A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: darrenesl

An Irish Spring

Taking a chance with Great Value Vacations

semi-overcast 18 °C
View Southern Ireland, April 2019 on darrenesl's travel map.

Alaska was an incredible albeit cold summer vacation for 2018, so when it came time for 2019 trip planning, warmth was on the docket. Shorts, warmth and sun were in the plans until an advertisement for Ireland caught our attention. $699 for 8 days with lodging, airfare and a rental car. Really?


The reviews for Great Value Vacations(GVV) who offers this special on Groupon appeared to be good. Not great, but a majority of people only leave negative reviews. Some of the issues were long wait times to get in contact with GVV and their call center. Other complaints included vouchers arriving just before people left for their trip. None of the reviews included people with flight, place-to-stay, or rental car issues that kept the traveler from making their destination. After more careful review and due diligence, we pulled the trigger and bought the Groupon.

Once you purchase the Groupon, the process is simple to book your trip. First off, select the dates you want, next go to the Great Value Vacations website and redeem your voucher. You will see your air tickets, rental car voucher and more. Two tips to make travel a little more convenient include upgrading your seat selection to a preferred location. This was a slight up-charge on Air France, however Terri and I will get our preferred seat for the lengthy portions of the flight. One other upgrade was choosing a rental car with an automatic transmission. Neither of us are wanting to drive a manual on the opposite side as we are accustomed to.

So far all has gone well with the initial process. Let's hope the rest goes as smoothly.

Posted by darrenesl 14:39 Archived in USA Tagged cities paris coast amsterdam city ireland dublin holiday fun air klm airlines fare darrenesl air_france 2019 Comments (0)

Stockholm and beyond

Leaving land for the waves of the baltic

rain 13 °C
View Baltic Capital Cities on darrenesl's travel map.


Later Friday afternoon we were planning on meeting the rest of our group. The call came as we were finishing lunch the sun had also begun to peek out and the temperature increased to a pleasant 16 degrees celsius. We were joined by Daryll and Laura, for the under the bridges tour. We took the boat ride that guided us under 13 bridges in the Stockholm area providing a good overview to the layout of the city. During the tour we witnessed how their lock system works, saw exclusive real estate and enjoyed our time together. By the time the tour was over and we had taken a stroll through the Gamla Stan area of Stockholm it was time to find some dinner.

Our friend Klaus had told us about a great restaurant. We ate at Magnus Ladulas, a restaurant built in a cave. The inside was very unique and packed full of locals. We ate in the bar area so that all six of us could be together, we had the area all to ourselves for the meal. It was a nice time for us all to come together. The food was as good as the ambiance. Venison, lamb, wild game and more, all was delicious and we were extremely satified with our dishes.

Our next day began with rain. We woke several times to the rain as well. We had to do a little changing on our itinerary. We started at the Royal Armory and after viewing numerous sets of armor and hearing the history of the royal family, it was time to head to the Vasa Museum. We got to see the ship that was under the water for 333 years before it was pulled up. You can read all about the Vasa at their website. As we left the museum, the rain continued to poor and after walking half a kilometer, we felt as though we had been underwater for a long time as well.

We walked around town and the rain did not let up. After getting soaked we headed to a cafe by the opera house.

Our final full day in port we went to Skansen. The weather was very cloudy, but no rain. All the buildings from the 1800’s were transferred to this area. We walked around to view the history of Sweden. There was also a zoo on the grounds. With the weather being so nice, almost all the animals were out to greet us.

At 2 p.m., we were finally able to board the boat. Our journey has officialy begun. Our ship was as big as the excitement building up for our trip.

Posted by darrenesl 07:17 Archived in Sweden Tagged stockholm cruise sweden baltic capitals cruising celebrity darrenesl tlwforgiven Comments (0)

Getting there is half the battle

The journey begins

semi-overcast 15 °C
View Baltic Capital Cities on darrenesl's travel map.

International flights can be great, terrible, or sometimes a grind. Traveling from LAX to Arlanda just outside of Stockholm proved to be a combiarland nation of all three. Norwegian Airlines and their new 787 Dreamliner planes are the great. Travelling from LAX to Oslo throughout the night and on to Arlanda proved to be the grind. The terrible was the girl who sitting immediately behind us ran to the bathroom right before takeoff for a session of violent vomiting.


