Cruising the Norwegian Fjords

One country I needed to cross off my list was Norway.  I’d been to the other Scandinavian countries and this was the only one I was missing.  When Chris booked a Fjord cruise for us, well, it was perfect!  It was a cruise we’d both wanted to go on and with a good deal – he couldn’t resist.  Travelling with an ex, of course, has a set of unique circumstances but not only is Chris my ex, but one of my closest friends and so we still really enjoy spending time together and doing one of the things we both love – traveling.   Since the divorce I haven’t travelled as much (except a really AWFUL trip to Iceland – that we never mention) and so I was really looking forward to getting away. 

The night before we left we dropped Sugar off at the new (fabulous) boarders and settled in to watch the best TV of the year – Eurovision!  That’s a whole post on its own.  We leisurely headed to Southampton the next day in time to board the ship around 3:00.  Even though I’ve cruised twice before, I don’t think I ever get used to how big the ship is.  When we first saw it, it was pretty amazing.  Since it was run by Norwegian Cruise Lines, I took for granted it was a Norwegian Cruise Line (duh!??!).  I was pleasantly surprised to find it was an American cruise line which made the ship even better – a cruise and a taste of home – perfect!  Chris got an unlimited drinks package in the cruise deal so we indulged in Pina Colada’s (non-alcoholic of course) and sat on deck in the lovely sun waiting for us to head North.  It really was a beautifully sunny day.  Its always fun and exciting to explore the ship.  Its like a maze full of restaurants, shops, arcades, and bars.  I always think I’ll never find my way around when we first leave, and by the end of the cruise you know where everything is.   This ship, The Jade, was FAR larger than the other 2 ships we’ve cruised on before.  It always takes me a while to acclimate to the rocking of the ship but I was pleasantly surprised that my sea-sickness was at a minimum during this cruise (except through some particularly rough sea).



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Our first full day was a day at sea.  I was fully prepared with a good book (what I THOUGHT was a good book), textbooks and notebooks full of study material for my final essay for one of my University classes that was due a day after I got home, laptop, tablet full of games, podcasts, and music.  I learned my lesson from being bored on the Marco Polo Ship.  This ship was excellent and was full of activities for all ages and things to do, but I was content to sit in the sunshine and watch the world go by.


Our first port was Stavanger.  To be honest I had no idea what to expect.  I didn’t do much research like I usually do before I travel and was just going to take things as they came.  We decided to do our old favourite – the hop on hop off bus.  They crammed us on like sardines for the first route of the day.  After a sunny day at sea the day before, it only took one look up to see that on this day we wouldn’t see a hint of the sun… and we didn’t.  We had LOADS of rain.  Off of the bus we took cover in an old church, which turned out to be a good choice.  It was ornate and the alter was unlike any I’d ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot of old church alters after 11 years in England!). 



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We could only sit in the church for so long with so many other things to see so we braved the rain and headed out.  The village centre was pretty small so we just walked.  We looked at the market (full of tourist bait) and saw a circular building on a hill so we headed towards it.  At one point as we were sitting down for a rest, fortune smiled on me when I decided to see if there was a Pandora shop and there was one literally 5 steps from where we were sitting.  So of course, I HAD to get a charm for my bracelet (thanks Chris) and we continued on to the building on the hill.  Chris braved the cobbled street, but with my ankle I kept it safe utilizing the steps.  We arrived at the top to find… well… a circular brink building of no particular interest.  There was a plaque on it but neither of us knew why it was important – but there was a good view from all the way up there.  We headed back down the back streets just taking everything in. 


Chris found where the bus stop was (I still don’t completely trust his sense of direction even though I REALLY should, 99.9% of the time he is exactly right and I am waaaaaaaay off).  We got on the bus and went and saw some older buildings…



We got back to the ship with a little time to look around.  Chris looked for some souvenirs and I walked down the street to take some pictures of the houses along the waterfront.  The tour guide said that the houses on that stretch of road keep their curtains open and have a lot of traditional decoration for people to see how they live.  I didn’t get that far down the road – it started to pour with rain again.


As we sailed away there were people putting their heads out of their windows waving and waving flags.  It was a lovely send off!  We were headed to the fjords next.  This was one of the nights we ran into some pretty rough sea and even Chris suffered with some sea-sickness.  With such a big boat you could really feel it listing back and forth – it was a bit unsettling, but I never felt unsafe or in danger, just not my favourite feeling. 


Nothing could have prepared me for the view that we woke up to in Skjolden.  We had an inside room, which means we have no windows.  Our first view is when we walk out onto the deck.  This day we walked out to this….


When you looked up all you could see were cliffs, clouds, and green and when you looked down you could see…

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It was Norway’s National Day and there was a band and the village all came out to greet us dressed in their traditional clothing, handing out flags as we got off the ship.  It was a quaint, charming welcome!  There was no hop on hop off bus here, so we did an excursion from the cruise line.  We got on a coach and started the climb up the mountain.  Some of the roads were narrow, and looking at the sheer drop out of the window I had to remind myself that they do this all the time – still scary though!

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The church was closed to visitors because they were having services for the National Day.  The people were so friendly and patient with people wanting to take pictures of them.  When we got back from the excursion we still had half a day left, so we walked along the edge of the water to the village centre.  Everything was closed because of the holiday, but we got to see some traditional homes and just take in the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen in a LONG time.  As we travelled, throughout the whole cruise, I can see why there are so many fairy-tales and folklore about trolls centred around this area – its magical!

It was so calming cruising through the fjords.  They are unlike anything I’ve ever seen and the water is like glass.  Waterfalls are every where you look.  There are little homes dotted along the coast line.  It makes me wonder how people live and thrive in such remote places, but part of me dreams of living a life like that.   The ship continued to impress with is great food and really entertaining shows. 

The next stop was Alesund.  This wasn’t a fjord, but a port town.  We got on the hop on hop off bus and headed up to the top of a very steep mountain.  We had clear skies and usually we’d do the whole route once and decide where to stop, but we didn’t know how long we’d have clear skies so we got off at this stop.  The view was breath-taking!  The top also had some old WWII bunkers, which seems like a pretty good place to have one, but it surprised me that even in this place there were effects of WWII.


