We decided to do this at the spur of the moment and were very lucky to get our visa's out of the Russian Embassy in less than a month, also our flight from Seattle to Dulles was a real squeaker. Everyone on board and about to pull away from the gate on time when TSA stopped the flight and made everyone get off the plane along with any and all carry ons. Then they brought out the dogs to sniff the whole plane and all the passengers before we were allowed back on (makes you feel really comfortable huh!) So we were an hour late leaving Seattle and the cruise line had only given us an hour and a half when we got to Dulles to change planes. Very fun to watch me with two artificial knees and my husband with his artificial hip sprinting (I use that term loosely) through the airport along with a handful of other passengers and when we finally got to the gate for the Moscow flight the door was about to close. About 8 of us were the last passengers on board and I was sure we would never see our luggage again when we got there but after they boarded us we sat for about 1/2 hour waiting for the luggage and we all arrived with our bags in Moscow.....so that was the beginning of the good luck.
There were only a couple of cabins left when we booked and we had no idea what was good and what wasn't and we went with cabin 402 (very near the back of the Upper Deck) It was a very quiet room because the hall is a dead end. We could at times very clearly hear the women in the next cabin talking but fortunately that usually didn't last long as they must have been as tired as we most nights. The other Cabin that we were offered was up front by the main bar and lounge and I think it must have been quite noisy. All the cabins on the upper deck looked very nice, windows opens and had an unobstructed view. Beds were very comfy, cabin was always clean and no strange smells from anywhere. My only complaint on the cabin is that they need to some how in-corporate another chair. There was only the one straight back at the desk and it would be nice for the other person to be able to sit comfortably (I was usually hogging the desk chair using my lap top.) Other only major complaint was the slow, slow, slow Internet connection but when we got to St. Petersburg they worked on it for several days so maybe it will be better. At least it's free and having your own lap top is a good idea as it's hard to get on the ship's two free lap tops.
I could have also called this the Church and Icons tour as well. Who knew a communist country would have so many Churches, I would have thought that they would have been destroyed in the Stalin years but many were just turned into storage sheds but not harmed. You do get your fill of churches , it got to be a bit of a joke...."oh boy more icons." I thought perhaps we could have done with a few less Churches and some more time in Museums. Only spending 3 hours in the Hermitage is ridiculous.....you can't even begin to get a taste of it....more like a lick! I would like to see them offer a full day there and skip the city tour half of the day because you see the city when you are doing other tours like the Peter Paul Fortress or the Canal Tours. -
If you are taking this cruise for gourmet food you might be disappointed. That is not to say that the food wasn't adequate and plentiful. The breakfast and lunches are quite good and the dinners were a bit more hit and miss, some strange offerings but nicely presented. My husband opted for the steak about half the nights because he's not a very adventuresome eater and the steaks were well cooked smallish but tasty, always served with a baked potato which I thought they could have varied. I had the steak only one night and one night I choose the chicken breast (both the steak, chicken breast and Caesar Salad are always available.) I tried the other options the rest of the time. Only the Lake Perch was inedible.....the rest were just sort of mediocre but with the salads, soups and desserts you never go away hungry....just not fantastic food. The steak was quite nice the chicken pretty dry and chewy so probably best to not opt for that. I do wish they would be a bit more inventive in the dessert area. It was almost always ice cream with some sort of sauce or little cookie.
The service by the Filipino waiters was fabulous. We usually opted for a table for 2 and were served by Leith and Jun and they were so very very attentive, pleasant and made dining, even with not always such great food fun. Breakfast was probably the best meal of the day, the buffet had lots of wonderful options and you could order omelette's, Eggs Benedict, French Toast, pancakes and hash-browns served to your table. There was always Russian Champagne on the buffet and several options for juice. Lunch was always green salad with many choices for toppings, several cold salads and sandwiches and two or three hot dishes plus soup and dessert (two options one always being ice cream) was served at the table. The 24 hour coffee and tea bar was really nice as well and was directly below our end of the ship. They serve a light tea most afternoons in the Panorama Bar at the other end of the ship. This consisted of tea and an assortment of cookies and cakes.
The tours were good, we had Tatiana for our guide and she is fabulous. So look for her, pretty blond lady in her 50's. Whom ever you choose at the beginning is your guide for the whole time and whom ever is on your bus the first day is with your group for the entire time as well.....your new family for the next 13 days.
The boat itself is very nicely laid out, good viewing areas on the top deck and in the Panorama Bar on the front of the Upper Deck. It would be nice if there was more comfortable seating somewhere on the boat but I guess you can't have recliners on a vacation ;-)
I should add that the dress on the ship was very informal and I probably wouldn't pack a lot of dressy clothes. Men mostly wore jeans, khakis and polo shirts and the woman wore more slacks and jeans than anything else. There were lots of men and woman in jeans at dinner and even some in sweat pants (which I thought was a bit too much) but what ever. I didn't wear about 1/2 of the dressier outfits I brought, because I would have felt over the top except for the Captains dinner and one other night and I really don't bring that fancy of things as dressing up for my husband is nice pants and a sweater he is not a suit guy so if he was comfortable you know it was informal.