After a log 12 hours of traveling, we arrived to a rainy welcome in Sweden. A quick Uber ride got us downtown to Norrmalm. We checked into our quaint, well situated accomodations with very friendly staff. Located within easy walking distance to Gamla Stan, Centra Station and many other attractions, the Best Western Kom Hotel provided a welcome relief from the journey. By the time we checked into our room, it was nearing 7p.m. With sunset not arriving until 10:30 p.m., we decuded to find some dinner before calling it a day. Planning to head into the Old Town area, we began journying down a main road to the city center. After a couple of blocks we stumbled upon a mongolian BBQ and the decision was made to stop, eat and begin our real Swedish experience in the morning. The trek had taken more of a toll on us than we realized. Returning to our rooms at 10pm, we fell asleep as soon as our heads were on our pillows.


After an amazing breakfast provided by the hotel, we began our morning off with a walk to city hall. The breakfast included all the items needed to start your day right. Meats, cheese, fruits, yogurt and all the traditional european breakfast items were included with a couple of American staples to round it out. A light drizzle was in the air as we headed toward city hall and the tower. Featuring more than eight million bricks, the buiding is topped with an observation point providing one of the best views of the city and surrounding areas. Flanked by water on two-sides, the city hall allowed a good opportunity for photos, orienting oneself to the city and beginning the Stockholm experience. At times the drizzle fought to become rain, but the view from the top of the tower and the exertion from climping to the top, made up for the weather and warmed us up from the elements. To prevent congestion a limited number of visitors are allowed up to the top at a time, and the trip is timed so that others can enjoy the tower as well.

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After viewing the city, we headed into the old town and Gamla Stan. Similar to most "old towns" found in european cities, Stockholm's is no different with numerous churches, cafes, souvenier shops and a Royal Palace calling visitors in to share all that there is to offer. Eventually we ended up at the Royal Palace where a stunning chapel designed with frescos on the roof and a great pipe organ is open to the public. From there it was time to view the changing of the guard. Sweden, whose military is stocked with young people required to give one year of service to the military has one of the best changing of the guard ceremonies. A band of soldiers riding in on stunning chestnut and white horses dazzled the crowds with music and showmanship, while the guards marched in and relieved each other. Highlights of the ceremony were almost outshined by the guards maintaing order over some unruly tourists. Watching the guards physically lift up and move some ladies that were not listening to them brought a chuckle from the assembled crowd who were obeying the guards orders.



Once the parade and changing of the guard was complete it was time to find lunch. We chose the Stadismission for a meal that was satisfying and provided funding for Sweden's needy population. For a great price we were able to get a meal with salad and coffee included. Upon exiting, the sun had burst through the clouds brightening the day.

Posted by darrenesl 14:27 Archived in Sweden Tagged stockholm sweden Comments (0)

Navigating the seas to Russia

Want to visit Russia? It may not be the easiest place to go, but with a little planning the opportunities are limitless.

View Baltic Capital Cities on darrenesl's travel map.


The next stop on the itinerary is St. Petersburg, Russia. Growing up during the Cold War, Russia has always been on my must-visit list. Traveling to Russia can be a challenge. There are hurdles in place that one must overcome in order to enter the country for those coming from the United States, there are two basic options.

The first is to obtain a visa.
Entry Visas: To enter Russia for any purpose, a U.S. citizen must possess a valid U.S. passport and a bona fide visa issued by a Russian Embassy or Consulate. It is impossible to obtain an entry visa upon arrival, so travelers must apply for their visas well in advance.

The second available option is through a tour company if you are on a cruise ship.
Cruise ship passengers can currently visit Russia on visa-waiver scheme provided the stop in the port of call doesn't exceed 72 hours and tourists stay overnight on board the cruise ship. Cruise passengers may disembark from the ship without a tourist visa if they participate on tours organized by cruise companies.

The steps to obtaining a via in Russia can be quite lengthy and require a trip to either San Francisco or Washington D.C. The costs is approximately $300USD give or take a bit depending on whether you are wanting to expedite the process or if you have the patience to let the process run its own course.

