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Norwegian GETAWAY Baltic Cruise: Part III

July 3, 2019

My bucket list has always included a visit to Saint Petersburg, Russia. So it was the chance to spend two whole days there that hooked me and I booked my nine day Baltic cruise on the NCL GETAWAY.  My trusted travel agent, Scott Moster and his husband Dustin were coming on this trip and suggested we hire a private guide for the two days we would be there. Along with them and our friend John we met our guide Larissa and driver Misha at the pier our first morning in Saint Petersburg. Over two days and eighteen hours they shared the wonders of Saint Petersburg with us including one of the best museums in the world, the Hermitage, opulent Palaces and churches. Larissa was a font of information able to answer every question we had. 

Cascade fountain at Peterhof (Photo by: Peter Rosenstein) Cascade fountain at Peterhof

Saint Petersburg is a beautiful, well-kept modern city. On day one we headed directly to the Hermitage and on the way Larissa gave us a running history lesson which continued as we toured the museum. It is the second largest art museum in the world and was founded in 1764 when Empress Catherine the Great wanted a place to exhibit her art collection. It has been open to the public since 1852. Its total collection comprises over three million items. There are six buildings, five open to the public that comprise the museum including the opulent Winter Palace. 

Catherine was a smart lady and purchased or was gifted paintings now in the galleries along the southern facade and in the western wing of the New Hermitage including collections of Van Dyck, Rubens, and Rembrandt. Then there is the magnificent golden peacock clock made up of three life-sized mechanical birds. Larissa told us the clock is shown daily on a Russian TV channel as the Peacock spreads its feathers when the clock is wound. We saw the gold and the diamond treasuries with artifacts unearthed in archaeological digs and gifts given to the czars. It boggled the mind to see all the diamond and other precious jewel encrusted sabers and watches; crowns of gold thorns, jewelry of all sorts all really quite breathtaking. After many hours in the Hermitage we drove through the city and stopped at a number of other beautiful churches and parks. 

Day two dawned sunny and warm and we had asked to see the orthodox Jewish Synagogue. Today in Russia one can practice many different religions. The Synagogue was quite beautiful and we were there during morning services. We then headed to the main shopping street in Saint Petersburg, Nevsky Prospect, and walked along until we reached a metro stop. Larissa took us on the metro for two stops where Misha again met us with the van. The Metro stations are beautiful with marble carvings, incredible mosaics and glass columns with lots of gold leaf.   

Then a forty-five minute drive to Peterhof (also known as Petrodvorets) which is often referred to as "the Russian Versailles". Actually a series of palaces and gardens commissioned by Peter the Great as a direct response to his seeing the Palace of Versailles which had been built by Louis XIV of France. I have been to Versailles and Peterhof is even be more impressive with its fountains and gardens. Once again Larissa was a fount of information on all the rooms and how the gardens were set up and how the fountains worked. 

     Hermitage grand staircase (Photo by: Peter Rosnestein) Hermitage grand staircase

Versailles was the inspiration for Peter the Great's desire to build an imperial palace in the suburbs of his new city.  It was Peter's daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who ordered the expansion of the Grand Palace and greatly extended the park and the famous system of fountains, including the truly spectacular Grand Cascade. Larissa told us Peterhof was ravaged by German troops during the Second World War but was rebuilt thanks to the work of military engineers as well as over 1,000 volunteers. The Lower Park opened to the public in 1945 and the facades of the Grand Palace were restored in 1952. The name was also de-Germanicized in 1944, becoming Petrodvorets, the name under which the surrounding town is still known. However the palace and park are once again known as Peterhof.

The most famous ensemble of fountains, the Grand Cascade, which runs from the northern facade of the Grand Palace to the Marine Canal, comprises 64 different fountains, and over 200 bronze statues, bas-reliefs, and other decorations. At the center stands Rastrelli's spectacular statue of Samson wrestling the jaws of a lion. The Grotto behind the Grand Cascade, which was once used for small parties, contains the enormous pipes, originally wooden, that feed the fountains.

