Editors' Note: Viking Rurik is not currently sailing in 2016.
There's something about Russia that stumps even the most intrepid traveler. The language is daunting, the Cyrillic alphabet is difficult, and its 20th-century incarnation as the Soviet Union, aka the "Evil Empire" to Westerners, still lingers in the minds of many.
Viking strives to make this complex country approachable for its North American, British, Australian and New Zealand audience. With four of its own ships on the Russian rivers -- most of the competitors charter their boats -- the company has made a commitment to this region that's evident in its programming and excursion choices.
Viking Rurik, refurbished in 2012, maintains Viking's signature Scandinavian style with blonde wood, muted colors and simple, attractive design. Because it sails on some of Europe's largest lakes, Rurik is constructed to handle waves so it doesn't appear as "flat" as Viking's European longships. Still, those with sensitive stomachs should bring seasick medication, as waters on Lake Ladoga, the largest freshwater body of water in Europe, can get rough. One aspect of the decades-old ship that couldn't be redone: the stairs, which are among the steepest we've ever seen. (Step angles were 68 degrees, as measured by an iPhone app.) Many people opted for the elevator, which runs to all four public decks.
Another feature that required some adjustment is the ship's main lounge, the Sky Bar. Unlike those on most other European river ships, this lounge is on the Sun Deck level and therefore isn't big enough to handle all 210 passengers at once. Passengers learned to come early for port talks, lectures and enrichment programs, which were often staggered and telecast into the cabins so everyone could hear.
Despite the cramped lounge, Rurik's staff did an admirable job of managing passenger flow, and the ship itself rarely felt crowded. Passengers disembarked in groups, usually without too many complaints or backups. Russian-language posters, evocative photos and artwork throughout the public areas imbued a sense of place, while Russian movies -- both contemporary and classic -- played every day on the in-room TV's. Standout optional excursions, such as a traditional Russian banya (bath), a behind-the-scenes look at the Hermitage vaults and tickets to the Bolshoi Ballet, kept even the most veteran travelers excited and engaged.
All in all, a Russian river cruise on Rurik gives passengers plenty of opportunities to explore the country's elaborate palaces, breathtaking art collections and onion-domed churches. While getting a handle on all things Russian could take a lifetime, 12 days spent onboard provide the perfect beginning.