Baltic cruise with two boys

My two sons, aged 11 and 15, went with me on a fabulous 10-night sailing around the Baltic on the MS Amsterdam of Holland America Line (Seattle, WA; 800/426-0327,, June 22-July 1, 2006. Not including airfare, the price was $7,000 for four of us in a family cabin (my husband opted not to go at the last minute). We embarked and disembarked in Copenhagen.

I have a few suggestions for readers going to that area of the world.

Holland America charged around $4 per person per way to get into each port. If you like to walk and want to save $24 round trip (for three people), find out how far each journey really is in walking time.

Tallinn, Estonia, was only 10 minutes by foot from the pier. In Stockholm, the walk into the old section of town was broken up by museums, leafy green parks and the harbor. My sons still speak of that lovely amble into town. On the island of Visby, Sweden, our walk covered the areas of the shore excursion, and the botanical signs in the park were easy to read without a guide.

Just do a little homework and ask the travel expert on board about walking and what you can see on your own — and take their suggestions with a grain of salt.

The biggest and most costly mistake that I made was following the advice of a traveler who wished he had gotten a visa for St. Petersburg for himself in advance rather than be stuck on board ship at that port. I got Russian visas in advance — at great expense and with a lot of difficulty — out of Washington, D.C. I had also read not to take a taxi in St. Petersburg unless your hotel, etc., hailed it for you.

Once off the ship, we started walking. Not speaking Russian, when we asked for directions people would just indicate “Forward.” The walk from the pier to the Hermitage took two hours. Needless to say, the boys and I were tired and grumpy when we finally got there.

Luckily, my older son met some people at the museum who were on the Rotterdam, and we tipped their guide well to let us go back to the pier with them.

I suggest you get on the group visa for St. Petersburg when you book your shore excursions for the cruise.

The best shore excursion that I have ever taken was on this cruise; it was the one at Helsinki going up north to Lapland and Santa Claus’ Village. We took a 1¼-hour flight to Lapland and had a short canoe ride to the reindeer farm. We saw ethnic dancing and enjoyed a delicious lunch. The visit to Santa at the Arctic Circle was too brief for my boys but probably about right for some of the older adults.

The cost for this shore excursion was $699 per person. It was funny that my Finnish guide was the same one that I had four years before when I went with a group of nurses to Helsinki. She still remembered our group.

At Århus, we took the excursion to Legoland and it was most enjoyable to see miniature European cities made out of Legos. We went to a sale at the shop near the Lego factory and were surprised to see prices double of what is charged in the USA on these toys.

We found Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens to be way overpriced; we did not stay long. It cost about $32 each just to walk in, and each ride cost extra — $12, in some cases. It would really add up for a family. In the restaurants, the average charge for a hamburger was $22, so we left Tivoli Gardens, walked across the street and ate fabulous Danish beef burgers in McDonald’s at $7 for the three of us.

We found Rosenborg Castle, a 15-minute walk away, more exciting and more affordable than Tivoli Gardens. The boys loved the castle and even the elaborate crown jewels. Next to the castle was a huge botanical garden with greenhouses.

Most of the museums in the Baltic area charge admission only for people 18 years of age and above, plus they accept credit cards. The boys really enjoyed the Vasa Viking ship museum in Stockholm.

We loved the beauty, ambience and friendly staff on board MS Amsterdam. The room steward and dining room staff learned our boys’ names the first day. The library, with large windows, was well stocked. My sons lived in the kids’ programs, and it was sometimes difficult to insist that they spend some time with their mother.

By the way, Holland America graciously refunded us $169 when my husband decided not to go on the cruise. We could not get a refund through our travel insurer and didn’t even try to since he had no reason not to go, so Holland America’s refund was a nice surprise.

We want to go on MS Amsterdam again soon.


Santa Fe, NM