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Celebrity Constellation Review 8/26/04 Baltics



 
 
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Old September 8th, 2004, 10:41 PM
Jeff Stieglitz
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Default Celebrity Constellation Review 8/26/04 Baltics


Back to reality. For the first time in nearly two weeks, I need to carry a
wallet instead of a Sea Pass card.

My wife and I just returned from a fabulous trip aboard the Constellation.
Previously, we had cruised on Carnival, Princess, and Royal Caribbean.

Below are a few notes on our trip that may be interesting to the group -
some "pay back" for all of the good information that I have received from
the discussion group over the years.

Here are the sections:
Preliminaries: Booking the trip with CruiseQuick and Red October
Getting The Flying to London and side trips
Welcome Aboard: Some observations about the Celebrity Constellation
Port By Port: Details on activities and a special section on Red October
Disembarkation: The bitter end
Sidebars: extended rants from an obsessed and perverted mind


12 Day Baltic Cruise
Celebrity Constellation
August 26, 2004


Preliminaries:

In the months leading up to our trip, I was excited because I had always
wanted to take an extended voyage, visit Russia, and cruise with Celebrity.
The twelve-day Baltic cruise was a perfect fit. I also liked what I had
read about the Constellation: big (964 feet), new (maiden voyage in May,
2002), and many awards (top rated by Conde Nast Traveler).

We booked the cruise via CruiseQuick.com for $3021 per person. This
included a category seven unobstructed ocean-view cabin on deck two,
Celebrity Air via Virgin Atlantic out of Los Angeles with transfers ($800),
and an extra day pre-cruise in London at The City Inn Westminster ($212).
We also ended up paying about $400 per person for Red October and about $500
per person for on-board charges like drinks, internet, photography, tips,
and so on.

So, including all fares, drinks, shore excursions, and so on, when we
finally got home the cruise cost us about $ 4,000 a person.

I understand that we could have done all of the transfers and air on our
own. I've done this before, but this time I was traveling with a larger
group and I wanted the cruise line to take care of me for the entire trip.
This ended up working out well.

They say it clearly on their web site: CruiseQuick is not for everyone.
They won't hold your hand and help you pick out a cruise or a cabin. Their
communications are terse. However, they have always been responsive and
offered good prices, so this is the second cruise I have booked with them.
There were a few little hiccups. At one point, they told me they would send
me an email when they received the cruise docs. This didn't happen - I
received the docs without any notice. Also, I had requested a balcony
cabin. They said that the balconies were sold out, but my nicely-formatted
email itinerary still said "balcony". When I pointed out that our assigned
room was not on a balcony deck, they agreed that it was a typo and
apologized for the goof. Not a big deal. I have to say though, that people
considering CruiseQuick should not worry about it being an "email only"
agency. They have always responded to me much faster than any conventional
travel agency - always less than a day, in some cases in just a few hours.

After receiving the booking number from CruiseQuick, I went to the Celebrity
website and keyed in all of our vital information. The web site for this is
well-executed, on par with the Princess site and much better than Carnival's
version. Eventually, I booked our shore excursions through the web site as
well. This is a fabulous feature that is offered by Celebrity and Princess
but not Carnival. On Carnival, it was very unpleasant getting all of the
excursions ordered on the first day of the cruise. I also went to the
Cruise Critic web site and signed up for the special "Connections" party
offered to Cruise Critic users.

Celebrity's cruise docs are wire-bound and nicely formatted, with customized
luggage tags bound-into the little folder. This is much nicer than both
Princess and Carnival, who sent me a bunch of tags floating around in a
cramped envelope. Carnival's docs were all in upper case and had a dated
feel. Celebrity's were nice and modern, giving me a clean and upscale
impression. Nice.

So far, the Celebrity website and docs experience was nice. When I called
them to confirm that my cabin was not a balcony that was nice too.

Everyone who has who is internet-savvy and is considering a Baltic itinerary
has heard of Red October ( http://www.redoctober.spb.ru ) tours. They're a
Russian tour company that offers intensive tours for a reasonable price.
It is run by a lady who previously worked at InTourist, the only travel
agency around in the Soviet era.

I read many positive reviews of Red October, and we had a productive
exchange of emails to develop my custom itinerary. I wanted to visit some
unusual places in addition to the standard tour of the palaces.

I threw them a number of curve balls. I wanted our guide to be one of the
"Helens" that have been reviewed so positively. I also also had an unusual
itinerary in mind: I wanted to ride the subway, see the military museum,
and visit a farmer's market. They handled all of these special requests
with ease. Later, I asked about a visit to the "St. Petersburg Broadcasting
Center". They said they were busy with other customers and would get back
to me soon. I waited for two months before reminding them of my request. I
think they forgot about it, because within a few more days they gave me some
detailed information: A visit to the broadcasting center takes about six
hours, and I would have to cut out something from our schedule to make it
fit. I decided against it.

Off topic observation: Whenever I'm working with someone and they tell me
they are busy, my first inclination is to lighten their load a little bit by
taking my business elsewhere. That would be Denrus (
http://www.denrus.ru/ )in this case. I didn't do that this time because it
was just a small issue and Red October is so highly recommended by the
internet groups.

Several months before the cruise, Red October asked for passport information
and sent me some "tickets" by postal mail to help us get through Russian
Immigration. By email, they sent a final itinerary and several Word
documents giving tips on dealing with the ship's crew at disembarkation.

As it turns out, none of this was necessary for us. The Celebrity staff and
Russian Immigration just let us sail right through.

It seems that there is some confusion on the part of the cruise lines,
perhaps intentional, about the need for Russian Visas by independent
travelers. Celebrity states "A Tourist Visa is required for independent
sight-seeing: however, visas are not needed on the ship sponsored shore
excursions." What they don't say is that passengers who use travel
companies registered with the Russian government - such as Red October and
DenRus - are also exempt from Visas.

So let me put it clearly: You do not need a Russian visa with Red October.

I've also seen rumored on the internet groups that cruise lines will
frequently make independent tourists wait until the ship's tours have
disembarked. Red October sent me several emails stating we should get off
the ship as soon as possible, and offering some tips on how to do that.

As it turns out, this also was much ado about nothing. During the cruise
itself, there was a polite announcement asking those with independent
arrangements in St. Petersburg to check in with the reception desk,
ostensibly to deal with Russian Immigration formalities.

I brought my package of Red October materials to the desk, and clerk asked
what time I wanted to get off the ship. She said that they were keeping
track just to enable an orderly disembarkation. So much for immigration
formalities...

I was able to glance at the list and stopped counting after I reached twenty
groups for Red October. Good for them.


Getting The

Celebrity booked us on a Virgin Atlantic flight that left Los Angeles
International at 5:30pm and arrived at London Heathrow at about 10 a.m local
time after about nine hours in the air.

I've traveled internationally many times, but this was my first flight with
Virgin. There were a few surprises. First of all, carry on baggage for
coach class was limited to fifteen pounds, and they had an electronic scale
at the entrance to the check-in line. First or business class passengers
escaped scrutiny.

I have a Tumi roll-aboard that I have been using for a number of years, and
it must weight fourteen pounds empty. No matter how much I transferred to
my checked bag, I couldn't get it down to the right weight, so I had to
check it, which made me nervous as it had no locks. There was considerable
chaos in the ticketing area people struggled to transfer items from bag to
bag to meet the weight limits. In retrospect, I should have selected
business class for my group. No fifteen-pound limit there.

Also, after a certain time the security goons decided that they didn't like
the way the line was growing, so they re-formed it outside, completely
ignoring the people who were already in a line tracing its way through the
terminal. This caused a number of heated arguments from those who had
waited the longest and suddenly found themselves at the end of a newer,
longer, line.

The flight itself was non-eventful, other than I had an aisle seat. My
fitful attempts at sleep were disturbed by well-fed rumps brushing against
my shoulder as they waddled down the aisle. I pushed back when I felt
something touch my head, but I doubt the worst offenders could feel my
rebuking shove. Note to self: especially when flying coach, choose a
middle seat over aisles when window seats are unavailable.

Soon, we reached Heathrow. Virgin once again dashed my expectations by
using stairs and a bus to handle the disembarking passengers. The bus could
only handle forty people at a time, and apparently there was only one bus,
so some time to drain the 400 people from our 747.

After running through British immigration, our group of four people
collected our luggage and we were off to find our Celebrity transfer agent.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I discovered my belongings were still in that
unlocked bag that I had to check.

Walking into the busy arrival lobby with our luggage, I spotted a Celebrity
sign held by what turned out to be a very pleasant lady. She checked our
names against a list and then escorted us to a driver, mentioning that only
a few groups were arriving the day before the cruise, but that she would be
shepherding more than 400 people the next day - the day of departure.

We were led to a waiting van and the driver took us to The City Inn,
Westminster. It was one of the hotels recommended by Celebrity and I
selected it because it was new and offered a modern, minimalist décor. Our
group of four had the van to ourselves.

Independently, I had booked a tour of the state rooms at Buckingham Palace
and a "flight" on the London Eye Ferris wheel. Even though we were all
tired from the flight, it was energizing to be inside the palace. The tour
was self-guided using a programmable audio headset. At certain points the
audio would say something like "if you would like further information about
this special clock, type 51 on your keypad and press the green button".

When we arrived back at the hotel there was a letter under the door from
Celebrity welcoming us and offering some tips about the transfer the next
day.

The next day, we got on the big bus parked just outside the hotel and
arrived at the Dover port two and a half hours later. The bus was modern
and it was about half full, but the seating was somewhat cramped - some of
the taller people were grousing.

In the arrival hall at the Dover Port, we were greeted by a fair-sized line
of passengers and some Celebrity staff dispensing punch and water. When I
traveled on Princess last, they had some low-key live music in the arrival
hall to set the mood, something that Celebrity should emulate.

When we reached the head of the line they handled the usual details and then
threw me a curve ball: They wanted to keep our passports, at least
temporarily, saying they had to make a copy for Russian immigration. I
hesitated to give up my passport to anyone, but I had some ancient memories
of Russians keeping passports in the old days, so I quickly relented. We
received receipts, and the passports were returned to us the next day
on-board, with a photocopy neatly folded for us inside. I still don't
understand why they didn't just make a photocopy right then at the port, but
I didn't complain.

As it turns out, Celebrity was making a copy for our convenience - Russian
Immigration needed a copy the first day in St. Petersburg. I wish they just
would have explained it like that. Something like "Russian Immigration now
requires you to present a photocopy of your passport when you get off the
ship the first day in St. Petersburg. We will make a copy for you and
return it along with your passport to your stateroom. We will give you a
receipt for your passport. The passport number you may have given us
earlier is not enough for Russian Immigration. They need a copy, and we are
helping you.."


Welcome Aboard

We were on the ship in a half hour, welcomed by a glass of champagne and a
line of uniformed staff taking passengers to their staterooms. We had room
2074, and within minutes of our arrival our Indian steward Camilo was there
introducing himself and explaining the features of the room. That was nice,
because on our last Carnival cruise we never met our steward.

In our cabin was a complimentary Celebrity tote bag, some bathrobes to use,
two umbrellas, a safe, a hair drier, two outlets near the desk and one in
the bathroom. The shower had a detachable nozzle and was thermostatically
controlled. There was no peephole in the door.

On a lark, I confirmed that we would be experiencing the "glowing toilet"
affect, occasionally discussed in the news groups. When the lights are off
in the bathroom, a little bit of light from the outside corridor seeps in
through a plumbing maintenance panel, resulting in a slight glow to the
toilet bowl.

Moving on, I jumped on the bed and determined that the mattress was firm and
the linens had a luxurious feel.

On our little desk I found our shore excursion tickets and an invitation to
the Cruise Critic party. The signups for both of these were handled months
ago via the web.

I took a minute to read the daily activity guide. It had a high quality
feel, thick paper and nice fonts. The "schedule" section was a separate
piece of thick stock, almost like a 3x5 card, and was divided for easy
folding. The small print on the activity guide said that promotional fees
may have been paid by the recommended shops, and that was also stated from
time to time by the onboard "shopping consultant". These thoughtful details
put me in a good mood - I was pleased to see truth in advertising.

We wandered around the ship a bit, and found it to be modern, clean, and
with a collection of art that was entirely to my liking. Lots of
photographs, mixed media, and sculpture. I didn't see many inaccessible
modern-art masterpieces.

There are no self-service laundry facilities aboard the Constellation,
unlike the Star Princess and the Carnival Inspiration.

We checked out the reception area located at the foot of the tasteful
atrium, noting a kiosk near the front desk that had printed newspaper
summaries in various languages. They also had a "bank" desk and a
"concierge" desk nearby. The bank handled the usual currency exchange
details, and also handled postal duties - the attendant told me that they
would mail postcards for $1.25 each, and if they were submitted more than an
hour before departure they would bear the postmark of the current port. As
it turns out, $1.25 was reasonable compared to the international postcard
rates we found at some of the ports.

Next stop: the casino. It casino had the usual slot games and video poker,
along with dealer blackjack, craps, and roulette. The blackjack rules allow
for doubling after a split, but the craps game only featured single odds.

I found it notable that the casino cashier would offer quick cash charged to
the room account - the usual credit-card cash advance fees would not apply.
I think this would be a better deal than using the shipboard ATM machines.

Leaving the Casino, we checked out some of Constellation's other special
features. The library, "words" was an impressive two-story room with plenty
of books and magazines. They also rented iPod music players there.

The music lounge, "Notes", was also two levels, and it had quite a few
lounge chairs with nearby touch-screen jukeboxes. I messed with the touch
screen a bit --- you can select genre, artist, or song, make a play list,
and then listen to your custom concert via headphones. Unexpected and
fascinating.

We went up to deck ten to take a quick peek at the Aqua Spa. Celebrity
claims that they have the largest facilities afloat, and from what we saw
that is no idle boast. The spa facility is quite appropriately located on
the same deck as the buffet. It features a little Café, which features
light cuisine all day. The café looks out over the therapy pools - a couple
of regular Jacuzzi-style tubs and a larger heated pool of similar design.

Beyond the therapy pools were the treatment rooms, where the staff was
offering the usual feel-good quackery such as "a coconut milk body scrub to
release toxins that cause irritability and constipation." I was tempted to
ask specifically which toxins were released and the specific mode of
removal, but I decided against it. My guess was that the "toxins" came from
the buffet down the hall.

The ship also touted acupuncture treatments in a similar fashion.

We inquired about a manicure and a pedicure, and the total for the "hand and
foot ritual with exfoliating lime and ginger salt scrub" was a little over a
hundred dollars. Perhaps this is a good deal for seaborne nail clipping,
but I decided to pass.

In front of the ship, and indeed one of the few places where one could get a
good view of where the ship was headed, was the gymnasium. It was
well-equipped with gear from Life Fitness: six elliptical trainers, twelve
treadmills, five steppers, four cycles, and a dozen weight machines. I also
saw two Schwin rowing machines, a bunch of stationary bikes used for
aerobics classes, and a small room with free weights.

On the very top deck was the "conservatory", a type of greenhouse where you
could pick up some greenery and take flower arranging classes. It seemed to
me that most of the flowers were silk, but some of them appeared to be
alive. They also had a jogging track there.

I was sort of disappointed at this point to discover that there was no easy
way to get to the very front of the ship. The concealed "topless deck" was
about as close as one could get - neither the promenade deck nor the jogging
track led all the way up to the front. I was hoping to do my Leonardo
DeCaprio imitation by shouting "I'm the king of the world!" from the helipad
on the ship's bow. Alas, that part of the ship is blocked to passengers.

The muster drill followed, and I marveled that both the audio quality and
the depth of the explanations were better than other lines. Also
interesting were the multilingual announcements: English and Spanish. As
it turns out, there were a lot of people from Mexico and South America on
the cruise.

I liked the way they played the Celebrity theme song as we were sailing away
from port.

The entertainment that night featured some videotaped introductions from
Celebrity executives. That was nice.


Port by Port

The first day was a day at sea, giving us a good chance to explore the ship
and its many charms. I grew accustomed the friendly way the staff greeted
us whenever we passed along the hallways and decks.

Our cabin was quiet. The silence was uninterrupted by shill announcements
for Art auctions, bingo, or spa specials. Not ever. I like that about
Celebrity. Occasionally we could hear our neighbors in the adjoining cabin,
especially when they were putting things in their closet, but thankfully
that was relatively rare.

The ship was very smooth. Overall, we only had noticeable motion on one
day, which I understand made a few people sick. On that day, I was fine but
I wished the closet had foam rubber hangers, as they were jangling about.

The ship was kept very neat and clean.


First stop: Oslo, Norway. Arrived at seven a.m., left at two p.m. Brief!

I awakened early to view our approach through the "fjords", and my wife and
I were among the first to get off the ship at 7 am. Greeting us at the dock
was a lone taxi, a hop-on, hop-off bus for the independent minded, and a few
dozen pieces of luggage that were catching up to their owners. We wandered
about the town a bit and then returned to the ship to pick up Celebrity's
$45 "Oslo Highlights" tour.

That tour was a waste. We saw the sculpture garden, where our guide gave us
explanations in unneeded detail on many of the dozens of sculptures in the
park. There was at least ten other tour buses there, preventing really
special photography.

After the sculpture garden, we went to the ski jump museum. I was also
bored by this. After that, we drove by the courthouse and returned to the
ship. At one point, the chatty tour guide told us to avert our eyes because
there was an interesting flea-market happening on the side of the road, and
we wouldn't be stopping there.

The main highlight for me was the visit inside the state building, which is
impressive architecturally and also because it is the site of the Nobel
Prize banquet. There was a large Asian tour group there and the members
were taking pictures of each other engaging in mock acceptance speeches at
the Nobel lectern. I thought that was a grand idea, but the line was too
long so I gave up. No Nobel Prize for me, too impatient.

After returning to the ship, we still had a good hour to kill so we jumped
on a shuttle that Celebrity had arranged between the ship and a shopping
area.

Then we bid Oslo farewell, having experienced just a quick taste of Nordic
Culture.

When we returned to our room, there was a little form on the bed asking us
how we intended to get to the airport at the end of the cruise. Premature
and a real buzz kill. That's not what I wanted to be thinking about so
early in the cruise, and I can just assume that the ship was trying to plan
the disembarkation process.

What made it even more disappointing is that I had scheduled all of my
travel through Celebrity, so they already knew that I was using them to
transfer from the ship to the airport and what flight I was taking. I
shrugged off this minor annoyance and left the cabin to gorge myself.


Second port: Stockholm, Sweden. Arrived at ten a.m., left at five p.m.

We had scheduled "A Day In Stockholm" for $99 per person through Celebrity.
And a busy day it was. The first stop was at a nice place to take pictures
of the harbor. We visited a number of grand old churches, then the Viking
Ship Museum. The museum was much more interesting that I anticipated - the
old Viking ship is really large and there is a fascinating story associated
with its rediscovery and recovery. The museum was well done.

We had about two hours on our own for lunch and shopping, and we spent it
wandering around the crooked streets of the city center, getting lost at one
point but it ended up all right.

By this point, I realized that Celebrity is really punctual. Our ship
always arrived right on time at the ports and the shore excursions left
almost to the minute of scheduled departure. Some of the excursions left
early when they determined that everyone was already on the bus. That was
nice and I appreciated it -- an improvement over the other cruise lines.


Third Port: Helsinki, Finland. Arrived at nine a.m., left at six p.m.


We booked the $189 "Steam Train and Highlights" tour through Celebrity. We
did indeed take a brief ride on a wood-fired steam train, and stopped at the
obligatory old churches

We spent some time wandering around the quaint old town of Porvoo before
going to an old manor on the Baltic for a fair lunch of chicken stew,
scalloped potatoes, and raspberry mouse. Then it was back to the ship.


Fourth Port: St. Petersburg, Russia. Arrived at seven a.m., left at 6:30
p.m. the next day.

Using what I learned on this group, I used Red October to guide me through
the two days in St. Petersburg. The experience was so efficient and so
customized to my whims that it will be difficult for me to return to
bus-sized tours. When all was said and done it ended up being a bit under
$200 per person per day.

The night before we arrived, our room steward delivered a message to our
room that explained how they had made special arrangements for independent
travelers. To be the first off the ship, all we had to do was show up in a
particular lounge at 7:00 am, and then a crew member would escort us to the
gangway.

It looks like Celebrity has this all squared away. I was expecting a horror
show, having to muscle my way through a wall of disinterested crew members
telling me that I couldn't get off the ship until the ship's tours departed.
Red October sent me several messages suggesting as much.

Instead, I was greeted in the lounge by two dining room staffers dispensing
coffee and pastries. There were at least fifty people in the lounge.

Eventually, someone showed up with a hand-held radio. When the radio
squawked he said "follow me everyone". Sure enough, we were the first off
the boat at about 7:20 a.m. No trouble at all. All of the doom and gloom
predictions came to nothing.

As I first set foot on the uneven asphalt of the industrial port of St.
Petersburg, Russia, I was greatly amused to find a uniformed brass brand
playing "Stars and Stripes Forever". Ahhhh, the irony. The iron curtain
had become the ironic curtain. I couldn't help laughing at that thought,
but sadly it seems that the humor escaped those around me.

We were guided into the small Russian Immigration building. The stern agent
took the paper photocopy of my passport that Celebrity had made for us,
stamped the passport on the very last page, and handed me a little red card
to that said "cruise ship passenger". From there, I passed by modern
radiation detector and out into the parking lot of waiting buses and vans.

I guess I won't be carrying out that lump of plutonium after all.

No trouble at all with immigration, much easier than I was expecting. Red
October had mailed us little tickets to help us get through immigration, but
immigration didn't ask us for them. Red October also provided us with a
fancy letter giving all of their license numbers and a set of special
instructions for dealing with the ship's crew. None of that was needed
either. So we were well prepared for trouble that never occurred.

Better safe than sorry I guess, but it might be time to dial back some of
the doom-and-gloom that has been foretold for those taking shore excursions
independently of the cruise line in St. Petersburg. We just didn't have any
trouble at all. Of course, none of the other countries had any passport
formalities to begin with, but what little there was in Russia was well
worth all of the magic experiences we had there.

It didn't take but a minute to see the group of Red October staff and the
line up of white vans. I walked up to Laura and she directed me to a modern
white Mercedes Vito van. The driver was "Sergey" and our guide "Elena".
Later that day I spotted the other "Elena", "Alona" and "Dimitry" - guides
that have been widely discussed in the newsgroups.

When prompted, Elena told me that she, too, was previously known as Helen
but she changed her name to avoid confusion. That didn't help me too much,
because we ran into another "Elena" with a Red October name tag.

We were in the Mercedes van and on our way out the port by 7:40 am. Earlier
than I expected and very nice.

The first day was action packed as we:
Took an orientation drive around the city, with photo stops as desired
Visited the Eliseev Grocery Store, an historic specialty shop
Tour of the Hermitage, bypassing most lines, which is a big deal
Visit to the Hermitage Gold Room
Visit to the fabulous Peterhof and its amazing fountains
Visit to Catherine's Block
A ride on the subway to marvel at the ornate stations
A brief stroll down Nevsky Prospect
(something inspired by spy novels and history classes)

Each of these was accompanied by the patter of our knowledgeable guide, who
filled us in with lots of color and extra details. We also discussed life
in Russia and the medical system, which was of particular interest because
two in our party were nurses.

At one of the photo stops, we were all amused to see a man who was taking
his bear for a walk. It weighed at least 200 pounds and when it stood up it
was about five feet tall. Our guide assured us that bear-walking was an
unusual occurrence even though none of the passers by seemed to pay the
slightest attention to the unfolding spectacle.

As I was jockeying my camera for a good angle she dryly noted that bears
were unpredictable animals and I should keep my distance.

We saw a lot that day, and I'm sure we just scratched the surface of the
Hermitage. I was amused to see a group of a hundred people crowding close
to hear the Celebrity tour guide as they were led through the Hermitage,
while we were there at the same time, lingering at each exhibit for as
little as long as we liked, asking questions here and there, and generally
bypassing all of the crowds and lines with impunity. This is the
first-class way to go.

We arrived back at the ship tired and educated. Sadly, I fell asleep at 8pm
so I missed the late-night Russian Buffet. Why didn't they have that
running from six until midnight? I wasn't the only one to wonder about
that. See my sidebar on food to experience my rants about the meal schedule
on port days.

The second day, we made arrangements to meet at 7:30 am, a bit early than
listed on the itinerary but suggested by the guide to give us the best
chances of hitting all of the items on my expanded itinerary. That is, my
version of the itinerary was expanded compared to her abbreviated version.

The band was there playing Dixie as I stepped off the Constellation at 7:15.
This caused me to laugh even harder than the first time! Still, nobody else
seemed to get the joke in just the same was as I did. Maybe the musicians
did indeed wish they were back in the land of cotton, where old times were
not forgotten. Was this a literary allusion to old Soviet times or just
pandering to the audience? Hmmmm.

( Oddly, when we arrived one of the Russian monuments we were greeted by a
different brass band, this one playing "Hail Britannia". Perhaps I was a
victim of mistaken identity. )

We quickly met up with Elena and were off to an early start, driving away
from the port at 7:20.

The second day we visited
Catherine Palace and the recently-restored Amber room
World War II memorial
Impromptu photo stop in front of an old Soviet-Style factory
Big Lenin statue in front and hammer-and-sickle accents
Lunch and shopping stop at Red October store,
including new, fashionably attractive annex across the street
Peter and Paul Fortress
Spilled Blood Cathedral with its impressive mosaics
Artillery museum, the largest of its type in the world, but for fanatics
Farmers market
A special art gallery suggested by the guide
The hotel Europa to exchange some currency

It seems that Marlboro is the favorite brand of cigarettes in St.
Petersburg, if the butts scattered about are any guide.

I was delighted that the guide suggested that we take a side-trip to a
particular art gallery. As it turns out, Elena has special knowledge of art
history and suggested that visit the "Baron Stieglits" art school and
museum. This is significant because my last name is "Stieglitz" and my
distant ancestors hail from Eastern Europe. The director of the school
greeted us warmly and I ended up buying a few pieces of student art from the
collection on display. I'm happy that she suggested it.

We returned to the ship, saying goodbye to Elena our guide and Segey our
driver. It soon started raining like crazy, and we were all thankful that
St. Petersburg blessed us with delightful shirt-sleeve weather.

It was, all in all, very satisfying and quite a bargain.

This seems as good a place as any to offer some tips for working with Red
October.

Tip one: Get a detailed itinerary before you embark, take it with you, and
confirm it with the guide at the beginning of your excursion. Early on, I
discovered that our guide was working from a simplified version of our
itinerary, and it took a few uncomfortable minutes of discussion to resolve
the differences.

We ended up seeing everything as agreed, and our guide was a consummate
professional. Still, it would have been nice if Red October provided their
contractors with the exact same detailed itinerary as they provided their
customers.

Tip two: Buy your lunch from Red October or carve out some time to have
lunch in a restaurant. Red October advises you to take some food from the
ship for lunch on the run, as some of the commutes can be lengthy. However,
the ship advises that it is against Russian law to do so. I didn't want to
take chances with the authorities, instead taking a gamble that food
supplied by Red October would be safe. To avoid any problems, I asked Red
October to provide boxed lunches. They obliged, and at $10 per person per
day it was a good deal. Each lunch included a tuna sandwich, an egg salad
sandwich with bacon, a bottle of water, two bananas, and an apple. I would
have been happy with one of the sandwiches and a bottle of water.

As it turns out, our belongings were never searched by Russian immigration.
So bring your baggies and stuff your Carnival Cruises tote bag until it is
full of buffet fruit and room-service sandwiches - you'll save a whopping
ten bucks on lunch but you'll have a real sense of accomplishment at beating
the system.

This brings me to my third piece of advice for those working with Red
October: Know when to pay. It's not exactly clear, but we stopped by Red
October each day to pick up the lunches and shop in their affiliated store.

A bit off topic, but The Red October store is on the ship's "approved
shopping" list and many of the ships tours make a pit stop there.
Apparently the Red October stores and the Red October tours share a business
location but they are different companies.

The prices and quality in the store seemed good to me. Your stop at the
store is also when you are supposed to pay them for their travel services,
something I wish they made crystal clear in their communications. They give
a 3% discount for cash.

I was a bit squeamish about carrying that much cash around town, so I paid
for half of it on day one and half of it on day two. Bought some postcards
too, and our guide Elena helped me with the postage.

The next item with Red October, and perhaps this applies to independent
traveler, is that some of the better monuments charge extra for cameras.
This seems to be unevenly enforced at the sites. In one location, I
received a red sticker to place on my camera, and it was clear that the
matronly museum staff in each room were checking for it. In most of the
museums, a room monitor would point at the camera and chat with the guide in
Russian. In other places, there was no tag and no checking.

Charging for cameras comes with the territory I guess, and it wasn't too
expensive - a couple of bucks at each place. I asked Laura at Red October
to set me up with camera licenses everywhere I went. Still, there was some
confusion about this on the itinerary, as it appeared that not all of the
places that required licenses were reflected. So I coughed up a few more
bucks as we entered some of the museums.

The posted "camera fees" seemed to be substantially less that what Red
October charged, and the explanation was a vague "currency conversion
commission". For instance, the listed fee for a still camera at the Church
of the Spilled Blood was 50 rubles. The rough exchange rate was 30 rubles
per dollar, which roughly equates to less than two dollars for a still
camera. Red October charged four dollars.

For what it's worth, Laura from Red October suggested that I forego taking
my own pictures and buy professionally-produced picture books which are
available at each site. I ended up buying some books *and* taking the
pictures, but I have to say in retrospect that Laura gave some good advice -
I had such problems with lighting and lenses that I should have stuck to
outdoor portrait photography of my family and left all of the indoor shots
to the books.

In my opinion, Red October should just cover all of the camera fees as part
of the overall charge, or more clearly define them. It just felt a little
weird, especially considering that camera charges are included in the base
cost of all of the ship's tours.

I'm not going to argue over a couple of bucks on an expensive vacation,
however, I start growling a little bit when I discover some funny
arithmetic. I just shut up and turned over some extra dollars.

And speaking of which, the invoice I received at the Red October store didn't
quite match the price I was quoted. I was pondering this and I couldn't
find the discrepancy until I added up the long column of numbers and found
that the total didn't match the line items. I asked "the accountant" who
was there to collect my payment and she told me that the total shows the
full price without the cash discount. So I guess the line items on the
invoice show the discounted value, but the total shows what you would have
to pay if you used a credit card.

