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Regal Princess cruise to Scandinavia and Russia, June 2, 2015

Regal Princess cruise to Scandinavia and Russia, June 2, 2015 

by Camille Pepe Sperrazza 

Copenhagen, Denmark 

When sailing from Copenhagen, a pre-cruise stay is an opportunity not to be missed. This cosmopolitan city is home to Tivoli Gardens, one of the world's oldest amusement parks, said to have inspired Walt Disney to create Disney World. Cruise the canals. Say hello to The Little Mermaid. View the fanfare of the Changing of the Guards' Ceremony in front of the Royal Palace. Linger at the coffee shops, enjoying delicious Danish pastry and open sandwiches called smorrebrod. 

I love to stay at the ultra-modern Island Copenhagen Hotel, located along the water front, adjacent to a mall, and about a 20-minute walk from the city center. You can eat economically by shopping at the grocery store inside the mall, and then feasting on your hotel's private balcony, overlooking water, boats, and a mesmerizing skyline. The sun shines brightly until late in the evening so there's plenty of daylight to take in the sights, and stroll the main avenues where there are old churches and shops galore. The city is known for its support of green energy so watch out for bicyclists that fly by. Don't be surprised by the array of bikes stored throughout the streets, many of which are left unsecured by their owners. 

Oslo, Norway 

Our first cruise stop. The city is safe and easy to get around, so we venture on our own, taking Tram #12 to Vigeland Sculpture Park where one of the towering monuments is often used to symbolize the city. This modern park is a beauty, featuring magnificent sculptures, including the famous "Crying Baby." It is a great place to spend an hour or two, and admission is free. 

From there, we take Tram #12 to The National Gallery Museum to see Edvard Munch's famous painting, "The Scream". We are allowed to get real close to it, studying the haunting image as there are no crowds. A number of Munch's other famous works are here too, as are paintings by Picasso and Paul Gauguin. It is a new experience to be able to pose right next to these multi-million dollar works of art, snapping as many photos as we like. Only in Munch's room are no pictures allowed. 

We walk to The Nobel Prize Museum, the best part being the darkened room with small lights that pay tribute to the award-winners. We read the plaques for Barack Obama, Al Gore, Henry Kissinger, Mother Teresa, and others. Across the street is City Hall where the actual awards are distributed. The Grand Hotel, which we stumble upon during our walk, is where the banquet takes place. These are all a stroll away from the ship, as are shops and restaurants, including a Hard Rock Cafe. 

Sailing from Norway en route to Sweden, there's beautiful scenery to be viewed for hours. It remains bright and sunny until late evening - advantageous for everything but sleep. 

Gothenburg, Sweden 

This is Scandinavia's largest port. A ship tour takes us for an overview of the city and a cruise along the canal in the rain. There isn't all that much to see, especially while wearing the provided yellow poncho with the hood up. The rainy, cold weather doesn't lend to the city's attractiveness. The large statue of Poseidon seems to be the highlight and we all wonder why the grounds in front of it are so sticky. Our guide tells us students celebrate the end of the semester by throwing champagne all over themselves and the statue. 

As we walk, my adult son says every time he looks fast at one of the other passengers, he thinks it's me. Her family says they have made the same mistake a few times. She is from Quebec, we are about the same weight and height, but it's probably the hair style. My "twin" and I pose for photos. 

Warnemunde, Germany 

We take the ship tour to Berlin that starts with a 2-hour train ride to see the Sachenhausen Memorial and Museum, once a concentration work camp. Many political prisoners, "Bible researchers" (clergy), and homosexuals were brought here. All had to wear orange triangles, the symbol of this particular camp. A black dot above the triangle meant you were a political prisoner who worked against the Nazis and had no desire to be released. Guards were told they could do whatever they wanted with these people. A green dot above the triangle was reserved for counterfeiters. They were printers put to work by the Germans to forge documents and print money, in particular the valuable British pound as the Germans wanted to bring down England's economy. These prisoners were treated a bit better. 

We view areas where people were hanged. We learn about an instrument that looks like the scale used at a doctor's office to measure height. Thousands of Russian soldiers were asked to stand here, assuming the same. Instead, they were executed from behind by Germans in the next room who aimed at the napes of their necks through a small hole in the wall and an incision in the device. 

