Started at the Star Alliance Business Class Lounge at LAX. Understand that a new lounge will soon open. That's good because the current lounge is shabby. Not much of an upgrade from US airline club lounges. Food consisted mostly of bags of chips. Not much else.
Lufthansa flight # 457. Upper deck. Business Class. 747-800. Beautiful plane inside. Big screen tv and storage next to the window. Carry on suitcase will not fit into the overhead even though its a standard roller bag. Crew helps store it into a closet.
Champagne before takeoff with a refill if wanted.
Bag of cold almonds with a cocktail after takeoff. No warm mixed nuts? Dinner was ok. Beef tenderloin was overcooked. No ice cream sundae for dessert. Pie or cheese. Flight Crew pretty attentive. Seats okay. A little hard.
Arrived on time around 11:00am into Frankfurt. Customs was surprisingly easy to clear. Waited maybe 5 minutes in line and that was it. Because we had 5 suitcases, we needed a mini van taxi which took a little on the bit of hunting. Once we found it, it was an easy ride to downtown Frankfurt. Being a Saturday morning probably helped.
Stayed at the Westin on the Executive Floor. Very nice and comfortable room. We wanted to acclimate to the new time zone so we forced ourselves to stay awake. The Westin is in the middle of downtown so you could walk anywhere. Just a few blocks from the hotel were a number of booths set up on the street selling all kinds of food and wares. Bought a grilled sausage sandwich and a beer and sat on a bench and had a nice lunch. Walked around downtown and window shopped for most of the afternoon. Had dinner around 7:00pm at an Italian restaurant next the hotel called Quattro. Shared a Caprese salad which was okay and we each ordered pizzas which were very good. Went to bed by 9:00pm to be picked up at 6:30am by a taxi to take us to the airport for a 9:00am flight.
8/11/13 - Day 1
Lufthansa Business Class Club. Very comfortable and offers free drinks and some food. Great place to wait for a flight.
Lufthansa #1432 Frankfurt - St. Petersburg, Russia. Businesses Class uses the same seats as Economy, with the middle seat blocked. No extra legroom, but since it was less than a 3 hour flight, it wasn't a big deal. Breakfast was very good with a lot of food. Slices of ham, salami and cheese along with some fruit, curdled cream (tastes much better than it sounds) a roll and your choice of entree. I had a Belgian waffle along with champagne. Service was very good until after breakfast and then we hardly saw the crew again. They stayed behind the curtain at the galley. We did arrive on time and again, customs was surprisingly easy. Another 5 minute wait and that was it.
Greeters were there to get us on the bus to the ship. About an hour bus ride.
Check-in was easy.
Viking Ingvar was renovated last year and it shows. Very clean and fairly modern. The room is okay sized, although the bathroom is too small. Functional but small. Our bed converts to a double and there is plenty of room under the bed to store big suitcases so the room doesn't feel too cramped. Only one 110 v outlet that I can find.
Dinner the first night offered seafood, chicken and beef and they always offer steak, fish and chicken every night if you like. I had the beef stroganoff. It was okay. Average. Dessert was ice cream which was very good. Wine or beer is complimentary with lunch and dinner and the wine is pretty good.
8/12/13 - Day 2
Up by 7:00am for breakfast. Breakfast every day is a buffet with cooked to order eggs, cereal, fruit, etc. You can also order from the menu and get waffles, pancakes, etc.
Buses departed at 8:00am for a tour of St. Catherine's Palace. So much to see, it's almost overwhelming. The tour guide was local and very informative. We only saw a portion of the palace, but it was still enough for half of a day. We returned to the ship for lunch and then headed to the city for the optional Walking Tour. Again, we only saw a small portion of the city but we loved what we saw. The city center is vibrant and has many modern stores and restaurants. Very clean and lots of energy. Most signs are in Russian with somewhat limited English, but you can get by.
Buses took us back to the ship in time for dinner. St. Petersburg has traffic jams so the drivers watch their GPS's closely to monitor traffic. Even still we got caught in some heavy traffic. The docks are a 30 - 60 minute drive to the city center depending on traffic.
