Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Cruising to St. Petersburg

There are so many places in this big, beautiful world that I want visit. For the longest time St. Petersburg, Russia has been sitting on the top of that list. Historical romance novels along with an excellent biography of Peter the Great written by Robert K. Massie is what finally compelled me to book a Scandinavia / Russia cruise aboard the Celebrity Silhouette. It was an astounding ship, an incredible itinerary, and cruising to St. Petersburg was every bit as amazing as I had hoped it would be!

Once a desolate swamp, today St. Petersburg is a glorious city of splendid palaces, architectural gems, and cultural treasures. We were docked in the city overnight giving me a good amount of time to explore the city. To make the most of that time I chose a very comprehensive 2-day excursion with a local tour company, gladly letting them handle the logistics as well as necessary visa. Some of the highlights of our days included visits to the Cathedral on Spilled Blood, Peterhof, the State Hermitage Museum, Catherine Palace, the Faberge Museum, a Metro ride, and a canal cruise.

The canal cruise was a nice way to begin the day (despite it being a cool and dreary morning weather-wise), as it gave a nice overview of the downtown city. It was a lovely ride passing alongside tree-lined avenues with pastel colored palaces and under numerous beautiful bridges. I never knew that St. Petersburg was often referred to as the Venice of the North (along with seven other cities, two of which were on this same itinerary!), built on 42 islands in the delta of the Neva River and connected by over 300 bridges!

We passed by the State Hermitage Museum on our canal cruise, a huge six building compound mainly set in the magnificent Winter Palace (a former residence of Russian emperors), and extending into adjoining buildings. Later in the day we returned for a tour. The classical Small Hermitage was built for Catherine the Great as a retreat that would also house the art collection started by Peter the Great. To say the collection significantly expanded (there are over 350 rooms of exhibits) is a gross understatement! We moved through the buildings rather quickly hitting the highlights but you can literally spend weeks and weeks here!

My favorite stop was the visit to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, built to honor Tsar Alexander II of Russia, who was assassinated at the site where the church now sits.   It is absolutely dazzling… St. Petersburg’s most elaborate church with a classic Russian Orthodox exterior (think colorful onion domes) and an interior decorated with thousands and thousands of mosaics. Whenever I visualize St. Petersburg, it is this church that I see in my mind!

I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the Catherine Palace, named after Catherine I, the wife of Peter the Great, who ruled Russia for two years after her husband's death. Originally a modest two-story building commissioned by Peter for Catherine in 1717, the Catherine Palace owes its awesome grandeur to their daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who chose it as her chief summer residence and wanted it to rival Versaille! The Catherine Palace is probably best known for the Amber Room, a room decorated in gold encrusted amber panels and mirrors. It was the most exquisite palace room I have ever seen anywhere! You may remember that the Amber room was dismantled and stolen by the Nazis during the war. In 1982 Russian officials approved its restoration, a process that took over 20 years and cost more than $12 million! The fact that they did so is a gift to anyone that has the chance to see it!

It was sunny and warm when we pulled up to Peterhof, St Petersburg's most famous and spectacular Imperial estate. However, we weren’t here to tour the palace. All our time was to be spent meandering through the extravagant gardens and admiring the 173 fountains inspired by Versailles. Peter the Great showed he had a sense of humor by installing ""trick fountains"", hidden water sprays, built into trees and tiny plazas. The fountains come to life when staff press hidden mechanisms, much to the surprise of the unsuspecting visitor! I think I got just as big a kick out of it as the children that were visiting that day!

The Fabergé Museum was truly a gem! No pun intended! It is a privately owned museum founded in order to repatriate lost cultural valuables to Russia. To give you a brief background of the history, the first Fabergé Egg was commissioned by Tsar Alexander III as an Easter / anniversary gift to his wife.  The empress was so delighted that a new and unique egg was commissioned every year! The museum is home to 9 of 50 Imperial eggs. Beyond those there are snuffboxes, figurines and objects d'art from the House of Fabergé and other noted Russian jewelers, plus a gallery of classical Russian paintings and a roomful of religious icons.

As you can see, our days in St. Petersburg were very busy, and I only gave you a small sampling of what we actually did! I would like to return one day on another Baltic cruise since there were still many places I did not get to visit. Do you have a place you have been wishing to visit? What are you waiting for?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Specialty Dining Aboard the Celebrity Silhouette

The dining experience aboard my recent 12-night Baltic cruise on the Celebrity Silhouette was as every bit as extraordinary as the itinerary was! My traveling party chose to add a 4-night Specialty Dining package that further elevated the entire dining experience. The meals we had in these restaurants were delicious, with blends of spices and flavors that made my selections uncommonly scrumptious! In addition, the beautiful presentation of the dishes that were served as well as the special atmosphere of each restaurant was a feast for the eyes!

