Tag Archives: Oceania Marina Baltic Cruise Review

Oceania Marina Baltic Cruise Review

Oceania Marina Baltic Cruise Second-Rate Despite Fine Itinerary

 The Oceania Marina is a fine new ship, in service since 2011, with little signs of wear to its fixtures.  Our stateroom, as mentioned previously, was first-rate and so are most of the public areas. But after completing our Oceania Marina Baltic Cruise, we won’t book Oceania for another sailing.

Even considering our lengthy history with the cruise line going back to the R-Ships, breaking up is not that hard to do. We decided never to sail Oceania again in the finals days of our Baltic cruise. It was a surprise decision, something we never imagined. Oceania was the cruise line we’d always told others was “our favorite.”  We tell them a different story now.  It’s not as good as it was, that they can sail most of the same itineraries for far less.

What did we find so unsatisfactory we won’t sail Oceania again?  Based on our expensive experience, Oceania has become a second-rate, lower quality version of its former self.  Oceania wasn’t operating like an upper premium  cruise line should. (This link suddenly no longer works. Why? Answer at  the end.) Perhaps the most obvious example of its decline is our blog describing how our cruise began in Stockholm, Sweden.  The Marina was the only cruise ship not docked near a terminal and the Marina did not offer any sort of shelter for its arriving travelers. As a result, a good number of passengers were forced to stand in the rain, waiting in line to board. Not the kind of treatment you would expect from an upper premium class cruise line, (Thankfully, we were lucky enough to board before it rained.)

This blog will deal more with day-to-day concerns. And it should be pointed out we were not the only ones dissatisfied with Oceania last summer.

Oceania Marina Main Dining RoomOceania Main Dining Room meals are as subdued as the decor

The travel agent who booked our cruise is with one of the country’s largest agencies. After we returned home,  he asked about our experience on the Oceania Marina. We told him how much the dining had deteriorated. He wasn’t surprised, saying “Other passengers had said the same thing, that the food had declined and that they were cutting back on quality.”

Our poor Oceania experience was not out of the ordinary.

Marina  Dining Hit or Miss   

Dining is one of the most important aspects of any cruise, but particularly on one like Oceania which touts “The Finest Cuisine at Sea.”   

That was not our overall experience in the main dining room or Terrace Café. While we were served numerous picturesque dishes, many were bland, tasteless and totally forgettable. Imagine being trapped on a ship dedicated to the current cuisine fad favoring presentation over flavor, of feeding the eyes and ignoring one’s taste buds. Such frou-frou sometimes resulted in unappetizing combinations. One night in the main dining room, I couldn’t find an appealing appetizer or salad.  That was a remarkable kitchen accomplishment.

Some other passengers avoided the main dining room for a different reason. One Canadian woman explained once there was enough for her because  “It’s just too pretentious.”  Pretentious is a term you don’t often hear, so I was surprised to hear the same term from several American couples at separate times about the pompous attitude in general of the cruise staff and particularly at public functions. Grandiosity definitely did flow at the cocktail party for past Oceania passengers, but that silliness  didn’t really concern us.

The poor dining did.  For breakfast, the only place we visited was the Terrace Café because service in the main dining room was sometimes slow. The waiters there did their best but it was obvious they were understaffed, especially in the evenings.  With the Marina visiting a new port almost every day, we didn’t want to waste time waiting to be served breakfast. Although the dining room might offer more variety than the buffet, in our experience most cruise lines vary their breakfast buffet from day-to-day to prevent monotonous selections.

Same Food, Always Lukewarm

Breakfast in the Terrace Café, however, varied little. It did become too repetitive.  A single new egg dish might appear every other day while pancakes and waffles  were infrequent. What also never changed was how the buffet warming pans were poorly heated. The way to avoid lukewarm/chilly eggs was forego the buffet pans for the Terrace grill where they could be freshly prepared. A similar option for heating other “warm” buffet items did not exist. Too bad there wasn’t a microwave available. As for breakfast pastries, they were nothing to look forward to. Many were unusually dry, somewhat crumbly and with negligible taste. Bread was the safest bet.

Oceania Marina Jacques French Bistro Specialty RestaurantJacques French Bistro was sometimes open for lunch

For lunch, you will not go wrong at the outdoor Waves Grill. Wonderful sandwiches made fresh to order with no effort to dumb down their taste. The selection was large enough for a new sandwich every day for a week.  The Waves Grill was a viable lunchtime option for the Terrace Café which started out strong but gradually deteriorated.

The Terrace Cafe at both lunch and dinner was consistently reliable for its sushi and its salads, especially the individual Caesar salads made to order quickly. In the evening, its  grill also was dependable for steak and  lobster. Adjacent to the grill you could have a freshly prepared different Asian wok dish most nights; those were usually excellent. Regardless of the quality of its specialty stations,  the Terrace Café’s primary flaws remained at all meals: semi-warm/cool  bland buffet foods that too often wouldn’t match a Golden Corral all-you-can-eat restaurant.

The Terrace Cafe will be remembered for the worst lasagna Linda ever tasted.  And the slice of semi-petrified apple pie with dehydrated  fillings that must have been in a freezer for a long, long time. Should have taken a photo of that.  But the dehydrated pie also explained why the breakfast pastries were so dry as well as cookies in the concierge lounge. They’d all been trapped in the same freezer.

Room Service Poor & Limited 

Room service was available virtually anytime. With the exception of its breakfast options, the menu was small, basic and never varied during the cruise. We didn’t dare request breakfast room service after making our one and only order for a simple late lunch: sandwiches and salads.  The sandwiches,  made of unusually dry bread and minimal, flavorless ingredients were left mostly uneaten.  The salads weren’t quite as bad but hardly up to Terrace Café standards. Both  sandwiches and salads tasted as if they were made days before and then shoved into a refrigerator. A good hotel would never dare offer such lousy room service fare.

