The Baltic region has become one of the hottest cruising destinations largely because of huge, unabated interest in visiting St. Petersburg (formerly known as Leningrad), the glorious capital of Imperial Russia from 1712 until 1914. No other port city in the region can match this proud city's array of dazzling sights: the Hermitage State Museum, Palace Square, the Peterhof Palace, St. Isaac's Cathedral and at least a half dozen more unique "must see" attractions, all cloaked in that unmistakable aura of Russian grandeur, Byzantine historical dramas and somewhat sad beauty.
Since Baltic cruisers rightly want to maximize their enjoyment of the St. Petersburg port of call (either two or three nights, depending on the length of the cruise) and most have never been to Russia (with its own strict regulations on visitors and unique visa requirements), most opt to sign up for the standard shore excursions offered by the ship.
However, increasingly savvy travelers realize that with a little extra time and research effort, they can easily book private city tours offered by several St. Petersburg travel agencies, which tend to provide much more extensive and fulfilling tourist experiences than the tried-and-true ship excursions. Most interestingly, the reasons for the generally better experience on private tours in St. Petersburg (the undisputed artistic and cultural capital of Russia) go far beyond the expected attributes of smaller tour size and more personalized attention.
To get the real "skinny" on the private tour scene in St. Petersburg, I booked a one-week Stockholm-to-Copenhagen cruise aboard Regent Seven Seas Cruises' six-star luxury Seven Seas Voyager in August 2006 and opted out of the ship's St. Petersburg tours. I knew that the ship offered standard bus and shopping tours with a high number of passengers, and they are certainly adequate for some. But in order to maximize our time in St. Petersburg, I arranged a more customized two-and-a-half day itinerary for my partner Doug and me through the respected St. Petersburg tour agency Red October.
This was the result of reading many posts on cruisecritic.com that raved about the amount of sightseeing you could fit in by taking one of these private tours, and their excellent guides. The following is a first-hand report about our Red October tour through the magnificent "Venice of the North."
Russian Red Tape
Unlike other port stops on Baltic cruises, Russia requires visitors to obtain a Russian Tourist Visa, but this requirement is waived for passengers ... participating on their liner's tours. Since cruisers stopping in St. Petersburg are well informed of this regulation by their travel agents and by pre-embarkation information, they usually choose to join some of the ship tours such as City Highlights (half or full day) or more specialized excursions focusing just on art, craft villages, or even guns and ammunition (Kalishnikov factory). They then don't have to go through the hassle of sending in their passports and can avoid the expense (about $120) of applying for a Russian visa.
Most cruisers are aware that crime and danger levels are slightly higher in Russia (more aggressive pickpocketers mostly) than in say, Stockholm or Helsinki, so they prefer the safety net provided by the ship tours.
However, the majority of cruisers don't realize that if they book through Red October or Denrus, the two best tour companies catering to the English speaking market, these experienced companies will do the legwork and paperwork to apply for a "group visa" for all passengers who tour with them. Thus by booking private tours through the established St. Petersburg agencies, cruisers get the benefits of a highly customized tour as well as the opportunity to skip the Russian visa red tape.
Booking the Tour
After filling out the initial online quote request with Red October, all of my communications were via e-mail with the very professional owner of the agency, Laura, who also has a U.S. sales representative named Mike Finn. It was a smooth and easy process, with no glitches or unexpected surprises. Because of some work travel and a late start on tour research, I began planning the St. Petersburg tour less than a month before our arrival in Russia.
After receiving a detailed draft itinerary from Laura listing the most popular and important St. Petersburg sights that we could cover, I did some more research on my own and decided to tweak the proposed schedule here and there (I wanted more time at the Russian Museum and wanted to be back on the Voyager for lunch on the third day).
Laura was easy-going and had no problem updating it with my recommended changes, all promptly. Indeed, by the time I was ready to commit and send our passport information to her (not the actual passports) so they could apply for the visas in our names, it was only two weeks until cruise time and I was on the road again. Laura offered to mail the Red October tour tickets and all necessary documents to my hotel in Stockholm to await my arrival. It was a creative and unexpected solution to a potential travel problem.
Indeed, this beyond-the-call-of-duty effort set the tone for my entire St. Petersburg tour. She even offered to pair us up with one or two other travelers to make up a larger private group which would reduce our per-person costs, but we decided to stick with having our own tour guide and driver for the entire tour.
Alternatively, your travel agent can book the private tours for you. If you prefer a smaller experience than the large cruise ship tours, you can also join one of the larger bus tours offered by Red October and Denrus, although to me this defeated the purpose of hiring a private guide.
In the tour documents that were waiting for me in Stockholm, Red October emphasized the importance of disembarking the ship -- before the ship tour passengers -- as soon as we were cleared by customs in St. Petersburg. We were told that sometimes the ship did not want to allow passengers on private tours to disembark. But at 8:15 a.m. sharp on our first morning in St. Petersburg, Doug and I were at the front of the line to get off the ship, and did so with no fuss or hassles. After we cleared the Russian immigration office set up outside the ship in about 30 seconds flat, we were met by our stylishly dressed and confident guide Elena, who led us to our private Mercedes with driver Alexei behind the wheel.
