This was our 4th Viking cruise and it was as wonderful as all the others. We started our trip with a couple extra days in Moscow. Since we felt that the Viking price of $1200 for 2 nights seemed high and I wanted to stay closer to the Kremlin area, we made our own arrangements. We had two nights booked at the Marriott Royal Aurora which was just a couple blocks from the Bolshoi and fairly close to GUM, Red square, and the Kremlin. We had never been to Moscow before and wanted see some additional sites plus get over some of our 11 hours of jet lag.
I had done quite a bit of research on the logistics of getting from Domodedevo airport to the city center and then to the Marriott. Since we travel fairly light with only carry-on bags, we made our way through passport control and then customs. Everything we had read indicated that we should fill out a customs declaration for our electronics and other items of value over $1500. Since I figured we were at about $2800, we proceeded, form in hand, to the red line. The official took one look, handed it back to us and said only “green line”. I think all they are really looking for are commercial goods or large amounts of cash.
We changed enough dollars at the airport to get us into town. I knew there was an ATM in the airport somewhere but I never did see it…plus I really preferred to get cash from ATM at a major bank in town. The Aeroexpress train ticket machine has English instructions and takes cash. With tickets purchased, we then realized that we had less than 5 minutes to make it to the other side of the terminal or wait 30 minutes for the next train. We ran and quickly jumped on the train just seconds before the train doors closed. We arrived at Paveletsky RR Station 45 minutes later and transferred to the “Green Line” metro. I bought an 11 ride card for 320 Rubles, and we went 2 stops to the Teatralnaya station. We surfaced just in front of the Bolshoi. (Note: There is an excellent document on Tripadvisor that describes exactly how to use the metro.) After a short walk, we entered the Marriott. You are probably wondering, why go to all the trouble? We had heard about the Moscow traffic and then saw it from the train. Domodedevo is a LONG way from the city center and it would have cost us considerably more time & money than the $24 we spent on the train and metro. It took us just over 2 hours from the time we left the plane till we walked into the Marriott.
The Marriott was fantastic! I am MR Gold, so we were first upgraded to a bigger room. Then we had access to the Concierge Lounge which had an unexpected and outstanding evening buffet including free wine & beer. While we could have had an excellent breakfast there, we were told to go to the buffet instead as it was also free to us. It was superb and kept us going till dinner. We also had free Internet. But what made this hotel so special was the service. From the moment we arrived till we left, everyone was SO friendly and attentive. They were a pleasure to deal with. We would not hesitate to stay there again and recommend it highly.
Since we were making our own way to the ship, I had emailed the Viking Rurik to confirm their location. I received a quick reply that verified that the ship was at the Northern Cruise ship terminal about a 10 minute walk from the Rechnoy Vokzal metro station, the last stop on the green line. So metro ticket in hand, we walked back to Teatralnaya station and about a half hour later walked onto the Viking Rurik. To our surprise, we were given immediate access to our room at noon, unpacked, and then had lunch in the dining room. This was very nice and totally unexpected as we assumed we’d have a small snack in the lounge and then wait till 3pm for cabin access.
We had a balcony on the middle deck, same level as the restaurant. This was great because the steps between decks are VERY steep. The Panorama bar on the 4th deck was really nice for either a smaller breakfast or relaxing during the day or before dinner. We were up there sometime every day.
We were extremely lucky to book the Rurik for the June 12-24 sailing because June 12 was Russian Independence Day and the start of a 4-day holiday. This meant NO traffic! But unlike other holidays of this kind around Europe, all stores and sights were open. It took only 20-25 minutes to get from the ship to Red Square by bus, less time than riding the metro. As usual, all Viking tours and guides were excellent. The first day Viking offered an ‘up close’ walking tour which took us through the subway to Red Square, GUM, the new Cathedral, along the Kremlin embankment, and to a concert before returning back to the ship for a late dinner. Next day had many optional tours plus a free bus to Red Square. Since we were totally comfortable with the subway, we wanted to tour some additional stations. The stations are quite beautiful. We then navigated to Arabat Street and wandered through the shops. We also toured inside St. Basil’s. We did go on the optional Moscow by Night tour which started with a boat ride around the Moscow River and ended with walking around Red Square around 11pm once it finally got dark. Red square, with St. Basil’s, GUM, and the Kremlin is spectacular at night. I would highly recommend this tour.
