Despite not having my expectations over high about this venture, I was very pleasantly surprised. Ill try and break down the areas for review:
I gather that only Russian owned ships are allowed on the water. This may or may not be true, but it would explain why AMA have leased and refurbished a vessel from a big Russian cruise company that was very much in evidence on the water on the one hand and why I didnt see another flag on any vessel other than the Federation tricolour on the other. AMA have brought the vessel up to the usual very high AMA standards. Well, almost. The cabins (aka staterooms) on the upper decks had nice new double glazing whilst the bottom deck cheaper cabins, er, didnt but I suspect (hope) that these will be done in the fullness of time.
The company that leases the ship to AMA is also a big player in hydrofoils btw, which enabled AMA to make frequent use of hydrofoils to nip into and out of St.Petersburg so much nicer than road traffic and it also affords some nice views.
I would advise getting a cabin close to either reception (check the ship layout) or to the Melody Bar area if you want to be able to use the wi-fi without having to go into the reception/bar area. They have installed 802.11n (much higher bandwidth than the 802.11g that most of us use at home) which is most welcome and I found wi-fi access was way better than the Danube vessel. Not perfect by any means, but useable with care.
Flying into and out of Moscow necessitates a bus transfer to the ship terminal. Moscows traffic is perhaps the eighth wonder of the world for those who enjoy traffic. The ship terminal (with an amazing Soviet era edifice that is being done up) is in the northern part of Moscow and I would recommend aiming to use one of the Sheremetyevo terminals (15 miles away) instead of Domodedovo which is south of Moscow (43 miles away). On a good day Domodedovo is a 90 minute drive, but count on 2 hours and a lot more if the traffic stops for longer than usual.
I flew from Dododemovo and found it friendly and easy to use, the security is quick and sensible compared to Heathrow (not my favourite airport at all).
The choice of airline will largely depend on where you are flying in from. Flying from Heathrow to St.Petersburg was with Lufthansa, memorable only for huge queues at LHR, miserable drinks trolley, dreadful food and seats that were both too small and very hard. A plane change at Frankfurt provided me with what I think was the most expensive sausage and a beer Ive ever had. Swiss Airlines on the other hand was a delight and brought back distant memories of the late lamented Swissair.
Actually there is little difference in size between the lower deck cheapies (where I was) and the upper deck expensive ones which have a little veranda which you might use but frankly are of little use (imho) because most of the cruising is done at night and in the day time youre probably on a guided tour working up an appetite.
The air-conditioning was intrusive but I got used to it. Again I suspect that AMA are aware that something needs to be done about a system that is clearly showing its age in these cabins.
The food and wine.
Excellent. In a word. I am not easily pleased when it comes to food, and I have not been disappointed by the food at all. I am also quite critical of wine too, and most were acceptable enough. I say most, because two of them an red and white from Spain was quite undrinkable so I opted for beer. The Russian champagne however was actually good, so tuck into that when you can!
Without exception, I found them to be friendly and helpful. They really appreciate it if you make a little effort to speak a some Russian too. We were fortunate to have a series of lectures about Russian history and culture which were well attended and deservedly so. There is no guarantee that they are repeated on all cruises however. Many of us in the West have a slightly jaundiced view of Russia and the Russians, but actually those I met had a lovely sense of humour (even some in uniform) and they live in a wonderful country.
As ever with AMA, they have good local guides and very good local guides. As with the Danube trip, I found that Id had my fill of Russian Orthodox icons that play such a big part of church life quite quickly. Once youve seen half a dozen, youve seen them all. Im not really into icons. The churches with the cupolas are awe inspiring and probably the most amazing (for me anyway) was the completely wooden church with 22 cupolas on the island of Kizhi. All the trips were very interesting from the Moscow Metro stations (London Undergound, eat your heart out!) to Red Square to the fabulous art in St.Petersburg.
Do it. You wont regret it.
A marmite room. Opinions were were rarely indifferent. I loved it, but sadly the palace 'stasi' forbade photographs in this one room. I can understand not wanting flash photography - few art museums do - so I assume the difficulty in getting ignorant and wilful tourists to understand the difference means its just easier to say "Niet". The workmanship that went into the place is just mind blowing.
The wealth of these early despots was staggering... little wonder the Bolsheviks got fed-up with seeing horses drinking from solid silver buckets whilst all they had was indigestion from not eating properly. Here was a woman who knew what she wanted and was utterly ruthless in going about getting it. Mostly money and power of course - nothing new then or since. A must see.
Its never easy to properly experience a city from inside a coach. "On your left you will see the old KGB building, said to be the tallest building in St.Petersburg". I looked at a large but not very tall building, unimpressed. "They say it was tall enough to see Siberia from there". Ah! That wonderful Russian humour :)
The tour is more about filling time in between going from point A to point B and therefore, like it or not, absolutely necessary.
Again, arrival by hydrofoil is preferable - the Russian police can be most unreasonable about coaches disgorging not entirely able-bodied elderly American tourists. You could spend every day for a month looking round that place, taking in one of the most amazing collections of artwork in the world and being able to get right up close to masters so you can examine each brush stroke without being fenced off or peering through glass.
The weather was fine and this, according to our guide, was most unusual. St.Petersburg is well known for its rain. We arrived via hydrofoil and left by bus (there's a bridge) to see a different perspective. Impressive determination of the Russians to rebuild their heritage after German WW2 occupation and wilful destruction of priceless heritage. I did spot the odd 18th century pozidrive screw head which suggests that perhaps all that glitters is not entirely gold... but you've got to look quite hard. Well worth visiting.
Mea culpa... this was my first ballet (Giselle) and I really enjoyed it - surprisingly moving too. The theatre was intimate but no crush for a drink during the interval. Most civilised. Actually, this ballet was in Moscow and not St.Petersburg. Sadly Moscow has fallen off the CruiseCritic map.