Engaging Azamara: Summer Baltics Cruise Journal

Last year about this time, we returned to Club Cruises for a sailing that began in Stockholm and ended in Southampton, immersing us in eight unique destinations along the way.  The second time sailing with in 2015, this one looked to be equally as interesting if not more so than our Sailing Azamara series from earlier that , for a number of reasons.  Thinking of sailing with Azamara Club Cruises, take a look at this from our 12-Night Summer Baltic Russia Voyage.

The obvious starting place is the itinerary that takes us to Denmark, Russia, The Netherlands, England, Estonia, Finland, Belgium and Sweden.  We will get to that shortly.  First,  let’s back that up a bit and talk briefly about how we got here, were our heads are at and what to expect over the next couple of weeks.  This sailing brings with it some interesting elements, important to know about right up front.

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Bought, Sold and Verified: Azamara Is Destination King

My 2012 sailing of Azamara Journey defined and set the bar high for what was then a relatively obscure focus for cruise lines which Azamara tagged as ‘destination immersion’.  Cruising, for a whole lot of travelers, was a swing through the Caribbean on a giant ship full of an ever-increasing number of onboard amenities, attractions and features.  That was us early on. The notion of where ships stopped was really not all that important as long as there was a beach.  Visit a place multiple times?  We might not even get off the ship.

That first Azamara sailing themed, Castles, Pubs and Distilleries was a marvelous journey that stopped at three places in Scotland, went over to Ireland where we stayed in Dublin for three nights then on to Wales, the Orkney Islands , the Isles of Sicily ending in Rouen, France, not far from Paris after a stop in Deauxville.

I was glad to see that Azamara had not only continued to define destination immersion but has become even better at it.  We saw that first-hand on Azamara Journey and wrote about here in our Sailing Azamara series, one of our most popular ever.

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The Onboard Product Is A Considerable Part Of The Experience

Known far and wide as destination experts, that was a title that stood out more in 2012.  Now, instead of touting their top deck features, many big ship lines are also becoming destination experts so the pool has increased in size.  Interestingly, while other lines have been renewing their destination efforts with new video depictions of tours, new programming and more of it; Azamara has been finding out what their guests want and giving it to them.  Interesting concept huh?  Sounds so very simple and basic.

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You Asked (“We want more!”) We Listened (“No problem”)

In June, on Azamara Journey we sailed round-trip from Istanbul to multiple stops in Croatia, Greece, Montenegro and Italy.  All along the way we posted on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Actually, I need to correct that…

All along the way, Chris posted on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram then once back, added Pinterest photo boards and an Exposure photo narrative plus more follow up/reflections of the journey (complete list below).  You liked that and wanted more.

Chris has but two hands that come with two thumbs, as highly skilled as they may be.  Chris has help coming with him this time.  Bringing a rich background of social skills (two more thumbs) Sydney has the time and I have the perfect cruise to expand our coverage.

Look for our live coverage starting Wednesday as we make our way to Sweden to begin this journey, taking you every step of the way via your choice of pretty much everything except cassettes and 8-track tapes. (See multiple channels below)

 

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Sydney Is A 30+

If you have been following along on our cruise journey via Facebook and our long-running cruise information website LifeIsCruising.com, you know we began sailing as a family just before the tragic events of 9/11.  At the time,  Sydney and Whitney were 14 and 12 respectively and cruise travel quickly became a big part of our lives.  Our first family sailing was on Carnival Cruise Line’s Fascination, a short 4 night sailing to Key West and Cozumel. By the end of the first day, we all agreed it was the best vacation ever and by the time it was over the only regret we had was that it was not a longer sailing.

During their time with us, the ‘kids’ sailed enough to earn top tier past guest status on a number of cruise lines.  We skipped celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, special events, December holidays and more* to enable more cruising.  We were hooked and over the years I have sold, written about, stood up for, lived and breathed the world of cruise vacations.  Sydney, on the other hand, worked her way through college, started running her career race and snagged a marvelous husband.

Now just eeking her way into the 30+ age category Sydney, like a bunch of others her age, has taken a breath.  Still a lot of race ahead, she/that age group pauses briefly and realizes “Oh, there’s a world out there I have not seen yet.”

Several interesting elements at play here:

  • Sydney’s fresh take on the world of cruising outside of the Caribbean, seen with arguably one of the best cruise lines in the game.  The biggest noticeable effect of Sydney being along for the ride here will be an increase in production which is exactly what readers seemed to like best on the last Azamara sailing. Done.
  • Sydney traveling outside of the United States which, for all practical purposes, she has not done. When we traveled as a family, we bought the kids passports but technically, they could have visited all the places we went on our closed-loop cruises with an original birth certificate.
  • The Sydney Factor.  This is one unique human being that has quite an interesting take on life. Stop by Sydney Unfiltered (not for children) or Planet Green Socks to get an idea of where her head is, has been and is likely to go.  There is no telling where she might go with this but the ride should be interesting.

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New This Time

  • More Room Service– we barely touched on this topic on our last sailing and Azamara has a new room service menu that looks wonderful.  I’m not sure why this is the first topic on the New This Time list.
  • More Entertainment and onboard programming- While the focus is clearly on destinations, there is a lot happening on the ships of Azamara Club Cruises as well.
  • More Detail On Destinations-  With world-class destination experts contributing to the body of knowledge about the places Azamara visits, our detailed take was not a huge priority.  Keeping up with Lee Abbamonte, the Most Traveled Man In The World would be about like trying to drink the Dos Equis Most Interesting Man In The World under the table.  No point. Some nice photos and a good feel for each place we gave.  This time we add more detail, direct from the source.
  • More About Our Fellow Travelers- What to wear and what kind of traveler enjoys the Azamara experience were two of the most frequently asked questions from our last sailing.  We tried to nail that down along the way and will take another stab at it this time.

 

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The Destinations

Well, destinations are one of the main reasons cruise travelers choose Azamara Club Cruises over other lines. The itinerary alone is worth a follow or two with the places we will visit highlighted with such colorful descriptors as ‘the mysteries of Moscow’ and “an unforgettable adventure that begins in Red Square’, for starters.   Take a look at this marvelous itinerary and pull up a chair.  This is going to be interesting.

 

VOYAGE ITINERARY

DATE PORT/CITY ACTIVITY ARRIVAL DEPART
THU 13-AUG Stockholm, Sweden Embark
FRI 14-AUG Stockholm, Sweden Docked 2:00 pm
SAT 15-AUG Helsinki, Finland Docked 9:00 am 4:00 pm
SUN 16-AUG St. Petersburg, Russia Docked 7:00 am
MON 17-AUG St. Petersburg, Russia Docked 6:00 pm
TUE 18-AUG Tallinn, Estonia Docked 9:00 am 8:00 pm
WED 19-AUG At Sea Cruising
THU 20-AUG Copenhagen, Denmark Docked 8:00 am 8:00 pm
FRI 21-AUG At Sea Cruising
SAT 22-AUG Amsterdam, Netherlands Docked 8:00 am
SUN 23-AUG Amsterdam, Netherlands Docked 7:15 pm
MON 24-AUG Zeebrugge (Bruges), Belgium Docked 7:45 am 3:00 pm
TUE 25-AUG Southampton, England Debark 6:00 am

 

ORLANDO- Two days before departure

On Wednesday we fly from Orlando to begin a 12-night Summer Baltic Russia Voyage with Azamara Club Cruises.  On board Azamara Quest, we will visit eight different countries overnighting in three of them.  Today, let’s take a look at each different destination via Azamara’s online description and our plans for each of them.

Flickr photo by Michael Caven

Flickr photo by Michael Caven

Thursday August 13 and Friday August 14-  Stockholm, Sweden

Lively, cosmopolitan Stockholm sports an appealing mix of modern Scandinavian architecture and fairy tale palaces, watched over by a Board of Beauty, responsible for preserving the city.