Yet operating a superb room service is not beyond the ability of other cruise lines. Some gladly deliver anything from the ship’s  lunch and dinner menus while the main dining room actively serves those meals. Not on Oceania.

We cannot imagine an extended cruise on the Oceania Marina. We once spent 35 days on Holland America’s Maasdam and found the dining not only varied but exceptionally good. After 12 days on the Oceania Marina, we were eager to eat elsewhere.

Linda and I are foodies.  See our posts on cruise dining aboard the  Maasdam and  National Geographic Endeavour.  Those who praise Oceania for its  fine dining may  base it on the specialty restaurants–which, regretfully, are not open for three meals a day.  And are not representative of Oceania’s  ordinary dining venues.  

The Exceptional  Specialty Restaurants

The saving grace at dinner was the four specialty restaurants: Jacques (French), Toscana (Italian), Red Ginger (Asian) and Polo
Grill .

Our meals matched  the high standards we recalled from previous cruises.  All of the Marina’s specialty restaurants do offer some of the “finest cuisine at sea.”  Unfortunately, a shortage of  dining room waiters sometimes spoiled an otherwise perfect evening.

Oceania’s no extra-charge specialty restaurants are much sought-after by passengers ravenous for quality cuisine. Except for Jacques, open for lunch on occasion, the specialty restaurants serve dinner only and require  advance reservations, which limits their access.

The specialty restaurants demonstrated the Marina could serve flavorful meals. When it chose to.

Oceania Marina Red Ginger Specialty RestaurantRed Ginger’s flavors are as pronounced as its colors

The most popular restaurant on our cruise seemed to be Red Ginger with its spicy Asian menu.   Red Ginger lives up its name. so if you don’t appreciate a pronounced ginger flavor, this isn’t the restaurant for you. We dined there twice, when all reservations were booked. Yet we noticed quite a few tables without place settings when other passengers wanted to be there. Were the restaurant’s three cooks working in view at the back of the room unable to accommodate any more diners?  Or did the vacant tables reflect a lack of servers? Or more cutting back?

Our favorite of the four restaurants was long reliable Polo Grill featuring high-grade steaks, lobster, chicken, pork and lamb. The only time we could book this restaurant was for the last night of the cruise.   This will sound exaggerated but it’s true: when I tasted the garlic mashed potatoes accompanying my entree, it was a jolt to my system. I realized how starved I was for garlic and every other flavor. This was the first and only time on the 12-day cruise I tasted any distinctive seasoning except at Red Ginger.

Our long-awaited Polo Grill evening  turned into a disaster due to understaffing.  Thirty minutes after receiving our dessert menus we still were unable to order. A group of eight had arrived just as we were handed our dessert list. Our waiter and his helper were so busy attending to the new group they didn’t take time to scribble down our short order.

Tired of waiting, we left our table. We mentioned our situation to the manager, who consulted the table chart showing the tables our server was assigned. He said, “But he’s only serving 12 people. I don’t understand how this could happen.” Maybe because the arrival of eight was monopolizing his time?

Although the restaurant manager wasn’t doing anything in particular, he didn’t call for anyone to assist us or even consider helping us.  Perhaps he missed the memo about providing  “upper premium class” service?

The Moody Marina  

With the exception of The Polo Grill manager, the cruise staff always was helpful and acted friendly yet something felt off, not quite  right. Linda and I can’t put our finger on precisely what it is. We think back to other cruises.

“These people don’t seem happy.”

Indeed, they didn’t. Waiters did not joke with or act especially friendly toward passengers they saw every day. We noticed very few of the staff going out of their way to interact with passengers. Exceptions were the cruise director (he does his job well), all of the room stewards on our floor and the concierge lounge staff. They couldn’t have been nicer or more efficient.

Otherwise, whenever passengers were not gathered together, the Oceania Marina often felt like an abandoned ship.

Oceania Cruises Sold To NCL

The very day we disembark the Marina, it was announced that Prestige Cruise Holdings– parent company of Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises—had sold both cruise lines to Norwegian Cruise Line. No wonder Oceania crew members were unhappy. They had to be wondering their futures under new ownership since rumors of the impending sale must have been well known.

Reading the NCL press release confirmed our impression that the dining had deteriorated noticeably.  As our travel agent later pointed out, Oceania probably cut back on dining quality in order to increase its profit line before completing the sale to NCL. Cutting costs would also account for the chronic understaffing we encountered..

The PR release also stated NCL would pay Oceania’s parent company “a cash consideration of up to $50 million to Prestige shareholders would be payable upon achievement of certain 2015 performance metrics.”

Oceania Cruises performance metrics should place customer satisfaction near the top.  Our Oceania dining experience lowered our satisfaction with Oceania from 10 to 3 or 4. Whatever happens with NCL/Oceania in the future, for better or worse, we won’t be back to find out.  It would be too costly a gamble and, frankly, there are too many other good cruise lines to choose from less pretentious, less expensive and more dependable.  We know not to care about Oceania anymore.

This is the slowest blog in history because we  never wanted to get to where we shout “the king has no clothes!”  Ironically, Oceania’s recently updated website lacks any previous claims (dead link above)  of   its “upper premium class” status  that I can find.   New owner,  new  reality?  The latest corporate description of Oceania is of a comfortable, upscale cruise. Yet the prices remain premium class.    

