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2017 – Cruise Through Scandinavia and The Baltic

Leave The Lights On
Norway - Northern Lights Cruise

DM and I are off again on out next journey. We loved Norway so much on our recent Northern Lights Cruise, this past February, that we decided to return – this time in the summer. On this trip we will be visiting all of the Scandinavian countries including an encore visit to Norway. We will also be visiting the Russian port city of St. Petersburg plus some of the Baltic countries.

So much of the beauty, culture and heritage of Scandinavia and the Baltic region of Europe is influenced by the sea. That’s the reason we decided to experience this journey by taking another voyage.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes – Marcel Proust

Viking, a company famous for their European river cruises has recently entered the ocean cruising market with 3 brand new ships. We will be sailing on the Viking Star for their 15-day Viking Homelands cruise. At only 900 passengers, the Viking Star is relatively small by today’s cruise ship standards. This smaller size and shallower daft, allow the ship direct access into most ports.

Cruise Route - 15 Days, 8 Countries

Sailing on the Viking Star we board the ship in Stockholm, Sweden and after spending an overnight in Stockholm we head east to Helsinki, Finland for 1 day and then onto St. Petersburg, Russia for 2 days. After leaving St. Petersburg we sail onto the Baltic country of Estonia, then spend a full day at sea before stopping in Poland and Germany for 1 day each. Sailing north we spend 2 days in Denmark and finish our trip with 2 days sailing through the fjords of Norway and then on to Bergen for an overnight. Our trip ends and we disembark in Bergen, Norway.

Starting below are my daily travel journal entries along with some pictures. Once I return home I will upload all my pictures to my photo website and share a link with everyone here.

For most of my pictures I will be shooting with a Sony A6500 using a 16 – 70mm zoom. Its a great travel camera. It takes great pictures, and 4K video. Plus it has in-body 5-axis image stabilization for steady hand held shots in low light. I’ve always enjoyed taking good pictures, but I also like to travel lite and the Sony is less then half the weight of my Nikon 7000 and takes better pictures. If I don’t have my Sony handy, rather then miss a shot, I will reach for my iPhone 6s Plus.


Saturday, August 12th – Day 1 – Stockholm

9:15 am – Just landed in London’s Heathrow airport. Heathrow is a big, busy airport that can be very confusing to get around. Our 2 hour layover went by pretty fast – not only was it a long walk with um-teen direction sighs, but we also had to go through a full security screening again. 

A few things about British Airways:

First the good – the flight crew and cabin service was very good.

Now the Not-so-Good – The food was not very good. Our meals on United and SAS flights to Europe were much better. I was also pissed-off that they switched our assigned seats, which were window and isle seats to the middle section in the next to last row, 

3:15 pm – After landing n Stockholm where we were met by a Viking representative, after which, we boarded a bus for the 40 minute ride into the city where our ship is docked.

4:15 pm – After a smooth pre-board check in we went directly to our stateroom to unpack, freshen up and begin exploring the ship.

6;00 pm – There are 3 fine dining restaurants on the Viking Star plus a buffet style restaurant that serves breakfast lunch and dinner. Tonight we are eating at the one called The Restaurant. It has an ala carte menu featuring daily specials along with several classic selections. DM had the poached salmon and I had the sea bass – both very good. 

8:00 pm – After a stroll around the deck, we are back in our cabin getting ready for bed. With the exception of a few short cat naps on the flight over, we have been awake for the better part of 32 hours. Good night!


Sunday, August 13th – Day 2 – Stockholm

8:00 am – After a good night’s sleep, we begin our day with breakfast in the World Cafe on deck 7 – a full buffet restaurant offering virtually any type breakfast. If they don’t have it on the buffet line, just ask them and they will make it for you.

Weather – overcast, chance of showers, temps in the mid 60’s

9:30 am – The morning’s activity consists of a city tour around Stockholm. Sweden’s capital city extends over 14 islands linked by 54 bridges and tunnels. While locals may find it easy to get around, most first-time visitors find it some what confusing to get around. Although we made a few stops for pictures, I would have enjoyed a longer tour that allowed extra time to walk through the old town.