St. Petersburg: Day One
Leaving the gritty industrial port about 30 minutes from the city center, we were quickly enveloped in the regal majesty and splendor of St. Petersburg's picturesque monuments, cathedrals and palaces. On this first day we visited the famous sites of Palace Square, Nevsky Prospekt Street, Peter and Paul Fortress, Savior of the Spilled Blood Cathedral, St. Isaac's Cathedral, and the Yusopov's Palace. At the same time, we took advantage of panoramic photo opportunities along the Neva River and stopped at one of the "official" souvenir shops.
It was in this shop (actually run by Red October) that we paid our tour invoice in full using a VISA card, and we were even able to make a last-minute change to the itinerary for day two (deciding not to pay the extra $15 to see the Gold Rooms of the Hermitage the next day). Again, the flexibility of Red October was amazing.
Throughout the tour, Elena's exhaustive knowledge of the history and background of the sights was peppered with very interesting anecdotes that were geared toward our interests. For example, I mentioned to her that I'd read an excellent Rasputin biography, so she added some more time to visiting the eerie cellar in the Yusopov Palace where Rasputin was famously poisoned (but did not die) in 1916. Besides the intimate exchange of information and questions, Elena was also expert at whisking us through the special lines for private tours at the various sights, tickets in hand, which helped us save time in bypassing large crowds.
We learned from Elena that Red October's guides not only pass the same rigorous tests as required of all guides by law, but that they are also some of the best in town -- and some of the best connected (very important in this society). Elena had no problem getting personal, telling us she used to be a nuclear engineer, but transitioned into the much more lucrative tour guide business after the chaotic breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and fast-forward moves into a free market economy.
St. Petersburg: Day Two
Day two was the longest and most exhausting tour day. We visited the gloriously restored Peterhof Palace (located about 45 minutes from the city center) in the morning and the world-renowned Hermitage State Museum in the afternoon. By arriving in our private car at 9:30 a.m., well before the tour bus crowds arrived, we toured the Versailles-inspired Peterhof Palace rooms virtually by ourselves. We did meet four jovial fellow passengers from the Voyager (who had smartly arranged a very similar three-day private tour through Red October) in one of the many bejeweled and gold-filled palace rooms, and we shared our delight in having these quiet moments to soak in one of the most spectacular palaces in all of Russia.
When we emerged onto the Peterhof grounds to view the gorgeous cascading fountains, we gasped for a moment at the din as we took in the sight of a line of several hundred tour bus passengers (cruise ships guests among them) waiting to enter the Peterhof Palace. Strolling the beautiful palace grounds, we realized how fortunate we were to have booked a private tour that gave us early admission. After a scenic, short hydrofoil ride from the Peterhof Palace pier back to town, we had lunch at an excellent local restaurant. The four-course meal was $25 extra per person, and well worth it.
Day two in St. Petersburg was capped off by what was, perhaps, the highlight of the entire Voyager cruise and entire trip: a tour of the Hermitage State Museum. Not surprisingly, we were whisked to the front of the line of several hundred people waiting to enter, and enjoyed a highly informative (albeit whirlwind) tour of the most famous highlights within the vast rooms packed with masterworks. The crowds were crushing in some of the most popular rooms (such as the Rembrandts and DaVinci paintings), but we were able to hear Elena's commentary clearly above the buzz of the crowds standing right next to her the entire time.
St. Petersburg: Day Three
This half day began with another blissfully crowd-free and bus-tour-free visit, this time to Catherine's Palace at the Czar's Village complex about half an hour outside the city. We were awestruck (a common feeling touring the Imperial Palaces) while walking through the expected room after room of over-the-top Russian Imperial decor (gilded walls, priceless antiques, intricate paintings, etc).
In the breathtaking Amber Room (which we had to ourselves), Elena not only recounted the fascinating history of the famous amber wall panels and carvings, but also gave us more memorable insights into the city's darkest days, the 900-day siege of Leningrad by the Nazi Army from 1941 until 1944.
Millions of Leningrad citizens died of starvation and exposure; there was no electricity or heat during the brutal Russian winters. In her emotional and dramatic stories, we learned that during these tragic days, both Catherine's Palace and Peterhof (along with hundreds of other Russian palaces) were completely gutted from bombing. While other tour guides tell the same histories to clients every day, we felt we'd achieved a very special bond with Elena (talking about every political or historical topic under the sun during the past three days) that made her discussion with us especially honest and heartfelt.
In fact, she was so interested in giving us a genuine portrait of life in Russia today that she asked the guide to take a quick detour to a new, gleaming department store reminiscent of Wal-Mart, where the new Russian middle class shopped in American-style comfort. And even though we were pressed for time, Elena noticed that we were impressed by the smooth taste of an unfamiliar vodka, so she brought us to another tourist store where we picked up a bottle to take home.
Then when we needed extra time for last-minute souvenir and caviar shopping, she didn't mind extending our tour a half hour or so; this flexibility and good-natured accommodation was what we became used to during our three days together.
