The tour company advised us that we would have to arrange for a Visa to visit Russia. We were given to option of using a company that would arrange for the Visa for us for a fee. After checking on the internet, we opted to arrange for the Visa ourselves. The tour company sent us an Invitation to Visit Russia form that we would need. We downloaded the application form from the internet and followed the directions exactly. They give you a list of items that must be submitted to their embassy. In just 3 weeks we had our Visas.
We flew to Helsinki at the end of August and enjoyed 3 nights at the Radisson Blu Plazza in the heart of Helsinki. It was a great place to get over jet-lag and to see a new city. It isn't a five star hotel but it is clean and quiet and very central. A Viking Representative met us at the airport and whisked us to our hotel.
Our first day in Helsinki we were given a walking tour of the city. We had free time that afternoon and all the next day to explore on our own. A Viking representative was at the hotel every day to give us advice about where to go and how to get there. We got very comfortable using public transportation and enjoyed our stay in the city.
On our day of departure the Viking rep. met us in the lobby of the hotel. Our luggage was whisked away for us and taken to the train. We all walked over to the train station, only a couple of blocks away. Our Viking rep. took us to the train and got us on the right car. She made sure we understood the procedures for crossing the border into Russia and gave us our tickets.
We realy enjoyed the scenery of the 6 hour train trip. Food and beverages are available on the train but we took our own. The train is stopped for about an hour at the Russian border while the guards take all the passports away and get them stamped - or whatever it is they are doing with them.
We were met at the train station in St. Petersburg and taken by bus to the ship. The journey that usually takes 30 minutes took almost 3 hours. The St. Petersburg traffic jam had to be seen to be believed. Car ownership has exploded in Russia in the past 15 years and the city wasn't prepared for the resulting congestion. Russian drivers are not the best in the world either. It is the first time I have seen people drive along on sidewalks and pedestrian paths. Pedestrians need to be careful. I think that Russin drivers believe that the white lines indicating pedestrian crossings are only some weird form of graffiti.
We liked the fact that most of the tours arranged by the tour company are included in the cost of your cruise ticket. There were a few optional tours offered so that we had the opportunity to tailor our cruise to our own interests. We were also given free time and lots of information on how to get around on our own. We had lectures on Russian history and the Russian language. I found that the information in the lectures really helped us to get the most out of our trip. On the first day of the cruise, you pick your guide from 6 that are available. That guide is with you for the entire cruise. Some days a local tour guide is comes along as well in order to add their expertise on the area you are visiting. All the tour guides were excellent.
After three very busy, very long days touring St.Petersburg, we sailed down the Volga-Baltic waterway to Moscow. Along the way we stopped at 5 very different ports and had tours at all of them. Usually, the tours to these small towns and cities were half-day tours so we had time for our Russian lessons. We also had around table discussion with all our guides one afternoon as they answered all questions about modern life in Russia and Russia under the Soviet regime. They were very frank in their answers. It was obvious that they are very proud of their country and are very aware of the challenges that they face.
The scenery along the way was lovely. The ship glides slowly along the canals with hardly any felling of motion at all. The captain said that on the big lakes there can be some bigger waves. The lakes were like a mirror when we sailed.
We ended the cruise with 4 nights in Moscow. It's a good thing that we rested up while sailing on the canal, because we were really busy in Moscow. We had come a long way and we wanted to see as much as we could. We had three very full days seeing the city and enjoying every minute of it.
The ship was very comfortable. It was refurbished in the last couple of years. The decor is Scandanavian Modern. There is one sitting in the dining room. The food is not as varied as on a cruise ship but it was very good and there was plenty of choice for everyone. The food was beautifully presented and the portions were small. There was coffee, tea and hot chocolate available 24 hours a day. Even though the dining room was open seating, we all sort of gravitated to our favorite spots fairly early on the cruise and the waiters learned our preferences remarkably quickly.
Staterooms are a little smaller than on an ocean going cruise ship but there was plenty of room for our belongings. Our room steward was perfect. She kept our room beautifully and we never saw her. She was the majic genie that just did her job invisibly.
The cruise is not appropriate for children. There are no facilities for them and they would not be very interested in the lectures and tours. There is no casino and no glitzy entertainment. If you are looking for evening excitment on board, you are doomed to disappoinment. There is no gym or exercise equipment but the activity director leads exercise classes on deck on mornings when there is no early tour. There are always a dozen or so hardy souls keeping him company. There were two computers available for passengers. They were very busy. There is free wireless Internet available in your room although there it was a bit slow. There were a couple of times on the trip when we had no Internet service.
On disembarkation day, we had our luggage outside our rooms 30 minutes before the shuttle took us to the airport. Unfortunately, our flight was at 5:50 AM. We had to get up at 1:45 AM. That is pretty early when you are facing a very long trip home. However, one of the guides was with us on the bus. He escorted us to the right check-in counter and made certain that we understood where we had to go to navigate the check-in and security procedures. Since all the signs were in the Russian alphabet, it would have been pretty confusing without his help.
We were very happy with the whole riverboat cruising experience and are going to do it again next year. We have already booked the cruise!
Our expectations were certainly exceeded by this cruise. We thought the service was outstanding. It is a very different experience than ocean cruising. We like the smaller number of passengers and made some really great friends over the two weeks.