One third of its area is devoted to green space, and another third to waterways, providing lots of room to breathe.

Gamla Stan is the oldest section, retaining the medieval layout of narrow meandering paths.

For the contemporary take there’s Sodermalm, known trendily as SoFo, with welcoming restaurants and pubs, specialty shops, and boutiques. Stieg Larson fans hang out here, as it is the area of the city where most action in the Millennium novels takes place.
We arrive in Stockholm early, at 7:30 AM local time and expect to see an Azamara representative standing just outside the baggage claim area at Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport (ARN).  Still, it’s always a good idea to know how to get to the port on our own, so we will arrive with that information in hand along with research on the best way to get to the port.  Azamara makes that easy by updating passengers with text messages along the way.  In this case, the cruise line advised us that Azamara Quest will be departing from Vartahmnen Pier 523 at the Port of Stockholm.

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We also overnight in Stockholm so our first stop on board will be the Shore Excursion desk to book our tours for the trip as well as get a recommendation on what to do the first day, depending on how well we have tolerated the overnight flight.

Since we overnighted here, odds are we can get off the ship in the morning for whatever reason but between yesterday and today will have connected with the destination with a tour titled Ice Bar & Old Town, which Azamara describes as:

Embark on a tour filled with history and a slightly chilly reception. Warm up with a nice stroll through the medieval streets of Old Town Stockholm. Pass the Royal Palace and wind through the Great Square at the center of town. Here, gaze up at the Old Stock Exchange, which now houses the Swedish Academy and the Nobel Museum. Do a little shopping at your leisure before the drive to Nordic C Hotel. This is where things get a little chilly at the world’s first permanent ice bar. The name says it all. Everything, from the bar, to the tables and chairs, to the glasses are made entirely of ice. Fortunately, guests are given warm fur ponchos and
mittens before entering. Sip your literally ice-cold vodka and look around to realize that this is indeed the coolest bar imaginable.

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A highlight of booking (or at least researching as we do) tours online with Azamara are the details provided in advance.  Highlights give the short version of what to expect, What To Bring reminds us not to leave important things on the ship that we will need later, What To Wear and Important Notes complete the tour preview.

In the case of this tour and as an example, here are details of those topics

Highlights:
• Follow a local historian through cobblestone streets lined with buildings dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries.
• Stroll along Stortorget, the Great Square at the center of town to view the Old Stock Exchange.
• Sip ice-cold vodka from a glass made of ice in a bar made entirely of ice.

What to Bring:

• KeyCard and photo identification
• Camera
• Cash/credit cards
• Sun protection

What to Wear:

• Walking shoes
• Hat and sunglasses

Important Notes:

• Guests must be at least 18 years old, with photo identification to participate in the vodka tasting.
• Guests must be able to walk approximately 1 mile over uneven and cobblestone surfaces, with inclines and 3 to 4 steps to enter/exit coach.
• Tour sequence may vary.

Flickr photo- Christopher Michel

Flickr photo- Christopher Michel

Saturday, August 15 Helsinki, Finland  Docked from 9am to 4pm

Helsinki is a successful blend of traditional and modern architecture and design, interwoven with the beauty of nature, and a few quirky, purely Finnish touches – such as a church built inside a giant chunk of granite, and a venue that is a unique combination of café, restaurant, bar, laundromat, and sauna.

Classic Russian onion-domed churches share the stage with Nordic minimalism, and a large concentration of Art Nouveau buildings. Prominent globally in the fields of technology (think Nokia) and design (Marimekko and Aero), Finland has also recently topped the charts as having the world’s best educational system.

We have relatives from Finland so will be looking for the name “Rajala” on mailboxes but have a tour scheduled as well:

Helsinki Walking Tour

Follow the shady streets of Finland’s southern capital on a guided walk that shows off the city’s rich history. Set off from Senate Square where Helsinki University’s neo-classical grace is front and center. Continue through downtown and wind past the Eliel Saarinen Railway Station, the National Theater and the formidable buildings of the Helsinki skyline. View Finlandia Hall, a striking masterpiece by legendary architect, Alvar Alto, as well as Parliament House and the National Museum. Break for a fresh pastry and coffee at a waterfront café before setting out again into the tree-lined avenues. Wind through the residential area of Toolo and Hesperia Park. Stop at the famous Rock Church, a modern architectural feat built entirely into solid bedrock and quarried stone. The guided portion of the walk ends here, however, feel free to stay downtown and wander about its shops, boutiques and inviting cafes.

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Sunday August 16 and Monday August 17 St Petersburg, Russia
Arriving 7AM Departing at 6:00PM

Tsar Peter the Great founded this magnificent city in 1703 as a window to the West, a launching pad for his attempt to modernize Russia and open up to outside influences.

The architecture is varied and striking, with golden domed churches, and an astounding number of large and extravagantly decorated palaces, consistently evoking wows from visitors.

The grandest include the countryside Peterhof, with its lavish gardens and majestic golden fountains cascading down to the Gulf of Finland; and the Winter Palace, within the complex of the Hermitage, one of the world’s largest museums, with a collection of some three million works of art and artifacts.

Here, we plan on an interesting 18-hour tour that covers many of the bases in Russia

Moscow and the Mysterious Kremlin

Relax aboard a one-hour flight to Moscow and spend an unforgettable day enjoying its sites, including the Kremlin. Discover the most important city in Russia and enter its most politically and historically charged landmark. The mysteries of Moscow are waiting on this unforgettable adventure that begins in Red Square. Stretched along the east wall of the Kremlin, Red Square has seen the rise of a revolution and the fall of communism. See majestic landmarks surrounding the square, and then enter the Kremlin itself, official residence of the Russian president. At the Kremlin Armory Chamber you’ll see the impressive treasury of Russian tsars, including a collection of priceless Faberge eggs. Walk through Cathedral Square, where Russian tsars were once hailed and where dignitaries are still welcomed today. Stand before its three main cathedrals — the Assumption, the Annunciation and the Archangel Michael, all adorned with golden domes. Enjoy the rare opportunity to venture inside one of these ornate treasures and feel Russian history, both inspired and tragic, come alive.

Flickr photo- Nathalie Magniez

Flickr photo- Nathalie Magniez

Tuesday August 18, Tallinn, Estonia from 9am to 8pm

Despite occupation at one time or another by each of its near neighbors, Tallinn is independent-minded and has creative ways of showing it – consider the Singing Revolution of 1988, the massive musical demonstration against Soviet rule that set Estonia on the path to independence.

Visit St Olav’s Church, once the tallest building in the world, at least until 1625. Then pull up a chair at one of the cafés in the charming town square, heart of the city for 800 years. After your coffee, explore St. Catherine’s Passage, a quaint old lane, home to a collection of craft workshops, and check out the secret 17th C. tunnel system.

Here, we explore an Azamara Club Cruises signature destination event, the Insider Access Series.  This one a Chocolaterie Workshop

Delight in the heavenly riches of Tallinn chocolate, learning directly from a master chocolate maker. Stroll through the medieval streets of the quaint Lower Old Town past Town Hall Squarand the 13th century Church of The Holy Spirit. Nearby is the renowned Chocolaterie de Pierre, a caf and home to incredible chocolate indulgences, including cakes and truffles. Once there, meet a Master Pastry Chef, whose twenty years of candy and baking experience inform the day’s delicious chocolate workshop. Enjoy a hands-on lesson in the art of truffle making and learn about the history of chocolate making from this professional chocolatier.

