: Interesting, and I think one of the reasons probably is I thought it was a beautiful city. I thought it was one of the most beautiful cities we saw, but when we were in Estonia, that was one of the times that I could really feel some of the negatives of cruise ship travel in the sense that we were in the port at the same time as, I want to say, three other cruise ships?
Mary Jo: Yeah.
Chris: And I know the one that was parked next to us, which was a Celebrity cruise ship, was three times the size of the Viking Sea that we were on, which only has 900 passengers. And downtown Tallinn, all of the tourists got dropped off in the same spot at the same time and so it was pretty crazy up in the old town, with just masses of tourists when we went in. And you didn’t go and see that until later. And you, I think, went and had dinner in the old town after one of the cruise ships had already left port, so a very different experience.
Mary Jo: Totally different, and I think that’s probably why it captured our attention so well, is that we saw the town the way our friend Peter would see it, and that is, he would avoid certain places when the ships were in and packing in the places and took us somewhere else. And then we got back to see the rest of the town as the ships started leaving.
Chris: And as the prices dropped, is my understanding.
Mary Jo: Absolutely. He would talk about what a dramatic price difference there would be when the ships were there and when they weren’t. And, hey, I get that.
Chris: Well, and the interesting thing is, our ship was still there at the time but a number of the other ones had left and it did make a big difference. Well, let’s go back and do this in a little order.
We started in Stockholm, and Stockholm, I would say, of the different cities we saw, that is on our short list of things that we would go back to. A beautiful, beautiful city. We did some exploring as part of this conference. We went to the Vasa Museum. We also went to the Abba Museum, which I probably wouldn’t necessarily have gone to not being a big Abba fan, although if you are an Abba fan, you absolutely have to view this museum. It’s a well done museum. I’m just not an Abba fan.
Mary Jo: It is, but even if you’re not an Abba fan, I think most people get that little Dancing Queen earworm as they leave, so it sticks with you.
Chris: But the Vasa Museum is the one that I really, really wanted to do, which is the old warship. Probably the world’s worst warship, as far that goes, because its maiden voyage was, what? About a kilometer and a half and then it sunk?
Mary Jo: Yeah, it’s something like that.
Chris: Because there was a breeze. Basically, there was a high breeze and it caused the ship to tip over, but because it was so poorly designed. It has been well-preserved and it’s one of the only ships from that era, ship of the line, a very large sailing ship that has been preserved from the time of Gustavus Adolphus there in the 1600s. So that was pretty amazing for me. And I just thought this island of Stockholm was one of the most beautiful skylines. The day we came aboard the ship and sat outside and looked at that skyline, it was just awesome.
Mary Jo: Well, and that’s what we did, because we went up on top and sat outside and thought, “Wow, this is a pretty impressive destination.” I’ve been there a couple of times, so although it would be interesting to go back, it’s not as high on my return list as these other destinations.
Chris: And the other thing I would say is, both of us were coming off of, I want to say, a stressful to busy times. I know you were coming off more stress and I was just coming off of busy, and I think this was the perfect vacation for me at that time.
Mary Jo: And for me also. I agree.
Chris: When I talk about sitting on the deck and watching Stockholm, I had time. I could have gone back into Stockholm, but just sitting on the deck and watching Stockholm at that point was really what I needed to do. And I did a lot of sitting around on this particular cruise just because sometimes I need to be running around like crazy and sometimes I really need some recreation. And this was one of those times for me. And that is one of the ways I think that, if that’s the mood you’re in, I think this is a good opportunity for that, a good experience.
Mary Jo: Yeah, I agree. And that was exactly what I needed. I didn’t want to be in charge of any more planning or logistics or details. It was so great to partake of everything that Viking had to offer on the ship.
Chris: And then the other thing I would say before we move on from Sweden is we didn’t have that much time actually in Stockholm as part of the trip. So Joan, for instance, my wife who joined us, Tony, your husband, joined us also, Joan flew in just before the trip. If you look at the schedule itinerary, she flew in right when she was supposed to. Normally, you’d fly in early, but she just didn’t have that much vacation time, and that meant we got a chance to do the included walking tour of the city, which was fine. It was lovely. But we left early. And we left early in part so we could do that sail out of the Stockholm Archipelago, and which I think is just gorgeous, the number of islands there.
And we had a chance to visit one of the islands while we were there as part of…the pre-trips for the TBEX Conference went out to Lancet. And I was so glad I got out to the archipelago. If you are going to Stockholm, I would encourage you to get there early if you’re going to do this kind of itinerary, and do something like that. Get out to some of the islands, because I think that’s just a beautiful, beautiful area.
Mary Jo: I didn’t get to do that, but everyone that I talked to who did get out said it was just amazing. So I would agree. That’s a great tip.
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And so then our next port of call was Helsinki, Finland. You, I think, were least impressed with Helsinki of all the places we visited.
Mary Jo: Well, I liked Helsinki, and I had Helsinki targeted for where we were going to do some of our Christmas shopping because it’s known as a design capital and everything. So I did like it. Because our focus was on that was our Christmas shopping destination, I think that we didn’t get far enough outside of that main downtown area to really dig into it, and I think that’s the reason it wasn’t my favorite.
Chris: Well, and we did something different. So we did not do the included shore excursion that day. But we went out to Porvoo, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And I haven’t done the count of how many different UNESCO World Heritage sites we went to on this trip, but it was, I would say, at least one a day.
Mary Jo: Yeah, there were a lot of them.
Chris: And so Porvoo was this old medieval town outside of Helsinki. So we did this bus trip out to there. We happened to be there, oddly enough, on the day where they were celebrating the visit of the Czar of Russia, obviously, a re-enactment of the visit of the Czar Russian. He’s not still traveling around at this point. And there were people dressed in costume and stuff. But it is an old town. It’s a small town. It’s not, I would say, the most spectacular of the different UNESCO sites we saw. But I was glad we got out there.
And then the other things that I really enjoyed, I’d enjoyed seeing the Lutheran Cathedral up there, the great big one on the top of the hill, although inside was less spectacular because it is very Protestant looking. But the outside was very beautiful. And then enjoyed getting to the Orthodox Church also right near the downtown, and that, of course, is much more rococo, much more ornate. You got to the Church Of The Rock and were not impressed, and I was disappointed that I didn’t get there.
Mary Jo: You know how sometimes your impression and how your love for the place is totally based on your expectations? I think that’s what it was for Church Of The Rock. I mean, okay, let’s be honest, the name Church Of The Rock. You’re probably going to figure out it’s a rock in a church. But I guess I had it built up in my mind that it’s something different.
Chris: It was church in a rock. That was my impression.
Mary Jo: Yes, exactly. It is a church in a rock.
Chris: I actually may be going back to Helsinki in the wintertime for a conference, so that will be a very different experience. Actually, I think we’re doing an upcoming show on Helsinki, so we’ll be talking more about all the different things you can do in that area.
