We had previously done only one other river cruise and that was on the Nile (not a trip offered by Viking) where the lack of suitable alternative accommodations made the ship essential, at least for Westerners accustomed to a certain level of comfort, health, and safety. While infrastructure in Russia and Egypt are vastly different the waterways make this a good way to travel in this part of Russia.
Although Viking offers to arrange for air transport to the port of embarkation we elected to make our own arrangements, but we did take advantage of Viking's airport to ship transfers. Unless you can read Russian words in Cyrillic text it's probably best to take Viking's transfers both to and from the ship because the airports are a long distance from the docks, none of the road signs are in Roman text, and from what we heard, many taxi drivers have limited or no comprehension of English. One thing to consider when meeting a cruise ship or any other organized tour with a scheduled departure, is allowing sufficient time to get to the starting point. This was made obvious to us when our initial flight from LAX was cancelled when the aircraft was found to be not airworthy (after all passengers were aboard with seat belts fastened). Our original itinerary included a change of planes before leaving the US and we would have missed that connection because of the cancelled flight. A second connecting flight likewise became doubtful when weather at the connecting city delayed flights there. Finally, after almost 12 hours at LAX we departed on a non-stop flight to London. Since we had planned a short stay in London there was never any doubt that we would get to St. Petersburg a few days later in time for the ship's departure but had we planned to arrive just in time for embarking on the cruise we may have "missed the boat." Lesson learned.
To call Viking's "Waterways of the Csars" a cruise is a bit of a misnomer because the ship is small (106 staterooms) compared to the behemoths usually associated with the word "cruise" and dress is always on the casual side, even at the "Captain's Dinner." Many men and women (there were no children on board) did "dress for dinner" but "business casual" was more the rule; nary a tux wax seen. Viking claims to "operate our ships according to the highest standards of Swiss hotel management" and they live up to that claim. The main purpose of the ship is transportation not entertainment although there was certainly no lack of things to do while underway. More on that later.The Viking Surkov has very recently been "extensively" renovated according to Viking, and it shows. The good news is that the interior of the ship is all new, and very well done at that. Everything that Viking says about the cruise was true - these folks know how to provide an excellent travel experience. The bad news is that the ship was apparently put into service before the renovations were complete. Our cruise was the third sailing since the ship left the yard and according to the staff there had been no shakedown cruise before the first revenue cruise. Two problems persisted for the entire cruise - staterooms were either cold (as was ours, which was consistently less than 20 deg C for all but a few hours) or hot, that is, some were hot and some cold, but we heard no complaints from passengers that any staterooms were alternately cold and hot, and there was an occasional odor of sewage in various locations throughout the ship but fortunately for us not in our stateroom. The sewage smell was the lesser problem for most of us (judging by the scuttlebutt) since it was generally neither severe nor persistent, though we know of one of the single cabins that remained somewhat smelly (and HOT) for the duration.
Except for the problems with temperature control the staterooms were quite nice. (See Cabin Guru, below)
On board, all expenses not included in the tour package (optional tours, adult beverages, laundry service, internet access, etc.) are billed in "units" which are at parity with Euros but apparently Viking is not permitted to call it that. A few days prior to the end of the cruise a final statement was issued and henceforth all purchases were cash (rubles) or credit card. Viking cannot exchange currencies on board but on most shore excursions there was an opportunity to convert US dollars. UK pounds, or Euros to rubles. In the big cities ATMs are easy to find. We (the two of us) brought the ruble equivalent of about US$500 with us and had rubles left over. We don't spend much on drinks or souvenirs so your mileage may vary. Ah, yes. Drinks. With wine by the glass typically priced at 6 units (almost US$10 at the ship's Euro-dollar exchange rate) if you want wine with most meals it would probably make sense to sign up for the beverage package when you book. I don't recall the details but I think it gets you unlimited drinks for a fixed price. I saw plenty of wine served at meals but got the definite impression from one passenger at least that the wines served were not of the quality we Californians expect to get at home at very modest prices.
The ship's crew is all Russian, as is the dining room staff (mostly waitresses and a few waiters) but the on-board management apparently consists only of German nationals. The tour guides for the shore excursions are all Russians with excellent command of English and superior knowledge of their subject. Unlike the tour guides, the dining room staff had limited ability to converse with us in English. There was never any difficulty communicating about menu choices, but questions such as "What is this item on the menu?" never got a satisfactory answer. The menu had a definite international flavor with familiar items from the Continent and some unfamiliar Russian dishes. Even when choosing a menu item with an unfamiliar name and without a description, nothing truly bizarre appeared at the table. Overall we ate quite well on board and all meals were included. With almost the same number of crew as passengers, the overall level of service throughout the cruise was excellent.