We see the remains of bunkers, toilets, and two fountains in a small room where hundreds of people were expected to wash at once and use the handful of toilets twice a day for a short period of time. They froze to death, standing naked, until every person was accounted for during morning roll call. We pass the "Neutral Zone." Any prisoner walking here was shot instantly by guards in watchtowers. Some stepped here on purpose to escape their living hell. Others chose to touch the electricity-charged barbed wire around the walls. We walk to the "shoe testing area," a path of different surfaces where prisoners were forced to walk, jump, run, and stand all day in boots too small or too large, while wearing heavy backpacks, so Germans could determine the best soles for soldiers. Torture and experimentation went on at the camp. Cremation ovens remain. Of course it is all horrifying. But it is history that needs to be told. 

We travel by bus to Berlin for lunch at the 5-star Westin Grand Hotel. A whirlwind tour of Berlin includes seeing remnants of the Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate, and Hitler's Bunker, now a Holocaust museum. Berlin has changed since my last visit. No longer are pieces of The Wall scattered throughout the city, which we could touch and pose by, each scribbled with colorful graffiti and artwork. Instead, smaller pieces are behind ropes or glass, and only at museum or historic stops. I still see bullet holes in some of the buildings, but our guide never mentions them. By the Brandenburg Gate, the balcony of the Hotel Adlon is pointed out as the place where Michael Jackson dangled one of his children. A 3-hour train ride takes us back to the ship. 

That evening I am selected to participate in the show, "Holly-would". It is captured on film, and expected to play in cabins fleetwide for a long time to come, so if you sail on any of Princess' 18 ships, go to "Princess-live-Hollywould" and you may see me on your television set. 

Sea Day 

A day to relax and enjoy all the ship's activities like chocolate tastings, cooking demonstrations, and more game shows. It is our first formal night, so passengers are invited to the atrium on desks 5, 6, and 7 to participate in filling the hundreds of champagne glasses stacked to form a tower. Pouring from the top, champagne flows down, filling the glasses, creating a champagne waterfall. There's champagne for everyone. 

As this is Princess' 50th anniversary, the line has teamed with Norman Love to make signature chocolate desserts. Tonight, 1500 chocolate pops are distributed in the atrium. To also mark the anniversary, there are about 100 episodes of "The Love Boat" television series playing on demand in staterooms. It is so much fun to watch this series which introduced cruising to the masses. Many superstars made guest appearances on the show each week, contributing to the growth of the industry. Each time we sail from port, a musician on the Lido Deck plays the first few notes of "The Love Boat" theme song, stirring wonderful memories. 

Tallinn, Estonia 

We walk about 20 minutes to get to the city center, a quaint area with an old-world feel. There are people dressed in costume selling nuts covered with a coating being churned in front of us. The smell entices, so we buy some. Small stalls carry beautiful floral bouquets that are shockingly inexpensive. Amber jewelry and accessories are everywhere. Linen scarves and wool attire are all the rage. Although I had promised myself I wouldn't bring home another scarf, I buy one - and some wool slippers and other lovely items. 

St. Petersburg, Russia 

Visiting Russia requires a visa, but passengers who book the ship's tours don't have to worry as visas are included. Still, we must line up and go through a security point that involves carrying our own passports and having them stamped. We do so, and surprisingly, there's no Princess representative on the other side to direct us to our tour bus. We ask a few people for assistance, and no one can help us. We turn, and it's the wrong direction. A Japanese tour guide tells us we have to go to the other side. As we make our way there, a passenger steps off the sidewalk and into the street. A uniformed Russian barks and motions that the passenger is to immediately return to the sidewalk. It is a bit intimidating, and the soldier seems to sense this, so he suddenly smiles, easing the tension a bit. 

Our 6:30 am tour takes us to gold-filled palaces, churches, and yet another canal cruise. Shops provide generous Russian vodka samples, and it is the best I have ever tasted; deliciously smooth. We visit the Hermitage, one of the largest and oldest museums in the world. There are 3 million exhibits. Our guide says if we spend just 50 seconds at each, it will take us three years to view them all. We see paintings that include Rembrandt's "The Prodigal Son," and make it to the Egyptian Room where there are artifacts and a mummy. We see the largest vase in the world, made from jasper, all carved from one piece of stone. It weighs 19 tons. 

Lunch is at a former palace, now a restaurant. While the food is lackluster, the Russian vodka and champagne are very appealing. There's interactive singing and dancing; the highlight of the tour. Although the ship overnights in port, our visa doesn't allow us to disembark at night. Princess brings a local Russian folklore show on board the ship which is fun. 

