Vacation challenges

My mom once told me that a vacation should challenge you. Step outside your comfort zone. Learn. Grow. Do something different.  

Sometimes it’s new countries and entirely new cultures. But wherever we go the one constant is  ourselves. Sometimes we just need to step outside ourselves. 

I’m heading to Amsterdam for a short vacation and I’m challenging myself to be more extroverted. I’m not going to rely on my iPhone as a solo crutch. And yes. Us solo travelers tend to do so. I’m going to push beyond and engage. It’s my personal challenge for this trip. I’ll keep you posted as to how I do – but perhaps not too posted! 

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In Beautiful Stockholm

One busy day in port led to another and this time we’re enjoying the beautiful city of Stockholm. Sadly, due to our ship size we had to dock about an hour south which dramatically cut into our exploration time. 

We took advantage of the transportation offered in the Stockholm On Your Own tour and were soon immersed in the beautiful city. 

Once again we relied on the Rick Steve’s self-guided walking tour which wove us through the medieval streets of Gamla Stan. 

Taking advantage of the ferry we zipped over to the Djurgarden and a short stroll brought us to the Vasa museum.  

Stepping into the museum takes your breath away. While you know it’s a Viking ship seeing it whole in all its salvaged glory is incredible. The model below shows what the ship looked like before it sunk in its maiden voyage. 

What a fantastic museum. Informative exhibits cover several floors and surround the ship. While a bit crowded we had a great time exploring and enjoying the harbor. 
One thing I’ve noticed is the Rick Steve’s books for this part of the world contain more errors and fewer details than their Western European counterparts. A prime example is the public ferry dock shown outside the Vasa doesn’t exist other than a Hop-on-Hop-off ferry dock. Luckily we scored a taxi dropping off a passenger nearby and saved our tired feet the excursion. There is a tram but we hadn’t taken out local currency but did see those trams packed to the gills. 

We spent our last in Stockholm enjoying a light meal at a garden cafe before cramming back in the bus for the hour drive. I don’t see how people spend all day on bus tours! 

The cruise out of Stockholm held more picture perfect moments. Wasn’t expecting to enjoying a balcony on a Baltic cruise but the abnormally warm weather has been a surprise. 

Evenings aboard the ship have been interesting. While some passengers spend all their time very casual others dress nearly every night ranging from smart casual to cocktail attire.  

One particular couple we always looked for seemed to cruise in costume complete with Venetian masks one evening.

We spent our evening tapping our toes and bopping along to the Million Dollar Quartette show which was surprisingly fun.  

Looking forward to tomorrow’s day at sea. It’s been four busy port days with Stockholm as one of my favorites. Just wish we had more time. 

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Helsinki

After two exhausting days in St. Petersburg we spent a relatively short day in Helsinki and must admit it’s my least favorite stop so far. 

We followed the Rick Steve’s walking tour to visit the highlights. In hindsight we should have simply taken his tram tour recommendation.  Normally I enjoy my feet on the street yet in Helsinki there just seemed fewer things of interest in between. 

The immediate area around the harbor and esplanade however were beautiful and had an older European feel with its statues and monuments. 

As you work your way inland it becomes all about shopping centers and modern architecture with the grand music hall and finally wrapping up our walk at Temppeliaukio (Church in the Rock). Which yes, is a church blasted out of rock. 

While it could have been relaxing with the pianist and wonderful acoustics, it was filled to the brim with large chattering tour groups. 

We returned to the harbor and it’s bustling market stalls before heading back to the ship and another relaxing evening on board. 

While again, not my favorite port, the weather was fantastic and the Baltics don’t disappoint with their late sunsets. 

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Second day in St. Petersburg

Our second day in St. Petersburg was spent in the city visiting landmark sights including the Hermitage, Church on Spilled Blood, Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral and a stroll down the main shopping drag Nevsky Prospect. 

The Hermitage is exhausting! The palace itself features lavish interiors and of course is filled with art and crowds. Being with a private guide allowed us to navigate the museum with ease yet still had us in museum overload. 

One of the big draws is an amazing and intricate peacock clock. 

Thankfully our next stop was a short drive away so we had a chance to sit! We also enjoyed a typical Russian lunch of borscht and little meat dumplings. The soup was fantastic! 

One thing I love about travel are the unexpected moments such as a band floating down a Russian canal! The military presence is due to the city preparing for a huge football event which also caused horrible traffic delays. Don’t worry, the city feels perfectly safe. 