Mary Jo: I’d love to know what it’s like in the winter.
Chris: Very different, I imagine. It was a beautiful…we had beautiful weather in general on this trip, except for, it’s Northern Europe so…
Mary Jo: Except for the rain.
Chris: Except for the rain and the clouds. But I expect that. We had a beautiful day though in Helsinki particularly.
So then we went to St. Petersburg, and one thing we should say about St. Petersburg that’s a little different is every other spot that we went to, you can get off the boat and just explore. And if the boat is a ways from downtown, there’s always a free shuttle. And so you don’t have to even do the included tour, although quite often we would do the included walking tour and then we’d walk around some more. St. Petersburg, you can’t do that unless you’ve got tourist visa. You can explore with the group on any of the excursions, the one included one or additional ones, but you cannot explore on your own without getting a separate visa, which is over a hundred dollars a person and some red tape involved in getting that. We did not get the VISA. I knew about it but, honestly, I just wasn’t putting that much planning time into this trip. And so we just did the included walking tour and then we did the Hermitage Museum tour, which I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed.
Mary Jo: We had reviewed and talked about it, and getting it is a lot of effort and a lot of red tape. ad some money that we thought that was one of those destinations we could just leave it in the hands of the guide to take care of getting us back and forth and it made it much less stressful. We did the included walking tour. We did a canal tour, which allowed us to see the city by sea, which was a completely different view of it. And then we also did an Hermitage and Gold Room tour.
Chris: And so you did the upgraded version of the Hermitage tour that we did, which was the one, the Gold Room tour. I was very glad we had once seen the Hermitage and it’s now, I would say, my favorite art museum in the world, and I didn’t expect to say that.
Mary Jo: It’s pretty impressive.
Chris: Yeah, because it is a palace, but I thought it was more interesting then Versailles, which is just a bunch of empty rooms, or even in the Louvre, which is a beautiful museum. But you don’t get the sense of the palace as much.
Mary Jo: You’re right, and at the Hermitage, I mean you really got that feeling of the grandeur, of how decadently these people lived.
Chris: Or an understanding of why there may have been a revolution.
Mary Jo: Yeah, yeah, you do.
Chris: As we’re driving around during the bus tour of St. Petersburg, and you’re seeing all the different palaces, it like, “Yeah, they had a revolution here, didn’t they?”
Mary Jo: They did. It really was. As I looked at my photos, it is one palace after another.
Chris: But a very interesting city from what we saw. It’d be interesting to go back and be able to wander around a little more. The people kept asking me, “Well, what would people think of you in Russia, and how did people react?” and it’s like, “Well, we didn’t really have as many personal interactions because of how we did it on this particular tour.” So it really is more of a sampling. But the Hermitage was really amazing.
Now, the Gold Room, you have to mention. You did that extra room which is a room that is very gold, and you didn’t just go in and see a room.
Mary Jo: No, it is actually several rooms that have been structured to allow for better traffic flow. I mean, and it’s all dark, and the cabinets are lit up in order to protect what you’re looking at. And it is everything from weaponry to jewelry to everyday items, all made out of gold. And you have little magnifying glasses, so as you’re looking through the window you can see the detail. And it was just some incredible artisan work. I was just amazed at the detail. This is really old stuff. I mean, this isn’t stuff that’s going on and being made right now. It goes back hundreds of years.
Chris: Well, you’ve seen the work of Faberge and the like, I’m assuming.
Mary Jo: Well, actually even far before Faberge.
Chris: Okay, interesting.
Mary Jo: In fact, there are several pieces where the original Faberge was asked to replicate some of these and he simply said he did not have that kind of craftsmanship. And if you understand the craftsmanship of Faberge, that tells you what we’re looking at.
Chris: Well, the other interesting thing about doing that museum on a tour is you got to get in an hour earlier and I really, really appreciated that because they kept telling us, “Watch your valuables. We have real problems with pickpockets.” When we get to the room with the two Michelangelo paintings, I mean he only did what? Fifteen paintings in his life. And so these are really popular. The line usually goes three rooms long and we got there and we were the only group there.
Mary Jo: There were just a couple of people in the room with us and that is one of the really big reasons, I think, for taking the tour, is that we got there. We got in front of the line. We got in about an hour before the museum officially opens, and when we left, the line was out the door, around the corner, down the block and serpentined a couple of times. So the time that it saves makes that well worth the price.
Chris: Well, and then I think also, we didn’t have to be quite as vigilant about our valuables and things like that because we weren’t into these press of people that you usually would be in if you went individually.
Mary Jo: Right, it was much less crowded at that time of day.
Chris: Anything else we want to see about St. Petersburg? We’ve got a lot of places to cover.
Mary Jo: No, we’ll never get through it if we talk about all of our favorites places.
Chris: One thing we should say is that some people did a tour that we did not do. So you could have booked yourself on I think two tours a day, where there was actually a two-day tour that included the ballet and it was quite pricey. But I think for some people, that was just really what they were looking for, was cram as much in as they could in that two days in St. Petersburg. We did a morning tour and then just relaxed in the afternoon.
Mary Jo: We credited in just simply because of my particular interest there, so we did two tours the first day and then one the second.
Chris: My wife and I actually studied Russian for a year in night classes. This was definitely a place that we really, really wanted to get in. My wife, Joan, rescheduled her whole yearly vacations when this opportunity came up. Every plan changed because this was the trip that she wanted to do and has wanted to do for years.
So then we said the next one was Tallinn, Estonia. We talked about that a little bit, but beautiful old medieval town, and the number of times I’m going to say that in this show is going to be a little redundant. Medieval town with walls, lots of cobblestones. There were a lot of cobblestones in general on this trip. A Hanseatic town, an old member of the Hanseatic League, as were so many different cities that we went to.
What else do we want to say about Tallinn, Estonia? Beautiful city, but if you can be there when the cruise ships aren’t there you’ll enjoy it more.
Mary Jo: I agree, yeah.
Chris: We did get a chance to go out and walk the wall. I don’t know if you did that.
Mary Jo: We did not, but we did a fair amount of walking. And then because we had a car, then we got actually out of the city and along the coast a little bit more.
Chris: Very nice. And we were there for a really long day, didn’t leave until I think 9:00 o’clock at night or something like that, which is nice because the next day was actually the only day we had at sea. Oddly enough, I don’t usually look forward to the days at sea, but I was looking forward to it just because I was looking forward to some down time because of all the things that had been happening over the month that led up to that.
Mary Jo: And I think it was a perfect time because we’d had several very, very busy days and then having that day at sea, it was a day to rest. I know for you and I we were doing a little work as well, so it was a good time for a day at sea.
Chris: Well, you were doing work. I was pretending to do work. I think we got very little worked on while I was on this cruise. That was semi-intentional and we’ll talk a little more about the days at sea, I think when we talk about the boat and the experience.