I think Viking does a good job of making your time as pleasant as possible and I don't have any big earthshaking complaints.....it was an overall success. We were not as taken with Russia as we have been with Asia and New Zealand but it was good to check it off the bucket list and I'm glad we went. The traffic and smog in Moscow was appalling and the people seem a bit grumpy.
Pictures from the cruise (including room & photo's of food) at http://www.flickr.com/photos/quiltsa...7622305559005/
First stop on the river was Uglich and it was very interesting as well. Toured the Cathedral where Ivan the Terrible's son was murdered. Walked to it from the boat (easy walk through a very good street market.) Unfortunately the guide had told us that their would be better shopping on the last stop of the river cruise portion and wait to buy our souvenirs there.....that turned out to be bad advise unless you were looking for very high quality hand crafted things as every thing at the last stop fell into that category. If you are looking for trinkets for the grand kids or small things for friends...stick to the street markets the prices are much better than the craft shops.
The first port was Moscow......what a mess that city is. Absolutely horrendous traffic. Two hours from the airport to the boat dock, and a good hour and a half to two hours into town from the dock (about a 20 min drive in normal traffic I would think.) So for a day trip to town a good 3 to 4 hours or more was in snarled up traffic.....and then if you signed up for a night excursion add another couple of hours. I really think that Viking should feed people at a restaurant in the city on days that their are all day tours and then night events. We skipped the folk music concert because we couldn't face getting in the bus again for yet another drive into the city.
We had the opportunity to use the bank ATM in Moscow to get Rubles. We were charged $105 for 3000 Rubles (this turned out to be a much better deal than the next ATM in a smaller city were we were charge $136 for the same 3000 Rubles so plan ahead and get your rubles in Moscow.)
We did do the Moscow by night but it was really beautiful seeing Red Square after dark (even though it poured rain, luckily it was only one of two rainy episodes on the whole trip.)
We enjoyed the tour of the Armory and the Kremlin and took the optional 1/2 day tour of the New Maiden Nunnery and Cemetery on the day of the Moscow by Night tour. The New Maiden Nunnery was really lovely and the cemetery where Kruschev and Gorbachev's wife were buried was fascinating as well.
Yaroslavl was the next port and it had some gorgeous churches and cathedral's as well (go figure) and we were bused into the center of town and did a walking tour from their. After touring the churches we were given about an hour and a half to shop. Very interesting local fruit and food stuffs market that I really enjoyed taking pictures of but we were warned to not eat anything (they offered dried fruit and nuts at the stalls.) The guide said it might be our last place to get Rubles till St. Petersburg so we found an ATM machine and got really taken because of course unless you read Russian you have no idea what it says about exchange rates or fees for using the machine and our guide was off doing her own thing, not where we could ask her to translate.
Goritsy was the next stop where we were bused to Kirrilov where we visited the Monastery of St. Cyril. It is known for it's remarkable collection of icons but frankly we were iconed out so we spent the time strolling the grounds which were really beautiful and enjoying the flowers and the local parishioners who were coming out from church services. I wished we had more time to just soak up the ambiance of the little towns and less time being lectured to about the icons and their significance (but that's just me....not very interested in religion.)
Then it was on to Kishi Island on Lake Onega. It is the famed open-air Museum of Russian Architecture. The beautiful Church of the Transfiguration an ornate structure of wooden ribbons and 22 domes in 3 tiers built entirely with out nails. It was really cool and the examples of local life from the early 10th century that were being acted out were fascinating as well. Great stop.
We also had one more stop on the river the next day and that was Mandrogi which was suppose to be the big place for buying souvenirs but for the most part we all felt it was very expensive although their were some lovely things. Unfortunately it was pouring rain at this stop and not much fun to tromp around and look at the buildings....it is sort of a Russian Epcot Center for life in the olden days. There was a pavilion with berry pies that were quite tasty
We ended the cruise in St. Peterburg and I love that city......could have spent a week there. The Hermitage is gorgeous, Catherine's Palace, fantastic and just the city in general was lovely with all the canals and beautiful buildings. Again we were docked a bit of a drive out but it wasn't as bad a commute to the sites as in Moscow and the smog wasn't as bad either. Both Moscow and St. Petersburg had subways which I think should have been made use of instead of busing but I suppose that is hard with large groups. But it would have been a nice option.
Again Russia is probably not somewhere I would go again but I did love the experience and would love to take another Viking Cruise (say the Grand European one.)