Exploring Gdansk Old Town

Gdansk Old  Town Full of Unusual Surprise
By Linda and Tim O’Keefe

To continue exploring Gdansk Old Town, we depart the High Gate, the entrance through which the Polish king passed when visiting Gdansk (pronounced “ɡə dænsk”).  From the High Gate it’s a short distance along the Royal Route to the arch of the Golden Gate, the entrance to Long Street . Constructed in 1512,  the Golden Gate is built of white stone and decorated with gold trim.  Eight statues atop the wall represent  traits varying from piety to wealth.  The Gdansk coat of arms appears just above the archway.

Inside the gate’s arch, we have a perfect view of Long Street (Dluga on the city map), Old Town’s historical heart offering a showcase of museums, architecture and some of the city’s best photo opportunities.  We make an unexpected tour from Long Street when Tim is attracted by several ornate spires on an avenue to our  left. The impressively ornate building is the Great Armoury built in the early 1600’s to hold the armor and weapons of the city guard.  Many armories of today may be featureless blocks of concrete but the Great Armoury reflects the 17th century Gdansk tradition that every building should be pleasing to the eye.  Made to blend in with its surroundings, the storehouse is designed in the shape of four attached brick apartment houses. Instead of armaments, the building now houses the Academy of Fine Arts

Town Hall and Poseidon Statue

Returning to Long Street, we’re soon standing beside the imposing town hall dating back to the 13th century.  A fire in the 1500’s created an opportunity to expand the town hall and to change  its architectural style to Dutch/Flemish mannerism.  The town hall is a grand building, five stories high and topped with a 272 foot-high tower.  No longer the seat of local government, the town hall is home to the Historical Museum of Gdansk. A  tour of the  building and its magnificent halls isn’t possible today. Not enough time.

Town Hall Old City, Gdansk, Poland Enormous Town Hall in the Old City

A short distance beyond the town hall where Long Street changes into Long Market Street we find the famous Neptune Fountain from 1633.  Now the symbol most identified with Gdansk, the Neptune Fountain was built to emphasize the city’s dependence on sea trade. Linda points out no one is throwing coins in the fountain.  Maybe that’s due to the legend that Neptune grew so angry when people threw golden coins in his fountain he slammed his trident into the water with such power the gold coins changed into small golden flakes. Those flakes have been fluttering around a long time, said to still shine in the local vodka Goldwasser.  Every bottle of the vodka contains small thin flakes of 22 or 23 karat gold, based on the belief gold has medicinal benefits. Whether gold is good for you is uncertain but at least the vodka’s tiny flakes won’t hurt you.  Goldwasser purchased in Gdansk isn’t a great souvenir since it’s been made in West Germany for the past several decades.

The Green Gate and Motlawa River

At the end of Long Market Street we arrive at the Green Gate, a building intended as a residence for visiting royalty. A wasted effort since only a single visitor appears to have used it, a woman stopping here briefly on her way to marry King Ladislaus IV. The Green Gate—named for the color of stone used in its construction—is managed by the Polish National Museum and houses numerous exhibitions and galleries.

Motlawa River bridge with Gdansk Old Town in background, PolandBridge over Mohawk River with Old Town in Background

Passing under the Green Gate arch brings us to the banks of the Motlawa River which allowed  Old Town to become the center of Poland’s sea trade. Walking down Long Market Street we noticed something rising into the sky behind the Green Gate but we couldn’t  determine what it was.  Now,  across the Motlawa River,  it towers bright and shiny before us : a giant white Ferris wheel carrying very few riders. The modern contraption doesn’t really fit in with the Old Town scene. We linger on the bridge crossing the river to the Ferris wheel, viewing the boats on the Motlawa.  In 1687, a ferry service began carrying  passengers across the river and it still operates today. What a tradition, going back almost a century before the
American Revolution.

The Old Town river bank is lined with stores and popular outdoor cafes.  Sticking out like a sore thumb is the mid-15th century medieval loading crane known as The Zuraw. The largest crane in Europe at the time, it could transfer loads up to 4400 pounds as well as install masts. The crane’s double towers make it the largest and most distinctive of Old Town’s waterfront gates. We wind our way past the river bank stores to the behemoth crane to take an inside look at the immense wooden wheel used to power the machine. The wheel was turned not by water power but by men  literally walking  inside the wheel, a job that must have been back-breaking.

Amazing! Not Your Typical European Churches 

After inspecting the guts of the crane, we go partway back toward the bridge next to the Green Gate, turning right at narrow cobbled Mariacka Street. Stepping back into the Old Town, we wander the street known for its narrow three-story townhouses that feature individual front terraces, a rarity in Old Town.  Mariacka Street is our gateway for visiting gigantic St. Mary’s Basilica.  Constructed over an extended period from 1343 to 1502, the length of the church’s full name–the Basilica of St. Mary of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary–rivals the building’s colossal scale.

One of Europe’s largest brick churches, St. Mary’s interior is immense,  supposedly able to hold 25,000 people comfortably. Overpowering in its dimensions, the ginormous building and its soaring ceiling makes us feel totally insignificant. Light fills the whitewashed interior through 37 huge windows, some seemingly as large as an apartment building.

With so much bare wall space,  the church at first appears surprisingly empty.  We soon realize it is handsomely decorated with crystal vaults and, closer to ground,  numerous works of Medieval and Baroque art.  Among the items not to miss are the high altar, the stone Pieta from 1410 and the large astronomical clock by Hans During.  We’d like to climb the bell tower to enjoy its panoramic view of Gdansk but the price—400 steps–is too steep.  Not us, not today.