St. Petersburg, Russia 

Day 2 takes us out to the suburbs for a walking tour of Peterhof Palace with its massive grounds. This extraordinary, gold-filled palace is called "the Versailles of Russia". St. Isaac's and The Church of Spilled Blood (also called Church of Resurrection) are among other stops. Like yesterday, lunch is nothing special, but the vodka sure is. Each time we visit a church, museum, or palace, we have to stop at "The Cloak Room" to drop off our coats and bags which doesn't seem to be very time-efficient. Likewise, it doesn't seem necessary to go through passport control again this morning when our ship is docked overnight right outside this secure area. 

At the end of our two super long days of touring "The Best of St. Petersburg," I have seen only churches and palaces, and prior to this trip, I had seen enough to last two lifetimes. Instead, I would have liked to have gained insight into ordinary life here in Russia, but no such tour exists, and our visa doesn't allow us to venture on our own. A Princess staff member tells me he took the world's longest escalator ride - 2 1/2 minutes - down to a train station located behind two walls. It is designed this way to survive nuclear attacks, he says. Now that I would like to see. 

Helsinki, Finland 

it is Helsinki Day, and we are in Helsinki. We explore independently, taking the #9 tram to the city center, and stopping at one of Finland's notable Christmas shops. We walk to beautiful Esplanade Park, alive with music and people celebrating the holiday. There, we catch a tour bus that takes us for an overview of the city. One of the main attractions is Rock Church, also called Temppeliaukio Church, built through solid rock. Besides functioning as a place of worship, it is a popular venue for concerts because of the acoustics and natural light. The other must-see is the Sibelius Monument, an abstract array of pipes where we pose for photos. 

Before heading back to the pier, we run into Scandinavia's biggest department store -- Stockmann's -- for a look around. I guess you could say it is the Macy's of Scandinavia. The tram we need to take back to the ship is near the store, but because of holiday traffic, we wait half an hour, and it still hasn't shown up. We try for a taxi, but they are all occupied too. Fortunately, I spot the Princess shuttle bus in town that takes us back to the ship for 7 euros per person. 

There's still a few minutes to spare for shopping at the pier so I buy wool hand warmers and an adorable elf ornament with a zippered pocket, all hand-crafted by the woman at the stand. But I regret not purchasing the most gorgeous hooded fur-trimmed wrap I have ever seen, for 100 euros. The handful of these fabulously tailored items were being admired by many. That night I see a woman wearing one on the ship, and it is stunning. 

It is our second formal night so it's lobster for dinner. I am invited to a private cocktail reception for platinum and elite guests, the first and only one of the entire cruise. A net with hundreds of balloons hangs over the ship's three-level atrium today. They are to be released on to the dance floor at about 11:15 pm, another way Princess marks its 50th anniversary. As we have had consecutive early morning all-day tours, walked for countless miles, experienced time changes, and never-ending daylight, it is a challenge to keep our eyes open that "late," but we make it. 

Stockholm, Sweden The ship was supposed to dock in the outskirts of the city, but last night the captain announced weather conditions would be conducive to cruising directly into Stockholm. It is the first time the Regal Princess will visit, so a Swiss band is at the pier playing music as we sail into the city, and there are hundreds of passengers on their balconies and in public areas at 7 am to view the fanfare. 

The weather is the warmest it is been the entire trip; no need to wear a jacket. We buy a Princess shuttle ticket that takes us to the city center; from there we walk to the Ice Bar, located at the Nordic Hotel. When I visited the first time, it was one of the few ice bars in the world. Now there are many, including some on cruise ships and a huge one in St. Thomas. But this - an original - is built with the same ice used to create Sweden's famous Ice Hotel. We put on the provided ponchos and head for the bar where we are served vodka drinks in glasses carved from solid ice. The bar and benches - all blocks of ice - were covered only with animal skin throws last time I was here. Now there are plastic bench cushions, making it easier to sit, but taking away some of the ambiance. It's still a novelty, and a great photo opportunity. 

As we sail from Sweden, we pass many of the country's small islands, viewing vacation homes, boats, and breathtaking scenery for hours. 

Evening entertainment on the ship has been several cuts above the usual song and dance routines. Favorites include Beetlemania, a hypnotist/mind reader, and a singer who sounds just like Bobby Darin.

Sea Day 

The last day of any cruise is always bittersweet. Can't we stay at least another week to enjoy the ship? European cruises are fabulous - and very busy. I would like a few more days to cruise the ocean.

For more information or to book a trip, 
contact "Commodore" Camille today. 

This article was accurate when it was written, but everything in life changes. Enjoy the journey! 

Copyright: Camille Pepe Sperrazza 

Oslo, Norway.