Church on Spilled Blood is built on the site of the assassination of Czar Alexander II. 

While the exterior is fantastic it matches the brilliant interior. 

With one assassination on the mind, our final church stop was the resting place of the Romanovs from Peter the Great to Nicholas II who along with his family were executed by the Bolsheviks. 

The West has romanticized their fate that one can’t but be touched seeing the room where those who have been recovered rest. 

Our final stop of the day was a  stroll along Nevsky Prospect and reminds that this is a busy city like any other around the world. The primary distinction seems to be a complete lack of traffic rules!  

Soon we were back aboard the ship. St. Petersburg has been very interesting and our guide fantastic. I found the comments about nationalism to be interesting. Numerous references to works of art being taken from families and nationalized as well as comments about fairness and living in equality.  Much of the last eighty years seemed to have never happened. 

But let’s wrap up Russia with a fun stereotype. While we didn’t find dark smokey communist vodka halls we did find tacky tourist shops. And yes, we indulged. 

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Russia! Experiencing St. Petersburg

It feels surreal to be in Russia yet the actual experience is just like any other major European city with the exception of signage. The language and the written word are like pieces of art. 

We booked an independent private two-day highlights tour with TJ Travel. The ship docked at 7 am and we prepared to depart as soon as possible having heard it could take up to 45 minutes to clear customs. 

Apparently the line to depart began on deck six and we managed to merge in from five and were meeting our guide Tatiana after clearing customs in only about fifteen minutes. I’m just excited to have a Russian passport stamp!

Tatiana and our driver Roman took us to several photo spots around the city. 

One of the Czars goals was to claim the city as the Venice of the North and it certainly has the feel. Rivers, canals and bridges cut across the city yet the canal culture never thrived. 

A subway stop was interesting. Odd but interesting. 

The Russian Orthodox Church was beautiful and while on a bit of the tourist route, still a thriving congregation. 

To reach Peterhof we enjoyed a twenty minute hydrofoil nap and were soon as the royal summer residence. Where we spent a lovely afternoon exploring the gardens and fountains. 

Peterhof is celebrating its official opening with a concert and visiting dignitaries complete with heavy military presence. 

Our next stop is the Catherine Palace about an hour away but fist lunch! Since we’re in Russia I started with a caviar appetizer followed by a simple vegetable and poem meatball soup. Very good. The Catherine Palace is beautiful yet sad to realize everything you see has been painstakingly restored since it’s near total destruction in WWII. 

We wrapped up with a short stroll through the grounds before returning to St. Petersburg and our home away from home. 

It’s been a long day with other full one tomorrow. I’m going to need a vacation from my vacation!  

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Day at sea

After staying up late to enjoy the departure from Warnemunde it was nice to sleep in and have a lazy morning. 

Unfortunately we missed the breakfast but moved right along to lunch where we were joined by a solo traveler we met in the dining room line. Oddly we shared a similar background of New Orleans, Atlanta and even a similar employer. 

After a lazy afternoon strolling the ship we decided to dress up for the evening. 

We’ve enjoyed hanging out in the Atrium lounge before dinner and after a lovely seafood meal we joined the dancing in the nightclub. Sad to say we called it a night as we arrive early in Tallin. 

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Warnemunde to Rostock

After enjoying our morning in Warnemunde we took the short 20 minute train down to Rostock and subsequent tram to The city center. The guide provided by the pier information shop provides very clear directions along with a self guided walk of both Warnemunde and Rostock. 

Soon we were at Neur Markt, the heart of Rostock bustling with students  and market stalls. While Warnemunde is full of fishing village charm and quant shops, Rostock is livelier with typical commercial shops, pedestrian zones, and tourists from beyond the cruise ship. 

From Neur Markt we strolled to University Square lined with food carts, demonstrations, cafes and folks enjoying the unseasonably warm weather. The Baltics have thrown us for a temperature loop. Forecasts of 58 degree highs have yielded an afternoon in the low 80s with blazing sun. 

While Rostock has more historic churches to explore Warnemunde oozes seaside charm. St. Marian church with its soaring organ and incredible astronomical clock tucked behind the nave is certainly worth a visit. 

After a break for brats the idea of an afternoon cocktail in the cool ship air drew us back to Warnemunde. 

One thing we’ve not been able to find has been the plethora of tacky tourist shops seen all over most tourist cities. And I’ll admit, I want country or city t-shirts.  

Back at the pier shop managed to find one location tee then it was back on board to enjoy an afternoon cocktail. 