8/13/13 - Day 3
Hermitage Tour. This museum is on a level with the Louvre. Far too much to see. Some people opted for a full day tour and they said they enjoyed it. We stuck with the half day tour and it was a good sample, but only scratched the surface. Very crowded though so you sometimes had to muscle your way through the crowds.
Returned to the ship for late lunch or early dinner. Afterwards, you could attend the ballet to see Swan Lake. We chose to take the bus with those going to the ballet to do some sight seeing and shopping. We returned and a late evening snack of goulash and desserts was available if you so desired.
8/14/13 - Day 4
We took an optional trip to Peterhof Palace. Based on the Palace of Versailles in Paris, it is a huge palace with grounds that are as beautiful as Versailles. Again very crowded, especially when the fountains came on at 10:00am. Returned to the ship for lunch and then jumped on a cruise tour bus to the city center to do some more shopping. That evening was the Captain's Welcome Reception and an overview of our cruise. There was free champagne during the presentation which was nice. The ship set sail at 7:00pm and dinner was at 8:00pm. Choices were vegetable lasagna, perch and veal. As always, steak, chicken and vegetarian are available along with free wine and beer.
8/15/13 - Day 5
It was raining during the night and we entered Lake Lagoda. Around 3:00am, the wind and rain kicked up and the ship started rocking. We stayed in bed and for about an hour, the ship rocked quite a bit. We never worried, but it was a rougher ride than we've ever experienced on a cruise ship.
After breakfast, we entered the first of 16 locks on the Sivir River as we climb on our way to Moscow. Quite a sight to see. After lunch, we arrived in Mandrogy. It's a replica of an old river town. People are there making and selling hand crafted items. There is a Vodka Museum worth seeing. They have 3,000 bottles of various vodkas on display to look at. It costs 200 rubles (about $6.50 USD) per person to enter and to taste 4 different vodkas each. You can also use one of the 200 ruble tickets to apply toward a purchase of vodka. It was fun and it was interesting to try the different vodkas that they offered. The rest of the village felt like a tourist trap with overpriced goods for sale. The buildings are replicas of buildings from the last century and they are interesting enough to see.
8/16/13 - Day 6
Up early for breakfast. The day started with an 8:00am excursion of Kizhi Island near the center of Lake Onega. The island is beautiful and is located about 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle. The centerpiece of the island is the Church of the Resurrection, the oldest wooden church in Russia. It is currently undergoing complete renovation that will last until at least 2018 so you cannot go inside. It is impressive nonetheless. The Church of the Transfiguration is another wooden church on the island and is worth seeing as well. The tour was led by a local tour guide who spoke excellent English and was very informative. We saw how the island inhabitants lived with working demonstrations of woodworking, farming and embroidery. This tour has a bit of walking involved and Viking had a group tour for those who cannot walk very fast. This helped keep the other tour groups moving along. Not much else to do on this tour so we returned to the ship by 10:30am in time for a sail away party that offered free champagne and some appetizers including caviar. The balance of the day, there were onboard presentations such as Russian language, tour of the bridge, a lecture on the Romanovs and an overview of the next day's port of call. There was also a reception for those passengers who have been on previous Viking cruises. Champagne, wine, Acquavit and appetizers along with a thank you toast from the captain and crew. Very nice. We also traveled through a series of 6 more locks throughout the afternoon and into the night. Those were interesting to experience. Dinner that night offered Russian Deer Loin, Tilapia and Chinese Noodles. As always, steak and chicken were also available.
8/17/13 - Day 7
A lazy morning. We headed into the Volga - Baltic Waterways for an afternoon tour of Kuzino. An early lunch was offered at 11:30am with the tours starting at 1:00pm. The views along the river are beautiful. So many trees and little islands. Surprisingly, we haven't seen many people out fishing but then I don't think the population along these parts of the river is very dense.
The tour on this day started in a dirt parking lot where the ship was docked. We took buses for about 20 minutes to a local elementary school in Kuzino. Since it's summer, the school we not in session. It was undergoing a remodel so it was under construction during our tour. We went into a typical classroom where an interpreter spoke on behalf of a teacher who showed off some of the hand made crafts the children made. A young girl and boy dressed in Russian historical clothes sang and played an accordion for us and then we moved to another classroom where the same young girl answered questions from the audience with the aid of the interpreter.