One optional tour that was not mentioned in the pre-cruise literature was the visit to the Kremlin Armory Museum in conjunction with Cathedral Square. We had gone there on our own and I consider it the highlight of our time in Moscow. It is the only place to see the Faberge eggs and thousands of other priceless treasures. It is better than any other museum of its kind including the crown jewels in London and Hapsburg treasury in Vienna. The Viking Kremlin tour was the morning of our last day in Moscow. It was excellent and really helped us understand the history of the fortress and its cathedrals.
The ports enroute to St. Petersburg were all very interesting. We especially enjoyed the wooden domed churches in Kinzi and the monastery in Kuzino. Viking tours always seem to have something just a little bit extra that enhances the experience. For example we had an group singing Acapella at the monastery and Bell Ringing in Kinzi. Mandrogy had the best craft items by far. The dozens of artisans were working on their wares and each had a unique style. The items were more expensive than we’d seen at hundreds of shops along the way, but it was also obvious that the quality was there.
Like Moscow, we had 3 full days in St. Petersburg. Once again, we were lucky as we arrived on a Saturday so the traffic was considerably lighter than normal. First day, we went to the Hermitage and then to the ballet that evening. Rather than go back and forth to the ship between tours, we opted to stay in the city center. We wandered Nevsky Prospect and then had dinner at a place recommended by Christopher, the cruise director. It was on the 6th floor of a building across from the Kazan Cathedral and had great views of the city including the domes of the spilled blood church. All tours the next day were included. We first ventured out to Catherine’s Palace and then had a city tour that included the Peter and Paul Fortress in the afternoon. It was a beautiful day for both.
The weather our last day in St. Petersburg was not quite as nice as we took the optional tour to Peterhof. However, even with the steady rain, the gardens and fountains were spectacular. Viking arranged for us to be the first group inside the palace which was really nice as it was extremely crowded later in the morning. I would highly recommend the Peterhof tour as the palace interior rooms have original furnishings and décor. It was probably the highlight of our time in St. Petersburg. We also signed up for the optional canal boat tour in the afternoon. After the city tour the day before, the boat ride was short, boring, redundant and just an unnecessary expense. I wish we would have skipped it.
Meals on board were very good to excellent. The house white and red were above average Spanish wines and they flowed freely. In fact, our glasses were never empty. Rather than having to ask for more, we had to ask our wait staff to stop pouring. Every lunch and dinner had at least one or two Russian specialties, many of which we tried. There were also several sail away parties with Champagne, Vodka, or other specialty drinks our on the Sundeck. There was also a special Russian dinner and buffet lunch during the course of the cruise.
The Russian history lectures on board were outstanding. Other events such as Vodka tasting, Pelmeni making, Wheelhouse tour, etc. kept us more than busy between ports. Everyone agreed that the presented programs were the best of any previous Viking cruise or ocean cruise for that matter. They would always schedule two sessions in the Skybar so that everyone could attend.
We wanted to go to Finland but again thought the Viking post-cruise option of 3 nights for $1600 seemed extremely expensive especially since only breakfast was included. We did have Viking arrange a taxi to the train station and boarded the Allegro High Speed train for the 3.5hr trip to Helsinki. Best part was that we cleared Russian customs and EU immigration from our seats on the train. It was no muss, no fuss, extremely efficient, and totally painless. We had 2 nights there before continuing north to the Finnish Lake district and the town of Savonlinna. A few nights later we were back in Helsinki, staying at the airport the night before flying back to San Francisco.
This was an outstanding 3 week trip and a Viking cruise is the perfect way to see Russia!