I had my first experience as a solo cruiser while sailing on NCL Jade in March of 2016. I met some other wonderful solo cruisers at the time. I took advantage of a “future cruise” deal while on that cruise by booking a cruise on NCL Getaway on the Baltic Sea for August, 2017. I let my fellow solo cruisers know of my future travel plans, with the hope that some of them would also join me on the Getaway. Ultimately, one did; my new friend, Jean, from Chicago. Jean and I stayed in touch over the next year and a half, finally making plans to meet up and stay at the same hotel in Copenhagen, Denmark.
The Getaway would sail from Copenhagen, Denmark, visiting ports in Warnemunde, Germany; Tallinn, Estonia; St. Petersburg, Russia; Helsinki, Finland; and Stockholm, Sweden. My plan was to arrive in Copenhagen a couple days early to recover from jet lag and to see the sights of Copenhagen.
My favorite airline for international air travel is Air Canada, out of Toronto. I watch the website like a hawk when I am anticipating future travel to keep track of trends in ticket prices and sales. When I am able to afford it, I like to buy a ticket in Business Class for overnight flights. Being 6’5” tall, it’s impossible for me to get comfortable enough in tight airline seats to sleep. Air Canada’s business class seats lie out flat; after taking a sleeping pill, I’ve been able to rest comfortably enough to sleep a solid 4 ½ hours on an overnight flight.
The drive from Rochester, New York to Toronto, Canada is a little over three hours if there are no delays at the border crossing. It’s fairly common for people in Western New York to fly international flights out of Toronto. The flights are often cheaper. From Toronto, Air Canada has direct, non-stop flights to quite a few destinations that I am interested in flying to. So, I’d rather drive 3 ½ hours to and from Toronto and not have to deal with changing flights somewhere along the way. This way, I don’t worry about flight delays or missing a connecting flight.
Although I buy Business Class so I can lay out flat and sleep, I certainly enjoy the perks that come along with Business Class! Toronto Airport has a wonderful Business Class waiting area with complimentary food, showers, and comfortable chairs in which to relax. No crowds to deal with. You get the short line for security and you get priority boarding. On the plane, there are comparably fewer people in the Business Class section, so there is plenty of room to store carry-ons in the overhead bin. I certainly enjoyed having my meals served on china with silverware.
I took a sleeping pill shortly after departure, as they usually take about an hour to be effective for me. I had dinner and then settled down to sleep. I woke up 4 ½ hours later, had breakfast, and then we landed in Copenhagen. Here are windmills along the coast of Copenhagen that I could see on final approach to the airport.
I took the train from the airport to the First Hotel Mayfair. The hotel is a 5-minute walk from the train station, meaning I didn't have to arrange any transportation. It's centrally located in the Vesterboro neighborhood, and close to Tivoli Gardens, Stroget, and the City Hall Square. I thought it was a fine hotel, in a couple of buildings linked together around a courtyard. The rooms varied in size and shape. Even though it was morning, I was able to check in. After that, I headed out for a walk around Copenhagen.
I made my way to the National Museum of Denmark and spent a few hours there. It comprises 14,000 years of Danish history, from the Reindeer-hunters of the Ice Age to modern times. Exhibits include the Norwegian Vikings, art from the Middle Ages, the importance of church in Danish life, coins, remains of humans from older times, and examples of cultural items from other countries.
After that, I spent the rest of the evening in my hotel room. I was entertained by the view of the Urban House, a large hostel across the street from me. I felt like Jimmy Stewart watching his neighbors in the movie “Rear Window.”
I spent some more time sightseeing the next day until Jean arrived from Chicago. She checked into her room, freshened up, and we went to dinner at the Restaurant Ankara, where I had eaten the night before. It had been a year and a half since we first met as solo cruisemates on the Jade, and we were missing some of our friends who could have met us on this trip. While we ate dinner, a torrential downpour soaked the city outside our window. Fortunately, it cleared up before we finished and then we took a walk before heading back to the hotel and retiring to our rooms for the night.
The next morning, we met for breakfast in the hotel's restaurant and bought tickets to the Hop On Hop Off bus. It’s a great way to get a narrated tour of the city, and to spend as little or as much time at stops that you’re interested in.