I was thinking that this was probably outside of GAAP but I kept my mouth
shut again, merely suggesting to the accountant that a column of numbers
with a total underneath it should all add up - if she was going to mix
discounted and non-discounted prices on the same page she should to have a
note stating which was which.

She smiled. I just paid the discounted price, in cash as agreed and
expected, and was done with it.

The Red October experience was very positive. These are just some minor
observations. I would do business with them again and would recommend them
to someone traveling to St. Petersburg.

Back on the ship for a quick snack after our busy day, I counted more than
fifty full-size buses parked in front of the Costa Atlantica, a ship every
bit as large as the Constellation. Just then it started to rain, and there
must have been some kind of delay on the Costa ship because there were
hundreds of people stand out there getting soaked. Tough luck, that.


Fifth Port: Tallinn, Estonia. Arrived at eight a.m., left at five p.m.

We were booked for Celebrity's deluxe package: Best of Tallinn with Concert
and Lunch, for $80 a person. My first impressions of the port were
positive - it was clearly designed for cruise ships and seemed newly
constructed, featuring smooth concrete sidewalks and an organized parking
area for the buses. The ship was met by a dozen buses and a taxi. It was
easy to get off the ship, too: there weren't any stern-faced immigration
authorities to deal with as in St. Petersburg, we just walked down the
gangplank stepped on to the waiting bus.

I immediately took a liking to our young guide, Taavi. He had some scrappy,
literate comments like "Your guides in St. Petersburg may have told you
about cold winter weather. We are at the same latitude and our winters are
not so bad. Perhaps they are trying to cultivate a Dr. Zhivago theme." And
also "The Soviets gave us the honor of being part of their happy union... it
was a tragic situation". And.. "You may be interested in the practical
money situation here. It is technically illegal to trade in foreign
currencies. However, somehow businesses find a way, so you will probably be
able to use dollars and euros."

Taavi amused me with his chatter was we drove by blocks of old Soviet-style
housing and then newer units, finally arriving at the Festival grounds for
some quick photographs. We moved on to the upper town, visiting the
obligatory Old Churches common to all of our port tours. We then walked
downhill from the upper town to the old town. It was a nice walk and I
enjoyed it immensely.

We stopped in the town square for the provided lunch, and I found it quite
tasty: The meal opened with a salad with lettuce, sweet peppers, parsley,
and dill. It was followed by some marinated beef, a spicy cabbage side
dish, pickles, and for desert, ice cream. The marinade and spicy sauerkraut
made it special - I had never encountered those flavor combinations and I
was pleased.

After lunch we were supposed to attend the "concert" part of our "concert
and lunch" deal, but after I truly understood what the concert was all about
I decided to just wander about the town and take pictures - there was a
flower mart nearby and that seemed to offer better photographic
opportunities than a trio of monks with flute and guitar.

After taking pictures, we picked up some postcards and spent some time
filling them out over pastries at the local café before rejoining our group
at the bus and returning to the ship.

Back on the ship, we decided to catch a movie in the elegant cinema. It was
an elegant, wood-paneled room with about fifty seats, also used for lectures
and small religious ceremonies. The movie of the day was Monster with
Charlize Theron. The sound system was good, even though the tracking of the
videotape and the convergence of the projector was a bit off. Not bad
though, it was a good show and the seats were comfortable.


Sixth Port: Copenhagen, Denmark. Arrived at seven a.m., left at six p.m.

We were booked for two Celebrity tours at this port. In the morning, City
of Copenhagen for $39, and Royal Gardens and Parks for $62 in the afternoon.

The afternoon tour was cancelled, and Celebrity informed me of this the
night before via a note in a classy little envelope delivered to our
stateroom. The professional tone of the message and the way it was
delivered helped me get over the pain of the cancellation. So we would have
to get to the gardens on our own.

Our tour started promptly and the first stop was a photo opportunity of the
"Little Mermaid" stature. The boring guide informed us that the statue was
sponsored by Carlsberg beer and for some reason Americans liked to take
pictures of it. We continued, going by the palace square to witness the
changing of the guard, and then by a few gardens before taking us back to
the ship. Not very exciting, most likely due to the dry delivery of the
guide.

After we arrived back at the ship, we took the free Celebrity shuttle back
into town, and wandered around buying the required trinkets: Fridge magnet,
postcards, glass from Hard Rock Café. We took a taxi back to the ship for
$36; the port area was very congested due to the unveiling of a massive new
Maersk container ship.

Back on the ship, we found some interesting items in our cabin. The first
item was a tidy envelope with disembarkation instructions and luggage tags.
Not wanting to acknowledge the obvious fact that our vacation was coming to
an end, I tossed these aside.

The next item was a tipping form. By signing the form and returning it to
the front desk, we could have the "recommended amounts" charged to our
shipboard account and distributed to the service staff. We could also
single out specific areas for additional tips, such as the dining room
waiter or room steward. Oddly enough, to use the automatic approach you
could only tip the recommended amount or more. If you wanted to tip less,
you had to go with the envelope approach.

The form came along with a table of suggested tips. In his disembarkation
talk the cruise director said that the table represented recommended amounts
from American Express Travel. Hmmmm. Here is what was listed, per guest,
per day:

$3.50 for stateroom attendant
$3.50 for waiter
$2.00 for waiter assistant
$0.75 for the assistant Maitre'D
$0.75 for the assistant chief housekeeper

A message on the in-room television also mentioned:
$4.00 for concierge in the concierge staterooms
$3.50 for butlers

This approach toward tipping is a bit classier than what I have experienced
on Carnival and Princess, where they automatically charge you for tips each
day unless you state otherwise. In my opinion, if they are going to do that
they should just increase the price of the ticket and adopt a no tipping
policy.

I went with the automatic approach, and despite this we still received
envelopes the next day, along with a lengthy cruise survey form. That
evening, our waiter was careful to inform us that the dining staff with the
best rating received two extra days off a month, and he hoped that we had an
"excellent" experience.

That night on the in-room television I saw one of the many programs
featuring shopping consultant "Dario", who as usual delivered a rapid-fire
pitch with his Italian accent.

Dario was trying to get us to engage in a contest where we could win back
the price we paid for all of the items we purchased during our port visits.
All we had to do was filli out a form indicating what we purchased and the
name of the shop, and then drop by his office so he could photocopy the
receipts. The whole thing smelled fishy to me. Actually, on all of our
cruises ended up thinking that the shopping consultant was on the take.
Celebrity was more up-front about this than the other lines.

Reading the half-page of fine print accompanying the contest entry form, it
appears that that it is run by "Onboard Media" and the drawing takes place
once a year in Florida. So, in return for your shopping data, Onboard Media
holds a single drawing, amalgamating all of the cruise lines together. I
wonder what they do with data - pay commissions to the port guide, perhaps?

It made for some interesting reflection.


Disembarking

The final port: Dover,England. Arrival at 4 am.

The assistant Maitre'D told us that 96 couples were doing back-to-back
cruises, staying onboard the Constellation through it's Baltic itinerary and
continuing trans-Atlantic to New York. He also mentioned that there were
1,800 passengers booked for the trans-Atlantic hop, and I have to admit I
thought about what I would have to say to my employer to extend my vacation
to include it.

The night before, we spent time filling out the luggage tags, which were not
pre-printed like the embarkation tags. I wish they were pre-printed for
disembarkation, as that was a nice touch and the ship certainly had all of
the information about us that they needed.

We were taking advantage of Celebrity's transfer service, and our
disembarkation instructions told us to show up at the theater at 8:00 am.
We arrived at the theater a few minutes early and were led out of the ship
in an orderly fashion.

There were no overhead announcements, and the luggage in the terminal was
well-organized. There was a line of porters, and a crewmember would assign
porters to groups a few at a time, so the process was civilized. We were
then led out to a bus labeled with the same code as our luggage tags and we
were off to Heathrow.

The bus ride to Heathrow took about three hours, leaving us about four hours
to pick up some final duty-free souvenirs. Heathrow also has a fine cigar
shop, featuring many Cuban brands.

At Virgin Atlantic, I had a bit of a problem with the security guards
roaming the check-in line because I had torn out the perforated e-ticket
page from the book of cruise docs, which I had discarded on the ship. That
was a mistake, because the guards wanted to see names on the etickets, but
Celebrity did not print the names on that page, even though it was nicely
perforated for easy removal. So we were asked to get out of line and wait
in another line so they could print a new e-ticket for us.

Note to Celebrity: Please print the passenger names on the e-ticket page of
the cruise docs.

The embarkation process for Virgin was disorganized and the flight left an
hour late. We arrived back in Los Angeles without incident, but I doubt I
will fly Virgin again. The food on Virgin was pretty good though.

I should note here that one of by bags was damaged on the ship at
disembarkation. My sturdy hard-sided Samsonite Silhouette was only on its
second trip. The bag arrived wrapped in plastic and labeled "damaged on the
ship". I wasn't going to cry about it - luggage is there to take a bullet
and protect the contents. Celebrity had nothing to say and I didn't ask.

Later, I was told that the bags are stacked pretty high and the hard-sided
luggage tends to pop, while the soft-sided stuff just gets squished. The
bag and its Saran-Wrap cocoon survived the flight intact. When I opened it
up at home, all of the contents were there and the bag appeared to be
undamaged. I guess it just popped open and then the crew on the ship was
unable to close it because the locks were still engaged. Not sure if I will
ever use that bag again, but it was $300 bucks and I'm hesitant to toss it.


Sidebars

Sidebar: Music

One of the favorite aspects of cruising for me is the music. Celebrity did
a good job there, only disappointing me in one area.

Music that I enjoyed included Onyx, a dance band; the Coverdales, a
barbershop quartet, a string quartet, a jazz guitarist, a lounge pianist,
and also a concert pianist who doubled as a comedian and music appreciation
professor. Highly enjoyable.

Slightly disappointing was the show band backing up the production shows -
they did not have a guitarist, relying instead on pre-recorded tracks for
guitar and some of the other instruments. I also noticed that some of the
performers in the production shows seemed to be singing but were not miked -
can you say "lip sync?" The show band had a pretty large horn section but I
never could make out the saxophone or the flute player.

This was in contrast to the excellent band aboard the Carnival Inspiration,
which had the memorable-yet-improbable name of the Braxton Hicks Show Band.
This band had a kick-butt electric guitarist and the band leader played the
sax, which I could always hear prominently. That Carnival Cruise was
otherwise lackluster, and I was left wishing that the two ships could switch
bands.

Overall, I think the production shows on Carnival and Princess were a bit
better than Celebrity. However, Celebrity had much better specialty acts -
singers, comedians, lecturers, and so on. I'll take Celebrity's approach
any day.


Sidebar: Food

I'm always amused when I read cruise reports that mention "inedible" food.
To me, inedible food kills you or makes you sick. It is all edible! I didn't
care for the cafeteria-style fish sticks on the Carnival Inspiration, but I
wouldn't call them inedible. So there.

I thought the food was good on Constellation, much better than the Carnival
Inspiration and about on par with the Star Princess. I thought the sushi,
omeletes, and other made-to-order dishes were very good. The food in the
main dining room was as good as could be expected given that they were
serving a thousand people at once. I thought the main dining room food was
better on Princess, but I had a late "personal choice" table on Princess, so
the kitchen was probably more relaxed making my food on that cruise.

The buffet was well staffed, with plenty of people to carry your tray if
needed and to take away plates when you were through. On many days, I
thought the buffet food on Celebrity was better than the food on in the main
dining room - more interesting spices and served hot.

However, the meal on lobster night, the "gala", was fabulous, the best I
have experienced on a cruise ship. The lobster was sweet, the broccoli
crisp, the polenta spicy, and the baked potato creamy. Just wonderful, a
meal I'll be recalling fondly for quite some time.

I missed the 24-hour buffet that they have on the Star Princess. I also
wished that Celebrity labeled all items on the buffet and desert lines.
Only some of the main dishes were labeled, making me cringe whenever I heard
someone ask a hapless attendant "what's this?" I sort of felt sorry for the
attendants, as they must have to cheerfully answer that question a hundred
times a day.

The "gourmet bites" were served around midnight, where waiters in the public
areas would graciously offer appetizers such as onion tarts,
mini-hamburgers, and similar fare.

Each of the dining room meals had several soup selections, but to be honest
everyone in my group found the soups thin and lacking. I think the Star
Princess added a nice touch to the soup, sprinkling some fresh ingredients
on the top like dill, carrot, green onion, or sour cream depending on the
situation. Our soups on Celebrity were barren.

And what a dining room it was! Sometimes there would chamber music from a
piano player and strings. The room featured two-story windows facing aft,
giving a wonderful view of the ocean. There was plenty of space between the
tables, giving an open, uncluttered feel compared to other ships. Our party
of four was seated at a table for four at the late seating, and I noticed
both smaller and larger tables scattered about.

I found service to be a bit slow, in the European style, giving us five or
ten minutes between courses. The beverage service was prompt and efficient,
but they put soda cans on the table, which to me seems to be a step
backwards from the otherwise elegant surroundings. Our dinners routinely
took two hours to complete. Perhaps there is something to be said about a
leisurely dining experience, but I think a little over an hour is enough.

I like the way Princess had a list of "set items" which you could always get
in the main dining room: steak, chicken, Caesar salad, shrimp cocktail,
cheesecake. I mentioned this to Edio, our main waiter and he said that he
could get me some of these whenever I wanted and the others if I asked for
them in advance. That was nice of him. I sort of like the Princess system
of having them regularly available, as I am fond of shrimp cocktails and
cheesecake. Not at the same time, of course..

The occasional midnight buffets were tasty and attractively arranged
according to themes. Overall, I like the way the buffet stations were set
up. There were at least eight stations spread out in the restaurant, and
during busy times six of them were copies. So I never encountered a long
wait as on other cruise lines. Hats off to the designers.

The "Aqua Spa" had a little Café with freshly prepared food. I thought the
food there was some of the tastiest onboard. One of the meals there was
quite memorable: Cold, Sliced lemon chicken with little bits of lemon zest
on top, white beans and dilled potatoes, along with a plate of fruit that
included kiwi, papaya, mango, and pineapple. Yummy.

The "Casual Dining" restaurant was an area of the buffet restaurant that was
reserved in the evenings for special service. It had waiter service, its
own menu and its own kitchen, all for a "suggested gratuity of $2 per
person." They took reservations for the same day only. It looked pretty
good but we didn't try it, nor did we try the $30 Ocean Liners restaurant.

They always had an ice cream / frozen yogurt station open when the buffet
was running. The attendant told me that many of the flavors were made on
the ship.

I found the bar service to be outstanding. There were plenty of
order-takers around, but I didn't feel harassed as I have on other ships.
They would ask once, if at all, and then leave us alone. If I was thirsty,
some eye contact or a tip of the head was enough to bring a waiter to take
our drink order. I like the understated approach.

I'm a bit disappointed in the scheduling of the food on the Constellation.
Many times when I would get back on the ship after a full day of shore
excursions, the only thing that would be available would be finger food -
hamburgers, French fries, pizza. The regular dinner buffets never seemed to
correspond to my schedule, and I was a bit too impatient for the 24 hour
room service. Why isn't there something interesting and tasty available
when the shore excursions return? Maybe the crew is busy preparing for the
big sit-down dinner. I tried to sign up for the $2 casual dining option,
but that proved to be fully booked. Why am I being maneuvered into having
burgers?

Speaking of burgers, they were better on Carnival, although I think
Celebrity has the edge on Pizza. Why can't the cruise lines duplicate Pizza
Hut and In-N-Out?

Speaking of Room Service, the menu has sturdy meals such as salads,
sandwiches, and soups. Seems to be a bit of a secret that you can order
the same stuff they are serving in the dining rooms during certain hours.

And as yet another aside, I am embarrassed to report that I broke the dress
code on a few occasions. Celebrity had clearly stated that there were some
formal nights and some informal nights, and I misinterpreted the meaning of
"informal". So twice I appeared in the dining room in a polo shirt, to
stupid to realized that "informal" meant "jacket but no tie". My mistake,
and my humble apologies to all on the vessel who had their experience
reduced by my appearance.

Here's where it gets interesting. The second time I showed up in polo shirt
for informal night, the assistant matre' D professionally took me aside as I
was strolling in, poliltely saying something like, "sir, today is informal
night, but tomorrow is formal if you need a jacket we can help you.". I
thought that he handled this well, and I quickly thanked him and explained
that I had some formal gear for the next day. Even though I broke the
rules, or at the very least stretched the concept of "informal", I was happy
that Celebrity is making some efforts to enforce the dress code and thought
the whole thing was handled well. Even outside the dining rooms, people on
the ship were generally well-dressed.

At the end, I was left thinking that the food was pretty good, and suddenly
the ship had too many mirrors. My wife said "I can't go home weighing 120
pounds! Maybe we should stay on the ship until it gets to New York and work
out every day."

Yeah.


Sidebar: Interactive Television

The in-room television system was modern. It also included gambling! I
bought some credits and made a few dollars on low-stakes blackjack, with the
winnings credited to my shipboard account. Sadly, my meager winnings did
not even approach the losses in the ultra-tight casino.

The TV had just what I wanted. You could order excursions and room service
from the television, there was a nice selection of pay-per-view movies in
addition to the free offerings, and you could review your charges as well.
Nice.

On some of the free channels they were playing commercial-free reruns of
shows like CSI, Friends, and classic black and white variety shows from
television's golden past.

Also on the TV were daily video messages from the cruise director and the
"shopping consultant". So if you missed one of their talks, it was always
possible to catch them on the in-room TV. That was a nice touch.

The television in our room, despite its many charms, had no extra
connections for a camcorder or digital still camera. The only input was a
coaxial RF connector, no RCA jacks.

I wish they had the dining room menus available on the TV.


Sidebar: Digital Photography

I left my still cameras at home, instead relying on a newly-purchased Kodak
EasyShare 7543 camera and two high-speed 512mb memory cards. I bought the
Kodak because of its diminutive size and its Editor's Choice rating by PC
Magazine.

I ended up being a bit disappointed at my decision.

The Kodak offered a good optical zoom ratio and produced breathtaking
images, as long as the lighting was right. I ended up taking about a
thousand pictures on the trip - that may sound like a lot, but I usually
snapped several of each subject, varying the angle and the camera settings a
bit, so I could go through the pictures later and pick the best examples. I
guess that in the end there will be a dozen pictures that I am really happy
about and a few hundred that do a good job of documenting the trip.

The problem I had was that we visited many dimly-lit places, some of them
quite large. The flash just wasn't big enough to illuminate all the space.
Also, some of the rooms were divided between narrow pedestrian walkways and
wider display areas, and space on the walkways didn't always give me enough
room to fit everything I wanted to catch within the viewable frame.

I longed for my old SLR camera, which had interchangeable lenses and an
eye-melting external flash unit. Had I given it more than a few second's
thought, I would have bought another digital camera, using the pocket-sized
Kodak for impromptu shots and one of the Nikon prosumer digital cameras for
the serious work. I'd bring a couple of lenses - maybe a 50-250 zoom, a
wide angle, a standard unit. Some of the Nikon and Cannon units have a "hot
shoe" that can accommodate a powerful flash unit. Some of these flash units
have a pivot mechanism, so you can bounce the light off of a wall and avoid
reflections when shooting shiny objects.

Finally, some of the spaces were so dimly lit that I had trouble both
getting the auto focus to work and also holding the camera steady enough to
get a good image. I wish I would have brought a flimsy portable tripod, or
perhaps one of those extendable sticks to balance the camera.

The good news was that the ship's computer services were set up nicely for
digital cameras. In the training room, there are a bunch of computers with
universal memory card readers. The idea is that you copy all of the images
from the memory card in your camera to the ship's server each day, free up
some space on your card, and then go through the images at your leisure on
the ships server. At the end of the cruise, the computer staff can copy
whatever is left to a CD, and you could take that home with you.

One of the staff computer trainers suggested that I create a folder for each
port and download pictures each night into the appropriate folder, thus
freeing up space on the memory card in the camera and helping to identify
the origin of the pictures. This tip came a bit too late for me, so the
assembled mass of pictures was a bit confusing when I finally got to them.
Also, I think from now on I'll take a picture first thing each day of a
piece of paper with the date and the name of the port scrawled out. That
will help to establish a separation, because, on these long cruises, the
days seem to meld together.

The photo shop was able to take one of my memory cards and make a few prints
for me for about fifty cents a pop. The prints were great. Now that I
think of it, it would be nice if the ship's contracted photography and
computer services would work together to produce a shipboard version of
ShutterFly - I would have bought a lot more prints if I could just
right-click on my stored images, select a size, and picked up the prints the
next day.

There are some kiosks in the photography area that supposedly allow you to
print directly from your memory cards, but it looked to me as if they were
all turned off. I asked about it one of the photography guys described them
as "too limited."


Sidebar: Internet Café and related facilities

I enjoyed exploring the capabilities of the Internet Café. It blew away
Carnival and Princess. First off, all of the systems were working and they
were pretty fast. Secondly, you could use each system as a regular computer
for free; they only charged 75 cents a minute when you activated the
internet connection. This enabled me to use Microsoft Word and print out
drafts without any extra charge.

They also maintained file storage. The café systems were Dell desktops with
Windows XP, Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop Elements. There was a
networked HP LaserJet printer as well. I was impressed with the setup and I
think they are doing a great job with onboard computer services.

In the hallways throughout the ship, I saw wireless network nodes, and from
time to time I could see people tapping away at their laptops. $25 a day
for wireless access seemed like a bit too much for me, so I left my laptop
at home. The $25 charge includes fifty minutes per day of internet access.

Speaking of wireless, I noticed that some of the senior crew members carried
portable phones and junior staffers carried what appeared to be Motorola
handheld radios. Most of the time when encountering a crew member they
would say hello to me, but on the rare occasions when I did not get a warm
greeting, the crew member would invariably pull out a cordless phone and
stare at it or otherwise fiddle with it as we passed. I found this
amusing - it must be mentally draining to warmly greet so many people each
day.

I chatted a bit with the computer trainers and the hardware technician.
Quite friendly. My hat is off to Richard, Raylene, Barbara, Fred, and
Ariel, who had to patiently answer the same basic questions hundreds of
times throughout the cruise.

Here are a few computing tips for traveling on Celebrity ships like the
Constellation:

Tip One: Bring some blank CD-RW disks. The computer training room is
equipped with Dell laptops that have CD burners. For $15 a disk, the
training staff will burn a disk for you. That's a nice price if you have
never burned a disk before with the tools built-in to Windows XP. However,
if you're already familiar with the Windows tools, you can bring your own
blank disks and save a few bucks and burn your own. Note that they don't
have Roxio or Nero, just the Microsoft tools.

Tip Two: Use the hard-wired computers in the training room. The laptops in
the lab use an 802.11g wireless network to connect to the ship's file
server. At the end of a port day, the lab was full of people copying their
work to the server, and I thought the network became a bit pokey. Then, I
noticed that the room had a couple of Dell desktops that were hard-wired to
the network. Copying my pictures on those computers took a fraction of the
time and from then on I sought them out.

Celebrity gives everyone on board a personalized email address, and they
notify you of email messages via the in-room telephone. The address is in
the format . A $2
per-message charge applies when you send or receive a message with the
onboard account, allowing modest users to have as much time as they like to
compose and read their message. A great approach. Of course, if you want
to use your own web mail service, such as hotmail, you get charged the
internet service rate 75 cents a minute.

While writing these notes in the internet café, it was evident that many of
the passengers have never received an email before. They typically arrive
at the café and noisily exclaim to nobody in particular that they have
received a message and they haven't a clue how to get it. I guess a lot of
people handed out the addresses to their friends before the cruise, because
the addresses are so prominently mentioned in the cruise docs.

During the day, there is staff on duty to help out. In the late evenings,
as I typed in these notes, there was a never-ending stream of newbies
seeking help from the other people in the room, many of whom were busily
typing away at 75 cents a minute. After helping out six of the newbies I
decided to preserve my sanity and remain silent.

"Oh look, my great-grandson sent me a message!". "Ok, now what do I click
to reply? Where is the backspace button?"

As I write I am hearing the staff computer helper soothe an irate geezer by
saying "sir, your voice mail light will tell you when you have an email
waiting at your ship address". Geezer "But I can't figure out how to use my
voice mail. Can you help me with that?"..and ten minutes later the patient
computer guy is trying to explain to the same gentleman how the Earthlink
spam blocker sometimes auto-responds to incoming messages from new
addresses, and that these aren't really responses sent by his grandson, even
if the flashing message light on his phone suggests that he has a new
message. That's a tough topic for an email newbie.

After the frustrated email beginner realized that there wasn't a real
message waiting for him, but an automated reply caused by the way his young
nephew had his email set up, the geezer left, muttering about paying two
dollars to read a message about nothing. All he left behind was the sweet
smell of Depends.

At that point, I was impressed that staffer had done an excellent job,
patiently explaining a difficult topic in a clear manner to an absolute
beginner, so I got up, patted him on the back, and told him I thought he had
done very well.

Everyone has to start with computers at the beginning, I guess I wasn't
expecting to experience so much of it first hand on vacation. It was clear
to me that many people were sending and receiving their very first email
messages from the Constellation Internet Café, and the staff patiently
worked with many frustrated people to do so, even though a lot of them
really needed several hours of basic computer familiarization.

Maybe I should have brought my laptop, because I started laughing when I
heard someone announce in a tired old voice "Can somebody help me? Where is
the at key, how do I type it in?" I just considered it entertainment value
from there on out.

Memo to Celebrity Computer guys: When the internet is inaccessible, which
it seems is common when in Russia, put a big sign near every single
keyboard. Two big signs near the entrance to the internet café are not
enough, trust me. People just don't see them.

Write on these big signs that the internet is inaccessible, and that
internet explorer is inaccessible, and that regular email is inaccessible.
In smaller print, you can say for the truly literate that mail sent to the
Celebrity account and received onboard is still readable, and that you can
compose mail on your Celebrity account for transmission automatically as
soon as the internet connection becomes available again. You can also use
the photographic tools and word processor at no charge if you like, just as
before, without any charge.

I think that there should be a big button on the login screen saying "teach
me about email", once they click that, or someone clicks it for them, it
will fire up something that shows them how to single click, double click,
and how to send a message and read a message, use the scroll bars, delete,
and so on. About an hour of education for someone who isn't necessarily
retarded but who had no computer experience.

Apparently the classes in computer basics offered early in the cruise did
not appeal to the people who really needed them, and later in the cruise as
their started to receive notifications that they had email waiting they grew
frustrated because they didn't have enough computer experience to retrieve
them. Maybe email sent to the shipboard address should just be printed and
delivered to the stateroom.


Sidebar: Eye candy

There were plenty of gorgeous women in Finland and Sweden. Nordic types of
course, tall, blond, blue eyes. Apparently this is just normal in
Scandinavia but I developed a bit of neck strain from all the diversions.
Luckily, my wife was on hand to offer relieving neck rubs and the occasional
cautionary "you'll go to jail for that one" or "What has happened to your
taste?"

In St. Petersburg, it was unseasonably warm and I was quite comfortable in
shirt-sleeves for the two days we were there. Didn't even need the
umbrellas,

Perhaps this weather contributed to the fabric shortage that I noticed.
There were of beautiful girls in abundance on the streets and at the various
venues, many of them obviously bra-less, lots of them in mini skirts, and
more than a few bare midriffs. There must have been a food shortage as
well, because some of these gals were mighty skinny.

Later at dinner, I overheard another group talking about the women then saw
in town, until another exclaimed that he heard that the eye candy was even
more plentiful in Estonia. As a scientist, I saw it as my duty to verify
that claim independently.

My tour group decided to help me with this endeavor, and we all kept an eye
out for local talent as we traveled through Tallinn, Estonia. Many
beautiful girls were spotted, but St. Petersburg still took the gold medal.
Maybe it was just warmer in St. Petersburg during our visit, so the girls
were taking a rare chance to flaunt it.

As far as the ship's crew goes, I think there was more eye-candy on the
Carnival and Princess ships. I didn't find many of the staff members
attractive. Plenty of pretty young servers on Princess.

Incidentally, I never saw any topless action on the topless deck. What few
people I saw up there were those just trying to get an outdoors view of
where the ship was headed. Just like me, of course.


Sidebar: About this Document

I kept a notepad with me throughout the trip, jotting down thoughts as they
occurred to me and transferring them to Microsoft Word in the ship's
internet café each evening.

The document was stored on the ship's server, and then I emailed it home on
disembarkation day. The file share on the ship's server was related to my
login id, so it didn't matter which machine I used in the internet café, my
files were always there. A nice touch.



Final Impressions:

I like Celebrity. A notch up from Princess and a leap from Carnival.

I'd really like Celebrity if they had extended buffet hours, say 6am to
midnight.

A long itinerary to unusual ports. Shirt-sleeve weather the entire time,
but I think we were lucky.

I never experienced long lines. The ship seemed spacious.



Copyright 2004 by Jeff Stieglitz, All Rights Reserved. May not be re-posted
outside of cruisecritic.com or rec.travel.cruises without the author's
permission.


  #2  
Old September 9th, 2004, 12:19 AM
JJ
external usenet poster
 
Posts: n/a
Default

Thanks for a great review as Im considering the same cruise next summer &
you answered many questions that I had! john
"Jeff Stieglitz" wrote in message
...

Back to reality. For the first time in nearly two weeks, I need to carry

a
wallet instead of a Sea Pass card.

My wife and I just returned from a fabulous trip aboard the Constellation.
Previously, we had cruised on Carnival, Princess, and Royal Caribbean.

Below are a few notes on our trip that may be interesting to the group -
some "pay back" for all of the good information that I have received from
the discussion group over the years.

Here are the sections:
Preliminaries: Booking the trip with CruiseQuick and Red October
Getting The Flying to London and side trips
Welcome Aboard: Some observations about the Celebrity Constellation
Port By Port: Details on activities and a special section on Red October
Disembarkation: The bitter end
Sidebars: extended rants from an obsessed and perverted mind


12 Day Baltic Cruise
Celebrity Constellation
August 26, 2004


Preliminaries:

In the months leading up to our trip, I was excited because I had always
wanted to take an extended voyage, visit Russia, and cruise with

Celebrity.
The twelve-day Baltic cruise was a perfect fit. I also liked what I had
read about the Constellation: big (964 feet), new (maiden voyage in May,
2002), and many awards (top rated by Conde Nast Traveler).

