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St. Petersburg & The Baltics

St. Petersburg & The Baltics
via The Crystal Serenity 
and Lufthansa First Class
June 2011
Four months of commuting back and forth to Detroit and Pittsburgh, and I'm so ready for some down time. We are off tonight to Stockholm to meet SoCal friends for a couple of days in Stockholm and then an 11 day Crystal Cruise that includes Helsinki, Tallinn, St. Petersburg, Berlin and Copenhagen.
 
-Lufthansa First Class check-in at SFO aka "I can't seem to find your reservation"
-United International First Class Lounge SFO
-Lufthansa First Class SFO-Munich
-Lufthansa First Class Lounge MUC
-Lufthansa Business Class Munich-Stockholm
-Stockholm
-Crystal Serenity Cruise: Jewels of the Baltic
-Tallin Estonia
-St. Petersburg
-Helsinki
-Berlin
-Copenhagen
-Scandinavian Lounge CPH
-Scandinavian Business Class Copenhagen-Frankfurt
-Lufthansa New First Class Frankfurt-Chicago
-Continental First Class Chicago- SFO

 

Lufthansa First Class check-in at SFO... aka "I can't seem to find your reservation"

Check in seemed a little chaotic tonight as lots of pax seemed to have issues, including us. Lots of smiles now, but the dreaded "hum, I don't see you booked on this flight" was not a good way to start. No, we are not going to Denver and Chicago tomorrow. Thank you very much. Seems like AC and LH are still having trouble communicating changes. That double change I made two weeks didn't help. Fortunately, I always bring my complete history of changes with ticket numbers. It took a good ten minutes with a supervisor to straighten everything out. Just as well as the Princess left her new "to die for" (her words) hat in the car and we had to have our driver come back and drop it off.

United International First Class Lounge SFO

This has to be one of the nicest US-based airline lounges I have visited. Pleasant and attractive dragon welcomed us in and gave us wi-fi access cards. Since it was in between UA departures, there were only two other people tonight, our cabin mates in 1DG.

The lounge is very attractive and much cleaner than the last time we were here. Even the food looked better tonight.

The beef was excellent and rare. Unfortunately, the shrimp was also a little rare.

Plane watching was very good tonight.

The IFL dragon announced "10 minutes to First Class boarding" as we gather our things and start to make our way to Gate 101.

LH 459
SFO-MUC
A340-600 (Old First)
June 24, 2011
9:05P-5:00P +1
Seats 2DG

A short walk two gates over and we were at G101...

With lots of gate lice waiting to board...

Perhaps another day, when DL permits AF F awards, or when pigs fly.

Unfortunately, more LH chaos at the gate as another 10 minutes went by before the call for "First and Business." Even Mrs. SFO rolled eyes on this one, hitting the nail of the head: "Eight people and they can't take 60 seconds and board First Class before Business?"

Greeting and welcome seemed a little disjointed tonight with a few DYKWIAs griping to the FAs about check-in issues. Major league DYKWIA in 2A complaining about the fact that it was the old F, unlike "the pictures on the web site." Didn't seem to like the fact that I chimed in "they are phasing it in so not all planes are converted yet." Yeah, I probably should have just shut up and minded my own business.

8/8 tonight with 3 apparent last minute up-graders. Unfortunately, not as charter-esque as last April...

And service seemed a little off tonight at the outset, but once the FAs got started, it was exceptional service.

Once in the air, showtime...

I'll stick with the Devaux D tonight.

Tonight's menu...
Menu Cover
Dinner
And wine list, other than the D not particularly exciting...
D de Devaux
Monthly Proposal
The List

Our amuse Bouche was a delicious salmon mousse, especially with more D.

Tonight's set up with bread plate as the feature course?

And so dinner continues...

For starters tonight, I held back and only went for The Caviar and one other starter, the Ahi Riviera. FA would have served separately but I had him leave both at the same time, with more D of course. Would you like some vodka with your caviar?  Both were excellent.

Seasonal salad with a choice of vinaigrette or potato dressing. Not as good as Mrs. SFO's salads but at this point, after some 7 or 8 glasses of D, we are rapidly approaching "who gives a sh**" territory.

Now somewhere over Billings, apparently now part of Missouri. 

For the main, I (and all 5 other guys in F) chose the Filet Mignon with Sauce Cabernet, Tomato Compote, Green Beans, and New Potatoes, paired with the 04' Chateau Dassault St-Emilion Grand Cru. The Filet was excellent but the Dassault forgettable. Dude, don't quit your day job at the aviation factory. Garcon, une autre D, SVP.