1:30 pm – After lunch we spent the afternoon exploring around the ship. 

2:00 pm – Leaving Stockholm we headed east past countless small islands – some only large enough for a single home while the larger islands had a cluster of 5 or 10 homes. After a few hours we were in the Baltic Sea heading toward our next port call in Helsinki, Finland.

4:00 pm – We went up to the Winter Garden cafe for afternoon tea, which is served every afternoon between 4 and 5. In addition to a large assortment of teas there is a nice selection of finger sandwiches and small pastries. In addition to the teas and goodies servers are walking around with warm scones served with wipe cream and jam – super delicious.

7:30 pm – After dinner DM and I enjoy a stroll around the deck or just sitting in the atrium listening to different musical performances. 


Pictures: To see our Stockholm pictures click here

 


Monday, August 14th – Day 3 – Helsinki, Finland

9:00 am – Boarding our motor coach bus for a 3 hour city tour. For a European capital, Helsinki is relatively small. It is sometimes called the “White City of the North” for its neoclassical beauty and Art Nouveau style.

Weather – Upper 60’s to low 70’s under sunny skies

As we drive through the city our tour guide gives us a steady stream of information about the city and its history, and points out interesting landmarks, buildings and other points of interest. While I enjoy listening to her speak, i’ll be the first to admit that I have forgotten most (not all) of what she told us after just 15 minutes.

Our first stop was to Sibelius Park where we saw the Sibelius Monument. The monument is dedicated to Finish composer Jean Sibelius.

Our next stop is to the Rock Church – situated in the heart of Helsinki, the church was excavated into solid rock.

Back on the bus we head to the city center to see the Helsinki Cathedral and Senate Square. From there its a short walk down to the market square near the waterfront. Tuesday’s at market square are a combination farmers market and flea market.

12:30 pm – Back on board the Viking Star for some alfresco (outside) dining at the World Cafe on deck 7.

2:00 pm – This afternoon we are enjoying just walking around the ship and acquainting ourselves with different areas and lounges.

6:00 pm – Dinner this evening is at Manfredi’s on deck 1. Its a high-end Italian restaurant. The menu selections, food and service were excellent.


Pictures: To see our Helsinki pictures click here


Tuesday, August 15th – Day 4 – St Petersburg, Russia

6:30 am – Heading up to the World Cafe for an early breakfast. Today is going to be one of our busiest day of the entire cruise. First thing up is a 4 hour tour of the world famous Hermitage Museum. Then back on the boat for a quick lunch and at 2:30 we are off for a tour of St Isaac’s Cathedral  followed by another church tour of the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood. We will finish with an early evening canal cruise through the heart of St Petersburg and will not be returning to the boat until 8:00 this evening.

Once we leave the ship, but before we board the buses we have to go through a Russian boarder security check point. Russia is the only country we visit where we must carry our passports with us at all times while we are off the ship. Since we do not have visas, we have to stay with our group at all times. What can I say – Its Russia!.

Weather – Temps forecast to be in the mid to upper 70’s under clear blue skies

9:00 am – After working our way through rush hour traffic, we finally arrived at the Hermitage Museum. As a special accommodation to visitors from the cruise ships, the museum opens up 2 hours earlier then it does for the general public. And this is a good thing because once it opens to the public it gets very crowded very fast and can be difficult to get close to many of the popular exhibits. Our guide for our tour, Marana, was very knowledgeable and able to move from room to room giving us the historical highlights and focusing our attention on the best pieces in each room. Everyone in our group was wearing a wireless receiver with an earpiece so we could easily hear her speak without being close to her. Originally the winter palace of Catherine the Great it has been the home for the Hermitage for the last 100 years. Catherine II added several buildings – the last one being built in the 19th century. All of the opulence of Russian royalty of the 18th and 19th centuries is on full display as you go from room to room.

1:00 pm – Back on the boat for a quick lunch before we head out on our next tour.

2:30 pm – Our first stop of the afternoon is at Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. It is an absolutely magnificent, domed cathedral built originally for the exclusive use by the royal family. It is an orthodox church, which is very similar to the Roman Catholic Church. and today is open to the public for viewing and only limited church services.