Shame on me for not doing my homework! I walked into Murano expecting Italian cuisine. It’s actually more of a French inspired Continental. Murano was the most sophisticated and elegant restaurant we dined in. Service was attentive and they clearly wanted to be sure we were enjoying everything we ordered. I couldn’t resist the Murano Lobster, a cognac flambéed lobster tail prepared tableside.   Both presentation and taste were remarkable! Although Murano is the perfect restaurant to celebrate a special occasion, I would dine here to make any evening special!

My Italian dinner came a few nights later at the Tuscan Grille. Celebrity describes this restaurant as ""Napa-meets-Old-World-Italy,"" and I think I’d agree! I loved the décor here, especially the wine cave-like archway you walk through to enter. Tough decisions here as to what to order…pasta, beef, seafood? There were so many great selections on the menu but ultimately I chose the Seafood Risotto and ended my meal with the dark chocolate fondue. My only regret is that I did not return to the Tuscan Grille for an encore.

The evening we had reservations at the Lawn Club Grille was cold and dreary and to be honest, because of that I wasn’t looking forward to our dinner and I’m sure my trepidation showed on my face! Yet we were greeted warmly, translucent shades were pulled to keep out the elements, patio heaters kept things toasty, and blankets were made available if needed. I’m so glad I didn’t cancel this reservation! The Lawn Club Grille starts you off with a trip to their salad bar that could be a meal in itself. The next course is the made to order flatbread. There are choices like Margherita, sausage & peppers, Mediterranean vegetable and a few others, or you can create your own from selections from the salad bar. You can even make your flatbread alongside the chef, learning how to work and toss the dough! I opted for filet mignon for dinner, which was melt in my mouth delicious!

The most fun we had during dinner was at the very unique restaurant Qsine! Celebrity describes the menu (which is displayed on an Ipad) as a playful offering of familiar and memorable dishes from around the world. All are small dish samplings (yet there’s enough for everyone at the table to share) and are presented in a distinctive, artsy way. Some memorable choices were the sushi lollipops, crunchy munchies, disco shrimp and the lava crab. Since courses come out as they are ready its like a continuous smorgasbord!

I love to cruise…and I love to eat! Needless to say I was blissfully happy aboard the Celebrity Silhouette! The 4-night Specialty Dining package I booked pre-cruise cost $137 per person (a savings of 26%) and included one dinner in Murano, one dinner in Qsine, one dinner in Tuscan Grille, and one dinner in Lawn Club Grill.   I highly recommend you try it!

Monday, July 06, 2015

Saying "I DO" Once More

Have you ever considered renewing your wedding vows? A vow renewal is a romantic opportunity for a couple to reaffirm their love for each other and there are some very good reasons for doing so. Maybe you want to commemorate a “big” anniversary...25, 40, 50 or more years! Those are milestones worth celebrating in a very special way! Or maybe your wedding day was not as perfect as you had hoped. A vow renewal lets you have that do-over with everything just the way you want it! And some see a vow renewal as a way to celebrate a marriage that has survived some serious test or strain. I say absolutely go for it! Love should always be celebrated, and Norwegian Cruise Line agrees!

For couples that wish to re-confirm their love while at sea, and frankly, what could be more romantic, Norwegian Cruise Line now offers a ""Vow Renewal"" package. The package includes a private vow renewal ceremony performed by one of the ship’s officers, ceremony music, a romantic single red rose, champagne toast, a celebration cake for two, a commemorative vow renewal certificate, an 8x10 professional portrait in an engraved frame, sparkling wine, as well as canapes and chocolate-covered strawberries delivered to their stateroom the evening of the ceremony.

So close your eyes and just imagine how lovely it could be to renew your wedding vows aboard a beautiful Norwegian Cruise Line ship. Enjoy the ships intimate restaurants, world-class entertainment, dancing under the stars, maybe even a couples massage in the spa….all while celebrating one of the most important days of your life!

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Cruises to Nowhere…Going Nowhere

A cruise to nowhere, a 1 or 2-night cruise out into the ocean and back, has always been  a great little getaway. With no ports of call, the only thing on the itinerary is relaxation in luxury accommodations while enjoying the ship’s many amenities. Delicious meals in lovely restaurants, soothing spa treatments, world-class entertainment, exciting casino action, duty free shopping… What a great way to sample all that a cruise has to offer!

Well, it was! It is all coming to an end very shortly. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the federal agency that controls the entry and exit of foreign nationals to the U.S., it is simply enforcing longstanding rules. Under an act passed more than a century ago, foreign flagged ships cannot operate roundtrip voyages from a United States port without at least one stop in a foreign port.

The entire explanation is wordy and hard to understand but in the end it means the termination of those wonderful cruises to nowhere! I for one, will be sad to see them go!