A few years after my wife and I had a very positive experience on a Uniworld River Cruise ' we did Amsterdam to Budapest on the Rhine and the Danube on the River Princess in 2008 ' we decided to try it again, this time on Russia's waterways linking Moscow to St. Petersburg. Uniworld has only one ship running this schedule ' the River Victoria ' and you can either choose to go from Moscow to St. Pete's or the reverse. In its brochure, Uniworld warns would be customers that since they don't own the ship and are not in total control of how some of the activities are conducted, travelers may find that the amenities 'may differ from those of a Uniworld company-owned ship'. Our experience from this cruise, however, is that in terms of comfort and services, the River Victoria meets and even surpasses the levels of comfort and quality of services on other cruise ships. For one, the River Victoria is considerably larger than most cruise ships on the Rhine and Danube ' there are no low bridges to deal with on the Russian waterways ' which provides more comfort and room to move around (for example, the tables in the dining room are not so tightly packed on the River Victoria); the ratio of staff to guests is almost double on the River Victoria compared to the other Uniworld cruise ships (110 staff to 202 guests on the River Victoria vs. 41 staff to 130 guests on the other ships). This, of course, reflects on the level of service provided. The staterooms are not larger on the River Victoria than on the other ships, but where there is a difference is that on the two upper decks, the Volga and the Neva, the staterooms come with oversized (about 12 x 8 ft) private balconies. These balconies were originally part of the public decks and were divided up into private balconies when the ship was remodeled in 2011.
It is hard to imagine a cruise that would offer better food in terms of variety and taste than what was provided for us on the River Victoria ' we were even served caviar and Champagne for breakfast! It is true that many of the menu items are prepared with plenty of cream, which is great for the palate, but perhaps not so great for the rest of the body ' but it's only for two weeks! The quality of the service in the dining room is also worth noting. The staff is made up of young Russian college students who are mostly studying languages; they are well trained, always very polite and extremely keen to provide the best service possible. They seemed to work 24 hours a day but they were always smiling and very cordial.
As for the cruise itself, spending three days visiting the two mega cities at each end, Moscow and St. Petersburg, certainly makes the entire trip worthwhile. However, guests should not expect the same spectacular scenery along the Imperial Waterways of Russia that one finds along the Rhine or the Danube. Northern Russia is flat and mostly undeveloped with a relatively low population density. The waterways run mostly through pristine forest with little sign of human activity. There are a few villages along the way but most are uninteresting and appear rather run down. There are a few exceptions, including the city of Yaroslavl on the Volga and Kizhi Island on Lake Onega. These are real gems; both places are important historical centers with spectacular architecture, including colourful onion-domed churches, and represent the two most interesting shore excursions along the waterways. The other three stops, Uglich, Kirillov and Mandrogi, are interesting but not nearly as attractive as the two mentioned above. Some visitors regard Mandrogi as a tourist trap due to the large number of souvenir shops, while others complain about the rainy weather that often prevails here as well as the abundance of mosquitoes. We were blessed with perfect weather on the day we went and not a single mosquito (this was in late August which may be the best time to go to avoid the bugs). I should add that the tour guides, all Russians, were very knowledgeable about the history and other facets of what they were guiding us through. All spoke English well and with the Quietvox Transmitter System provided, it was very easy to follow what was going on even at a distance.
In addition to the numerous cruise ships that sail these waterways ' cruise ships that all look alike, at least on the outside ' you will see many other types of ships including tankers and bulk carriers. These waterways constitute a major commercial artery linking the Baltic and St. Petersburg with Moscow and all the cities and towns along the Volga as far south as the Caspian sea. So, if you enjoy watching large ocean-going ships up close, it may compensate for the lack of great scenery.