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Wednesday August 19- At Sea

Flickr photo- Moyan Brenn

Flickr photo- Moyan Brenn

Thursday August 20- Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen is known as a city of spires: the skyline of its medieval core is punctuated only by the steeples of churches and towers of palaces, though a modern building boom has overtaken other parts of the city.

Today’s Copenhagen is known for its excellent quality of life and environmental consciousness – with many parks, it is green both literally and in today’s sense of the word.

It is also bicycle-friendly, with bike paths lining almost every major street. After a ride or wander through the old town, stop for a local repast of Smørrebrød, traditional open-face sandwiches, or a mouthwatering Danish pastry.

Castles of North Zealand will probably be the tour of the day here

Ramble into the verdant countryside of North Copenhagen, where over the centuries kings and queens have left their marks in stunning fashion. Drive through fashionable neighborhoods and past Hvidore Palace towards the outskirts of the city. Continue to discover famed Kronborg Castle. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because this is the setting of the great bard’s “Hamlet”. View its dramatic façade and snap a few photos before continuing to North Sealand for lunch at a charming countryside inn. Afterwards, it’s off to Fredriksborg to view Fredensborg Palace, where the royals spend the spring and autumn months, and to tour Fredriksborg Castle. Today this magnificent Renaissance structure is home to the Museum of National History. Marvel at chambers and galleries filled with priceless paintings, porcelain, tapestries and antique furnishings.

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The last time we visited a castle with Azamara Club Cruises was in Scotland on an  equally travel adventure.

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Friday August 21- At Sea

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Saturday August 22 and Sunday August 23 Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam has a personality all its own, including a long time reputation for tolerance.

You’ll be thinking of tulips and wooden shoes, perhaps Heineken beer, and some of the city’s past inhabitants: Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Anne Frank, who wrote her famous diary hidden in a canal-side house. But do you know that Amsterdam has more canals than Venice (connecting a jigsaw puzzle of 90 islands), joined by some 1,280 bridges (many illuminated by fairy lights at night)? Or that it boasts the oldest stock exchange in the world?

In Amsterdam there is always a lot going on.  On our schedule we know that we have a signature Azamara event, the Azamazing Evening.  We also happen to be visiting during the Sail Amsterdam event held every five years in August so time to enjoy that will be a priority.  Still, we are in the Netherlands and no visit would be complete without an immersive tour that stops in Edam, for all practical purposes the home of all good things cheese, so a tour there might be in order too.

This is one reason why we rarely book tours in advance, choosing to get in touch with the shore excursion people on the ship for guidance.  They will know, for example, when the events of Sail Amsterdam are being held, how much time we need to allow for the Azamazing evening and if another tour is even feasible.  We’ll see!

Flickr photo- Herry Lawford

Flickr photo- Herry Lawford

Monday August 24- Zeebrugge (Bruges), Belgium

In Bruges you can lose yourself in another time, wandering the maze of winding lanes or drifting along the canals of its medieval core, the whole of which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. You can also have a wonderful time discovering the fascinating stories behind the products for which Belgium is famous, in an unexpected array of museums.

For sparkle visit the Diamond Museum, and for exquisite artistry the Lace Center. At Choco-Story, learn all about chocolate’s origins and production.

And for lots of fun and more tempting tastes, don’t miss the Frietmuseum, dedicated to Belgian Fries, and presented with no doubt as to who actually invented this universally adored snack.

Easy call on the tour: Bruges Sights & Beer Tasting
There is no doubt that Belgium is the country of beer since it offers more than 450 varieties of brew. After a 30-minute drive from the port, you will arrive in Bruges where your guided walk will begin. Bruges gives the impression that you have stepped back in time. Your guide will lead you through the narrow, twisting cobblestone streets, passing by picturesque scenes of ancient buildings, tree-lined canals and gabled facades. View the bustling marketplace, Belfry Tower, the Town Hall and the Chapel of the Holy Blood. The highlight is undoubtedly a beer seminar with beer tasting at a local cafe. Together with your expert guide, you will explore the taste and flavor of four different beers.

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Flickr photo- Charlie

Tuesday August 25- Southampton, England

Muse on voyages past as you sail in or out of Southampton, long a maritime center, its yards turning out warships for king and country from the Hundred Years War in the 14-15th centuries, to two world wars in the 20th.

It was the departure point for the Mayflower in 1620, and for the ill-fated Titanic in 1912. The charms of London are not far away, but pray tarry in the south to explore other wonders, including Bath, with its natural hot springs and stunning architecture and the mysterious megaliths of Stonehenge, or venture all the way west to Lands End, and the wild moorlands and pirate haunts of Cornwall.

This is actually where we get off the ship…but we have a flight that might be late enough for a tour of London after transfer from Southampton. We’ll check with the ship upon embarkation about that too.

 

One Day Before Travel

Tomorrow we make our way from Orlando to Azamara Quest.  To get there will require a couple flights going first from Orlando to Newark then on to Stockholm overnight.  Since navigating/surviving international flights are one of the most frequently asked questions, we have tips for that.

"Please report any unattended luggage."

Pre-Flight Planning

Part of the trick to enjoying an international flight comes from some must-do preflight activities.

  • A Good Strategy For Occasional Travelers- Book as far in advance as possible and with as few stops as possible. That just makes the long travel day a bit shorter. For occasional travelers, this is much more important than for those who do it frequently and are used to the routine of international flights.
  • Allow Plenty Of Time Between Connections– On domestic flights we want 2 hours between connections to allow for flight delays on either end, especially in the winter and especially if passing through an interesting airport. On international flights we bump that up to a preferred 3 hour window of time between flights.  That extra hour is because international flights begin boarding an hour before departure and a re-check of your passport is normally required.  The airline is not going to let that flight leave unless they know all passengers on board will be able to enter the country they are flying to.  Another good reason to leave plenty of time between connections is so that your checked luggage can also make it to the next flight, along with you.  We learned this lesson the hard way, barely making a very close connection in Miami, running to the next gate.  It never crossed our minds that our luggage might not have had the same sense of urgency until we got to Barbados and it did not.
  • Lock Down The Documentations Needed–  At the same time the booking is made, find out any special documentation you might need to board the ship.   On rare occasions, travelers might be required to satisfy special entry requirements. U.S. citizens normally don’t need more than a U.S. passport for most European river cruises or Mediterranean ocean cruises. An upcoming sailing I have on Azamara Club Cruises begins and ends in Istanbul.  I needed a visa for that and got it in about 2 minutes online, $20.  Still, all cruise lines and travel agencies are all quick to point out that it is the traveler’s responsibility to be sure and have the correct documentation.  Try to board without it and undocumented travelers will be turned away, given no refund and left on their own to get back home.  A good source to figure that part out: The U.S Department of State’s Safe Traveler Program which offers all the information needed to enter and experience any given country in the world.
  • Protect Your Trip with travel insurance.  Even if you don’t care about the investment made in the travel itself, accidents happen and can add up to $thousands before you know it.   See Travel Insurance: If Not Full Coverage, Medical-Only Is Kind Of A No-Brainer for more.  I rolled the dice, cruise after cruise, electing to skip the recommended travel protection offered by cruise lines and independent third-party companies.  I was one of those people who believed “I saved enough money on travel insurance to pay for a cruise over the years”, and had no use for it.  Traveling frequently though, I bought an annual medical-only coverage plan just to be safe, for about the same price as cruise line insurance on one sailing.
  • Focus on getting plenty of rest and eating right several days before the flight. Sure, maybe we can’t “bank” sleep but starting a long flight with a full tank of rest is always a good idea. International flights to Europe almost always require an overnight flight which you may or may not be able to sleep on.  If the budget allows, increase the odds of a good night’s sleep by booking business class air with seats that lay down completely flat.  A paid upgrade from economy to economy plus with more legroom can be a good value too.
  • Finish packing a week in advance- that offers the opportunity to be sure critical items are packed and allows time to get source those items if they were not packed first time around.  Be sure to identify your luggage with something that will make it easy to see in the airport baggage claim area.  Easy for us when sailing with Viking River Cruises who provides bright red leatherViking River Cruises tags in the pre-cruise documentation package.
  • Consider Traveling With Carry-On Luggage Only– This is one of the most difficult hurdles to get past for occasional travelers and is especially hard for those who drive to the port and have no restrictions on the amount of luggage they take on the ship.  Still, keeping your luggage in your possession for the entire journey absolutely eliminates one of the biggest sources of apprehension for occasional travelers: waiting to see if their luggage made it to the destination.  See Travel With Carry-On Luggage Only: Here’s How for more.  We do this on every single trip, without exception, regardless of where we are going or for how long.
  • Charge! Bringing along electronic devices for entertainment on a long flight is a good idea.  Having back up power to charge all those devices is a good idea too.  Some seats may have plugin power available but determining if yours does or not in advance of flying can be hard to do.  For that we suggest the Hyperjuice Magic Box which can power just about anything, multiple times  See Travel Gear Review: HyperJuice Magic Box for more.  This is a topic much more economically handled in advance rather than at the airport.  In fact, recharging devices at an airport charging station may put you in danger.  See Travel Security: Meet Juice Jacking for more.