We got back on the bus and went and looked at an old church and the graveyard.  Even though it was a pretty big town, it still seemed pretty small and quaint. 


We found our way back to the ship with only a minor disagreement (okay a bit of an argument) about directions and I only bring this up because although Chris STILL thinks he was right, well I think I am.  But, if the past is anything to go by Chris was probably right because it was all about how to get back to the ship. We went to a grocery shop to look at all the strange and usual food and to buy more chocolate than necessary.

When we leave the ports there are so many thing to see and beauty to take in.  You don’t know what way to look or what to focus on.

Next stop – Geiranger.  We had to amend the excursion because one of the roads that we were supposed to go on was still blocked with snow.  That didn’t matter, I knew the minute I took a step onto the deck we’d be spoiled with scenery no matter where we went.  We got on the coach and continued up another mountain with some of the most hairpin, sheer drop roads, I’ve ever experienced.  I just kept thinking – the driver knows what he’s doing.  And he really did.  We first stopped at a frozen lake.  The tour guide said, as we were getting out of the coach, “Don’t go far out its very deep and we don’t know how thick the ice is”.” Ummmmm, okay.  This Utah girl was pretty steady on her feet in the snow compared to some of the other people and the view was indescribable.  It was a frozen lake, but the sun was shining, and at the same time the fog was rolling in.  Beautiful.  The coach parked next to the snow bank so we could see how deep it still was.  One of the things that surprised me was that just when you think that there could be no more liveable areas, you’d stumble upon another house.  It is crazy some of the conditions the people live in.  I cant imagine it!

20170519_091335910_iOSThere are houses there!


On the way down from the lake, we stopped to take pictures of the Geiranger Fjord.  It was spectacular (I’m going to run out of adjectives, I’m going to need a thesaurus soon!).  We went to the other side of the fjord and went to a road with 10 hairpin turns.  It was hairy at points!  We stopped at another look out where you could see the whole fjord and the seven sisters waterfalls.  Back at the port we stopped at the shop and tried reindeer jerky, took pictures with a massive troll and headed back onto the ship.  I went to find a coveted seat on the deck with the best view.  I finally got 2 seats at a table right by the railing and then had to go inside because it was such a nice sunny day that I was getting sun burned!  We were lucky on the trip that we had pretty great weather.  Several tour guides said how lucky we were and that the groups the day before couldn’t see the view for the fog/rain. Chris stayed out on the deck and got some pretty amazing pictures – its hard to pick just a few!

Our last stop was Bergen.  We didn’t have a great time at this stop.  Once again they packed us on the coach and that started things off bad.  The weather was kind of blah (but no rain which is VERY rare), and we were both tired.  We did the hop on hop off bus stop but there wasn’t too much to see that was very different from our other non-fjord stops.  We went to the fish market and I was determined to have salmon right from the sea and I had been hearing about Norwegian strawberries off and on and when Rick Steves suggested them I was sold!  Luckily at the market they had some and they were some of the best I’ve ever had.  I also tried Cloudberry jam.  After struggling through the tourist shops we stopped for fish.  I got salmon and king crab and Chris got cod (he thought that was a safe choice, little did he know they barely cook it).  It was okay but, I didn’t quite know how to get into the crab very well and the salmon was lovely but garnished with some strange things.  Needless to say it wasn’t the best money spent on the trip (and it was VERY pricey!!!!).


The next day was our last day and was a full day at sea.  It was really relaxing.  Chris spent a lot of time on the deck but it was too cold for me so I spent most of my time that day (and really, anytime on the ship – in the library.  It had big windows and classical music playing quietly and it was super quiet).  It was Sunday and I was falling asleep working on my school work and I looked on the book case for ‘take one, leave one’ and saw a Book of Mormon so I read, in a pretty nice setting!  Well done to the people who thought to leave it – missionary work done!


We were in constant awe of how long it stayed light at night!


The last night they had a Broadway show and I loved it!  We were given a beautiful sunset and I loaded up on the last of the American bacon, self serve all you can eat ice cream cones, and unlimited pina colada’s.



A great summing up of our time together on this holiday!

We got home to several text messages about work and University essays due – that was reality with a hard landing!  It was a really nice holiday.  I would HIGHLY recommend Norwegian Cruise Lines, by far the best I’ve been on.  The fjords are something that you wont regret seeing and wont ever forget.  I’m so lucky to have been able to go.  Let me just get sappy for a minute – Chris and I didn’t have a perfect marriage and we both have many regrets about things that happened during that time.  But one thing that I don’t regret and will never be able to pay back is the fact that Chris, quite literally, gave me the world.  The things I’ve experienced and the places I’ve seen have been a gift, that I’m forever grateful for. 

Luckily one of the perks of staying friends is that we can continue to travel together  – we’ll see where the wind takes us next!  


