The first thing one must know about river travel in Russia is that the company you have booked with does not own the ship. All ships are owned by Russian companies. They are staffed by those companies with the exception of one or possibly two employees of the line you booked with. The best term I can think of to make this clear is that your river cruise line has chartered a Russian ship.
We traveled on Amawaterways "Amakatarina" This is not the name of the ship. The company who owns the ship is Vodohod and they have named the ship "Rostropovich". Remember, it's a charter.
I am starting with the food as this seems to be the shocker to most cruisers, especially those who have previously only cruised on ocean liners or on the river boats owned by the operating companies in other countries.
The culture of the ship will be Russian. The cuisine will be prepared and designed by Russians. Our ship did have a "chef consultant" who was employed by Amawaterways, but there was little he could do about the management of the kitchen. In accordance with Russian law, all food must be cooked to a certain temperature before it is permitted to be served. I do not believe that the fact that food continues to cook after leaving the heat source is factored in.
Knowing in advance that the culinary culture is not what we Americans are used to should prepare you for the dining room. The soups were fantastic, especially the cream soups. Salads were interesting and tasty. Breads were very good. Desserts were creative and delicious. A lot of attention was given to plating the dishes in an aesthetic manner. The porridge (hot cereals) at breakfast were delicious and there is plenty of fresh produce, wonderful cheeses and fruit.
All meat dishes will be of the "pot roast" family. Though I did have a good fish dinner, my table mates complained about theirs. Fish and chicken can also be very dry and over-cooked. There is nothing the company whom you booked with can do about this. It's not worth complaining as it is not likely to change. It is the Russian law and the culture of obeying every "jot and tittle" of the law still remains even after the fall of communism. Vegetables were well-prepared, though well cooked, and the pastas were great. The vanilla ice cream is absolutely grand!
The dining room staff was cheerful willing to do just about anything to accommodate the guests and fluent in English. At dinner red and white wine, beer and sodas were free and free-flowing. Iced tea can be requested, but it has an herbal mixture, pleasant, but different.
Be careful at the bar and with ordering cocktails. If the cocktail is on their drink menu, there's no problem, but they have no ability to deal with what is not on their menu. For instance, a vodka martini will be charged as two drinks; 700 Roubles for the vodka and 2,000 Roubles for the "martini" This is due to the fact that the brand of vermouth they use is "Martini" brand. They consider this a two liquor drink. Best bet is vodka on the rocks.
The cabin was really large for a river boat. All the Vodohod ships are the same outside so we could see how this reconstruction differed from the others. The cabins are at least one and one-half, and, more than likely twice the size of the other ships. Where there would be just a single window on the others, the Rostropovitch (Amakatarina) had a window and a full glass door. Where the other ships had a promenade which passed the windows, the Rostropovich had dividers that created private balconies. The balconies are quite large. We guessed at about 6 or 7 feet wide and about 11 feet or more longer. We did not bring a tape measure, so this is just an eyeball measurement.
There is a closet with hangers on one side and shelves on the other side. The safe takes up most of one shelf, but we found that we had adequate room for all of our things. There is a double shelf next to the entry door where one can store luggage. We got both suitcases onto the bottom shelf and used the top shelf to hold our packing cubes with underwear, socks and sleep clothes. I did take some extra wire hangers with me and a set of those plastic things that make one hanger space into a vertical space for several hangers (as seen on TV). The shelves held everything else.
There is a large desk that has room beneath it for shoes. Lots of counter space there. There is a small cabinet under the desk that holds a mini fridge. It is empty and cold, unlike some of the "coolers" on ocean liners. There is a flat-screen TV with some cable channels. They did play movies with a Russian theme a couple of times, but we never found the time to watch them.
The desk has the single electric outlet. I brought a converter and found that I needed the extender to get it to fit as the socket is deep. I also brought a multiple outlet electrical strip with a surge protector that allowed me to plug in more than one thing at a time. My husband uses a Bi-pap machine and I had been advised to bring my own extension cord. The ship provided a bottle of distilled water as had been requested. There was no charge for the water.
There are two night stands, each with a drawer, a clear top (lights were pinned on the wall) and a cavity below the drawer for more storage.
There is a chair which we kept on the wall of the bathroom as it was difficult to get around it when it was by the desk.
The balcony was very large and had two comfortable wicker chairs and a little table.
The bathroom is about normal size for a small ship. The shower is slightly lower than the floor so that the drain is in the shower and it makes it a "dry" bath as opposed to a "wet" bath like on other ships running the itinerary. One of us could use the sink while the other showered. The hot water was magnificent and the water pressure was awesome!
We were told that we could brush our teeth with the water in the sink, but not to drink it. Plenty of bottled water was provided.