We booked the cruise via CruiseQuick.com for $3021 per person. This
included a category seven unobstructed ocean-view cabin on deck two,
Celebrity Air via Virgin Atlantic out of Los Angeles with transfers

($800),
and an extra day pre-cruise in London at The City Inn Westminster ($212).
We also ended up paying about $400 per person for Red October and about

$500
per person for on-board charges like drinks, internet, photography, tips,
and so on.

So, including all fares, drinks, shore excursions, and so on, when we
finally got home the cruise cost us about $ 4,000 a person.

I understand that we could have done all of the transfers and air on our
own. I've done this before, but this time I was traveling with a larger
group and I wanted the cruise line to take care of me for the entire trip.
This ended up working out well.

They say it clearly on their web site: CruiseQuick is not for everyone.
They won't hold your hand and help you pick out a cruise or a cabin.

Their
communications are terse. However, they have always been responsive and
offered good prices, so this is the second cruise I have booked with them.
There were a few little hiccups. At one point, they told me they would

send
me an email when they received the cruise docs. This didn't happen - I
received the docs without any notice. Also, I had requested a balcony
cabin. They said that the balconies were sold out, but my

nicely-formatted
email itinerary still said "balcony". When I pointed out that our

assigned
room was not on a balcony deck, they agreed that it was a typo and
apologized for the goof. Not a big deal. I have to say though, that

people
considering CruiseQuick should not worry about it being an "email only"
agency. They have always responded to me much faster than any

conventional
travel agency - always less than a day, in some cases in just a few hours.

After receiving the booking number from CruiseQuick, I went to the

Celebrity
website and keyed in all of our vital information. The web site for this

is
well-executed, on par with the Princess site and much better than

Carnival's
version. Eventually, I booked our shore excursions through the web site

as
well. This is a fabulous feature that is offered by Celebrity and

Princess
but not Carnival. On Carnival, it was very unpleasant getting all of the
excursions ordered on the first day of the cruise. I also went to the
Cruise Critic web site and signed up for the special "Connections" party
offered to Cruise Critic users.

Celebrity's cruise docs are wire-bound and nicely formatted, with

customized
luggage tags bound-into the little folder. This is much nicer than both
Princess and Carnival, who sent me a bunch of tags floating around in a
cramped envelope. Carnival's docs were all in upper case and had a dated
feel. Celebrity's were nice and modern, giving me a clean and upscale
impression. Nice.

So far, the Celebrity website and docs experience was nice. When I called
them to confirm that my cabin was not a balcony that was nice too.

Everyone who has who is internet-savvy and is considering a Baltic

itinerary
has heard of Red October ( http://www.redoctober.spb.ru ) tours. They're

a
Russian tour company that offers intensive tours for a reasonable price.
It is run by a lady who previously worked at InTourist, the only travel
agency around in the Soviet era.

I read many positive reviews of Red October, and we had a productive
exchange of emails to develop my custom itinerary. I wanted to visit some
unusual places in addition to the standard tour of the palaces.

I threw them a number of curve balls. I wanted our guide to be one of the
"Helens" that have been reviewed so positively. I also also had an

unusual
itinerary in mind: I wanted to ride the subway, see the military museum,
and visit a farmer's market. They handled all of these special requests
with ease. Later, I asked about a visit to the "St. Petersburg

Broadcasting
Center". They said they were busy with other customers and would get back
to me soon. I waited for two months before reminding them of my request.

I
think they forgot about it, because within a few more days they gave me

some
detailed information: A visit to the broadcasting center takes about six
hours, and I would have to cut out something from our schedule to make it
fit. I decided against it.

Off topic observation: Whenever I'm working with someone and they tell me
they are busy, my first inclination is to lighten their load a little bit

by
taking my business elsewhere. That would be Denrus (
http://www.denrus.ru/ )in this case. I didn't do that this time because

it
was just a small issue and Red October is so highly recommended by the
internet groups.

Several months before the cruise, Red October asked for passport

information
and sent me some "tickets" by postal mail to help us get through Russian
Immigration. By email, they sent a final itinerary and several Word
documents giving tips on dealing with the ship's crew at disembarkation.

As it turns out, none of this was necessary for us. The Celebrity staff

and
Russian Immigration just let us sail right through.

It seems that there is some confusion on the part of the cruise lines,
perhaps intentional, about the need for Russian Visas by independent
travelers. Celebrity states "A Tourist Visa is required for independent
sight-seeing: however, visas are not needed on the ship sponsored shore
excursions." What they don't say is that passengers who use travel
companies registered with the Russian government - such as Red October and
DenRus - are also exempt from Visas.

So let me put it clearly: You do not need a Russian visa with Red

October.

I've also seen rumored on the internet groups that cruise lines will
frequently make independent tourists wait until the ship's tours have
disembarked. Red October sent me several emails stating we should get off
the ship as soon as possible, and offering some tips on how to do that.

As it turns out, this also was much ado about nothing. During the cruise
itself, there was a polite announcement asking those with independent
arrangements in St. Petersburg to check in with the reception desk,
ostensibly to deal with Russian Immigration formalities.

I brought my package of Red October materials to the desk, and clerk asked
what time I wanted to get off the ship. She said that they were keeping
track just to enable an orderly disembarkation. So much for immigration
formalities...

I was able to glance at the list and stopped counting after I reached

twenty
groups for Red October. Good for them.


Getting The

Celebrity booked us on a Virgin Atlantic flight that left Los Angeles
International at 5:30pm and arrived at London Heathrow at about 10 a.m

local
time after about nine hours in the air.

I've traveled internationally many times, but this was my first flight

with
Virgin. There were a few surprises. First of all, carry on baggage for
coach class was limited to fifteen pounds, and they had an electronic

scale
at the entrance to the check-in line. First or business class passengers
escaped scrutiny.

I have a Tumi roll-aboard that I have been using for a number of years,

and
it must weight fourteen pounds empty. No matter how much I transferred to
my checked bag, I couldn't get it down to the right weight, so I had to
check it, which made me nervous as it had no locks. There was

considerable
chaos in the ticketing area people struggled to transfer items from bag to
bag to meet the weight limits. In retrospect, I should have selected
business class for my group. No fifteen-pound limit there.

Also, after a certain time the security goons decided that they didn't

like
the way the line was growing, so they re-formed it outside, completely
ignoring the people who were already in a line tracing its way through the
terminal. This caused a number of heated arguments from those who had
waited the longest and suddenly found themselves at the end of a newer,
longer, line.

The flight itself was non-eventful, other than I had an aisle seat. My
fitful attempts at sleep were disturbed by well-fed rumps brushing against
my shoulder as they waddled down the aisle. I pushed back when I felt
something touch my head, but I doubt the worst offenders could feel my
rebuking shove. Note to self: especially when flying coach, choose a
middle seat over aisles when window seats are unavailable.

Soon, we reached Heathrow. Virgin once again dashed my expectations by
using stairs and a bus to handle the disembarking passengers. The bus

could
only handle forty people at a time, and apparently there was only one bus,
so some time to drain the 400 people from our 747.

After running through British immigration, our group of four people
collected our luggage and we were off to find our Celebrity transfer

agent.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I discovered my belongings were still in

that
unlocked bag that I had to check.

Walking into the busy arrival lobby with our luggage, I spotted a

Celebrity
sign held by what turned out to be a very pleasant lady. She checked our
names against a list and then escorted us to a driver, mentioning that

only
a few groups were arriving the day before the cruise, but that she would

be
shepherding more than 400 people the next day - the day of departure.

We were led to a waiting van and the driver took us to The City Inn,
Westminster. It was one of the hotels recommended by Celebrity and I
selected it because it was new and offered a modern, minimalist décor.

Our
group of four had the van to ourselves.

Independently, I had booked a tour of the state rooms at Buckingham Palace
and a "flight" on the London Eye Ferris wheel. Even though we were all
tired from the flight, it was energizing to be inside the palace. The

tour
was self-guided using a programmable audio headset. At certain points the
audio would say something like "if you would like further information

about
this special clock, type 51 on your keypad and press the green button".

When we arrived back at the hotel there was a letter under the door from
Celebrity welcoming us and offering some tips about the transfer the next
day.

The next day, we got on the big bus parked just outside the hotel and
arrived at the Dover port two and a half hours later. The bus was modern
and it was about half full, but the seating was somewhat cramped - some of
the taller people were grousing.

In the arrival hall at the Dover Port, we were greeted by a fair-sized

line
of passengers and some Celebrity staff dispensing punch and water. When I
traveled on Princess last, they had some low-key live music in the arrival
hall to set the mood, something that Celebrity should emulate.

When we reached the head of the line they handled the usual details and

then
threw me a curve ball: They wanted to keep our passports, at least
temporarily, saying they had to make a copy for Russian immigration. I
hesitated to give up my passport to anyone, but I had some ancient

memories
of Russians keeping passports in the old days, so I quickly relented. We
received receipts, and the passports were returned to us the next day
on-board, with a photocopy neatly folded for us inside. I still don't
understand why they didn't just make a photocopy right then at the port,

but
I didn't complain.

As it turns out, Celebrity was making a copy for our convenience - Russian
Immigration needed a copy the first day in St. Petersburg. I wish they

just
would have explained it like that. Something like "Russian Immigration

now
requires you to present a photocopy of your passport when you get off the
ship the first day in St. Petersburg. We will make a copy for you and
return it along with your passport to your stateroom. We will give you a
receipt for your passport. The passport number you may have given us
earlier is not enough for Russian Immigration. They need a copy, and we

are
helping you.."


Welcome Aboard

We were on the ship in a half hour, welcomed by a glass of champagne and a
line of uniformed staff taking passengers to their staterooms. We had

room
2074, and within minutes of our arrival our Indian steward Camilo was

there
introducing himself and explaining the features of the room. That was

nice,
because on our last Carnival cruise we never met our steward.

In our cabin was a complimentary Celebrity tote bag, some bathrobes to

use,
two umbrellas, a safe, a hair drier, two outlets near the desk and one in
the bathroom. The shower had a detachable nozzle and was thermostatically
controlled. There was no peephole in the door.

On a lark, I confirmed that we would be experiencing the "glowing toilet"
affect, occasionally discussed in the news groups. When the lights are

off
in the bathroom, a little bit of light from the outside corridor seeps in
through a plumbing maintenance panel, resulting in a slight glow to the
toilet bowl.

Moving on, I jumped on the bed and determined that the mattress was firm

and
the linens had a luxurious feel.

On our little desk I found our shore excursion tickets and an invitation

to
the Cruise Critic party. The signups for both of these were handled

months
ago via the web.

I took a minute to read the daily activity guide. It had a high quality
feel, thick paper and nice fonts. The "schedule" section was a separate
piece of thick stock, almost like a 3x5 card, and was divided for easy
folding. The small print on the activity guide said that promotional fees
may have been paid by the recommended shops, and that was also stated from
time to time by the onboard "shopping consultant". These thoughtful

details
put me in a good mood - I was pleased to see truth in advertising.

We wandered around the ship a bit, and found it to be modern, clean, and
with a collection of art that was entirely to my liking. Lots of
photographs, mixed media, and sculpture. I didn't see many inaccessible
modern-art masterpieces.

There are no self-service laundry facilities aboard the Constellation,
unlike the Star Princess and the Carnival Inspiration.

We checked out the reception area located at the foot of the tasteful
atrium, noting a kiosk near the front desk that had printed newspaper
summaries in various languages. They also had a "bank" desk and a
"concierge" desk nearby. The bank handled the usual currency exchange
details, and also handled postal duties - the attendant told me that they
would mail postcards for $1.25 each, and if they were submitted more than

an
hour before departure they would bear the postmark of the current port.

As
it turns out, $1.25 was reasonable compared to the international postcard
rates we found at some of the ports.

Next stop: the casino. It casino had the usual slot games and video

poker,
along with dealer blackjack, craps, and roulette. The blackjack rules

allow
for doubling after a split, but the craps game only featured single odds.

I found it notable that the casino cashier would offer quick cash charged

to
the room account - the usual credit-card cash advance fees would not

apply.
I think this would be a better deal than using the shipboard ATM machines.

Leaving the Casino, we checked out some of Constellation's other special
features. The library, "words" was an impressive two-story room with

plenty
of books and magazines. They also rented iPod music players there.

The music lounge, "Notes", was also two levels, and it had quite a few
lounge chairs with nearby touch-screen jukeboxes. I messed with the touch
screen a bit --- you can select genre, artist, or song, make a play list,
and then listen to your custom concert via headphones. Unexpected and
fascinating.

We went up to deck ten to take a quick peek at the Aqua Spa. Celebrity
claims that they have the largest facilities afloat, and from what we saw
that is no idle boast. The spa facility is quite appropriately located on
the same deck as the buffet. It features a little Café, which features
light cuisine all day. The café looks out over the therapy pools - a

couple
of regular Jacuzzi-style tubs and a larger heated pool of similar design.

Beyond the therapy pools were the treatment rooms, where the staff was
offering the usual feel-good quackery such as "a coconut milk body scrub

to
release toxins that cause irritability and constipation." I was tempted

to
ask specifically which toxins were released and the specific mode of
removal, but I decided against it. My guess was that the "toxins" came

from
the buffet down the hall.

The ship also touted acupuncture treatments in a similar fashion.

We inquired about a manicure and a pedicure, and the total for the "hand

and
foot ritual with exfoliating lime and ginger salt scrub" was a little over

a
hundred dollars. Perhaps this is a good deal for seaborne nail clipping,
but I decided to pass.

In front of the ship, and indeed one of the few places where one could get

a
good view of where the ship was headed, was the gymnasium. It was
well-equipped with gear from Life Fitness: six elliptical trainers,

twelve
treadmills, five steppers, four cycles, and a dozen weight machines. I

also
saw two Schwin rowing machines, a bunch of stationary bikes used for
aerobics classes, and a small room with free weights.

On the very top deck was the "conservatory", a type of greenhouse where

you
could pick up some greenery and take flower arranging classes. It seemed

to
me that most of the flowers were silk, but some of them appeared to be
alive. They also had a jogging track there.

I was sort of disappointed at this point to discover that there was no

easy
way to get to the very front of the ship. The concealed "topless deck"

was
about as close as one could get - neither the promenade deck nor the

jogging
track led all the way up to the front. I was hoping to do my Leonardo
DeCaprio imitation by shouting "I'm the king of the world!" from the

helipad
on the ship's bow. Alas, that part of the ship is blocked to passengers.

The muster drill followed, and I marveled that both the audio quality and
the depth of the explanations were better than other lines. Also
interesting were the multilingual announcements: English and Spanish. As
it turns out, there were a lot of people from Mexico and South America on
the cruise.

I liked the way they played the Celebrity theme song as we were sailing

away
from port.

The entertainment that night featured some videotaped introductions from
Celebrity executives. That was nice.


Port by Port

The first day was a day at sea, giving us a good chance to explore the

ship
and its many charms. I grew accustomed the friendly way the staff greeted
us whenever we passed along the hallways and decks.

Our cabin was quiet. The silence was uninterrupted by shill announcements
for Art auctions, bingo, or spa specials. Not ever. I like that about
Celebrity. Occasionally we could hear our neighbors in the adjoining

cabin,
especially when they were putting things in their closet, but thankfully
that was relatively rare.

The ship was very smooth. Overall, we only had noticeable motion on one
day, which I understand made a few people sick. On that day, I was fine

but
I wished the closet had foam rubber hangers, as they were jangling about.

The ship was kept very neat and clean.


First stop: Oslo, Norway. Arrived at seven a.m., left at two p.m.

Brief!

I awakened early to view our approach through the "fjords", and my wife

and
I were among the first to get off the ship at 7 am. Greeting us at the

dock
was a lone taxi, a hop-on, hop-off bus for the independent minded, and a

few
dozen pieces of luggage that were catching up to their owners. We

wandered
about the town a bit and then returned to the ship to pick up Celebrity's
$45 "Oslo Highlights" tour.

That tour was a waste. We saw the sculpture garden, where our guide gave

us
explanations in unneeded detail on many of the dozens of sculptures in the
park. There was at least ten other tour buses there, preventing really
special photography.

After the sculpture garden, we went to the ski jump museum. I was also
bored by this. After that, we drove by the courthouse and returned to the
ship. At one point, the chatty tour guide told us to avert our eyes

because
there was an interesting flea-market happening on the side of the road,

and
we wouldn't be stopping there.

The main highlight for me was the visit inside the state building, which

is
impressive architecturally and also because it is the site of the Nobel
Prize banquet. There was a large Asian tour group there and the members
were taking pictures of each other engaging in mock acceptance speeches at
the Nobel lectern. I thought that was a grand idea, but the line was too
long so I gave up. No Nobel Prize for me, too impatient.

After returning to the ship, we still had a good hour to kill so we jumped
on a shuttle that Celebrity had arranged between the ship and a shopping
area.

Then we bid Oslo farewell, having experienced just a quick taste of Nordic
Culture.

When we returned to our room, there was a little form on the bed asking us
how we intended to get to the airport at the end of the cruise. Premature
and a real buzz kill. That's not what I wanted to be thinking about so
early in the cruise, and I can just assume that the ship was trying to

plan
the disembarkation process.

What made it even more disappointing is that I had scheduled all of my
travel through Celebrity, so they already knew that I was using them to
transfer from the ship to the airport and what flight I was taking. I
shrugged off this minor annoyance and left the cabin to gorge myself.


Second port: Stockholm, Sweden. Arrived at ten a.m., left at five p.m.

We had scheduled "A Day In Stockholm" for $99 per person through

Celebrity.
And a busy day it was. The first stop was at a nice place to take

pictures
of the harbor. We visited a number of grand old churches, then the Viking
Ship Museum. The museum was much more interesting that I anticipated -

the
old Viking ship is really large and there is a fascinating story

associated
with its rediscovery and recovery. The museum was well done.

We had about two hours on our own for lunch and shopping, and we spent it
wandering around the crooked streets of the city center, getting lost at

one
point but it ended up all right.

By this point, I realized that Celebrity is really punctual. Our ship
always arrived right on time at the ports and the shore excursions left
almost to the minute of scheduled departure. Some of the excursions left
early when they determined that everyone was already on the bus. That was
nice and I appreciated it -- an improvement over the other cruise lines.


Third Port: Helsinki, Finland. Arrived at nine a.m., left at six p.m.


We booked the $189 "Steam Train and Highlights" tour through Celebrity.

We
did indeed take a brief ride on a wood-fired steam train, and stopped at

the
obligatory old churches

We spent some time wandering around the quaint old town of Porvoo before
going to an old manor on the Baltic for a fair lunch of chicken stew,
scalloped potatoes, and raspberry mouse. Then it was back to the ship.


Fourth Port: St. Petersburg, Russia. Arrived at seven a.m., left at 6:30
p.m. the next day.

Using what I learned on this group, I used Red October to guide me through
the two days in St. Petersburg. The experience was so efficient and so
customized to my whims that it will be difficult for me to return to
bus-sized tours. When all was said and done it ended up being a bit under
$200 per person per day.

The night before we arrived, our room steward delivered a message to our
room that explained how they had made special arrangements for independent
travelers. To be the first off the ship, all we had to do was show up in

a
particular lounge at 7:00 am, and then a crew member would escort us to

the
gangway.

It looks like Celebrity has this all squared away. I was expecting a

horror
show, having to muscle my way through a wall of disinterested crew members
telling me that I couldn't get off the ship until the ship's tours

departed.
Red October sent me several messages suggesting as much.

Instead, I was greeted in the lounge by two dining room staffers

dispensing
coffee and pastries. There were at least fifty people in the lounge.

Eventually, someone showed up with a hand-held radio. When the radio
squawked he said "follow me everyone". Sure enough, we were the first off
the boat at about 7:20 a.m. No trouble at all. All of the doom and gloom
predictions came to nothing.

As I first set foot on the uneven asphalt of the industrial port of St.
Petersburg, Russia, I was greatly amused to find a uniformed brass brand
playing "Stars and Stripes Forever". Ahhhh, the irony. The iron curtain
had become the ironic curtain. I couldn't help laughing at that thought,
but sadly it seems that the humor escaped those around me.

We were guided into the small Russian Immigration building. The stern

agent
took the paper photocopy of my passport that Celebrity had made for us,
stamped the passport on the very last page, and handed me a little red

card
to that said "cruise ship passenger". From there, I passed by modern
radiation detector and out into the parking lot of waiting buses and vans.

I guess I won't be carrying out that lump of plutonium after all.

No trouble at all with immigration, much easier than I was expecting. Red
October had mailed us little tickets to help us get through immigration,

but
immigration didn't ask us for them. Red October also provided us with a
fancy letter giving all of their license numbers and a set of special
instructions for dealing with the ship's crew. None of that was needed
either. So we were well prepared for trouble that never occurred.

Better safe than sorry I guess, but it might be time to dial back some of
the doom-and-gloom that has been foretold for those taking shore

excursions
independently of the cruise line in St. Petersburg. We just didn't have

any
trouble at all. Of course, none of the other countries had any passport
formalities to begin with, but what little there was in Russia was well
worth all of the magic experiences we had there.

It didn't take but a minute to see the group of Red October staff and the
line up of white vans. I walked up to Laura and she directed me to a

modern
white Mercedes Vito van. The driver was "Sergey" and our guide "Elena".
Later that day I spotted the other "Elena", "Alona" and "Dimitry" - guides
that have been widely discussed in the newsgroups.

When prompted, Elena told me that she, too, was previously known as Helen
but she changed her name to avoid confusion. That didn't help me too

much,
because we ran into another "Elena" with a Red October name tag.

We were in the Mercedes van and on our way out the port by 7:40 am.

Earlier
than I expected and very nice.

The first day was action packed as we:
Took an orientation drive around the city, with photo stops as desired
Visited the Eliseev Grocery Store, an historic specialty shop
Tour of the Hermitage, bypassing most lines, which is a big deal
Visit to the Hermitage Gold Room
Visit to the fabulous Peterhof and its amazing fountains
Visit to Catherine's Block
A ride on the subway to marvel at the ornate stations
A brief stroll down Nevsky Prospect
(something inspired by spy novels and history classes)

Each of these was accompanied by the patter of our knowledgeable guide,

who
filled us in with lots of color and extra details. We also discussed life
in Russia and the medical system, which was of particular interest because
two in our party were nurses.

At one of the photo stops, we were all amused to see a man who was taking
his bear for a walk. It weighed at least 200 pounds and when it stood up

it
was about five feet tall. Our guide assured us that bear-walking was an
unusual occurrence even though none of the passers by seemed to pay the
slightest attention to the unfolding spectacle.

As I was jockeying my camera for a good angle she dryly noted that bears
were unpredictable animals and I should keep my distance.

We saw a lot that day, and I'm sure we just scratched the surface of the
Hermitage. I was amused to see a group of a hundred people crowding close
to hear the Celebrity tour guide as they were led through the Hermitage,
while we were there at the same time, lingering at each exhibit for as
little as long as we liked, asking questions here and there, and generally
bypassing all of the crowds and lines with impunity. This is the
first-class way to go.

We arrived back at the ship tired and educated. Sadly, I fell asleep at

8pm
so I missed the late-night Russian Buffet. Why didn't they have that
running from six until midnight? I wasn't the only one to wonder about
that. See my sidebar on food to experience my rants about the meal

schedule
on port days.

The second day, we made arrangements to meet at 7:30 am, a bit early than
listed on the itinerary but suggested by the guide to give us the best
chances of hitting all of the items on my expanded itinerary. That is, my
version of the itinerary was expanded compared to her abbreviated version.

The band was there playing Dixie as I stepped off the Constellation at

7:15.
This caused me to laugh even harder than the first time! Still, nobody

else
seemed to get the joke in just the same was as I did. Maybe the musicians
did indeed wish they were back in the land of cotton, where old times were
not forgotten. Was this a literary allusion to old Soviet times or just
pandering to the audience? Hmmmm.

( Oddly, when we arrived one of the Russian monuments we were greeted by a
different brass band, this one playing "Hail Britannia". Perhaps I was a
victim of mistaken identity. )

We quickly met up with Elena and were off to an early start, driving away
from the port at 7:20.

The second day we visited
Catherine Palace and the recently-restored Amber room
World War II memorial
Impromptu photo stop in front of an old Soviet-Style factory
Big Lenin statue in front and hammer-and-sickle accents
Lunch and shopping stop at Red October store,
including new, fashionably attractive annex across the street
Peter and Paul Fortress
Spilled Blood Cathedral with its impressive mosaics
Artillery museum, the largest of its type in the world, but for fanatics
Farmers market
A special art gallery suggested by the guide
The hotel Europa to exchange some currency

It seems that Marlboro is the favorite brand of cigarettes in St.
Petersburg, if the butts scattered about are any guide.

I was delighted that the guide suggested that we take a side-trip to a
particular art gallery. As it turns out, Elena has special knowledge of

art
history and suggested that visit the "Baron Stieglits" art school and
museum. This is significant because my last name is "Stieglitz" and my
distant ancestors hail from Eastern Europe. The director of the school
greeted us warmly and I ended up buying a few pieces of student art from

the
collection on display. I'm happy that she suggested it.

We returned to the ship, saying goodbye to Elena our guide and Segey our
driver. It soon started raining like crazy, and we were all thankful that
St. Petersburg blessed us with delightful shirt-sleeve weather.

It was, all in all, very satisfying and quite a bargain.

This seems as good a place as any to offer some tips for working with Red
October.

Tip one: Get a detailed itinerary before you embark, take it with you,

and
confirm it with the guide at the beginning of your excursion. Early on, I
discovered that our guide was working from a simplified version of our
itinerary, and it took a few uncomfortable minutes of discussion to

resolve
the differences.

We ended up seeing everything as agreed, and our guide was a consummate
professional. Still, it would have been nice if Red October provided

their
contractors with the exact same detailed itinerary as they provided their
customers.

Tip two: Buy your lunch from Red October or carve out some time to have
lunch in a restaurant. Red October advises you to take some food from the
ship for lunch on the run, as some of the commutes can be lengthy.

However,
the ship advises that it is against Russian law to do so. I didn't want

to
take chances with the authorities, instead taking a gamble that food
supplied by Red October would be safe. To avoid any problems, I asked Red
October to provide boxed lunches. They obliged, and at $10 per person per
day it was a good deal. Each lunch included a tuna sandwich, an egg salad
sandwich with bacon, a bottle of water, two bananas, and an apple. I

would
have been happy with one of the sandwiches and a bottle of water.

As it turns out, our belongings were never searched by Russian

immigration.
So bring your baggies and stuff your Carnival Cruises tote bag until it is
full of buffet fruit and room-service sandwiches - you'll save a whopping
ten bucks on lunch but you'll have a real sense of accomplishment at

beating
the system.

This brings me to my third piece of advice for those working with Red
October: Know when to pay. It's not exactly clear, but we stopped by Red
October each day to pick up the lunches and shop in their affiliated

store.

A bit off topic, but The Red October store is on the ship's "approved
shopping" list and many of the ships tours make a pit stop there.
Apparently the Red October stores and the Red October tours share a

business
location but they are different companies.

The prices and quality in the store seemed good to me. Your stop at the
store is also when you are supposed to pay them for their travel services,
something I wish they made crystal clear in their communications. They

give
a 3% discount for cash.

I was a bit squeamish about carrying that much cash around town, so I paid
for half of it on day one and half of it on day two. Bought some

postcards
too, and our guide Elena helped me with the postage.

The next item with Red October, and perhaps this applies to independent
traveler, is that some of the better monuments charge extra for cameras.
This seems to be unevenly enforced at the sites. In one location, I
received a red sticker to place on my camera, and it was clear that the
matronly museum staff in each room were checking for it. In most of the
museums, a room monitor would point at the camera and chat with the guide

in
Russian. In other places, there was no tag and no checking.

Charging for cameras comes with the territory I guess, and it wasn't too
expensive - a couple of bucks at each place. I asked Laura at Red October
to set me up with camera licenses everywhere I went. Still, there was

some
confusion about this on the itinerary, as it appeared that not all of the
places that required licenses were reflected. So I coughed up a few more
bucks as we entered some of the museums.

The posted "camera fees" seemed to be substantially less that what Red
October charged, and the explanation was a vague "currency conversion
commission". For instance, the listed fee for a still camera at the

Church
of the Spilled Blood was 50 rubles. The rough exchange rate was 30 rubles
per dollar, which roughly equates to less than two dollars for a still
camera. Red October charged four dollars.

For what it's worth, Laura from Red October suggested that I forego taking
my own pictures and buy professionally-produced picture books which are
available at each site. I ended up buying some books *and* taking the
pictures, but I have to say in retrospect that Laura gave some good

advice -
I had such problems with lighting and lenses that I should have stuck to
outdoor portrait photography of my family and left all of the indoor shots
to the books.

In my opinion, Red October should just cover all of the camera fees as

part
of the overall charge, or more clearly define them. It just felt a little
weird, especially considering that camera charges are included in the base
cost of all of the ship's tours.

I'm not going to argue over a couple of bucks on an expensive vacation,
however, I start growling a little bit when I discover some funny
arithmetic. I just shut up and turned over some extra dollars.

And speaking of which, the invoice I received at the Red October store

didn't
quite match the price I was quoted. I was pondering this and I couldn't
find the discrepancy until I added up the long column of numbers and found
that the total didn't match the line items. I asked "the accountant" who
was there to collect my payment and she told me that the total shows the
full price without the cash discount. So I guess the line items on the
invoice show the discounted value, but the total shows what you would have
to pay if you used a credit card.

I was thinking that this was probably outside of GAAP but I kept my mouth
shut again, merely suggesting to the accountant that a column of numbers
with a total underneath it should all add up - if she was going to mix
discounted and non-discounted prices on the same page she should to have a
note stating which was which.

She smiled. I just paid the discounted price, in cash as agreed and
expected, and was done with it.

The Red October experience was very positive. These are just some minor
observations. I would do business with them again and would recommend

them
to someone traveling to St. Petersburg.

Back on the ship for a quick snack after our busy day, I counted more than
fifty full-size buses parked in front of the Costa Atlantica, a ship every
bit as large as the Constellation. Just then it started to rain, and

there
must have been some kind of delay on the Costa ship because there were
hundreds of people stand out there getting soaked. Tough luck, that.


Fifth Port: Tallinn, Estonia. Arrived at eight a.m., left at five p.m.