Baltic Cruise 2014– Days at Sea, Kiel Canal–Germany, and Home


Somewhere in the Baltic Sea

As we left Stockholm, we knew it would be quite a while before we were on solid land again.  I was lucky that on this cruise I didn’t suffer with travel sickness at all past the first day or so.  I took some great motion sickness pills for those first few days and then found I didn’t need them at all.  By now we knew pretty much every inch of the Marco Polo.  When you go on a cruise you get a daily newsletter.  On the newsletter it lists the activities for the day, the weather forecast, the daily drinks, the show for the night, and other little bits and bobs.  On the cruise we had a few channels on TV.  While we were away from any land it was CNN and BBC World.  Boring.  They did have a movie channel but played mostly older movies – so we didn’t have that to fill up our time at all.  To say we were bored on those last 2 days would be an understatement.  ALL of the activities were geared to older people (the general population of the cruise).  There was a craft class, but that cost money and I refused to pay for a class on the ship when I paid so much to be on the ship in the first place!  They had a very small swimming pool, surrounded by tables and chairs.  If that didn’t put you off swimming, the pool was sea water (Baltic Sea water – FREEZING), and the pool looked generally a big green and mildewed.  Up on the top deck there were 3 hot tubs but they were full to capacity when we went up there and I don’t mean to be mean, but the thought of hopping into a hot tub with the 60+ in speedo’s and the like didn’t appeal.  So any water related activities were out, any on board activities were out – so maybe we lounge in the sun?  That’s a great idea – if there were enough chairs, which there weren’t with some people taking 2 or 3 for themselves (and their feet and their food), and the ones tied up did us no good.  So that was out most of the time.  The first day Chris and I found a little seating area outside on our deck.  We started calling it the “Anti-Social” deck and would take a couple chairs down the steps and sit in silence – it was lovely.  Then some snotty ladies found out our secret and took over!  They always sat there and invited friends (how dare them!!!) thus taking our chairs and quiet.  When we did get chairs and took them down to our deck, they would *tut* and give us mean looks for invading their space.  We did play some Skip-bo (a card game) and an EXTRA long game of “war”.  We had books to read, games on the phones to play, LOTS of naps, and got up to date with our current events on CNN and BBC.  We looked forward to any mealtime (even though the food on a whole was rubbish).  One thing that was really annoying on this ship was the fact that they had meals at very strict times and outside of those times there was absolutely no food available (except the overpriced sweets at the shop on-board).  Not only that, but there was also no water available.  There was plenty of tea provided but the water machines were covered up and the cups put away.  The water in the rooms were safe but heavily chlorinated and so they recommended we didn’t drink it.  Our only other option was to drink the bottled water left in our room for £2.50. 

So for those days at sea we just tried to stay sane.  It was really difficult and wouldn’t care to do it again.  There were so, so, so, many things wrong with the cruise company (Cruise and Maritime Voyages).  It was one thing that we weren’t told about the general age of the passengers, but there were so many problems with the actual ship as well.  One thing we couldn’t fault were the wait staff and the cleaning staff.  They were professional and kind and had to put up with a lot of really mean passengers treating them like 2nd class citizens.  We actually spoke to the cruise director one night.  We were given surveys to fill out about our experience and thought we should talk to staff before we slated them in the survey.  The cruise director was very nice and did feel bad that we had had such a bad time on-board.  As we were walking away he said, “We hope you’ll cruise with us again!”  I replied, “Ummmm….. maybe in 40 years we will.”

One of the highlights on the itinerary was going through the Kiel Canal in Germany.  Most cruise ships are too big to be able to go this way, but we were just small and would be lucky enough to see this amazing sight.  I spoke to my boss, who is German, and he said it was a pretty neat thing to see so I was really looking forward to it.  The day we were supposed to go through the canal we got the daily newsletter and found that we’d be able to see this amazing sight… at midnight.  Chris and I weren’t the only ones who were disappointed with this – especially since it was a selling point on the cruise.  Chris and I decided we’d go to bed early (since there was nothing to do) and wake up around 3 or 4 to see the last bit of the canal and the lock at the end.  We woke up early and found there were some people on deck who had been up all night trying to see the sights.  We got some deck chairs and sat and looked and it proceeded to get foggier and foggier.  By about 4:45 AM the fog was so bad that I gave up and went back to bed.  At about 9:00 Chris came in the room and said that we were still on the canal.  They had stopped the ship to wait for the fog to lift, soon after I had gone back to bed.  This put us HOURS behind schedule.  When I finally got up I got to see the ship go in the lock and wait for it to even out and head back out.  Here are a few pictures we managed to get:

With the delay in the canal we were put quite far behind and instead of docking in Tilbury at 8:00 AM we got there around 12:00PM.  We had to be out of our room at 7:00 so needless to say it was a LONG morning.  I have never been so happy to see England (days at sea on a Cruise and Maritime Voyages ship will do that to you!).  We had to wait for our colour tag to be called, and I’ll tell you what, once the colour was called we were out of there, onto the coach to the car park and onto the motorway.  Until…… our check engine light came on and we had to wait for 3 hours for the RAC to come and tell us everything was fine and we could drive.  We finally got to get Sugar (who would have rather stayed with Julie) and headed home.  We finally got home safely.

How can I say this – the ports and the places we got to see and visit made this a trip of a lifetime.  The cruise company made it a trip of a lifetime we will NEVER take with Cruise and Maritime Voyages and the Marco Polo E.V.E.R again – ever.

But through all my complaining about the ship, I do realize how lucky I am to have gotten to see everywhere that we did.  I know how lucky I am to get to travel and to see places that most people just hear about.



1.  Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia

2.  Eurovision Village in Copenhagen, Denmark

3.  The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia

4.  The tour in St. Petersburg, Russia

5.  Video of Chris in Germany being scared by the thunder

6.  The song the children sang in Tallinn, Estonia

7.  The tour guide in Stockholm, Sweden

8.  Germany – just Germany

9.  The Old Town and Church in Tallinn, Estonia

10.  The outlying islands on our way out of Stockholm, Sweden


A last note on the ship and cruse line:

I cant state enough (although I have tried) how Cruise and Maritime Voyages are not cruise lines for the younger travellers.  There is absolutely nothing on their website about average ages.  Everything on-board from the entertainment, food, activities, games, rooms, outdoor spaces, tours, and staff are geared towards the 50+ age group.  I can understand that if you are in that age bracket it would be a nice holiday. But, if you are younger and have happened upon this blog because you are searching for information about Cruise and Maritime Voyages or the Marco Polo – think twice.  There are other cruise lines that do Baltic Cruises.  They might be more money, but there is a reason for that.  You get what you pay for and I would never recommend Cruise and Maritime Voyages to anyone young or old. 

Baltic Cruise 2014–Stockholm, Sweden


Stockholm, Sweden

1.  The thing that first hit me when we docked in Stockholm was how clean the air smelled – strange isn’t it?  But it just smelled clean and fresh.  Every Swedish person we met, from the port workers to the people on the street were friendly.  It had the same look as Helsinki in the way that it was CLEAN – no rubbish anywhere and the water was clear.  There were even men fished off the bridge.  Our tour guide told us this was common and acceptable.  I’ll tell you one thing, I don’t know many rivers near me that I’d want to eat fish out of.  But like the country, the water was clean.  It just makes a place feel different when it is kept so nice.