4:00 pm – Next stop is the Church of our Saviour on Spilled Blood. Much smaller but no less magnificent then St Isaac’s, the interior of the church is done in over 7,000 square meters of mosaics. The exterior is very Russian and equally as beautiful.

6:00 pm – Founded by Tsar Peter the Great he wanted St Petersburg to be a grand city on the Baltic with beautiful buildings and a canal network similar to that of Venice or Amsterdam. St Petersburg was the capital of Russia until the Russian revolution in 1918, when it was moved to Moscow. For almost 200 years Russia’s royal families built beautiful palaces and homes – many still standing today. Similarly, the side walls of the canal were made from blocks of granite to stand the test of time. The boat ride lasted about an hour and 15 minutes and took us through the center of the city past museums, galleries and several upscale neighborhoods. We also passed under dozens of low bridges – if you stand up you may lose your head.

7:30 pm – Due to the warm summer evening, the streets were busy with tourists and locals and the outdoor cafes and restaurants were all crowed.

8:00 pm – Back on board and up to the World Cafe for a buffet dinner featuring king crab legs and several other seafood specialities.


 

Wednesday, August 16th – Day 5 – St Petersburg, Russia

8:00 am – Our only scheduled activity today is a 3 hour city tour. I made a mistake and read the departure time wrong and we arrived at the buses 1 hour and 15 minutes ahead of schedule – DM was not too happy about that.

Weather – Low to mid 70’s under sunny skies – another picture perfect sightseeing day.

Although the tour guide was great and gave us lots of good information about the city and its history, the stops we made along the way were very similar to the stops we made in yesterday’s tours. The difference being that todays tour is presented as an overview, while yesterday’s tours took us inside the museums and churches.

I have to  say that we are very impressed with the local tour guides Viking uses as well as there entire excursion / onshore staff who work hard to try and get you to where you should be – on time and on the right bus with a bottle of water to get you on your way and a warm towel to wipe your face and hands when you return. The local guides speak very good english and seem to be very knowledgeable.

12:30 pm – Back on board we sat outside for lunch – another beautiful day – sunny – temps in the low to mid 70’s.

2:00 pm – My only plan this afternoon is to try and catch up with my picture processing and my blog posts. The internet is not working to well right now, so I will hope for the best and keep plugging away. Since all of the ship’s communications and internet service is satellite based, I think its a Russian thing. DM felt like emerging herself in more Russian history and culture, so she watched the movie Dr. Zhivago.


Pictures: To see our St Petersburg pictures click here


Thursday, August 17th – Day 6 – Tallinn, Estonia

Weather – Sunny 65 – 70 with showers expected late in the day

Today we are taking a 3 hour walking tour of Tallinn. Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, ranks as one of Northern Europes finest medieval old towns. Its well preserved cobbled streets and red roofed houses make you almost feel like you are living in another time. Unfortunately with 4 cruise ships in town today, the cobbled streets are going to be packed with tourists and pickpockets.

9:30 am – We boarded buses for a short 5 minute ride to Tallinn’s old town where our walking tour begins.

Our tour guide explains that Tallinn’s old town is divided into 2 sections – the walled upper town where the church and state constructed beautiful government buildings, homes and cathedrals and the lower town is a charming maze of squares, gabled houses and churches.

Our tour begins in the upper town and ends 2 hours later in the lower town, after which, we have about an hour of free time to explore on our own.

1:00 pm – Back on board for an alfresco lunch on deck 7.

2:00 pm – This afternoon we are spending the afternoon in the Explorer Lounge on deck 7.

6:30 pm – Excellent dinner this evening in The Restaurant on deck 2.

8:45 pm – Doing some laundry this evening and talked with some very nice people while our machines were chugging away. One women we spoke to lived in Annapolis for 12 years. Now it really gets weird. It turns out that the guy using the dryer next to us actually went to Alexandria High School and was on the same swim team as the women who lived in Annapolis for 12 years. For several minutes it felt like a high school class reunion.They would have never met had it not been for the laundromat on deck 6. How cool is that!


