We were on the inaugural cruise of the Amakatarina (actually it's officially the Mickael Rostropovich – the Russian authorities have refused to register the boat as Amakatarina). The cruise had a number of significant problems which resulted in a major compensation package to all passengers. This package included a 50% refund of the cruise price and a free 7-day cruise. Here is a summary of the issues from our perspective.
1. The refit of the boat was not completed on time. At the time the cruise commenced (10 May 2011) painters were still painting, engineers were still engineering, and much of the equipment had not been unpacked or installed. The outdoor furniture and gym equipment were still packed away. The outdoor deck was unavailable for passengers use until midway through the cruise. Safety signs were installed sometime during the cruise. On day one we had towels. On day two we also got toiletries. A few days later we got a bath mat and rubbish bin. The safe was not installed in the cabins but this was rectified after a few days. Sometime later workmen appeared and installed coat-hooks in the cabin. This list is just a summary to give a flavour of the issues – the boat was just not ready for its first passengers. For subsequent cruises these problems should now mostly be rectified.
2. Some passengers experienced significant mechanical failure in their cabins. Some toilets didn't flush and the passengers had to be moved to other cabins. Some cabins didn't have hot water. One passenger reported that the toilet flushed hot water but the basin and shower only had cold. For all of us, and for the crew in the public areas, there was significant difficulty in controlling the temperature. Sometimes the air-con worked, sometimes it didn't. Sometimes the heating worked, sometimes it didn't. All through one night we shivered in a very cold cabin. A team of workmen accompanied the cruise and most of these problems seemed to have been resolved by the final day.
3. The cruise was not as 'luxury' as some passengers expected. This boat is hyped as the most luxurious cruise ship ever to ply the Russian rivers, and in comparison to the other boats on the river it is a lot better, but nevertheless in many areas it fell significantly short of expectations. Many passengers felt that the food was not up to the standard expected when compared to European river cruises. For us, we didn't have a point of comparison and thought the food was ok without being memorable. A major disappointment was our cabin. Cruise marketeers tend to use a lot of hyperbole in describing their products, and hence a poky little cabin becomes a 'Stateroom' in the advertising brochures. Our cabin was marketed as a Marinsky Suite and priced accordingly. A 'suite' it was not. It turned out to be just a slightly wider version of the adjacent cabins, with the addition of two hard-backed chairs (far too uncomfortable to sit in for any length of time) and a small table. Also we had booked a 'double' and what we got was 2 single beds pushed together. Our balcony, another big selling point of this boat, had a high, solid outer side which meant there was no view when sitting. A note about balconies – when the boat is docked for three days at each end of the cruise it is double or triple moored with other boats. For passengers whose balcony was on the inside, moored against another boat, it became unusable due to the noise and fumes from the A/C plant on the adjacent boat.
4. The sightseeing itinerary was very interesting but tended to be conducted in waltz time – slow, slow, quick, quick, slow. Tours were slow getting going (they never started on time), and almost always stuck in slow traffic, sometimes for hours. Moscow traffic is bad news and we typically spent 1 to 2 hours getting to and from the boat to the city centre. St Petersburg is similar. On a good run it took half an hour into the city but when it went bad it was awful. One group took 3 hours to get back to the boat. So we were always running behind schedule which meant the tours sometimes got a bit rushed and truncated – quick, quick. And then back to the slow crawl back to the boat. Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow.
5. Most of the crew appeared to be inexperienced and, initially, lacked confidence. As the cruise progressed they became more knowledgeable and confident in their roles. We actually found this to be a bonus as it made them more human and likeable – their lack of cruising experience was overcome with abundant enthusiasm.
6. The airport pickup was a bit of a challenge. We were kept waiting for an hour right beside the boarded-up area where 35 people had been killed by a bomb the previous month.
In summary, many of the problems that we encountered have now been fixed. Subsequent cruises on this boat should be a lot better. We were told that the food would be improved, but it didn't happen for us. Some problems are less easily fixed, like the Moscow traffic and the overall expectation of getting a consistently premium product for a premium price. Apart from the obvious issues of mechanical and operational lack of readiness, we thought that the cruise was mostly ok while not really earning a 'luxury' label.