But our next stop was in Gda?sk, Poland, and I didn’t see Gda?sk at all except out a bus window because I didn’t do it. So what can you say about Gda?sk? Yet another Hanseatic City, a medieval city with cobblestone streets.
Mary Jo: We were on the tour with you and Joan, so going out to the castle, so…
Chris: That’s right.
Mary Jo: We saw it out the window as well.
Chris: Directions. Actually, and Gda?sk is a place that I would love to see. We’ve actually tried to do an episode of Amateur Traveler on Gda?sk twice, unsuccessfully. So anybody who knows that region of Poland, it is a rich historic region, not just the medieval history, but obviously, of course, also solidarity and, basically, what becomes the seminal moment in terms of the downfall of the Iron Curtain countries starts here in Gda?sk. But we didn’t see it. We went out instead to the Marburg Castle which I was so glad we had done. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The world’s largest brick castle. I’m not sure if that’s significant, but a very large castle and the home of the Teutonic knights and really the beginning of the Prussian Kingdom.
Mary Jo: I did not know that much about the castle because I didn’t do a lot of research before we went out there. But when I got home, Teutonic Knights was on the list of things to do a little bit more reading about because I found it fascinating.
Chris: And I don’t know if people know that group but it’s similar to the Knights Templar, except that it was German knights who were basically, after there weren’t any more crusades, they came up here and fought the Slavs a bit. But they end up founding really their own self-ruled area and later on, when one of the people who is the in-charge…I just can’t remember what the title is called because this is a celibate order, dies, he leaves the whole thing to a nephew and it becomes Prussia. They were in Poland at this point. This portion of Poland used to be Germany or used to be what? Became Germany. In fact, my German family comes from closer to this region. They come from what is now Poland. So I would love to get back to Poland in more detail and see more than Marburg. But I was very glad that we had gone to Marburg.
Mary Jo: So that’s where I am, too. I would like to have gotten into Gda?sk. But we were there on a Sunday and so the things that would have been opened in the main part of the city may not have been available and that was part of my decision-making in deciding to go out to Marburg.
Chris: So our next stop was…and I’m going to say nominally, Berlin, except for those of you who have a knowledge of geography, you may notice that Berlin is actually three hours from the coast. The next stop, the included trip was actually Berlin. And so the people who went on the included trip, and this was quite a large number of people from the ship, actually got on a private train to Berlin, went and either went on tours or explored on their own, and then came back rather late at night. Again, a three hour train ride from Berlin. I think you and I had been to Berlin recently enough. I had been there twice within the last four weeks. So you were exploring locally and we went off and did something else.
Mary Jo: I’ve been to Berlin a number of times, although Tony has not. But we just couldn’t deal with three hours on the train there and back. That just didn’t make it an appealing thing for us to do so we took the stay and just explored things on the ship and talked to some of the crew, and dug in and learned a little bit more about life on board.
Chris: Did you also go off to one of the beaches, because we’re actually up at some of the better German beaches at that point.
Mary Jo: No, we did not. This was a total explore-the-ship and get-to-know-the-crew day.
Chris: Well, and we went off to…and stop me if you’ve heard this before, to a Hanseatic City, to Lubeck. And Lubeck was called the Queen of the Hanseatic League. This is where the center of this German medieval trading guild was, or cabal or whatever you want to call it, all of these German trading cities along the Baltic, and then later on including places like Bergen in Norway that we will talk about later, and Amsterdam and London as well. So you’ll see a very similar architectural style between all of those cities. But you also have that close connection and this is where it was centered. So I really wanted to get to Lubeck. And Lubeck itself, I’d say, was not quite as well preserved, for instance, as I’d say Tallinn, Estonia or some of the other places that we went. But one of the highlights of that tour, for Joan I know in particular, was our guide was someone who’d grown up in East Germany. And so when the boat docks, it docks in what used to be East Germany. And Lubeck would be what used to be West Germany. So you’re right there on the border.
As we went now or between the two, you crossed over and we went through what used to be the Green Zone. So there was a wall…well, not a wall at this point…but there was razor wire and land mines and dogs and things like that. And he was talking about growing up. He had just started school. He was seven when the wall came down. He had already learned some of the patriotic songs you had to learn in East German schools about the brave Russian soldiers who were defending our country, and then the wall comes down and he goes to school the next Saturday, because they were doing school six days a week, and there’s only three kids there because everybody’s gone off to The West to go shopping, I imagine, as I recall from what happened at that time, because they had no idea how long it would stay down. They had no idea how long they would be able to travel to the west and just didn’t trust that it would stay down forever or that this was the new normal.
My favorite story is he described his grandmother going out to buy toilet paper, not immediately when the wall finally came down, but when they started getting Western goods in the store and such. And she comes back a couple of hours later and she doesn’t even have toilet paper with her because she couldn’t decide. She had six different choices and didn’t know which one was the right one. Wonderful story, in terms of understanding how it wasn’t all that easy to switch to capitalism from communism. They were used to having one product of any type. There would be one type of toilet paper and it was always the same price. And if you went in northern East Germany or central or southern, it would be the same product and the same price. And it took some getting used to, adjusting to the new normal. He said she can now buy toilet paper just fine. Not a problem.
But that’s one of the reasons I enjoy the guided tours, is if we had done the same thing on our own, we wouldn’t have had that insight into the culture that you get from traveling with the guides. And we had so many wonderful guides. I think that was probably our favorite guide of the whole tour, of the whole 15 days. But we had so many wonderful guys who really did add a lot to it and that’s just one moment that I think encapsulated that for me.
Mary Jo: I talked to some other folks on the ship that had been on that tour, and everyone spoke so highly of that particular tour and that guide. And I think that’s spot on. These are local guides. These are also people who have some connection and care about their destination, whether they’ve lived there or they’ve studied there, or whatever, and they do bring that local flavor to it that you wouldn’t get. Although you could explore somewhere on your own, you just miss out on the texture that the guide brings to the story.
Chris: Right, absolutely. Well, do you want to say anything else about Germany before we move on to Denmark?
Mary Jo: No.
Chris: So our next stop was Copenhagen, Denmark, which I would say was our second favorite place. Not our second as in ranked, but of our two favorite places, Copenhagen was the other one that we just really loved.
Mary Jo: Yeah, I liked Copenhagen a lot as well.
Chris: And we did the included walking tour in Copenhagen, ended up going back to the ship for lunch, just because things are expensive in Scandinavian countries, and needed a break. And then went back out and did the tour of Copenhagen by the water, which was actually a wonderful tour and a great way to see a lot without wearing ourselves down completely. We were averaging over 10,000 steps a day on this trip. Went up to the top of City Hall. We did not get to places I would love to get back to like Tivoli Gardens, and there were so many other places we did not see in the one day we had in Copenhagen.