2.  Chris and I got the cruise provided shuttle into the centre of town to meet up with a hop on hop off bus.  We only had 1/2 a day in Stockholm so we started off quite early and got to the bus stop too early.   We had about an hour to wait so we walked around the square.  There seemed to be a MASSIVE amount of traffic.  All the sudden we saw loads of flashing blue lights headed towards the square.  On the road where we were standing several police cars and unmarked cars drove past and then a couple of really nice black cars with blacked out windows, followed by more police and unmarked cars.  Chris and I spent the morning speculating who it was.  Later when we mentioned it to the tour guide/bus driver he said they had closed quite a few roads because the UN President was in town and that is who it was who drove past.  We thought it was pretty neat that he had driven right past us.  The guide went on to say, “Yeah, Obama was here the other week.  It was a pain.  They closed tons of roads for him and all of his security.”

3.  We decided to try out luck and walk to the first stop on the bus tour, which looked nearby so we made our way to the stop – across from the train station.  At one point I was sure we were lost and so we stopped and asked someone.  He was a tourist too, but luckily, lead us in the right way and we managed to get the bus.  If we had just waited at the stop we were at we would have left sooner than it took to find the other stop.  We went to the top of the bus, hoping for an open top but we were out of luck; it was still closed.  It was okay though, it didn’t have any windows so we could still get decent pictures.  It was May but it was really quite cold (we were in Sweden after all).  As we drove we made a stop and the driver opened the roof (much to the dismay of some skinny women at the front of the bus).  It was nice but FREEZING and I spent most of the tour wrapped up and slightly frozen.  I thought this was a great tour and covered so many places.  It felt like it was a lot longer than the usual tours we go on.  But, Stockholm is a huge city full of really interesting things.  I found a bus tour isn’t enough to see everything you’d like in depth but if you only have 1/2 a day it has to do.

4.  Our bus driver was hilarious!  On the hop on hop off tours you have a pre-recorded tour, but the bus driver can talk too and often did when we made stops.  He was very likable and made the tour a lot more fun.  He also had little bites of information.  The best thing he said was when we were at a stop and the wi-fi had stopped working (DISASTER how would we update Facebook!?!? – I am being sarcastic).  He got on the speaker and announced that at this stop he would be, “fixing the wi-fi” but only, he didn’t say it like WHY- FI he said it like “wiffy”.  It was pretty funny and to this day Chris and I call the wi-fi the wiffy.  It was funny because he had pretty good English, for the most part  – and he was funny enough that maybe he was saying it like that deliberately. 

5.  We drove past a big blue building.  It looked very out of place and we found out that it was where the Nobel Prize is awarded each year. So now every time we see the ceremony, Chris and I can say, “I’ve been there!” No one needs to know we just drove past (and I couldn’t even really see the front).


6.  We only had half a day here as well and it was definitely not enough time.  We wanted to see so much of what we saw on the bus ride, but just didn’t have the time.  Stockholm seemed to be in sections with the part of town by the river, the part of town up a bit higher in the forest-like environment, and different living areas.  I think I could happily spend at least 2 or 3 more days exploring.  While I love cruises to be able to see so many places, its downside is the time constraints at the ports.

7.  Our tour guild told us that the younger Swedish generation were becoming very “Americanized” the younger Swedish speak very, VERY good English.  They love to shop at American stores and eat at American restaurants.  They also have found that the American (English language) movies at the theatre are more popular than the ones subtitled in Swedish.  When we went to the shop to look around you could see that American influence in the food – they even had Ranch crisps, they don’t even have those here in the UK.  I just found it interesting because it seems so far and so unlike the states. 

8.  On all of our trips we get magnets – its the things we collect, you should see our fridge!  Well this time I let Chris pick the magnets.  We usually get one for the country and one for the city.  Well when we got home and started putting the magnets up we noticed that there were 2 that said Stockholm.  So, we just wrote on “Sweden” but Chris isn’t in charge of picking magnets out anymore. 

9.  As we were leaving the port we saw a lot of really huge homes on the coast-line.  We thought it would be like Finland and there would be some little islands for a few minutes but then just open water.  But, an hour or 2 into our departure we were still seeing amazing scenery and homes dotted in the water.  Chris even said, I don’t know when to stop taking pictures.  It was beautiful but, I would imagine, very lonely if you lived all the way out there.  Our tour guide told us that in Sweden people own more boats than cars.  Seeing all the lovely houses, I really believe it.  It makes me want to win the lottery and buy a little cottage on one of the little islands.  Like Finland, I had the feeling that there was so much more to explore but not enough time to do it in.  It made and even better case for a road trip through Scandinavia.


10.  At this point, the exploring part of our cruise was over.  We had 2 1/2 days at sea with the highlight of going through the Kiel Canal in Germany.  This was very sad.  Sad because we knew we had over 48 hours stuck on a ship with mean people and nothing to do and because it meant our holiday was nearly over.

Stockholm, Sweden overall:  I loved it, loved it.  I wish I had more time to see all the things that were available and to be able to just walk the tree lined streets and soak up the culture.  The port offers the services of the hop on hop off bus and various shuttles so if you don’t want to do a cruise appointed tour there are other options.  But, don’t expect to walk from the port to the city centre – its too far of a walk.  I would have loved to see the ABBA museum and some of the other cultural museums.  So, if you have the time visit Sweden – just make sure you have the time!!  I would go back in a heartbeat – in fact, I might!

Baltic Cruise 2014–Helsinki, Finland


Sibelius Monument

1.  We got off the ship after a very stormy night – I was so happy to be on solid ground!  We only had a half a day in Helsinki and we had a nice bus driver who took us around to see the sights – he wore a nice yellow suit and really struggled with English, he was quite charming and friendly – but, read from a script (as he was driving) and you could tell he was more of a bus driver than a tour guide.  Our first stop was the Sibelius Monument.  Do you know who Sibelius is?  No, me either, but I bet you know his song: Finlandia – no?  How about “Be Still My Soul” – yeah, me too.  I had never heard of him but Chris, who is a big fan of classical music was very interested in seeing this monument.  It was set in a really nice, quiet park on a lake and we were lucky enough to be able to walk around without a lot of tourists.  There is also a sculpture of his face (it was impressive, but I liked the pipes better).  That and the pipe monument is impressive enough, but add in the forest-like surroundings and it was very serene.