 Inlaid floor in the Hermitage (Photo by: Peter Rosenstein) Inlaid floor in the Hermitage

After hours in Peterhof we headed back to the city and toured the Church of the Resurrection, also known as the "Savior on Spilled Blood". It was built in memory of Alexander II who was assassinated in 1881 on the spot where the church now stands. Alexander II is considered among the greatest Russian Czars. He actually emancipated Russian serfs in 1861, which brought an end to the de facto slavery of the Russian peasantry. That was five years before the emancipation of slaves in the US.

Having a little time left before we needed to return to the ship Misha drove us through the city while Larissa gave us a running commentary on all we were seeing. Our two days in Saint Petersburg were magical. 

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Norwegian GETAWAY Baltic Cruise – Part II

June 16, 2019

Day three on the GETAWAY dawned bright and sunny and cool. I had my usual breakfast delivered to the room; coffee, a muffin and orange juice and began to work on my book for most of the morning. With the balcony door open and the sun streaming in made for a really relaxing and enjoyable way to spend the morning.  My friends texted me on the new Norwegian Cruise app which we had downloaded for $10 which allowed us to text and call each other and anyone else on the ship who had the app for the duration of the cruise. We arranged to meet at 1:00pm at one of the interesting restaurants on the ship, O’Sheehan’s Bar and Grill. It is one of the regular options and I had a great Ruben sandwich. Then it was off for my meeting with Mario Markovic, the General Manager.

Mario Markovic (Photo by: Norwegian Cruise Line) Mario Markovic

Like all the General Managers, again previously called Hotel Directors, he is a charming man with a wide range of knowledge of the cruise industry. My first question was why there had been a title change and when had NCL had done that. He said it was only about six weeks ago and he thought it was done to come into line with what the person doing his job in a hotel on land is called. It seems some people found it hard to believe that the Hotel Director was responsible for basically everything on the ship other than the engine room and the bridge which was the Captain’s domain. 

Mario told me he has been with NCL for about three years and this is his second stint on the GETAWAY. He was with the ship in dry-dock overseeing all the refurbishing though the detailed plans for what was done had been in the works for at least a year which isn’t surprising considering the cost of refurbishing a ship. They only came out of dry-dock on May 24th and this was its second cruise since then. From the reactions to the public spaces I have heard from other passengers the refurbishment has been a rousing success. He said he and the crew were really pleased with it as well.

Mario shared with me he is from Zadar, Croatia, and he is clearly proud of his home town. When not on the ship he is there with his wife and teenage daughter. Zadar is listed as one of the best destinations in Europe. Mario has been at sea for twenty-five years working for a number of different cruise lines besides Norwegian including Celebrity and Carnival. His interest in the hospitality industry was stoked when he began working at a hotel in Zadar at the age of fourteen. He eventually got his degree in Hotel and Tourism from the University in the city of Rijeka in Croatia. 

We were sitting in front of one of the specialty restaurants on the ship, Le Bistro, for our chat and he called a staff member and asked them to bring us some coffee from the Starbucks outlet onboard. It wasn’t that he was unwilling to get it himself but the line was long and he didn’t want to take away from the time we had to chat. If his phone call with staff and the interaction he had with the crew member who brought us the coffee are any indication of his relationship to his crew it is clearly great. His joking manner surely puts them all at ease.  He told me on this cruise there were 3,400 passengers and a crew of about 1,650. He was responsible for about 1,400 of them. The other 250 were the responsibility of the Captain including deck hands and engineers. I asked him to try and arrange a visit to the bridge and he jokingly said he would tell the Captain to invite me, but I know that is up to the Captain on each ship. I had an amazing visit to the bridge of the Norwegian Bliss. 

We chatted about the millions of dollars it costs to provision the ship for such a cruise and he explained that each area from laundry, to food, to entertainment has a budget which they prepare and then he goes over it with each director and must approve each one. It is really big business. He did explain he naturally uses the history they have on spread sheets of previous cruises to prepare the budgets and in essence they are done estimating income and expenses per passenger. Mario said it is easier to do on a large ship than on a small one as the variations per passenger per trip on a large ship aren’t as great. 