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Making It Through The Airport

It makes sense to give a degree of attention to every aspect of international travel, including arriving at and going through the airport, either at home or abroad.   Advance consideration of what travelers are about to experience goes a long way.

  • Print Boarding Passes In Advance- as simple as this may sound, it is one of the most commonly missed parts of travel that has occasional travelers lined up at service desks and self-service kiosks at airports in a totally avoidable line.  Once flights are booked and seats selected, look again occasionally to see if other seats opened up that might be more comfortable, when at home.  At the airport, have your passport and boarding pass in hand, even if planning to use the airline app on a smartphone to board.  The paper version is always there and easy to hand to security personnel and airline employees.  Keep boarding passes for connecting flights handy too.
  • Consider your one personal carry-on item your “flight bag” and have everything that might be needed during the flight in it.  Unless flying in business class, space to move around will be limited.  Having everything needed right at hand, under the seat in front of you, is huge and a must-do for all international flights.  Better yet, try traveling with carry-on luggage, see Travel With Only Carry On Luggage: Here’s How for exactly how to do that.
  • Consider a travel vest and make that a ScotteVest.  I have been wearing a travel vest for years; an article of clothing that holds my cell phone, wallet, passport, loose change and just about anything else that might set off a metal detector at airport security checkpoints. Simply take off the vest and run it through the scanner for an easy security check. Better yet, that vest will carry just about everything needed in flight. With a multitude of pockets, my passport is always in one secure pocket, my smartphone always in another, etc.  That’s important when making your way through airports and around places you are not familiar with.   See Travel Gear Review: ScotteVest Travel Vest Has Blown My Mind.
  • On the plane, those well-thought out plans will pay off in a more enjoyable flight.  Still, there are parts of flying that can’t be anticipated so flexibility is important  Bring along good ear plugs if kids crying bothers you.  Kids cry, be prepared.  I once had crying kids on both sides of me and in back on a long international flight. Ear plugs saved someone’s life that day.  Need darkness to sleep on a long flight?  The flight crew will do their best to get all the window shades shut, will dim the cabin lights and set the stage for your best chance to get some sleep.  Then there is the idiot who is oblivious to it all and has got to have the brilliant outside light inside.  Eye shades.
  • Protect Yourself from germs with Nozin nasal sanitizer on the plane. I buy and use this product and it really works.  Also use plenty of hand sanitizer use throughout the trip, every step of the way and bring along a nice little bottle of hand lotion as alcohol based hand sanitizers will dry out hands.   Equally important: protect your health by making a conscious effort to stay hydrated.  No, you can not bring bottled water from home but an empty sports bottle that holds water will be allowed to go through security checkpoints.  Once through, look for water bottle filling stations, water fountains or just keep it handy so filling can be done in flight.  Be double safe, ignore the high price of bottled water in airports and buy some anyway.  Normally not a problem for flight attendants to fill up.
  • Never Pack Anything In A Checked Bag That You Can’t Live Without– After two different airlines on two different trips lost our luggage, we now use carry-on luggage exclusively.

Tomorrow, we’ll go over ways to make the experience in flight an enjoyable one, as we are doing just that. Stay tuned!

Day 1- Arriving In Stockholm

Making our way to Stockholm on an overnight flight from North America to begin our Azamara Club Cruises journey was relatively painless. Following many of our own tips for occasional international travelers, we arrived in Sweden about as rested and ready to go as one might hope for. Still, one element of the experience that I had all but forgotten came into play that deserves a bit of attention.

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Stocklhoms Arendale International Airport is about as efficient as they get. A nice place to kill some time, we did just that for a few hours as we waited for others to arrive then be transferred to Azamara Quest.  

Travel Day - 135

One of my favorite images to capture is that of the cruise line greeter who meets us just as we clear the baggage claim area.  It’s a simple shot to take and most of those people position themselves exactly in the line of sight travelers have coming from the secure area they can not enter.   Our Azamara representative was no exception. We’re here: done.

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Our United Airlines flight could not have been more pleasant, right down to the normally uninspired meals served on board.  That’s saying a lot from someone who more commonly says of airline food: “Why bother offering food at all?”  This was good but who cares?  We were on our way to the land of fabulous culinary creations both on the ship and ashore.  

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Arriving on Azamara Quest, a quick embarkation, a security check then on the ship we went, directly to the Mosaic Cafe for the first of many espressos yet to come.  A twin ship to Azamara Journey, there was zero time spent learning my way around. It was right around then that I realized just how much of a culture shock international travel can be.

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Along on this journey with me is daughter Sydney on her first trip out of the United States that was not a round trip cruise from some North American port.  As a family, we enjoyed many wonderful cruise vacations but always to the Caribbean, Mexico or the Bahamas.  Coming to Sweden to begin our 12-night Summer Russia and the cruise brought a hefty dose of culture shock that manifested itself in the wide-eyed wonder of a kid visiting Disney World.

It was also right about that time that I thought “What a perfect cruise line for Sydney to experience international travel with for the first time”.  Destination-focused Azamara Club Cruises may not have written the entire book on destination immersion but can solidly claim credit for many of its pages. We verified that earlier this year on our Azamara Journey sailing.

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Azamara does a good job of describing the places they visit in advance.  Friendly onboard destination experts have certified advice travelers can count on.  Destination-focused signature events like Azamara Evenings, Insider Access and more prove their commitment.  Still, having your head in the right place can make or break any travel experience.  We have talked about that in this space before; get off on the wrong foot for whatever reason and it’s hard to get out from under the cloud of doom.  

But there is something quite refreshing about discovering an element of travel all over again, through the eyes of someone who has never experienced it before.   That’s where we are here today and with some interesting examples along the way, this story looks to be taking a bit different direction than those of the past.

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Case in point:  Stopping for coffee at an airport cafe in Stockholm, I gave Sydney a kr100 bill and said, ‘why don’t you go buy something, a souvenir?’  A bit surprised that I would offer, she went off to find that 100 in Swedish Krona is really not all that much money (about $12) but came back with a refrigerator magnet and a few coins.  Interesting first lesson learned about conversion rates, value in a foreign land and how many Swedish Krona it takes to buy simple things.

The rest of the day was a typical one for the first stop over the pond, spent relaxing, unpacking, choosing shore tours and more.  The plan was to grab a quick dinner then go to sleep early. something I’m quite fond of on that first day.  Instead, we sat and talked to a number of typically interesting Azamara passengers, all of whom tend to have great stories to tell until nearly midnight. 