2.  As we drove through Helsinki we noticed how clean and quiet and orderly it was.  There wasn’t much rubbish, cigarette butts, or gum on the streets and everywhere looked like it is was in really good condition.

3.  As we drove and walked around the town you could see the Russian style influence on the buildings.  It was strange, in Estonia it looked dark and subdued but here in Helsinki, even though it was Russian inspired, it was clean and white.  So you could see that the style had seeped over to Finland, but not the influence of the “dark” iron curtain. 


4.  We didn’t do much research about this area/town before and just left it up to our tour guide to show us the good spots.  At one point he stopped in a car park.  I looked around and wondered what was so special about this???  Then he told us we’d have an hour or so to walk straight up the street to the rock church.  We hadn’t heard what this was, but we just followed everyone else and started a leisurely walk up a pretty steep street.  When we got to the top we were met with a very strange building.  It looked like a rocky hill with doors.  So we walked inside and we were met with an even stranger sight.  It was a church – built right into the rock.  There were windows for a roof which had a very dramatic effect and next to the organ you could see the remnants of water running down the stone.  Everyone was a bit more quiet, since it was a church, and it had a nice peaceful atmosphere.  I could imagine that during rain it was pretty neat, but I like thinking of it during snow – nice and warm inside, with snow falling outside.  Maybe we should start building all churches into a mountain.

5.  Now, even though we visited in May, Santa Clause was still big business.  Before I had moved to England I had never heard of Lapland but, its a place in Finland where Santa Clause is rumoured to live.  So there is kind of a year-round Christmas feeling to the whole town.  Its quite nice.


6.  After my bout with food poisoning the night before, I didn’t have much breakfast and was quite hungry by lunchtime.  Luckily we were in the market by this time and saw all these stalls for food.  They all advertised salmon soup.  It sounded pretty yummy, and I didn’t want to pass up the chance to have fresh salmon…at the port… in Finland.  There were some other regional foods, that I wouldn’t touch with a pole – but I was very happy with my soup.  It was very hearty with big chunks of salmon and potatoes.  They also had carrots, onions and LOTS of dill.  I think every time I eat dill again I will remember Finland.  Chris, on the other hand, settled for sausage and chips – how boring!!


7.  One of the things we found was that the market was FULL of all kinds of things made from reindeer antlers (see, more Christmas themes).  There was stall after stall after stall of bottle openers, pens, knives, frames, key chains, etc.  But, not much of anything else.  It was kind of a let down, but if you are in Finland and want unique reindeer antler…. anything – you know the place.

8.  When we were travelling around I had the distinct feeling that there was much more of Finland that I would want to explore!  We didn’t have nearly enough time to see everything.  Chris and I sat in the cabin that night trying to figure out how we could get back to Finland (it isn’t the easiest place to get to) and explore the whole country, not just the centre.  When we drove out to the monument at the first of the day you could see tree covered roads leading away from the centre and my travelling spirit just wanted to follow them and explore.

9.  As we drove around I noticed a lot of people out walking.  Walking with their kids, friends, or on their own.  There were loads of bikes too.  One thing I’ve noticed is that the European countries are so much more active than the UK and USA are.  This was only doubled when we went to Scandinavia.  And I am sure there is a correlation between the outdoor lifestyle and exercise and the fact that Scandinavia is home to some of the happiest people in the world (really, I didn’t make up that fact!).  It really inspired me and so when I got home I started to walk the 2 miles to pick the kids up and take them to school instead of driving.  The kids weren’t too happy about it but, it was really nice to be able to exercise first thing and enjoy the relative quiet – there’s definitely something to it. 

10.  No matter where I travel, I always like to find out where the temples/churches are nearby.  I find it interesting to see how close we are and how many there are – it gives me an idea of how many Mormons there might be around us.  When we were driving we found out that the temple was only a few miles away – I would have loved to see it and kept hoping we’d pass it, but we didn’t.  I guess its one more thing I’ll have to go back and see Winking smile.

Helsinki, Finland overall:  We definitely didn’t have nearly enough time in this stop (have I said that already??).  Like I said, it felt like there was so much more to discover and we just weren’t there long enough.  I would love to go to Lapland and, I would love to take a road trip through all of Scandinavia.  But Helsinki was absolutely beautiful and had the potential, if given enough time, for quite a few days of exploring.  As far as the tours go, the port was about a 10 minute drive from the city centre and we didn’t see any hop on hop off type busses so we were glad we used a tour from the cruise this time.  But, if they had a shuttle into the heart of the town, we probably would have done that and explored on our own.  The only thing we would have missed out on was seeing the Sibelius monuments – which were worth seeing.  If given the chance – visit Finland. 

Baltic Cruise 2014–St. Petersburg, Russia Day 2


The Hermitage

1.  We woke up early the next morning to meet up with our tour.  We decided to go through a company called Cruising Excursions for this day long tour, as none that the cruise line provided looked very good compared to what Cruising Excursions were offering.  Also, we used the same company in Rome and really loved it so we though we couldn’t loose.  And we were right!  There was a much bigger ship docked that morning so our group of about 20 on the tour were me and Chris from our ship, and the rest from the other ship.  It was nice to have new people to get to know and even kids on the tour.  We were in an air conditioned mini-bus with bottled water and a great tour guide.  She was a young, married, school teacher named Catherine.  She taught English to junior high/secondary school age kids.  She did the job for the summer and to work on her English.  She was incredibly smart and knowledgeable and most importantly approachable and friendly.

