This review is about our river cruise in Russia aboard the Viking Akun. If you've ever thought about going to Russia--or even if like us, you hadn't, we want to encourage you to go now. Russia proved to be so much more and so different from what we thought, and the cruise was an ideal way to see and learn about Russia.
We cruised on the Viking Akun (which isn't listed as a choice here), and everything about the trip was way beyond our expectations. We decided to go when one of those Viking brochures arrived, offering us too good a deal to pass up. Knowing what we know now, we'd go even without a good deal.
We spent three days in Moscow, two seeing the city by foot or bus with Viking tours and one with a private tour we had arranged with TJ Tours (more about that great company below). Moscow was an eye opener. It was beautiful, clean, safe, and so much different from what we had expected. We thought it surpassed St. Petersburg. The Russians have done a remarkable job since the fall of Communism. Everyone on the cruise was amazed by what we saw and learned and kept saying, "This is so different from what I expected!" In Moscow we attended a concert of traditional Russian folk instruments that just blew us away.
The next 5 days, we cruised and visited places we’d never heard of. First, in a village called Uglich, we had a brief vocal concert (excellent voices) and visited in the homes of locals. We were divided into groups of about 14-16 to visit a local home. There the host or hostess served us typical Russian moonshine with pickles and rye bread and later served tea and cake. Each one described his/her life and showed off the garden. Wow! We had felt uncomfortable about visiting in a home, but it proved to be one the trip's highlights.
Next, a small city, Yaroslavl, where we saw an example of a formal ball and heard another brief vocal concert in the formal governor’s mansion. We also visited a school and learned lots about the Russian system, part from a ninth-grader (who had been studying English since the fifth grade and had just picked up her 14 textbooks for the coming school year). Some of the students did a traditional performance and showed off their crafts. The next day, we toured the Kirillo-Bolozersky Monastery, founded in 1397 and still functioning. It happened to be a special feast day, so we got to see the priests and congregates leaving the church service in a formal procession. Another day we visited a UNESCO heritage site, Kizhi, with a collection of Russian wooden buildings. These gave us a sense of how Russians lived and what they produced centuries ago. The enormous wooden cathedral (still under reconstruction) was especially impressive. The final stop before St. Petersburg was Mandrogy, a recently developed site for Russian artisans and the best place to buy real Russian crafts and watch the craftsmen make them. (Souvenirs in the cities are much more expensive and often are made in China.)
St. Petersburg was our last stop. There we also had three days, with excellent walking and bus tours. Like friends who had visited from sea-going cruise ships, we thought it was beautiful, safe, and fascinating. We spent one day by ourselves, just sightseeing and shopping. But we were even more impressed with Moscow.
Viking arranged our air transportation (with Delta partners KLM, Aeroflot, Rossiya, and Air France). The flights with KLM and, especially Air France, were more pleasant than can be expected these days. The food on Air France was especially good and very plentiful. Flying Aeroflot and Rossiya was typical of flying feeder airlines. Our layovers were just long enough. The Viking representative was waiting for us when we got through baggage claim and took us directly to the Akun.
The ship is sparkling clean and very attractive. It was renovated in in 2013. Our room was small but plenty roomy for the two of us. Suitcases fit under the beds, the closets held what we'd brought, etc. And there was an American style plug at the vanity so we could charge all our devices easily.
The staff and tour guides were excellent. They made us feel that they cared about us and about our seeing Russia. On board were three tour guides who led a number of the tours and provided daily lectures. They were great. In most ports, there were also good local tour guides.
The food was good and plentiful. Of course, there weren't as many offerings on each menu as on a ship with 3,000 passengers, but there was always enough to choose from. We enjoyed the open seating which gave us a chance to meet and eat with a variety of different passengers. One day lunch was a buffet of traditional Russian dishes, served on the open-air upper deck. At some other meals, we had Russian dishes, but never too much that was unfamiliar. Breakfast was served in the dining room, and continental breakfast was also available in the bar upstairs, which offered a wonderful view of the river. Coffee, tea, and hot chocolate were available all day, with cookies and pastries available for snacks. White and red wines flowed freely at meals along with tea, coffee, and soft drinks. (I'm almost certain the coffee is instant, so serious coffee drinkers may want to bring their own coffee and French press coffee maker. Decaf. coffee was available only at meal times or in the bar. I bought a jar of instant in Moscow and was perfectly happy making it with the hot water provided for tea.)
There were plenty on-board activities during the sailing times—Russian teas three afternoons, sailaways when we left several ports, evening dancing and a singing duo, a cooking demonstration, and two Russian language lessons, for example. The best part for us was the daily presentations about Russian history. Each presentation was clear and thorough. We liked them so much that we watched each one twice. (All presentations were given in the lounge area and were also carried live on in-room tv) Lots of our fellow passengers really enjoyed the optional vodka tasting event, featuring at least seven different types of vodka. Everyone seemed to enjoy sitting on their private balconies. We aren’t exaggerating when we say that the only negative about the whole trip was one optional event, a Cossack Folk Songs and Dances show. Don’t waste your time or money on it.
Now about TJ Travel. We chose them for a tour of Moscow based on the positive reviews we’d seen. And like almost everything on this trip, they surpassed our expectations. They tailored our tour to our interests and even took us to a supermarket because we needed a couple items. Tatiana, the owner, was our driver and amazed us with her skill in some very confusing and congested traffic. Irene, our guide, was also superb. The first thing she showed us was worth the price of the whole day, a temporary collection of jeweled Russian icons. (BTW, we took a private tour because that’s what we’ve always done when cruising on ocean cruises; the ships’ tours always seem over priced and too crowded. The Viking tours were so good that we didn’t really need a private tour to learn about Moscow, but we are glad we chose the tour and TJ Travel.)
We hope this review will encourage people to visit Russia. There are Viking tours available