Mrs. SFO went for the halibut which she said was excellent.

She tried both the Schloss Vollrads Reisling and the Sirmian Pinot Bianco, neither of which she liked and I concurred were not very good. If you are going to serve white wines, just stick with a good Sonoma/Napa Chard or a Burgundy. The is a US-Germany flight. Why are we featuring a non-Sonoma/Napa, a Spanish and two Italians?? Earth to LH: Napa/Sonoma and France. Period. At least there was plenty of D left. 

Cheese? Why not. Tonight featuring Humboldt Fog, Gruyere, Parmesan and Gambozola, and the obligatory and always good Neipoort.

And the amazing Chocolate Tart with Raspberry Coulis and whipped cream.

OK, no mas. Time to break out the ipod videos and guess the artist?

And just before passing out in a drunken stupor, yummy Peters ganache filled chocolates...

About 90 minutes out, the crew started breakfast service with beverages including freshly squeezed orange juice.

The scrambled eggs with chives and bacon lacked taste of the CX or SQ breakfasts.

Just before landing, our excellent Purser stopped by again to chat with each pax. She reminded as that "just before passport control, there will be a LH F service rep to escort us to the FCL" I have no idea what she was talking about, as it was a straight walk from the gate to the FCL.

Lufthansa First Class Lounge at Munich

What a pleasure to come back to a great lounge. Pleasant check-in staff had the manifests for inbound arrivals and welcomed us in. Mrs. SFO almost lost it when she walked in and saw Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Bastrds, Water for Elephants) or so she thought. She gushed "hello, how are you today". I'm still not convinced it was him especially after the passport control agent mentioned a different name. Oh well, I'm not going to ruin her fun. At least she didn't run after him shouting his name, like she did with Gene Hackman a few years ago at the Campton Place.

Agent gave us more good news tonight as she advised that our flight to ARN was departing from the tarmac, so we will have to take a limo to the plane. Ah, what a shame. I was still stuffed from dinner and breakfast, so we passed on food and relaxed for the next two hours.

I opted for a refreshing shower in the Rubber Duckie room.

At 7:05p, we gathered our belongings and headed downstairs for our limo ride. A brand new Porsche Cayenne was our ride tonight, and our driver was more than happy to show us how fast his V-8 wheels could go. For the third time today, Princess gushes "this is the only way to go" I do try.

LH 2420
MUC-ARN
A320-200
June 25, 2011
7:35p-9:40p
Business Class
Seats 1DF (moved up to bulkhead when boarding completed)

Excellent J class service with a great crew on this short 2 hour flight.
A very light load tonight on the entire plane tonight, and only 4/12 in J, all US pax connecting. The "coach seating with an empty middle seat" that passes for J in Europe is still hard to get used to. But the bulkhead is the only comfortable seating in the J cabin. Couldn't preselect online (showed selected) but three of us moved up to the bulkhead at "boarding complete." Delicious light J dinner tonight. Cold spicy shrimp in salsa appetizer, Chicken Tikka main and a coconut custard with pineapple desert. Breads were offered (but declined) and multiple passes thru the cabin for drink refills.

On time arrival at a pretty much deserted airport and city for that matter (mid summer holiday apparently cleans out the town). Our three bags were the first on the carousel, followed by two other PRIORITY tagged bags, the five bags apparently off-loaded and driven over separately and ahead of the non-priority bags.

Stockholm

Our hotel-arranged driver was waiting for us after baggage claim, and with no traffic at 10pm, we were at our hotel 35 minutes later. When the Lydmar Hotel wanted $525 a night for a closet, I opted for the Hotel Nobis, a new hip old-building-converted-to a hotel on a Norrmalmstorg, a couple blocks from the water. The weekend package included a roomy deluxe city view, breakfast and amazingly faster internet service for only $325 a night. Optimistically advertised as a Stockholm's newest 5-star hotel, Nobis has a young hip feel, but is more like a pleasant 3 or 3.5 star. Nice features, friendly and helpful staff, but a little too minimalist for my tastes. Attractive outdoor terrasse bar/dining area, soothing dark brown/dark grays in the hall walls, but the rooms are pretty basic.

On our first morning in Stockholm, Mrs. SFO provided the most excitement of the trip by nearly burning down the hotel. Not content to use simple hotel hair dryers, Mrs. SFO insisted on bring her 10 kilowatt hair dryer from home. Using one of our standard (low capacity) adapter, she not only blew the fuse in the bathroom but caused smoke to come from the outlet, but managed to short circuited power for the entire room... forcing a room change later in the day. Of course it was all my fault for not knowing this would happen... to her prized hair dryer.