2.  One thing we did notice about our tour guide, Catherine, was that she was fiercely patriotic and loved her “dear President Putin”.  She was full of love and admiration for him and her country.  She did make the “joke” (keep in mind this was when the problems with Ukraine just started) that, “We’ve taken Crimea.  We often joke that since Alaska is cold we call it ice and say that next President Putin will have Ice Cream (Crime).”  I don’t know that making jokes like that were very clever in a bus full of (mostly Americans), but I know she didn’t mean it nasty and just as a joke.  It really made me think about what we are taught and what we believe.  There were several times she talked about how Ukraine owed Russia a lot of money, wanted to be part of Russia, etc. and she said it matter of fact.  That is what she believed.  It was very interesting to see that point of view.  She was a very intelligent woman and just had strong beliefs because of her culture, what she believed, and what she learned.  I supposed, even though I might not agree, I cant fault her for patriotism – after all if there is one thing Americans pride themselves in, its patriotism.  At any rate, I wasn’t ever offended by what she said, but could feel the propaganda mixed into the facts.

3.  On our drive from the port into the city centre there was no shortage of sights!  There were so many things to looks at that were so different than anything we’d ever seen.  You want to take it all in and not miss a single thing.  St. Petersburg is a vivid, historic, busy, exciting city.


4.  Our tour guide arranged to take us to an authentic Russian restaurant for lunch.  Chris and I are quite picky eaters so we were a little hesitant but decided to go for it – why not, what’s the worst that could happen?  Most of the people got the traditional Russian Dumpling dish.  We were sitting next to an older couple from the other ship and that is what they got.  We decided to order off the menu and ended up with some pretty yummy grilled chicken and some potatoes in cream with dill (a Baltic favourite, I found).  It turned out to be quite good food – plain and simple.  The couple sitting next to us said that the dumplings didn’t have much of a taste at all (they definitely didn’t look very appetizing).  It was a perfect break from our sightseeing and before we started exploring the Hermitage.

5.  One thing I have noticed as we’ve travelled is that the general feelings about Americans aren’t very friendly feelings and I have seen more Americans that I like to admit live up to the stereotype the Europeans have for us.  This tour was no different.  Most of the Americans on the tour were kind but there were a few who were really rude.  It makes me cringe so I try to be as kind as possible so that people don’t think we’re all like that.  Although, its probably for nothing since everyone thinks I’m British now because of my messed up accent anyway. 

6.  We had the option to have a private tour (lead by our tour guide) at the Hermitage, or for one of her colleagues to take the others to see some more sights around St. Petersburg.  I think the idea of hours in a museum filled Chris with dread so he decided to go and see the other sights.  This is Chris’ post about St. Petersburg.  At the bottom is a part about the Field of Mars – that is what he ended up seeing while I was in the museum. 


7.  I got to visit the Hermitage.  Now, it wasn’t on my list of places I wanted to see and I really thought we’d miss it on this trip.  I knew Chris wasn’t a huge fan and so I just figured that I’d have to skip it (marriage = compromise right??).  When the tour guide offered us a private tour, other options for those who didn’t want to stay, and discounted tickets I was in heaven.  I don’t think there is any way to describe the Hermitage (like so many things in Russia).  It was grand and imposing and very impressive.  This is what the internet says about the Hermitage:

The State Hermitage is a museum of art and culture in Saint Petersburg, Russia. One of the largest and oldest museums in the world, it was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and has been open to the public since 1852. Its collections, of which only a small part is on permanent display, comprise over three million items, including the largest collection of paintings in the world. The collections occupy a large complex of six historic buildings along Palace Embankment, including the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian emperors.

We were given our own headsets tuned into what Catherine was saying.  She knew her way around the museum and all the “important” paintings and things that most people want to see.  I was interested in the paintings and luckily, that is where we spent most of our time.  Honestly it is such a huge building it would probably take years to see everything there.  It was very hot and humid with lots of people but I guess you wouldn’t expect much less in such a popular place.

8.  The museum was a feast for my eyes.  I didn’t know where to look and was easily distracted by so many paintings.  We got to see famous paintings by the likes of Rembrandt, Picasso, Da Vinci, Cezanne, Ruben, Monet, and on and on.  You could get close enough to see the brush strokes and really take in the pictures.  In the picture album are a sampling of some of the paintings I saw.  Absolutely amazing (pinch me moment).  But my favourite was this painting by Rembrandt.  In person, it looked like there was a light shining on the picture but it was just the way it was painted.  Beautiful.  I was so so so lucky to get the opportunity to see the museum – I am glad I didn’t miss it!


9.  During our tour, Catherine decided to stop at a tiny, out of the way souvenir shop.  It was right by the place where Rasputin was shot and next to a playground full of happy little children.  We went inside and they were offering free Vodka (only in Russia right? and no mom, we didn’t have any).  We both used the toilet and came out, slightly traumatized, with the same picture:


Next to the toilet was a bin full of used toilet roll – for this sheltered American it was… well… gross and it made me say to myself, “We aren’t in UK anymore….”  I didn’t read about THIS in the travel books and made sure I didn’t use the toilet again until we were back at the ship.

10.  We got back to the ship in just enough time to say goodbye to Catherine (she hugged me goodbye).  It was a great day and a great tour.  I can usually judge if a place has affected me by whether I want to go home and learn more… and I absolutely did with Russia.  The lives of the Czars and Catherine the Great really made me want to research more.  Knowing that it was probably the only time we’d visit Russia I tried to take in everything I could.  It was one of the best tours/stops we’ve had here in Europe.  Throughout the day the storm clouds were rolling in.  We were leaving about 6 at night, and the other ship docked with us were planning on following behind at about midnight en route to Finland like us.  We had dinner and went to bed.  In the night I was woken up by some really serious rocking of the ship.  Not only that but I got food poisoning from the food on board for dinner and already felt sick.  It was bad night, to say the least.  I am not very confident with big bodies of water anyway and I cope best on cruises by “forgetting”.  That night as the ship grounded and we were being pushed side to side I was scared, really scared.  Adding the sickness to it – it wasn’t a great night.  Chris went out earlier in the night and could see that the sea was pretty rough (Here is the video Chris took of the storm brewing) – but probably nothing compared to what we went through that night.  When we woke up we found out that we had gone through a pretty bad storm and the other ship decided to stay in port instead of risk it.  I didn’t know to be happy or sad – happy that we weren’t going to miss seeing Helsinki, but sad that the Marco Polo’s Captain decided to risk it.  But we were there safe and sound with blue skies so I guess it worked out for the best.