After the school tour, we got back on the buses for a short ride to a monastery where we were led on a tour of the building and the artwork. Much of the artwork consisted of paintings of icons and embroidery. It was interesting enough, but not a highlight of the trip. Back on the ship by 5:00pm as the ship set sail.
Dinner this evening was a Russian theme. Borscht, tomatoes and cucumber salad, veal & chicken meatloaf were among the items on the menu. After dinner, you could sign up for a vodka tasting event. We tasted 6 different vodkas and then they took the bottles to the Sky Bar where they were finished off by the participants. It was a lot of fun and a lot to drink. Good times!
8/18/13 - Day 8
A relaxing morning. Nothing major planned until we got to Yaroslavl. Actually a very pretty city. The tour didn't start until early afternoon and we went to an enclosed market with booths set up selling produce, candy and other food items. We got a few free samples. Outside, there were vendors selling all types of souvenirs, but many looked to be made in China. We visited the Church of Elijah which was quite striking and then went to the Governor's Palace which has been pretty much fully restored. We had a tour and a demonstration of music and dancing from that era. It was okay but we would have preferred more time to walk around the city. I could have missed that tour without a problem.
Dinner that evening was perch, spring rolls or a breast of duck. Afterward, one of the crew performed a piano recital. We did not see it but heard from other passengers that it was pretty good.
8/19/13 - Day 9
Early breakfast. We arrived in Uglich and the tour started at 8:15am. We actually walked this tour. First stop was two cathedrals, one of which had a service going on when we walked in. Afterwards, we walked to a local house where we were hosted by the owner to a light breakfast. We had some local Moonshine along with pickles, tomatoes and pastries. We had the opportunity to tour this home and have a Q&A with the owner. In this case, she is a widow living with her daughter, son-in-law and grandson. The home had the essentials for a nice life, but is still basic by U.S. standards. We really enjoyed this part of the tour. Afterwards, we had some free time to walk around. We found good prices on vodka in town and scarves and some other souvenirs at booths lining the street toward the ship. Overall, we enjoyed Uglich very much.
Returned to the ship n time for lunch. They had the usual lunch in the restaurant and a buffet on the Sky Deck. Since it was a nice day, it was jammed at the buffet. Best to get there early. The food was a mix of grilled chicken and some Russian meat pies, dumplings, rice, etc. They poured free beer along with the very delicious food. It was a very nice lunch. In the evening, they had the Captain's Dinner. It was a multi-course meal with appetizer, soup, sorbet, main course and dessert. Beef Tenderloin was my choice for dinner and it was good. After dinner, they showed a video of the trip thus far taken by the onboard videographer. The DVD is for sale and it shows most everyone on lard at some point during the various tours we took. After that night, he continued to film in Moscow and added that footage to the DVD. It was fun to watch with the friends we made onboard.
8/20/13 - Day 10
Arrived in Moscow. We were delayed in our arrival because the locks were closed due to fog. As a result, we arrived into Moscow about 45 minutes late. Not a big deal. They held a Disembarkation Overview at 10am and a review of the next three days in Moscow. You had to sign up for optional tours back in St. Petersburg which we did. Our first optional tour started around 2:00pm with a walking tour of the city. This tour includes quite a bit of walking and ride on the Metro. The subways are very clean, somewhat old, very fast and noisy. They have a number of stations that are absolutely fantastic. Beautiful architecture with marble, granite and statues. The stations are very clean without any noticeable graffiti or garbage even though you don't see any trash cans around. After taking the Metro, we walked through Red Square and visited the GUM Department Store. Three levels of very expensive stores. The shops we visited had goods that were 2x the prices they would be in the U.S. We then continued to walk around the city until we ended up at the Tretyakov Theatre for a concert by a group of younger musicians. This was one of the best events of the cruise. It was fun, fast paced and very entertaining. Mostly string instruments with a few wind and percussionist thrown in. I would highly recommend this excursion. Back to the ship by 9:00pm for a full dinner.