Our original plan was to get a Russian visa and experience the country on our own; however after weighing the pros and cons of the overall process, we decided to go the route of the organized tour. While the cruise ship always offers shore excursions, the inflated prices and the cattle car experience that is often provided on these tours is not for me.

Looking at other options there are 2 major companies that many past visitors have reviewed and numerous smaller companies that offer similar 1, 2, and 3 day tours in St. Petersburg. Looking at the two major companies, SPB tours is one option and Alla Tours is the other. Both offer similar tours with the groups being maxed out at 16 people, still too big for my taste. So we reached out to both requesting a private tour for six people for two days with a one day trip to Moscow with a group of 16 people in between the two private days.

Alla Tours was by far and beyond the better of the two companies when it came to response, personalized customer service and overall pricing. Because of the high level of service, we decided to go with Alla. Here is a look at what we will be seeing.

22 June 2016 Day 1
8:30 Meet at the ship. City highlights drive tour with short walks and picture stops.
Subway ride.
10:00 - 11:30 Excursion in Yusupov palace incl. Gregory Rasputin exposition
11:30 - 12:00 Travel to Peterhof via hydrofoil.
12:00 - 13:30 Tour of the Lower Fountain Park and Upper gardens.
Lunch time
13:30 - 14:30 Travel to Tsars Village (Tsarskoe Selo)
14:30 - 16:00 Excursion in Catherine palace incl. Amber room and walk through the park
16:00 - 17:00 Travel back to the city
Payment for the tour
17:30 Onboard
19:00 Optional evening program

23 June 2016 Day 2

6:00 Meeting on the pier
6:00 - 6:25 Transfer to the train station.
6:45 - 10:40 Sapsan train to Moscow.
11:00 - 14:30 City introduction tour incl. KGB headquarters.
14:30 - 15:30 Lunch in a local restaurant
15:30 - 17:30 Excursion to the world famous State Tretyakov gallery
17:30 - 18:30 Continuation of city introduction tour with picture stops.
18:30 - 19:00 Tour of subway stations
19:00 - 19:15 Transfer to the train station.
19:45 - 23:30 Travel back to St Petersburg by train.
00:00 Onboard

24 June 2016 Day 3
7:30 Meet at the ship
8:30 - 9:30 Boat ride: City tour from the water angle
9:30 - 12:30 Excursion in Hermitage museum (early entry)
12:30 - 13:30 Lunch time
13:30 - 14:30 Excursion in Church on the Blood
14:30 - 15:30 Excursion in St. Peter and Paul Fortress incl. inside visit to Cathedral
15:30 - 16:30 Excursion in Saint Isaac Cathedral
17:00 Onboard


Choosing to go to Moscow was a no-brainer for us. The opportunity to see the city that plays such a prominent role in history is one that we just couldn’t miss. One drawback is that the Kremlin is closed on Thursday’s, however a trip to the Tretyakov gallery will help make up for not being able to enter the storied Kremlin.

The great thing about taking a private tour with Alla in St. Petersburg is that we can adjust our schedule as we desire, If we see something we want to go to or would like some more time at a particular attraction, we have that ability.

Have you been to St. Petersburg? Let us know the destinations you loved and any stops we should avoid. We want to hear from you share your comments with us below.

Posted by darrenesl 11:16 Archived in Russia Tagged churches moscow cities st. vacation city cruise holiday petersburg silhouette baltic capitals planning cruising celebrity darrenesl tljohnson tlwforgiven darren_johnson terri_johnson family_vacation 2016 Comments (2)

Starting Planning in Sweden and Finland

A look at the planning process for the first leg of our journey.

View Baltic Capital Cities on darrenesl's travel map.

Here is a look at the Baltic Capitals itinerary.