Tomorrow would bring our first tour of the journey and promises a dive into the deep end of destination immersion. It’s something I’m looking forward to telling you about for all the usual reasons plus one; a bit different perspective as I am reminded of what it is like to do this for the first time.   

Day 2 Touring Stockholm

Overnight at interesting places around the world is surely a defining factor in the Azamara Club Cruises experience.  The first port of call on our 12-night Summer Russia and The Baltics itinerary drove that concept home overnighting in Stockholm.

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The capital and largest city in Sweden, Stockholm is a bustling metropolis with a unique character.  Spread out over 14 islands, the has a bit the feel of Venice in a floating city sort of way.  Still, Stockholm brings an urban feel as we found on a tour that included a visit to the world’s first ice bar.

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Beginning at the Royal Palace, our walking tour of Stockholm came complete with a local guide, a destination expert vetted by Azamara to be a knowledgeable source of information.

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A place with a very safe and clean feel, Stockholm is set up for tourism.  Cobblestone streets are kept clean by a small army of workers who can be seen everywhere along tour routes.

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Retaining most of its original architecture, dating back to the 18th century, Stockholm has been known as both a cultural and important trade center.

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In fact, Stockholm was right in the middle of celebrating their culture with a city-wide festival going on at the time we visited.

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It came as no surprise that Stockholm was elected as the ‘European Culture Capital’ in 1998, in many ways due to its beauty and multi-faceted cultural life.

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Walking past the Nobel Museum, we were reminded that Sweden was the home of Alfred Nobel, born in Stockholm.

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The cobblestone streets and ochre-colored buildings of medieval old town, are home to a 13th-century cathedral, the royal palace of Kungliga Slottet as well as Stockholm’s underground armory, cafes and restaurants.

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A very walkable place, ferries and sightseeing boats shuttle passengers between islands and under more than 50 bridges.

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Stockholm is referred to as the ‘World’s Smallest Big City’ or the ‘World’s Biggest Small Town’ and we saw why up close, making local connections with friendly, helpful people along the way.

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Interestingly, the people of Stockholm are dependent on the service industry for their daily bread,       providing 85% of the jobs in the city.

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It was the aroma of freshly baking bread that called us to a local bakery in the city center during a period of free time on our Azamara tour.

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A variety of bakery goods on sale would have been just wonderful to bring home or back to the ship.  Instead, we bought some pastries which never made it back to Azamara Quest.

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Visiting Stockholm’s world-famous ice bar, we ended our tour with a feel for what this part of the world might be like in winter.

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The world’s first permanent bar made entirely of ice, Icebar by IceHotel Stockholm was surely the coolest bar in town with drinks served in frozen blocks of ice harvested in the winter and stored in a deep freeze for use throughout the year.

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Included in the price of admission, the fur parka needed to withstand the sub zero temperature of the place.

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Back to Azamara Quest, it was scenic cruising and a nod to the nicely-sized ships of Azamara Club Cruises that enabled an experience very much like scenic cruising on a river cruise.  On either side of the ship, land was close enough for waving to those ashore.

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We would sail for nearly four hours to reach open sea then cruise long at a leisurely pace to our next port of call at Helsinki, Finland.

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First time international traveler Sydney, enjoyed her first visit to a European city in a number of ways.  We’ll get more into that next as we begin a series of guest posts with Sydney bringing something rather new to ChrisCruises.com; the perspective of a millennial traveler.  That starts tomorrow.

A Day In Helsinki

Stopping for the day in Helsinki, Finland on our Azamara Journey Summer Baltics cruise, the next stop would bring Russia.  Just three days in on a 12-night sailing that visits eight countries, most passengers on Azamara Journey seem to support the notion that Russia is the star of the show.  Still, first stop Copenhagen was a wonderful overnight experience and Helsinki proved to be equally interesting, albeit totally different.  At least for us.

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Lisa’s father’s family hails from Finland, immigrated to the United States and settled in Wisconsin.  When we think of people from Finland, we think Lisa’s dad Ole, a really nice man who we believed to be a typically stoic Finn.  I half expected to see a number of locals in Helsinki that emulated is demeanor.  I didn’t.  Instead we found a city full of people typical of others we had come in contact with in Europe.  No stoic Ole Rajala.  Not one on every street corner.  Instead we found helpful guides of a chatty nature willing and able to provide efficient directions.

 

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Sailing into Helsinki, the place reminded me of other seaside cities, complete with what looked to be reinforced defence positions designed to ward off invaders.

 

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Fast forward to now and this large body of water drew locals to Summer activities as well.

 

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Azamara Quest provided a shuttle between the ship and town which was just a short drive away.
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Full of local flavor, merchants were on hand with hand crafted souvenirs, local market specialties and an abundant offering of potatoes and fish-related fare.

 

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It is times like this that lead us to say silly things travelers say like “I wish I lived here so I could bring some of this home” as though the lovely day we experienced was typical of this place year-round.

 

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Lisa commonly says “I could live here” when we travel to European cities.  In Germany’s Wittenberg not long ago, we visited the home of Martin Luther.  Today we saw another landmark tagged with Luther’s influence on the world.

 

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Helsinki Cathedral dominates the skyline and is the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran cathedral of the Diocese of Helsinki, in the centre of  town.

 

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The church was originally built from 1830-1852 as a tribute to the Grand Duke of Finland, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia.

 

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A unique landmark in the Helsinki cityscape, the cathedral’s tall, green dome is surrounded by four smaller domes, built in the neoclassical style.

Our walking tour of Helsinki covered a number of locations and landmarks, to be highlighted in an upcoming @exposure photo narrative.   Those bring us the ability to present the destinations and a very close representation to what we experienced connecting locally on tour with Azamara Club Cruises.  Stop by our popular Sailing Azamara version to see what I mean by that.

 

First Impressions Of Russia

The third stop on a 12-night Summer Russia and The Baltics sailing aboard Azamara Quest, St Petersburg was a highly anticipated destination. Many of us onboard had never been there before and, earlier in life, thought we ever would be. To some visiting the Russian port was a dream come true. Others were simply curious and this was one stop on an overall intriguing itinerary. To me, St Petersburg was all of that and a bit more, highlighting some serious differentiating factors owned by Azamara Club Cruises.

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We arrived early, as anticipated. In a unique element of the Azamara cruise experience; the Captain provides a great amount of detail over the ship’s loudspeaker system just before we leave each port of call. Little details. Right down to the order in which the mooring lines used to keep the ship in place when docked will be released.

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Have you ever wondered which of the officers will be taking the ship out to sea? We find that out just before leaving port, along with the route we will take, anticipated weather and more. Initially it might seem like too much information and some passengers on other lines might tune it out.

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But many of us aboard Azamara Club Cruises’ ships are from the “when the Captain speaks, you listen” generation and over the course of a few days we make a subconscious revelation: There are a number of officers and all of them know how to drive the ship. Good to know but not a big surprise.

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That the destination focus runs past marketing the unique places Azamara visits, rarely repeating itineraries is not surprising. They have been at it actively longer than many other cruise lines. But it is as though they looked at everything they do and asked “What is the destination element in this?”. The detailed information provided in what might otherwise be a typical daily Captain From The Bridge announcement drives home the destination focus.

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Partly cloudy skies seen as we approached the port in St Petersburg gave clouds, cold and a bit of mist in the air. First-time visitors to Russia would later describe the weather that day as “about what we expected.”

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Our Panoramic St Petersburg tour would take us to a number of landmarks in the city, as anticipated. What we did not know; the plan also included abundant free time to wander around unrestricted at each place along the way.