Beautiful day, beautiful, beautiful city. This is the first time I had ever been to Denmark, not counting the Copenhagen airport, and so as a person who is half-Danish and standing in front of shops that have Christensen on them and such, I don’t know if that made it extra special. But it is just a beautiful city.
Mary Jo: Well, we did the included tour as well. And then afterwards, we just went off on our own and explored after we left our group. We had a couple of recommendations. One was a place for lunch that we checked out. And then we also had a bakery recommendation, and how can we pass up a bakery? So we had lunch and we did some wandering around, looking at some of the sights and then we had some cake and tea before heading back to the ship.
Chris: As we came back in on one of the shuttles, we said in every port you’d go to, there’d be a free shuttle that would run every half-hour or something like that. So when we went back into the city, we really had no plans. And somebody was asking the shuttle driver…and the shuttle drivers would all be local, so you would never use the same buses because you covered such a large distance, you’d have different bus drivers, different tour guides every time, which was quite different.
You and I had also done the Viking River Cruise in Portugal and that covered such a small distance that you had the same bus drivers and the same tour guides every time. So it was a very different experience from that. But somebody said to the tour guide, “Well, we’re interested in doing one of the river tours,” and he said, “Okay. If you go down here, that’s going to be the least expensive one.” He gave us directions down to one of the particular tour guides. And I think it was…I want to say it was like $8 total per person, to do this one hour long river cruise. So it really turned out to be a wonderful thing. Then we ended up walking back to the ship because there was a Renaissance era star fortress right in between the ship and the downtown close to where the Little Mermaid statue is. And I am a huge history buff as you may have heard, and so I really wanted to walk through that star fortress and see what that was like.
Mary Jo: There are lots of places to explore there that you might otherwise not even know about unless you were walking around. And I agree that at some place I’d like to go back to as well. I left much unseen and it’ll call me back one day.
Chris: And then our next stop was Alborg, the city that you were enamored with, that probably is the lowest on my list. Not a lot going on in Alborg.
Mary Jo: And I think that’s why I liked it, because it seemed like a real town with real people living there, which I know that’s a silly thing to say because, of course, the other cities were real with real people. But it seemed like this was just an ordinary town rather than a real tourist destination. And I think that’s why I found it appealing. And then it seemed like the kind of place, “Okay, I could just go stay here for a month and see what Danish life is really like,” as opposed to, “I could go back here because there’s all these museums I missed and things I didn’t do and see.” So I think it was that town charm that I found very appealing.
Chris: Well, and the interesting thing for me, I didn’t get there. But when we are at Alborg, we’re in Uland, so we’re in the peninsula portion of Denmark instead of the islands like Copenhagen is in. And we were, I think, an hour and 15 minutes by car from where my grandfather was born. But we just didn’t have the time to get there on this particular trip. So one of these days I’ve got to get back to that particular city, the city of Thisted, which is not far from Alborg. It would be interesting for me to see, I know what you’re saying, normal Danish life, but it is, of the cities we went to, I’d say probably the least touristy. I think Viking was probably the only cruise ship that is stopping there.
Mary Jo: I think so.
Chris: That’s my impression.
We did three stops then in Norway: Stavanger and Flam and Bergen. In Stavanger, one of the trips that we did not do is get out to see Pulpit Rock. There wouldn’t have been the time to hike to the top, which is the most stunning vistas I have seen in pictures of Norway. But you could do a cruise to the base of it. We didn’t do that. We went out to a medieval monastery and then to an Iron Age farm, archeological dig where they had recreated an Iron Age farm. And they had people who were explaining to you how things worked there. The first part of that, the monastery, I think Joan was less impressed with because they had done so many modifications of this old monastery over the years. It had been a private residence and things like that, that so much had changed. It was a little hard to get an idea of what it was like originally. I thought it was wonderful just to drive out there, going out into the Norwegian countryside and through one of the really long tunnels under the water and things like that to get there. I thought it was a fun trip.
But the Iron Age Farm, I know Joan particularly loved that, as they’re explaining to us how they would start fires with flint and steel and how they would spin their wool and walk around with their wool with them. It’s just a fascinating area, even though we were doing it partially in the rain. It wasn’t the best day for that. And then Stavanger itself, pretty little town. I don’t know that there’s a lot to say about Stavanger other than I think another very livable town and the center of the oil industry. You went out to the Oil Museum as part of the…
Mary Jo: We did, and again, I do like Museums so this was a surprise that I was enamored with it. But it really did show the history of oil exploration. And the thing that I found remarkable, it covered, of course, the economic pluses of oil and the wealth that that brings to the area. But it also did a really good job of tackling head on the issues involved with the ecology and sustainability and what oil can do both good and bad to a region. But I found it interesting and because it was raining, it was a perfect spot to duck into when we had rain. And we predominantly stayed in that city center area and there were plenty of little museums and little small private gallery-type museums that you could pop into and see. I’d liked it as a destination but it probably would have been at the lower-end of my favorites.
Chris: And then our next stop was Flam. And I say Flam as if it were a major city. The smallest of all the towns we went to. This doesn’t rate city, but really that’s not what we were there to see. The attraction was that we were quite a few miles up the Sognafjord and that was spectacular.
Mary Jo: The scenery, incredible. I don’t know what I expected the fjords to be. I had high expectations and that trip really did exceed them all.
Chris: Well, and I got up early to do the sail-in because I really wanted to see as much as I could of that. And I was so glad that I did. Now, we did have something that went wrong that day in the sense that we were scheduled to be…I think you were also scheduled to be on the train trip, and Flam is…there’s actually a cute little train museum there, which I had more to it than I expected about the building of this train into this little town, built mostly for tourism reasons but quite an engineering feat. And we were going to take the train up, and then a bus down, and there was a landslide and basically the road was closed. And so they very quickly pivoted and made available a different included tour, which was a cruise to the…and I’m not possibly going to be able to say this because there’s too many diacriticals in this, but it is a different branch of the Sognafjord, which is the Nærøyfjord or something like that? Every letter, there is a different version that I know from English of all the vowels. But basically a beautiful cruise as well, and I actually enjoyed that a lot. I have a lot of what I thought were gorgeous pictures from sailing up that fjord. I was impressed by their ability to reschedule nearly 900 people on different trips in a very short period of time.
Mary Jo: I agree. I was pretty impressed. Stuff happens all the time in the world and things do need to change. And I was pretty impressed with the way it was just matter of fact, “There’s been a landslide and we can’t operate this tour. Here’s what your options are. If you don’t like that, here are some others,” and I was really glad we did that cruise. It may not have been one that I would have selected as a first choice but after seeing that scenery, I can recommend it highly.
Chris: Well, and I don’t think it was a normal option either, which was interesting.
Mary Jo: I don’t think so, either, because on our tour boat, I think there were regular passengers who used it as a way to get to and from their homes.