Pictures: To see our Tallinn pictures click here


Friday, August 18th – Day 7 – At Sea 

Weather – Cloudy with off and on rain, temps in mid 60’s

9:00 am – Today is our only full day at sea as we travel from Estonia to Gdansk, Poland.

1:00 pm – Its been a relaxing day – a chance to catch up on my blog posts and picture processing. Lots of little areas to relax onboard, have a drink or a bite to eat. Except for our time in Russia the internet access has been reliable.

6:00 pm – We saw a 45 minute show before dinner called “The Rat Pack”.

9:15 pm – After dinner we caught another show – a song and dance show in the ship’s theater.


Pictures – To see pictures of our ship, The Viking Star, click here


Saturday, August 19th – Day 8 – Gdansk, Poland – Cancelled

Today we were supposed to be visiting Gdansk, Poland, but due to a storm along our intended course, the captain slowed down and took a course wide of the storm’s path. As a result we were 2.5 to 3 hours late getting into Gdansk. For some reason we couldn’t get clearance to enter port and the decision was made to sail on and go directly to our next stop in Germany, so we are spending another day at sea.

Weather – Mostly sunny, seas 4 – 5 feet, winds steady at 30 – 40 knots

6:00 am – Up early and ready to go for breakfast when we get the announcement from the captain about cancelling our stop in Gdansk. Bummer! Since we were already up, we went down for breakfast.

9:00 am – I walked around the ship talking more pictures. The winds were too strong to spend a lot of time outside. DM went back to binge watching a TV series called “VIKING” – a sometimes brutal drama about the vikings around 800 A.D.

10:30 am – DM and I attended a port call presentation for tomorrow’s visit to Berlin.

3:30 pm – DM is off to her Spa appointment and I am up on Deck 7 waiting for afternoon tea to begin in the Wintergarden cafe. A pot of Earl Grey tea and a few delicious scones.

6:30 pm – Dinner this evening in the main restaurant.


Sunday, August 20th – Day 9 – Berlin, Germany

After 2 full days at sea, everyone seems to be really excited about getting off the ship and doing some sightseeing. The ship is docking in Warnemunde, Germany – a port town on the Baltic Sea. Since so many people go into Berlin for the day, Viking charters a 20 – 25 car train for a 2.5 hour trip into Berlin.

Weather – Partly sunny, cool around 55

6:15 am – Very early breakfast this morning.

7:15 am –  Down the gangway then  through the terminal building and a short 5 minute walk to the train. Trying to get 700 – 800 people off the boat and onto the train in an orderly fashion seems like a bit of a challenge, but the Viking staff onshore seemed to handle it very smoothly.

10:30 am – After about a 2.5 hour train ride we arrive in Berlin. Once off the train we are guided to our bus for a 1.5 hour city tour. We made 1 stop for pictures at the Brandenberger Gate.

12:00 pm – Armed with a few maps and lots of suggestions DM and I are off on out own for the next 4 hours. Here is a list of the sites we visited:

  1.     Gendarmenmarkt Square – With the German and French Cathedrals and the Concert House
  2.     Humbolt University – Here Hitler’s men burned 40,000 books in 1938 in order to create his version of history (aka Alternative Facts)
  3.     Berlin Cathedral – Magnificent
  4.     Berlin Wall – Divided West (American side) from East (Soviet side) Berlin during the cold war.
  5.     Checkpoint Charlie – American and Soviet checkpoint for passage between West and East Berlin.
  6.     Topography of Terror Exhibit – I call it the rise and fall of Hitlerism.
  7.     Berlin TV Tower

5:30 pm – After a short bus ride back to the train station, we are on the train and heading back to the ship.

8:00 pm – After arriving back at the ship, we are greeted onshore by some high-energy music, a glass of champaign, a warm towel and about 40 of the crew to greet us – it was really nice. We immediately went up to the World Cafe for a very nice seafood buffet.

9:00 pm – Shortly after leaving port I was able to get some good pictures of the pilot boat coming alongside to pick up the pilot.


