Sunday, June 05, 2011

We have been back at Park Sierra for a few days and I have been trying to post the following report, but every time I attempt to add pictures, the internet connection goes out. So I will post this report for now and put some pictures in when I have a better connection.

Blog Post - After Jewel Cruise 6/2/11
We recently finished a very busy but enjoyable cruise on the Jewel of the Seas. There were 7 ports in 12 days and all of them were interesting places.
In Copenhagen we had a sunny and warm day walking around with Byron and Carol Hall. Walking into town there were many interesting buildings, fountains, parks, etc. Once we got to Nyhavn Harbor area, we took a canal boat ride for an hour which not only took us through other parts of the city but also through areas where there were unusual apartments. Of course, we took lots of pictures and had an enjoyable day. Stockholm, the next port, we also had a very sunny and nice day. This time we went with Byron and Carol, Irene and Leslie, and took a public bus into the inner city and then a hop on-hop off boat which took us to most of the sights anyone would like to see. The changing of the guard ceremony at the palace was interesting, and then we wandered around the old town, which is called Gamla Stan. There wasn't enough time for the others to go to the Vasa Museum, which was a shame. This showcases a 16th century sailing galleon which was built in Stockholm and which sank in the harbor on its maiden voyage. It was raised from the harbor bottom in 1961 and has been beautifully preserved and restored and is one of the most unique exhibits to visit in the world. We did this in 1997 when we were camping in the Scandinavian countries for several months. Helsinki was the next port and we were very grateful that we had been here before because it was a bitterly cold day with heavy rain, so we decided to stay on the ship.
Then came the highlight of the entire journey – St, Petersburg. Denice & Rick Osborne, Carol & Byron Hall, and Elaine and I did a 2 day private tour with a company called Red October. We got off the ship very early each day and were met by our van, guide and driver for several very full days of sightseeing. The first day was sunny and beautiful which really helped us enjoy the sights. First we did a drive through the city, stopping at several places to admire the many incredible buildings and take pictures. It seemed like every few hundred yards we were passing something amazing, such a onion-domed churches, triumphal arches, obelisks, statues, fountains, etc. Smolny Cathedral was an impressive blue and white building outside and exactly what we expected of a Russian Orthodox church on the inside. There was a choir singing when we entered and they were surprisingly good. Another fabulous cathedral we saw only from the outside was the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood. It is huge with multi-colored onion-shaped domes and beautiful mosaics. This marvelous Russian-style church was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in March 1881, which is how it got this fairly gory name.
Coming to St. Petersburg has always been on our “bucket list” because we wanted to go to the Hermitage, a world famous art museum situated in the winter palace of the Tsars. The Winter Palace was built between 1754 and 1762 for Empress Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great. The building is a marvel of baroque architecture and is as incredible as the art treasures. We toured it after our city tour. Because we were on a private tour, we got in before it was even open to the public, and thus avoided the long lines to get in and the hordes of people in there once it opened. Our guide, Helen, was very knowledgeable about everything, and had supplied us with listening devices so we had earphones and could hear her clearly no matter where we were. It was full of priceless paintings, sculptures, tapestries, urns, furniture, and jewelry.
After several hours in the Hermitage, we went across the street to the riverside pier on the Neva River where we boarded a hydrofoil which took us very quickly out into the Gulf of Finland. We ate our picnic lunches onboard while we motored towards Peterhof. Peterhof is an immensely luxurious and beautifully preserved Imperial estate, founded in 1710 by Peter the Great on the shore of the Gulf of Finland (Baltic Sea). It combines several ornate palaces, a number of beautifully landscaped parks and a dazzling array of magnificent statues and fountains, lending it the epithet "The Russian Versailles". We walked all over the vast grounds where there were beautiful flower displays, forested areas, and tricky fountains designed to surprise and soak unwary people who stepped on the wrong stone. Then we toured the incredible interior, which has so much carved wood covered in gold gilt that visitors are simply dazzled. After our tour there, the van picked us up and we drove back to the ship, which took about an hour but also enabled us to see some of the countryside and the suburbs outside of the main part of St. Petersburg. In the city everyone lives in big apartment blocks, some very nice looking and others very typically Soviet cement and grim-looking. Outside the city there are houses, as well as apartments, but Helen said that the houses are very expensive. And the metro doesn't run outside the city so it is difficult for people to get to work. There was lots of gridlock on the roads every time we were driving anywhere.
The second day we were picked up at the ship and driven about an hour outside the city to Pushkin where there is a marvelous ensemble of palaces and parks. It is particularly famous for its impressive baroque Catherine Palace, where Empress Catherine the Great lived and died. The palace was almost totally destroyed during World War II, but has risen like a phoenix from the ashes due to an extensive restoration program undertaken since the war. The same was true of Peterhof, and indeed, many of the 34 palaces owned by the Russian royal family. This palace is famous for the Amber Room, which was a room made of pieces of amber in many different hues, and quite spectacular. Many of the treasures of the various palaces were taken down and hidden when the Nazis invaded, but the Amber Room was left in the palace and disappeared during World War II. It has never been recovered, so the one in the palace today is a recreation. The day had started out rather overcast and gloomy and by the time we exited the palace, it was raining, so we skipped walking through the grounds, which weren't that impressive anyway compared to the grounds at Peterhof the day before.
