The National Geographic Explorer


Coming from the Sea Bird and the Sea Lion, I wasn’t sure what to expect with the Explorer. I had heard from other staff and guests that it’s a beautiful ship, but how so, I had no clue. Well having been on the ship for two days now, I can say that it is elegant in a semi-luxurious kind of way. The Sea Bird and Sea Lion are cozy, sort of like a comfortable home, but the Explorer is more like being in a nice hotel. The Philippino and European crew are super friendly and the staff, many of which I know, are enthusiastic and ready to share their knowledge about the places we visit. As I stepped onboard I was greeted by some of the officers and crew and had my picture taken for my key card that served two purposes – 1. To lock/unlock my cabin door and 2. To swipe myself on and off the ship when doing shore activities. Then I was shown to my room by one of the stewardesses. At first I felt like I was in a maze, but it didn’t take me long to figure out the lay of the ship. My room was cute, comfortable, and spacious compared to my berth on the SB/SL. The bathroom, too, was enormous by comparison. After a quick unpack, I went to explore to rest of the the ship. I found the lounge, which is very nice and outfitted with large screen TVs for talks and movies, comfortable swivel chairs, and a bar. The sundeck at the back of the ship has tables and lounge chairs for nice days and just above the sundeck is the gym that has floor to ceiling windows so you can look out over the ocean (or sea) as you work out. Next door to the gym is the spa and sauna, which I haven’t used yet, but the Hotel Manager gave me a free massage, which I’m very much looking forward to! There is also a very nice Global market (or gift store), as well as the dining room, bistro, and downstairs bar. As we were sailing out of St. Petersburg everyone gathered on the bow or up high above the bridge deck to watch the receding city skyline of church steeples, rounded domes, block-style buildings of St. Petersburg. In the harbor we passed the white sailboat of the Princess of Denmark, who was in the city for a visit. Then it was on to Estonia, our first stop in our Baltic Sea adventure!

September 10
To prepare us for our visit to Estonia, we were shown a movie called “The Singing Revolution” which gave us a better understanding of Estonia’s history. And it’s a bloody one. For centuries Estonians have endured one invasion after another, almost all costing lives and bringing destruction. In most recent history, before WWII, Estonia was invaded by Russia and many Estonians were killed or exiled to Siberia. Those who weren’t lived in poverty and fear that they would be next. Then Germany attacked and for a brief intermittence, the Germans occupied the small Baltic state. After WWII Russia regained control, but by then the Estonians wanted independence. And they did this through a “singing revolution”. It was a peaceful, but strong, revolution where the Estonians were united together by their love for singing. The movement gathered support and power until pretty soon they had leaders and a political party. In 1991, after Gorbachev was arrested and the USSR fell, Estonia was granted independence. It’s a very good film and there’s lots more to it than what I just described. I’d definitely recommend watching it!

As the Explorer slowly made its way toward Tallin, the capital of Estonia, we could see the tall church spires and red-tiled roofs of the Old City. For the morning, we had a walking tour of the town and we also visited the singing grounds where the revolution first began. Now it’s a site for many international concerts as well as their Song Festival that happens every five years.

The Old Town of Tallin is beautiful. Narrow cobblestone streets, quaint cottages, cafes, restaurants, and shops lining the sidewalks, and (because it’s a tourist destination), people dressed up in traditional cloths selling things like candied nuts and handmade wool socks. It was sunny when we left the ship, but as soon as we started walking a huge dark cloud appeared over our heads and let loose the rain. We ducked inside an old church, then ran from shop to shop to avoid getting too soaked. The rain finally let up, though, and we continued on to the central square where we entered an underground cafe to have some mulled wine, traditional cake, and coffee. We needed it to dry off and warm up!

The tour continued after our mid-morning snack and then we had the choice to return to the ship for lunch, or stay in town. I chose to stay. The alleyways and numerous shops were too mysterious and enchanting to risk the chance of missing out on anything. So, for the next few hours I wandered around, peering into shops and enjoying the medieval feel of the Old City’s streets.

We set sail (figuratively) from Tallin later that afternoon, heading toward our next destination and country. Tomorrow will be the Aland Islands (pronounced Owland), which are technically part of Finland, but they speak Swedish. Should be another great day!

20110912-085635.jpg

20110912-085645.jpg

20110912-085658.jpg

Advertisements

Lost in St. Petersburg. Sort of.


