Category Archives: Northern Europe

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.

 

Oceania Marina Visits Poland

Sopot and Gdansk A Hurried Day
by Linda and Tim O’Keefe

Due to the Oceania Marina’s schedule, we have limited time in Poland. The ship docks at the port of Gdynia at 8 a.m. and will depart at 4 p.m.  That’s pushing it since we want to see Gdansk, a thousand years old and the largest city in northern Poland.  But it’s about a 45-minute drive from the port to Gdansk’s colorful Old City.

Among the first to leave the Oceania Marina, we search for a taxi.   As in Klaipeda, we’re bypassing guided tours to wander around on our own.  We like setting our own pace, spending time in a place that interests us and leaving quickly from those that don’t.  And we like the ability to return to a spot when the photo light is right.

Six taxis wait near the Marina. The drivers have a  set price of US$200 to take us to Gdansk, wait while we explore the town and then return us to the ship by 3:30, our all-aboard time.  We assure one driver we’re definitely interested but wait a few minutes to see if we can find two others to share the cost.  Before long, we find a couple agreeable to sharing the cab. The four of us strike a deal with the taxi driver and we’re off.

Unexpected Visit to Sopot

Our driver seems a nice fellow but he wants us to follow an itinerary he thinks is more rewarding than going straight to Gdansk.  Uh-oh, what have we gotten into?  The other couple doesn’t object so we say nothing.  We’re skeptical that our first stop, the seaside resort of Sopot, although our driver assures us Sopot is very popular with tourists. Tim and I look at each other: the Baltic Sea temperature today is 60 degrees, not exactly ideal beach conditions.  Hopefully this won’t be a waste of time.

The driver gives us 25 minutes for a quick look around Sopot. The natural thing for a Floridian to do is check out  the “popular” Polish beach.  We’re astonished to discover Sopot Beach is spectacular, one of the best beaches we’ve ever seen anywhere.  Its soft fine-grained silky sands put it near the top on our list.  By comparison, the beautiful sands of Florida’s panhandle seem rough and drab.  No wonder almost two million people visit Sopot annually, whose sheltered waters are supposed to be warmer than those of other Baltic beaches.

Beach at Sopot Poland Baltic Sea                 Sopot Beach is a lot more impressive when you stand on

Understandably, Sopot has been a favorite destination of Europe’s rich and famous for decades.  Walking along the beach, we come across the palatial-looking Sofitel Grand Hotel, perhaps the area’s most famous place to stay.  Built in 1927, the hotel has accommodated guests ranging from Adolf Hitler and Charles de Gaulle to Fidel Castro.  American leaders apparently have yet to discover Sopot.

From the Grand Hotel we walk quickly to Sopot’s pier, the longest wooden pier (1,676 feet or 511 meters) in Europe.  It is used not only by fisherman but as a ferry dock and a vantage point for watching windsurfing and sailing championships.

We’re running out of time so  we return to the taxi via Sopot’s main street, Bohaterow Monte Cassino Street, which is packed with pubs, coffee cafes, restaurants and galleries.  Unlike those at most beach towns, this street is well shaded but not by trees.  The tall buildings bordering it provide the shade as they also  hide any view of the beautiful beach.

Sopot Poland Monte Cassino Street with American KFC and Subway storesA taste of home on  Sopot’s main promenade  

Side Tour to Oliwa Cathedral

Our driver’s next destination is Oliwa Cathedral, a mix of architectural styles including Romanesque, Gothic and Rococo dating from the 13th century.  Oliwa Cathedral also is Poland’s longest church.  This is another good choice by our driver, who quickly takes us inside the cathedral by a side door and urges us to sit in the last row.  It turns out we’re just in time for a  20-minute organ concert.

The organ, made up of more than 7,000 wooden pipes, has such a wide range of pitch and sounds it can mimic everything from animal noises  to human voices.  The elaborately crafted organ is also celebrated for its moving wooden cherubs and trumpet-playing angels.

Sitting in the last row is  perfect for viewing the moving figures.  The concert of hymns is stirring.  The last selection, The Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah, gives Linda goose bumps.  Enjoy the impressive sound of the Oliwa organ concert here.

Gdansk Old Town, Finally! 

By the time we reach Gdansk it’s almost 11 a.m., much later than anticipated.  Fortunately our driver has a special parking place near Old Town’s main street.  The spot happens to be conveniently located across from the public facilities.  Linda is ready for a break and determined not to repeat the long toilet hunt at St. Petersburg’s Peterhof Park.