We were booked for Celebrity's deluxe package: Best of Tallinn with

Concert
and Lunch, for $80 a person. My first impressions of the port were
positive - it was clearly designed for cruise ships and seemed newly
constructed, featuring smooth concrete sidewalks and an organized parking
area for the buses. The ship was met by a dozen buses and a taxi. It was
easy to get off the ship, too: there weren't any stern-faced immigration
authorities to deal with as in St. Petersburg, we just walked down the
gangplank stepped on to the waiting bus.

I immediately took a liking to our young guide, Taavi. He had some

scrappy,
literate comments like "Your guides in St. Petersburg may have told you
about cold winter weather. We are at the same latitude and our winters

are
not so bad. Perhaps they are trying to cultivate a Dr. Zhivago theme."

And
also "The Soviets gave us the honor of being part of their happy union...

it
was a tragic situation". And.. "You may be interested in the practical
money situation here. It is technically illegal to trade in foreign
currencies. However, somehow businesses find a way, so you will probably

be
able to use dollars and euros."

Taavi amused me with his chatter was we drove by blocks of old

Soviet-style
housing and then newer units, finally arriving at the Festival grounds for
some quick photographs. We moved on to the upper town, visiting the
obligatory Old Churches common to all of our port tours. We then walked
downhill from the upper town to the old town. It was a nice walk and I
enjoyed it immensely.

We stopped in the town square for the provided lunch, and I found it quite
tasty: The meal opened with a salad with lettuce, sweet peppers, parsley,
and dill. It was followed by some marinated beef, a spicy cabbage side
dish, pickles, and for desert, ice cream. The marinade and spicy

sauerkraut
made it special - I had never encountered those flavor combinations and I
was pleased.

After lunch we were supposed to attend the "concert" part of our "concert
and lunch" deal, but after I truly understood what the concert was all

about
I decided to just wander about the town and take pictures - there was a
flower mart nearby and that seemed to offer better photographic
opportunities than a trio of monks with flute and guitar.

After taking pictures, we picked up some postcards and spent some time
filling them out over pastries at the local café before rejoining our

group
at the bus and returning to the ship.

Back on the ship, we decided to catch a movie in the elegant cinema. It

was
an elegant, wood-paneled room with about fifty seats, also used for

lectures
and small religious ceremonies. The movie of the day was Monster with
Charlize Theron. The sound system was good, even though the tracking of

the
videotape and the convergence of the projector was a bit off. Not bad
though, it was a good show and the seats were comfortable.


Sixth Port: Copenhagen, Denmark. Arrived at seven a.m., left at six p.m.

We were booked for two Celebrity tours at this port. In the morning,

City
of Copenhagen for $39, and Royal Gardens and Parks for $62 in the

afternoon.

The afternoon tour was cancelled, and Celebrity informed me of this the
night before via a note in a classy little envelope delivered to our
stateroom. The professional tone of the message and the way it was
delivered helped me get over the pain of the cancellation. So we would

have
to get to the gardens on our own.

Our tour started promptly and the first stop was a photo opportunity of

the
"Little Mermaid" stature. The boring guide informed us that the statue

was
sponsored by Carlsberg beer and for some reason Americans liked to take
pictures of it. We continued, going by the palace square to witness the
changing of the guard, and then by a few gardens before taking us back to
the ship. Not very exciting, most likely due to the dry delivery of the
guide.

After we arrived back at the ship, we took the free Celebrity shuttle back
into town, and wandered around buying the required trinkets: Fridge

magnet,
postcards, glass from Hard Rock Café. We took a taxi back to the ship for
$36; the port area was very congested due to the unveiling of a massive

new
Maersk container ship.

Back on the ship, we found some interesting items in our cabin. The first
item was a tidy envelope with disembarkation instructions and luggage

tags.
Not wanting to acknowledge the obvious fact that our vacation was coming

to
an end, I tossed these aside.

The next item was a tipping form. By signing the form and returning it to
the front desk, we could have the "recommended amounts" charged to our
shipboard account and distributed to the service staff. We could also
single out specific areas for additional tips, such as the dining room
waiter or room steward. Oddly enough, to use the automatic approach you
could only tip the recommended amount or more. If you wanted to tip less,
you had to go with the envelope approach.

The form came along with a table of suggested tips. In his disembarkation
talk the cruise director said that the table represented recommended

amounts
from American Express Travel. Hmmmm. Here is what was listed, per guest,
per day:

$3.50 for stateroom attendant
$3.50 for waiter
$2.00 for waiter assistant
$0.75 for the assistant Maitre'D
$0.75 for the assistant chief housekeeper

A message on the in-room television also mentioned:
$4.00 for concierge in the concierge staterooms
$3.50 for butlers

This approach toward tipping is a bit classier than what I have

experienced
on Carnival and Princess, where they automatically charge you for tips

each
day unless you state otherwise. In my opinion, if they are going to do

that
they should just increase the price of the ticket and adopt a no tipping
policy.

I went with the automatic approach, and despite this we still received
envelopes the next day, along with a lengthy cruise survey form. That
evening, our waiter was careful to inform us that the dining staff with

the
best rating received two extra days off a month, and he hoped that we had

an
"excellent" experience.

That night on the in-room television I saw one of the many programs
featuring shopping consultant "Dario", who as usual delivered a rapid-fire
pitch with his Italian accent.

Dario was trying to get us to engage in a contest where we could win back
the price we paid for all of the items we purchased during our port

visits.
All we had to do was filli out a form indicating what we purchased and the
name of the shop, and then drop by his office so he could photocopy the
receipts. The whole thing smelled fishy to me. Actually, on all of our
cruises ended up thinking that the shopping consultant was on the take.
Celebrity was more up-front about this than the other lines.

Reading the half-page of fine print accompanying the contest entry form,

it
appears that that it is run by "Onboard Media" and the drawing takes place
once a year in Florida. So, in return for your shopping data, Onboard

Media
holds a single drawing, amalgamating all of the cruise lines together. I
wonder what they do with data - pay commissions to the port guide,

perhaps?

It made for some interesting reflection.


Disembarking

The final port: Dover,England. Arrival at 4 am.

The assistant Maitre'D told us that 96 couples were doing back-to-back
cruises, staying onboard the Constellation through it's Baltic itinerary

and
continuing trans-Atlantic to New York. He also mentioned that there were
1,800 passengers booked for the trans-Atlantic hop, and I have to admit I
thought about what I would have to say to my employer to extend my

vacation
to include it.

The night before, we spent time filling out the luggage tags, which were

not
pre-printed like the embarkation tags. I wish they were pre-printed for
disembarkation, as that was a nice touch and the ship certainly had all of
the information about us that they needed.

We were taking advantage of Celebrity's transfer service, and our
disembarkation instructions told us to show up at the theater at 8:00 am.
We arrived at the theater a few minutes early and were led out of the ship
in an orderly fashion.

There were no overhead announcements, and the luggage in the terminal was
well-organized. There was a line of porters, and a crewmember would

assign
porters to groups a few at a time, so the process was civilized. We were
then led out to a bus labeled with the same code as our luggage tags and

we
were off to Heathrow.

The bus ride to Heathrow took about three hours, leaving us about four

hours
to pick up some final duty-free souvenirs. Heathrow also has a fine cigar
shop, featuring many Cuban brands.

At Virgin Atlantic, I had a bit of a problem with the security guards
roaming the check-in line because I had torn out the perforated e-ticket
page from the book of cruise docs, which I had discarded on the ship.

That
was a mistake, because the guards wanted to see names on the etickets, but
Celebrity did not print the names on that page, even though it was nicely
perforated for easy removal. So we were asked to get out of line and wait
in another line so they could print a new e-ticket for us.

Note to Celebrity: Please print the passenger names on the e-ticket page

of
the cruise docs.

The embarkation process for Virgin was disorganized and the flight left an
hour late. We arrived back in Los Angeles without incident, but I doubt I
will fly Virgin again. The food on Virgin was pretty good though.

I should note here that one of by bags was damaged on the ship at
disembarkation. My sturdy hard-sided Samsonite Silhouette was only on its
second trip. The bag arrived wrapped in plastic and labeled "damaged on

the
ship". I wasn't going to cry about it - luggage is there to take a bullet
and protect the contents. Celebrity had nothing to say and I didn't ask.

Later, I was told that the bags are stacked pretty high and the hard-sided
luggage tends to pop, while the soft-sided stuff just gets squished. The
bag and its Saran-Wrap cocoon survived the flight intact. When I opened

it
up at home, all of the contents were there and the bag appeared to be
undamaged. I guess it just popped open and then the crew on the ship was
unable to close it because the locks were still engaged. Not sure if I

will
ever use that bag again, but it was $300 bucks and I'm hesitant to toss

it.


Sidebars

Sidebar: Music

One of the favorite aspects of cruising for me is the music. Celebrity

did
a good job there, only disappointing me in one area.

Music that I enjoyed included Onyx, a dance band; the Coverdales, a
barbershop quartet, a string quartet, a jazz guitarist, a lounge pianist,
and also a concert pianist who doubled as a comedian and music

appreciation
professor. Highly enjoyable.

Slightly disappointing was the show band backing up the production shows -
they did not have a guitarist, relying instead on pre-recorded tracks for
guitar and some of the other instruments. I also noticed that some of the
performers in the production shows seemed to be singing but were not

miked -
can you say "lip sync?" The show band had a pretty large horn section but

I
never could make out the saxophone or the flute player.

This was in contrast to the excellent band aboard the Carnival

Inspiration,
which had the memorable-yet-improbable name of the Braxton Hicks Show

Band.
This band had a kick-butt electric guitarist and the band leader played

the
sax, which I could always hear prominently. That Carnival Cruise was
otherwise lackluster, and I was left wishing that the two ships could

switch
bands.

Overall, I think the production shows on Carnival and Princess were a bit
better than Celebrity. However, Celebrity had much better specialty

acts -
singers, comedians, lecturers, and so on. I'll take Celebrity's approach
any day.


Sidebar: Food

I'm always amused when I read cruise reports that mention "inedible" food.
To me, inedible food kills you or makes you sick. It is all edible! I

didn't
care for the cafeteria-style fish sticks on the Carnival Inspiration, but

I
wouldn't call them inedible. So there.

I thought the food was good on Constellation, much better than the

Carnival
Inspiration and about on par with the Star Princess. I thought the sushi,
omeletes, and other made-to-order dishes were very good. The food in the
main dining room was as good as could be expected given that they were
serving a thousand people at once. I thought the main dining room food

was
better on Princess, but I had a late "personal choice" table on Princess,

so
the kitchen was probably more relaxed making my food on that cruise.

The buffet was well staffed, with plenty of people to carry your tray if
needed and to take away plates when you were through. On many days, I
thought the buffet food on Celebrity was better than the food on in the

main
dining room - more interesting spices and served hot.

However, the meal on lobster night, the "gala", was fabulous, the best I
have experienced on a cruise ship. The lobster was sweet, the broccoli
crisp, the polenta spicy, and the baked potato creamy. Just wonderful, a
meal I'll be recalling fondly for quite some time.

I missed the 24-hour buffet that they have on the Star Princess. I also
wished that Celebrity labeled all items on the buffet and desert lines.
Only some of the main dishes were labeled, making me cringe whenever I

heard
someone ask a hapless attendant "what's this?" I sort of felt sorry for

the
attendants, as they must have to cheerfully answer that question a hundred
times a day.

The "gourmet bites" were served around midnight, where waiters in the

public
areas would graciously offer appetizers such as onion tarts,
mini-hamburgers, and similar fare.

Each of the dining room meals had several soup selections, but to be

honest
everyone in my group found the soups thin and lacking. I think the Star
Princess added a nice touch to the soup, sprinkling some fresh ingredients
on the top like dill, carrot, green onion, or sour cream depending on the
situation. Our soups on Celebrity were barren.

And what a dining room it was! Sometimes there would chamber music from a
piano player and strings. The room featured two-story windows facing aft,
giving a wonderful view of the ocean. There was plenty of space between

the
tables, giving an open, uncluttered feel compared to other ships. Our

party
of four was seated at a table for four at the late seating, and I noticed
both smaller and larger tables scattered about.

I found service to be a bit slow, in the European style, giving us five or
ten minutes between courses. The beverage service was prompt and

efficient,
but they put soda cans on the table, which to me seems to be a step
backwards from the otherwise elegant surroundings. Our dinners routinely
took two hours to complete. Perhaps there is something to be said about a
leisurely dining experience, but I think a little over an hour is enough.

I like the way Princess had a list of "set items" which you could always

get
in the main dining room: steak, chicken, Caesar salad, shrimp cocktail,
cheesecake. I mentioned this to Edio, our main waiter and he said that he
could get me some of these whenever I wanted and the others if I asked for
them in advance. That was nice of him. I sort of like the Princess

system
of having them regularly available, as I am fond of shrimp cocktails and
cheesecake. Not at the same time, of course..

The occasional midnight buffets were tasty and attractively arranged
according to themes. Overall, I like the way the buffet stations were set
up. There were at least eight stations spread out in the restaurant, and
during busy times six of them were copies. So I never encountered a long
wait as on other cruise lines. Hats off to the designers.

The "Aqua Spa" had a little Café with freshly prepared food. I thought

the
food there was some of the tastiest onboard. One of the meals there was
quite memorable: Cold, Sliced lemon chicken with little bits of lemon

zest
on top, white beans and dilled potatoes, along with a plate of fruit that
included kiwi, papaya, mango, and pineapple. Yummy.

The "Casual Dining" restaurant was an area of the buffet restaurant that

was
reserved in the evenings for special service. It had waiter service, its
own menu and its own kitchen, all for a "suggested gratuity of $2 per
person." They took reservations for the same day only. It looked pretty
good but we didn't try it, nor did we try the $30 Ocean Liners restaurant.

They always had an ice cream / frozen yogurt station open when the buffet
was running. The attendant told me that many of the flavors were made on
the ship.

I found the bar service to be outstanding. There were plenty of
order-takers around, but I didn't feel harassed as I have on other ships.
They would ask once, if at all, and then leave us alone. If I was

thirsty,
some eye contact or a tip of the head was enough to bring a waiter to take
our drink order. I like the understated approach.

I'm a bit disappointed in the scheduling of the food on the Constellation.
Many times when I would get back on the ship after a full day of shore
excursions, the only thing that would be available would be finger food -
hamburgers, French fries, pizza. The regular dinner buffets never seemed

to
correspond to my schedule, and I was a bit too impatient for the 24 hour
room service. Why isn't there something interesting and tasty available
when the shore excursions return? Maybe the crew is busy preparing for

the
big sit-down dinner. I tried to sign up for the $2 casual dining option,
but that proved to be fully booked. Why am I being maneuvered into having
burgers?

Speaking of burgers, they were better on Carnival, although I think
Celebrity has the edge on Pizza. Why can't the cruise lines duplicate

Pizza
Hut and In-N-Out?

Speaking of Room Service, the menu has sturdy meals such as salads,
sandwiches, and soups. Seems to be a bit of a secret that you can order
the same stuff they are serving in the dining rooms during certain hours.

And as yet another aside, I am embarrassed to report that I broke the

dress
code on a few occasions. Celebrity had clearly stated that there were

some
formal nights and some informal nights, and I misinterpreted the meaning

of
"informal". So twice I appeared in the dining room in a polo shirt, to
stupid to realized that "informal" meant "jacket but no tie". My mistake,
and my humble apologies to all on the vessel who had their experience
reduced by my appearance.

Here's where it gets interesting. The second time I showed up in polo

shirt
for informal night, the assistant matre' D professionally took me aside as

I
was strolling in, poliltely saying something like, "sir, today is informal
night, but tomorrow is formal if you need a jacket we can help you.". I
thought that he handled this well, and I quickly thanked him and explained
that I had some formal gear for the next day. Even though I broke the
rules, or at the very least stretched the concept of "informal", I was

happy
that Celebrity is making some efforts to enforce the dress code and

thought
the whole thing was handled well. Even outside the dining rooms, people

on
the ship were generally well-dressed.

At the end, I was left thinking that the food was pretty good, and

suddenly
the ship had too many mirrors. My wife said "I can't go home weighing 120
pounds! Maybe we should stay on the ship until it gets to New York and

work
out every day."

Yeah.


Sidebar: Interactive Television

The in-room television system was modern. It also included gambling! I
bought some credits and made a few dollars on low-stakes blackjack, with

the
winnings credited to my shipboard account. Sadly, my meager winnings did
not even approach the losses in the ultra-tight casino.

The TV had just what I wanted. You could order excursions and room

service
from the television, there was a nice selection of pay-per-view movies in
addition to the free offerings, and you could review your charges as well.
Nice.

On some of the free channels they were playing commercial-free reruns of
shows like CSI, Friends, and classic black and white variety shows from
television's golden past.

Also on the TV were daily video messages from the cruise director and the
"shopping consultant". So if you missed one of their talks, it was always
possible to catch them on the in-room TV. That was a nice touch.

The television in our room, despite its many charms, had no extra
connections for a camcorder or digital still camera. The only input was a
coaxial RF connector, no RCA jacks.

I wish they had the dining room menus available on the TV.


Sidebar: Digital Photography

I left my still cameras at home, instead relying on a newly-purchased

Kodak
EasyShare 7543 camera and two high-speed 512mb memory cards. I bought the
Kodak because of its diminutive size and its Editor's Choice rating by PC
Magazine.

I ended up being a bit disappointed at my decision.

The Kodak offered a good optical zoom ratio and produced breathtaking
images, as long as the lighting was right. I ended up taking about a
thousand pictures on the trip - that may sound like a lot, but I usually
snapped several of each subject, varying the angle and the camera settings

a
bit, so I could go through the pictures later and pick the best examples.

I
guess that in the end there will be a dozen pictures that I am really

happy
about and a few hundred that do a good job of documenting the trip.

The problem I had was that we visited many dimly-lit places, some of them
quite large. The flash just wasn't big enough to illuminate all the

space.
Also, some of the rooms were divided between narrow pedestrian walkways

and
wider display areas, and space on the walkways didn't always give me

enough
room to fit everything I wanted to catch within the viewable frame.

I longed for my old SLR camera, which had interchangeable lenses and an
eye-melting external flash unit. Had I given it more than a few second's
thought, I would have bought another digital camera, using the

pocket-sized
Kodak for impromptu shots and one of the Nikon prosumer digital cameras

for
the serious work. I'd bring a couple of lenses - maybe a 50-250 zoom, a
wide angle, a standard unit. Some of the Nikon and Cannon units have a

"hot
shoe" that can accommodate a powerful flash unit. Some of these flash

units
have a pivot mechanism, so you can bounce the light off of a wall and

avoid
reflections when shooting shiny objects.

Finally, some of the spaces were so dimly lit that I had trouble both
getting the auto focus to work and also holding the camera steady enough

to
get a good image. I wish I would have brought a flimsy portable tripod,

or
perhaps one of those extendable sticks to balance the camera.

The good news was that the ship's computer services were set up nicely for
digital cameras. In the training room, there are a bunch of computers

with
universal memory card readers. The idea is that you copy all of the

images
from the memory card in your camera to the ship's server each day, free up
some space on your card, and then go through the images at your leisure on
the ships server. At the end of the cruise, the computer staff can copy
whatever is left to a CD, and you could take that home with you.

One of the staff computer trainers suggested that I create a folder for

each
port and download pictures each night into the appropriate folder, thus
freeing up space on the memory card in the camera and helping to identify
the origin of the pictures. This tip came a bit too late for me, so the
assembled mass of pictures was a bit confusing when I finally got to them.
Also, I think from now on I'll take a picture first thing each day of a
piece of paper with the date and the name of the port scrawled out. That
will help to establish a separation, because, on these long cruises, the
days seem to meld together.

The photo shop was able to take one of my memory cards and make a few

prints
for me for about fifty cents a pop. The prints were great. Now that I
think of it, it would be nice if the ship's contracted photography and
computer services would work together to produce a shipboard version of
ShutterFly - I would have bought a lot more prints if I could just
right-click on my stored images, select a size, and picked up the prints

the
next day.

There are some kiosks in the photography area that supposedly allow you to
print directly from your memory cards, but it looked to me as if they were
all turned off. I asked about it one of the photography guys described

them
as "too limited."


Sidebar: Internet Café and related facilities

I enjoyed exploring the capabilities of the Internet Café. It blew away
Carnival and Princess. First off, all of the systems were working and

they
were pretty fast. Secondly, you could use each system as a regular

computer
for free; they only charged 75 cents a minute when you activated the
internet connection. This enabled me to use Microsoft Word and print out
drafts without any extra charge.

They also maintained file storage. The café systems were Dell desktops

with
Windows XP, Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop Elements. There was a
networked HP LaserJet printer as well. I was impressed with the setup and

I
think they are doing a great job with onboard computer services.

In the hallways throughout the ship, I saw wireless network nodes, and

from
time to time I could see people tapping away at their laptops. $25 a day
for wireless access seemed like a bit too much for me, so I left my laptop
at home. The $25 charge includes fifty minutes per day of internet

access.

Speaking of wireless, I noticed that some of the senior crew members

carried
portable phones and junior staffers carried what appeared to be Motorola
handheld radios. Most of the time when encountering a crew member they
would say hello to me, but on the rare occasions when I did not get a

warm
greeting, the crew member would invariably pull out a cordless phone and
stare at it or otherwise fiddle with it as we passed. I found this
amusing - it must be mentally draining to warmly greet so many people each
day.

I chatted a bit with the computer trainers and the hardware technician.
Quite friendly. My hat is off to Richard, Raylene, Barbara, Fred, and
Ariel, who had to patiently answer the same basic questions hundreds of
times throughout the cruise.

Here are a few computing tips for traveling on Celebrity ships like the
Constellation:

Tip One: Bring some blank CD-RW disks. The computer training room is
equipped with Dell laptops that have CD burners. For $15 a disk, the
training staff will burn a disk for you. That's a nice price if you have
never burned a disk before with the tools built-in to Windows XP.

However,
if you're already familiar with the Windows tools, you can bring your own
blank disks and save a few bucks and burn your own. Note that they don't
have Roxio or Nero, just the Microsoft tools.

Tip Two: Use the hard-wired computers in the training room. The laptops

in
the lab use an 802.11g wireless network to connect to the ship's file
server. At the end of a port day, the lab was full of people copying

their
work to the server, and I thought the network became a bit pokey. Then, I
noticed that the room had a couple of Dell desktops that were hard-wired

to
the network. Copying my pictures on those computers took a fraction of

the
time and from then on I sought them out.

Celebrity gives everyone on board a personalized email address, and they
notify you of email messages via the in-room telephone. The address is in
the format . A $2
per-message charge applies when you send or receive a message with the
onboard account, allowing modest users to have as much time as they like

to
compose and read their message. A great approach. Of course, if you want
to use your own web mail service, such as hotmail, you get charged the
internet service rate 75 cents a minute.

While writing these notes in the internet café, it was evident that many

of
the passengers have never received an email before. They typically arrive
at the café and noisily exclaim to nobody in particular that they have
received a message and they haven't a clue how to get it. I guess a lot

of
people handed out the addresses to their friends before the cruise,

because
the addresses are so prominently mentioned in the cruise docs.

During the day, there is staff on duty to help out. In the late evenings,
as I typed in these notes, there was a never-ending stream of newbies
seeking help from the other people in the room, many of whom were busily
typing away at 75 cents a minute. After helping out six of the newbies I
decided to preserve my sanity and remain silent.

"Oh look, my great-grandson sent me a message!". "Ok, now what do I

click
to reply? Where is the backspace button?"

As I write I am hearing the staff computer helper soothe an irate geezer

by
saying "sir, your voice mail light will tell you when you have an email
waiting at your ship address". Geezer "But I can't figure out how to use

my
voice mail. Can you help me with that?"..and ten minutes later the

patient
computer guy is trying to explain to the same gentleman how the Earthlink
spam blocker sometimes auto-responds to incoming messages from new
addresses, and that these aren't really responses sent by his grandson,

even
if the flashing message light on his phone suggests that he has a new
message. That's a tough topic for an email newbie.

After the frustrated email beginner realized that there wasn't a real
message waiting for him, but an automated reply caused by the way his

young
nephew had his email set up, the geezer left, muttering about paying two
dollars to read a message about nothing. All he left behind was the sweet
smell of Depends.

At that point, I was impressed that staffer had done an excellent job,
patiently explaining a difficult topic in a clear manner to an absolute
beginner, so I got up, patted him on the back, and told him I thought he

had
done very well.

Everyone has to start with computers at the beginning, I guess I wasn't
expecting to experience so much of it first hand on vacation. It was

clear
to me that many people were sending and receiving their very first email
messages from the Constellation Internet Café, and the staff patiently
worked with many frustrated people to do so, even though a lot of them
really needed several hours of basic computer familiarization.

Maybe I should have brought my laptop, because I started laughing when I
heard someone announce in a tired old voice "Can somebody help me? Where

is
the at key, how do I type it in?" I just considered it entertainment

value
from there on out.

Memo to Celebrity Computer guys: When the internet is inaccessible, which
it seems is common when in Russia, put a big sign near every single
keyboard. Two big signs near the entrance to the internet café are not
enough, trust me. People just don't see them.

Write on these big signs that the internet is inaccessible, and that
internet explorer is inaccessible, and that regular email is inaccessible.
In smaller print, you can say for the truly literate that mail sent to the
Celebrity account and received onboard is still readable, and that you can
compose mail on your Celebrity account for transmission automatically as
soon as the internet connection becomes available again. You can also use
the photographic tools and word processor at no charge if you like, just

as
before, without any charge.

I think that there should be a big button on the login screen saying

"teach
me about email", once they click that, or someone clicks it for them, it
will fire up something that shows them how to single click, double click,
and how to send a message and read a message, use the scroll bars, delete,
and so on. About an hour of education for someone who isn't necessarily
retarded but who had no computer experience.

Apparently the classes in computer basics offered early in the cruise did
not appeal to the people who really needed them, and later in the cruise

as
their started to receive notifications that they had email waiting they

grew
frustrated because they didn't have enough computer experience to retrieve
them. Maybe email sent to the shipboard address should just be printed

and
delivered to the stateroom.


Sidebar: Eye candy

There were plenty of gorgeous women in Finland and Sweden. Nordic types

of
course, tall, blond, blue eyes. Apparently this is just normal in
Scandinavia but I developed a bit of neck strain from all the diversions.
Luckily, my wife was on hand to offer relieving neck rubs and the

occasional
cautionary "you'll go to jail for that one" or "What has happened to your
taste?"

In St. Petersburg, it was unseasonably warm and I was quite comfortable in
shirt-sleeves for the two days we were there. Didn't even need the
umbrellas,

Perhaps this weather contributed to the fabric shortage that I noticed.
There were of beautiful girls in abundance on the streets and at the

various
venues, many of them obviously bra-less, lots of them in mini skirts, and
more than a few bare midriffs. There must have been a food shortage as
well, because some of these gals were mighty skinny.

Later at dinner, I overheard another group talking about the women then

saw
in town, until another exclaimed that he heard that the eye candy was even
more plentiful in Estonia. As a scientist, I saw it as my duty to verify
that claim independently.

My tour group decided to help me with this endeavor, and we all kept an

eye
out for local talent as we traveled through Tallinn, Estonia. Many
beautiful girls were spotted, but St. Petersburg still took the gold

medal.
Maybe it was just warmer in St. Petersburg during our visit, so the girls
were taking a rare chance to flaunt it.

As far as the ship's crew goes, I think there was more eye-candy on the
Carnival and Princess ships. I didn't find many of the staff members
attractive. Plenty of pretty young servers on Princess.

Incidentally, I never saw any topless action on the topless deck. What

few
people I saw up there were those just trying to get an outdoors view of
where the ship was headed. Just like me, of course.


Sidebar: About this Document

I kept a notepad with me throughout the trip, jotting down thoughts as

they
occurred to me and transferring them to Microsoft Word in the ship's
internet café each evening.

The document was stored on the ship's server, and then I emailed it home

on
disembarkation day. The file share on the ship's server was related to my
login id, so it didn't matter which machine I used in the internet café,

my
files were always there. A nice touch.



Final Impressions:

I like Celebrity. A notch up from Princess and a leap from Carnival.

I'd really like Celebrity if they had extended buffet hours, say 6am to
midnight.

A long itinerary to unusual ports. Shirt-sleeve weather the entire time,
but I think we were lucky.

I never experienced long lines. The ship seemed spacious.



Copyright 2004 by Jeff Stieglitz, All Rights Reserved. May not be

re-posted
outside of cruisecritic.com or rec.travel.cruises without the author's
permission.




  #3  
Old September 9th, 2004, 12:19 AM
JJ
external usenet poster
 
Posts: n/a
Default

Thanks for a great review as Im considering the same cruise next summer &
you answered many questions that I had! john
"Jeff Stieglitz" wrote in message
...

Back to reality. For the first time in nearly two weeks, I need to carry

a
wallet instead of a Sea Pass card.

My wife and I just returned from a fabulous trip aboard the Constellation.
Previously, we had cruised on Carnival, Princess, and Royal Caribbean.

Below are a few notes on our trip that may be interesting to the group -
some "pay back" for all of the good information that I have received from
the discussion group over the years.

Here are the sections:
Preliminaries: Booking the trip with CruiseQuick and Red October
Getting The Flying to London and side trips
Welcome Aboard: Some observations about the Celebrity Constellation
Port By Port: Details on activities and a special section on Red October
Disembarkation: The bitter end
Sidebars: extended rants from an obsessed and perverted mind


12 Day Baltic Cruise
Celebrity Constellation
August 26, 2004


Preliminaries:

In the months leading up to our trip, I was excited because I had always
wanted to take an extended voyage, visit Russia, and cruise with

Celebrity.
The twelve-day Baltic cruise was a perfect fit. I also liked what I had
read about the Constellation: big (964 feet), new (maiden voyage in May,
2002), and many awards (top rated by Conde Nast Traveler).

We booked the cruise via CruiseQuick.com for $3021 per person. This
included a category seven unobstructed ocean-view cabin on deck two,
Celebrity Air via Virgin Atlantic out of Los Angeles with transfers

($800),
and an extra day pre-cruise in London at The City Inn Westminster ($212).
We also ended up paying about $400 per person for Red October and about

$500
per person for on-board charges like drinks, internet, photography, tips,
and so on.

So, including all fares, drinks, shore excursions, and so on, when we
finally got home the cruise cost us about $ 4,000 a person.