Ok, so going way back to the 8th of September (happy birthday, mom), which is where I left off, it was our second full day in St. Petersburg. September 8th is an important date for the Russians because it’s the 70th anniversary marking the beginning of the siege on Russia by the Germans at the start of the second World War. The war lasted three years, from 1941 to 1945 and in that time thousands and thousands of Russians died from starvation, bombs, and from the front line. Throughout the day we saw bouquets of flowers, ribbons, and other memorabilia that symbolized the country’s (and it’s people) remembrance of hard times.

Our destination for the morning was the Hermitage and the Winter Palace that overlooks the Neva River. Another residence of Catherine and her royal family, the Winter Palace is a gigantic edifice of columns, windows, carved mouldings, and Roman statues ringing the perimeters of the roof. We arrived early, before the crowds, and were guided from one ornate room to another all the while learning about the history of Catherine, Peter the Great, and other members of the royal family. What struck me the most was how carefully made everything was. All the paintings, glasses, vases, silk wall coverings, beds, chairs, etc… were all handmade and hand-carved. It showed the wealth of the family, but also their appreciation for good handicrafts. Today we can go to Walmart or Target and pick up a cheap imitation. Where has our appreciation for the finer things in life gone?

After finishing with the Winter Palace tour we moved on to the Hermitage, which is actually attached to the Palace. The Hermitage is now used as an art gallery and houses thousands of pieces of art and artifacts from around the world. Most impressive, perhaps, is its collection of paintings from famous artists. We slowly made our way through the multitude of rooms, looking at pieces from the likes of Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Picasso, Monet, Giovanni, and many others that I can’t remember. I don’t consider myself a particularly big art lover, but this was impressive, especially in the confines of the beautifully renovated Hermitage. My favorite artist? Rembrandt, hands down.

After the Winter Palace, we loaded back onto the busses and headed to a restaurant for lunch. As we were walking down the street, one girl fell behind and I went back to see if she was ok. She said she felt nauseous and needed a minute to recover, so I stayed with here. When she was ready to continue on, we turned the corner and… everyone was gone. We had no idea where they went. So, for the next hour, we walked up and down the streets, knowing they couldn’t have gone far. 148 people for :)$- sake! In the end, we got separated (she stopped to look at a map, I turned a corner, and by the time I went back she was gone). I went to a hotel where the receptionist was very gracious about calling our hotel, getting in touch with someone from Lindblad, having them come over in a car, picking me up, and reuniting me with the rest of the group. I knew where I was and could have found my way back to the hotel, but I didn’t want to miss the afternoon activities which would be taking place right after lunch. I didn’t see Jennifer again until the next morning and apparently she had taken a cab back to the hotel. It was rather ridiculous. And we didn’t get lunch.

Anyway, moving on. For the afternoon we had a city tour around St. Petersburg by bus, stopping off at different site to snap a photo. For the most part I’m not a fan of bus tours, but this was a great way to see the city in a short amount of time. Among other sights, we saw Peter and Paul’s fortress, the Winter Palace from across the river, and the beautiful St. Isaac’s cathedral with a gold dome and numerous handmade tile mosaics gracing the walls.

Then it was back to the hotel for a rest before dinner. I ended up dining with three other women at a rooftop restaurant not far from the hotel called Terraza. We sat outside on wicker chairs with blankets for our legs and a nice view of the gold dome atop St. Isaac’s Cathedral.

It was a nice last evening to our brief, but highly enjoyable visit to St. Petersburg. And tomorrow we would be embarking the National Geographic Explorer!

September 9th
After enjoying the extensive breakfast buffet at The Grand Hotel Europe one last time, we gathered our things and boarded the busses that would take us to the Grand Palace. Another elaborate residence for the royal family, the Grand Palace was just as stunning as our other visits. After our tour through the rooms, we moved outside for a walk around the Palace grounds. Known for its fountains, we passed many pools, waterfalls, and intricately carved fountains. Some were even hidden or triggered by movement – an early century form of entertainment – so several of us got intermittently wet.

To get back into the city of St. Petersburg rather than taking a bus, we took hydrofoil boats across the river. I’m not 100% sure how they work, but somehow the boats are elevated off the water and they move by pushing the water underneath the hollowed out bottom.

We ate lunch at a pub and brewery then it was time to listen to former President Mikhail Gorbachev give a talk (just for us) about the history and future of the USA and Russia. Not knowing much about our history, I found it extremely interesting and I was glad to hear Gorbachev state his side of the story rather than say things that Americans want to hear. There were even a few people vocally expressing their objections, which I thought was rude. The main point that I took away was the fact that after the Cold War the United States declared victory when really (as Gorbachev said) it was a peace-driven negotiation between the two countries to reduce nuclear weapons. This declaration hurt Russia because it made them seem like the bad guys to the rest of the world and the US as the superpower.