Our final day in St. Petersburg ended, appropriately, with a two-hour tour of the Russian Art Museum, housed in the neoclassical Michael Palace. It holds over 300,000 exhibit pieces spanning the long and tortured history of this proud nation. We then bid Elena good-bye, as she encouraged us to visit again to see more of her beautiful city, we felt we had established a very genuine friendship.
So Many Benefits Worth the Higher Price
Needless to say, we both returned to the Voyager energized and excited about our Red October tour, ready to share our St. Petersburg experience with our fellow cruisers. We spoke to at least a dozen guests onboard, all of whom had taken some combination of half- and full-day ship tours. They were all amazed by the sheer number of St. Petersburg sights Doug and I packed in two and a half days compared to their experiences.
One couple had noticed us leaving the grounds of Peterhof just as their large bus tour passengers were walking in! Unlike their large tours, ours moved remarkably quickly (with that huge benefit of early admission to Peterhof and Catherine's Palace), and had no unnecessary breaks or long lines at Russian immigration, or while entering the palaces or museums. For example, many ship tour guests complained that they only got a few minutes to shop on the full-day tour, and others bemoaned the fact they if they wanted an hour or so for shopping, they had to sign up for one of the official three- hour "shopping tour" excursions and forego some of the most important sightseeing.
Others complained that the menu of ship tours had to be "cut and pasted" together to make one comprehensive touring program, and that some of the guides were only adequate and harried. Doug and I didn't want to gloat, but we secretly loved the fact that we enjoyed the same excellent tour guide over three easily-manageable and organized days.
As for price, our in-depth private two and a half-day customized tour, including private Mercedes sedan transportation, all admission fees, and of course, the services of Alexei and Elena was approximately $600 per person. These fees, while higher than a comparable two and a half-day ship tour program using buses, were more than justified given our stellar experience and simple ease of movement around the city and countryside. In fact, if we'd hired a private car with driver/guide through the ship, the cost would have been about $400 for just one day, so again, we felt we'd gotten a real bargain.
The recommended tipping guidelines for private tours such as Red October's are 10 to 15 percent of the entire cost of the tour per guest, divided 70/30 between the tour guide and driver. Having experienced some of the most memorable and thoroughly fascinating tours we've ever had, we gladly gave Elena and Alexei a little extra.
Caveats and Tips
Given the fact that most cruisers regard touring St. Petersburg as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the higher cost for a private tour (although lower than if you'd tried to cut and paste the ship tours together) is more than justified.
In order to get the most out of the private tour experience, it's important to do your own research about which special sights you'd like to see (such as the synagogue or Metro stations) and any special requests; Cruise Critic's message boards about Baltic ports are a great place to start. The tour guides hired by Red October or Denrus have sterling reputations from the vast majority of guests (based on post-tour feedback and research I did online), so odds are you will be in very good hands.
A private two- or three-day tour naturally involves long days full of walking and driving and sightseeing (especially on the Peterhof and Catherine's Palace days (you'll wear out your shoes happily trudging through the Hermitage's endless galleries!). You should be in good physical shape, or at least discuss any of your physical challenges with the tour company and guide.
Any tour can be adapted or downsized to account for this. And on the flip side, fellow Red October guests I spoke to all said they were only a little weary after the three days in St. Petersburg, since they avoided the stress of long lines and crowds the first thing each morning that was a definite energy-booster that ship excursion guests didn't get!
Furthermore, stick with one of the two most established and well-connected tour companies that deal consistently with cruise ships (Red October or Denrus), as they know the ins-and-outs of cruise schedules, know what can and can't be squeezed into busy touring days, and are on top of all the closing days of museums and palaces. You should also ensure that you confirm all the written details of your itinerary, and carry a copy with you on the tour. I have heard reports of some confusion over whether interior visits to a certain church were included, although on our tour, the visits were all included (as was explicitly spelled out in our final itinerary).
On this point, a satisfying lunch at a local restaurant is an extra charge; this is a better option than just taking the bag lunch on the hydrofoil coming back from Peterhof. Another helpful hint is not to buy all your souvenirs at the first souvenir shop. If you've booked a two-day tour through Red October, for example, there may be time to visit another shop on the second day. Finally, verify the exchange rate of rubles to the dollar, and carry U.S. dollars (or euros) with you to get a cash discount at the souvenir shops.
An A Grade
Overall, I'd rate my private tour experience in St. Petersburg through Red October a solid "A." The combination of efficient schedule, no lines or crowds, comprehensive sightseeing, fantastic and friendly tour guide, and value for the money ensured that our too-short time in St. Petersburg was maximized beyond our expectations.
For travelers who are willing to give up the usual ship excursion "safety net" and be a little bit adventurous (emphasis on little, as this was a highly professional and no-glitch operation), St. Petersburg is the ideal port in which to book a memorable private tour.
For more information on the destination check out Cruise Critic's port profile of St. Petersburg.
--by Stan Wu. In addition to writing about cruising trends in the burgeoning gay and lesbian market for Cruise Critic, Austin, Texas-based Wu is also the travel editor of westhollywood.com and Metrosource Magazine.
Images of Red October guide and St. Petersburg fountains appear courtesy of Doug Shelton.