As at every other Baltic port city, we must pay to use the facilities.  An attendant is always ready to make change but the process still is a nuisance when you need different currency day after day.  The Euro is accepted in many places, although in St. Petersburg only Russian rubles were taken.  Dollars have no value in some places.  Polish banks in Gdansk won’t even convert them into Euros.

We need to be back at the cab by 2 p.m. in case heavy traffic delays our return to the Marina. Gdansk will have to be one of our fastest city tours ever.  We start our walk on the wide pedestrian street called the Long Market.  The architecture here looks like a time capsule from the medieval ages.

Yet  almost everything that appears old is actually new.  World War II started on the outskirts of Gdansk after a German battleship fired on a Polish artillery unit.  By the end of the war, Gdansk was devastated from both German attacks and allied air strikes and Poland belonged to the  Russians.

Gdansk Poland Old City buildings architectureA restored section of Gdansk that reminds me of Aruba

Knowing how much the city suffered in the war makes its striking appearance today all the more amazing.   Walking toward the city’s High Gate, we notice how Old Town’s historic buildings and houses all shine with vivid colors ranging from dark green to dull red, from burnt orange to gleaming white and gold.  Reconstruction that  took decades didn’t leave an imperfection anywhere, making Gdansk more attractive  than most cities with an equally long history.  The Old Town literally is picture perfect, one reason it’s become a popular cruise destination.

We walk to the High Gate (or Upland Gate), a massive structure that’s the  only remaining part of the city’s medieval walls.  The gate served as the entrance to the Old City,  the beginning of the Royal Route where local officials greeted visiting royalty and escorted them into the city.  Linda wonders what it was like as a royal during the 16th century.  Tim suggests it might be better to consider the life of a peasant. (Why is it that every girl wants to be a princess?) Besides, he points out, we have more riches than they ever did; including deodorant.

Next: Exploring Gdansk Old City

 

Exploring Klaipeda Lithuania

Klaipeda’s Clock Museum and Magical Statues
By Linda and Tim O’Keefe

Exploring more of Klaipeda, Lithuania, takes us to the Dane River, which separates the Old Town from the more bustling commercial area of New Town. Crossing the Dane River by the Birzos Bridge, it’s impossible not to notice the mast and glowing white sails of “The Meridianas,” a tall sailing ship built in Finland in 1948.  For a time the ship was used by the Klaipeda Navigation School for training. Afterwards, “The Meridianas”  turned into a derelict vessel, left to rot at its anchorage. The ship was saved by a prominent lawyer who purchased it for the equivalent of $1. He restored  it and turned “The Meridianas” into a floating restaurant. The ship is now one of Klaipeda’s proudest landmarks.

Klaipeda Lithuania the tall ship "The Meridianas" on Dane River       The “Meridianas”  tall ship on the Dane River

Across Birzos Bridge is the new  “Arch, Monument to the United Lithuania,” a garden with a large granite formation marking the 80th anniversary of the Klaipeda Region joining with Lithuania.  Small red granite columns represent the country’s various regions. One stands apart from the others, representing the status of the Kaliningrad Region of Lithuania, now part of the Russian Federation.

A little more than a block from the bridge is Liepu Street,  the 17th century home of city merchants and aristocrats.  Many elaborate buildings remain in such architectural styles as neo-Gothic and Jugend, a 19th century art nouveau style also  popular in some other Baltic countries. Jugend buildings feature a curb roof, vegetable-type ornaments, gargoyles  and  other decorative details.

Discovering Time at Klaipeda’s Clock Museum

With map in hand, we turn right onto Liepu Street, looking for the Clock Museum, a little known place Linda read about in a guidebook. She is interested in the engineering behind how things work, such as our grandfather clock back home. Unfortunately our local tourist board map lacks building numbers, making this search more difficult than necessary.  With strip clubs sandwiched between stores and office buildings, Liepu Street may have changed a bit since the 1700’s.

We pass one of the city’s most stylish buildings, the Old City Post Office in a red-brick neo-Gothic palace from 1893.  It’s now known for the carillon of 48 chromatically tuned bells playing a 30- minute concert here every Sunday. It’s not Sunday and we continue looking for the Clock Museum. The map indicates it’s just beyond the post office.

