We traveled on Viking's Waterways of the Czars river cruise on the Viking Kirov, starting in Moscow June 12th, 2011 and ending in St. Petersburg on June 24th. We have only done one other river cruise, which was on the Danube with another company a couple of years prior, but let me say that Viking really did an outstanding job on this cruise. The ship was first rate, the crew was extremely professional, the food was superb and the tours were well organized. The onboard activities, such as the history and language lectures, were excellent. That's not to say everything was perfect, but rarely is that the case when it comes to travel. Now, let's get into the details.
We were not entirely satisfied with the Viking air travel department because they put us on a really tough and tiring itinerary to get over to Moscow, with crack-of-dawn departures, less direct routes and long layovers, which left us pretty wiped out by the time we got there. The lesson here is to stay on top of things and make sure you get the arrangements that work best for you. The pickup and transfer in Moscow was flawless, however, and we got settled on the ship in no time. Even though we arrived well after 9 p.m., the dining room stayed open so we could have dinner before unpacking and getting to bed.
One of the drawbacks of the docking locations in both Moscow and St. Petersburg is that they are quite far from the city centers. This is not peculiar to Viking as all the river boats dock in the same area. However, this means most bus tours start and end with almost an hour in horrible traffic moving at a crawl. This also means you will see the outer regions of those cities and their enormous number of dilapidated Stalin-era buildings, thereby providing a very bad first impression. In my opinion, the river cruise lines should put their passengers up at city center hotels to avoid these issues. Having said that, I have to give our guides major kudos for utilizing the travel time to inform and entertain, so it's not just wasted time.
I don't mean to harp this, but another drawback of not staying in a downtown hotel is the lack of time for just walking the streets and getting to know the city. We would've loved to have explored more of the area around Red Square. Likewise, in St. Petersburg, there was a great area downtown that offered a much in the way of exploration possibilities. It was ironic that, as much as the river cruise lines tout their ability to dock in the city centers of their various ports of call, in the case of St. Petersburg, it was some of the larger cruise ships that were berthed very close to the downtown area. Of course, those same large ships cannot go to Moscow, so that's the trade-off. Bottom line is that, if your focus is on Russia, then a river cruise is the way to go.
This trip is not about seeing great cities, though there are flashes of greatness to be seen, it's really about discovering Russian history, meeting its people and knowing what today's Russia is like. You will learn that Russia is struggling mightily to move from the Soviet era to the modern era and it's going to take a long time. There is great architecture mixed in with some of the most depressing blocks of prefab housing you've ever seen. Keep all this in mind and you will be able to better accept what you are seeing. The Viking guides did an outstanding job of telling it like it is.
The thing I liked about this itinerary is that, in between the hectic pace in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, the schedule is more leisurely on the river as you visit the small towns or just cruise the waterways. The scenery was just beautiful, better than I had anticipated.
I should mention that, once you select a bus on the first day of tours, you will stay with that bus, and that tour guide, for the rest of your trip. On the Kirov, we had Misha as our guide and he was excellent. On one of the optional tours, where you don't necessarily use your original bus, we had Victoria as our guide and she was absolutely brilliant. Of the optional tours offered, in Moscow we did the Military Museum (good) and Moscow By Night (very good), in Uglich we did the Home Host Visit (very good), and in St. Petersburg we did the Peterhof Palace (excellent). One of the highlights of the trip was definitely Red Square and the Kremlin, part of the included tours in Moscow. Being a baby boomer and having grown up with so many references to that place, it was a thrill to see it in person.
Regarding the onboard experience, we thought the Kirov was a much nicer ship in the way of stateroom decor, passenger space, dining room set-up, outdoor deck layout and lounge comfort than the smaller European river ship we were on. All of the ships used on the Russia river cruises are an East German design and many, but not all, of them have been fully gutted and remodeled like those in the Viking line. Just be mindful that all river cruise ships are NOT anything like the large mega-ships cruising the oceans of the world so don't expect fancy.
In the mind of most passengers, the quality of the cruising experience is mostly defined by the quality of the food. Maybe the reason we were so impressed with the food on this cruise is because the food on our Danube cruise on another cruise line was so mediocre. However, our friends who traveled with us and who have never been on any river cruise, confirmed our assessment that the food on Viking Kirov was just superb. I will focus on dinner, as breakfast and lunch on most cruise lines is pretty straightforward (usually buffet style with the option of ordering off the menu - all very good).
We have never had a selection of soups that was so consistently good, day after day after day. In talking with the restaurant manager, he said they take pride in making their soups from scratch and not re-hydrating powdered soups as some might do and that tells me something.
Next, from the appetizer course to the main course to the desserts, the presentations were excellent. And not just at the Captain's Dinner as some cruises do, but every single day. Were there any dishes that just didn't measure up? Sure, but I would say we encountered about a 95% success rate. My understanding is that, after some complaints a while back, Viking now uses beef that exclusively comes from the U.S., and a good tender sirloin steak (as well as salmon and chicken) is always available at every dinner, no matter what else is on the main menu. Without going into too much more detail, let me just say that we were continually amazed at the quality of the presentation being put out by the kitchen for such a large group of passengers.
The chef makes it a point to provide a variety of menu themes from various parts of the world, which really makes things interesting. There was never a repeated menu throughout the 13 days of our trip.
The dining room staff was consistently good, with some wait staff even exceeding that standard with some of the most attentive table service I have seen. I have to acknowledge the restaurant manager, Gunther, as the driving force behind the dining room performance. Clearly, he has developed a team, one that has stayed on the Kirov for several seasons, that works so well together and respects his leadership. Gunther always had time to stop by your table to see if you needed anything or to explain what goes into various dishes.
Now, having said all this, I am realistic to know that it's possible not every dining room in every Viking ship will have the same level of accomplishment. However, I have to believe the basic corporate philosophy that enabled the performance we enjoyed on Kirov would also be in evidence on all their ships.
Ok, a just little bit more about our shore experiences. We are very comfortable using public transportation but the couple we were traveling with was a little more apprehensive so we didn't push it. The Moscow dock is at the very end of the Green Line, so it would be hard to get lost, especially if you know the Cyrillic alphabet. The schedule of tours we chose in Moscow, however, did not lend itself to a lot of free time and to using the Metro on our own. We did have a free afternoon but chose to relax back at the ship as we were all still pretty tired after our trip over. So, I used that time to take a nice walk around the park adjacent to the dock, see some of the other ships, have a closer look at the Stalin-era terminal building, etc.
In St. Petersburg, you need to take a shuttle bus from the ship to the metro station and then the metro ride itself into the city center. That seemed too complicated to us so, on our free afternoon, we opted for the shuttle bus offered by Viking for $20, which was expensive but included a guide to help you navigate the downtown area if you needed it. I have no idea which method would be faster, the bus fighting the traffic or the metro with the required shuttle. Perhaps the best way to get into the city center is a new water taxi service. There is a pickup point right near where Viking docks and I believe the cost is reasonable.
I know there's always the temptation to fill absolutely every minute of every day with some activity because you figure it's your one and only chance to see each destination. For us, however, there is some wisdom to not overdoing it to the point of getting exhausted. I don't much like the feeling at the end of a trip that I can't take anymore and just want to get back home. I think it's best to leave a little something in the tank to prime your next great adventure.
One final note, when the Program Director tells you they are taking you to the airport 3 hours early for your flight back home, don't question it. The process through the airport is excruciatingly slow.
In summary, the Waterways of the Czars is a great cruise and Viking does an excellent job of taking you there.