I understand that we could have done all of the transfers and air on our
own. I've done this before, but this time I was traveling with a larger
group and I wanted the cruise line to take care of me for the entire trip.
This ended up working out well.

They say it clearly on their web site: CruiseQuick is not for everyone.
They won't hold your hand and help you pick out a cruise or a cabin.

Their
communications are terse. However, they have always been responsive and
offered good prices, so this is the second cruise I have booked with them.
There were a few little hiccups. At one point, they told me they would

send
me an email when they received the cruise docs. This didn't happen - I
received the docs without any notice. Also, I had requested a balcony
cabin. They said that the balconies were sold out, but my

nicely-formatted
email itinerary still said "balcony". When I pointed out that our

assigned
room was not on a balcony deck, they agreed that it was a typo and
apologized for the goof. Not a big deal. I have to say though, that

people
considering CruiseQuick should not worry about it being an "email only"
agency. They have always responded to me much faster than any

conventional
travel agency - always less than a day, in some cases in just a few hours.

After receiving the booking number from CruiseQuick, I went to the

Celebrity
website and keyed in all of our vital information. The web site for this

is
well-executed, on par with the Princess site and much better than

Carnival's
version. Eventually, I booked our shore excursions through the web site

as
well. This is a fabulous feature that is offered by Celebrity and

Princess
but not Carnival. On Carnival, it was very unpleasant getting all of the
excursions ordered on the first day of the cruise. I also went to the
Cruise Critic web site and signed up for the special "Connections" party
offered to Cruise Critic users.

Celebrity's cruise docs are wire-bound and nicely formatted, with

customized
luggage tags bound-into the little folder. This is much nicer than both
Princess and Carnival, who sent me a bunch of tags floating around in a
cramped envelope. Carnival's docs were all in upper case and had a dated
feel. Celebrity's were nice and modern, giving me a clean and upscale
impression. Nice.

So far, the Celebrity website and docs experience was nice. When I called
them to confirm that my cabin was not a balcony that was nice too.

Everyone who has who is internet-savvy and is considering a Baltic

itinerary
has heard of Red October ( http://www.redoctober.spb.ru ) tours. They're

a
Russian tour company that offers intensive tours for a reasonable price.
It is run by a lady who previously worked at InTourist, the only travel
agency around in the Soviet era.

I read many positive reviews of Red October, and we had a productive
exchange of emails to develop my custom itinerary. I wanted to visit some
unusual places in addition to the standard tour of the palaces.

I threw them a number of curve balls. I wanted our guide to be one of the
"Helens" that have been reviewed so positively. I also also had an

unusual
itinerary in mind: I wanted to ride the subway, see the military museum,
and visit a farmer's market. They handled all of these special requests
with ease. Later, I asked about a visit to the "St. Petersburg

Broadcasting
Center". They said they were busy with other customers and would get back
to me soon. I waited for two months before reminding them of my request.

I
think they forgot about it, because within a few more days they gave me

some
detailed information: A visit to the broadcasting center takes about six
hours, and I would have to cut out something from our schedule to make it
fit. I decided against it.

Off topic observation: Whenever I'm working with someone and they tell me
they are busy, my first inclination is to lighten their load a little bit

by
taking my business elsewhere. That would be Denrus (
http://www.denrus.ru/ )in this case. I didn't do that this time because

it
was just a small issue and Red October is so highly recommended by the
internet groups.

Several months before the cruise, Red October asked for passport

information
and sent me some "tickets" by postal mail to help us get through Russian
Immigration. By email, they sent a final itinerary and several Word
documents giving tips on dealing with the ship's crew at disembarkation.

As it turns out, none of this was necessary for us. The Celebrity staff

and
Russian Immigration just let us sail right through.

It seems that there is some confusion on the part of the cruise lines,
perhaps intentional, about the need for Russian Visas by independent
travelers. Celebrity states "A Tourist Visa is required for independent
sight-seeing: however, visas are not needed on the ship sponsored shore
excursions." What they don't say is that passengers who use travel
companies registered with the Russian government - such as Red October and
DenRus - are also exempt from Visas.

So let me put it clearly: You do not need a Russian visa with Red

October.

I've also seen rumored on the internet groups that cruise lines will
frequently make independent tourists wait until the ship's tours have
disembarked. Red October sent me several emails stating we should get off
the ship as soon as possible, and offering some tips on how to do that.

As it turns out, this also was much ado about nothing. During the cruise
itself, there was a polite announcement asking those with independent
arrangements in St. Petersburg to check in with the reception desk,
ostensibly to deal with Russian Immigration formalities.

I brought my package of Red October materials to the desk, and clerk asked
what time I wanted to get off the ship. She said that they were keeping
track just to enable an orderly disembarkation. So much for immigration
formalities...

I was able to glance at the list and stopped counting after I reached

twenty
groups for Red October. Good for them.


Getting The

Celebrity booked us on a Virgin Atlantic flight that left Los Angeles
International at 5:30pm and arrived at London Heathrow at about 10 a.m

local
time after about nine hours in the air.

I've traveled internationally many times, but this was my first flight

with
Virgin. There were a few surprises. First of all, carry on baggage for
coach class was limited to fifteen pounds, and they had an electronic

scale
at the entrance to the check-in line. First or business class passengers
escaped scrutiny.

I have a Tumi roll-aboard that I have been using for a number of years,

and
it must weight fourteen pounds empty. No matter how much I transferred to
my checked bag, I couldn't get it down to the right weight, so I had to
check it, which made me nervous as it had no locks. There was

considerable
chaos in the ticketing area people struggled to transfer items from bag to
bag to meet the weight limits. In retrospect, I should have selected
business class for my group. No fifteen-pound limit there.

Also, after a certain time the security goons decided that they didn't

like
the way the line was growing, so they re-formed it outside, completely
ignoring the people who were already in a line tracing its way through the
terminal. This caused a number of heated arguments from those who had
waited the longest and suddenly found themselves at the end of a newer,
longer, line.

The flight itself was non-eventful, other than I had an aisle seat. My
fitful attempts at sleep were disturbed by well-fed rumps brushing against
my shoulder as they waddled down the aisle. I pushed back when I felt
something touch my head, but I doubt the worst offenders could feel my
rebuking shove. Note to self: especially when flying coach, choose a
middle seat over aisles when window seats are unavailable.

Soon, we reached Heathrow. Virgin once again dashed my expectations by
using stairs and a bus to handle the disembarking passengers. The bus

could
only handle forty people at a time, and apparently there was only one bus,
so some time to drain the 400 people from our 747.

After running through British immigration, our group of four people
collected our luggage and we were off to find our Celebrity transfer

agent.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I discovered my belongings were still in

that
unlocked bag that I had to check.

Walking into the busy arrival lobby with our luggage, I spotted a

Celebrity
sign held by what turned out to be a very pleasant lady. She checked our
names against a list and then escorted us to a driver, mentioning that

only
a few groups were arriving the day before the cruise, but that she would

be
shepherding more than 400 people the next day - the day of departure.

We were led to a waiting van and the driver took us to The City Inn,
Westminster. It was one of the hotels recommended by Celebrity and I
selected it because it was new and offered a modern, minimalist décor.

Our
group of four had the van to ourselves.

Independently, I had booked a tour of the state rooms at Buckingham Palace
and a "flight" on the London Eye Ferris wheel. Even though we were all
tired from the flight, it was energizing to be inside the palace. The

tour
was self-guided using a programmable audio headset. At certain points the
audio would say something like "if you would like further information

about
this special clock, type 51 on your keypad and press the green button".

When we arrived back at the hotel there was a letter under the door from
Celebrity welcoming us and offering some tips about the transfer the next
day.

The next day, we got on the big bus parked just outside the hotel and
arrived at the Dover port two and a half hours later. The bus was modern
and it was about half full, but the seating was somewhat cramped - some of
the taller people were grousing.

In the arrival hall at the Dover Port, we were greeted by a fair-sized

line
of passengers and some Celebrity staff dispensing punch and water. When I
traveled on Princess last, they had some low-key live music in the arrival
hall to set the mood, something that Celebrity should emulate.

When we reached the head of the line they handled the usual details and

then
threw me a curve ball: They wanted to keep our passports, at least
temporarily, saying they had to make a copy for Russian immigration. I
hesitated to give up my passport to anyone, but I had some ancient

memories
of Russians keeping passports in the old days, so I quickly relented. We
received receipts, and the passports were returned to us the next day
on-board, with a photocopy neatly folded for us inside. I still don't
understand why they didn't just make a photocopy right then at the port,

but
I didn't complain.

As it turns out, Celebrity was making a copy for our convenience - Russian
Immigration needed a copy the first day in St. Petersburg. I wish they

just
would have explained it like that. Something like "Russian Immigration

now
requires you to present a photocopy of your passport when you get off the
ship the first day in St. Petersburg. We will make a copy for you and
return it along with your passport to your stateroom. We will give you a
receipt for your passport. The passport number you may have given us
earlier is not enough for Russian Immigration. They need a copy, and we

are
helping you.."


Welcome Aboard

We were on the ship in a half hour, welcomed by a glass of champagne and a
line of uniformed staff taking passengers to their staterooms. We had

room
2074, and within minutes of our arrival our Indian steward Camilo was

there
introducing himself and explaining the features of the room. That was

nice,
because on our last Carnival cruise we never met our steward.

In our cabin was a complimentary Celebrity tote bag, some bathrobes to

use,
two umbrellas, a safe, a hair drier, two outlets near the desk and one in
the bathroom. The shower had a detachable nozzle and was thermostatically
controlled. There was no peephole in the door.

On a lark, I confirmed that we would be experiencing the "glowing toilet"
affect, occasionally discussed in the news groups. When the lights are

off
in the bathroom, a little bit of light from the outside corridor seeps in
through a plumbing maintenance panel, resulting in a slight glow to the
toilet bowl.

Moving on, I jumped on the bed and determined that the mattress was firm

and
the linens had a luxurious feel.

On our little desk I found our shore excursion tickets and an invitation

to
the Cruise Critic party. The signups for both of these were handled

months
ago via the web.

I took a minute to read the daily activity guide. It had a high quality
feel, thick paper and nice fonts. The "schedule" section was a separate
piece of thick stock, almost like a 3x5 card, and was divided for easy
folding. The small print on the activity guide said that promotional fees
may have been paid by the recommended shops, and that was also stated from
time to time by the onboard "shopping consultant". These thoughtful

details
put me in a good mood - I was pleased to see truth in advertising.

We wandered around the ship a bit, and found it to be modern, clean, and
with a collection of art that was entirely to my liking. Lots of
photographs, mixed media, and sculpture. I didn't see many inaccessible
modern-art masterpieces.

There are no self-service laundry facilities aboard the Constellation,
unlike the Star Princess and the Carnival Inspiration.

We checked out the reception area located at the foot of the tasteful
atrium, noting a kiosk near the front desk that had printed newspaper
summaries in various languages. They also had a "bank" desk and a
"concierge" desk nearby. The bank handled the usual currency exchange
details, and also handled postal duties - the attendant told me that they
would mail postcards for $1.25 each, and if they were submitted more than

an
hour before departure they would bear the postmark of the current port.

As
it turns out, $1.25 was reasonable compared to the international postcard
rates we found at some of the ports.

Next stop: the casino. It casino had the usual slot games and video

poker,
along with dealer blackjack, craps, and roulette. The blackjack rules

allow
for doubling after a split, but the craps game only featured single odds.

I found it notable that the casino cashier would offer quick cash charged

to
the room account - the usual credit-card cash advance fees would not

apply.
I think this would be a better deal than using the shipboard ATM machines.

Leaving the Casino, we checked out some of Constellation's other special
features. The library, "words" was an impressive two-story room with

plenty
of books and magazines. They also rented iPod music players there.

The music lounge, "Notes", was also two levels, and it had quite a few
lounge chairs with nearby touch-screen jukeboxes. I messed with the touch
screen a bit --- you can select genre, artist, or song, make a play list,
and then listen to your custom concert via headphones. Unexpected and
fascinating.

We went up to deck ten to take a quick peek at the Aqua Spa. Celebrity
claims that they have the largest facilities afloat, and from what we saw
that is no idle boast. The spa facility is quite appropriately located on
the same deck as the buffet. It features a little Café, which features
light cuisine all day. The café looks out over the therapy pools - a

couple
of regular Jacuzzi-style tubs and a larger heated pool of similar design.

Beyond the therapy pools were the treatment rooms, where the staff was
offering the usual feel-good quackery such as "a coconut milk body scrub

to
release toxins that cause irritability and constipation." I was tempted

to
ask specifically which toxins were released and the specific mode of
removal, but I decided against it. My guess was that the "toxins" came

from
the buffet down the hall.

The ship also touted acupuncture treatments in a similar fashion.

We inquired about a manicure and a pedicure, and the total for the "hand

and
foot ritual with exfoliating lime and ginger salt scrub" was a little over

a
hundred dollars. Perhaps this is a good deal for seaborne nail clipping,
but I decided to pass.

In front of the ship, and indeed one of the few places where one could get

a
good view of where the ship was headed, was the gymnasium. It was
well-equipped with gear from Life Fitness: six elliptical trainers,

twelve
treadmills, five steppers, four cycles, and a dozen weight machines. I

also
saw two Schwin rowing machines, a bunch of stationary bikes used for
aerobics classes, and a small room with free weights.

On the very top deck was the "conservatory", a type of greenhouse where

you
could pick up some greenery and take flower arranging classes. It seemed

to
me that most of the flowers were silk, but some of them appeared to be
alive. They also had a jogging track there.

I was sort of disappointed at this point to discover that there was no

easy
way to get to the very front of the ship. The concealed "topless deck"

was
about as close as one could get - neither the promenade deck nor the

jogging
track led all the way up to the front. I was hoping to do my Leonardo
DeCaprio imitation by shouting "I'm the king of the world!" from the

helipad
on the ship's bow. Alas, that part of the ship is blocked to passengers.

The muster drill followed, and I marveled that both the audio quality and
the depth of the explanations were better than other lines. Also
interesting were the multilingual announcements: English and Spanish. As
it turns out, there were a lot of people from Mexico and South America on
the cruise.

I liked the way they played the Celebrity theme song as we were sailing

away
from port.

The entertainment that night featured some videotaped introductions from
Celebrity executives. That was nice.


Port by Port

The first day was a day at sea, giving us a good chance to explore the

ship
and its many charms. I grew accustomed the friendly way the staff greeted
us whenever we passed along the hallways and decks.

Our cabin was quiet. The silence was uninterrupted by shill announcements
for Art auctions, bingo, or spa specials. Not ever. I like that about
Celebrity. Occasionally we could hear our neighbors in the adjoining

cabin,
especially when they were putting things in their closet, but thankfully
that was relatively rare.

The ship was very smooth. Overall, we only had noticeable motion on one
day, which I understand made a few people sick. On that day, I was fine

but
I wished the closet had foam rubber hangers, as they were jangling about.

The ship was kept very neat and clean.


First stop: Oslo, Norway. Arrived at seven a.m., left at two p.m.

Brief!

I awakened early to view our approach through the "fjords", and my wife

and
I were among the first to get off the ship at 7 am. Greeting us at the

dock
was a lone taxi, a hop-on, hop-off bus for the independent minded, and a

few
dozen pieces of luggage that were catching up to their owners. We

wandered
about the town a bit and then returned to the ship to pick up Celebrity's
$45 "Oslo Highlights" tour.

That tour was a waste. We saw the sculpture garden, where our guide gave

us
explanations in unneeded detail on many of the dozens of sculptures in the
park. There was at least ten other tour buses there, preventing really
special photography.

After the sculpture garden, we went to the ski jump museum. I was also
bored by this. After that, we drove by the courthouse and returned to the
ship. At one point, the chatty tour guide told us to avert our eyes

because
there was an interesting flea-market happening on the side of the road,

and
we wouldn't be stopping there.

The main highlight for me was the visit inside the state building, which

is
impressive architecturally and also because it is the site of the Nobel
Prize banquet. There was a large Asian tour group there and the members
were taking pictures of each other engaging in mock acceptance speeches at
the Nobel lectern. I thought that was a grand idea, but the line was too
long so I gave up. No Nobel Prize for me, too impatient.

After returning to the ship, we still had a good hour to kill so we jumped
on a shuttle that Celebrity had arranged between the ship and a shopping
area.

Then we bid Oslo farewell, having experienced just a quick taste of Nordic
Culture.

When we returned to our room, there was a little form on the bed asking us
how we intended to get to the airport at the end of the cruise. Premature
and a real buzz kill. That's not what I wanted to be thinking about so
early in the cruise, and I can just assume that the ship was trying to

plan
the disembarkation process.

What made it even more disappointing is that I had scheduled all of my
travel through Celebrity, so they already knew that I was using them to
transfer from the ship to the airport and what flight I was taking. I
shrugged off this minor annoyance and left the cabin to gorge myself.


Second port: Stockholm, Sweden. Arrived at ten a.m., left at five p.m.

We had scheduled "A Day In Stockholm" for $99 per person through

Celebrity.
And a busy day it was. The first stop was at a nice place to take

pictures
of the harbor. We visited a number of grand old churches, then the Viking
Ship Museum. The museum was much more interesting that I anticipated -

the
old Viking ship is really large and there is a fascinating story

associated
with its rediscovery and recovery. The museum was well done.

We had about two hours on our own for lunch and shopping, and we spent it
wandering around the crooked streets of the city center, getting lost at

one
point but it ended up all right.

By this point, I realized that Celebrity is really punctual. Our ship
always arrived right on time at the ports and the shore excursions left
almost to the minute of scheduled departure. Some of the excursions left
early when they determined that everyone was already on the bus. That was
nice and I appreciated it -- an improvement over the other cruise lines.


Third Port: Helsinki, Finland. Arrived at nine a.m., left at six p.m.


We booked the $189 "Steam Train and Highlights" tour through Celebrity.

We
did indeed take a brief ride on a wood-fired steam train, and stopped at

the
obligatory old churches

We spent some time wandering around the quaint old town of Porvoo before
going to an old manor on the Baltic for a fair lunch of chicken stew,
scalloped potatoes, and raspberry mouse. Then it was back to the ship.


Fourth Port: St. Petersburg, Russia. Arrived at seven a.m., left at 6:30
p.m. the next day.

Using what I learned on this group, I used Red October to guide me through
the two days in St. Petersburg. The experience was so efficient and so
customized to my whims that it will be difficult for me to return to
bus-sized tours. When all was said and done it ended up being a bit under
$200 per person per day.

The night before we arrived, our room steward delivered a message to our
room that explained how they had made special arrangements for independent
travelers. To be the first off the ship, all we had to do was show up in

a
particular lounge at 7:00 am, and then a crew member would escort us to

the
gangway.

It looks like Celebrity has this all squared away. I was expecting a

horror
show, having to muscle my way through a wall of disinterested crew members
telling me that I couldn't get off the ship until the ship's tours

departed.
Red October sent me several messages suggesting as much.

Instead, I was greeted in the lounge by two dining room staffers

dispensing
coffee and pastries. There were at least fifty people in the lounge.

Eventually, someone showed up with a hand-held radio. When the radio
squawked he said "follow me everyone". Sure enough, we were the first off
the boat at about 7:20 a.m. No trouble at all. All of the doom and gloom
predictions came to nothing.

As I first set foot on the uneven asphalt of the industrial port of St.
Petersburg, Russia, I was greatly amused to find a uniformed brass brand
playing "Stars and Stripes Forever". Ahhhh, the irony. The iron curtain
had become the ironic curtain. I couldn't help laughing at that thought,
but sadly it seems that the humor escaped those around me.

We were guided into the small Russian Immigration building. The stern

agent
took the paper photocopy of my passport that Celebrity had made for us,
stamped the passport on the very last page, and handed me a little red

card
to that said "cruise ship passenger". From there, I passed by modern
radiation detector and out into the parking lot of waiting buses and vans.

I guess I won't be carrying out that lump of plutonium after all.

No trouble at all with immigration, much easier than I was expecting. Red
October had mailed us little tickets to help us get through immigration,

but
immigration didn't ask us for them. Red October also provided us with a
fancy letter giving all of their license numbers and a set of special
instructions for dealing with the ship's crew. None of that was needed
either. So we were well prepared for trouble that never occurred.

Better safe than sorry I guess, but it might be time to dial back some of
the doom-and-gloom that has been foretold for those taking shore

excursions
independently of the cruise line in St. Petersburg. We just didn't have

any
trouble at all. Of course, none of the other countries had any passport
formalities to begin with, but what little there was in Russia was well
worth all of the magic experiences we had there.

It didn't take but a minute to see the group of Red October staff and the
line up of white vans. I walked up to Laura and she directed me to a

modern
white Mercedes Vito van. The driver was "Sergey" and our guide "Elena".
Later that day I spotted the other "Elena", "Alona" and "Dimitry" - guides
that have been widely discussed in the newsgroups.

When prompted, Elena told me that she, too, was previously known as Helen
but she changed her name to avoid confusion. That didn't help me too

much,
because we ran into another "Elena" with a Red October name tag.

We were in the Mercedes van and on our way out the port by 7:40 am.

Earlier
than I expected and very nice.

The first day was action packed as we:
Took an orientation drive around the city, with photo stops as desired
Visited the Eliseev Grocery Store, an historic specialty shop
Tour of the Hermitage, bypassing most lines, which is a big deal
Visit to the Hermitage Gold Room
Visit to the fabulous Peterhof and its amazing fountains
Visit to Catherine's Block
A ride on the subway to marvel at the ornate stations
A brief stroll down Nevsky Prospect
(something inspired by spy novels and history classes)

Each of these was accompanied by the patter of our knowledgeable guide,

who
filled us in with lots of color and extra details. We also discussed life
in Russia and the medical system, which was of particular interest because
two in our party were nurses.

At one of the photo stops, we were all amused to see a man who was taking
his bear for a walk. It weighed at least 200 pounds and when it stood up

it
was about five feet tall. Our guide assured us that bear-walking was an
unusual occurrence even though none of the passers by seemed to pay the
slightest attention to the unfolding spectacle.

As I was jockeying my camera for a good angle she dryly noted that bears
were unpredictable animals and I should keep my distance.

We saw a lot that day, and I'm sure we just scratched the surface of the
Hermitage. I was amused to see a group of a hundred people crowding close
to hear the Celebrity tour guide as they were led through the Hermitage,
while we were there at the same time, lingering at each exhibit for as
little as long as we liked, asking questions here and there, and generally
bypassing all of the crowds and lines with impunity. This is the
first-class way to go.

We arrived back at the ship tired and educated. Sadly, I fell asleep at

8pm
so I missed the late-night Russian Buffet. Why didn't they have that
running from six until midnight? I wasn't the only one to wonder about
that. See my sidebar on food to experience my rants about the meal

schedule
on port days.

The second day, we made arrangements to meet at 7:30 am, a bit early than
listed on the itinerary but suggested by the guide to give us the best
chances of hitting all of the items on my expanded itinerary. That is, my
version of the itinerary was expanded compared to her abbreviated version.

The band was there playing Dixie as I stepped off the Constellation at

7:15.
This caused me to laugh even harder than the first time! Still, nobody

else
seemed to get the joke in just the same was as I did. Maybe the musicians
did indeed wish they were back in the land of cotton, where old times were
not forgotten. Was this a literary allusion to old Soviet times or just
pandering to the audience? Hmmmm.

( Oddly, when we arrived one of the Russian monuments we were greeted by a
different brass band, this one playing "Hail Britannia". Perhaps I was a
victim of mistaken identity. )

We quickly met up with Elena and were off to an early start, driving away
from the port at 7:20.

The second day we visited
Catherine Palace and the recently-restored Amber room
World War II memorial
Impromptu photo stop in front of an old Soviet-Style factory
Big Lenin statue in front and hammer-and-sickle accents
Lunch and shopping stop at Red October store,
including new, fashionably attractive annex across the street
Peter and Paul Fortress
Spilled Blood Cathedral with its impressive mosaics
Artillery museum, the largest of its type in the world, but for fanatics
Farmers market
A special art gallery suggested by the guide
The hotel Europa to exchange some currency

It seems that Marlboro is the favorite brand of cigarettes in St.
Petersburg, if the butts scattered about are any guide.

I was delighted that the guide suggested that we take a side-trip to a
particular art gallery. As it turns out, Elena has special knowledge of

art
history and suggested that visit the "Baron Stieglits" art school and
museum. This is significant because my last name is "Stieglitz" and my
distant ancestors hail from Eastern Europe. The director of the school
greeted us warmly and I ended up buying a few pieces of student art from

the
collection on display. I'm happy that she suggested it.

We returned to the ship, saying goodbye to Elena our guide and Segey our
driver. It soon started raining like crazy, and we were all thankful that
St. Petersburg blessed us with delightful shirt-sleeve weather.

It was, all in all, very satisfying and quite a bargain.

This seems as good a place as any to offer some tips for working with Red
October.

Tip one: Get a detailed itinerary before you embark, take it with you,

and
confirm it with the guide at the beginning of your excursion. Early on, I
discovered that our guide was working from a simplified version of our
itinerary, and it took a few uncomfortable minutes of discussion to

resolve
the differences.

We ended up seeing everything as agreed, and our guide was a consummate
professional. Still, it would have been nice if Red October provided

their
contractors with the exact same detailed itinerary as they provided their
customers.

Tip two: Buy your lunch from Red October or carve out some time to have
lunch in a restaurant. Red October advises you to take some food from the
ship for lunch on the run, as some of the commutes can be lengthy.

However,
the ship advises that it is against Russian law to do so. I didn't want

to
take chances with the authorities, instead taking a gamble that food
supplied by Red October would be safe. To avoid any problems, I asked Red
October to provide boxed lunches. They obliged, and at $10 per person per
day it was a good deal. Each lunch included a tuna sandwich, an egg salad
sandwich with bacon, a bottle of water, two bananas, and an apple. I

would
have been happy with one of the sandwiches and a bottle of water.

As it turns out, our belongings were never searched by Russian

immigration.
So bring your baggies and stuff your Carnival Cruises tote bag until it is
full of buffet fruit and room-service sandwiches - you'll save a whopping
ten bucks on lunch but you'll have a real sense of accomplishment at

beating
the system.

This brings me to my third piece of advice for those working with Red
October: Know when to pay. It's not exactly clear, but we stopped by Red
October each day to pick up the lunches and shop in their affiliated

store.

A bit off topic, but The Red October store is on the ship's "approved
shopping" list and many of the ships tours make a pit stop there.
Apparently the Red October stores and the Red October tours share a

business
location but they are different companies.

The prices and quality in the store seemed good to me. Your stop at the
store is also when you are supposed to pay them for their travel services,
something I wish they made crystal clear in their communications. They

give
a 3% discount for cash.

I was a bit squeamish about carrying that much cash around town, so I paid
for half of it on day one and half of it on day two. Bought some

postcards
too, and our guide Elena helped me with the postage.

The next item with Red October, and perhaps this applies to independent
traveler, is that some of the better monuments charge extra for cameras.
This seems to be unevenly enforced at the sites. In one location, I
received a red sticker to place on my camera, and it was clear that the
matronly museum staff in each room were checking for it. In most of the
museums, a room monitor would point at the camera and chat with the guide

in
Russian. In other places, there was no tag and no checking.

Charging for cameras comes with the territory I guess, and it wasn't too
expensive - a couple of bucks at each place. I asked Laura at Red October
to set me up with camera licenses everywhere I went. Still, there was

some
confusion about this on the itinerary, as it appeared that not all of the
places that required licenses were reflected. So I coughed up a few more
bucks as we entered some of the museums.

The posted "camera fees" seemed to be substantially less that what Red
October charged, and the explanation was a vague "currency conversion
commission". For instance, the listed fee for a still camera at the

Church
of the Spilled Blood was 50 rubles. The rough exchange rate was 30 rubles
per dollar, which roughly equates to less than two dollars for a still
camera. Red October charged four dollars.

For what it's worth, Laura from Red October suggested that I forego taking
my own pictures and buy professionally-produced picture books which are
available at each site. I ended up buying some books *and* taking the
pictures, but I have to say in retrospect that Laura gave some good

advice -
I had such problems with lighting and lenses that I should have stuck to
outdoor portrait photography of my family and left all of the indoor shots
to the books.

In my opinion, Red October should just cover all of the camera fees as

part
of the overall charge, or more clearly define them. It just felt a little
weird, especially considering that camera charges are included in the base
cost of all of the ship's tours.

I'm not going to argue over a couple of bucks on an expensive vacation,
however, I start growling a little bit when I discover some funny
arithmetic. I just shut up and turned over some extra dollars.

And speaking of which, the invoice I received at the Red October store

didn't
quite match the price I was quoted. I was pondering this and I couldn't
find the discrepancy until I added up the long column of numbers and found
that the total didn't match the line items. I asked "the accountant" who
was there to collect my payment and she told me that the total shows the
full price without the cash discount. So I guess the line items on the
invoice show the discounted value, but the total shows what you would have
to pay if you used a credit card.

I was thinking that this was probably outside of GAAP but I kept my mouth
shut again, merely suggesting to the accountant that a column of numbers
with a total underneath it should all add up - if she was going to mix
discounted and non-discounted prices on the same page she should to have a
note stating which was which.

She smiled. I just paid the discounted price, in cash as agreed and
expected, and was done with it.

The Red October experience was very positive. These are just some minor
observations. I would do business with them again and would recommend

them
to someone traveling to St. Petersburg.

Back on the ship for a quick snack after our busy day, I counted more than
fifty full-size buses parked in front of the Costa Atlantica, a ship every
bit as large as the Constellation. Just then it started to rain, and

there
must have been some kind of delay on the Costa ship because there were
hundreds of people stand out there getting soaked. Tough luck, that.


Fifth Port: Tallinn, Estonia. Arrived at eight a.m., left at five p.m.

We were booked for Celebrity's deluxe package: Best of Tallinn with

Concert
and Lunch, for $80 a person. My first impressions of the port were
positive - it was clearly designed for cruise ships and seemed newly
constructed, featuring smooth concrete sidewalks and an organized parking
area for the buses. The ship was met by a dozen buses and a taxi. It was
easy to get off the ship, too: there weren't any stern-faced immigration
authorities to deal with as in St. Petersburg, we just walked down the
gangplank stepped on to the waiting bus.