We know we’ve gone too far when we reach Sculpture Park on the edge of a heavily forested area. The park has more than 116 sculptures, some located atop an old cemetery. We retrace Liepu Street but still no Clock Museum.  A local who speaks English explains the Clock Museum entrance is up a staircase and the museum sign is visible only across the street from it.  Not the easiest place to find and no effort to make it visible.  Makes you wonder if they care about visitors.

The museum is well worth the trouble. This fascinating and historical showcase of clocks shows the evolution of the essential but little considered necessity that manages our lives.  Examples of sun clocks, water clocks, fire clocks and sand clocks are on display. Multi-language information sheets at the entrance of each clock display room contain excellent explanations of their history and how they work. We have more respect for our grandfather clock and whoever came up with the idea of such an impressive precise time that works so well decade after decade.  Worth the visit alone is the  imaginative and brilliantly colored stained glass window near the tour end.  Leaving the museum, we take the Birzos Bridge back across the Dane River to the Old Town and toward the Oceania Marina.

Klaipeda Lithuania clothing store sign in English                               Klaipeda store appealing to cruise passengers

Klaipeda Old Town’s Magical  Cat and Mouse

We are determined to find two of Klaipeda’s more famous magical sculptures, a cat and a mouse supposedly able to grant anyone’s strongest wish. They’re among the better known Old Town magical sculptures which include the Old Town Chimney Sweep (he grants luck for a full year to anyone touching his coat button on New Year’s Day) and the Old Town’s Post, a column for residents to drop letters containing  wishes, useful suggestions or ideas which actually could be granted. These letters go to prominent local business leaders, the movers and shakers, who have the power to make dreams come true. You have to admire Klaipeda’s quirky attitude about wishful thinking.

Our map is worthless for finding any specific location. When we ask about the cat and mouse statues from a man passing on the street, he seems mystified we want to find them. He provides some general directions and off we go, feeling somewhat confused. If these statues are  so noteworthy, why can’t we find them?  And why did that fellow seem to think we’re crazy to be interested in them?

Following his directions, we turn the corner of the next street over where the Old Town Cat with a face of a gentleman should be. Sure enough, in the front yard of an apartment building on Blacksmith Street, struts the elusive magic cat. We both have to laugh, feeling a little foolish. The cat is smaller than our three-year-old grandson. It’s claimed that if you rub the cat’s magic tail, your wishes will come true. This cat’s upright bronze tail has been rubbed shiny.  After photographing the cat, and feeling every bit the dumb tourists, we start down the street seeking the magic mouse.

No, we don’t rub the cat’s tail. It seems some Klaipeda sculptors like to instill their creations with magical powers to attract attention to them, and legends about their statues’ powers spread over time. That publicity stunt has to include the cat and mouse.

The cat can’t be too far from the mouse; that would spoil the game. We stalk back down Blacksmith Street looking for the rodent. Two teenage girls walk the street in front of us, going in the same direction. Two men behind us have an adorable black dog. The taller man gives the dog a hand signal. It starts wagging its tail and barking, running up to the girls. They think this dog is the cutest thing they’ve ever seen! The guys talk to the women who, after a minute or two, continue down the street without the guys. Linda cannot help laughing out loud. She thinks this is one of the best pickup tricks she’s ever seen.

Klaipeda Tourists Are Peculiar Creatures 

One of the men, named Budrys, speaks English and overhears us discussing his dog. He laughs and walks over and we begin talking. He doesn’t understand why we bother to visit Klaipeda. “All, we do is walk here, walk there, then walk back. The same every day. There is nothing to do here!”

We confess we’re looking for the magic mouse. We’ve already found the cat. Budrys laughs uproariously, shaking his head, exclaiming, “Jesus Christ, you come all the way here from America to see a f***ing cat and mouse? Do you tell your friends you take a cruise to see this cat and mouse! They must think you’re crazy!”

Klaipeda Lithuania tourist whispers to statue of a mouse that grants wishesKlaipeda’s “magic mouse” draws tourists

Put that way, it’s hard to disagree. But this foolishness is a good icebreaker for starting a wide-ranging conversation about life in Klaipeda, politics, Putin, spies and drones. We sit with the two men on a low wall across from the magic mouse statue. The mouse may be all of 8 inches tall. An Oceania tour group arrives to see the mouse.  We watch how they react to the mouse.  It’s more fun to be spectators than unsuspecting tourists.