Back in the city, we were driven to a small local restaurant where we had nice lunch of typical Russian food. We were seated at a table in the middle of the room with sheer curtains with scenes on them hanging all around us, kind of separating us from the other tables. Besides a salad of local greens served with sour cream dressing, we had very delicious seeded bread, borscht, a hot soup made with beets and beef and also served with sour cream, small dumplings filled with a chicken sausage type meat, and apple strudel with vanilla ice cream. Everything was delicious and very filling.
Red October, our tour company, also has a big shop selling typical Russian handicrafts, art, and souvenirs so we stopped there to pay our invoices and shop. We had visited one of these the day before also. These shops always offer free coffee, tea, vodka and cordials, so we tasted the vodka and a cherry liqueur at each place. The vodka was very good and in a bottle with a nice Russian scene on it, so Elaine bought one for Darran's birthday. The rest of the articles we took pictures of because it was the only way to bring them back – they were expensive and also would take too much luggage room! The girls working in these shops speak very good English and I asked some of them lots of questions to find out about their lives and also what some of the costs and concerns were of regular people living in Russia today. They all said the worst thing is the corruption. Nothing gets done without paying off people, and many successful businesses have to deal with extortion by either government officials or the Russian Mafia. This makes visiting St. Petersburg very expensive. Our 2 day private tour cost us $400 per person, and the ship's tours cost nearly as much also.
It was now mid-afternoon and we went to the Kazan Cathedral, a church built in the same style as St. Peter's in Rome. Again there was very beautiful singing going on as we entered. There were also some incredible buildings located on Nevsky Prospect, the main street of St. Petersburg, near this cathedral.
We were supposed to end this day with a canal boat tour through the city because, after all, it is called “the Venice of the North”. Just as we were waiting to board the boat, the skies opened up and a huge downpour which looked like it would not be a brief one, caused us to change our plans and return to the ship. With that kind of weather, we wouldn't have seen anything on the riverside anyway.
The next day we had sunny weather for our day in Tallinn, although it was a bit nippy and very windy. Tallinn is the capital of Estonia, and is located on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland only about 53 miles across the water from Helsinki. At the historical and medieval heart of the city is the hill of Toompea, covered in cobbled streets and filled with medieval houses and alleyways. The lower town spreads out from the foot of the hill, still protected by the remnants of a city wall. This marvelously preserved city is a UNESCO world heritage site, with the first fortress dating back to 1050. It has been invaded and owned by nearly all of its neighbors, especially the Danes and the Russians, but regained its independence in 1991. It is a charming city and we spent a delightful day with Tom & Toby doing a walking tour we downloaded from Rick Steves website. It was easy to walk in from the pier and also explore on our own.
Finally we had a sea day after Tallinn and we all really needed it. We had managed to contact some cruise friends named Myra and Louie Lehmann, Americans who have lived in Sweden for the last 38 years, and they arranged to meet us in our last port, Gothenburg, Sweden. Again it was cold and overcast, but we took the shuttle in and met them at the train station. It was delightful to walk all over town with them, exploring and also questioning them about life in Sweden. After nearly 5 miles of sightseeing, we ended up in the large shopping mall where we found a small restaurant for some lunch. By the time we sat down, it was raining outside. By the time we finished, it had cleared a bit so we went to the arboretum and park nearby. While we were in the solarium, quite a heavy rainstorm hit which was a shame because there was an outside wedding going on. Once it slacked off a bit, Myra and Louie walked us back to the shuttle and we returned to the ship. That was our last port. After one last sea day, in which we packed, we disembarked at Harwich, England. We shared a van to Heathrow airport with Denice & Rick, Carol & Byron, and Andree & Dick, and we flew back to LAX.
It was an interesting and exciting cruise with lots of great ports, wonderful entertainment on the ship, good food, and many happy social hours with new and old friends in the Diamond and Diamond Plus lounge. We booked a couple more cruises for 2012 and 2013 but as always, our plans are flexible and we never know whether we will actually take them or not until final payment time arrives.
The last 2 days we have been staying with Darran & Marielle at their place near Mission Bay in San Diego. Yesterday was his 34th birthday and we pretty much prepared the birthday dinner and baked a carrot cake to celebrate. Marielle's sister, Meg and her husband, Ben joined us for the meal and helped make it a festive occasion. Darran has been working hard to get his new construction business going, and has still been working at UPS in the evenings, so he has been a very busy guy. We were grateful that he took last evening off to be with all of us.
Today, on our drive through LA, we visited Anja, an old friend we met in Mexico 10 years ago, and her 2 year old son, whom we had never seen. Her husband, Ole, was working out of the area so we missed seeing him. Now we are almost back at Park Sierra where we will be getting our rig ready for a summer trip to Oregon and Washington. We have to do this while we both have 2 working hands. On June 20 I will be having my second carpal tunnel surgery and on June 30 Elaine will be having her second surgery for Dupeytin's Contracture. These are the same ones we had last summer only on the other hands. When we recover enough, we will be heading north.

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