I immediately took a liking to our young guide, Taavi. He had some

scrappy,
literate comments like "Your guides in St. Petersburg may have told you
about cold winter weather. We are at the same latitude and our winters

are
not so bad. Perhaps they are trying to cultivate a Dr. Zhivago theme."

And
also "The Soviets gave us the honor of being part of their happy union...

it
was a tragic situation". And.. "You may be interested in the practical
money situation here. It is technically illegal to trade in foreign
currencies. However, somehow businesses find a way, so you will probably

be
able to use dollars and euros."

Taavi amused me with his chatter was we drove by blocks of old

Soviet-style
housing and then newer units, finally arriving at the Festival grounds for
some quick photographs. We moved on to the upper town, visiting the
obligatory Old Churches common to all of our port tours. We then walked
downhill from the upper town to the old town. It was a nice walk and I
enjoyed it immensely.

We stopped in the town square for the provided lunch, and I found it quite
tasty: The meal opened with a salad with lettuce, sweet peppers, parsley,
and dill. It was followed by some marinated beef, a spicy cabbage side
dish, pickles, and for desert, ice cream. The marinade and spicy

sauerkraut
made it special - I had never encountered those flavor combinations and I
was pleased.

After lunch we were supposed to attend the "concert" part of our "concert
and lunch" deal, but after I truly understood what the concert was all

about
I decided to just wander about the town and take pictures - there was a
flower mart nearby and that seemed to offer better photographic
opportunities than a trio of monks with flute and guitar.

After taking pictures, we picked up some postcards and spent some time
filling them out over pastries at the local café before rejoining our

group
at the bus and returning to the ship.

Back on the ship, we decided to catch a movie in the elegant cinema. It

was
an elegant, wood-paneled room with about fifty seats, also used for

lectures
and small religious ceremonies. The movie of the day was Monster with
Charlize Theron. The sound system was good, even though the tracking of

the
videotape and the convergence of the projector was a bit off. Not bad
though, it was a good show and the seats were comfortable.


Sixth Port: Copenhagen, Denmark. Arrived at seven a.m., left at six p.m.

We were booked for two Celebrity tours at this port. In the morning,

City
of Copenhagen for $39, and Royal Gardens and Parks for $62 in the

afternoon.

The afternoon tour was cancelled, and Celebrity informed me of this the
night before via a note in a classy little envelope delivered to our
stateroom. The professional tone of the message and the way it was
delivered helped me get over the pain of the cancellation. So we would

have
to get to the gardens on our own.

Our tour started promptly and the first stop was a photo opportunity of

the
"Little Mermaid" stature. The boring guide informed us that the statue

was
sponsored by Carlsberg beer and for some reason Americans liked to take
pictures of it. We continued, going by the palace square to witness the
changing of the guard, and then by a few gardens before taking us back to
the ship. Not very exciting, most likely due to the dry delivery of the
guide.

After we arrived back at the ship, we took the free Celebrity shuttle back
into town, and wandered around buying the required trinkets: Fridge

magnet,
postcards, glass from Hard Rock Café. We took a taxi back to the ship for
$36; the port area was very congested due to the unveiling of a massive

new
Maersk container ship.

Back on the ship, we found some interesting items in our cabin. The first
item was a tidy envelope with disembarkation instructions and luggage

tags.
Not wanting to acknowledge the obvious fact that our vacation was coming

to
an end, I tossed these aside.

The next item was a tipping form. By signing the form and returning it to
the front desk, we could have the "recommended amounts" charged to our
shipboard account and distributed to the service staff. We could also
single out specific areas for additional tips, such as the dining room
waiter or room steward. Oddly enough, to use the automatic approach you
could only tip the recommended amount or more. If you wanted to tip less,
you had to go with the envelope approach.

The form came along with a table of suggested tips. In his disembarkation
talk the cruise director said that the table represented recommended

amounts
from American Express Travel. Hmmmm. Here is what was listed, per guest,
per day:

$3.50 for stateroom attendant
$3.50 for waiter
$2.00 for waiter assistant
$0.75 for the assistant Maitre'D
$0.75 for the assistant chief housekeeper

A message on the in-room television also mentioned:
$4.00 for concierge in the concierge staterooms
$3.50 for butlers

This approach toward tipping is a bit classier than what I have

experienced
on Carnival and Princess, where they automatically charge you for tips

each
day unless you state otherwise. In my opinion, if they are going to do

that
they should just increase the price of the ticket and adopt a no tipping
policy.

I went with the automatic approach, and despite this we still received
envelopes the next day, along with a lengthy cruise survey form. That
evening, our waiter was careful to inform us that the dining staff with

the
best rating received two extra days off a month, and he hoped that we had

an
"excellent" experience.

That night on the in-room television I saw one of the many programs
featuring shopping consultant "Dario", who as usual delivered a rapid-fire
pitch with his Italian accent.

Dario was trying to get us to engage in a contest where we could win back
the price we paid for all of the items we purchased during our port

visits.
All we had to do was filli out a form indicating what we purchased and the
name of the shop, and then drop by his office so he could photocopy the
receipts. The whole thing smelled fishy to me. Actually, on all of our
cruises ended up thinking that the shopping consultant was on the take.
Celebrity was more up-front about this than the other lines.

Reading the half-page of fine print accompanying the contest entry form,

it
appears that that it is run by "Onboard Media" and the drawing takes place
once a year in Florida. So, in return for your shopping data, Onboard

Media
holds a single drawing, amalgamating all of the cruise lines together. I
wonder what they do with data - pay commissions to the port guide,

perhaps?

It made for some interesting reflection.


Disembarking

The final port: Dover,England. Arrival at 4 am.

The assistant Maitre'D told us that 96 couples were doing back-to-back
cruises, staying onboard the Constellation through it's Baltic itinerary

and
continuing trans-Atlantic to New York. He also mentioned that there were
1,800 passengers booked for the trans-Atlantic hop, and I have to admit I
thought about what I would have to say to my employer to extend my

vacation
to include it.

The night before, we spent time filling out the luggage tags, which were

not
pre-printed like the embarkation tags. I wish they were pre-printed for
disembarkation, as that was a nice touch and the ship certainly had all of
the information about us that they needed.

We were taking advantage of Celebrity's transfer service, and our
disembarkation instructions told us to show up at the theater at 8:00 am.
We arrived at the theater a few minutes early and were led out of the ship
in an orderly fashion.

There were no overhead announcements, and the luggage in the terminal was
well-organized. There was a line of porters, and a crewmember would

assign
porters to groups a few at a time, so the process was civilized. We were
then led out to a bus labeled with the same code as our luggage tags and

we
were off to Heathrow.

The bus ride to Heathrow took about three hours, leaving us about four

hours
to pick up some final duty-free souvenirs. Heathrow also has a fine cigar
shop, featuring many Cuban brands.

At Virgin Atlantic, I had a bit of a problem with the security guards
roaming the check-in line because I had torn out the perforated e-ticket
page from the book of cruise docs, which I had discarded on the ship.

That
was a mistake, because the guards wanted to see names on the etickets, but
Celebrity did not print the names on that page, even though it was nicely
perforated for easy removal. So we were asked to get out of line and wait
in another line so they could print a new e-ticket for us.

Note to Celebrity: Please print the passenger names on the e-ticket page

of
the cruise docs.

The embarkation process for Virgin was disorganized and the flight left an
hour late. We arrived back in Los Angeles without incident, but I doubt I
will fly Virgin again. The food on Virgin was pretty good though.

I should note here that one of by bags was damaged on the ship at
disembarkation. My sturdy hard-sided Samsonite Silhouette was only on its
second trip. The bag arrived wrapped in plastic and labeled "damaged on

the
ship". I wasn't going to cry about it - luggage is there to take a bullet
and protect the contents. Celebrity had nothing to say and I didn't ask.

Later, I was told that the bags are stacked pretty high and the hard-sided
luggage tends to pop, while the soft-sided stuff just gets squished. The
bag and its Saran-Wrap cocoon survived the flight intact. When I opened

it
up at home, all of the contents were there and the bag appeared to be
undamaged. I guess it just popped open and then the crew on the ship was
unable to close it because the locks were still engaged. Not sure if I

will
ever use that bag again, but it was $300 bucks and I'm hesitant to toss

it.


Sidebars

Sidebar: Music

One of the favorite aspects of cruising for me is the music. Celebrity

did
a good job there, only disappointing me in one area.

Music that I enjoyed included Onyx, a dance band; the Coverdales, a
barbershop quartet, a string quartet, a jazz guitarist, a lounge pianist,
and also a concert pianist who doubled as a comedian and music

appreciation
professor. Highly enjoyable.

Slightly disappointing was the show band backing up the production shows -
they did not have a guitarist, relying instead on pre-recorded tracks for
guitar and some of the other instruments. I also noticed that some of the
performers in the production shows seemed to be singing but were not

miked -
can you say "lip sync?" The show band had a pretty large horn section but

I
never could make out the saxophone or the flute player.

This was in contrast to the excellent band aboard the Carnival

Inspiration,
which had the memorable-yet-improbable name of the Braxton Hicks Show

Band.
This band had a kick-butt electric guitarist and the band leader played

the
sax, which I could always hear prominently. That Carnival Cruise was
otherwise lackluster, and I was left wishing that the two ships could

switch
bands.

Overall, I think the production shows on Carnival and Princess were a bit
better than Celebrity. However, Celebrity had much better specialty

acts -
singers, comedians, lecturers, and so on. I'll take Celebrity's approach
any day.


Sidebar: Food

I'm always amused when I read cruise reports that mention "inedible" food.
To me, inedible food kills you or makes you sick. It is all edible! I

didn't
care for the cafeteria-style fish sticks on the Carnival Inspiration, but

I
wouldn't call them inedible. So there.

I thought the food was good on Constellation, much better than the

Carnival
Inspiration and about on par with the Star Princess. I thought the sushi,
omeletes, and other made-to-order dishes were very good. The food in the
main dining room was as good as could be expected given that they were
serving a thousand people at once. I thought the main dining room food

was
better on Princess, but I had a late "personal choice" table on Princess,

so
the kitchen was probably more relaxed making my food on that cruise.

The buffet was well staffed, with plenty of people to carry your tray if
needed and to take away plates when you were through. On many days, I
thought the buffet food on Celebrity was better than the food on in the

main
dining room - more interesting spices and served hot.

However, the meal on lobster night, the "gala", was fabulous, the best I
have experienced on a cruise ship. The lobster was sweet, the broccoli
crisp, the polenta spicy, and the baked potato creamy. Just wonderful, a
meal I'll be recalling fondly for quite some time.

I missed the 24-hour buffet that they have on the Star Princess. I also
wished that Celebrity labeled all items on the buffet and desert lines.
Only some of the main dishes were labeled, making me cringe whenever I

heard
someone ask a hapless attendant "what's this?" I sort of felt sorry for

the
attendants, as they must have to cheerfully answer that question a hundred
times a day.

The "gourmet bites" were served around midnight, where waiters in the

public
areas would graciously offer appetizers such as onion tarts,
mini-hamburgers, and similar fare.

Each of the dining room meals had several soup selections, but to be

honest
everyone in my group found the soups thin and lacking. I think the Star
Princess added a nice touch to the soup, sprinkling some fresh ingredients
on the top like dill, carrot, green onion, or sour cream depending on the
situation. Our soups on Celebrity were barren.

And what a dining room it was! Sometimes there would chamber music from a
piano player and strings. The room featured two-story windows facing aft,
giving a wonderful view of the ocean. There was plenty of space between

the
tables, giving an open, uncluttered feel compared to other ships. Our

party
of four was seated at a table for four at the late seating, and I noticed
both smaller and larger tables scattered about.

I found service to be a bit slow, in the European style, giving us five or
ten minutes between courses. The beverage service was prompt and

efficient,
but they put soda cans on the table, which to me seems to be a step
backwards from the otherwise elegant surroundings. Our dinners routinely
took two hours to complete. Perhaps there is something to be said about a
leisurely dining experience, but I think a little over an hour is enough.

I like the way Princess had a list of "set items" which you could always

get
in the main dining room: steak, chicken, Caesar salad, shrimp cocktail,
cheesecake. I mentioned this to Edio, our main waiter and he said that he
could get me some of these whenever I wanted and the others if I asked for
them in advance. That was nice of him. I sort of like the Princess

system
of having them regularly available, as I am fond of shrimp cocktails and
cheesecake. Not at the same time, of course..

The occasional midnight buffets were tasty and attractively arranged
according to themes. Overall, I like the way the buffet stations were set
up. There were at least eight stations spread out in the restaurant, and
during busy times six of them were copies. So I never encountered a long
wait as on other cruise lines. Hats off to the designers.

The "Aqua Spa" had a little Café with freshly prepared food. I thought

the
food there was some of the tastiest onboard. One of the meals there was
quite memorable: Cold, Sliced lemon chicken with little bits of lemon

zest
on top, white beans and dilled potatoes, along with a plate of fruit that
included kiwi, papaya, mango, and pineapple. Yummy.

The "Casual Dining" restaurant was an area of the buffet restaurant that

was
reserved in the evenings for special service. It had waiter service, its
own menu and its own kitchen, all for a "suggested gratuity of $2 per
person." They took reservations for the same day only. It looked pretty
good but we didn't try it, nor did we try the $30 Ocean Liners restaurant.

They always had an ice cream / frozen yogurt station open when the buffet
was running. The attendant told me that many of the flavors were made on
the ship.

I found the bar service to be outstanding. There were plenty of
order-takers around, but I didn't feel harassed as I have on other ships.
They would ask once, if at all, and then leave us alone. If I was

thirsty,
some eye contact or a tip of the head was enough to bring a waiter to take
our drink order. I like the understated approach.

I'm a bit disappointed in the scheduling of the food on the Constellation.
Many times when I would get back on the ship after a full day of shore
excursions, the only thing that would be available would be finger food -
hamburgers, French fries, pizza. The regular dinner buffets never seemed

to
correspond to my schedule, and I was a bit too impatient for the 24 hour
room service. Why isn't there something interesting and tasty available
when the shore excursions return? Maybe the crew is busy preparing for

the
big sit-down dinner. I tried to sign up for the $2 casual dining option,
but that proved to be fully booked. Why am I being maneuvered into having
burgers?

Speaking of burgers, they were better on Carnival, although I think
Celebrity has the edge on Pizza. Why can't the cruise lines duplicate

Pizza
Hut and In-N-Out?

Speaking of Room Service, the menu has sturdy meals such as salads,
sandwiches, and soups. Seems to be a bit of a secret that you can order
the same stuff they are serving in the dining rooms during certain hours.

And as yet another aside, I am embarrassed to report that I broke the

dress
code on a few occasions. Celebrity had clearly stated that there were

some
formal nights and some informal nights, and I misinterpreted the meaning

of
"informal". So twice I appeared in the dining room in a polo shirt, to
stupid to realized that "informal" meant "jacket but no tie". My mistake,
and my humble apologies to all on the vessel who had their experience
reduced by my appearance.

Here's where it gets interesting. The second time I showed up in polo

shirt
for informal night, the assistant matre' D professionally took me aside as

I
was strolling in, poliltely saying something like, "sir, today is informal
night, but tomorrow is formal if you need a jacket we can help you.". I
thought that he handled this well, and I quickly thanked him and explained
that I had some formal gear for the next day. Even though I broke the
rules, or at the very least stretched the concept of "informal", I was

happy
that Celebrity is making some efforts to enforce the dress code and

thought
the whole thing was handled well. Even outside the dining rooms, people

on
the ship were generally well-dressed.

At the end, I was left thinking that the food was pretty good, and

suddenly
the ship had too many mirrors. My wife said "I can't go home weighing 120
pounds! Maybe we should stay on the ship until it gets to New York and

work
out every day."

Yeah.


Sidebar: Interactive Television

The in-room television system was modern. It also included gambling! I
bought some credits and made a few dollars on low-stakes blackjack, with

the
winnings credited to my shipboard account. Sadly, my meager winnings did
not even approach the losses in the ultra-tight casino.

The TV had just what I wanted. You could order excursions and room

service
from the television, there was a nice selection of pay-per-view movies in
addition to the free offerings, and you could review your charges as well.
Nice.

On some of the free channels they were playing commercial-free reruns of
shows like CSI, Friends, and classic black and white variety shows from
television's golden past.

Also on the TV were daily video messages from the cruise director and the
"shopping consultant". So if you missed one of their talks, it was always
possible to catch them on the in-room TV. That was a nice touch.

The television in our room, despite its many charms, had no extra
connections for a camcorder or digital still camera. The only input was a
coaxial RF connector, no RCA jacks.

I wish they had the dining room menus available on the TV.


Sidebar: Digital Photography

I left my still cameras at home, instead relying on a newly-purchased

Kodak
EasyShare 7543 camera and two high-speed 512mb memory cards. I bought the
Kodak because of its diminutive size and its Editor's Choice rating by PC
Magazine.

I ended up being a bit disappointed at my decision.

The Kodak offered a good optical zoom ratio and produced breathtaking
images, as long as the lighting was right. I ended up taking about a
thousand pictures on the trip - that may sound like a lot, but I usually
snapped several of each subject, varying the angle and the camera settings

a
bit, so I could go through the pictures later and pick the best examples.

I
guess that in the end there will be a dozen pictures that I am really

happy
about and a few hundred that do a good job of documenting the trip.

The problem I had was that we visited many dimly-lit places, some of them
quite large. The flash just wasn't big enough to illuminate all the

space.
Also, some of the rooms were divided between narrow pedestrian walkways

and
wider display areas, and space on the walkways didn't always give me

enough
room to fit everything I wanted to catch within the viewable frame.

I longed for my old SLR camera, which had interchangeable lenses and an
eye-melting external flash unit. Had I given it more than a few second's
thought, I would have bought another digital camera, using the

pocket-sized
Kodak for impromptu shots and one of the Nikon prosumer digital cameras

for
the serious work. I'd bring a couple of lenses - maybe a 50-250 zoom, a
wide angle, a standard unit. Some of the Nikon and Cannon units have a

"hot
shoe" that can accommodate a powerful flash unit. Some of these flash

units
have a pivot mechanism, so you can bounce the light off of a wall and

avoid
reflections when shooting shiny objects.

Finally, some of the spaces were so dimly lit that I had trouble both
getting the auto focus to work and also holding the camera steady enough

to
get a good image. I wish I would have brought a flimsy portable tripod,

or
perhaps one of those extendable sticks to balance the camera.

The good news was that the ship's computer services were set up nicely for
digital cameras. In the training room, there are a bunch of computers

with
universal memory card readers. The idea is that you copy all of the

images
from the memory card in your camera to the ship's server each day, free up
some space on your card, and then go through the images at your leisure on
the ships server. At the end of the cruise, the computer staff can copy
whatever is left to a CD, and you could take that home with you.

One of the staff computer trainers suggested that I create a folder for

each
port and download pictures each night into the appropriate folder, thus
freeing up space on the memory card in the camera and helping to identify
the origin of the pictures. This tip came a bit too late for me, so the
assembled mass of pictures was a bit confusing when I finally got to them.
Also, I think from now on I'll take a picture first thing each day of a
piece of paper with the date and the name of the port scrawled out. That
will help to establish a separation, because, on these long cruises, the
days seem to meld together.

The photo shop was able to take one of my memory cards and make a few

prints
for me for about fifty cents a pop. The prints were great. Now that I
think of it, it would be nice if the ship's contracted photography and
computer services would work together to produce a shipboard version of
ShutterFly - I would have bought a lot more prints if I could just
right-click on my stored images, select a size, and picked up the prints

the
next day.

There are some kiosks in the photography area that supposedly allow you to
print directly from your memory cards, but it looked to me as if they were
all turned off. I asked about it one of the photography guys described

them
as "too limited."


Sidebar: Internet Café and related facilities

I enjoyed exploring the capabilities of the Internet Café. It blew away
Carnival and Princess. First off, all of the systems were working and

they
were pretty fast. Secondly, you could use each system as a regular

computer
for free; they only charged 75 cents a minute when you activated the
internet connection. This enabled me to use Microsoft Word and print out
drafts without any extra charge.

They also maintained file storage. The café systems were Dell desktops

with
Windows XP, Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop Elements. There was a
networked HP LaserJet printer as well. I was impressed with the setup and

I
think they are doing a great job with onboard computer services.

In the hallways throughout the ship, I saw wireless network nodes, and

from
time to time I could see people tapping away at their laptops. $25 a day
for wireless access seemed like a bit too much for me, so I left my laptop
at home. The $25 charge includes fifty minutes per day of internet

access.

Speaking of wireless, I noticed that some of the senior crew members

carried
portable phones and junior staffers carried what appeared to be Motorola
handheld radios. Most of the time when encountering a crew member they
would say hello to me, but on the rare occasions when I did not get a

warm
greeting, the crew member would invariably pull out a cordless phone and
stare at it or otherwise fiddle with it as we passed. I found this
amusing - it must be mentally draining to warmly greet so many people each
day.

I chatted a bit with the computer trainers and the hardware technician.
Quite friendly. My hat is off to Richard, Raylene, Barbara, Fred, and
Ariel, who had to patiently answer the same basic questions hundreds of
times throughout the cruise.

Here are a few computing tips for traveling on Celebrity ships like the
Constellation:

Tip One: Bring some blank CD-RW disks. The computer training room is
equipped with Dell laptops that have CD burners. For $15 a disk, the
training staff will burn a disk for you. That's a nice price if you have
never burned a disk before with the tools built-in to Windows XP.

However,
if you're already familiar with the Windows tools, you can bring your own
blank disks and save a few bucks and burn your own. Note that they don't
have Roxio or Nero, just the Microsoft tools.

Tip Two: Use the hard-wired computers in the training room. The laptops

in
the lab use an 802.11g wireless network to connect to the ship's file
server. At the end of a port day, the lab was full of people copying

their
work to the server, and I thought the network became a bit pokey. Then, I
noticed that the room had a couple of Dell desktops that were hard-wired

to
the network. Copying my pictures on those computers took a fraction of

the
time and from then on I sought them out.

Celebrity gives everyone on board a personalized email address, and they
notify you of email messages via the in-room telephone. The address is in
the format . A $2
per-message charge applies when you send or receive a message with the
onboard account, allowing modest users to have as much time as they like

to
compose and read their message. A great approach. Of course, if you want
to use your own web mail service, such as hotmail, you get charged the
internet service rate 75 cents a minute.

While writing these notes in the internet café, it was evident that many

of
the passengers have never received an email before. They typically arrive
at the café and noisily exclaim to nobody in particular that they have
received a message and they haven't a clue how to get it. I guess a lot

of
people handed out the addresses to their friends before the cruise,

because
the addresses are so prominently mentioned in the cruise docs.

During the day, there is staff on duty to help out. In the late evenings,
as I typed in these notes, there was a never-ending stream of newbies
seeking help from the other people in the room, many of whom were busily
typing away at 75 cents a minute. After helping out six of the newbies I
decided to preserve my sanity and remain silent.

"Oh look, my great-grandson sent me a message!". "Ok, now what do I

click
to reply? Where is the backspace button?"

As I write I am hearing the staff computer helper soothe an irate geezer

by
saying "sir, your voice mail light will tell you when you have an email
waiting at your ship address". Geezer "But I can't figure out how to use

my
voice mail. Can you help me with that?"..and ten minutes later the

patient
computer guy is trying to explain to the same gentleman how the Earthlink
spam blocker sometimes auto-responds to incoming messages from new
addresses, and that these aren't really responses sent by his grandson,

even
if the flashing message light on his phone suggests that he has a new
message. That's a tough topic for an email newbie.

After the frustrated email beginner realized that there wasn't a real
message waiting for him, but an automated reply caused by the way his

young
nephew had his email set up, the geezer left, muttering about paying two
dollars to read a message about nothing. All he left behind was the sweet
smell of Depends.

At that point, I was impressed that staffer had done an excellent job,
patiently explaining a difficult topic in a clear manner to an absolute
beginner, so I got up, patted him on the back, and told him I thought he

had
done very well.

Everyone has to start with computers at the beginning, I guess I wasn't
expecting to experience so much of it first hand on vacation. It was

clear
to me that many people were sending and receiving their very first email
messages from the Constellation Internet Café, and the staff patiently
worked with many frustrated people to do so, even though a lot of them
really needed several hours of basic computer familiarization.

Maybe I should have brought my laptop, because I started laughing when I
heard someone announce in a tired old voice "Can somebody help me? Where

is
the at key, how do I type it in?" I just considered it entertainment

value
from there on out.

Memo to Celebrity Computer guys: When the internet is inaccessible, which
it seems is common when in Russia, put a big sign near every single
keyboard. Two big signs near the entrance to the internet café are not
enough, trust me. People just don't see them.

Write on these big signs that the internet is inaccessible, and that
internet explorer is inaccessible, and that regular email is inaccessible.
In smaller print, you can say for the truly literate that mail sent to the
Celebrity account and received onboard is still readable, and that you can
compose mail on your Celebrity account for transmission automatically as
soon as the internet connection becomes available again. You can also use
the photographic tools and word processor at no charge if you like, just

as
before, without any charge.

I think that there should be a big button on the login screen saying

"teach
me about email", once they click that, or someone clicks it for them, it
will fire up something that shows them how to single click, double click,
and how to send a message and read a message, use the scroll bars, delete,
and so on. About an hour of education for someone who isn't necessarily
retarded but who had no computer experience.

Apparently the classes in computer basics offered early in the cruise did
not appeal to the people who really needed them, and later in the cruise

as
their started to receive notifications that they had email waiting they

grew
frustrated because they didn't have enough computer experience to retrieve
them. Maybe email sent to the shipboard address should just be printed

and
delivered to the stateroom.


Sidebar: Eye candy

There were plenty of gorgeous women in Finland and Sweden. Nordic types

of
course, tall, blond, blue eyes. Apparently this is just normal in
Scandinavia but I developed a bit of neck strain from all the diversions.
Luckily, my wife was on hand to offer relieving neck rubs and the

occasional
cautionary "you'll go to jail for that one" or "What has happened to your
taste?"

In St. Petersburg, it was unseasonably warm and I was quite comfortable in
shirt-sleeves for the two days we were there. Didn't even need the
umbrellas,

Perhaps this weather contributed to the fabric shortage that I noticed.
There were of beautiful girls in abundance on the streets and at the

various
venues, many of them obviously bra-less, lots of them in mini skirts, and
more than a few bare midriffs. There must have been a food shortage as
well, because some of these gals were mighty skinny.

Later at dinner, I overheard another group talking about the women then

saw
in town, until another exclaimed that he heard that the eye candy was even
more plentiful in Estonia. As a scientist, I saw it as my duty to verify
that claim independently.

My tour group decided to help me with this endeavor, and we all kept an

eye
out for local talent as we traveled through Tallinn, Estonia. Many
beautiful girls were spotted, but St. Petersburg still took the gold

medal.
Maybe it was just warmer in St. Petersburg during our visit, so the girls
were taking a rare chance to flaunt it.

As far as the ship's crew goes, I think there was more eye-candy on the
Carnival and Princess ships. I didn't find many of the staff members
attractive. Plenty of pretty young servers on Princess.

Incidentally, I never saw any topless action on the topless deck. What

few
people I saw up there were those just trying to get an outdoors view of
where the ship was headed. Just like me, of course.


Sidebar: About this Document

I kept a notepad with me throughout the trip, jotting down thoughts as

they
occurred to me and transferring them to Microsoft Word in the ship's
internet café each evening.

The document was stored on the ship's server, and then I emailed it home

on
disembarkation day. The file share on the ship's server was related to my
login id, so it didn't matter which machine I used in the internet café,

my
files were always there. A nice touch.



Final Impressions:

I like Celebrity. A notch up from Princess and a leap from Carnival.

I'd really like Celebrity if they had extended buffet hours, say 6am to
midnight.

A long itinerary to unusual ports. Shirt-sleeve weather the entire time,
but I think we were lucky.

I never experienced long lines. The ship seemed spacious.



Copyright 2004 by Jeff Stieglitz, All Rights Reserved. May not be

re-posted
outside of cruisecritic.com or rec.travel.cruises without the author's
permission.




  #4  
Old September 9th, 2004, 01:32 AM
Benjamin Smith
external usenet poster
 
Posts: n/a
Default

Jeff Stieglitz wrote:

Great job, Jeff. Very detailed. I don't know about the eye candy thing
but review is well done.

Ben S.



Final Impressions:

I like Celebrity. A notch up from Princess and a leap from Carnival.

I'd really like Celebrity if they had extended buffet hours, say 6am to
midnight.

A long itinerary to unusual ports. Shirt-sleeve weather the entire time,
but I think we were lucky.

I never experienced long lines. The ship seemed spacious.



Copyright 2004 by Jeff Stieglitz, All Rights Reserved. May not be re-posted
outside of cruisecritic.com or rec.travel.cruises without the author's
permission.


  #5  
Old September 9th, 2004, 01:32 AM
Benjamin Smith
external usenet poster
 
Posts: n/a
Default

Jeff Stieglitz wrote:

Great job, Jeff. Very detailed. I don't know about the eye candy thing
but review is well done.

Ben S.



Final Impressions:

I like Celebrity. A notch up from Princess and a leap from Carnival.

I'd really like Celebrity if they had extended buffet hours, say 6am to
midnight.

A long itinerary to unusual ports. Shirt-sleeve weather the entire time,
but I think we were lucky.

I never experienced long lines. The ship seemed spacious.



Copyright 2004 by Jeff Stieglitz, All Rights Reserved. May not be re-posted
outside of cruisecritic.com or rec.travel.cruises without the author's
permission.


  #6  
Old September 10th, 2004, 02:24 AM
Mark K - SF
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Posts: n/a
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Superb review. THANKS!!

Mark

"Jeff Stieglitz" wrote in message
...

Back to reality. For the first time in nearly two weeks, I need to carry
a wallet instead of a Sea Pass card.

My wife and I just returned from a fabulous trip aboard the Constellation.
Previously, we had cruised on Carnival, Princess, and Royal Caribbean.

Below are a few notes on our trip that may be interesting to the group -
some "pay back" for all of the good information that I have received from
the discussion group over the years.