St. Petersburg overall:  Amazing.  I was nervous to visit Russia.  When I told people that we were stopping there I’d usually get the reply, “Be careful!”  But I didn’t need to worry.  The customs procedure with cruise trips was smooth and efficient.  Its not a place I would try to visit on my own, without the safety of a tour group,  but I am so lucky to have visited there.  I do know how lucky I am, especially now, to say I’ve visited Russia.  The buildings and architecture alone were worth the visit and the Hermitage and ballet were icing on the cake!



Baltic Cruise–St. Petersburg Russia Day 1


Church of our Saviour on Spilled Blood

1.  Needless to say, as an American I was a bit nervous to visit Russia.  I didn’t know how people would react to me.  I registered with the American Embassy and hoped for the best.  My fears were totally unfounded for my situation as a participant on a cruise tour.  The people we met were not overly kind, but weren’t unkind either.  The people in the shops were helpful.  I do think it helped that I learned to say “thank you” in Russian. But to be fair, I’ve found that learning the words “please” and “thank you” for the country you are visiting is very good.  It goes a long way to having people treat you a bit better.

2.  Once the ship docked we were off for our first tour.  We had to go through customs.  We were told to expect long queues, but we got through fairly quickly.  It was a bit disconcerting having police type people walking around, but they are pretty serious about who comes into their country.  I know for us, since we were part of a cruise, our visa was included in our tours.  It is pretty expensive to get a visa individually so doing it through a tour group is definitely the way to go.  Nothing to worry about. 

3.  Our first tour was 3 hours on our own (relatively unheard of in Russia) being dropped off on the Nevsky Prospekt.  This is a major street in St. Petersburg.  We were dropped off in the Arts Square (where the theatres are) and left to our own devices for a few hours.  This sounded great to me and Chris because it was the only tour that gave you any free time.  All the others were strict and you had to stay with the group.  We knew we didn’t have a lot of time to see all that we wanted, but we had a whole day the next day so we just started walking, careful to remember how to get back to where we were – and staying near enough that we didn’t wander into any questionable areas or streets.  As we walked we came upon the Church of Spilt Blood.  I probably cant find adequate words to describe it, and really the picture doesn’t do it justice either.  It was another “pinch me moment” – things I had only seen on TV.  It was stunning and exactly what we expected from Russia.  We didn’t have enough time to visit inside or get too close, but we knew we’d see more of it the next day.  It is, by far, the picture that is in my mind when I think of my cruise.  I mean, when am I ever going to see anything like that again?  It almost made the time on board the Marco Polo worth it, almost. 

4.  Of course we went searching through souvenir shops for a music box.  We try to get one for my mom during every holiday since she collects them.  We just collect magnets – who’s getting the deal there?  Music box vs. magnet?  But really, we love doing it and being able to find the most unique one to send home.  The shops were also packed with all kinds of Russian dolls called matryoshka dolls, Faberge eggs, furs, and scarves (for the churches).  We didn’t leave without our own doll, a doll for “M”, and Chris surprised me with a pretty pink, sparkly Faberge egg.


5.  We decided to visit a very large cathedral on Nevsky Prospekt.  It was called Kazan Cathedral.  I was glad that I had a scarf to wear over my head.  We got conflicting information if it was required, but when we went in all the women had their heads covered.  It was HUGE but it was very quiet.  We noticed a queue to the front of the church.  There were people up there praying and doing the sign of the cross. The next day we asked our tour guide why they were doing that and she said there was a copy of the image of Our Lady of Kazan at the front.  She was was a holy icon of the highest stature within the Russian Orthodox Church, representing the Virgin Mary as the protector and patroness of the city of Kazan.  She said people make pilgrimages to see and pray in front of the picture.  Its very important to a lot of them as witnessed by the long queue and emotion shown when they approached the picture.

6.  While we were at the church we decided to take a rest from the rain and really we had time to spare so we found a seat and just watched the people.  We saw a lady sitting on a folding char with a cat next to her.  I thought it was strange that she brought her cat to church with her, but who knows, maybe that is normal.  After a while the cat got up and started walking around.  Then he jumped up on the bench right next to me and snuggled up close and fell asleep.  I am sure then people were thinking about me, “Why did she bring a cat to church?”The cat stayed right next to me cuddled up for the rest of the time we were there.  At one point a couple came and sat on the bench.  The man started petting the cat and the cat went for him and scratched him.  I found it strange he was so docile with me but hated anyone who sat next to us and tried to pet him.  To be honest, we stayed longer than we would have because I was petting the cat.  I am a firm believer that animals know “animal people” and I guess this cat knew I was an animal person.  I didn’t mind, it is a sweet memory.  It wasn’t until we got back on the ship that I had the thought, “Maybe that cat was a stray and had fleas and I would not be infecting the whole ship.”  I have a wild imagination and the ship was never infested by fleas. 


7.  It was really lucky for us that we got to have some time away from a tour group in St. Petersburg.  Usually the requirements of the Visa are such that you have to stay with your group.  It was a little daunting to be left alone.  In mainland Europe you can usually make some sense out of some of the signs.  But in Russia not only are there different words, but also different writing.  We did have to be careful and were warned a lot about pick pockets, but it turned out to be relaxing and very interesting to have the time – and not scary.

8.  I have to say the highlight of the time in St. Petersburg was getting to attend a ballet in the evening.  We were docked for 2 days in St. Petersburg so we had a lot of options.  It was the ONE thing that the cruise company did right.  We had the choice between a cultural celebration or the ballet. I decided you couldn’t visit Russia without going to the ballet.  We didn’t know what one it would be, and I was happily surprised when we found out it would be Swan Lake.  Swan Lake in Russia?  Sounds cliché doesn’t it?  Well I was very excited.  Chris had never been to a ballet before so I think he was a bit apprehensive, but he loves classical music so that had it going for it.  We were only about 10 rows from the stage – perfect seats.  The ballet was amazing.  The dancers excellent (but, really I don’t know that much so they could have been amateurs for all I know, but it sure looked good!).  It was so neat to see them dance in the toe shoes, do turn after turn after turn, see their expressions, but I think my favourite was the *slap* of their ballet shoes on the stage when all of them were dancing.  The whole experience was, yet another, “pinch me moment”.  We even had a champagne reception at the intermission (we had bottled water) in this spectacular building with ornate ceilings and walls and paintings. 


