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Home > Virtual Cruises > Birthday in the Baltic on Oceania's Regatta
Birthday in the Baltic on Oceania's Regatta
Day 1: Dover
Day 2: Brugge and Amsterdam
Day 3: Kiel Canal and Warnemunde
Day 4: Copenhagen
Day 5: Gdansk
Day 6: Helsinki
Day 7: St. Petersburg
Day 8: St. Petersburg, Day 2
Day 9: St. Petersburg, Day 3 and Tallinn
Day 10: Stockholm
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Day 7: Tuesday, St. Petersburg
St. PetersburgI awoke early to be able to watch our arrival in St. Petersburg from the vantage point of my front-facing balcony. It was another spectacular day -- quite hot, in fact, for the usually mild Russian city, and I overheard some passengers expressing concern about their scheduled tours as there is little, if any, air conditioning in the monuments, churches and museums.

As we slid through the estuary leading into the city on the Neva River, I was struck by how utterly industrial it looked. The southern part of the Mississippi River is industrial looking too, but this was quite amazing to see.

We passed thousands upon thousands of cranes and container cargo beds en route to what we thought would be the English Embankment, a berth in the center of town, just across from one of the Empire-era palaces and nose-to one of the main city bridges.

We ended up docking before we even made it to the Neva, which will be home to the new St. Petersburg Cruise Terminal when it opens in fall 2008. Today, we were in front of the sailing yacht Sea Cloud II, and later saw Pullmantur's Empress in the berth by the bridge on the Neva.

Though St. Petersburg is a cornerstone port on Baltic itineraries -- and a highlight I've been looking forward to since my journey on Regatta began -- traveling to Russia poses interesting challenges. Unlike on other Baltic stops, passengers are required to obtain a Russian Tourist Visa in order to disembark in and explore St. Petersburg.

Cruise passengers do have a couple of options. Those of us on cruise line-sponsored shore excursions were covered under a blanket cruise visa and did not need to worry about obtaining our own credentials. Some reputable tour companies covering the English-speaking market -- like DenRus, Alla or Red October -- will do the legwork and paperwork for you when booking a private tour. Folks traveling independently, however, must pre-purchase a visa for about $275. Because I was confirmed on my sailing rather late in the game, I decided to play it safe and book with Oceania.

But I wasn't past the Russian red tape just yet. Before we arrived in Russia, we were handed lists of "acceptable behavior." There were also several formalities that were a bit time consuming and uncommon on other port calls. For one, the cruise line had to photocopy our passports to be delivered to the Russian authorities as we exited the ship for the first time. We were also warned that unless we were traveling ashore independently, our visas were only (great emphasis was placed on this) to be authorized upon exiting the ship for an organized tour.

Furthermore, many items are considered contraband and cannot be taken into the country, including military arms and ammunition, narcotics, and any printed, graphic or audiovisual materials "propagandizing war, fascism, religious hate and pornographic materials." Items prohibited from removal from Russia include military arms and ammunition; narcotics; annulled securities; art productions, icons or antique items older than 100 years; and materials containing information that can bring harm to state interests or human rights.

Okay, no stop at the gun shop, check. Now aware of the procedures, we were finally at the juncture every passenger had awaited: arrival in St. Petersburg.

When I had been planning my shore experiences, I had been very frustrated with Oceania's booking procedures as far as the Russian excursions were concerned. I could make choices, both through the personalized booklet I had been sent and also through the Web site. What I could not do, though, was see the time of each excursion. In most locations it doesn't matter, but there is so much in St. Petersburg -- and it's such an incredibly layered and nuanced experience -- that booking several excursions is the only way to see as much as possible in the time we have there. And I wanted to pack it all in.

Because of this, I decided to wait until I got onboard to book, hoping that the excursions I wanted were still available -- a risky move to be sure. Others I spoke with said that they had called Oceania to get the times. I hadn't done that; it frankly had not occurred to me since I figured that if the head office had the times, they'd be posted or printed for the passengers. As it turned out, three of the excursions I wanted did, in fact, overlap. One of those turned out to be a blessing in disguise since it was universally reviled by those who took it (the Metro Tour and Shopping Excursion). I was encouraged to take the Canal Cruise and Shopping trip instead, and from what I have heard, I got the better end of the stick.

There's another thing that Oceania offers for St. Petersburg that surprised me when I got onboard. It's such a fantastic idea that I have no idea why it isn't promoted more heavily: For an additional $30 on top of the price of the regular tour, you can take advantage of a "premium" collection, an offering of four tours in a passenger van for 10 to 16 people instead of a bus that holds 60. The collection includes A Full Day Overview, a Half Day Overview, the Hermitage Museum and Morning at Peterhof (summer palace of Peter the Great). I took the half-day overview and the other two. What a difference, being in a van compared to a big bus!

It's a hybrid product, somewhere between a private group tour in an Escalade or Town Car and being in the big ol' bus with 59 other people. And it was well worth the $30 up-charge. I hope they offer that benefit on other tours in other destinations....



Up first was the overview tour. For all the talks we were given onboard, getting through Russian immigration was surprisingly easy -- as long as you had your passport, your excursion ticket and (on the first day only) the photocopy of your passport.

Our van took us into town along the Neva River. One of the first things we noticed was that there were a lot of grey military ships -- battleships, submarines, etc. -- all along the river in town. It turns out that they were there to celebrate Navy Day that Sunday, and that despite their scary look, they were just symbolic relics.

This was mostly a driving tour; we were taken around the city, which helped us get our bearings. Then we were taken to a shop where we got to look at and purchase Russian goods. Finally: Baltic amber that I could afford -- and real amber at that! One pendent and a tiny set of Matrushka (nesting) dolls later (10 total, the largest about two inches tall), I was happily back on the van with the others. Almost all of us had picked up souvenirs.

We then went to visit the Armory (which featured a lot of difficult walking on cobblestones) and the church of Peter and Paul. Even though it's a Russian Orthodox Church, it had been built in the ornate style of a typical Catholic church, with large windows and a lot of gilding, quite a constrast to the more severe Orthodox buildings.

It didn't seem like an extensive outing, but I was exhausted by the time we got back on the ship. Some of us had afternoon excursions too, but I wanted to rest up for my next experience: A Night of Russian Song and Dance.

I did not yet know that it would prove to be the best -- bar none, except maybe one Alaska excursion I took years ago -- shore excursion purchase I have ever made.
Day 6: Helsinki red arrow Day 8: St. Petersburg, Day 2

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