St. Mary’s was so overpowering it’s hard to imagine another church could interest us. But off to the right a few blocks away an old building catches our eye. Is it another church?  It’s strange the exterior  of such a large ancient building would be so darkly dreary,  very uncharacteristic for Gdansk. Whatever it is, the inside is likely a dump but why not take a quick look?

Unexpected  Highpoint of Our Cruise

Entering the unknown building through a small out-of-the-way door, we find a  small room where a woman mops the floor.  At first surprised to see us, she steps back with a little bow,  then points toward a small set of stairs  leading to another door.  This is odd. Is she sending us to some poorly lighted cellar?  Well, it’s still light out and this isn’t Transylvania. We head downstairs into who knows what.

At the most unexpected times the universe decides to bless you with something extraordinary.  Opening the downstairs door, we pause, stunned at what we see. An old building that outside appears so dull and depressing contains possibly the most beautiful  church either one of us has ever entered.  By blind luck, we have found St. Nicholas Church,  founded by Dominican monks in 1348.

St. Nicholas Church organ, Gdansk Old Town, Poland  St. Nicholas Church Organ with Ornate Decoration

Not only is St. Nicholas one of the city’s oldest churches, it is the only church to escape damage in central Gdansk during World War II. How it remained unscathed  is something of a miracle. Some say Russian bomber pilots refused to destroy the church because it was named after Russia’s own patron saint.  Or that they spared  St. Nicholas because the Russian Orthodox church had declared Tsar Nicholas II a saint after his assassination?  Or was it pure chance the bombs missed, while an estimated 90 percent of the city around it was destroyed?

Regardless of what happened during the bombing runs, once Russian troops were on the ground, they did not loot or burn St. Nicholas.  Perhaps the church was left intact for the same reasons it wasn’t bombed.  Or it was due to quick action by the church priest  who reportedly bribed the soldiers with alcohol reserves from the church’s cellar to spare it.

Somehow, the church and all of its 17th century contents survives untouched. Which means that for the first time in Gdansk, everything we see is original and not a reproduction. This is an amazing sight. The mostly Baroque and Rococo interior of white marble interspersed with dark marble and deeply polished pews somehow harmonize to give the church a solemn and impressive air.

Memorable decorations include a magnificent chandelier crafted in 1617, gold-framed paintings from the 15th to 18th centuries depicting the life of Christ,  a Byzantine icon of the Madonna and an elaborately carved multi-level  high altar. Linda feels she has stepped into a part of history that has been lost. She says the beauty here is overwhelming.

Strangely, we are the only people present in the church. It’s been deathly quiet the entire time here. So we’re slightly spooked when the great organ behind us unexpectedly explodes into a loud hymn. Turning around, we look upwards at the 17th century organ encased in  Baroque and Rococo decorations. The hymn resonates throughout the building, humbling us.  How lucky are we to have wandered in here during organ practice?

As we leave, another couple wanders in, undoubtedly through the front door.  We depart through the same side door, never seeing the front of St. Nicholas church. It is a shock later to see the church’s bright red exterior in online photos. It’s such a remarkable contrast to our drab entrance we wonder for a moment if we’d really been inside St. Nicholas. Online pictures of the interior confirm we were. We still find it strange so little tourist information about St. Nicholas was available in Gdansk.

Solidarity and Fall of the Soviet Eastern Bloc

Leaving Gdansk, our cab navigates the traffic with no difficulty, which allows us time for a quick stop at the famous Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers located  just outside the Gdansk shipyard gates.  The memorial of three tall steel crosses rise 42 meters above the square to commemorate the deaths of 42 shipyard workers killed during a 1970 strike.

Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers Gdansk Poland Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers, Gdansk 

The monument was erected in 1980 to satisfy demands of shipyard union leader Lech Walesa and his 17,000 member Solidarity Movement, the first non-communist union in Eastern Europe. The memorial was the first monument to victims of communist oppression ever erected in a communist country. It is credited as marking the beginning of the end of communist control in Eastern Europe. Of all the historic places in Gdansk, this is perhaps the most meaningful to Westerners.

Our driver returns us to the Oceania Marina with time to spare. It’s been a good day, though just a few more hours in Gdansk would have made it better. For us, Gdansk is the prettiest city we have seen so far. And, since it will rain at our remaining ports in both Germany and Denmark, Gdansk will be the shining reminder of our Oceania Marina Baltic cruise

Next: Why we will never sail on Oceania again.

 

Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg


Where St. Petersburg Originated

Although yesterday afternoon was  cloudy, it was still good weather. Now on our third and last day, we have drizzling rain and a sky so dark it feels like twilight.  We identify with a favorite St.  Petersburg saying about summer weather: “Nine months of expectation, three months of disappointment.”

Our morning excursion is called the highlights of  St. Petersburg, which includes brief a drive-by of two of the cathedrals we visited yesterday.  Our main interest is the city’s oldest landmark,  the Peter and Paul Fortress constructed in the shaped of a six-pointed star on Rabbit (Hare) Island.

Our guide admits that although St. Petersburg may be a splendid city now, when the Peter and Paul fortress was built– the first structure built here–no Russians wanted to live in the area.  If the low swampy terrain and pesky summer mosquitoes weren’t bad enough, there was the added problem of wolves attacking and eating people. So, she continues, most of the early residents were forced to live here, including the nobility. No wonder many of their  descendants find it difficult to smile.