Pictures – To see our Berlin pictures, click here


Monday, August 21st – Day 10 – Copenhagen, Denmark

As one of the most beautiful cities in the Baltic, Copenhagen began as a fishing village about 850 years ago. It has been an important port since the days of the Vikings and remains one of Europe’s most enchanting cities. Our visit today will give us a good overview of the city.

Weather – Mostly sunny, temps in around 70. We have been very fortunate to have excellent weather for our trip so far and today was no different. There were heavy rain showers as we were docking, but they passed and the sun came out. As we were leaving around 5:30 pm it started to rain again.

9:30 am – We are off for our first tour of the day – a 3.5 hour guided bus tour through the city. Although most of our stops are short, just 10 – 15 minutes to take a few pictures and then back on the bus, we did spend about 40 minutes at the Royal Palace and were able to catch the changing of the guards, which was nice.

Viking likes, if possible, to provide some free time after a tour, so for those that wanted to spend more time in Copenhagen after the tour, Viking provides a shuttle bus that runs back and forth from the city center to the ship every half hour. Unfortunately we had another tour this afternoon and had to get back, have some lunch and then off on to our next tour.

2:30 pm – This afternoon’s tour is by water – a 1.5 hour cruise along the city’s canal system. It was nice because you get a different view of the city, its history and how neighborhoods have changed over the centuries and more recently over the decades. It was nice also because the tour boat was able to dock next to our ship, so we just walked down the gangway form our ship and stepped onto the canal boat.


 

Pictures – To see our pictures from Copenhagen click here


 

Tuesday, August 22nd – Day 11 – Alborg, Denmark

Weather – Sunny, mid 60’s

Founded by the Vikings in the late 900’s, Alborg is located in northern Denmark about 20 miles up the Limfjord and at its narrowest point. Its the best preserved renaissance architecture in all of Demark. As we sailed up the fjord early this morning, it reminded me of the eastern shore of Maryland – a beautiful flat, heavy farming area.

9:15 am – Our tour this morning is a 2.5 hour walking tour of the old town. Our tour guide has been a lifelong resident of Alborg and seems to know everybody we pass while walking around.

With a population of about 200,000 plus a 40,000 student university, Alborg has a modern vibe while appreciating its 1100+ year history. The city is very clean and its people seem to be very friendly.

There were no other cruise ships in town so the streets weren’t crowded with tourist and it made sightseeing much more enjoyable.

Many of the half-timber buildings of the 16th and 17th century have been preserved and most are still being used for residence, retail or a museum. Newer buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries are made with red brick. One group of buildings we visited was a former monastery and is being used today as a senior living center.

We passed one street that was being dug up to replace the pipes and working along side the construction crew was an archeologist. Sounds strange but the town is very serious about locating and preserving relics while continuing to improve the town’s infrastructure. Our guide told us that a few weeks ago they found a bracelet they believe dated to the 12th century.

12:00 pm – Back onboard for a nice alfresco lunch on deck 7. It was nice sitting outside having lunch in the midday sun. Plus we were tied up overlooking the old town, which made it extra enjoyable.

1:30 pm – They just pulled up the gangway, which means we are off to our next port.


Pictures – To see our pictures from Alborg click here


Wednesday, August 23rd – Day 12 – Stavanger, Norway

Stavanger is located in Southern Norway and is home to one of Europes nicest old towns. with cobbled streets, Gamie Stavanger, as it is called, is lined with the continent’s highest concentration of wooden buildings that date back to the 17th and 18th century. Stavanger’s other riches come from the petroleum industry. Offshore drilling feeds the economy here making it one of the most expensive cities in Europe.

Weather – Another sunny day with temps in the mid 60’s

9:00 am – After leaving the ship we immediately board a small boat (about 80 passengers) for a journey up the fjord to a unique rock formation called Pulpit Rock. All I can say is it was fabulous and I will let my pictures speak for themselves. On way back we stopped at a small cabin along the shore for some refreshments and some Norwegian waffles.

1:00 pm – Back on board for lunch and then we are off for our next tour of the day.