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In advance of arrival, Azamara passengers on this voyage were informed by the cruise line; the only way off the ship was to either have your own Russian visa (would cost us $hundreds) or visit via cruise ship tour in which case the cruise line pays a bulk visa fee, included in the price of the tour. Sort of like how port charges are more when visiting the protected waters of Alaska, tour prices seem to reflect a bit of that visa fee.

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Still, once through immigration and on tour, we were free to walk around just like anyplace else. No KGB agents following us… although there was a bit of mystery lingering in the air.

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Significant here is that the expectation set by Azamara for St Petersburg was entirely accurate with no surprises at a destination where personal safety is of high concern.  Like when visiting other major tourist destinations around the world, we leave jewelry, credit cards and expensive personal items on the ship to avoid being a target for criminals.

Details of that tour and the photos you see here? That’s later today.

 

Second Impressions Of Russia: Azamazing

Day two of our overnight stay in St. Petersburg was all about making local connections, something I might not have thought possible on day one that was more suited as a backdrop for a cold war film. Sunny skies seemed to bring out sunny faces on the streets of a city known for being home of the czars. Our tour du jour was basically a motor coach ride to the center of town for several hours free time. The day provided plenty of opportunity to get lost, buy souvenirs and make local connections.

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The 20-minute transfer from Azamara Quest’s docking position to Nevsky Prospect, a major shopping area with plenty to offer everyone visiting.   The tour was basically just a legal way to get off the ship without a Russian visa with local tour guide Anastasia, narrating along the way.

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Dropped by a tourist information center with helpful, friendly, smiling English-speaking people to answer questions, we had three hours on our own to roam freely.

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Choosing one of my favorite activities when in a city for the first time, we promptly got lost looking for suggested shopping we had passed along the way. Learning from vast experience in this area, I had briefly paused to drop a pin on the location of the tourist information center by quickly turning on my smartphone, telling Google where I was and turning it off again. I’ll surely be getting ads for Russian salad dressing for months on the various websites I visit upon returning back to Florida. It’s a little deal we have, Google and I; have your way with my information, just don’t let me get too lost. It works.

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After a few stops for photos including that of a Russian Starbucks to dazzle my local barista’s with back home and 10,000 Fitbit steps we were back on track, heading back to the tourist information center. The plan was to just be sure we were back in that part of town with plenty of time to spare, then take off from there and not go too far.

Interestingly, in the general vicinity of the tourist information center that also sold all things Russian, there were no other shops. But right across the street from tourist central was a lovely park where locals were enjoying the unusually warm day, probably thinking they had awakened in a different land for some reason.

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Street vendors included Rosa here at what appeared to be a hot dog cart. I have no idea what it would be called in Russian. I did not need to know that, how to order what she had for sale or communicate with her in any other way but the look of delight that lovers of hot dogs have. We connected.

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Looking deep into her eyes and her mine, we shared a mutual love of the tubular fast food that is universal and known the world over. We got each other. Our connection and Rosa’s offerings were quite unique though.

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The result was a gastronomic experience I will not soon forget. We connected, Rosa and I, with not a word spoken.

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Still with time to spare, I returned to the tourist mecca to shed myself of Russian Rubles, buying a dozen chocolate bars that I thought might come in handy along the way. Caught in an alley by the KGB, perhaps one or two chocolate bars could be traded for my freedom or at least favors from gulag guards. Checking back in with tour guide Anastasia we practiced my Russian accent, so they could be delivered properly.   What’s the gift of a Russian chocolate bar without the accompanying accent to deliver it?

A Lovely Day In Tallinn, Estonia

Visiting Tallinn, Estonia on Azamara Quest brought a sunny day, a walk around one of the most well preserved Medieval towns in the world and the creation of a new list.

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Tallinn is Estonia’s cultural hub and retains its walled, cobblestoned Old Town.  The home to cafes and shops, as well a 15th-century defensive tower.  The city was known as Reval from the 13th century until 1918 then again during the Nazi occupation of Estonia during World War II.

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About a third of Estonia’s total population lives in Tallinn where its towering Town Hall is among the Baltic region’s oldest.

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For several weeks each winter Tallinn’s Town Hall Square is filled with an elaborate Christmas Market where visitors can buy gifts, listen to concerts, visit with Santa or drink hot, spiced wine.

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On our visit, the space served as a great place to linger, with people watching a major activity.

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Interestingly, The Estonian Song and Dance Celebration is held in Tallinn every five years.  That event assembles one of the world’s largest choirs as up to 30,000 singers typically take part.  Later in our Azamara Club Cruises voyage, we will be on  hand for another ‘every five years’ event; Sail Amsterdam.

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Bucket lists feature places, actions and events we would like to experience in our lifetimes.  The world of cruise vacations has enabled us to hit many of those items in an easy, affordable way.

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Destination-focused Azamara Club Cruises is especially efficient at helping with that effort, rarely repeating itineraries and visiting places that often satisfy more than one item at a time.  Still, there are some places so enjoyable that we would like to return another day and stay a bit longer than even Azamara enables.

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Tallinn, Estonia is one of those places.   Our visit took most of the day and added up to a lot of Fitbit steps by the time it was over.  Before visiting, I wondered if being in port from 9AM to 9PM might be too much time.  That notion quickly faded away, replaced by a feeling of  ‘I sure am glad we’re not on one of the other ships that were in port that day’, shared by our fellow Azamara travelers.

Sailing Away From Russia And Its History

Called a “ship graveyard of sorts” what cruise passengers see sailing away from St Petersburg, Russia are Cold War remnants of a Russia that once was, left to rust and the effects of the sea, as we see in these photos captured from the decks of Azamara Quest on our way to Estonia.

In all directions, Azamara Quest passengers could see remnants of a Russia that once was as we left the shiny domes of St. Petersburg behind. Big ships, small ships, parts of ships abandoned in whole or part, some in drydock, others alongside where we were sailing, it was a surreal scene on the way to Tallinn, Estonia where we would find a centuries-old medieval town full of life the next day.

Paying Attention, Azamara Engages Destinations, Guests

 

Sailing with Azamara Club Cruises, we visit interesting places around the world in the comfort of nicely sized ships big enough to offer a full hotel operation but small enough for direct access to ports not possible on larger vessels. Still, while Azamara does a good job of getting us there, that’s just one part of the equation. Once our feet hit the soil of a land new to us, what happens next and how well (or poorly) it is done can make all the difference in the world.

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Our 12-night Russia and The Baltics sailing on Azamara Quest has already taken us to a number of bucket list destinations.   Each has served as a sterling example of what differentiates Azamara Club Cruises from other cruise lines.   In St. Petersburg we saw the advantage of overnight stays on two distinctly different days. In Tallinn Estonia we experienced first hand, the value of staying late in port as we watched all other ships sail off into the sunset, and we stayed. Our long call in Copenhagen highlighted the advantage of traveling with a destination-focused line. Our live guide at the destination had a huge impact on the experience.

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We have been on tours with guides ranging from ‘great’ to ‘when is this tour going to be over!’ and everything in-between. On our Copenhagen Walking Tour And Canal Boat Ride, we saw the best of the city with a guide that paid attention to us.

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We take walking tours frequently and like the general overview of a city or place that they provide. Still, we’re always looking for an interesting place to linger and soak up the local destination while on tour. Find one along the way and we might just break off from the tour starting that local connection right then. The guiding principle here is that we want to create quality memories. Connecting locally does that quite aptly.

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Paying attention to us, our Copenhagen guide was typical of Azamara-sourced guides; on a higher frequency than most, a step up from the norm. Not one has been a script reader, obviously bored with their job or (makes me crazy) one that asks and answers their own questions. These are engaging teachers, travelers, parents, sons and daughters; real people that really try to relate to us. Not all do.