Peter and Paul Fortress St Petersburg, RussiaPeter and Paul Fortress on a dreary St. Petersburg day

As our bus approaches Peter and Paul Fortress, I scan the sand beach near the fort wall. It’s deserted today but on a sunny day this beach can be packed by those eager to soak up the sun when temperatures  may seem uncomfortably cool. But for those who experience  only 20 hours of sunlight in  December and January and whose daily high temperature  from November through February stays several degrees below freezing , these hardy people have a different understanding of what it means to be cold. There is an obvious irony that the average winter low here is 15 degrees, when in St. Petersburg, FL, it’s 74 degrees.  Florida’s St. Petersburg   was named after this Russian city, in 1888, by Russian railroad builder Piotr Dementyev (Peter Demens) who was born in  frosty St. Petersburg, Russia.

Peter and Paul Cathedral

Peter the Great began construction of the Peter and Paul Fortress   in 1703  to defend the city from attack during the  Russian war with Sweden (1700-1721) . When the stronghold was completed in 1740, the Swedes were long subdued and Peter the Great was dead. However, the fort did not sit idle during this time. As early as 1720, it was the  barracks for the city’s garrison  as well as a place to store political prisoners.

The fort’s main attraction is the Cathedral  of Saints Peter and Paul. The cathedral’s towering 400-foot high golden spire is one of the city’s most noticeable landmarks.  There are other attractions besides the cathedral:  exhibits about St.  Petersburg’s history and Russian space flight and  a tour of the once dreaded prison cells of  Trubetskoy Bastion.  Following a tradition originated by the  Tsars, the fort fires a cannon at noon each day.

Peter and Paul Cathedral interior                                    Interior of Peter and Paul Cathedral

Our tour is limited primarily to the Peter and Paul Cathedral, not that the weather would allow us to spend much time walking around outside. The cathedral alone could consume a good part of a morning but we have half that time.  The cathedral may be several hundred years old but it  obviously was maintained well by Russian nobility and apparently by the Soviet government.

In fact, the radiant  golden iconostasis   with its 43 icons appears so new it could be recently installed.  The paintings have been refurbished regularly, which explains why they are so bright, and deteriorating items such as the church doors were replaced.

An unusual feature of the church is its pulpit, used only a single time. That was to excommunicate the great writer Leo Tolstoy from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901. Tolstoy, however, had already openly excommunicated himself from the institution. (In recent years, Tolstoy supporters have requested the church to reconsider the writer’s status. Tolstoy remains excommunicated.)

Crypts of the Tsars

Almost every Russian Tsar from the time of Peter the Great  rests in Peter and Paul Cathedral. It is easy to locate the marble tomb of Peter the Great among those of the other tsars,   A bust of the Tsar is on the fence surrounding his marble tomb. People still place flowers on the grave; some are present today.

The crypt many westerners most want to see is that of  the last tsar, Nicholas II, who was forced to abdicate in 1917.  Nicholas II and his family were kept as political prisoners in St. Petersburg, then moved to Yekaterinburg, a major city 900 miles east of Moscow.  On the orders of Vladimir Lenin, the family was executed when it appeared  that Russians rebelling against Bolshevik rule might be able to rescue them.

To make the corpses unrecognizable, they were burned and doused with acid. Then they were buried at a secret location so Romanov supporters would not turn the gravesite into a shrine.  The tragic story of the last tsar captured many people’s imagination, nourished by stories, books and films like 1971’s Nicholas and Alexandra  based on the 1967 book of the same name still available from Amazon.

In addition, from the time of the tsar’s death, rumors persisted that one of the tsar’s children had survived.  It was an international sensation when a new mass grave was uncovered near Yekaterinburg and DNA tests identified the bodies of Nicholas II, his wife but only three of the children.  In 1998, those  remains were brought to Peter and Paul Cathedral and  buried in the small Chapel of St. Catherine there.

In 2007, yet another grave near Yekaterinburg yielded the DNA-verified remains of the missing two children. The bodies of Crown Prince Alexei and Grand Duchess Maria were transported here to join their family.  But they have no marble tomb like the other tsars, only ones of imitation marble.  Supposedly because there isn’t enough money for real marble.

After viewing the royal crypts, it’s time to return to the Oceania Marina. The gloomy day outside corresponds to my mood after this regal display of death. It seems so contradictory that Nicholas II and his family would be brutally exterminated, yet the numerous tombs of  Romanov royalty in the cathedral apparently were never violated. Churches were plundered but never demolished  during the godless days of communism.

Where did all the Bolshevik violence lead? Nicholas II and his family are considered saints by the Russian Orthodox church, an honor about as high as any mortal can attain.  Lenin, too, became a sort of saint of Russian communism.  Lenin was embalmed after his death in 1924 and put on public display in a glass casket under Red Square. He’s still there on display, like some deceased holy man. (Photo of Lenin under glass)

According to Lenin’s widow, the revolutionary wanted to be buried next to his mother in a simple cemetery plot. She made this request of Russian authorities: “Do not put up buildings or monuments in his name.”

Weather Forecasting Upcoming Ports

Our final St.  Petersburg tour  scheduled for the afternoon is a canal cruise along the Moika and Fontanka Rivers to view the historic architecture. The weather turns so foul we decide not to bother. It’s a disappointing end  for our last hours in St. Petersburg.

Yet we’ve been fortunate to enjoy good weather until today. The concierge advises me that rain is frequent in the Baltic after August 15. He says numerous ports were washouts the previous week.  So there could be more bad days ahead.

I decide to check the weather forecast for tomorrow’s stop at Tallinn, Estonia, a place we’d like very much to see. I go to the only  weather site that gets it right most of the time: yr.no.   Americans unfamiliar with  yr.no  should keep it in mind for any European travel. It is a Norwegian website provided by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation and the Norwegian Meteorological Institute. The forecasts combine Norway’s  weather information with data from other meteorological organizations around the world, allowing yr.no to provide forecasts for an astounding seven million locations.