Legend has it if you whisper into the mouse’s ear, your wish will come true.  That echoes words inscribed on the collar on the bronze cat: “Convert your ideas into words–words will become magic.”  We laugh with Budrys and his friend as  tour members proceed to whisper wishes into the tiny mouse’s ear. Some women kiss it (not a requirement) perhaps for added good fortune.

We enjoy the company of Budrys and his Ukrainian friend but it’s late in the afternoon and we have early dinner reservations with others . We need to start back to the Oceania Marina.   Budrys accompanies us. When we reach the town square, he explains why the statue of Ann from Tharau disappeared during War II World. He says Hitler gave a speech from the steps of the Drama Theater.  But the statue faces away from the building and Hitler was so outraged at  speaking to the back of a sculpture he had it removed.

We turn down an invitation from Budrys to buy us a beer. It would be fun but we need to get back to the ship.  Klaipeda, however, is famous for is its beer, Svyturys, and Linda talks Tim into stopping at a pub near the ship. Besides enjoying  the quick taste of a new brew, it is another chance to see more of the locals while discussing our day in an interesting city we never knew was there.

Oceania Marina Visits Klaipeda, Lithuania

Exploring  Klaipeda Old Town  on Foot
By Linda  and Tim O’Keefe

Today the Oceania Marina visits Klaipeda, Lithuania’s oldest city and largest port. Considering the total rainout yesterday in Estonia, it’s a relief to see the sun return.  Lithuania is a country neither Tim nor I know much about except, like most Baltic countries, it was under Soviet rule from World War II until 1991.The Marina’s stop here is one reason we chose Oceania’s Viking Trails cruise.

Klaipeda (pronounced “kli-pe-de”) was founded in 1252 near the Dane River, which flows directly into the Baltic Sea.  The city’s name translates as “bigfoot” with a good story there.   According to legend, the name originated when two brothers set out to find a location for a new city. One brother chose the longer route down the river while the other took a shorter route through thick marshland, where he died.

When the first brother located the body, he discovered the print of an “enormous” (klaika)  “foot” (peda) beside it. He decided to name the town Klaipeda “bigfoot”  in honor of his sibling, using the killer’s description instead of his dead brother’s name; which seems the strangest part of the story. In Klaipeda’s Old Town, we will search for the steel sculpture called “dragon” which recalls this legend.  The less imaginative claim Klaipeda’s name comes from “klaidyti” (obstruct) and “peda” (foot) due to the area’s once boggy terrain.

With the Old Town just a 10 minute walk from the cruise port, we bypass the guided tours to explore on our own. A map of Klaipeda shows it should be an easy afternoon’s ramble.   Klaipeda’s Old Town looks surprisingly familiar, as if we are in Bavaria or Switzerland. It’s due to the distinctive half-timbered style of several old warehouses built in the mid-1800’s.  Known as fachwerk construction, the buildings are framed with heavy timbers arranged in horizontal, vertical and diagonal angles with white plaster filling the spaces between.

Klaipeda Lithuania bilingual directional signs in English and LithuanianDirectional signs in Lithuanian and English

It takes only a few minutes to walk to the heart of the city and Klaipeda Square, also known as Theater Square after the Drama Theater bordering one edge of the plaza.  The square’s other three sides are lined with vendors in colorful stalls selling small trinkets and souvenirs.  In the middle of Theater Square stands a sculpture of a woman known as Ann from Tharau. The monument is in fact dedicated to Simon Dach, a German poet born in Klaipeda in 1605. Dach fell instantly in love with Ann when he saw her for the first time. Unfortunately, it happened at Ann’s wedding and she was marrying a minister. The love-stricken poet dedicated a poem to her entitled Ann from Tharau.

Dach’s poem turned out to be extremely popular.  It was translated into several languages and eventually became a well-known folksong in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.  In 1912, an artist from Germany came to Klaipeda to create the statue of Ann which also contains a small bas-relief of Dach.  During World War II the sculpture was carted away by the Germans but recreated in 1990.

Before exploring more of Old Town, we need to cash a few dollars into Lithuanian litas but we’re unable to find a bank that will do it. So we visit the casino across from Klaipeda Square. They not only are happy to change dollars into litas, they change our litas back into dollars later.

From the square we walk heavily cobbled streets in search of the Dragon statue. Along the way we find a street lined with more fachwerk style buildings occupied by art galleries, boutique shops and small restaurants. I am beginning to fall in love with this town and its charm.