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Let that happen once or twice and we feel lucky. By the time our tour in Copenhagen rolled around, I had experienced more than a dozen Azamara-sourced tours between this sailing and our Azamara Journey Adriatic sailing earlier this Summer. On nearly every single one, we had engaging guides who made touring fun and interesting.

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But this is a common thread that runs through the Azamara organization, from the time we begin researching a destination on their website, to being on the ground making local connections. Recently, Azamara released a new smartphone app that serves as further proof of that commitment.

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The new App Azamara 3di features a series of 360-degree virtual reality experiences.  The video series, (also featured on a dedicated website www.azamara3di.com)uses virtual reality technology to help immerse future guests in what it’s like to be onboard Azamara Journey (twin ship to Azamara Quest) via ship tours and to experience destination excursions in South and Central American ports of call.

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The release reminds us of Azamara’s other app, impressive first that they had partnered with AFAR, a leading travel information source for content.   This one features AFAR guides for the destinations Azamara visits, Highlights of each place and a “Nearby” map that uses GPS technology to track where we are and what there is to see in the surrounding area.

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A handy Search feature , Featured destinations and specific Ports of Call information is handy when planning/dreaming of a future cruise at home or on the go. More From Afar takes us deep within the destinations for additional guidance/inspiration. Of particular interest, Offline Trip Plans that can be accessed at the destination without an Internet connection

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We’re going to use this app on the ground in Amsterdam to explore the area over our two-day stay. Already, AFAR’s guide has provided helpful tips on when to visit major attractions, places to avoid at certain times and more.

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Amsterdam With Azamara, AFAR

Stopping in Amsterdam for two full days with Azamara Club Cruises brought me back to a city one might visit a hundred times and still not see everything. Still, from previous trips we have learned that exploring with a plan in mind helps get the most out of a destination. Beginning with personal recommendations from the Shore Explorations desk on Azamara Quest and using destination-specific recommendations from the AFAR-charged Azamara smartphone app, we covered on our first day more than I would have ever dreamed possible.

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The Azamara app, powered by a rich library of AFAR-sourced destination information, getting started was as easy as turning on data roaming on my phone briefly to let it know were we were then turning it off again. Tagged with our GPS location, the app highlighted areas and points of interest within walking distance of our location. Already exploring the app while on Azamara Quest, using their snappy-fast Internet connection (I found the optimum places for that on the ship, details later), I had already tagged places we wanted to see. Mostly museum district attractions, we chose to save those for day two, instead exploring the iconic areas of Amsterdam including the red light district and more on day one.

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Another helpful resource is the interactive map on Amsterdam.info which allows us to select what we want to see then populate a map with tags for those places.  Here is one tagged for museums only that provides good illustration why a full day is easily not enough to see them all

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We’re here for two days, you see, thanks to destination-focused Azamara Club Cruises who does an outstanding job of identifying ports where a late if not overnight stay is appropriate.   In a way, one might aptly describe the Azamara experience as a cruisetour of sorts, with the land portion that normally appears on the front and back end divided among the stops along the way.   Yes, I like that description. Accurate.

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Interestingly, the AFAR recommendations turned out to be nearly exactly the same place we were led to by another Azamara Quest passenger who was quite familiar with the area. Let’s take a look in the first of a number of posts about this truly unique destination.  I’ll be back this afternoon with details on how we went about getting to that part of town, what we did while there and more.  It’s the ”and more” part that I think is the most interesting part.

Amsterdam On Our Own

While day one of our two-day stay in Amsterdam was spent leisurely walking a self-guided tour of the city powered by the Azamara Club Cruises smartphone app, day two brought a bit more focus. Wanting to be sure we visited a number of the many museums in Amsterdam, we started by visiting Vincent Van Gogh.

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The Van Gogh museum is in a part of town heavily populated by venues of that sort, all highlighted on the AFAR-charged Azamara Club Cruises app. Photos? Not allowed but we managed to click off a few before being informed (caught) by museum guards.

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Interestingly, while one might expect to see an abundant amount of security at the world-class museum, Van Gogh and related artist works are in open display with nothing between visitors and the canvas.

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Amsterdam museums are popular tourist attraction with the Rijksmuseum,Van Gogh MuseumAnne Frank House and the Stedelijk Museum the most popular choices.

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The Heineken Museum is also a popular choice. Technically the “Heineken Experience”, the venue is a former brewery where visitors get a full history of the brand as well as the process of brewing it and how it has changed over the years.

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A popular choice for us, visiting sidewalk cafes as we do in every port possible, just to drink in the local flavor of the place. What we actually have to drink or eat; secondary to the people watching opportunities.

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That Azamara Quest is in Amsterdam for two days is yet another example of how the destination-focused cruise line values our experience at the places they visit above many other considerations.

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I have been to Amsterdam a number of times with a variety of cruise lines over the years. I can’t recall a more enriching, pleasurable or memorable experience ever, largely due to being in the city for multiple days. Further qualifying the experience, our visit occurred when the Sail Amsterdam event had filled the harbor with hundreds of small ships, few of which we would get close enough to see.

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That Sail Amsterdam happens once every five years was no surprise. That we could not get close to the event from our docking position in Amsterdam indeed was. Prior to sailing, we had visions of Azamara Quest being docked in the center of it all, surrounded by sailing ships in all directions. This was not something Azamara promised, even though the Sail Amsterdam event was listed as a highlight of our itinerary.

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Instead, our second day of exploring Amsterdam on our own brought even more interesting scenes as we connected with the destination in a way only possible because we had the time.

Smartphone Apps Used On My Azamara Cruise

Planning in advance we locate, learn how to use and try a number of smartphone apps whenever we travel.  On our 12-night Summer Russia and The Baltics sailing of Azamara Quest, we followed that strategy and wound up with a far richer travel experience than past sailings.

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Most of the apps used are available for iPhone and Android devices, making them or similar apps a good choice for any traveler.  Let’s take a look at each, why we used them and what we got out of them that earned each a home page location on our iPhone 6:

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Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 11.15.59 PMMarine Traffic is not a free app but well worth the $3.99 price tag for anyone who a) likes to sail a lot b) buys an all-inclusive Internet package with 24/7 access not tied to data use.  As we approached Amsterdam I watched as the Marine Traffic app identified all ships in the water.  Narrowing that down by removing cargo ships, high-speed vessels and everything other than cruise ships, it was easy to see who was in port with us and calculate our projected approach to the port.  This was a lot of fun and something readers will see more of in the future as we include information from the Marine Traffic app in future writings.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 10.32.30 PMAzamara 3DI gives virtual reality tours of Azamara ships as well as a growing library of destination immersion through the miracle of 3D photography.  Azamara also has a list of recommended apps to download and have on your device prior to sailing which features a number of the apps listed here.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 10.31.38 PMAzamara Club Cruises Destination Immersion Travel Guide by AFAR Magazine, released in May,  has a wonderful AFAR-infused app with rich destination information.  We used it to source a self-guided tour of Amsterdam, visiting all the places we wanted to see in good time.  That gave more time to linger at the different places, have lunch and shop.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 10.30.09 PMGoogle Maps is just something everyone needs when traveling anywhere outside of their hometown.  Easy, accurate directions powered by the vast resources of Google make this one a must-have that we used many times during our voyage.  This is also one to take with you in the car.  Google Maps is frequently updated with the latest information.