Here are the sections:
Preliminaries: Booking the trip with CruiseQuick and Red October
Getting The Flying to London and side trips
Welcome Aboard: Some observations about the Celebrity Constellation
Port By Port: Details on activities and a special section on Red October
Disembarkation: The bitter end
Sidebars: extended rants from an obsessed and perverted mind


12 Day Baltic Cruise
Celebrity Constellation
August 26, 2004


Preliminaries:

In the months leading up to our trip, I was excited because I had always
wanted to take an extended voyage, visit Russia, and cruise with
Celebrity. The twelve-day Baltic cruise was a perfect fit. I also liked
what I had read about the Constellation: big (964 feet), new (maiden
voyage in May, 2002), and many awards (top rated by Conde Nast Traveler).

We booked the cruise via CruiseQuick.com for $3021 per person. This
included a category seven unobstructed ocean-view cabin on deck two,
Celebrity Air via Virgin Atlantic out of Los Angeles with transfers
($800), and an extra day pre-cruise in London at The City Inn Westminster
($212). We also ended up paying about $400 per person for Red October and
about $500 per person for on-board charges like drinks, internet,
photography, tips, and so on.

So, including all fares, drinks, shore excursions, and so on, when we
finally got home the cruise cost us about $ 4,000 a person.

I understand that we could have done all of the transfers and air on our
own. I've done this before, but this time I was traveling with a larger
group and I wanted the cruise line to take care of me for the entire trip.
This ended up working out well.

They say it clearly on their web site: CruiseQuick is not for everyone.
They won't hold your hand and help you pick out a cruise or a cabin.
Their communications are terse. However, they have always been responsive
and offered good prices, so this is the second cruise I have booked with
them. There were a few little hiccups. At one point, they told me they
would send me an email when they received the cruise docs. This didn't
happen - I received the docs without any notice. Also, I had requested a
balcony cabin. They said that the balconies were sold out, but my
nicely-formatted email itinerary still said "balcony". When I pointed out
that our assigned room was not on a balcony deck, they agreed that it was
a typo and apologized for the goof. Not a big deal. I have to say
though, that people considering CruiseQuick should not worry about it
being an "email only" agency. They have always responded to me much
faster than any conventional travel agency - always less than a day, in
some cases in just a few hours.

After receiving the booking number from CruiseQuick, I went to the
Celebrity website and keyed in all of our vital information. The web site
for this is well-executed, on par with the Princess site and much better
than Carnival's version. Eventually, I booked our shore excursions
through the web site as well. This is a fabulous feature that is offered
by Celebrity and Princess but not Carnival. On Carnival, it was very
unpleasant getting all of the excursions ordered on the first day of the
cruise. I also went to the Cruise Critic web site and signed up for the
special "Connections" party offered to Cruise Critic users.

Celebrity's cruise docs are wire-bound and nicely formatted, with
customized luggage tags bound-into the little folder. This is much nicer
than both Princess and Carnival, who sent me a bunch of tags floating
around in a cramped envelope. Carnival's docs were all in upper case and
had a dated feel. Celebrity's were nice and modern, giving me a clean and
upscale impression. Nice.

So far, the Celebrity website and docs experience was nice. When I called
them to confirm that my cabin was not a balcony that was nice too.

Everyone who has who is internet-savvy and is considering a Baltic
itinerary has heard of Red October ( http://www.redoctober.spb.ru ) tours.
They're a Russian tour company that offers intensive tours for a
reasonable price. It is run by a lady who previously worked at InTourist,
the only travel agency around in the Soviet era.

I read many positive reviews of Red October, and we had a productive
exchange of emails to develop my custom itinerary. I wanted to visit some
unusual places in addition to the standard tour of the palaces.

I threw them a number of curve balls. I wanted our guide to be one of the
"Helens" that have been reviewed so positively. I also also had an
unusual itinerary in mind: I wanted to ride the subway, see the military
museum, and visit a farmer's market. They handled all of these special
requests with ease. Later, I asked about a visit to the "St. Petersburg
Broadcasting Center". They said they were busy with other customers and
would get back to me soon. I waited for two months before reminding them
of my request. I think they forgot about it, because within a few more
days they gave me some detailed information: A visit to the broadcasting
center takes about six hours, and I would have to cut out something from
our schedule to make it fit. I decided against it.

Off topic observation: Whenever I'm working with someone and they tell me
they are busy, my first inclination is to lighten their load a little bit
by taking my business elsewhere. That would be Denrus (
http://www.denrus.ru/ )in this case. I didn't do that this time because
it was just a small issue and Red October is so highly recommended by the
internet groups.

Several months before the cruise, Red October asked for passport
information and sent me some "tickets" by postal mail to help us get
through Russian Immigration. By email, they sent a final itinerary and
several Word documents giving tips on dealing with the ship's crew at
disembarkation.

As it turns out, none of this was necessary for us. The Celebrity staff
and Russian Immigration just let us sail right through.

It seems that there is some confusion on the part of the cruise lines,
perhaps intentional, about the need for Russian Visas by independent
travelers. Celebrity states "A Tourist Visa is required for independent
sight-seeing: however, visas are not needed on the ship sponsored shore
excursions." What they don't say is that passengers who use travel
companies registered with the Russian government - such as Red October and
DenRus - are also exempt from Visas.

So let me put it clearly: You do not need a Russian visa with Red
October.

I've also seen rumored on the internet groups that cruise lines will
frequently make independent tourists wait until the ship's tours have
disembarked. Red October sent me several emails stating we should get off
the ship as soon as possible, and offering some tips on how to do that.

As it turns out, this also was much ado about nothing. During the cruise
itself, there was a polite announcement asking those with independent
arrangements in St. Petersburg to check in with the reception desk,
ostensibly to deal with Russian Immigration formalities.

I brought my package of Red October materials to the desk, and clerk asked
what time I wanted to get off the ship. She said that they were keeping
track just to enable an orderly disembarkation. So much for immigration
formalities...

I was able to glance at the list and stopped counting after I reached
twenty groups for Red October. Good for them.


Getting The

Celebrity booked us on a Virgin Atlantic flight that left Los Angeles
International at 5:30pm and arrived at London Heathrow at about 10 a.m
local time after about nine hours in the air.

I've traveled internationally many times, but this was my first flight
with Virgin. There were a few surprises. First of all, carry on baggage
for coach class was limited to fifteen pounds, and they had an electronic
scale at the entrance to the check-in line. First or business class
passengers escaped scrutiny.

I have a Tumi roll-aboard that I have been using for a number of years,
and it must weight fourteen pounds empty. No matter how much I
transferred to my checked bag, I couldn't get it down to the right weight,
so I had to check it, which made me nervous as it had no locks. There was
considerable chaos in the ticketing area people struggled to transfer
items from bag to bag to meet the weight limits. In retrospect, I should
have selected business class for my group. No fifteen-pound limit there.

Also, after a certain time the security goons decided that they didn't
like the way the line was growing, so they re-formed it outside,
completely ignoring the people who were already in a line tracing its way
through the terminal. This caused a number of heated arguments from those
who had waited the longest and suddenly found themselves at the end of a
newer, longer, line.

The flight itself was non-eventful, other than I had an aisle seat. My
fitful attempts at sleep were disturbed by well-fed rumps brushing against
my shoulder as they waddled down the aisle. I pushed back when I felt
something touch my head, but I doubt the worst offenders could feel my
rebuking shove. Note to self: especially when flying coach, choose a
middle seat over aisles when window seats are unavailable.

Soon, we reached Heathrow. Virgin once again dashed my expectations by
using stairs and a bus to handle the disembarking passengers. The bus
could only handle forty people at a time, and apparently there was only
one bus, so some time to drain the 400 people from our 747.

After running through British immigration, our group of four people
collected our luggage and we were off to find our Celebrity transfer
agent. I breathed a sigh of relief as I discovered my belongings were
still in that unlocked bag that I had to check.

Walking into the busy arrival lobby with our luggage, I spotted a
Celebrity sign held by what turned out to be a very pleasant lady. She
checked our names against a list and then escorted us to a driver,
mentioning that only a few groups were arriving the day before the cruise,
but that she would be shepherding more than 400 people the next day - the
day of departure.

We were led to a waiting van and the driver took us to The City Inn,
Westminster. It was one of the hotels recommended by Celebrity and I
selected it because it was new and offered a modern, minimalist décor.
Our group of four had the van to ourselves.

Independently, I had booked a tour of the state rooms at Buckingham Palace
and a "flight" on the London Eye Ferris wheel. Even though we were all
tired from the flight, it was energizing to be inside the palace. The
tour was self-guided using a programmable audio headset. At certain
points the audio would say something like "if you would like further
information about this special clock, type 51 on your keypad and press the
green button".

When we arrived back at the hotel there was a letter under the door from
Celebrity welcoming us and offering some tips about the transfer the next
day.

The next day, we got on the big bus parked just outside the hotel and
arrived at the Dover port two and a half hours later. The bus was modern
and it was about half full, but the seating was somewhat cramped - some of
the taller people were grousing.

In the arrival hall at the Dover Port, we were greeted by a fair-sized
line of passengers and some Celebrity staff dispensing punch and water.
When I traveled on Princess last, they had some low-key live music in the
arrival hall to set the mood, something that Celebrity should emulate.

When we reached the head of the line they handled the usual details and
then threw me a curve ball: They wanted to keep our passports, at least
temporarily, saying they had to make a copy for Russian immigration. I
hesitated to give up my passport to anyone, but I had some ancient
memories of Russians keeping passports in the old days, so I quickly
relented. We received receipts, and the passports were returned to us the
next day on-board, with a photocopy neatly folded for us inside. I still
don't understand why they didn't just make a photocopy right then at the
port, but I didn't complain.

As it turns out, Celebrity was making a copy for our convenience - Russian
Immigration needed a copy the first day in St. Petersburg. I wish they
just would have explained it like that. Something like "Russian
Immigration now requires you to present a photocopy of your passport when
you get off the ship the first day in St. Petersburg. We will make a copy
for you and return it along with your passport to your stateroom. We will
give you a receipt for your passport. The passport number you may have
given us earlier is not enough for Russian Immigration. They need a copy,
and we are helping you.."


Welcome Aboard

We were on the ship in a half hour, welcomed by a glass of champagne and a
line of uniformed staff taking passengers to their staterooms. We had
room 2074, and within minutes of our arrival our Indian steward Camilo was
there introducing himself and explaining the features of the room. That
was nice, because on our last Carnival cruise we never met our steward.

In our cabin was a complimentary Celebrity tote bag, some bathrobes to
use, two umbrellas, a safe, a hair drier, two outlets near the desk and
one in the bathroom. The shower had a detachable nozzle and was
thermostatically controlled. There was no peephole in the door.

On a lark, I confirmed that we would be experiencing the "glowing toilet"
affect, occasionally discussed in the news groups. When the lights are
off in the bathroom, a little bit of light from the outside corridor seeps
in through a plumbing maintenance panel, resulting in a slight glow to the
toilet bowl.

Moving on, I jumped on the bed and determined that the mattress was firm
and the linens had a luxurious feel.

On our little desk I found our shore excursion tickets and an invitation
to the Cruise Critic party. The signups for both of these were handled
months ago via the web.

I took a minute to read the daily activity guide. It had a high quality
feel, thick paper and nice fonts. The "schedule" section was a separate
piece of thick stock, almost like a 3x5 card, and was divided for easy
folding. The small print on the activity guide said that promotional fees
may have been paid by the recommended shops, and that was also stated from
time to time by the onboard "shopping consultant". These thoughtful
details put me in a good mood - I was pleased to see truth in advertising.

We wandered around the ship a bit, and found it to be modern, clean, and
with a collection of art that was entirely to my liking. Lots of
photographs, mixed media, and sculpture. I didn't see many inaccessible
modern-art masterpieces.

There are no self-service laundry facilities aboard the Constellation,
unlike the Star Princess and the Carnival Inspiration.

We checked out the reception area located at the foot of the tasteful
atrium, noting a kiosk near the front desk that had printed newspaper
summaries in various languages. They also had a "bank" desk and a
"concierge" desk nearby. The bank handled the usual currency exchange
details, and also handled postal duties - the attendant told me that they
would mail postcards for $1.25 each, and if they were submitted more than
an hour before departure they would bear the postmark of the current port.
As it turns out, $1.25 was reasonable compared to the international
postcard rates we found at some of the ports.

Next stop: the casino. It casino had the usual slot games and video
poker, along with dealer blackjack, craps, and roulette. The blackjack
rules allow for doubling after a split, but the craps game only featured
single odds.

I found it notable that the casino cashier would offer quick cash charged
to the room account - the usual credit-card cash advance fees would not
apply. I think this would be a better deal than using the shipboard ATM
machines.

Leaving the Casino, we checked out some of Constellation's other special
features. The library, "words" was an impressive two-story room with
plenty of books and magazines. They also rented iPod music players there.

The music lounge, "Notes", was also two levels, and it had quite a few
lounge chairs with nearby touch-screen jukeboxes. I messed with the touch
screen a bit --- you can select genre, artist, or song, make a play list,
and then listen to your custom concert via headphones. Unexpected and
fascinating.

We went up to deck ten to take a quick peek at the Aqua Spa. Celebrity
claims that they have the largest facilities afloat, and from what we saw
that is no idle boast. The spa facility is quite appropriately located on
the same deck as the buffet. It features a little Café, which features
light cuisine all day. The café looks out over the therapy pools - a
couple of regular Jacuzzi-style tubs and a larger heated pool of similar
design.

Beyond the therapy pools were the treatment rooms, where the staff was
offering the usual feel-good quackery such as "a coconut milk body scrub
to release toxins that cause irritability and constipation." I was
tempted to ask specifically which toxins were released and the specific
mode of removal, but I decided against it. My guess was that the "toxins"
came from the buffet down the hall.

The ship also touted acupuncture treatments in a similar fashion.

We inquired about a manicure and a pedicure, and the total for the "hand
and foot ritual with exfoliating lime and ginger salt scrub" was a little
over a hundred dollars. Perhaps this is a good deal for seaborne nail
clipping, but I decided to pass.

In front of the ship, and indeed one of the few places where one could get
a good view of where the ship was headed, was the gymnasium. It was
well-equipped with gear from Life Fitness: six elliptical trainers,
twelve treadmills, five steppers, four cycles, and a dozen weight
machines. I also saw two Schwin rowing machines, a bunch of stationary
bikes used for aerobics classes, and a small room with free weights.

On the very top deck was the "conservatory", a type of greenhouse where
you could pick up some greenery and take flower arranging classes. It
seemed to me that most of the flowers were silk, but some of them appeared
to be alive. They also had a jogging track there.

I was sort of disappointed at this point to discover that there was no
easy way to get to the very front of the ship. The concealed "topless
deck" was about as close as one could get - neither the promenade deck nor
the jogging track led all the way up to the front. I was hoping to do my
Leonardo DeCaprio imitation by shouting "I'm the king of the world!" from
the helipad on the ship's bow. Alas, that part of the ship is blocked to
passengers.

The muster drill followed, and I marveled that both the audio quality and
the depth of the explanations were better than other lines. Also
interesting were the multilingual announcements: English and Spanish. As
it turns out, there were a lot of people from Mexico and South America on
the cruise.

I liked the way they played the Celebrity theme song as we were sailing
away from port.

The entertainment that night featured some videotaped introductions from
Celebrity executives. That was nice.


Port by Port

The first day was a day at sea, giving us a good chance to explore the
ship and its many charms. I grew accustomed the friendly way the staff
greeted us whenever we passed along the hallways and decks.

Our cabin was quiet. The silence was uninterrupted by shill announcements
for Art auctions, bingo, or spa specials. Not ever. I like that about
Celebrity. Occasionally we could hear our neighbors in the adjoining
cabin, especially when they were putting things in their closet, but
thankfully that was relatively rare.

The ship was very smooth. Overall, we only had noticeable motion on one
day, which I understand made a few people sick. On that day, I was fine
but I wished the closet had foam rubber hangers, as they were jangling
about.

The ship was kept very neat and clean.


First stop: Oslo, Norway. Arrived at seven a.m., left at two p.m.
Brief!

I awakened early to view our approach through the "fjords", and my wife
and I were among the first to get off the ship at 7 am. Greeting us at
the dock was a lone taxi, a hop-on, hop-off bus for the independent
minded, and a few dozen pieces of luggage that were catching up to their
owners. We wandered about the town a bit and then returned to the ship to
pick up Celebrity's $45 "Oslo Highlights" tour.

That tour was a waste. We saw the sculpture garden, where our guide gave
us explanations in unneeded detail on many of the dozens of sculptures in
the park. There was at least ten other tour buses there, preventing
really special photography.

After the sculpture garden, we went to the ski jump museum. I was also
bored by this. After that, we drove by the courthouse and returned to the
ship. At one point, the chatty tour guide told us to avert our eyes
because there was an interesting flea-market happening on the side of the
road, and we wouldn't be stopping there.

The main highlight for me was the visit inside the state building, which
is impressive architecturally and also because it is the site of the Nobel
Prize banquet. There was a large Asian tour group there and the members
were taking pictures of each other engaging in mock acceptance speeches at
the Nobel lectern. I thought that was a grand idea, but the line was too
long so I gave up. No Nobel Prize for me, too impatient.

After returning to the ship, we still had a good hour to kill so we jumped
on a shuttle that Celebrity had arranged between the ship and a shopping
area.

Then we bid Oslo farewell, having experienced just a quick taste of Nordic
Culture.

When we returned to our room, there was a little form on the bed asking us
how we intended to get to the airport at the end of the cruise. Premature
and a real buzz kill. That's not what I wanted to be thinking about so
early in the cruise, and I can just assume that the ship was trying to
plan the disembarkation process.

What made it even more disappointing is that I had scheduled all of my
travel through Celebrity, so they already knew that I was using them to
transfer from the ship to the airport and what flight I was taking. I
shrugged off this minor annoyance and left the cabin to gorge myself.


Second port: Stockholm, Sweden. Arrived at ten a.m., left at five p.m.

We had scheduled "A Day In Stockholm" for $99 per person through
Celebrity. And a busy day it was. The first stop was at a nice place to
take pictures of the harbor. We visited a number of grand old churches,
then the Viking Ship Museum. The museum was much more interesting that I
anticipated - the old Viking ship is really large and there is a
fascinating story associated with its rediscovery and recovery. The
museum was well done.

We had about two hours on our own for lunch and shopping, and we spent it
wandering around the crooked streets of the city center, getting lost at
one point but it ended up all right.

By this point, I realized that Celebrity is really punctual. Our ship
always arrived right on time at the ports and the shore excursions left
almost to the minute of scheduled departure. Some of the excursions left
early when they determined that everyone was already on the bus. That was
nice and I appreciated it -- an improvement over the other cruise lines.


Third Port: Helsinki, Finland. Arrived at nine a.m., left at six p.m.


We booked the $189 "Steam Train and Highlights" tour through Celebrity.
We did indeed take a brief ride on a wood-fired steam train, and stopped
at the obligatory old churches

We spent some time wandering around the quaint old town of Porvoo before
going to an old manor on the Baltic for a fair lunch of chicken stew,
scalloped potatoes, and raspberry mouse. Then it was back to the ship.


Fourth Port: St. Petersburg, Russia. Arrived at seven a.m., left at 6:30
p.m. the next day.

Using what I learned on this group, I used Red October to guide me through
the two days in St. Petersburg. The experience was so efficient and so
customized to my whims that it will be difficult for me to return to
bus-sized tours. When all was said and done it ended up being a bit under
$200 per person per day.

The night before we arrived, our room steward delivered a message to our
room that explained how they had made special arrangements for independent
travelers. To be the first off the ship, all we had to do was show up in
a particular lounge at 7:00 am, and then a crew member would escort us to
the gangway.

It looks like Celebrity has this all squared away. I was expecting a
horror show, having to muscle my way through a wall of disinterested crew
members telling me that I couldn't get off the ship until the ship's tours
departed. Red October sent me several messages suggesting as much.

Instead, I was greeted in the lounge by two dining room staffers
dispensing coffee and pastries. There were at least fifty people in the
lounge.

Eventually, someone showed up with a hand-held radio. When the radio
squawked he said "follow me everyone". Sure enough, we were the first off
the boat at about 7:20 a.m. No trouble at all. All of the doom and gloom
predictions came to nothing.

As I first set foot on the uneven asphalt of the industrial port of St.
Petersburg, Russia, I was greatly amused to find a uniformed brass brand
playing "Stars and Stripes Forever". Ahhhh, the irony. The iron curtain
had become the ironic curtain. I couldn't help laughing at that thought,
but sadly it seems that the humor escaped those around me.

We were guided into the small Russian Immigration building. The stern
agent took the paper photocopy of my passport that Celebrity had made for
us, stamped the passport on the very last page, and handed me a little red
card to that said "cruise ship passenger". From there, I passed by modern
radiation detector and out into the parking lot of waiting buses and vans.

I guess I won't be carrying out that lump of plutonium after all.

No trouble at all with immigration, much easier than I was expecting. Red
October had mailed us little tickets to help us get through immigration,
but immigration didn't ask us for them. Red October also provided us with
a fancy letter giving all of their license numbers and a set of special
instructions for dealing with the ship's crew. None of that was needed
either. So we were well prepared for trouble that never occurred.

Better safe than sorry I guess, but it might be time to dial back some of
the doom-and-gloom that has been foretold for those taking shore
excursions independently of the cruise line in St. Petersburg. We just
didn't have any trouble at all. Of course, none of the other countries
had any passport formalities to begin with, but what little there was in
Russia was well worth all of the magic experiences we had there.

It didn't take but a minute to see the group of Red October staff and the
line up of white vans. I walked up to Laura and she directed me to a
modern white Mercedes Vito van. The driver was "Sergey" and our guide
"Elena". Later that day I spotted the other "Elena", "Alona" and
"Dimitry" - guides that have been widely discussed in the newsgroups.

When prompted, Elena told me that she, too, was previously known as Helen
but she changed her name to avoid confusion. That didn't help me too
much, because we ran into another "Elena" with a Red October name tag.

We were in the Mercedes van and on our way out the port by 7:40 am.
Earlier than I expected and very nice.

The first day was action packed as we:
Took an orientation drive around the city, with photo stops as desired
Visited the Eliseev Grocery Store, an historic specialty shop
Tour of the Hermitage, bypassing most lines, which is a big deal
Visit to the Hermitage Gold Room
Visit to the fabulous Peterhof and its amazing fountains
Visit to Catherine's Block
A ride on the subway to marvel at the ornate stations
A brief stroll down Nevsky Prospect
(something inspired by spy novels and history classes)

Each of these was accompanied by the patter of our knowledgeable guide,
who filled us in with lots of color and extra details. We also discussed
life in Russia and the medical system, which was of particular interest
because two in our party were nurses.

At one of the photo stops, we were all amused to see a man who was taking
his bear for a walk. It weighed at least 200 pounds and when it stood up
it was about five feet tall. Our guide assured us that bear-walking was
an unusual occurrence even though none of the passers by seemed to pay the
slightest attention to the unfolding spectacle.

As I was jockeying my camera for a good angle she dryly noted that bears
were unpredictable animals and I should keep my distance.

We saw a lot that day, and I'm sure we just scratched the surface of the
Hermitage. I was amused to see a group of a hundred people crowding close
to hear the Celebrity tour guide as they were led through the Hermitage,
while we were there at the same time, lingering at each exhibit for as
little as long as we liked, asking questions here and there, and generally
bypassing all of the crowds and lines with impunity. This is the
first-class way to go.

We arrived back at the ship tired and educated. Sadly, I fell asleep at
8pm so I missed the late-night Russian Buffet. Why didn't they have that
running from six until midnight? I wasn't the only one to wonder about
that. See my sidebar on food to experience my rants about the meal
schedule on port days.

The second day, we made arrangements to meet at 7:30 am, a bit early than
listed on the itinerary but suggested by the guide to give us the best
chances of hitting all of the items on my expanded itinerary. That is, my
version of the itinerary was expanded compared to her abbreviated version.

The band was there playing Dixie as I stepped off the Constellation at
7:15. This caused me to laugh even harder than the first time! Still,
nobody else seemed to get the joke in just the same was as I did. Maybe
the musicians did indeed wish they were back in the land of cotton, where
old times were not forgotten. Was this a literary allusion to old Soviet
times or just pandering to the audience? Hmmmm.

( Oddly, when we arrived one of the Russian monuments we were greeted by a
different brass band, this one playing "Hail Britannia". Perhaps I was a
victim of mistaken identity. )

We quickly met up with Elena and were off to an early start, driving away
from the port at 7:20.

The second day we visited
Catherine Palace and the recently-restored Amber room
World War II memorial
Impromptu photo stop in front of an old Soviet-Style factory
Big Lenin statue in front and hammer-and-sickle accents
Lunch and shopping stop at Red October store,
including new, fashionably attractive annex across the street
Peter and Paul Fortress
Spilled Blood Cathedral with its impressive mosaics
Artillery museum, the largest of its type in the world, but for fanatics
Farmers market
A special art gallery suggested by the guide
The hotel Europa to exchange some currency

It seems that Marlboro is the favorite brand of cigarettes in St.
Petersburg, if the butts scattered about are any guide.

I was delighted that the guide suggested that we take a side-trip to a
particular art gallery. As it turns out, Elena has special knowledge of
art history and suggested that visit the "Baron Stieglits" art school and
museum. This is significant because my last name is "Stieglitz" and my
distant ancestors hail from Eastern Europe. The director of the school
greeted us warmly and I ended up buying a few pieces of student art from
the collection on display. I'm happy that she suggested it.

We returned to the ship, saying goodbye to Elena our guide and Segey our
driver. It soon started raining like crazy, and we were all thankful that
St. Petersburg blessed us with delightful shirt-sleeve weather.

It was, all in all, very satisfying and quite a bargain.

This seems as good a place as any to offer some tips for working with Red
October.

Tip one: Get a detailed itinerary before you embark, take it with you,
and confirm it with the guide at the beginning of your e
xcursion.Earlyon,I
discovered that our guide was working from a simplified version of our
itinerary, and it took a few uncomfortable minutes of discussion to
resolve the differences.

We ended up seeing everything as agreed, and our guide was a consummate
professional. Still, it would have been nice if Red October provided
their contractors with the exact same detailed itinerary as they provided
their customers.

Tip two: Buy your lunch from Red October or carve out some time to have
lunch in a restaurant. Red October advises you to take some food from the
ship for lunch on the run, as some of the commutes can be lengthy.
However, the ship advises that it is against Russian law to do so. I
didn't want to take chances with the authorities, instead taking a gamble
that food supplied by Red October would be safe. To avoid any problems, I
asked Red October to provide boxed lunches. They obliged, and at $10 per
person per day it was a good deal. Each lunch included a tuna sandwich,
an egg salad sandwich with bacon, a bottle of water, two bananas, and an
apple. I would have been happy with one of the sandwiches and a bottle of
water.

As it turns out, our belongings were never searched by Russian
immigration. So bring your baggies and stuff your Carnival Cruises tote
bag until it is full of buffet fruit and room-service sandwiches - you'll
save a whopping ten bucks on lunch but you'll have a real sense of
accomplishment at beating the system.

This brings me to my third piece of advice for those working with Red
October: Know when to pay. It's not exactly clear, but we stopped by Red
October each day to pick up the lunches and shop in their affiliated
store.

A bit off topic, but The Red October store is on the ship's "approved
shopping" list and many of the ships tours make a pit stop there.
Apparently the Red October stores and the Red October tours share a
business location but they are different companies.

The prices and quality in the store seemed good to me. Your stop at the
store is also when you are supposed to pay them for their travel services,
something I wish they made crystal clear in their communications. They
give a 3% discount for cash.

I was a bit squeamish about carrying that much cash around town, so I paid
for half of it on day one and half of it on day two. Bought some
postcards too, and our guide Elena helped me with the postage.

The next item with Red October, and perhaps this applies to independent
traveler, is that some of the better monuments charge extra for cameras.
This seems to be unevenly enforced at the sites. In one location, I
received a red sticker to place on my camera, and it was clear that the
matronly museum staff in each room were checking for it. In most of the
museums, a room monitor would point at the camera and chat with the guide
in Russian. In other places, there was no tag and no checking.

Charging for cameras comes with the territory I guess, and it wasn't too
expensive - a couple of bucks at each place. I asked Laura at Red October
to set me up with camera licenses everywhere I went. Still, there was
some confusion about this on the itinerary, as it appeared that not all of
the places that required licenses were reflected. So I coughed up a few
more bucks as we entered some of the museums.

The posted "camera fees" seemed to be substantially less that what Red
October charged, and the explanation was a vague "currency conversion
commission". For instance, the listed fee for a still camera at the
Church of the Spilled Blood was 50 rubles. The rough exchange rate was 30
rubles per dollar, which roughly equates to less than two dollars for a
still camera. Red October charged four dollars.

For what it's worth, Laura from Red October suggested that I forego taking
my own pictures and buy professionally-produced picture books which are
available at each site. I ended up buying some books *and* taking the
pictures, but I have to say in retrospect that Laura gave some good
advice - I had such problems with lighting and lenses that I should have
stuck to outdoor portrait photography of my family and left all of the
indoor shots to the books.

In my opinion, Red October should just cover all of the camera fees as
part of the overall charge, or more clearly define them. It just felt a
little weird, especially considering that camera charges are included in
the base cost of all of the ship's tours.

I'm not going to argue over a couple of bucks on an expensive vacation,
however, I start growling a little bit when I discover some funny
arithmetic. I just shut up and turned over some extra dollars.

And speaking of which, the invoice I received at the Red October store
didn't quite match the price I was quoted. I was pondering this and I
couldn't find the discrepancy until I added up the long column of numbers
and found that the total didn't match the line items. I asked "the
accountant" who was there to collect my payment and she told me that the
total shows the full price without the cash discount. So I guess the line
items on the invoice show the discounted value, but the total shows what
you would have to pay if you used a credit card.

I was thinking that this was probably outside of GAAP but I kept my mouth
shut again, merely suggesting to the accountant that a column of numbers
with a total underneath it should all add up - if she was going to mix
discounted and non-discounted prices on the same page she should to have a
note stating which was which.

She smiled. I just paid the discounted price, in cash as agreed and
expected, and was done with it.

The Red October experience was very positive. These are just some minor
observations. I would do business with them again and would recommend
them to someone traveling to St. Petersburg.

Back on the ship for a quick snack after our busy day, I counted more than
fifty full-size buses parked in front of the Costa Atlantica, a ship every
bit as large as the Constellation. Just then it started to rain, and
there must have been some kind of delay on the Costa ship because there
were hundreds of people stand out there getting soaked. Tough luck, that.