Our map provides little help in finding the Dragon, supposedly nearby. We locate it in an unanticipated place. It’s not a big statue dominating one of the small city parks as we imagined. Instead, it’s hidden inside an old narrow street and the Dragon actually is the end section of a long drain pipe hanging from a building. Hardly what we expect.

Klaipeda Lithuania statue of mythical dragon that gave city its nameArtist’s vision of Klaipeda’s  “bigfoot”  

Although the dragon certainly looks fierce and dangerous, it’s only about three feet long. This is as much of a fairy tale as Klaipeda’s bigfoot legend. You’ll never see this dragon belch fire but its mouth will gush plenty of water every time it rains.

More satisfying is the large and impressive is a section of the old earthen fort built in  the 1700’s to defend the city.  As a port city, Klaipeda held considerable strategic value and the ramparts reaching almost 12 feet high emphasize its importance. As at fortifications elsewhere in Europe, ditches were dug around the walls to create a moat, with the Dane River providing it a ready water supply. Although the complex network of irregular shaped walls (called bastions) was considered on par with many great castles, they were soon neglected, allowed to fall  and crumble.

In the 1990’s, a section of the fortress was restored on Jonas Hill at the end of Turgaus Street.  We view the surviving  bastions from a high vantage point. The moat beneath the grass-covered walls, filled with fresh water from the Dane River, resembles a small lake. Overall, the complex looks like an appealing park.

It’s time to move on to what some call Klaipeda’s New Town with its main business district.

 

Oceania Marina Visits Helsinki

Classic Architecture And Strange  Art

We have a promising day with bright sunshine, blue sky and only a few small clouds when the Oceania Marina enters Helsinki harbor. A Celebrity cruise ship follows in our wake, passing between the small ice age islands forming the harbor entrance.

cruise ship at helsinki harbor entranceHelsinki Harbor entrance

From the cruise dock, we take a shuttle bus provided by the Helsinki Tourist Board to Market Square, a major landmark near the city center and by the harbor edge. Stepping off the bus, we’re greeted by the statue of a tall cartoonish pink-colored man peeing into the harbor.

Our first Helsinki landmark! Although prominently displayed, the statue is here only temporarily. The previous summer the statue (or is it a mobile fountain?) known as Bad Bad Boy was featured in a different Finnish city.  Not everyone in Helsinki is happy to have the statue here.  A member of the Helsinki tourist board is embarrassed to admit the statue locally is known as “The Peeing Man” or something similar.  He says it’s temporarily present for an upcoming Helsinki fringe/arts festival.

The statue is decidedly arresting, and its location near several government buildings could also be a political statement.  Hmmm…what if this was moved to Washington, D.C., and the Bad Bad Boy’s spray aimed at Congress.  Most Americans would love it, based on the  opinion polls of the last two years.

Helsinki Finland Bad Bad Boy statueThe Bad Bad Boy statue

 Classic Helsinki Highlights

Behind the “The Peeing Man “ statue  the  historic green and gold onion domes of the Uspenski Cathedral rising above a small grove of trees a few blocks away. Uspenski Cathedral is the largest Orthodox Church in Western Europe. Its golden cupolas and deep red brick facade gleam in the sunlight, a popular photo subject for the numerous tourists roaming the cathedral’s grounds. Uspenski cathedral, built between 1862 and 1868 and designed after a 16th century church near Moscow, is one of many lingering but still popular monuments related to past Russian dominance.  (By treaty, Finland was annexed from Sweden to Russia in 1809 as the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland until Finland gained its independence in 1917.)

It’s a short downhill walk from Uspenski Cathedral to Senate Square and the Helsinki Cathedral,  two more of Helsinki’s best-known historic landmarks.  Helsinki Square is a large open area bordered by the University of Helsinki, Government Palace as well as Helsinki Cathedral, the Square’s main attraction.

Helsinki Finland Helsinki CathedralBikes lined up below Helsinki Cathedral

The neoclassical cathedral, also known as Toumiokirkkor and the Church of St. Nicholas, is also designed after another Russian church, this one in St. Petersburg.

Most countries topple the statues of their former rulers once they gain freedom, so it’s surprising the statue of Russian Tsar Alexander II is still a prominent Senate Square landmark and that the statue’s base is richly decorated with flower baskets.  Tsar Alexander  II obviously earned enduring gratitude from Finns as a result of  his reforms that increased Finland’s autonomy from Russia.  Once  Finland gained its independence, there definitely was talk of removing the statue, yet Alexander II remains,  a very popular place for family photos and selfies.

