Last week, I wrote the first part of this 3-part column to share a pleasant 9-day family cruise experience aboard the Norwegian Get-Away. For the second part of this short series, allow me to share our shore excursions where we set foot on five countries in a span of two weeks. Well, as I mentioned last week, it was supposed to be six countries all in all but we missed out on Estonia because of inclement weather.
Shore excursions can take quite a toll on your pocket, so we chose not to book a shore excursion to Berlin, Germany because we have been to Germany on different trips in the past. Instead, we opted to go on a short walking tour to the district of Warnemunde, sat in an outdoor restaurant and drank beer in this quaint coastal town, before walking back to the ship at a leisurely pace. It was around lunch time and the sun was out but it was cold.
St. Petersburg , reportedly the most Westernized city in Russia, was our next shore excursion. It is also Russia's cultural capital, home to the Hermitage, one of the largest art museums in the world housing the imperial jewels and a whole room of Amber, the semi-precious stones of Russia. We took the tour of this port city on the Baltic Sea which was founded in 1703 by Peter the Great reportedly to rival Versailles and which became the imperial capital of the country for two centuries. The Gulf of Finland lies 22 miles west of St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg struck us as a very clean city, the streets lined with low-rise 4 - 5 level apartment buildings because most people here do not own houses - just apartments. The Spilled Blood Cathedral was a sight - built like a mosque because it was colourful and opulent. It is a city of palaces, fountains and parks that have trees, not just shrubs and plants. The Grand Palace, built in the 18th century (it reportedly took two centuries to finish), was indeed grand: it encompassed seven parks and over twenty smaller palaces. Then it was more big, beautiful parks, magnificent gardens, gilded statues and fountains and numerous rivers and waterways. The weather was kind to us-our tour guide said that weather here can be very unpredictable so that snow can even fall on a summer day.
We stayed two days in St. Petersburg and then proceeded to Helsinki, Finland, our next shore destination. The climate was cold and crisp even on the tail end of spring as we took a long and leisurely walk. The girls were delighted to walk into a weekend market where we took a corner table to sip hot coffee and grabbed a bite after a long walk. The shopkeepers and locals were friendly and helpful and language was not a problem. Souvenirs, local crafts, big fat strawberries, blueberries and other fruits were for sale but US dollars were not accepted. One had to pay in the local Kronos (about 7 Kronos to 1 US $) or Euros or swipe those credit cards at those small makeshift stalls. Delicious aroma filled the market as several open-air stalls cooked native food. My wife, Babes wanted to sample the moose stews and reindeer meat grilling on the barbecue stands but she was outvoted by the less adventurous ones. We settled for the safer sausages instead while my daughter Tin shopped for caps and t-shirts and pretty mugs. A good friend, Eric Roxas took his family earlier this year on a more adventurous holiday in Northern Finland where the only meat to be had was moose and reindeer, no exaggeration.
After a full day at sea, we docked at Port Nynashamn in Sweden and took our next shore excursion to the city of Stockholm, an hour-and-a-half pleasant drive from the port. Stockholm is as old European as you can get as we rode past the elegant Royal Palace and the royal theatre, past brick apartment buildings and charming cafes. Sweden, I learned from my daughter Tin or DJ Suzy , is also where she intended to buy the latest in sneakers, and that is how we spent the whole afternoon - looking for son Wee and his wife Kaycee 's order of sneakers which cost about two thousand pesos less here than in Manila. We found them, and a lot more pairs. Is Sweden the capital of sneakers?
We had a bit of a problem here as the only currency all stores accept is their local one, the Swedish Crones, so your Euros and US dollars will not serve you well here. Everyone though accepts credit cards, even the small stalls, so for one can of diet cola or a small bottle of water, you have your credit card swiped.
This was already day 8 and we were heading back to Copenhagen, our disembarkation point where we decided to stay for another two days to roam the city. During this cold season, the hotels shut down their airconditioning system, so if you felt warm you simply open your windows. Our hotel was in the center of the city, a short walk to the busy train station which is fronting the world-famous and the world's oldest theme park Tivoli. It is a huge park by any standard, with rides, restaurants and even a big casino inside. Nearby, we lined up patiently for sausage sandwiches which we thoroughly enjoyed.
Copenhagen is such a nice city, old and charming, but it is also one of the most expensive cities in the world. A simple lunch consisting of pasta, burger and fish and chips for five people cost us about US $ 230.00. In an annual survey on the happiest people on earth, I think Copenhagen was voted no. 2, and it is easy to see why. There is no traffic here and people mostly travelled on bicycles, even the elderly. The parking spaces are full of thousands of bikes instead of cars, and the air is fresh because of this. A traffic-free city is happy, and more so if the air is this fresh. We noted though, that many of the locals here smoke, maybe because of the cold weather.
We stayed in Copenhagen for a total of three days and ate out everyday, as if we haven't had our fill on the ship. But what do you do in a foreign country after sightseeing and doing very long walks? Eat contentedly and don't bring your calculator!
Needless to say, we thoroughly enjoyed our two-week holiday. For now, I will have to settle back to work and perhaps save up for the next sabbatical, whenever that may be.
Next week, some practical tips on cruising holidays.
Mabuhay!!! Be proud to be a Filipino.
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