8/21/13 - Day 11
Since we got in late the night before, we got to sleep in and had a late breakfast. Our tour started after lunch. We took buses to the Kremlin. We toured Red Square, the cathedrals surrounding the Kremlin and ultimately, the Kremlin Armory. The Armory holds many of Russia's treasures including, the jewels, carriages, clothing, armor and possessions of the aristocracy of Russia. It also holds 10 Faberge eggs that are worth seeing. The entire tour was sensory overload with with so much gold, silver and jewels on display.
After the tour, we returned to the ship for dinner. The traffic in Moscow is very heavy most of the day, so it took us over an hour to return to the ship. We arrived just in time for dinner and then headed back out for a Moscow at Night tour. Buses took us to Sparrow Hill which looks out at the city skyline. There are also about 300 motorcyclists there enjoying the evening and the view. In the summer, they are there every night. We then headed to the canals for a canal ride to see the lights of the city. Very beautiful and worthwhile seeing. We then went to Red Square to see the Kremlin, St. Basil's and GUM all lit up. As a group, we voted to stay until midnight to hear the bells ring from one of the cathedrals. Really not worth the wait, but it was a democratic vote. Took the bus back to the ship and the driver did it in 20 minutes. The tour guide encouraged us to tip him nicely which we did. Back in our room by 1:00am.
8/22/13 - Day 12
The final full day in Russia. We took the optional tour which consisted of a bus ride to the center of the city and the balance of the day was on our own. So, we used the time to just walk around the city, take pictures and wander around. We had lunch at a McDonalds which for some reason tasted better than the McDonalds in America! Rather than wait until 5:00pm for the return bus ride to the ship, we decided to take the subway on our own so we could start packing for our trip home. We entered a station in the city and weren't sure which track to go to. We stopped a young girl in the station and tried gesturing on a subway map to indicate where we wanted to go in hopes she could point us in the right direction. As it turned out, she spoke perfect English and she insisted on helping us purchase our tickets and pointed us to the right track for our train. We learned that most young Russians speak English and they can be quite friendly. Once we arrived at our stop, there was a very modern market next to the station that sold food of all types from individual booths. This store was very clean and the food selection very broad. Everything from meats and vegetables to pastries and cookies and candy. It was really interesting to just walk around and look at all the offerings. We bought some cookies to eat while we shopped.
Dinner was great with the usual wide selection of appetizers and entrees. We sat with three other couples that we had met on the ship and whose company we enjoyed and stayed until we we realized everyone else had left.
8/23/13 - Day 13
Departure day. Our Lufthansa flight departed from Vnukovo Airport at 9:20am. That meant our transportation from the ship left at 5:00am. It was about an hour ride to the airport, but the ticket counter was not open when we arrived. It didn't open until 7:00am so we sat around for an hour waiting to check in.
Our Business Class tickets allowed us access to the Executive Lounge which wasn't much to talk about. Free drinks and food, but the food looked leftover from the day before. The cool thing was that the Lounge had its' own dedicated customs officer, so there was no wait to clear customs and head to our plane.
We flew back to Frankfurt and because we had a 3 hour layover for our flight to Los Angeles, we again used the Business Class Lounge. As before, they offered hot a cold food and drinks plus free wi-fi, so it was a great way to spend the time waiting for our flight. The flight to LAX was an older 747 where Business Class is on the first level at the front of the plane. The flight itself was uneventful, although the service was uneven. The flight attendants tend to rush around right after takeoff, then they pretty much disappear throughout much of the rest of the flight. We landed on time and faced the long lines at LAX Customs, but were glad to be home again.
Overall, I would give the cruise an "A". The staff was terrific, with special recognition to Alla, the guide we tended to gravitate to and Sacha, the Cruise Director. They were both very helpful to us throughout the trip. Alla was very knowledgeable about Russia and the culture so she was able to share many insights into every day life in Russia. Sacha was very attentive and fun to be around. He made it a very comfortable trip for everyone.
Russia is a beautiful country with so much history and culture that it was a revelation to us. I would recommend this trip highly to anyone with a desire to see another part of our world that has traditionally been somewhat of a mystery to us. I have an whole different perspective of Russia and its' history as a result of this trip and a new appreciation for what they have endured over the centuries.