Date Port/City Activity
Day 1 Stockholm, Sweden => Docked All Day
Day 2 Stockholm, Sweden => Docked - Depart at 3:00PM
Day 3 Helsinki, Finland => Dock at 10:00AM - Depart at 5:00PM
Day 4 St. Petersburg, Russia => Dock at 7:00AM
Day 5 St. Petersburg, Russia => Docked All day
Day 6 St. Petersburg, Russia =>Docked - Depart at 6:00PM
Day 7 Muuga (Tallinn), Estonia => Dock at 7:00AM - Depart at 5:00PM
Day 8 At Sea
Day 9 Warnemunde, Germany => Dock at 7:00AM - Depart at 9:30PM
Day 10 Copenhagen, Denmark => Dock at 12:00PM
Day 11 Copenhagen, Denmark => Docked - Depart at 3:00PM
Day 12 At Sea
Day 13 Amsterdam, Netherlands => Dock at 6:00AM

On the Baltic Capitals cruise you can expect a very port intensive cruise. That fits our travel style perfectly. When traveling overseas, Terri and I prefer to take night trains in order to maximize our travel time and have the daytime available to dig into the local culture and sights. While we enjoy going 100% while on vacation, many others do not and that is what helps make a cruise a good option for a multiple couples. Each couple can decide what they want to do while in port, or if they even want to leave the ship on a certain day or not.


We have decided to travel to Stockholm on the Thursday before our ship is scheduled to board. Once we board the ship, it will be treated as a hotel until Monday when we depart at 1500. One of the tricks that we discovered in our planning was that if you purchase your accommodations in Stockholm during the down season, 6 – 9 months before the date we will be staying, we were able to get half-priced lodging compared to pricing 90 days or less prior to travel. However, for those that may want to avoid the hotels, www.AirBnB.com has a good number of deals available in Stockholm. We chose to stay at the Best Western KOM hotel due to its proximity to the central train station and Gamla Stan.

For touring Stockholm, we will be using suggestions from friends and as always Rick Steves and his Northern European Cruise Ports guidebook. In addition to the guidebook, Rick offers an app for both iOS and Android platforms called Rick Steves Audio Europe. With this app you can listen to history and interviews prior to your trip, but the best feature is the ability to download “audio walking tours” for several cities throughout Europe. These are downloaded so they do not use data or cellular service, only a bit of your battery is used to play these. I would also recommend a Y-splitter and two pairs of headphones so that you can share it with your traveling companion.


One of the issues with Stockholm is the distance from Arlanda airport to the city center. If you are a solo traveler or couple, two great options are the Arlanda Express (you can pre order discount tickets) or the local bus will take you into town if you don’t mind taking your luggage on a metro bus. If you have four people, a better route to go is to use Uber to get a comfortable ride while meeting a local. Since the Cruise is departing from Frihamnen. The same thing is true when it comes to heading to the ship, Uber is a better value and more convenient than a taxi.

Some of the must see activiites in Stockholm that are on the list include:

  • Vasa Museum, a Swedish warship built between 1626 and 1628. The ship foundered and sank after sailing about 1,300 m (1,400 yd) into her maiden voyage on 10 August 1628.
  • Skansen the world's first open-air museum, founded in 1891. Here you can stroll through five centuries of Swedish history, from north to south, with a real sense of the past all around in the histori­cal buildings and dwellings, peop­led by characters in period dress.
  • The famous changing of The Royal Guard at the Royal Castle
  • Gamla Stan
  • And several other great sites

Finland will be a short stop. Considering there is only on day in port, the best bet seems to be a city walking tour. There are some really good resources online, some on CruiseCritic.com that local Helsinki residents have put together and once again, Rick Steves has a great walk in his materials as well. Because we like to get into with the local culture and also love food, we are looking at supplementing the walking tour with a stop at a world renowned restaurant serving Finnish Tapas styled dishes.


As you can see, these cities are both very walk-able and public transit friendly. That is one of the great things about this cruise’s itinerary. However, once you get to Russia, things change up a little bit. Due to the visa requirements for Russia, it is much more convenient to take an organized tour.
Our next posting will share our thoughts on choosing a tour company and navigating the travel planning for Russia.

Do you have any tips or experience in these areas? We’d love to hear your comments, share them with us below.

Posted by darrenesl 14:39 Archived in Sweden Tagged trains stockholm helsinki travel train sweden silhouette europe travels royal planning celebrity darrenesl tljohnson tlwforgiven darren_johnson terri_johnson 2016 Comments (0)

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