The sink has some edge to it so you can keep your tooth brushes in the tumbler and the soap in the soap dish formed on the sink top. There is a very large medicine chest above the sink that holds quite a bit. I always travel with an over the door shoe holder and we used ours on this cruise as we do on ocean liners.
They provided a bar of Palmolive soap and little bottles of shampoo and shower gel.
The beds are separate, though pushed together. They have a nice duvet and we found the mattresses to be extremely comfortable and the pillows were to our liking, though some who prefer very soft pillows might not. The duvet was kind of folded in half and I felt like I was a hot dog in a bun when I climbed into bed. I supposed I could have opened it like my husband did, but I enjoyed being wrapped up.
Air conditioning is controlled by the engine room. There is a thermostat on the wall but it is ineffective. We had extremely hot weather on our trip and I think the ship did the best they could to keep the cabins comfortable. We have traveled in Europe before and their idea of air conditioning is not our idea of air conditioning. We were always comfortable enough to sleep and we both slept very, very well. You will need to put your key card into the slot next to the door to work the electricity. This is very European. Also the key cards are very modern. Yo just hold them in front of the lock, no swiping or dipping.
There is no clock. Bring a travel clock.
There is a treadmill, a stepper and a Nautalis-type gym machine on the top deck. I took an exercise class, but it was a joke. The walking was quite enough. Dancing in the evening was a help, too. The music in the lounge was great!
WiFi is a challenge. Though the signal from the routers was excellent, very very often the servers would drop you or "reset." I did report it on my comment sheet. I believe that the satellite system can only handle so many computers at a time and it just throttles down. There has to be a better way to manage it. I found that late at night was a good time to use it. I also made Amakatarina my "home" and often disconnected and reconnected from the network screen on my Windows 7 Starter netbook.
The excursions were fabulous. Moscow has a terrible traffic problem and it can be frustrating to be siting on a bus in traffic but the guides managed to keep up interesting patter about the culture and the sites we were passing to make the most out of a bad, but uncontrollable, situation. One day we did some walking touring in the morning then got on the bus for a canal boat ride where were served a buffet lunch. The food was good, but the same over-cooking rules applied. I believe that Amawaterways arranges this canal boat tour for lunch so that the bus does not have to go back to the river port and fight the traffic. I don't believe any of the other lines do this. We did take a tour of the Metro in Moscow and it's astounding. The art is magnificent. In St. Petersburg, they used the hydrofoil several times which left from the same docking area where the ship was. We also had lunch at a beautiful restaurant in St. Petersburg on one of our tour days, again to not have to go back and forth on the bus.
The guides were knowledgeable and cheerful. The ship company has a compliment of young people who accompany the guests on the buses or hydrofoils and walking tours at all times. They are attentive and they are very responsible. They all speak fluent English. My husband has some mobility issues and needs a slower walking pace. We were in the "gentle walkers" group and they truly did honor the concept. If a group was walking too fast, there was always the youngster from the ship who made sure everyone in the group was accounted for and brought up the rear. No one ever got lost or left behind. By the way, the "pink" group, which we were a part of was divided into a regular group and a gentle walking group so no one who did not want the slower pace was forced to live with it. If someone from the regular pink group was a bit tired, they were permitted to switch to the gentle group. This was handled extremely well.
The only criticism I have about the sightseeing in general was that when we were sailing, there could have been a narration on the ship's PA telling us what we were seeing and where we were. My little book "Russia By River" was a great help and we passed it around. Otherwise, we wish we had more time to see St. Petersburg. There is so much to see and do there.
I felt that I had enough free time as the tours took up most of the day and unlike a Danube, Rhine or other Western Europe cruise, when you do stop at a post where you walk off the ship, there isn't much to do.
I was happy with the shopping opportunities.
Marina is the Amawaterways cruise director. She is at the absolute top of her profession. She is cheerful, helpful and tries very hard to accommodate everyone's special needs. I have nothing but praise for the job she did.
On board the ship the cultural presentations and activities were great. The ship travels with two musicians and a folk group. Among the things we did were a class in making blinis, painting a wooden doll, a vodka tasting class and a Russian tea class followed by an authentic Russian tea party with special china cups and little cakes. There was a three-part lecture series on the country's history and culture as well. We got to have a meal in a Russian home which was very interesting.
I feel that the main reason for river cruising is to get up front and personal with the people and the culture and we most certainly did on this cruise. The art in The Hermitage is so fantastic that it reduced me to tears. To see so many, many Impressionists in one place is indescribable.
We met many interesting people from all over the globe on our cruise and just about all of them were friendly. We collected lots of email addresses. I took over 4 GB of photos which have to be sorted, including some of the cabin and the ship.
We had a fabulous time in Russia and I would recommend this cruise to anyone who does not 'live to eat' and can accept that part of the river cruising experience is absorbing the local culture. I'll try to answer individual questions via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.