Chris: Right, absolutely. I thought it was a beautiful place to visit. I don’t think I’d want to live there especially in the winter time.
Mary Jo: Some of those, we would cruise up and you would see one or two little home and think, “How isolating.” It would be beautiful for a week and then I’d go stark crazy.
Chris: It would depend to me on the speed of the Internet, but…
Mary Jo: Yeah, exactly.
Chris: And then, our last stop was Bergen in Norway. Stop me if you’ve heard this but it was a member of the Hanseatic League. It has a beautiful, cobblestone streets, old medieval village. One of things that was interesting there is you actually got a chance to tour more of the buildings that were left over from that time. Quite a few had burned down. I mean, this were all wooden construction. It burned down multiple times. We actually went to the museum for an archaeological dig that they had done there that talked about the history of that German speaking trading community, Hanseatic community there, which I thought was very interesting. But it was amazing how much larger it had been at one time. But I thought it was interesting getting back into the little alleyways, and with our tour guide hearing about…he would basically have to promise you would stay celibate while you were doing your internship with these trading people. They were quite serious traders and they were trading there mostly with dried fish.
Mary Jo: And that area is also a UNESCO site which one more of the many on this particular itinerary.
Chris: Pretty much everything we have mentioned so far is a UNESCO site. I just really didn’t say it every time. I’ll put a list in the show notes of everything that we did that was a UNESCO site. Again, I think we did probably at least one a day on average.
Mary Jo: Probably.
Chris: I think Alborg may not have had a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Mary Jo: I don’t think so. If there was, it was certainly outside of the main area where we were. We stayed an additional night in Bergen and went home the following day from what you did. So we had a little bit of a chance to explore some more besides the time on the ship.
Chris: We did the included tour, went up to the funicular and I think at that point we were ready to start packing and start thinking about heading home.
So that’s the destinations. Anything we want to cover else about the destinations as we’re talking about this overview?
Mary Jo: No, and I think that if those are destinations that appeal, then this is a great itinerary to get that smorgasbord sampling of some great destinations.
Chris: Well, then let’s talk of the experience. We did this on the Viking Sea, which is the second of soon to be four Viking ocean ships. And for people who don’t know, Viking River Cruises have been around for I don’t know how many years. They’re quite well known.
Mary Jo: I think it’s 40.
Chris: It’s that long? And they have, I don’t know how many different ships. I want to say at least 80 or something like that in all parts of the world, including…there’s still that one I want to do in Myanmar. It’s probably at the top of my list in some of the places they do, as well as the Rhine and the Danube and those sort of things. And they have a really loyal customer base, and that the number of people on this ship who had been on a Viking River Cruise was the majority, I want to say. At least for the people that we talked to, including some who had been on multiple, multiple Viking River Cruises.
And what they found though is that when they talked to their customers, their customers also wanted to do some experiences like this. They did want to do some things you wouldn’t do on a river cruise. And they figured out that if they could get into the ocean cruise business, they already had a loyal customer base who would come with them. And honestly, that strategy, from talking to different people on the cruise ship, seems to have worked very well for them.
Mary Jo: We would talk with people and that was certainly one of the conversation points that came up. We did not run into one person that we talked to that had not had some previous Viking experience.
Chris: I think we did run into a few, but easily, the majority were people who were customers of the brand and liked the brand. And when we say the brand, so a couple things that are a little different. So it is a high end cruise. It is a luxury cruise. That’s what they want to compete with. But luxury in a relaxed, I want to say, American style. Most of the passengers on the ship were Americans and then a lot of Brits, Canadians, some Australians and New Zealander. So predominately an English speaking crowd. But no dress for dinner.
Mary Jo: Which is really nice.
Chris: And for me it means I don’t have to bring as big a suit case. They did encourage you not to wear your jeans to dinner, so I brought a pair of pants that were not jeans and that was my dress for dinner on this particular thing.
Mary Jo: That’s something that was a real selling point for us on our cruise experiences. Tony has to wear a suit and tie every day to work. It’s not what he wants to do on his vacation. So he too was hoping to live in jeans, and did for most of the time, but had that one pair of slacks that would get him through. But that’s a real nice feature on a luxury cruise, because so many times it’s…you’ve got to dress.
Chris: And it is for some. I know some people really, really like the dress-up and wear the tuxedo and more of the glamour. And if that’s what you’re looking for, this is not your cruise line. For me this was a better match. And then they didn’t have the casino. They didn’t have someone taking your pictures who came on and tried to sell it to you. They didn’t have the art auctions. But they did have the shows at night with the singers and the dancers which I don’t think either one of us that’s necessarily what we were looking for. We talked to people who thoroughly loved the musical performers and the shows and were involved in theatre at home and said, “Oh, the quality was so good and such.” I will have to take their word for it. We didn’t do a lot of that.
Mary Jo: We didn’t either. I mean, that is not the kind of thing that we do. We’re more of “sit around and have a glass of wine and talk about what we did and saw,” and we thoroughly enjoyed those conversations. And when we would meet up with you and Joan and sit around it at dinner, those were the conversations we had. But the entertainment…I don’t know if it was this entertainment wasn’t my cup of tea or if it’s just that kind of entertainment in general is not what I’m looking for on my vacation experience.
Chris: A lot of people are.
Mary Jo: Absolutely.
Chris: And they do it, I think, because that is what is expected on a cruise ship like this. So they had an auditorium and they did have the singers and the dancers, and they had to go to the bar at night and will be doing a Rat Pack series of songs or something like that, as well as during the day they had a wonderful trio actually of performers, a flutist and a cellist and a violinist who would be playing in the winter garden during the afternoon tea or something like that, which I really enjoyed when we went. But we just didn’t eat more food. It was like a whole other meal.
Mary Jo: I know. We love going to tea. It was so…it was just charming. The trio there played nice in the background. But, again, it’s like, “Oh, we’re just eating all the time.”
Chris: Well, and the Winter Garden which is behind the main pool, there’s a smaller pool in the back and there’s another main pool, which we never got in.
Mary Jo: I see there.
Chris: But looked lovely. The Winter Garden, I think, was one of my favorite spaces on the ship, just light and airy and modern. And the whole ship, I think, had this wonderful design elements because it is such a new ship. I really enjoyed that. The one element of old ship design that they had…not old in terms of traditional cruise ships but old in terms of Viking, there’s definitely a Viking motif on this. So on the stairways, the pattern on the stairways was a section from the Bayeux tapestry that documents the invasion of the Normans into England. And not everyone, I understood, recognized what that was, but I walked in and went, “Oh, my gosh. This is great. This is terrific.” And they also had a very small but actually cool Viking museum on one level that was interesting as they’re going for that Viking theme. They don’t focus so much on the pillage and the rape and the killings, so much as the exploring that part of the Viking experience.