I discovered yr.no last year while touring Ireland, where weather needs constant checking. Yr.no was superior to any of my usual sources, Weather Channel, Weather Underground and the like. The only drawback of using yr.no  is converting the temperature from Celsius to Fahrenheit. But the site is hard to beat for overall forecasting accuracy in Europe and sometimes back home.

The wireless speed on the Oceania Marina is surprisingly good. But  yr.no’s  next day forecast for Tallinn is miserable: significant rain for the entire day. This is one time I’d like yr.no to be wrong.

Evading The Peterhof Curse

Finding The Tour Group: Time Runs Out

(In case you’re coming in at the end of this  three-part tale, it  begins at the end of this post, continues in the next one and now concludes here.)

Continuing to search for my Oceania Marina tour group, I  leave Peterhof’s Lower Gardens and go to the one spot where we should meet at some point. The overlook above Peterhof’s famous Grand Cascade with its 64 different fountains, and more than 200 bronze statues and other decorative objects. This iconic spot is a place any decent tour group should visit. It also turns out to be both a good observation post for overseeing the Lower Gardens sidewalks as well as nicely situated near Peterhof’s main exit on the right side of the palace.

I stay there, glued to the Grand Cascade overlook, never going anywhere else for photos. Yet never a glimpse of Linda or our group. I estimate the bus will depart around 12:45 p.m. since the tour is supposed to be back at the Marina at 1:30 p.m. When the group fails to appear by 12:45, I decide to search the parked rows of tour buses lining the roads behind the palace.  No Oceania bus and not a single bus driver who speaks English! It doesn’t look good for getting back with the others. At least there’s no worry about the Marina sailing without me. It’s only the first of our three days in St. Petersburg.  Still, I’ll pay dearly for getting separated; it’s bound to be an exorbitant taxi ride to the Oceania Marina.

Peterhof Grand Cascade, St. Petersburg, RussiaThe famous Grand Cascade. So much to see but not today.

At 1 p.m., I play my last option, visiting the information booth next to the main exit. Thankfully, the woman there speaks English. I explain my predicament, that undoubtedly the bus has left without me. (although deep down inside I’d really like that bus magically to appear). What I need to do is inform the Marina—and for them to let Linda know–that everything is fine despite my disappearance.  I’ll be there as soon as I can.

The woman closes the information kiosk and leads me to a large building adjacent to the main Palace. She suggests I take a chair and then walks behind closed doors into what I presume is an office area.  I sit and watch Russians talking and sometimes laughing as they come and go through the entrance hall.

My Very Strange Day

Several things about today seem odd.  Despite Linda’s usual quiet manner I’d expect her to create a memorable disturbance to have me found.  She and I are out of touch because we didn’t bring our cell phones on this trip. With unlimited internet on the ship, we didn’t think we’d need them. Worst of all, we left behind our small walkie talkies for staying in contact aboard ship. Those walkie talkies have a range of five miles, perfect for this situation.

The woman from the information booth reappears with a colleague who asks me a series of questions in Russian. Those  are translated into English for me and my answers converted into Russian for her. What easily could be a complicated dialogue is efficient and brief.  Interview over, the two women disappear back behind the office door.  I glance at my watch: 1:15 p.m. That Oceania bus definitely is long gone.

The other thing that seems odd about today: our guide does carry a cell phone and yet no one at this main office has been notified about a wandering American tourist now MIA for more than two hours. Losing a tourist in Russia used to be a very bad thing for a guide. Maybe not so much anymore?

The office door abruptly swings open again and the two women reappear with a colleague. In fluent English, the newcomer says “Your bus is waiting. It’s just around the corner. Come with me.”  The relief I experience is hard to describe. I ask her how she can possibly know where the bus is. Or know who I am? As we briskly walk to the left of the palace– the exact opposite side of where I searched–from our conversation I come to realize this woman essentially is the-boss-of-all-guides. And Marie only has just phoned in that I am missing. The big boss does not look pleased.  Is she upset with me or Marie?

An Unexpected Outcome

After perhaps two minutes of walking, we reach a row of craft shops, turn left at a corner and standing there are Linda and Marie, with our bus parked behind them. I profusely thank the woman who reunited all of us, clamber up the bus stairs and immediately apologize to the group for making them wait so long. They probably have waited for at least 30 minutes yet no one seems upset. Thankfully. I plop into my seat beside Linda. I tell her I’ve searched everywhere for the bus but where we are now is so far from the main exit—I had no idea this small out-of-the-way area even existed.

She updates me about her day. “We only got on the bus 5 minutes ago,” she says. “I let Marie know you were missing as soon as we lost you this morning. But she never did anything.  When we found the bus and you still hadn’t shown up, I told her this bus wasn’t going anywhere without you. Some of the others felt the same way. Only then did she start making phone calls.”

How did everyone disappear so quickly this morning? Turns out the prolonged restroom search consumed almost all of the group’s time at Peterhof. From the Chessboard Fountain where I’d lost everyone, Marie marched the group a short distance before taking a sharp right to walk away from the Lower Gardens and into a forest with thick tree cover.

Marie’s promised 5-minute stroll instead took around 20 minutes before reaching a remote area with little for tourists to see but trees. No wonder the restrooms were empty. From the time we boarded the train tram until everyone had restroom access must have been over an hour.  If I’d been on Linda’s expedition and had an urgent need I’d have watered the forest. Wasting everyone’s tour time like this was senseless considering the restrooms available before the tram ride.

Linda says that from the restrooms Marie retraced their route until reaching a bridge over the canal flowing between the palace and the Gulf of Finland. Everyone crossed to the other side, then continued plodding through a wilderness of trees. Once they reached Peterhof’s open Lower Gardens and its fountains, the group then ascended the stairs beside the Grand Cascade, never pausing long enough for Linda to take any video.