The passengers were mostly from the US, UK, and the antipodes, including more than thirty Australians travelling as a group. This being a rather pricey boat ride, the passengers were of course rather well off and for the most part were beyond retirement age, some way beyond. Several folks used wheelchairs or canes and even with these required appliances most (but not all) of the shore excursions were well within their capabilities. That is not to say that the shore excursions involved little walking because walk we did. However, the pace was set to accommodate those with less than youthful mobility. For each shore excursion the routine was similar. Prior to leaving the ship all passengers exchange the magnetic card key to the stateroom for a small card that shows the port location (in Russian) so in the unlikely event of getting separated from the group the card can be presented to any taxi driver (presumably they are all literate in Russian) to arrange transport back to the ship. This scheme also allows for "taking attendance" prior to the ship's departure thus assuring that no one gets left behind. Something like that could ruin your whole day.The Viking website covers the details of the shore excursions, but this is a review of the cruise so I'll limit my comments about the shore excursions. Viking offered either as part of the package or as options, excursions that covered the key places in Russia that are listed in "1,000 Places to See Before You Die: A Traveler's Life List" by Patricia Schultz (the book, not the barely watchable hokey home video shown on the Travel Channel) and that was one of the reasons we took this cruise. One of the tradeoffs involved in group travel is that word "group." Being part of a group imposes some limits on how to spend time; for example, in museums we got to see a lot of art but which particular art and how long we could view it was not up to the individual. And let there be no doubt, there is a lot of art to see! Our guides did schedule some "free time" at several locations so we sometimes had the opportunity to choose how to spend our time.
The Russian guides (as mentioned earlier) were very knowledgeable. We had guides that live on board, and at some locations we had a local guide with the specialized knowledge appropriate to that location or museum. For those of us who were primarily interested in the cultural aspects of the cruise, these are the people that made the trip truly worthwhile. For the first shore excursion we picked a guide and a bus and that guide became "our" guide for the duration of the cruise. We had the good fortune to select the oldest of the group and she turned out to be an exceptional guide with experience as a guide beginning in 1960. The crew and guides sign on for six months of cruising, and as the captain explained during our visit to the bridge, the ship's crew works for six months without a day off.
The officers and crew demonstrated excellent seamanship throughout the voyage and the weather cooperated to the extent that no one seemed to get seasick. Even on the larger bodies of water (lakes and reservoirs) the surface was relatively calm so most of the time there was little evidence of motion while underway.
The on board activities included vodka tasting, caviar tasting (we skipped both), an amateur night where the passengers presented a modestly produced variety show, and several sessions on Russian history. Near the end of the trip we were offered a question and answer session with the guides. As for the history sessions, this was conducted in the large lounge/bar set up like a meeting room with the guides at the front of the room facing an audience of passengers. With a standing room only crowd the guides bravely fielded questions about all aspects of Russian life, both present and in Soviet times. One of the guides is old enough to have remembered life during the Nazi invasion and the aftermath of what the Russians call The Great Patriotic War (that's WWII to most of us). While all of the questions from passengers were politely phrased and considerate of our hosts, we got into some rather blunt political discussions, for example. It quickly became obvious that Russia is no longer the Evil Empire of Soviet times. Also obvious from what we heard during this Q&A was that the Russian population is a tough bunch of people who have endured some really terrible times. The Romanovs were truly awful rulers, Stalin was even worse, the subsequent Communist rulers were incompetent at best (so far no surprises), and a real surprise (to me at least) was the Russians' opinion of Gorbachev and Putin. Gorby got a mere 1% of the vote the last time he ran for office (it seems that he is universally disliked for causing incredible hardship during the unplanned transition to a free economy), and they finally have a ruler in Putin that has brought them both stability and a functioning economy. Putin may be trying to control his domestic media (and perhaps crown himself emperor) but there is apparently no restriction on what Russians may read or access from beyond the borders of Russia. These people have access to the same sources of news that we have and they clearly take advantage of the opportunity to learn from those sources.
All expressed their opinions, apparently without reservation, and not all opinions were flattering to the state.
Debarkation was uneventful and as well organized as the other aspects of our journey. It wasn't Viking's fault that our early morning flight from Moscow required a 1:15 am wake up call.
I went to Russia expecting to visit a more or less third world country (albeit one with a big army and some nukes) but came home with the realization that Russia has changed a lot in the past ten years or so. St. Petersburg and Moscow are both rapidly becoming truly modern European cities and in both cities the amount of construction and infrastructure restoration activity is impressive. The people living in the small cities and towns we visited don't seem to be any more isolated than folks living in America's heartland (and we know that they are not isolated).