We continued to explore the ship before the Getaway set sail. Our Captain managed an impressive k-turn kissing the edges of the narrow harbor and we were off with much fanfare. Local ships and ferries provided an escort responding to our horn trumpets and folks lined the harbor to watch the departure under a blaze of fireworks. 

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Warnemunde, Germany

NCL Getaway dwarfs the fishing village of Warnemunde as nearly four thousand passengers descend upon this sleepy seaside town. 

We’re exploring on our own before taking the train over to Rostock. Warnemunde is delightful with quant shops and restaurants lining a canal and a beach front promenade. 

Since we’re in Germany stopping at a little canal side beer garden is obligatory. 

One or two picturesque moments and off to the train station and Rostock. 

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And anyway we Getaway

Norwegian Cruise Lines mega ship GetWay is making her maiden voyage through the Baltics and we’re on it! She just arrived after sailing 16 days from Miami bringing her Caribbean vibe to Denmark and the Baltics. 

The boarding process for nearly 4,000 guests was handled out of two terminals and after about an hour we were ready to explore. There’s a lot to explore!

I’ll get more external photos from ports as putting this ship to scale from below is impossible. It’s huge!

After a light lunch in a pub themed restaurant we hit the freezing decks to look back on Copenhagen with our frothy tropical cocktails. Bartenders and guests huddled for warmth. 

Unfortunately the cocktails still reflect Caribbean influence.  It’s also very cold up on deck 17! When I booked the cruise I chose the Adult Beverage package as my booking gift. Can you say unlimited beverages?

Luggage arrived quickly and we’ve settled nicely into our balcony stateroom. Guess they’re used to lots of overpacking Americans as there are plenty of hangers, big suitcases fit under the beds and plenty places exist to tuck away makeup and miscellaneous items. 

We unpacked while cruising along the shore of Sweden. Despite the cold our balcony offered a bit of wind protection and will be nice to see some of the world while relaxing on the privacy of our own space. 

The ship abounds with dining options. Most require an incremental fee or a la cart pricing. We found that a quick snack from the buffet was good and the service and menu in one of the included dining rooms to be rather delicious. Roasted duck with homemade papparradeli (forgive spelling!) and shiitake mushrooms was deliscious. Linda’s classic prime rib looked wonderful.  The dining rooms are also elegantly designed and feel like you’re in an hugh end restaurant. 

So far the passengers are a broad age mix leaning a bit to the older side with a large nationality mix with quite a few folks continuing on from the transatlantic crossing. 

Hopefully as folks settle into the ship they’ll discover more of the music lounges as some of the live performers faced empty lounges last night. 

We’re now in Warnemunde, Germany for a long day. The cruise offered an excursion to Berlin but we’re going to pass the round trip 8 hour train ride and explore the local area on our own. 

As to blog posts I’ll try to keep up when I can go off the shore connections. Ship wifi and data is expensive!

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Full day in Copenhagen

We arrived in Copenhagen yesterday late afternoon and spent a few hours walking around the city, enjoying a dinner of open faced sandwiches before collapsing into our beds. My rule of thumb is to make it to 10 pm then getting a good night sleep to get the most out of the first full day. I’d like to say mission accomplished!

Our hotel is just a few short blocks from City Hall and the start of the Rick Steve’s city walk. Always been a big fan of his self guided walks. 

City Hall is located just across from Tivoli Gardens, Europe’s first amusement park. Hans Christian Anderson gazes on the entrance. We strolled through the city enjoying the monuments and palaces. The reception rooms of Christiansborg Palce were worth a stop before strolling along the harbor toward Nyhaven. Nyhaven is picture postcard perfect Copenhagen. Bustling with tourists and cafes we took a break to enjoy a snack and some Belgian beer. Can’t help but capture photos of this picturesque location. 

We continued to stroll through the pedestrian streets until returning to our hotel for a short break before dinner.

Overall Copenhagen has been a delight. Very clean city with extremely friendly people who thankfully speak wonderful English as the Danish language is difficult to say the least. 

Meals so far have been a little hit or miss. The typical Danish cuisine is heavy on seafood, particularly herring which I’m happy to do without. We picked up lunch from one of the numerous hotdog/sausage street carts and have to say that’s probably one of my favorites so far. 

Our after dinner schnapps however was a fantastic appertif and I’m going to claim as purely medicinal. 

Tomorrow we’ll be off to board our cruise for a nine day excursion to the Baltic capitals. Good times ahead. 

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