Instead of taking the group to the Grand Cascade overlook, Marie immediately exited everyone through an out-of-the-way turnstile far from the main exit. Then she gave everyone time for craft shopping near the bus. “You saw a lot more of Peterhof  than we did because we saw hardly anything,” Linda points out. “And I wasn’t the only one looking for you. Some other passengers were, too.” While being lost wasn’t the best of times, it was a lot better than being part of that ridiculous, unnecessary trek.

Riding back to the ship, I reflect on my decades-long curse at Peterhof. Was it active yet again today? My cameras may have worked well but I don’t get to use them much because I spend most of my time at the Grand Cascade overlook. Having my tour guide receiver cut out as it did is strange yet fortunate. That malfunction allows me to avoid joining Linda’s walking tour to hell and back. At least I get some photos. But it doesn’t compare to what I normally take on such a perfect sunny day.

One thing is certain. This is my last time at Peterhof.  For whatever reason , I am forever jinxed there.  It is a place of bad juju for me.  This is my forever farewell to it. .

 

 

Settling in on Oceania Marina Baltic Cruise

Terrace Cafe for Nightly Lobster, Steak, Sushi

As much as we ‘d like to sleep through the first hours of our Oceania Marina Baltic Cruise, the  lifeboat drill interrupting our nap has us fully awake. We might as well unpack before grabbing something to eat before sacking out again.  Finding places to store clothing takes longer than normal since many of the drawers and shelves are not in the traditional places, near the closet. It’s a novel stateroom design, with drawers scattered throughout the stateroom.  The computer desk, located near the veranda door and opposite the closet, is an unexpected storehouse for clothing with several side shelves and deep drawers.  The hunt-and-seek for storage may reflect the imaginative design needed to squeeze both a bathtub and shower stall in our 282-square-foot stateroom.

The Terrace Café is our choice for dinner.  Serving ourselves should be faster than any other dining option including room service. The Terrace Café is surprisingly empty, perhaps because most passengers have gone to sleep, are seated in the main dining room or sampling one of the Marina’s five specialty restaurants.

Stockholm archipelago Finland      Cruising through the Stockholm archipelago

With so few people present, we easily find a window table for two. It has a good view of the Marina’s passage through the Stockholm archipelago, a cluster of  islands and rocks bordering the channel to the Baltic Sea. The larger landfalls, popular summer vacation spots,  contain good-sized homes.

At the buffet, Linda is elated to find fresh sushi and sashimi in the salad bar section.  I’m more interested in the cafe grill preparing cooked-to-order steaks and lobster tails.  I have a Caesar salad made while waiting for the meat to cook. Since the Terrace Café serves many of the items on the main dining room, it becomes a favorite dining spot.  As we will discover, the café is more relaxing than the main dining room with its harried waiters and sometimes long waits between courses. Besides, in the cafe it’s easy to combine several entrees or quickly replace a disappointing one with another and not disrupt the pace of anyone else’s meal.

Back in our cabin, a card placed on a bed pillow contains the unwelcome news that we’ll lose an hour of sleep because the Marina will move into a new time zone tonight.  How much sleep we’re likely to get is debatable. Jet lag is bound to play havoc with us. What a foolish mistake to take that nap before the boat drill. Better to have stayed awake until after the drill, ordered room service and then called it a day without much unpacking.  Sleep, wonderful sleep, so taken for granted.

Marina Concierge Lounge Sparse, Disappointing, 

Not unexpectedly, I awake the next morning  at 6 a.m., four hours before we arrive in Helsinki. I decide to check out the concierge lounge before breakfast.  The lounge, accessible 24 hours with my room card, won’t be staffed until around 8 a.m.  About the size of two inside cabins. the lounge is well arranged, with a desk near the entrance door with a computer for anyone on the concierge deck. On this trip, it’s not likely to be in much demand considering the free internet bonus in our cabins. Beside the computer is a small stack of  Helsinki maps. These same maps will be available downstairs later when we disembark but at almost all other Baltic ports, the concierge lounge contains better, more detailed city maps than any brought aboard by local tourist boards.  the Marina’s daily newsletter doesn’t include port maps so it essential to find one somewhere before leaving the ship.

Oceania Marina Concierge LoungeOceania Marina Concierge Lounge              

The rest of the lounge is laid out to resemble a mini-book library combined with a reading room. Full size copies of today’s editions of one major newspaper from the U.S., Canadian and British are displayed on a table in front of a sofa just beneath a large flat screen TV. Behind the TV is a long counter  stocked with chilled juice dispensers, coffee  and tea as well as pastries and cookies.  Although various web sites claim the concierge lounge serves daytime sandwiches and evening canapés, it has only cookies and pastries during our trip. Unlike concierge lounges in many high end hotels, wine and beer are not served in the evening, either.  Except to read a newspaper or to consult the concierge staff about what to see while in port. the facility doesn’t offer any reason for passengers to visit. . For concierge class, the lounge isn’t much of a perk .

I glance at my watch. Time for Linda to get up and for us to head to breakfast before arriving in Helsinki.

Oceania Marina Lacks Stockholm Terminal

Never a second chance to make a first impression.

Deplaning in Stockholm, we move through immigration and customs amazingly quickly. No serious concerns about terrorism here. At the luggage carousel, we meet an Oceania representative collecting luggage for passengers taking a bus tour of Stockholm before boarding the Marina. We tell him we’d just like to go to the passenger terminal and nap in a chair before the ship is ready for boarding, assuming the terminal has any seats. He assures the Marina’s terminal not only offers a comfortable seating area to wait but also a café. Sounds perfect. Little did we know that of all the cruise ships in port, Oceania Marina lacks a Stockholm terminal.