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Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 10.33.59 PMTripIt is simply the best travel organizer around.  One part of TripIt life that makes it work so very well is the ability to simply forward emailed confirmations from travel suppliers to plans@tripit.com.  Once received, TripIt quickly organizes those plans and inserts them accurately to each day’s itinerary.  Updates and changes received after booking get added as I send them along too.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 10.35.44 PMFly Delta is simply the airline du jour app that I have along for this trip.  Frankly, TripIt can handle all the details and is most often the first app to send along notifications of flight delays, gate changes and more.  Still, I bring along the app for whatever airline I am flying which has exclusive domain over electronic boarding passes I like to add to my passbook homescreen app as well.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 10.38.58 PMFlightTrack is probably unnecessary redundancy, providing information I get from Tripit and the airline app.  Still, having a bit of redundancy is a good idea, like getting second opinions from other travelers when visiting a place for the first time.  FlightTrack brings an in-progress travel map showing where we are in flight either live (when an Internet connection is possible) and projected (when no connection is around).

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 11.22.03 PMWorld Clock might be telling me information I already know but the time difference between where I am in Europe and the places I need to keep in mind back in North America but it’s a nice visual aid to drive that point home.  On our Azamara Quest itinerary we changed time on the ship several time, sailing in and out of time zones.  One look at the World Clock app and I have no mind-blowing time zone calculations to make.

Apps Used On Our Azamara Voyage - 7

Facebook is continually one of the easiest apps to post photos and information for the folks back home to see.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 10.42.47 PMDiptic makes it possible for me to take multiple photos and arrange them in a way that shows many different scenes from the day.  Instagram has its own version of this now but I still like Diptic better, probably because I know how Diptic works and not learning the Instagram version provides one of those rare opportunities to NOT learn something new.

Photos is iPhone’s master gallery of all photos on my phone.  At some point it will automatically upload those to my icloud account where they will be shared by all my devices.  Better yet, I can easily share those original, full-size photos with others.  I mention this here because the new and improved Photos is much easier to use in foreign locations.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 10.41.24 PMEyefi Mobi this is a memory card I use in my Nikon camera that automatically copies photos off my camera and sends them to my smartphone.  If I am in a place with WiFi Internet access or if I wish to roam using celluar data, I can easily take a photo captured with my (better) Nikon camera instead of using one sourced from my (pretty darn good) iPhone 6 camera.

Apps Used On Our Azamara Voyage - 6

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 10.51.26 PMHootsuite is a great way to keep up with all things Twitter when traveling.  Pre-select lists, topics or #hashtags commonly used to engage your favorite people, places and things on Twitter.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 10.50.20 PMTwitter is just about the fastest, most efficient app for tweeting when traveling.  That may sound odd, after all Twitter made Twitter, but it works and other, third-party apps do not work as well on odd Internet systems we might find around the world.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 10.58.58 PMCamera- I keep this right on my home screen for easy quick access should something happen fast that I need to take a photo of right now.  Also a good idea, supplement your stand alone camera efforts with a shot or two from the iPhone as well.  It never hurts to have a backup.


Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 10.50.12 PMInstagram- This one is perfect for sharing your journey socially.  In addition to the fact that one post on Instagram can be sent simulaneously to Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter, it works good.  Not all photo sharing apps do.

Apps Used On Our Azamara Voyage - 5

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 11.14.23 PMGoogle Hangouts is one great way to use the ship’s Internet access on a hand-held device to stay connected with the folks back home.  Very efficient, I can chat with friends from around the world via text pretty much any time there is an Internet signal to be had.  Make that a decent signal and video chat works too.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 11.00.56 PMGoogle Inbox is great for travelers who have gmail and any traveler who does not needs to get it, for one very big reason:  It works.  Typically efficient Google software connects with poor signals and brings home the mail.  An “I’m On Vacation, Leave Me Alone” message is easy to turn on and off too.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 11.01.16 PMFitbit works around the world, although one might run into problems initially for a couple reasons.  First, the time change nearly always robs me of steps the first day as the Fitbit app adjusts to the new time zone.  Get over that and move along; there is really nothing to do about it other than stay on at-home time the entire trip.  Also, if not syncing nicely with the FitBit smartphone app, try uninstalling and reinstalling the app (delete then download again) and that solves most issues.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 11.01.41 PMTranslate is the super powerful Google version of a language translator that works offline in the language last visited online.  Kind of a no brainer not to have this ability when visiting a foreign land.  Better idea, save commonly used phrases.  For me, “please”, “beer”, “espresso”, “toilet” and “thank you” cover most of the bases.

Amsterdam Day 2 - 058

 

One From Each Place On Our Azamara Cruise

If you have been following along on our Azamara Club Cruises sailing you already know that we spent 12-nights on Azamara Quest sailing a Summer Russia and The Baltics itinerary.  Y0u also know that we posted photos from each and every stop along the way here and every half hour on Twitter.  Looking back on the experience, here are our favorite moments from each port of call, and a few bonus moments as well.  First, the itinerary:

VOYAGE ITINERARY

DATE PORT/CITY ACTIVITY ARRIVAL DEPART
THU 13-AUG Stockholm, Sweden Embark
FRI 14-AUG Stockholm, Sweden Docked 2:00 pm
SAT 15-AUG Helsinki, Finland Docked 9:00 am 4:00 pm
SUN 16-AUG St. Petersburg, Russia Docked 7:00 am
MON 17-AUG St. Petersburg, Russia Docked 6:00 pm
TUE 18-AUG Tallinn, Estonia Docked 9:00 am 8:00 pm
WED 19-AUG At Sea Cruising
THU 20-AUG Copenhagen, Denmark Docked 8:00 am 8:00 pm
FRI 21-AUG At Sea Cruising
SAT 22-AUG Amsterdam, Netherlands Docked 8:00 am
SUN 23-AUG Amsterdam, Netherlands Docked 7:15 pm
MON 24-AUG Zeebrugge (Bruges), Belgium Docked 7:45 am 3:00 pm
TUE 25-AUG Southampton, England Debark 6:00 am

Stockholm - 068

A Walking Tour Of Stockholm, Sweden

See An Azamara Tour Of Stockholm for more

Helsinki, Finland - 102

A Day In Helsinki, Finland

See A Day In Helsinki for more

St Petersburg - 016

St Petersburg, Russia by Cloudy Day

See First Impressions Of Russia: No Surprises, Plenty Of Intrigue for more

At Night St Petersburg - 38

St Petersburg, Russia by Night

See Second Impressions of Russia: Azamazing for more

St Petersburg On A Sunny Day - 014

St Petersburg, Russia On A Sunny Day

See Connecting, Russia And Chocolate Bars for more

Tallinn, Estonia - 161

A Lovely Day Of Lingering In Tallinn, Estonia

See A Lovely Day In Estonia With Azamara Club Cruises for more

Copenhagen, Denmark - 270

Touring Copenhagen, Denmark

See The Icing On The Destination Cake for more

Sailing Into Amsterdam - 083

Sailing Into Amsterdam At Dawn

See Amsterdam with Azamara, AFAR for more

Amsterdam Day 2 - 325

Lunch and People Watching In Amsterdam

See  Azamara Inspired Amsterdam: Because We Had The Time for more

Amsterdam - 141

Want To Know More About  Our Azamara Quest Cruise?  Here is all that happened and a bit more

Complete Journal– From pre-cruise planning to after sailing reflection and every step in between, right here, updated daily as we sail in our Engaging Azamara Summer Baltics Cruise Journal

Amsterdam - 254Individual Day Posts During Sailing– day by day, in the order written

White Night Album - 28Pinterest Photo Boards – one for each port and more

Tallinn, Estonia - 037Flickr Photo Albums- all our photos for each place, free to use- check back frequently; we are adding more photos throughout the journey.

St Petersburg - 335Facebook Photo Albums

Stockholm - 077Check These Social Sources Too

 

Hvar, Croatia - 087

What happened on our last sailing with Azamara Club Cruises?  Here you go:

Blog Posts
See these posts made during our 12-night Greece, Italy and Croatia sailing

Flickr Photo Albums

Twitter Posts

Exposure Photo Storybooks

Pinterest Boards

Facebook Photo Albums
One from each port of call