9.  One thing that ruined the ballet just a little was that before we left both Chris and I left our phones at the ship so we only had our rubbish little camera.  It played up the whole time so we didn’t get very good pictures or videos which was really disappointing.  And just as a tip, while it is annoying to have the person in front of you constantly taking pictures and videos, its REALLY annoying when it is on an iPad or has the shutter sound every time you take a picture.  That being said, you can see our discrete videos here, here, here, and here.

10.  When the ballet was done it was really late at night (like 11:30 late).  There were several busses from the cruise that transported to the ballet, so when we got off the bus they said remember the bus number and get back on the same bus!  Well, people started filing on the bus and we waited for the late comers.  And waited and waited.  We saw the other busses start leaving back to the port (it is about 35 minutes to the port).  Finally we were the only bus on the square, waiting for one couple.  After waiting until about midnight the tour leader got a call that the couple we were waiting for decided they didn’t want to walk “all the way” to our bus but just got on the nearest bus to the door.  Needless to say this annoyed everyone sat waiting on the bus.  We finally got back to the port, had what was left of the late dinner the cruise provided and headed back to the room.

Baltic Cruise 2014–Tallinn, Estonia


Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

1.  I didn’t really know what to expect from Estonia.  To be honest the only time I had even HEARD of it was when I was watching Eurovision.  I didn’t know where it was, the history behind it, or anything really.  We got on the tour bus and we were greeted by this amazing church.  It looked classically Russian and it was the first time I had ever seen anything like it.  To say I was impressed would be an understatement, it was a “pinch me moment”.  It was in the centre of the square with an imposing government building to one side and the remnants of fortification wall on the other side.  But, I didn’t look at much of that at first, I didn’t even NOTICE that at first.  It was the church.  It was set on the top of a hill, surrounded by cobbled streets.  We walked around a bit and found a lot of the embassies are concentrated around that area.  Grand houses and impressive cars, but nothing like this church.  We didn’t go inside since it was a Sunday and they were having services.  Here is a video of the unique bells ringing from the cathedral.  

2.  As we walked around, across from the church was a man busking for money.  He was singing in a style I haven’t heard. It was in English but it was very creative.  Here is a video of him (a highlight of the day):

Tallinn Busker from Chris Wilcox on Vimeo.

3.  We, once again, had taken a tour provided by Cruise and Maritime Voyages.  At this point we were getting quite annoyed at the tours and the fact that, once again at the port, there were hop on hop off busses just waiting.  The tour we were on had 3 stops and the third was a stop at a museum where you had to pay for entrance, or just wait while others visited.  We didn’t like this idea and were very happy when our horrible tour guide gave us the information that the bus would stop in town and if we wanted we could catch a bus the cruise line provided just to shuttle back to the port (we werent told about this either) so we decided to get off of the tour and pay the money for the hop on hop off and get back on the shuttle.  It was the best decision we made.  We took the tour and loved it.  We got to see so much more than we did with the Marco Polo tour and had the freedom to spend our time how we wanted – where we wanted.  Upon our arrival back to the ship we pulled the Tour Director aside and told him how unhappy we were with the fact that we didn’t know about the other tours.  We then cancelled the rest of our tours with them (except one in Russia).  One thing we’ve found as we cruise is there are so many more options to the excursions than what the cruise lines tell you – research it so you aren’t stuck with rubbish tours like we were.  Oh, and don’t expect them to tell you – Cruise and Maritime didn’t tell us, mostly because if they told us they wouldn’t get our money. 


Angry about the tour…

4.  By far one of the best things about Tallinn was that off the town square there were no shortage of streets and shops to wonder through.  Cobbled streets make me and my ankle very nervous but it was worth it to see things that you just cant see from a tour bus.

5.  I make it a point to avoid Mothers Day at church because it is pretty painful to see the kids singing to their parents.  Little did I know that it was Mothers Day in Europe (minus Britain). I knew it was in America and I thought it would be okay because we were in Estonia, until we happened upon the town square and a massive Mothers Day celebration.  There was a huge stage set up and we got to see some adorable kids singing a song (in Estonian).  Even though I didn’t understand what they were saying, their cuteness sure translated just fine, see for yourself:

Tallinn Kids Singing from Chris & Jamie Wilcox on Vimeo.

6.  I got some really yummy candied almonds from a stall while we were walking around.  They smelled and tasted like Christmas.  Very good!

7.  Tallinn was set up with an Old Town and a New Town.  It is really interesting it all just seems to connect.  When we were in the town square we found ourselves walking towards building we saw when we were up by the cathedral.  It was all connected once you were walking the streets but very distinct when you were driving with one town on the top of the hill and the other on the bottom.

8.  One thing I did notice again was the influence of communism/iron curtain on the buildings.  While the town centre was absolutely lovely and had a very historic feelings the outskirts were quite worn down and there was a lot of work going on to improve the look.  We went past an area that the recording on the bus said was like Soho in New York City, but to me it looked a lot more worn down than that.

9.  When we had time we stopped in the town centre across from the stage and had some really nice pizza.  The square was surrounded by restaurants all touting for business.  We made a good choice though – although it got a bit awkward when we had to pay because we didn’t know if we were supposed to tip or not.  I am sure the waiter thought we were strange handing him the money for a tip, but who knows, maybe it made his day!

10.  My favourite picture from Tallinn is this man dressed in tradition clothing.  No, he wasn’t participating in a re-enactment just walking down the street talking to his neighbours.


Tallinn overall:  It was really nice to visit and see a culture an buildings I have never seen before.  But, once we were headed to sea on the ship I did feel we had seen everything there was to see.  That might be an uneducated view, and I am sure there is more to see outside of the city.  But, for me, one day was enough to experience Estonia.  It was interesting and the churches were beautiful.  I am glad I got the chance to see it.

And just as a reference here is our ship compared to a bigger more “regular” sized ship docked in Tallinn (ours in on the right):