There’s a festive air in Senate Square today, as if everyone is waiting for a marching band or a rock concert to start.  Concerts indeed are held here but not today.  Time for us to move onto Helsinki’s famous bronze mermaid statue locally known as Havis Amanda.

 The Mermaid Trapped in a Box

Where is the celebrated bronze mermaid standing on seaweed as she rises from the water? The statue, Helsinki’s unofficial symbol, is nowhere to be seen in the wide open spaces of Market Square.   We learn she has been “disappeared” by city officials for reasons that sound like a bad Saturday Night Live comedy sketch.  It seems the Helsinki Art Museum chose an artist to hide the iconic image inside a big black box—the Hotel Manta–which also is considered an inspired work of art.  To me, Hotel Manta looks as “inspired” as a cheap prefab plywood box. I don’t get it. Or the idea of removing the mermaid statue from public view by another art object. This is like New York City deciding to hide the Statue of Liberty inside a black skyscraper.

Hotel Manta Helsinki FinlandArt hides art as  Hotel Manta obscures the  famous bronze mermaid

However, it soon becomes apparent the real purpose of  Hotel Manta is to be a cash cow for the city. There’s now a 3 euro fee for the privilege of viewing the caged mermaid  standing inside a hotel room instead of outside under the sun. Even more  money is generated by renting out the hotel room at night for those wanting to sleep with the mermaid inside the fenced off,  elevated observatory over Market Square.  (The hotel  stopped taking reservations following the summer season.)

Ironically, the mermaid’s confinement to a hotel bedroom may have fulfilled the worst fears of some Finns when the mermaid first appeared in Helsinki in 1908. Those objecting to her nudity considered her a “whore.”   Made to pimp for tourist money, some might say that’s what she’s become. We like to think the hotel is present to raise money for any needed restoration of the statue so she can return to the outdoors, though we saw no indication the hotel was only a temporary prison.

 Taste of Finland

We wander to Market Square’s famous outdoor summer market known for its variety of crafts, souvenirs and food stands.  Wonderful looking vegetables and fruits, most far larger than the ones we ever see back home, are displayed in numerous stalls.

Helsinki Finland Outdoor Summer Market The popular summer market in Helsinki

The most striking souvenirs are colorfully dressed dolls and other crafts from Lapland, Finland’s northern most region.  Lapland’s inhabitants are known as the Sami, the indigenous people who have maintained their traditional language and culture. They are best  known for their distinctive colorful clothing, for raising reindeer, traveling by dog teams and the wintertime Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle.

The Sami make wonderful dishes with reindeer meat. During my several visits to Lapland I developed a strong fondness for the region’s famous stew of reindeer, lingonberries and mashed potatoes.  One of the things I hoped when we arrived in Helsinki is we’d find Lapp food so Linda could taste it.  At a tented restaurant selling “Lapland Food” she agrees to order the stew. Then she smells the delicious aroma of ground reindeer formed into meatballs. That not only smell scrumptious but has a flavorful spicy taste.  When we order, although Linda’s choice may be more flavorful I remain loyal to the reindeer stew . I’ve wanted to taste reindeer stew again for a long time.

This simple meal will be a perfect memory of Finland. Our time in Helsinki ends as jet lag catches up with us big time. It’s like we feel hung over and it’s time to take care of it. We don’t want to feel like this tomorrow in St. Petersburg. It’s back to the Oceania Marina and a long uninterrupted sleep.

 

 

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 .

Married Middle Name Cruise ID Nightmare

By Linda O’Keefe

Passing through immigration in Stockholm, I can finally relax.  I’ve arrived at our departure port so no more worry about being denied boarding by an airline. My concern? The full name on my passport is different from the full name on both my flight reservations and the Oceania cruise manifest.   This inconsistency is my middle name. It’s partly due to the conflicting ID requirements on the state and federal levels, a situation many married women may encounter when they travel internationally.

My Florida driver license has my maiden name for my middle name. That is due to the marriage license requirements in the county where we were married, which requires the woman must use her maiden name for her middle name.

A woman’s maiden name also is supposed to be on her US passport. But several years ago  when I applied for a passport name change my new passport  was stamped with my middle birth name although it was supposed to have my maiden name.

I’ve had to work around this ID contradiction ever since when it comes to overseas travel.  Men are lucky. They never deal with this problem since their names usually remain the same for life.