Anyway, after the morning excitement had subsided, we headed over the Lydmar to meet our friends and explore beautiful Stockholm on a picture perfect +22 degree summer day. First stop was the Vasa Museum, home of the King's prized warship, which was so top heavy with cannons that it sank on its maiden voyage after only 1,500 meters of sailing.

After lunch at the Grand Hotel, we took to the water for the sights of Stockholm...

That evening, we explored Old Town and had a great Swedish dinner.

One of the palace guards on our walk back to the hotel...

Day 2 we went for the Stieg Larsson (Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) walking tour, learning background and exploring neighborhoods where this celebrated author lived and used as the backdrop for his Millenium trilogy.

Mikael Blomkvist's apartment on Bellmansgatan...

And the view from nearby Monteliusvagen...

Panoramic view of beautiful Stockholm...

Stockholm's city hall...

The Hotel Nobis.


 

The best part of the hotel was the view from our room...

And on the river.

Crystal Serenity
Cruise #1312
Jewels of the Baltic
Stockholm-Tallin-St. Petersburg-Helsinki-Warnemunde/Berlin-Copenhagen
June 27 - July 8, 2011

This was our first Crystal cruise, and our last. Don't get me wrong... the Serenity is very elegant and recently refurbished, the food very good and at times sensational, the staff mostly very good, but... there are simply too many negatives to make me come back.

Among my biggest complaints are (1) too many people on this ship for our tastes, nearly 1,000 pax on this fully booked cruise, (2) the size of the rooms. Give me a break, 268 SF?, (3) live music at the pool instead of peace and quiet, and (4) the inflated price. But the biggest issue I had, and it didn't hit me until the 2nd or 3rd day, too many f***ing Americans. Jeez already, we're in Scandinavia and the Baltics and, outside of private day tours, we may as well be at a resort hotel in Indiana, Oklahoma or California.

I just don't get how Crystal can be voted the #1 cruise line year after year, and get away with their outrageous prices, unhelpful front desk, crowded cattle-like shuttles, and a terrible dis-embarkment process.

Our previous cruise experiences have been Regent Seven Seas (Alaska) and Silverseas (Greek Isles/Italy) and, with the exception of dining and food, we liked both Regent and Silverseas much better.

Anyway, here is a pictorial summary of the ship and some of the on board amenities.

Stateroom 9042 aka the closet that doubled as our room. At least we had a balcony.

Our ship departed the port at around 1800 and we headed through the beautiful archipelago south of Stockholm.

The one area where Crystal does excel is food and dining. Our favorite restaurant was Silk Road from celebrity chef Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa.

The Vintage Room was a special limited seating dining room for 14 persons.
The food and the wine pairings were sensational.

As we review the menu for tonight, Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve, NV

Mini Cannelloni filled with King Crabmeat Salad, paired with the 2009 Man O' War Sauvignon Blanc (Waiheke Island, New Zealand)...

Lobster Thermidor "New Style" paired with the 2007 Darioush Signature Chardonnay (Napa)...

Porcini Mushroom Risotto, paired with the 2007 Miura Pisoni Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands)...

Duo of Beef - Grilled Wagyu Filet & Short Rib, paired with the 2007 Ornellaia Tenuta dell'Ornellaia (Tuscany)...

Selection of Artisanal Cheeses, paired with Graham's 20 Year Old Tawny Port...

Chef Oleg...

Trilogy of Chocolate, paired with the 2000 Trockenbeerenauslese Grand Cuvee No. 6, Kracher (Austria)

Tallinn, Estonia
June 29, 2011

We woke up Wednesday morning to a beautiful clear sunny +25C day in Tallinn. City views from our closet or "stateroom" balcony.

After breakfast, we headed for the Crystal shuttle and the short ride into Tallinn. Hung around outside the bus as the driver either couldn't understand or chose to ignore "could you please turn on the AC".

Caution: Other than Old Town, there is absolutely nothing for a tourist to see in Tallinn. Do not make the mistake that we did... using the Hop On Hop Off bus. That mistake was preceded by another big mistake... failing to make sure that the bus you are boarding is not a painted over cold war Soviet relic without AC or only a few windows that opened. The other mistake we made was not realizing that the driver waited for the entire bus to fill up before leaving. Fortunately, we had commandeered the spacious upstairs bulkhead with a window and gave anyone that looked our way the distinct impression that we didn't want any company.