My time with Mario passed quickly and one could easily tell how much he enjoyed his job and how good he was with people, both passengers and crew, which is the crucial part of doing his job well. When I got back to my stateroom there was an invitation to the Captain’s VIP cocktail reception that evening in the Bliss lounge. Surely the efficiency of getting that out quickly fell to his secretary, Malou Colarte. 

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Norwegian GETAWAY Baltic Cruise: Part I

June 12, 2019

My nine day odyssey on the Norwegian GETAWAY has begun. After spending two wonderful days in Copenhagen it was time to board the ship and my friends and I left our hotel at 11:30am to do just that. Officially boarding began at noon. 

I was traveling with Scott Moster and his husband Dustin Ruffatto and John Lanninen. Scott is my travel agent but this time he wasn’t bringing a large crew of clients with him but rather traveling just for the fun of it. While John and I were in regular balcony staterooms Scott and Dustin were in the Haven, the elite section of the ship. When we arrived for check-in we joined them in the special line for Haven passengers. The clerks were gracious and as always when boarding a Norwegian Cruise ship it all went really smoothly. After a seamless check-in we were given our boarding cards and by 12:30 a crew member had already offered us our first welcome drink. Turns out the staterooms weren’t available till 1:00pm but with drinks in hand that didn’t seem an issue at all. When we did get into our staterooms we found them really nice and roomy. Plenty of storage.

On the bed was a Day 1 schedule and tickets for the two excursions I had booked in advance. Missing was the usual letter from the General Manager (previously called Hotel Director) letting me know the PR Department had let him know I was going to be onboard and wanted to interview him. Seems there was a slight communication problem but as usual the person who is always quick to clear things up and handle any issue for any passenger on a Norwegian ship, the Secretary to the General Manager who on the GETAWAY is Malou , had everything worked out efficiently and quickly. 

On the first afternoon I wandered the ship and was very impressed with how fresh and vibrant everything looked. I found out when I did sit down to chat with the General Manager, Mario Markovic, why that was. The ship had only come out of dry-dock less than three weeks ago after going through a bow to stern refurbishment. It is really beautiful. Very reminiscent of the newest ship in the fleet the BLISS which I had the pleasure of taking on its inaugural cruise through the Panama Canal. That evening we went to the scheduled LGBTQ meet and greet in the Sunset Bar. This was the first time on a Norwegian ship that they finally left of Friends of Dorothy when listing that event. I think I had something to do with that when on the EPIC we had the cruise director change it suggesting to him that no one under forty had any idea what that was. Since Scott hadn’t booked any big group on this cruise and a few of the other travel agents who specialize in the LGBTQ+ community also hadn’t there were not many people there. But the few that were made for great company and I am sure we will see them and meet other members of the community during the cruise. We had made reservations that evening for dinner at Cagney’s one of the specialty restaurant on the ship. It is a steak restaurant and the food and service were good. It was to be an early night.

Warnemünde, Germany (Photo by: Peter Rosenstein) Warnemünde, Germany

The next day dawned bright and clear as we docked in Warnemunde, Germany. My friends had arranged to take a tour to Berlin which was about two hours away. It was going to be a ten hour day off the ship for them. Having been to Berlin before I decided to stay on board in the morning, writing and going to the gym. At about noon I left the ship for my own two hour walking tour of Warnemunde which turned out to be a charming town. I spent the afternoon relaxing in the sun and heard from Malou that Mario would have time the next day, a day at sea, to sit down and chat with me. When my friends came back on board from their trip to Berlin we all met at the Sunset Bar where the LGBTQ meet-up was scheduled and nine of us went to dinner at Savor, one of the regular restaurants for which you don’t need a reservation and for which there is no additional cost.  There are eight specialty restaurants on the ship which do have a supplemental charge and there are five and the Garden Café Buffet which are included in the basic fare. The food at Savor was ok though some of the dishes came out a little less than hot. But all-in-all it was an enjoyable dinner with good company and the staff in the restaurant, like all Norwegian Cruise Line staff, were great. By the time we finished dinner it was nearly 11:00 pm and most of us went to bed while a few went to find entertainment and there is much to do on the GETAWAY till late in the evening. 

Day three was to be a sea day and I was looking forward to that. I also had my chat with the General Manager scheduled for 3:00 pm. 

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