Obviously I should have booked the cruise under my “passport name” as I usually do, not my “Florida name.”  As for my flights overseas,  will I even be able to get my tickets?  TSA also will expect my airline tickets to match my passport ID.  Overlooking this mistake until the last-minute is inconceivable.  It puts me in a great panic of whether I will be denied boarding in Orlando or Newark traveling to Europe or on my flights returning from Europe.

Orlando International Airport-1Will I ever get out of here,  Orlando International Airport?

My first call is to our travel agent.  She says she can’t make ticket changes since Oceania issued them.  And Oceania probably can’t make a name change at this point but if  it could the new ticket likely would  come with severe penalties.  Worse, she indicates it’s unlikely I’ll be able to board any flights.  Her suggestion is that I call the different airlines to report my problem and check the TSA website. But there are no guarantees these steps will get me on an airplane.

This is turning into a horror story. I call TSA, encountering a recorded message with more options than toothpaste brands at a grocery store. Eventually I speak with a real person, a woman who asks my name. Then I hear only computer keys clicking. Her next question: “Where are your flights going to?” I reply “Orlando to  La Guardia (incorrect) to Stockholm.” Silence again on the line.  Then, “Mrs. O’Keefe, you are flying United to Newark (she caught my error) and then SAS to Stockholm on August 20 and returning British Airways from Amsterdam to Gatwick and BA Gatwick to Orlando on September 4th.” Now it is my turn to be silent. She knows all this better than I do because of just my name? Glad to know the government can be on top of something as small as this so quickly.

The TSA call is the smartest thing I could have done. The TSA representative is extremely helpful and informative, assuring me this was not a big deal and that it happens all the time. Her advice is to carry my Florida driver license, my social security card and a copy of my Florida marriage license with my passport to show as much ID as possible.

Checking in at Orlando International, a woman at the United counter immediately questions  the middle name differences.  I’m ready, full of explanations and a fistful of documents. The problem quickly disappears when a supervisor is called:  a female supervisor. What luck. She has the same middle name problem and is questioned about it sometimes at OIA—where she works.  We’re part of the same sorority!

I receive boarding passes for both Orlando to Newark and for Newark to Stockholm.  The tickets are stamped with the notation my documents are checked.  Ironically, and happily, my home airport is the only place on our entire trip  where the middle name problem comes up.  I know that now but not on that travel day. I will not stop worrying about be turned back until I board the Oceania Marina.

Once on board, I’m given my official ship ID card–which carries no middle name.  That’s more than convenient. It means I will have no problem in St. Petersburg where I must show my passport and ship ID card each time I leave and return to the ship.

In the 13 or 14 years Tim and I have traveled together internationally, this never was a problem and it came up only now because 4 years ago we were married. Thus, it’s all  his fault!

Tim:  Linda and I both wrote this post together and I am responsible for much of it. I also wrote the last sentence. I am the guilty party who made the reservations using her driver license.  But she should have noticed my mistake  at the time.

Tim & Linda:  A learning experience for us and this silly mistake  won’t be repeated.  All international bookings will carry Linda’s passport name even though it’s technically incorrect, carrying her middle birth name.  Thanks, State Department! 

Oceania Marina Baltic Cruise An Easy Choice

Song and Dance Ensemble of the Russian Army, St. PetersburgSong and Dance Ensemble of the Russian Army, St. Petersburg

It’s been too long since Linda and I cruised (or blogged) so last January we began looking at cruise itineraries. The Oceania Marina 12-day summer Northern Europe Viking Trails itinerary appeals immediately to us but especially to me since it includes three full days in St. Petersburg, Russia. Having visited St. Petersburg twice decades ago, I’m interested to see how much it’s changed since the end of the Soviet era. For whatever reason, Russia is a long-time fascination. My first visit there was is in the 1970’s Soviet era with four more trips over the years.

In addition to St. Petersburg, other interesting Marina stops include out-of-the-way ports in Estonia, Lithuania and Poland along with Helsinki, Copenhagen, a German port convenient to Berlin and ending with an overnight in Amsterdam. Oceania is one of our favorite cruise lines but the price quoted in January seems a bit too high.

Linda and I always are interested in anything new Oceania offers. We have a long history with them, going back to its previous incarnation when it was known as Renaissance Cruises. The first cruise Linda and I ever made together was on one of their 684-passenger “R Ships.” That was in the spring of 2001, just months before Renaissance went under due to the 9/11 Twin Towers attack, when all their ships were stationed in Europe. It was a sad ending to a wonderful cruise line but what happened in the class action suit against Renaissance made us laugh. Would like to meet that judge.