Our first stop was the area around Our Saviour’s Church. It has a historic spire that offers a view that was voted the best by Copenhageners. Our Saviour Himself stands on top of a golden globe. I climbed the 400 steps to the top, including the last 150 on the outside that are a challenge!
Our next stop was Nyhavn, with a view of the canal that has probably inspired more postcards than any other view in Copenhagen. Historic old buildings line both sides of the water, where sailboats and tourboats are docked. There are vendors selling everything from fur to pork on the grill.
A particularly humbling view is the building whose windows are stuffed with hundreds if not thousands of life jackets retrieved from political refugees who risked their lives to cross unwelcome waters in their escape from war-torn countries.
We went to Rosenborg Palace. I chose to not pay the entrance fee, so I toured the grounds while Jean toured the Palace. It’s a renaissance castle that was originally built as a country summerhouse in 1606. She was thrilled with the experience and saw artifacts that once belonged to nobility and the aristocracy, including the Crown Jewels and the Danish Crown Regalia.
After boarding the ship, we had lunch, took a tour of the ship, and found our solo cabins in the Studio Complex. These are cabins specifically designed and priced for solo travelers. The cabins are clustered together in an interior section, taking up a part of two decks and share a private lounge for solo travelers. Cruise ship cabins are notoriously smaller than their hotel room counterparts; these solo cabins are even smaller. But they are designed in a way to use space efficiently. This was my second time staying in one and Jean’s first. Jean’s biggest concern ahead of time was whether she’d have room to store her big suitcase. She did, under the queen-sized bed.
After the required Muster Drill, I headed to the pool deck for the sail-away party. They begin with a routine from the ship’s dancers, followed by the entertainment crew leading the passengers in line dances and other fun with a DJ. This is where I made my first attempt to endear myself to the entertainment crew, as I knew they’d be seeing a lot of me over the next 9 nights. After about a half hour of dancing, then watching the view as we sailed away from Copenhagen, I freshened up and met Jean in the Studio Lounge.
The Studio Lounge is a great place to meet and hang out with other solo travelers, have a drink or a snack, play games or watch TV together. We had a crew member assigned to us for the duration of the cruise. Ours was Candice, from China. Her job was to interact with solo cruisers, arrange for us to sit together for dinner if we wished, help with show tickets, and other duties. She had posted a time for us all to meet the first evening so we could get to know each other. Then early each evening after that, she would meet with us to find out what we’d like to do together.
We grouped together in the Studio Lounge and began introducing ourselves to each other. Right away, I started trying to pick out who the dancers were in this group, with the hope that we could arrange times and places to meet for dancing.
Candice is a member of the entertainment crew, which leads guests in dances, parties, contests, and games. I told Candice about my previous solo cruiser experiences and the fact that I had entered into two Dance-off contests. As an entertainment staff crew member, she said she could arrange it so she and I would be partners on this cruise for the contest, which would be held a few nights later.
A group of us solo cruisers followed Candice to the dining room so we could sit together. Of particular note about that dinner was that we could see a rainbow outside the ship! What a nice way to start a cruise! Some in our group decided to see the show that evening. I went to the ship’s disco the first evening with no particular arrangements to meet anyone. It was a “first night” party, and the entertainment staff was there. I had my first dances with Candice and then recognized another solo cruiser, Melina. It turned out she loves to dance, too. We spent about two hours dancing that evening and did quite a bit of dancing together the rest of the cruise.
One notable stop in Rostock was Sankt Marien Kirche, where an impressive old astronomical clock from 1472 that still works. The year plate on the Astronomical Clock gets replaced every 140 years. It is was on the last one for this plate, 2017. The new one for the next 140 years went on in 2018. The organ in this church has over 5,000 pipes.
After my excursion, I had time to walk around the area near the ship in Warnemunde. A lighthouse and teapot building attract most of the attention for travel pictures, but a walk along the village streets, docks, and along the beach showed me where all the charm was. It was not that warm, either. This is northern Europe. But that doesn’t stop the locals from going to the beach to lay in the sun and swim when the temperatures are in the 60’s Fahrenheit.
Our ship did not depart Warnemunde until 10:00 PM, so we spent the evening in port, eating dinner, hanging out on the deck outside, and dancing.
The next day was a day at sea. We spent the time enjoying shipboard life, including eating, lounging in the hot tubs, playing trivia games, and watching Candice doing a Chinese black tea demonstration for us. I tried the tea. People who know me well know that I have never found a tea that I like. This was the most tolerable tea I have ever tried, so that is quite a compliment coming from me!