Fifth Port: Tallinn, Estonia. Arrived at eight a.m., left at five p.m.

We were booked for Celebrity's deluxe package: Best of Tallinn with
Concert and Lunch, for $80 a person. My first impressions of the port
were positive - it was clearly designed for cruise ships and seemed newly
constructed, featuring smooth concrete sidewalks and an organized parking
area for the buses. The ship was met by a dozen buses and a taxi. It was
easy to get off the ship, too: there weren't any stern-faced immigration
authorities to deal with as in St. Petersburg, we just walked down the
gangplank stepped on to the waiting bus.

I immediately took a liking to our young guide, Taavi. He had some
scrappy, literate comments like "Your guides in St. Petersburg may have
told you about cold winter weather. We are at the same latitude and our
winters are not so bad. Perhaps they are trying to cultivate a Dr.
Zhivago theme." And also "The Soviets gave us the honor of being part of
their happy union... it was a tragic situation". And.. "You may be
interested in the practical money situation here. It is technically
illegal to trade in foreign currencies. However, somehow businesses find
a way, so you will probably be able to use dollars and euros."

Taavi amused me with his chatter was we drove by blocks of old
Soviet-style housing and then newer units, finally arriving at the
Festival grounds for some quick photographs. We moved on to the upper
town, visiting the obligatory Old Churches common to all of our port
tours. We then walked downhill from the upper town to the old town. It
was a nice walk and I enjoyed it immensely.

We stopped in the town square for the provided lunch, and I found it quite
tasty: The meal opened with a salad with lettuce, sweet peppers, parsley,
and dill. It was followed by some marinated beef, a spicy cabbage side
dish, pickles, and for desert, ice cream. The marinade and spicy
sauerkraut made it special - I had never encountered those flavor
combinations and I was pleased.

After lunch we were supposed to attend the "concert" part of our "concert
and lunch" deal, but after I truly understood what the concert was all
about I decided to just wander about the town and take pictures - there
was a flower mart nearby and that seemed to offer better photographic
opportunities than a trio of monks with flute and guitar.

After taking pictures, we picked up some postcards and spent some time
filling them out over pastries at the local café before rejoining our
group at the bus and returning to the ship.

Back on the ship, we decided to catch a movie in the elegant cinema. It
was an elegant, wood-paneled room with about fifty seats, also used for
lectures and small religious ceremonies. The movie of the day was Monster
with Charlize Theron. The sound system was good, even though the tracking
of the videotape and the convergence of the projector was a bit off. Not
bad though, it was a good show and the seats were comfortable.


Sixth Port: Copenhagen, Denmark. Arrived at seven a.m., left at six p.m.

We were booked for two Celebrity tours at this port. In the morning,
City of Copenhagen for $39, and Royal Gardens and Parks for $62 in the
afternoon.

The afternoon tour was cancelled, and Celebrity informed me of this the
night before via a note in a classy little envelope delivered to our
stateroom. The professional tone of the message and the way it was
delivered helped me get over the pain of the cancellation. So we would
have to get to the gardens on our own.

Our tour started promptly and the first stop was a photo opportunity of
the "Little Mermaid" stature. The boring guide informed us that the
statue was sponsored by Carlsberg beer and for some reason Americans liked
to take pictures of it. We continued, going by the palace square to
witness the changing of the guard, and then by a few gardens before taking
us back to the ship. Not very exciting, most likely due to the dry
delivery of the guide.

After we arrived back at the ship, we took the free Celebrity shuttle back
into town, and wandered around buying the required trinkets: Fridge
magnet, postcards, glass from Hard Rock Café. We took a taxi back to the
ship for $36; the port area was very congested due to the unveiling of a
massive new Maersk container ship.

Back on the ship, we found some interesting items in our cabin. The first
item was a tidy envelope with disembarkation instructions and luggage
tags. Not wanting to acknowledge the obvious fact that our vacation was
coming to an end, I tossed these aside.

The next item was a tipping form. By signing the form and returning it to
the front desk, we could have the "recommended amounts" charged to our
shipboard account and distributed to the service staff. We could also
single out specific areas for additional tips, such as the dining room
waiter or room steward. Oddly enough, to use the automatic approach you
could only tip the recommended amount or more. If you wanted to tip less,
you had to go with the envelope approach.

The form came along with a table of suggested tips. In his disembarkation
talk the cruise director said that the table represented recommended
amounts from American Express Travel. Hmmmm. Here is what was listed,
per guest, per day:

$3.50 for stateroom attendant
$3.50 for waiter
$2.00 for waiter assistant
$0.75 for the assistant Maitre'D
$0.75 for the assistant chief housekeeper

A message on the in-room television also mentioned:
$4.00 for concierge in the concierge staterooms
$3.50 for butlers

This approach toward tipping is a bit classier than what I have
experienced on Carnival and Princess, where they automatically charge you
for tips each day unless you state otherwise. In my opinion, if they are
going to do that they should just increase the price of the ticket and
adopt a no tipping policy.

I went with the automatic approach, and despite this we still received
envelopes the next day, along with a lengthy cruise survey form. That
evening, our waiter was careful to inform us that the dining staff with
the best rating received two extra days off a month, and he hoped that we
had an "excellent" experience.

That night on the in-room television I saw one of the many programs
featuring shopping consultant "Dario", who as usual delivered a rapid-fire
pitch with his Italian accent.

Dario was trying to get us to engage in a contest where we could win back
the price we paid for all of the items we purchased during our port
visits. All we had to do was filli out a form indicating what we purchased
and the name of the shop, and then drop by his office so he could
photocopy the receipts. The whole thing smelled fishy to me. Actually,
on all of our cruises ended up thinking that the shopping consultant was
on the take. Celebrity was more up-front about this than the other lines.

Reading the half-page of fine print accompanying the contest entry form,
it appears that that it is run by "Onboard Media" and the drawing takes
place once a year in Florida. So, in return for your shopping data,
Onboard Media holds a single drawing, amalgamating all of the cruise lines
together. I wonder what they do with data - pay commissions to the port
guide, perhaps?

It made for some interesting reflection.


Disembarking

The final port: Dover,England. Arrival at 4 am.

The assistant Maitre'D told us that 96 couples were doing back-to-back
cruises, staying onboard the Constellation through it's Baltic itinerary
and continuing trans-Atlantic to New York. He also mentioned that there
were 1,800 passengers booked for the trans-Atlantic hop, and I have to
admit I thought about what I would have to say to my employer to extend my
vacation to include it.

The night before, we spent time filling out the luggage tags, which were
not pre-printed like the embarkation tags. I wish they were pre-printed
for disembarkation, as that was a nice touch and the ship certainly had
all of the information about us that they needed.

We were taking advantage of Celebrity's transfer service, and our
disembarkation instructions told us to show up at the theater at 8:00 am.
We arrived at the theater a few minutes early and were led out of the ship
in an orderly fashion.

There were no overhead announcements, and the luggage in the terminal was
well-organized. There was a line of porters, and a crewmember would
assign porters to groups a few at a time, so the process was civilized.
We were then led out to a bus labeled with the same code as our luggage
tags and we were off to Heathrow.

The bus ride to Heathrow took about three hours, leaving us about four
hours to pick up some final duty-free souvenirs. Heathrow also has a fine
cigar shop, featuring many Cuban brands.

At Virgin Atlantic, I had a bit of a problem with the security guards
roaming the check-in line because I had torn out the perforated e-ticket
page from the book of cruise docs, which I had discarded on the ship.
That was a mistake, because the guards wanted to see names on the
etickets, but Celebrity did not print the names on that page, even though
it was nicely perforated for easy removal. So we were asked to get out of
line and wait in another line so they could print a new e-ticket for us.

Note to Celebrity: Please print the passenger names on the e-ticket page
of the cruise docs.

The embarkation process for Virgin was disorganized and the flight left an
hour late. We arrived back in Los Angeles without incident, but I doubt I
will fly Virgin again. The food on Virgin was pretty good though.

I should note here that one of by bags was damaged on the ship at
disembarkation. My sturdy hard-sided Samsonite Silhouette was only on its
second trip. The bag arrived wrapped in plastic and labeled "damaged on
the ship". I wasn't going to cry about it - luggage is there to take a
bullet and protect the contents. Celebrity had nothing to say and I
didn't ask.

Later, I was told that the bags are stacked pretty high and the hard-sided
luggage tends to pop, while the soft-sided stuff just gets squished. The
bag and its Saran-Wrap cocoon survived the flight intact. When I opened
it up at home, all of the contents were there and the bag appeared to be
undamaged. I guess it just popped open and then the crew on the ship was
unable to close it because the locks were still engaged. Not sure if I
will ever use that bag again, but it was $300 bucks and I'm hesitant to
toss it.


Sidebars

Sidebar: Music

One of the favorite aspects of cruising for me is the music. Celebrity
did a good job there, only disappointing me in one area.

Music that I enjoyed included Onyx, a dance band; the Coverdales, a
barbershop quartet, a string quartet, a jazz guitarist, a lounge pianist,
and also a concert pianist who doubled as a comedian and music
appreciation professor. Highly enjoyable.

Slightly disappointing was the show band backing up the production shows -
they did not have a guitarist, relying instead on pre-recorded tracks for
guitar and some of the other instruments. I also noticed that some of the
performers in the production shows seemed to be singing but were not
miked - can you say "lip sync?" The show band had a pretty large horn
section but I never could make out the saxophone or the flute player.

This was in contrast to the excellent band aboard the Carnival
Inspiration, which had the memorable-yet-improbable name of the Braxton
Hicks Show Band. This band had a kick-butt electric guitarist and the band
leader played the sax, which I could always hear prominently. That
Carnival Cruise was otherwise lackluster, and I was left wishing that the
two ships could switch bands.

Overall, I think the production shows on Carnival and Princess were a bit
better than Celebrity. However, Celebrity had much better specialty
acts - singers, comedians, lecturers, and so on. I'll take Celebrity's
approach any day.


Sidebar: Food

I'm always amused when I read cruise reports that mention "inedible" food.
To me, inedible food kills you or makes you sick. It is all edible! I
didn't care for the cafeteria-style fish sticks on the Carnival
Inspiration, but I wouldn't call them inedible. So there.

I thought the food was good on Constellation, much better than the
Carnival Inspiration and about on par with the Star Princess. I thought
the sushi, omeletes, and other made-to-order dishes were very good. The
food in the main dining room was as good as could be expected given that
they were serving a thousand people at once. I thought the main dining
room food was better on Princess, but I had a late "personal choice" table
on Princess, so the kitchen was probably more relaxed making my food on
that cruise.

The buffet was well staffed, with plenty of people to carry your tray if
needed and to take away plates when you were through. On many days, I
thought the buffet food on Celebrity was better than the food on in the
main dining room - more interesting spices and served hot.

However, the meal on lobster night, the "gala", was fabulous, the best I
have experienced on a cruise ship. The lobster was sweet, the broccoli
crisp, the polenta spicy, and the baked potato creamy. Just wonderful, a
meal I'll be recalling fondly for quite some time.

I missed the 24-hour buffet that they have on the Star Princess. I also
wished that Celebrity labeled all items on the buffet and desert lines.
Only some of the main dishes were labeled, making me cringe whenever I
heard someone ask a hapless attendant "what's this?" I sort of felt sorry
for the attendants, as they must have to cheerfully answer that question a
hundred times a day.

The "gourmet bites" were served around midnight, where waiters in the
public areas would graciously offer appetizers such as onion tarts,
mini-hamburgers, and similar fare.

Each of the dining room meals had several soup selections, but to be
honest everyone in my group found the soups thin and lacking. I think the
Star Princess added a nice touch to the soup, sprinkling some fresh
ingredients on the top like dill, carrot, green onion, or sour cream
depending on the situation. Our soups on Celebrity were barren.

And what a dining room it was! Sometimes there would chamber music from a
piano player and strings. The room featured two-story windows facing aft,
giving a wonderful view of the ocean. There was plenty of space between
the tables, giving an open, uncluttered feel compared to other ships. Our
party of four was seated at a table for four at the late seating, and I
noticed both smaller and larger tables scattered about.

I found service to be a bit slow, in the European style, giving us five or
ten minutes between courses. The beverage service was prompt and
efficient, but they put soda cans on the table, which to me seems to be a
step backwards from the otherwise elegant surroundings. Our dinners
routinely took two hours to complete. Perhaps there is something to be
said about a leisurely dining experience, but I think a little over an
hour is enough.

I like the way Princess had a list of "set items" which you could always
get in the main dining room: steak, chicken, Caesar salad, shrimp
cocktail, cheesecake. I mentioned this to Edio, our main waiter and he
said that he could get me some of these whenever I wanted and the others
if I asked for them in advance. That was nice of him. I sort of like the
Princess system of having them regularly available, as I am fond of shrimp
cocktails and cheesecake. Not at the same time, of course..

The occasional midnight buffets were tasty and attractively arranged
according to themes. Overall, I like the way the buffet stations were set
up. There were at least eight stations spread out in the restaurant, and
during busy times six of them were copies. So I never encountered a long
wait as on other cruise lines. Hats off to the designers.

The "Aqua Spa" had a little Café with freshly prepared food. I thought
the food there was some of the tastiest onboard. One of the meals there
was quite memorable: Cold, Sliced lemon chicken with little bits of lemon
zest on top, white beans and dilled potatoes, along with a plate of fruit
that included kiwi, papaya, mango, and pineapple. Yummy.

The "Casual Dining" restaurant was an area of the buffet restaurant that
was reserved in the evenings for special service. It had waiter service,
its own menu and its own kitchen, all for a "suggested gratuity of $2 per
person." They took reservations for the same day only. It looked pretty
good but we didn't try it, nor did we try the $30 Ocean Liners restaurant.

They always had an ice cream / frozen yogurt station open when the buffet
was running. The attendant told me that many of the flavors were made on
the ship.

I found the bar service to be outstanding. There were plenty of
order-takers around, but I didn't feel harassed as I have on other ships.
They would ask once, if at all, and then leave us alone. If I was
thirsty, some eye contact or a tip of the head was enough to bring a
waiter to take our drink order. I like the understated approach.

I'm a bit disappointed in the scheduling of the food on the Constellation.
Many times when I would get back on the ship after a full day of shore
excursions, the only thing that would be available would be finger food -
hamburgers, French fries, pizza. The regular dinner buffets never seemed
to correspond to my schedule, and I was a bit too impatient for the 24
hour room service. Why isn't there something interesting and tasty
available when the shore excursions return? Maybe the crew is busy
preparing for the big sit-down dinner. I tried to sign up for the $2
casual dining option, but that proved to be fully booked. Why am I being
maneuvered into having burgers?

Speaking of burgers, they were better on Carnival, although I think
Celebrity has the edge on Pizza. Why can't the cruise lines duplicate
Pizza Hut and In-N-Out?

Speaking of Room Service, the menu has sturdy meals such as salads,
sandwiches, and soups. Seems to be a bit of a secret that you can order
the same stuff they are serving in the dining rooms during certain hours.

And as yet another aside, I am embarrassed to report that I broke the
dress code on a few occasions. Celebrity had clearly stated that there
were some formal nights and some informal nights, and I misinterpreted the
meaning of "informal". So twice I appeared in the dining room in a polo
shirt, to stupid to realized that "informal" meant "jacket but no tie".
My mistake, and my humble apologies to all on the vessel who had their
experience reduced by my appearance.

Here's where it gets interesting. The second time I showed up in polo
shirt for informal night, the assistant matre' D professionally took me
aside as I was strolling in, poliltely saying something like, "sir, today
is informal night, but tomorrow is formal if you need a jacket we can help
you.". I thought that he handled this well, and I quickly thanked him and
explained that I had some formal gear for the next day. Even though I
broke the rules, or at the very least stretched the concept of "informal",
I was happy that Celebrity is making some efforts to enforce the dress
code and thought the whole thing was handled well. Even outside the
dining rooms, people on the ship were generally well-dressed.

At the end, I was left thinking that the food was pretty good, and
suddenly the ship had too many mirrors. My wife said "I can't go home
weighing 120 pounds! Maybe we should stay on the ship until it gets to
New York and work out every day."

Yeah.


Sidebar: Interactive Television

The in-room television system was modern. It also included gambling! I
bought some credits and made a few dollars on low-stakes blackjack, with
the winnings credited to my shipboard account. Sadly, my meager winnings
did not even approach the losses in the ultra-tight casino.

The TV had just what I wanted. You could order excursions and room
service from the television, there was a nice selection of pay-per-view
movies in addition to the free offerings, and you could review your
charges as well. Nice.

On some of the free channels they were playing commercial-free reruns of
shows like CSI, Friends, and classic black and white variety shows from
television's golden past.

Also on the TV were daily video messages from the cruise director and the
"shopping consultant". So if you missed one of their talks, it was always
possible to catch them on the in-room TV. That was a nice touch.

The television in our room, despite its many charms, had no extra
connections for a camcorder or digital still camera. The only input was a
coaxial RF connector, no RCA jacks.

I wish they had the dining room menus available on the TV.


Sidebar: Digital Photography

I left my still cameras at home, instead relying on a newly-purchased
Kodak EasyShare 7543 camera and two high-speed 512mb memory cards. I
bought the Kodak because of its diminutive size and its Editor's Choice
rating by PC Magazine.

I ended up being a bit disappointed at my decision.

The Kodak offered a good optical zoom ratio and produced breathtaking
images, as long as the lighting was right. I ended up taking about a
thousand pictures on the trip - that may sound like a lot, but I usually
snapped several of each subject, varying the angle and the camera settings
a bit, so I could go through the pictures later and pick the best
examples. I guess that in the end there will be a dozen pictures that I
am really happy about and a few hundred that do a good job of documenting
the trip.

The problem I had was that we visited many dimly-lit places, some of them
quite large. The flash just wasn't big enough to illuminate all the
space. Also, some of the rooms were divided between narrow pedestrian
walkways and wider display areas, and space on the walkways didn't always
give me enough room to fit everything I wanted to catch within the
viewable frame.

I longed for my old SLR camera, which had interchangeable lenses and an
eye-melting external flash unit. Had I given it more than a few second's
thought, I would have bought another digital camera, using the
pocket-sized Kodak for impromptu shots and one of the Nikon prosumer
digital cameras for the serious work. I'd bring a couple of lenses -
maybe a 50-250 zoom, a wide angle, a standard unit. Some of the Nikon and
Cannon units have a "hot shoe" that can accommodate a powerful flash unit.
Some of these flash units have a pivot mechanism, so you can bounce the
light off of a wall and avoid reflections when shooting shiny objects.

Finally, some of the spaces were so dimly lit that I had trouble both
getting the auto focus to work and also holding the camera steady enough
to get a good image. I wish I would have brought a flimsy portable
tripod, or perhaps one of those extendable sticks to balance the camera.

The good news was that the ship's computer services were set up nicely for
digital cameras. In the training room, there are a bunch of computers
with universal memory card readers. The idea is that you copy all of the
images from the memory card in your camera to the ship's server each day,
free up some space on your card, and then go through the images at your
leisure on the ships server. At the end of the cruise, the computer staff
can copy whatever is left to a CD, and you could take that home with you.

One of the staff computer trainers suggested that I create a folder for
each port and download pictures each night into the appropriate folder,
thus freeing up space on the memory card in the camera and helping to
identify the origin of the pictures. This tip came a bit too late for
me, so the assembled mass of pictures was a bit confusing when I finally
got to them. Also, I think from now on I'll take a picture first thing
each day of a piece of paper with the date and the name of the port
scrawled out. That will help to establish a separation, because, on these
long cruises, the days seem to meld together.

The photo shop was able to take one of my memory cards and make a few
prints for me for about fifty cents a pop. The prints were great. Now
that I think of it, it would be nice if the ship's contracted photography
and computer services would work together to produce a shipboard version
of ShutterFly - I would have bought a lot more prints if I could just
right-click on my stored images, select a size, and picked up the prints
the next day.

There are some kiosks in the photography area that supposedly allow you to
print directly from your memory cards, but it looked to me as if they were
all turned off. I asked about it one of the photography guys described
them as "too limited."


Sidebar: Internet Café and related facilities

I enjoyed exploring the capabilities of the Internet Café. It blew away
Carnival and Princess. First off, all of the systems were working and
they were pretty fast. Secondly, you could use each system as a regular
computer for free; they only charged 75 cents a minute when you activated
the internet connection. This enabled me to use Microsoft Word and print
out drafts without any extra charge.

They also maintained file storage. The café systems were Dell desktops
with Windows XP, Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop Elements. There was
a networked HP LaserJet printer as well. I was impressed with the setup
and I think they are doing a great job with onboard computer services.

In the hallways throughout the ship, I saw wireless network nodes, and
from time to time I could see people tapping away at their laptops. $25 a
day for wireless access seemed like a bit too much for me, so I left my
laptop at home. The $25 charge includes fifty minutes per day of internet
access.

Speaking of wireless, I noticed that some of the senior crew members
carried portable phones and junior staffers carried what appeared to be
Motorola handheld radios. Most of the time when encountering a crew
member they would say hello to me, but on the rare occasions when I did
not get a warm greeting, the crew member would invariably pull out a
cordless phone and stare at it or otherwise fiddle with it as we passed.
I found this amusing - it must be mentally draining to warmly greet so
many people each day.

I chatted a bit with the computer trainers and the hardware technician.
Quite friendly. My hat is off to Richard, Raylene, Barbara, Fred, and
Ariel, who had to patiently answer the same basic questions hundreds of
times throughout the cruise.

Here are a few computing tips for traveling on Celebrity ships like the
Constellation:

Tip One: Bring some blank CD-RW disks. The computer training room is
equipped with Dell laptops that have CD burners. For $15 a disk, the
training staff will burn a disk for you. That's a nice price if you have
never burned a disk before with the tools built-in to Windows XP.
However, if you're already familiar with the Windows tools, you can bring
your own blank disks and save a few bucks and burn your own. Note that
they don't have Roxio or Nero, just the Microsoft tools.

Tip Two: Use the hard-wired computers in the training room. The laptops
in the lab use an 802.11g wireless network to connect to the ship's file
server. At the end of a port day, the lab was full of people copying
their work to the server, and I thought the network became a bit pokey.
Then, I noticed that the room had a couple of Dell desktops that were
hard-wired to the network. Copying my pictures on those computers took a
fraction of the time and from then on I sought them out.

Celebrity gives everyone on board a personalized email address, and they
notify you of email messages via the in-room telephone. The address is in
the format . A $2
per-message charge applies when you send or receive a message with the
onboard account, allowing modest users to have as much time as they like
to compose and read their message. A great approach. Of course, if you
want to use your own web mail service, such as hotmail, you get charged
the internet service rate 75 cents a minute.

While writing these notes in the internet café, it was evident that many
of the passengers have never received an email before. They typically
arrive at the café and noisily exclaim to nobody in particular that they
have received a message and they haven't a clue how to get it. I guess a
lot of people handed out the addresses to their friends before the cruise,
because the addresses are so prominently mentioned in the cruise docs.

During the day, there is staff on duty to help out. In the late evenings,
as I typed in these notes, there was a never-ending stream of newbies
seeking help from the other people in the room, many of whom were busily
typing away at 75 cents a minute. After helping out six of the newbies I
decided to preserve my sanity and remain silent.

"Oh look, my great-grandson sent me a message!". "Ok, now what do I click
to reply? Where is the backspace button?"

As I write I am hearing the staff computer helper soothe an irate geezer
by saying "sir, your voice mail light will tell you when you have an email
waiting at your ship address". Geezer "But I can't figure out how to use
my voice mail. Can you help me with that?"..and ten minutes later the
patient computer guy is trying to explain to the same gentleman how the
Earthlink spam blocker sometimes auto-responds to incoming messages from
new addresses, and that these aren't really responses sent by his
grandson, even if the flashing message light on his phone suggests that he
has a new message. That's a tough topic for an email newbie.

After the frustrated email beginner realized that there wasn't a real
message waiting for him, but an automated reply caused by the way his
young nephew had his email set up, the geezer left, muttering about paying
two dollars to read a message about nothing. All he left behind was the
sweet smell of Depends.

At that point, I was impressed that staffer had done an excellent job,
patiently explaining a difficult topic in a clear manner to an absolute
beginner, so I got up, patted him on the back, and told him I thought he
had done very well.

Everyone has to start with computers at the beginning, I guess I wasn't
expecting to experience so much of it first hand on vacation. It was
clear to me that many people were sending and receiving their very first
email messages from the Constellation Internet Café, and the staff
patiently worked with many frustrated people to do so, even though a lot
of them really needed several hours of basic computer familiarization.

Maybe I should have brought my laptop, because I started laughing when I
heard someone announce in a tired old voice "Can somebody help me? Where
is the at key, how do I type it in?" I just considered it entertainment
value from there on out.

Memo to Celebrity Computer guys: When the internet is inaccessible, which
it seems is common when in Russia, put a big sign near every single
keyboard. Two big signs near the entrance to the internet café are not
enough, trust me. People just don't see them.

Write on these big signs that the internet is inaccessible, and that
internet explorer is inaccessible, and that regular email is inaccessible.
In smaller print, you can say for the truly literate that mail sent to the
Celebrity account and received onboard is still readable, and that you can
compose mail on your Celebrity account for transmission automatically as
soon as the internet connection becomes available again. You can also use
the photographic tools and word processor at no charge if you like, just
as before, without any charge.

I think that there should be a big button on the login screen saying
"teach me about email", once they click that, or someone clicks it for
them, it will fire up something that shows them how to single click,
double click, and how to send a message and read a message, use the scroll
bars, delete, and so on. About an hour of education for someone who isn't
necessarily retarded but who had no computer experience.

Apparently the classes in computer basics offered early in the cruise did
not appeal to the people who really needed them, and later in the cruise
as their started to receive notifications that they had email waiting they
grew frustrated because they didn't have enough computer experience to
retrieve them. Maybe email sent to the shipboard address should just be
printed and delivered to the stateroom.


Sidebar: Eye candy

There were plenty of gorgeous women in Finland and Sweden. Nordic types
of course, tall, blond, blue eyes. Apparently this is just normal in
Scandinavia but I developed a bit of neck strain from all the diversions.
Luckily, my wife was on hand to offer relieving neck rubs and the
occasional cautionary "you'll go to jail for that one" or "What has
happened to your taste?"

In St. Petersburg, it was unseasonably warm and I was quite comfortable in
shirt-sleeves for the two days we were there. Didn't even need the
umbrellas,

Perhaps this weather contributed to the fabric shortage that I noticed.
There were of beautiful girls in abundance on the streets and at the
various venues, many of them obviously bra-less, lots of them in mini
skirts, and more than a few bare midriffs. There must have been a food
shortage as well, because some of these gals were mighty skinny.

Later at dinner, I overheard another group talking about the women then
saw in town, until another exclaimed that he heard that the eye candy was
even more plentiful in Estonia. As a scientist, I saw it as my duty to
verify that claim independently.

My tour group decided to help me with this endeavor, and we all kept an
eye out for local talent as we traveled through Tallinn, Estonia. Many
beautiful girls were spotted, but St. Petersburg still took the gold
medal. Maybe it was just warmer in St. Petersburg during our visit, so the
girls were taking a rare chance to flaunt it.

As far as the ship's crew goes, I think there was more eye-candy on the
Carnival and Princess ships. I didn't find many of the staff members
attractive. Plenty of pretty young servers on Princess.

Incidentally, I never saw any topless action on the topless deck. What
few people I saw up there were those just trying to get an outdoors view
of where the ship was headed. Just like me, of course.


Sidebar: About this Document

I kept a notepad with me throughout the trip, jotting down thoughts as
they occurred to me and transferring them to Microsoft Word in the ship's
internet café each evening.

The document was stored on the ship's server, and then I emailed it home
on disembarkation day. The file share on the ship's server was related to
my login id, so it didn't matter which machine I used in the internet
café, my files were always there. A nice touch.



Final Impressions:

I like Celebrity. A notch up from Princess and a leap from Carnival.

I'd really like Celebrity if they had extended buffet hours, say 6am to
midnight.

A long itinerary to unusual ports. Shirt-sleeve weather the entire time,
but I think we were lucky.

I never experienced long lines. The ship seemed spacious.



Copyright 2004 by Jeff Stieglitz, All Rights Reserved. May not be
re-posted outside of cruisecritic.com or rec.travel.cruises without the
author's permission.




  #7  
Old September 10th, 2004, 02:32 AM
RTCReferee
external usenet poster
 
Posts: n/a
Default

Mark, all I see is white space and a dialogue box from AOL that this article is
"too long to be displayed". Boo hoo. I want to read your review.

Are you posting it to a website?

If not, I can wait until later when it will be archived on Google. It will be
archived, won't it? ;-)





  #8  
Old September 10th, 2004, 02:44 AM
Charles
external usenet poster
 
Posts: n/a
Default

In article , RTCReferee
wrote:

Mark, all I see is white space and a dialogue box from AOL that this
article is "too long to be displayed". Boo hoo. I want to read your
review.


You are probably not the only one who did not get the review. Probably
a lot of news servers besides AOL rejected it and replies that quote it
because of it's length. That is one way they filter out suspected
binaries.

It was not posted by Mark. It was posted by Jeff Stieglitz. I suggest
that Jeff repost it in four or five parts.

--
Charles
  #9  
Old September 10th, 2004, 02:44 AM
Charles
external usenet poster
 
Posts: n/a
Default

In article , RTCReferee
wrote:

Mark, all I see is white space and a dialogue box from AOL that this
article is "too long to be displayed". Boo hoo. I want to read your
review.


You are probably not the only one who did not get the review. Probably
a lot of news servers besides AOL rejected it and replies that quote it
because of it's length. That is one way they filter out suspected
binaries.

It was not posted by Mark. It was posted by Jeff Stieglitz. I suggest
that Jeff repost it in four or five parts.

--
Charles
  #10  
Old September 10th, 2004, 02:44 AM
Charles
external usenet poster
 
Posts: n/a
Default

In article , RTCReferee
wrote:

Mark, all I see is white space and a dialogue box from AOL that this
article is "too long to be displayed". Boo hoo. I want to read your
review.


You are probably not the only one who did not get the review. Probably
a lot of news servers besides AOL rejected it and replies that quote it
because of it's length. That is one way they filter out suspected
binaries.

It was not posted by Mark. It was posted by Jeff Stieglitz. I suggest
that Jeff repost it in four or five parts.

--
Charles
 




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