We scan the promotional materials Oceania sends at regular intervals, as new features are added to the Vikings Trails end of season cruise. Now included are free shore excursions for all three days in St. Petersburg ($1,000 value), prepaid gratuities, free unlimited internet in our stateroom and a $300 on-board ship credit to use for whatever we want.

When Oceania offers the option to upgrade round trip air to premium economy for just $198 round trip from Orlando, we’re ready to book. Oceania always includes round trip air in its cruise prices and we’d be crazy not to use it. We’d save $850 if we opted out of Oceania’s air package but the best online economy flight rates for our itinerary would cost two to three times the $850 discount. Premium economy is considerably more.

We decide to treat ourselves to an early wedding anniversary and go concierge class, which allows us first choice of the St. Petersburg tours and early reservations in the Marina’s five specialty restaurants. Unlike most cruise lines, Oceania does not demand an extra charge for its specialty restaurants; only advance reservations required. The Marina is one of Oceania’s new large, almost twice the size of the original “R-Ships” and carrying 1,250 passengers. It will be interesting to see how much of an improvement this new class size is over the smaller vessels.

Klaipeda, Lithuania, located on the mouth of the Dane SeaKlaipedia, Lithuania, located on the Dane River

Oceania books our flights, not our travel agent, and the itinerary is a surprisingly good one. We fly from Orlando to Newark with a layover of under three hours before taking Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) to Stockholm, our departure port. The return flight from Amsterdam takes us to London Gatwick and another short layover with a direct flight back to Orlando. The schedule is fine though we wish we could avoid the United Airlines flight to Newark since it wants $100 for a second bag. Especially since our other carriers, SAS and British Airways, both allow two free bags. We’re extending our trip for several days in Amsterdam after the cruise, so packing at least one extra bag for the two of us is kind of necessary.

When we check in at Orlando International we encounter the usual summer crowds that often increase TSA screening lines to 30 minutes. Unexpectedly, our tickets send us to the TSA fast-track lines, which proceed quickly. This is one of the benefits of premium economy class.

Arriving at Newark, we look forward to boarding the SAS overnight flight to Stockholm. Our only previous premium economy experience was on Air New Zealand from Los Angeles to Auckland and that truly was something special. Premium economy had its own cabin, comfortable space age style seats and meal service better than the business class of some other carriers. Descriptions of SAS Premium Plus appear equally appealing.

The SAS flight begins impressively. During takeoff, SAS allows us to watch the takeoff from different views on our personal TV screens. I watch the takeoff starting from the cockpit view, switch to a rear angle as we lift off the runway and then look straight down at the area we fly over. Very nice touch. The selection of recent American movies is good, too.

Windmill in the NetherlandsWindmill in Holland

But about an hour after takeoff, the SAS Premium Plus experience is not so pleasant. The seat bottom lacks any kind of padding, assuming it ever had any. It’s extremely uncomfortable. Linda says she feels like she’s sitting on a concrete slab. In addition, I find it impossible to maneuver my legs around the large left leg on the seat in front of me. That support blocks almost half of the normally available legroom, leaving no way to stretch my legs, much less place my laptop there without seriously intruding on Linda’s leg space. I’m convinced the design engineers never tested this arrangement in real life conditions.

The evening meal choices are chicken with plain white rice or salmon with plain white rice. They’re just as bland as they sound. The run-of-the-mill airline salad, rice entrée and dessert come clustered together on the usual typical economy tray. This is nothing like SAS’ classy website description: “For dinner, there is a starter, main course (choose between two alternatives) & a good dessert with coffee or tea.” The accompany photos are equally misleading

For the first time ever on a flight, I’m unable to sleep. Normally I can fall asleep on a bus, train and every airline until now. A mild sleeping pill doesn’t block the pain of my lead-lined seat. I read my Kindle until breakfast. Would have liked to have read SAS in-flight magazine but my overhead reading light is out. Stewardess said she would report it. Linda squirms in her seat much of the time. She also is awake most of the night.

Landing in Stockholm, and shuffling like zombies from The Walking Dead, we gladly leave SAS Premium Plus behind. We’re more than ready for our next stop. The Oceania Marina and its usual flavorful welcome aboard lunch buffet.