Gorbachev had a plane to catch, so he wrapped things up and left us with one last thought. He said “Things have to change in order for world to become a better place.” This means relations between countries, mentality within countries, and the way we perceive and treat our own environment. And that change can’t happen unless we really want it.

We slowly filed out of the auditorium and boarded the busses one final time. We were headed to our home for the next 10 days, the National Geographic Explorer, which will take us to multiple countries along the the Baltic Sea and introduce us to new sights and foreign cultures. Needless to say, I was very excited! It was sad to leave St. Petersburg and Russia because I felt like I had just begun to understand it, but I also couldn’t wait to see what else was in store for us.

20110911-014950.jpg

20110911-015009.jpg

20110911-015020.jpg

20110911-015037.jpg

20110911-015055.jpg

20110911-015106.jpg

Catherine’s Palace and the ballet


I feel like I live an auspicious life and I’m not sure how that happened. I must have been a very good person in a previous time. Or maybe I’m just always in the right place at the right time. Anyway, minutes after I posted my last blog, I was walking back to the hotel when one of the trip leaders, Steve Blairme, waved me down and asked if I wanted to go to the Swan Lake Ballet at the Hermitage Theater. The ballet is an option Lindblad provides for their guests, but they have to sign up beforehand and pay $150. I thought about going when I first arrived, but was hesitant because of the price. Still, I asked, but was told that the show was sold out, so the problem was solved. Or so I thought. Apparently a guest had gotten a business conference call and couldn’t make the performance and I was the first one Steve saw after he found out. He offered me the ticket and told me to get on the bus. No time to change, no time to eat, but I was going to see Swan Lake! For free! I felt rather uncomfortable, though, because I had on faded jeans and a sweater while everyone else was dressed to the nines. But I got over it pretty quick.

The performance itself was beautiful. The Hermitage Theater is an intimate setting and no matter where you sat you were guaranteed a good view. The show lasted about 2 1/2 hours with two brief intermissions, but it seemed a lot shorter. By the time we returned to the hotel at 11, though, I was ready for bed!

Since that was the ending to my first full day in St. Petersburg, let me go back to the beginning. I woke up at 7 and dragged myself out of the depths of my down covers to the biggest, most elaborate and expansive breakfast buffet I have ever seen. The first table was laden with fruits, yogurts, kefir, smoothies, granola, nuts, dried fruit, and milks (rice milk includes!). I filled my bowl with fruit and cereal and looked for a place to sit. Needing a glass of water, though, I returned to the dining room and weaved my way through the spread. There was a table with cold cuts, salad veggies, olives, and capers. A station to make your own crepes and countless glass jars filled with jams, berries, and sauces to fill them with. The hot buffet included every kind of egg you could imagine, beans, vegetables, oatmeal, and breakfast meats. There was a bread station with homemade loaves and pastries, little balls of butter and six different kinds of honey. Pitchers filled with fresh juices were tucked in the corner as well as two types of bottled mineral water and sparkling water. A selection of about 15 different loose leaf teas were on display beside a silver hot water urn. I was slightly overwhelmed.

After breakfast we boarded the busses and drove about an hour out of the city to Catherine’s Palace, also known as Pushkin’s for the famous poet and author who resided there. The palace is magnificent and enormous! We entered the grounds via a wide open plaza that offered a majestic view of the expansive edifice stretching out before, and above, us. The palace has been beautifully restored and we spent the morning walking through the ornately decorated rooms and snapping photos of crystal chandeliers. In a typically royal fashion, the chambers were dripping in gold leaf, intricately carved moulding, and red velvet. After touring the interior palace we moved outside and took a stroll around the grounds. Roman sculptures, flower gardens, and hedged bushes caught our attention and we stopped at a small chapel to hear a group of traditional Russian vocalists serenade us in the acoustically domed interior.

Back on the busses, we stopped for lunch at a small fortress (complete with a drawbridge) where we dined in fresh bread, pickles, borscht (of course), lots of meat (typical Russian fare I’m afraid), and vodka. Graciously they made me and several other vegetarians a delicious plate of roasted vegetables, rice, and salad. During our meal we were entertained by Russian singers and musicians in traditional dress. It was great!

After lunch we were transported back to the Grand Hotel Europe and had the afternoon to relax or explore the city on own. I took a quick nap, then headed out for a walk. When I returned I was greeted by Steve and a free ticket and off I went to the theater!