Mary Jo: Well, the former really casts a pall over a vacation.
Chris: Well, you’ll have those. But…
Mary Jo: Our favorite spot on the ship was the Explorer Lounge.
Chris: Yeah. So the Explorer Lounge in the top and the front of the ship. A great place, for instance, when you’re going into fjords and things like that. A wonderful place to hang out.
Mary Jo: Especially either at night or sunset. It was a great spot. You could go outside for a bit and get some good photos. And it was a little windy and a little cold and some rain, so when we didn’t want to be outside or up on the top deck, we found some pretty great views from the Explorer Lounge.
Chris: Well, and at any time you were sailing through someplace you wanted to see, for me that would be the Stockholm Archipelago or through the fjords, I ended up in the Explorer Lounge. Wonderful space for that, as well. In terms of entertainment, probably the thing that I enjoyed most were some of the speakers on board. Now, I think I enjoyed at least one of them more than you did. The dry British humor there didn’t quite translate as much for you, but probably my favorite speaker was Dr. Jeffrey Morton who was talking about foreign affairs. He was an expert in that. And so I felt like we were getting almost a college class and some of the history of the relationships with Russia or what the oil had done to the region. I just thoroughly enjoyed it. Enough so that I had to look up, did he have classes online that I could take? Because I felt smarter after walking out of his lectures, and that’s something that I found very appealing.
Mary Jo: They just didn’t wow me and I don’t know if it was their particular style or what. I did like you could either go in person or you could get them recorded from your cabin. So I did appreciate that. This was just one part of it that didn’t wow me.
Chris: Well, and then you mentioned from the cabin, the other thing that you could watch in person or from the cabin were the short talks. And compared to other cruises I’ve been on, I thought there was more production value in the short talks. They had done some videos where the owner’s daughter had gone off and explored some things and they had some professional quality video that they would include in that, as well as some facts about the things, beautiful pictures and such. And I was used to some of the cruises we’ve been on. There was somebody basically in a lecture and just telling you stuff, and I thought that this was a little step up from that.
Mary Jo: I think so too, and I really appreciate it not having to show up in a room with everybody to get the information because I did want to get some writing done and it’s sometimes really nice to be able to watch that while you’re getting dressed or while you’re getting ready to do something else or planning your days. I love that Viking gave you that option because that’s not always the case.
Chris: Well, the other thing we should say about the cabins, the cabins are lovely.
Mary Jo: Lovely.
Chris: We were in the middle size cabin and there are five different sized cabins. They’re all have balconies. Ours was comfortably large for a cruise ship cabin. And as you get up in the size, you also get more privileges. So for instance there are two other restaurants besides the regular restaurant and the buffet restaurant in the ship. One is the chef’s table which we actually never got to because what they were doing there which was a fixed menu, we would look at the menus and they wouldn’t necessarily appeal to us. But then we went to the Italian restaurant, which I know you went to many times.
Mary Jo: Yes, we enjoyed it.
Chris: We went to a couple of times, that was really wonderful. But those are no additional cost. But you get a certain number of guaranteed reservations depending on the size of your cabin. I think with ours it was two or three, as I recall. And then if you have a larger cabin, you get to reserve your shore excursions earlier. Basically, there’s a priority system. The people with the smallest cabins get more towards the end of that process. In the middle-sized cabin, we had an included minibar, which was interesting. So wine, beer, soda. Well, I don’t know that the wine was actually included but we ended up…
Mary Jo: It was.
Chris: Well, we were told by our steward it wasn’t, and yet we ended up getting a bottle of wine. So some snacks in there. And wine and beer included at lunch and dinner for free, and a soda included at any time for free as well. I don’t remember if they had at breakfast or not, but included also at lunch and dinner for free. So no additional charge for that.
No charge for internet. Not the fastest internet I’ve seen, not bad for a cruise ship I’d say and faster when everybody else was in the port.
Mary Jo: Right. It wasn’t bad.
Chris: It was fast enough for email is what I thought.
Mary Jo: Right. It was great for the things that I had to do. There were a few moments of frustration, then, of course, there were days at sea where it was really, really spotty. So it was better than I expected.
Chris: Yeah, I’d say the same. Well, and for me it was fast enough that I can stay caught up with everything in terms of email but not fast enough that I could get some of the work done, which made a bit of perfect combination for me for this particular trip.
But one of the things that was interesting about that, we were talking to one of the members of the crew. This is Ruth who is one of the head waiters, a wonderful person we got a chance to get to know. And he was talking about that for the crew, when you’re on a ship that has paid internet, the crew also has to pay. And its usually really expensive for very little time. I mean, I’ve had some really bad internet experiences where it would stay connected and I’m getting charged for it because I didn’t hang up right, just not a lot of fun. And so what he said is, when the crew gets to the port, they don’t have to be scrambling off trying to find some Wi-Fi or whatever. They can stay up to date with their families more easily because they can do the e-mail and the Facebook and all those sorts of things while they’re on the ship in whatever downtime they have, which is not very much. They work very hard.
And so it just made life better, he found, on that ship for the crew. And I think it was another member of the crew, was saying that the general Viking philosophy seems to be, we’ll take care of the crew and then the crew will take care of the passengers. They’ve got very good service. I wouldn’t say necessarily exceptionally better than other good service that I’ve had on cruise lines, but the crew members themselves said that they were enjoying themselves better.
Mary Jo: Yeah, if you read anything about the cruise industry, some of the tales of the working conditions and treatment of crew is pretty abysmal. And I really like the concept of taking care of your crew because they’ll take care of your customers. I think it’s a good philosophy and I really did feel that way. I mean, it was good service without being annoyingly obsequious. There wasn’t any concept of constantly trying to upsell or anything like that.
Chris: No, no. Not at all.
Mary Jo: Which I don’t want that on my vacation.
Chris: And it was a more expensive vacation. Now, not for us, we should say we were sponsored. But the ticket price for the cruise package that we did was, I don’t remember the exact number, but I want to say around $8,000 per person.
Mary Jo: I think that was about it for our cabin.
Chris: For our cabin. They started more at five. Now, that was more expensive for this cruise than for most of the other ones I’ve seen in the Viking Sea, and I suspect that’s the combination of so many different ports. St. Petersburg, we have special VISA considerations, as well as that included trip to Berlin. And so most of the other ones I’ve seen were cheaper. And when I compare that with other cruise lines, that seem to be in that priceline, in that luxury priceline, competitive especially when you look at all the things that are included: the wine, the beer, the Internet, the shore excursions. All the shore excursions too, they’ve carried over from the river cruise. When you’re doing that walking tour, you have the your Quiet Fox, which is that receiver that lets you listen to the guide without having the guide yell. And I love those, especially because I use them with my own ear buds. I don’t use them with the included ones which I find uncomfortable.
Mary Jo: I do, too. Yeah, I did the same thing.