Our 28-mile taxi ride to the terminal may be lengthy we see mostly highways and only a small bit of Sweden. The small bit of Stockholm we view reminds Linda of Stieg Larsson’s famous Millennium series, a best-selling trilogy starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She imagines heroine Lisbeth Salander walking the streets we pass. Her vision of Lisbeth looks like Noomi Rapace, the Swedish actress who starred in the original movie.

Our taxi driver is an interesting man. From Iraq, he says he abandoned Baghdad in 2005 after his two supermarkets were set on fire a second time. He says he has no plans ever to return despite close family still living there. His regular family reunions occur in a European country, never in Iraq.

Arriving at the cruise port, we find the Marina is not at the Vartahamnen 523, the terminal address provided by Oceania. The port section, known as Vartahamnen South, has five quays  but all dedicated to ferry service, including Scandlines. Our driver takes us to the northern port section and soon locates a Holland America ship with a Celebrity vessel docked behind. The Marina is located opposite them, easily identified at a distance by its white smoke stack with a big “O.”

Oceania Marina’s absent Stockholm terminal-why? 

Instead of the promised passenger-friendly cruise terminal, we discover a curiously long column of Oceania passengers just outside the fence gate leading to the ship. When our taxi draws up, several passengers quickly approach our driver to secure a ride to the airport. It’s 8:45 a.m., which seems late for so many people still to be disembarking and without any organized transportation for departure or hotel stays. We grab our luggage, then pay the fare with a credit card. Our cab driver seems filled with new energy, surprised and pleased to pick up a new fare so quickly.

Still early, the temperature is chilly and the overcast sky has the look and feel of rain. We ask the way to the terminal. What terminal building?  There isn’t one for Marina passengers.  Apparently the only terminal is located at the pier opposite us where Celebrity and Holland America ships are berthed.  We’re advised to wait outside the fence gate where, thankfully, is a tiny gift shop with a large wooden deck containing only five plastic chairs, already occupied by other new arrivals waiting to board. We claim an edge of the deck to sit before that space is occupied. The hard deck feels identical to the SAS Premium Plus seats. Since it will be several hours before we can board the Marina, we pass the time people watching and talking to our new shipmates.

I estimate the waiting passenger taxi line at 40 to 50 people.  It doesn’t shorten for more than hour. Taxis, slow in coming, depart sporadically with handfuls of people.  As some leave, more disembark from the Marina to replenish the column. It’s almost 90 minutes for the last person to catch a ride. Never witnessed such an unusual and haphazard disembarkation procedure. Fortunate that for those departing and the swelling numbers waiting to board that the sky still only threatens rain.

Oceania-Stateroom-Bed-1.jpg
After a sleepless SAS flight, this bed is what we seek most.

Oceania cruise staff have no explanation for the lack of a cruise terminal or the lack of any facilities; nor do they seem to care. Their attitude and the situation don’t reflect well on Oceania’s claim to offer a “luxury experience.” Or match our previous Oceania experiences, either. Makes us wonder what to expect once on board. Will it be better or worse?  Can’t believe we’re questioning our wisdom about booking Oceania for this cruise.

Around 11 a.m. a large truck arrives with baggage from the airport. We lug ours over to be added to the bunch. About 20 minutes later, wonderful news! A large canopy is erected at the ship’s gangplank and officials assemble under it so we can begin boarding. As expected, no staterooms ready yet but we learn a full lunch buffet lunch is waiting at the Terrace Café on deck 12. Linda and I agree the Marina’s interior is classy but décor is hardly foremost in our minds. Where are the restrooms?

Terrace Cafe best part of the day

At the Terrace Café, the buffet reassures us how good dining on Oceania can be. Although Linda limits herself to soup and a salad, I graze the hot courses. It will be the next day, when I’m more awake, that I discover I can have a fresh, personally prepared Caesar salad at the salad bar for lunch or dinner. Seated at our table, we have a birds-eye view of those still waiting to board. The weather has changed. Anyone standing outside the canopy waiting to begin the boarding process is standing in a light rain. Strangely, don’t see any umbrellas being passed out. That same thing could have happened to us while waiting on those gift shop stairs, with no shelter waiting anywhere.

Following lunch, we remain at our table to talk with another couple as everyone waits for an announcement that rooms are ready. The couple, from the northeast, was on our SAS flight, also in SAS Premium Plus. We compare note on our experiences. Departing their hometown, they also were sent to TSA’s fast track line, so flying premium class was worth more than we knew. And they didn’t sleep much on the flight, either, due to SAS’ hard seats.  At 1 o’clock, the first rooms are ready for occupancy. They start at the top category: the suites. At 1:30 our concierge category is announced. We’re told later the bulk of the rooms were ready just before 3 p.m.

Our room is just a few decks below the Terrace Café and convenient to elevators, as planned. Our stateroom is impressive. Nice and spacious. A laptop computer with unlimited internet sits at the desk for our use. A bottle of champagne chills in an ice bucket. Our bathroom is expansive, offering both a large tub and a sizeable shower stall. Unexpectedly, we find we have a mini-fridge stocked with an assortment of soft drinks (no charge). And two impressively large bottles of water that will be replaced every day. This is going to be very nice.

Our luggage soon arrives but we leave it unpacked. One more thing to test: the comfort of the bed, which must have been suitable since we fall instantly asleep, only to be jolted awake two hours later by a blaring announcement to prepare for the lifeboat drill. Abruptly, normal shipboard life begins .