We had a magnificent view of a beautiful sunset at sea.
After dancing, around 1:00 A.M., we went out on deck to see a MSC ship that was sailing nearby. We could still see some light along the horizon, which was normal this time of year, being this far north.
The next day we docked in Tallin, the capital and largest city of Estonia, population around 450,000. If you’re into medieval culture, the Old Town section is the place to be! And that’s where most of my excursion took me. We stopped at a large outdoor concert venue.
Our bus drove through the modern sections to reach Old Town. Of particular note is that they do not tear down old, historical buildings. They leave the exterior standing and build modern skyscrapers right up from within them! Sorry, this is the best picture I could get from a moving tour bus.
I took a selfie with a new friend!
On a personal note, I have to say at this point in my life, I had been overcoming a divorce and another relationship that did not work out. Suffice to say, I had been feeling very mixed up about how I wanted to proceed with a new relationship. There was no question that I was lonely and wanted someone in my life. I had met Stacey earlier in the year. Over the summer, we had been growing closer as friends. Just as I was starting my trip, Stacey had made it plain to me that she was definitely interested in a relationship. So far on my trip, she had been sending me messages every day. On this excursion in Tallin, I stopped for a short visit to Tammsaare Park, which features a statue known as the Kissing Sculpture. It’s a tribute to love. Well, I chuckled about it, took a few photos, and made a selfie post on my Facebook page with the caption, “Does this mean good fortunes for me?” In retrospect, it was right after visiting the Kissing Sculpture that I started feeling like I should respond to Stacey’s gestures. I felt that she was showing more interest in me than anyone else, and I should pay attention to that. I had learned from experience that you should not take it for granted when someone shows interest in you. It could end up being a missed opportunity. Near the end of my trip, Stacey sent me a message that she would meet me when I came home and give me a big hug and a kiss. She did, and we have been together ever since. I’d like to believe that the Kissing Sculpture was a magic charm to wake me up to Stacey!
For the remainder of the cruise, I continued my routine of hanging out with new friends in lounges, frequent visits to a hot tub, having dinner with solo cruisemates each evening, followed by dancing. The dance themes included an 80’s night, a disco night, a "Norwegian Night Out," and a “white hot night” or Glow Party that included neon face-painting. I’ve done a lot of dancing on cruises, but I think I expended more energy than ever on this particular cruise. It was a tremendous cardio workout! Candice painted my face, including my name in Chinese, and otherwise was a great sport with some of my dancing shenanigans.
For the third time on a Norwegian Cruise Line cruise, I participated in a Dance-off contest. Three crew men and three crew women each selected a dance partner from among the guests. Three couples were voted off by judges, and the remaining three couples were voted on by the audience. I was paired with Candice, and Melina was paired with another crew member, Jose. Unlike my previous two cruises where we were expected to actually show a little bit of talent in the dance-off contest, this one was all about comedy. The staff had been working up gags to do with their partners that would guarantee laughs from the audience. Candice was new and still trying to come up with ideas that would help her win; Jose was more experienced and had his gags down pat, and he easily won the audience with Melina, who was a great sport about everything. They came in first place. I’ll never forget the surprised expressions Melina had during the dances; they were priceless! As for Candice and me, we were voted off and ended up in the Loser’s Lounge, which turned into a hysterical TV interview showing the host, the three “losing” crew members, and me in a giant bed together!
I went to a show one night that was a one-hour version of the popular “Million Dollar Quartet” musical. The actors were very talented musicians. Naturally, we had a hard time staying in our seats while the catchy music was playing!
We arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia one morning for a two day visit. From our docked position, we could see other cruise ships, a low skyline of apartment buildings, and bridges. I remember thinking to myself, over and over, “Holy crap! I’m in Russia!” Being here brought to mind the memories of being afraid of this country during the Cold War. Even now, with the tension between the governments of the U.S. and Russia, I couldn’t help but wonder how much access we would continue to have to this country or whether we would ever be at war with them. After getting off the ship, I got to see the citizens of Russia’s faces up close; everyone just trying to live their lives like we are. Aren’t all of us citizens just pawns in the selfish political games of government leaders?