Chris: And I’m using it with my iPhone ear buds, which also means I’ve got it in my pocket. I’ve got my iPhone ear buds. I don’t even look like I’m on a cruise. I don’t have a sticker or on me. I didn’t miss when you’re on the other cruise ships and they put the number three sticker because you’re in group three. I don’t miss being labeled and tagged in a release program. But when I’ve got the Quite Fox, I can be wandering, sometimes a block away from wherever my tour guide is, taking pictures. Not just pretending like I’m not with them, but really having more flexibility in terms of what I am doing while I’m wandering around. And I get more out of the shore excursions that way.
And it’s interesting because I didn’t see most of the other cruise ships that were in town at the same time as we were. I think I saw one other one that may have been using them. But on the bigger cruise ships I think it’s just too much hassle.
Mary Jo: Well, I think so. And you’ve got to collect them, get them recharged, make sure that they’re properly synced. I mean, there is some maintenance required
Mary Jo: And so if you had too many people, I can see why it would just wouldn’t be it worth it. But I did appreciate that because it gave you a little bit of an ability to say, “Oh, wait, I wanted to stop and look at this,” and you could lag behind a little bit without feeling like you’re going to get left behind or something.
Chris: Right. Exactly. And that’s really a carryover from the river cruise experience. A lot of those things like the things that are included and things like that are really what they offered their customers on the river cruise experience. So I see why they’re doing that. Well, one of the things we should talk about in terms of the ship and I can’t talk about it, that is the spa.
Mary Jo: Yes, I did a tour when we first went on and although I didn’t get down to use the spa portion, I did get down to use the salon portion. So they do have a quite large for a cruise ship, spa and salon area. The spa does pick up on some of the Nordic concepts of hot, not so hot, and really cold.
Chris: Really cold as in a room filled with snow.
Mary Jo: Snow, I know. And, of course, as I was doing, and this is before everyone got on board, it’s like, “Okay, is this really snow?” and of course it’s manufactured. But I did reach in and yes, that really is snow. So there is a ritual to which order you do things and which are supposed to improve your circulation and your life and all of those things that the Nordic countries talk about in terms of their spa rituals. I didn’t get down to do that. That involved some time that I just couldn’t allocate. But Tony and I did get down to the salon for his and her manicures, and that was sort of fun. So that was one of the things that we did when we stayed on board the ship one day.
Chris: Well, and we…and I should say Joan more than I, did get a chance to use the fitness center which is more our cup of tea, and it was a decent fitness center. Not large, but honestly, on a lot of the ships they don’t have to be that large. It didn’t really ever have problems getting a machine in there.
Mary Joe has a wonderful write up about the life on board the Viking Sea that we’ll link to in the show notes that has a lot of the details. The one thing we didn’t mention in the cabin is the heated floor in the bathroom.
Mary Jo: I know. That’s just lovely.
Chris: And then they have things like self-service laundry, as you’re on a 15-day cruise. We only packed for 7 or 10 days or something like that and just did laundry. It’s all free, and things like that. So that just made things easier. There’s a laundry service but I just didn’t need to pay for that.
And then food, we should talk about food. I thought it was good.
Mary Jo: We should.
Chris: I enjoyed it. There was a lot of it. Not that the portions were ridiculously large. I thought the portions were well made. You could always get more.
Mary Jo: Absolutely. And what I liked is they got away from this concept of more is better and focused on better food. And then if you wanted more, and there were times we did, they were very happy to bring you additional portions or something special. I thought the selections were good but not so overwhelming that it became paralyzing.
Chris: And the main dining room where we ate all of our dinners…I don’t think we ate any lunches or breakfasts in there. You can.
Mary Jo: We didn’t either.
Chris: We just didn’t want to take the time to do that. That’d be if you’re interested in more of a table service for lunch or dinner. And I think a little better experience in general. We ate once in the buffet for dinner and it was a lot of the same selections but just not the same service. Obviously, when you’re just taking out of the same table and things like that. So I really did enjoy all the rest of the dinners we ate in the main dining room.
So the main dining room would have a set of always-available, maybe six entrees, that if you didn’t like what they were doing for the day. And then they would also have some regional ones. Now they didn’t have the borscht when we were in St. Petersburg, we should say.
Mary Jo: Well, they did have it at the buffet some time later, so I did get to have borscht.
Chris: But they would be doing something regional in every different port, which I thought was interesting. And I tried some of them and some of them were not going to be my favorite, whatever they were doing with the herring or whatever, but I thought that combination was very good.
Mary Jo: I really liked that, and I would try to sample some of those that I might otherwise not have gone into a restaurant to order because not being sure if you’re going to like it. And if you guess wrong, well, there’s the rest of a menu that they’ll bring something for you.
Chris: They would also apparently serve things that were not on the menu sometimes. We found, even in the chefs table I think, we talked to somebody who went there who is a vegetarian and they ended up getting an entirely different menu. They were quite flexible. We didn’t realize that that would be even a possibility. But there was a wonderful service on the ship. I want to say it again. Again, I don’t know that I would say that it was better than some of the service we’ve seen although the crew told us that all of the crew were hired from other luxury cruise lines. And when we were talking to them they were saying they were really enjoying the Viking Sea. Half of them had been on the first ship that Viking launched and they brought basically half of that crew and then half new crew on board. So they’re really not coming from the Viking River cruise lines. So it’s interesting as they’re trying to build up this brand, how they’re attempting it, but I would say that they’re making a product that is attractive.
Mary Jo: Well, and unlike many ships that you’re on, the dining is an open dining situation.
Chris: Right, we should say that.
Mary Jo: So you’re not with the same people every night.
Chris: Well, and that has advantages and disadvantages. You could be with the same people every night. If you went with a group of six, you could always walk in and say, “Six for dinner.” I would say we probably had a little harder time meeting people because we didn’t have assigned people. Well, you know, with the last cruise we were on, we really hit it off with our table mates, although on the other hand, that sometimes doesn’t happen.
Mary Jo: It doesn’t happen, right.
Chris: So pluses and minuses. We did end up meeting some of the people just sitting next to us at dinner because we’re sitting close enough to people, we would strike up conversations. Because you’ve got a guide when you’re out on the tours, you’re sometimes listening to guides the whole time so you’re not necessarily striking up conversations there. So for us as shy people, it took us a little longer, I think, to meet some people. But we met some wonderful people, and quite often just sitting next to them at dinner as we were saying, “Well, what did you get?” And that turns into a conversation about where you’re from and all those sorts of other things.
Mary Jo: And it also was a great chance. I know we did it when the four of us would sit and have dinner, but we would also do it when there were people next to us as, “Where did you go? What did you do? What was fun?” It was so nice. You’d hear people making recommendations about the next port. I tend to be more of an introvert as well, and for us, this was just both a working trip for you and I and for our spouses it was a chance to actually take a vacation together. So I try to use a little of all of those things to make up the best experience.