20110909-110421.jpg

20110909-110535.jpg

20110909-110600.jpg

20110909-110615.jpg

St. Petersburg, Russia


Wow, where to begin? Well first of all, I’m in Russia. St. Petersburg, to be exact. I arrived yesterday, after flying from Burlington to New York (where I spent my 7 hour layover visiting some friends in the city), then from New York to Paris (no, I didn’t get to see the city, but my luggage spent an extra night there) and finally, Paris to St. Petersburg. Somehow I managed to get a first class ticket, thanks to a very helpful Delta agent, so my flight over was actually very enjoyable. I had my own 12 inch TV screen to watch movies and shows on. I had lots of storage space to stow my bags, leg room galore, my own coat hangar, an overnight kit with a toothbrush, eye cover, comb, and socks. On my seat were a nice thick blanket and soft pillow and complimentary champagne was served upon takeoff. How can I go back to economy class now (which, on this aircraft, was on the lower deck. It was a double-decker plane!)? And the best part was, my seat reclined to a completely vertical position! I could even roll over onto my side! And surprisingly, the food was great!

But reality hit when I stepped off the plane in St. Petersburg. I had to fill out 6, yes 6, forms in order to locate my lost luggage and arrange for the airport to drop it off at my hotel. Then, after clearing customs, which was amazingly quick and easy despite the nightmare I went through to get my visa, I changed some money into Russian rubles, grabbed a taxi, and I was on my way. When I left the airport and caught my first glimpse of Russia from the ground, I felt sort of giddy. I have traveled much of Southeast Asia and Central America and some of Africa, but I haven’t had much experience with Europe. It felt so different!

It was about an hour ride to the center of St. Petersburg where my hotel was, so I sat back, enjoyed the view, and shared sunflower seeds with my taxi driver, who spoke no English. As we got closer, though, I began to see why everyone says St. Petersburg (formerly known as Leningrad) is so beautiful. It is, in a very European sense. The architecture is very colonial and the buildings a lined up in a razor straight line along the streets. Each block is a different, but uniformed, style in a rather paradoxical sense. I couldn’t read anything, since it was all in Russian, but cafes and restaurants lined the streets and boats chugged up and down the narrow river that runs through the center of the city. It took me awhile to realize what was missing. Then I realized, there are no trees! At least along the streets and sidewalks. But there are large areas designated as parks and beautiful gardens and these are interspersed frequently throughout the city. The city is still enchanting, though, despite its lack of roadside greenery. All the buildings are painted bright colors (to stave away depression during the 250 days of cloud cover) and it is so immaculate (both in – relative – cleanliness and in city planning) that I didn’t notice at first that everything was concrete. It just looks right!

As we turned a corner and into the semi-circle entryway of The Grand Hotel Europe, I knew I wasn’t staying in an average hotel. In fact, The Grand Hotel Europe is the finest in the city, the choice for celebrities and VIPs around the globe. Somehow I’m not surprised that it’s also the choice for Lindblad’s St. Petersburg sojourn.

I checked into my room in the very fancy lobby and went one flight up to room 244. The room itself is nice, of course, but the beds are spectacular. I wanted to lie down and submerge myself in the pillows and down blanket, but I was too eager to explore
the rest of the hotel and the surrounding vicinity. I also wanted to change my clothes, but since that wasn’t an option, I called housekeeping for a toothbrush and toothpaste and brushed my teeth instead.

The Grand Hotel Europe is enormous, with 5 (or more) restaurants, a chocolate shop and numerous boutiques. I wandered around for a bit, admiring the paintings and feeling slightly underdressed, then headed outside to explore the streets. I’m forever grateful that I got my dad’s sense of direction because the Russian maps made no sense to me. I couldn’t even pronounce the street names. I wandered through a small park with a statue (maybe Lenin?) then followed a winding street toward the golden onion domes that I spied over the top of a nearby building. The rest of the structure came into view shortly and I stood in awe over its splendor and grandiose. It was some sort of church, but every surface was covered in colorful paintings and detailed artwork. The architecture was amazing, with towers ending in gilded onion domes and intricately carved stonework on every window, door, overhang, and corner. After taking about 100 photos, I moved on to an adjoining park and meandered along the gravel pathways toward the river.

By that time, it was getting late, so I retraced my steps and headed back to the hotel, but not before stopping in at a (Russian) bookstore.

Dinner that night was in the banquet hall, where I met some of the other Lindblad travelers (some I knew!) and explained 20 times that yes, I work for Lindblad, but no I’m not working this trip! Then it was bedtime where I finally got to enjoy the ultra-comfortable bed and down blanket.

We have two more full days in St. Petersburg and I can’t wait to see what else it has to offer! Then it’s on to the ship for 10 more days and 7 additional Baltic countries.

20110907-065510.jpg

20110907-065733.jpg