2:30 pm – This afternoon we are doing  a walking tour of Stavanger including a visit to the Oil Museum and walk through Gamie Stavanger – the old town. The walk was nice, the Oil Museum was interesting and the old wooden house of the old town decorated with colorful flower boxes were charming, but because this mornings tour to Pulpit Rock was so good it took something away from this afternoon’s tour.

5:30 pm – They just pulled up the gangway and we are off to our next port.


Pictures – to see our pictures from Staranger click here


Thursday, August 24th – Day 13 – Eidfjord, Norway

The village of Eidfjord is nestled in the heart of one of Norway’s most scenic regions. Entering from the Norwegian Sea sometime overnight we traveled up the Hardangerfjord to the smaller Eidfjorden finally docking in Eidfjord around 7 am. Eidfjord is the Norway of every traveler’s dream – the gateway to Hardangervidda, Europes largest mountain plateau.

The mountains are so high around Eidfjord that there is no internet, live TV or phone service while we are in port today.

Weather – Partly cloudy, temps in the mid 60’s

10:00 am – This morning’s tour is a short 2 hour visit to the Hardangervidda Nature Center. It reminds me of a big National Park Visitors Center in the states. First we saw a 20 minute movie on 5 screens about the Hardangervidda plateau region – very cool – like something Disney would make. Then through a few different exhibit halls to learn more about the wildlife and different topographies of the region.

5:00 pm – Attended the captain’s farewell reception. It was very nice. First there were  performances by all of the dancers and singers. Then all of the crew from the room stewards, cooks, officers and all the other staff that made this cruise so great came down the stairway to the atrium to a standing ovation from all the passengers.

7:00 pm – Although it was cloudy and a bit rainy we got some good shots sailing down the fjord and onto our next port call in Bergen.

 


Pictures – To see our pictures from Eidfjord lick here


Friday, August 25 – Days 14 – Bergen Norway

Bergen is an ancient city with deep Viking roots. Founded in 1070 on what was a Viking settlement, Bergen is the second-largest city in Norway. The historic wooded buildings of the Bryggen wharf have burned or been bombed many times over the centuries. The current buildings at the wharf are built on foundations that go back to the 11th century.

Bergen is the last stop on our cruise. We will be here overnight and disembark tomorrow morning.

Weather – Mostly sunny with temps in the mid 60’s

10:30 am – Leaving for a 2 hour bus tour around the city.

12:30 pm – Instead of going directly back to the ship, we got off the bus at the Bryggen wharf and walked a few blocks to the Floibamen, a funicular that takes you up to a terrific view point overlooking the entire city. Due to the beautiful weather conditions, we were able to get some great shots.

7:00 pm – Great menu this evening at the World Cafe on Deck 7 for our last night onboard.

9:00 pm – As the evening sky goes from sunset to darkness, I am up on Deck 8 hoping to get a few last shots of this beautiful city.


Saturday, August 26th – Day 15 – Bergen Norway

Well, here we are – the last day of what has been the best cruise we have been on in the past 25 years. We can’t wait to book our next cruise with Viking, which will be a river cruise.

8:00 am – After a final farewell breakfast, we left our room and waited in the Atrium on Deck 1 for the bus to take us to the airport in Bergen. For people who had a lot of luggage (and there were lots) and needed help (and there were lots), Viking had people in the cruise terminal to help them carry their luggage and load it onto the bus. At the airport they had people there to unload the luggage from the bus, get it organized, put it onto luggage carts and wheel it into the airport checkin area. They also had customer service people there to assist passengers in any way they could. Its that total end-to-end service that doesn’t stop until they wave goodby to you at the airport.

I am sure there are a lot of cruise companies our there that offer a great travel experience, but I don’t think there is any one out there offering a better value then Viking. In addition to great food and service, the Viking experience means no casino, no children, no umbrella drinks and no nickel-and-diming. I guess you could say its an understated luxury.

7:00 pm – Because we travel with carryons and have Global Entry, after landing at BWI, we zipped through customs and were out of the airport in less then 5 minutes. My good buddy BR was there with his girlfriend to pick us up and take us home.

No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests is head on his old familiar pillow – Lin Yutang


Pictures – To see our pictures from Bergen click here

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