Chris: The only complaint I would have about the food or the dinner or the service is I really had to get them to stop giving me wine. It was not a terrible problem to have, but really, it’s not like there’s a free glass of wine at dinner. They will just keep filling that glass for you as long until you basically put your hand over it and say, enough.
Mary Jo: Well, somehow Joe and Tony and I didn’t have that same experience.
Chris: I don’t know what you’re talking about. And the other thing we should say, we mentioned the Internet but we didn’t say that there is also satellite TV in the rooms. We were doing this cruise during, as it turns out, the Republican and Democratic conventions, although I have to say we spent more time watching TV than we normally would on a cruise. But we did appreciate being connected during this rather bizarre political season that we’re having in the US.
Mary Jo: And Tony watched a few sporting events. I don’t tend to be a television person. I cared about current events but I didn’t care about being over saturated by the crazy politics.
Chris: Excellent. Anything else we want to say about this cruise?
Mary Jo: No, other than I think it was a great way to see a part of the world that I might not…well, let’s not say I might not. I definitely would not have been able to get Tony to visit these destinations had we not been on a cruise. But now that he has been there, there are some that we would definitely go back to. So I think for a lot of people that are venturing out to someplace they’re not sure about, that this is a great way to see some of those destinations.
Chris: No, I definitely could get Joan to see any of these destinations. A little more adventurous than Tony is, but on the other hand, seeing so many of them at the same time. Honestly, I do keep count of how many countries I’ve been to and, for the first time in my life, I’ve now been to more countries than years of age in part because of this trip. But it really was, as I looked at the travel we’re going to do this year, it really was a highlight trip. The only reason I wouldn’t say a trip of a lifetime for me is I don’t know what I’m doing next year.
Mary Jo: Right, I don’t want to limit myself.
Chris: But really a stunning experience. If you’re looking for this sort of thing, I think the Viking Sea is a wonderful way to do it to a very good experience. Again, not an inexpensive experience, but if you are comparing it with something else in that class of cruises, make sure you’re including all the things that are going to add up. We usually find on cruises that we spend another 50% of what we spend on the cruise on the shore excursions. Now on this one, we did end up spending about a thousand dollars on additional shore excursions for the two of us. That’s a lot lower percentage than we would have. If it’s 50%, normally that would have been a lot higher number.
So as you’re comparing this to something else, very good experience. And make sure that you figure out what it is that you include as you’re comparing prices, and I think they’re actually, in the luxury range, going to be fairly competitive.
Mary Jo: I agree. We spent probably another seven hundred so we’re just a little bit behind you.
Mary Jo: All in St. Petersburg?
Mary Jo: Well, yeah. And that’s actually the bulk of where it was, and I think we have a couple of others. I put them in the luxury category, but while they’re not inexpensive, I think there’s a lot of value added. And I think when you look at what additional value added it brings to the price point, you need to take that into consideration. One of the recommendations that I make is that they have a…I think they call it their Silver Spirits Package, which for the cruise we went on, was four hundred and some dollars per person for the 15 days. My recommendation is take that and upgrade your cabin. Get one of those cabins that has that included minibar and then when you factor in your wine and what you get at your meals as part of the inclusions, honestly, I’m not sure there’s a lot of reason to upgrade to that package when you can really just have a nicer cabin.
Chris: Well, and we were just finding…we looked at that, and with wine and beer included at dinner…and then you’d only have two choices, we should say. They would say, “What are we serving tonight? We have this red with this white,” which I thought were decent choices. I liked all the wines they served me. I know I’m not the biggest wine snob but I live in California so I am by nature somewhat a wine snob. But I didn’t dislike any of the wines they were serving me and we just didn’t see the need. We had $300 in shipboard credit and we had a hard time spending it. So there were just not that many things that were extra.
Mary Jo: They were extra, I know, and that’s when you really start looking at the price line. That’s why this kind of a cruise is a real value because a lot of them are not included.
Chris: Excellent. Well, Mary Jo, we’ll put a link to the article you did on the Life Aboard The Viking Sea. Where can people read the rest of your travels?
Mary Jo: I am at travelingwithmj.com and my new podcast, whereelsetogo.com.
Chris: That’s right, you’re a podcaster now. We haven’t done some of our typical questions. Let’s do at least one of them, which is, you are standing in the prettiest spot of anything you saw in all of these countries. Where are you standing and what are you looking at? What are your top three?
Mary Jo: Well, I’ve got to put the Church of…let’s see if I get that right.
Chris: Church of the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg?
Mary Jo: Yes, in St. Petersburg.
Chris: It would be on my list. Spectacularly ornate onion domes and all sorts of different colors. You went inside also, which we did not.
Mary Jo: We did. We did go inside. That’s probably one of them. The other would be the Stockholm skyline.
Chris: You think the Stockholm skyline is beautiful? I would put the Copenhagen new harbor instead of the Stockholm skyline. And your third one would be?
Mary Jo: The fjords.
Chris: The fjords. There you go. That had to be there.
Mary Jo: I don’t know which spot because I don’t know where I was half the time, but at the fjord there were there were so many great spots.
Chris: Biggest surprise?
Mary Jo: Probably, again, St. Petersburg, and this is showing just a particular interest of mine, when we went to see the tombs of the Czars. How can anyone say, “Oh, great. Let’s go see some tombs.”? But seeing the area that was dedicated to Czar Nicholas II and his family, I found that particularly moving.
Chris: So you’re in the St Peter and Paul Fortress and within the cathedral inside there.
Mary Jo: Well, I think they call it a cathedral but I don’t think it really is.
Chris: The church with the tall skinny golden spire that matches the Admiralty Spire across the way. Right. And then they have the bodies that they have interned of this last executed Czar and his family. And apparently they have found the last two remaining children and they’re just waiting for the Orthodox Church to authenticate that, for instance, this is the bodies of those. And much to our surprise, one of the children that is buried in that spot that you’re talking about, is Anastasia, who apparently…
Mary Jo: She didn’t escape.
Chris: Did not escape and become a star in a Disney movie, after all. That was disappointing.
Mary Jo: I found that particularly moving, and I think that’s probably because I spent a lot of time in college studying that era and to actually see it modern day just made a big impression on me.
Chris: Excellent. Well, thanks again for coming on this very long episode of Amateur Traveler. It was a long trip though, to be fair.
Mary Jo: It was. It was 15 days. We had a lot to cover.
Chris: Thanks so much, and we’ll look forward to having you on again.
Mary Jo: Thanks, Chris.
Chris: With that, we’re going to end this marathon episode of the Amateur Traveler. If you have any questions, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or better yet, leave a comment on this episode at amateurtraveler.com. You can follow me on Pinterest, Twitter or Instagram as Chris2X, and as always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.