In order for people on cruise ships to tour Russia, you have to have a visa. To get a visa and go off on your own in the country requires months of paperwork. If you purchase an excursion from a cruise ship, you automatically get a visa for the duration of time when you’re on the excursion. You cannot leave the group; people are watching you to make sure you don’t wander off.
I bought an excursion to see some highlights of St. Petersburg. Once I got off the ship, I stood in line for about an hour to get through Passport Control. All they do is look at your passport, stamp it with a visa good for one day, and send you on your way. When you return to the ship, you have to go through passport control again. They do keep track of your comings and goings.
Compared to the large coach bus that I usually ride in for excursions, I was on a van that I think carried about 10 people. We rode through St. Petersburg to see the sites and drove through the countryside until we reached Peterhof. These palaces and gardens are sometimes referred as the "Russian Versailles." We toured the castle and had an opportunity to watch a spectacular water fountain show in the Grand Cascade.
After that, we boarded a hydrofoil to cross the Gulf of Finland back to St. Petersburg.
We toured the city a bit more, making five-minute stops at various places to get out and take pictures. Then we were treated to a fine lunch at a fancy restaurant before going onto Peter and Paul Fortress and Cathedral. We saw the graves inside the Cathedral where Peter and Great and his family are buried.
We arrived in Helsinki, Finland on a foggy morning, which didn't take long to burn off. I took an excursion that toured the streets of Helsinki, giving us opportunities to get out and walk around.
From there, we travelled about 45 minutes to the picturesque, historical village of Porvoo. Although it’s been around since the 13th century, most of its buildings are from the early 1800’s. Tourists walk along cobblestone streets.
This woman was part of a group in Porvoo that was having tourists draw pictures of trees to post on a large board.
After that, we had lunch in a luxurious mansion.
We visited a church that was created in a hillside by blasting rock away.
The final port on this Baltic Sea itinerary was to Stockholm, Sweden. Compared to the other places we visited, I thought this stop was too short. I would have liked having more time to see more than I did. What I did see was the small village of Sigtuna. It is the oldest town in Sweden, having been founded in 980. Sigtuna has a picturesque medieval town centre with restaurants, cafes and small shops. The old church ruins, runic stones and Stora gatan, the old main street, are popular attractions for tourists especially in the summertime. The small streets with the low built wooden houses lead up to several handicrafts shops and the old tiny town hall. There are restaurants and a hotel in the town centre.
We then headed to the Vasa Ship Museum. The Vasa ship capsized and sank in Stockholm 1628. After 333 years on the sea bed, it was salvaged and brought to the museum. Today Vasa is the world's only preserved 17th century ship and the most visited museum in Scandinavia.
After that, we had time to walk around a touristy area of Stockholm before returning to the ship.
We had a final full day at sea before returning to Copenhagen, where I would spend one more night in a hotel before flying back to Toronto. It was a chilly day, but we still spent time in the hot tub outdoors. Dinner that evening was a mix of sadness, as I’d be leaving new friends behind. Candice had been an especially good host; she told me I was the first guest whom she had danced with every single night of the cruise. I hope we meet again.
The next morning, I said my goodbyes to Jean, Melina, Paal, Rena, and others as we left the ship. I still had one more meal left with four cruisemates who were also spending another night in Copenhagen; we had agreed to meet for dinner that evening at the Restaurant Ankara, where Jean and I had had dinner before the cruise began.
I had spent the last day in Copenhagen at Tivoli Gardens, an amusement park and garden. The park opened in1843 and is the second-oldest operating amusement park in the world. The park’s website says, “Stepping through its arch, you step into a world of fairy tales, exotic lands and thrilling rides. You can sense that generations have walked its maze of things to see and do, including Hans Christian Andersen. For the brave, the park contains one of the world’s highest chain carousels and a number of exhilarating rollercoasters.
At night, Tivoli takes on a whole different aura. With its lights and lamps dotted in trees and on pavements and its cafés, restaurants and fairground attractions open for those taking a stroll after dark, Tivoli is a really romantic setting. Tivoli even offers occasional days where you can get married in one of the world’s most unusual settings.”
For my flight back to Toronto, it turned out Susan and I would be on the same plane, so we met at the airport before boarding the flight.
I had the cozy Business Class seat for the 8 hour flight while Susan had to stay back in steerage, lol. From Toronto, I drove home to Rochester and she continued on to California.