Estonia may have embraced the west but our bus still featured the latest in Soviet era technology...

Our 30 minute tour of Tallinn consisted or a drive around various streets to see strip shopping malls, a park, a rail yard and some Soviet era luxury housing...

Seriously though, the Old Town of Tallinn is very charming and well worth a visit. Some pics from our few hours and lunch in Old Town Tallinn...

We passed on the Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments.

Heading for the bar...

St. Petersburg, Russia
July 1-3, 2011

This was our first time in St. Petersburg, and I absolutely loved it. A beautiful city with so much history. Build on a swamp by Peter the Great (or at least by his serfs) to provide Russia with a Baltic port, St. Petersburg has emerged from its extraordinarily difficult past and today is a vibrant city of 4 million people. Its spectacular palaces, classic European-style buildings, grand rivers and beautiful canals make "Venice of the North" a must see.

Day 1

Our wonderful guide Galena and driver Nicolai met us just outside of passport control for the first of our three day tour.

Promoted as one of the four great museums of the world, the Hermitage is actually a series of buildings built initially by Catherine the Great. Not sure it is quite in the Louvre class, but it is certainly boasts an impressive collection.

Peter and Paul Fortress dates from the early 1700's

The "lawns" and beaches surrounding the Fortress are a popular sun bathing spot for locals who embrace the short warm and at times hot (+35C today) summers.

And even those you'd rather not see bare this much...

At around 3pm, we told Galena that we wanted to experience caviar and vodka in a traditional Russian atmosphere. Ten minutes later, we arrived at Tsar Restaurant and stepped back in time.

Sorry, forgot the caviar pics...

St. Petersburg, Russia
Day 2

Another beautiful morning in St. Petersburg and we are off to Pushkin and the magnificent summer palace of Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great. Heavily damaged during the WWII, restoration is still on going.

On our way to Pushkin, one of many large retail stores...

The town's namesake...

Pushkin entrepreneurs, who play the national anthem of each tourist that walks thru town...

Breathtaking grounds and palace...

One of the last remaining vestiges of Lenin's presence in this beautiful city.

No doubt now a classic in Russian car clubs...

After another great tour, we issue Galena another challenge... another classic Russian restaurant, money is no object. OMG, did she deliver again, as we head for the Old Customs House, a stunning cellar restaurant where we are the only customers for most of our 2 hour meal. Our second consecutive day with the photo wall of fame boasting "Putin ate here" as well as Francois Mitterand.

Our maitre d and his staff were a little stiff this afternoon.

And the amazing vintage wine cellar with some wines dating from the 1870s... we passed.

St. Petersburg, Russia
Day 3

Another spectacular summer morning and Galena and Nicolai are taking us to Peterhof, the summer palace of Peter the Great, located on the Gulf of Finland. About a hour away, our drive takes us through a different part of St. Petersburg.

The resistance line from WW2 and the 900 day German siege of St. Petersburg...

Peterhof is a wonderful collection of palaces, fountains and landscape gardens built between 1714 and 1721. Severely damaged during the war, Peterhof has largely been restored, and is a must see for any visitor. Photos were not allowed inside the palace.

The best and fastest way to return to St. Petersburg is via hydrafoil.
Fast and efficient, they seemingly depart every 5 minutes... 20-25 minutes later arrive at a pier at the Hermitage.

Our driver Nicolai met us at the pier, and the group decided to visit the last two churches on our list, before late lunch.

First stop was St. Isaac's Cathedral, the largest church in Russia. The present day St. Isaac's was opened in 1858 and represented an unprecedented engineering operation to erect, and at great human cost. Hundreds of serfs lost their lives during construction, crushed to death by falling marble. Another 60 were killed by inhaling mercury fumes used in the dome's elaborate gilding process.

My personal favorite was The Church on Spilled Blood, one of the most colorful churches I've ever seen. The church was built as a memorial to Alexander II on the site of his assassination.

One of St. Petersburg many canals, this one adjacent to Church on Spilled Blood.

Shortly after leaving the Church, we saw this classic T-shirt... would love to hear the story behind that one.

OK, enough of the sightseeing. We asked Galena to find us a good seafood restaurant and she delivered again We are off to lunch at Fish House.

Just before 5pm, Nicolai and Galena dropped us off back at the ship. Galena ranks as one of the best guides we have met in any city anywhere. If anyone is planning a trip to St. Petersburg, I would be pleased to provide contact info.

What a great three days in a wonderful city. I would absolutely return to St. Petersburg, perhaps next time in late winter when tourists are nowhere to be found.