We travelled in Russia along the Volga River with Scenic in mid-to late June 2017. Be prepared for weather that's on the cool side - mid-teens - and expect some rain. My puffy jacket, boots, umbrella, heavy weight cotton pants, long sleeve tops, and sweater that I had packed got good use on those cool days we were out sightseeing. All of the museums have free coat/umbrella checks so it was comfortable viewing displays indoors.
For me, being dressed comfortably for the weather helps me to enjoy the trip.
The most important thing that I look for when I book a cruise is the itinerary. This cruise was well named for the 2 jewels on this cruise were Moscow and St. Petersburg for me. In each city our itinerary allowed 4 days. These 2 days were very busy with early starts and late nights while the other 4 days, cruising on the Volga to visit 1 small rural town each day for 2 hours, were very relaxing. We booked Scenic's Volga cruise because of their sight filled itinerary and discounts offered to previous customers.
The itinerary included attending evening performances to cultural events in both cities. For example, in Moscow we saw the Moscow Circus which included some amusing animal acts (seals and monkeys), acrobats, clowns, and even some magic. Another night we heard folk singers dressed in a variety of Russian ethnic costumes while they did ethnic dances. Beautiful pictures of an ethnic region were shown as a background behind them. One morning we listened to a most engaging retired Russian cosmonaut speak about his astronaut experiences after we visited the displays in the Cosmonautic Museum which he now was the director of. We had a guided tour of the Armory, located in Red Square, to see some of the Tsars' treasures, followed by a walking tour within the Kremlin walls and a visit to one of its 3 churches - Cathedral of the Archangel - as well as to St. Basils's Cathedral. We had a guided tour of 4 Metro stations each well known for their artistry. We rode on different lines to view these stations for either one or three stops. Although I enjoyed that experience, I wondered if I could find the right hall, the right platform, the right train direction without a guide as all signage was in Russian. I found that when the Metro didn't have several lines using the same station, it was simple finding the right platform and train direction. The Metro token is easily bought at the Metro cashier inside the station (no need to use the ticket machines) and is good of all transfers as long as you don't exit the station. The last day in Moscow I selected to see the Tretyakov Art Gallery to see the paintings of Russian artists while my hubby chose to visit the Museum of Armed Forces. The local guide told the story behind many of the paintings or painters and that commentary made the visit so much more enjoyable. The bus ride into Moscow from the ship's dock will take about 1 1/2 hours due to road construction limiting the number of lanes on the highways/city streets, and the number of cars on the road. It seemed like rush hour traffic that we experience in my city for a few hours lasts all day in Moscow. On a holiday, the traffic is much less, decreasing the ride from dock to city center to 1/2 hour.
Our visits to Moscow's sights, passengers were loaded onto 3 buses. Each bus had Scenic's tour guide as well as a local guide who provided the commentary. There were just over 100 guests on this cruise so 3 buses made for comfortable travelling between sights and ship and small group visits to the sights. These Russian guides spoke remarkably understandable English - American accents - and were so informative about local historical events, the buildings and many military monuments we passed by. We heard their commentary with individual receivers. These receivers were unlike Scenic's handheld receivers used in European trips - these were just transmitters - no screen for additional info on city sights, route information. Each day we returned these receivers and picked up another one the following day.
In St. Petersburg, the special evening cultural sight included vignettes of well-known ballet pieces performed by dancers from the Mariinsky Theater in Prince Vladimir's palace on the Neva River embankment . The one hour show was preceded with champagne and caviar/smoked salmon snacks. The afternoon visit to the Hermitage was very uncomfortable due to the crowds. With 6 cruise ships in the docks, Scenic wasn't lucky to get an early morning booking which really makes a difference in enjoying the visit to the Hermitage. The visits to Peterhof Palace and gardens and Catherine's Palace and gardens were the highlight trips in St. Petersburg for me. We arrived early to be one of the first groups in each palace so I felt we had a relaxed tour of the beautifully decorated rococo rooms. The ballrooms with marble floors, gilt trim on the ceiling/doors/walls, mirrors, crystal chandeliers and sconces were my favorite rooms. The rooms in these 2 palaces did not smell stuffy or feel cramped/cluttered/outdated as those in the Yusupov Palace - the real attraction in that palace is the story about Rasputin's last hours. The fountains in Peterhof turned on at 11 am so we could enjoy that sight in our garden tour. We left Peterhof with a 1/2 hour ride on the hydrofoil boat. The other garden I enjoyed on our free time was the Summer Garden. The special interest fountains, statues, and walkways along pleached sheared treed paths were more in evidence close to the Neva River embankment. We also visited the interior of the Church of Spilled Blood on our own as well as the Museum of Political History. We ended our cruise in St. Petersburg with a one hour canal cruise along the Moyka River circling the central city. Free time in St. Petersburg allowed us to see the sights not included in the itinerary, but always Scenic provided transportation from city center, where free time started, back to the ship.
This trip requires a Russian visa. For us, our application to the Russian embassy in Ottawa took about 3 weeks to process. Filling out the form was time consuming but it could be done online, printed out, then couriered to their embassy.
We had purchased our Volga Cruise about 9 months prior to departure time so we were pleased with our cabin selection - 225 - almost mid ship for a quiet sojourn. This cabin had floor to ceiling sliding glass doors that opened out to a balcony like those on cruise ships. This balcony had 2 wooden slat chairs. The room was spacious with comfortable beds where suitcases slid under the bed. There was a TV, but we never had time to switch it on. There were enough outlets for re-charging things. The safe was small (not deep) and easy to re-programme. The room looked modern with white walls, cabinets, and duvet bedding. The draperies shut out the light from early sun rises (3 am). The room was quiet with little noise from adjoining rooms. The bathroom was very small. The shower stall would be tight for heavy/large people. There was no shelf around the small bathroom sink. Washing out clothes would be a problem in that sink and there was a lack of space to hang items to dry There was an odd configuration for hanging clothes in the closet so that space was limited. The room was clean, comfortable; the maid services were the usual.
On the Scenic Tsar there were 2 floors of cabins with access to them either by using stairs or elevator. The dining room, lounge, gift shop, and bar were on the main floor. There was one computer terminal with good internet service throughout the trip which I made good use of. The small library beside the computer held a good selection of novels, poetry, and fairytales by Russia's famous writers if one wanted to sample their works. Travellers had also left free paper novels for others to read. The lounge was decorated in cheery red upholstered chairs and sofas - enough for 100+ passengers; the dining room always had white tablecloths and napkins on tables set for 2, 4 or 6. Scenic's 24/7 coffee machine was in the lounge area as well as on the third deck where a running machine and bike could be used, or aerobics could be followed with shakeology on the TV. Most people though used this glassed in third deck for viewing both sides of the Volga river. Early continental breakfast was served in the main lounge with croissants, fresh fruit, and yogurt - a pre-breakfast for early risers. The sundeck had loungers (no pads) and tables and chairs - no sun roof, no pool. We had little time to use the sun roof and the weather didn't encourage its use either. There was no self-serve laundry machine available, but laundry could be sent out. We were pleased with our surroundings on the boat. They were clean, inviting, and comfortable. While mobility challenged passengers had no difficulty on board the ship, they might have had issues during the visits to the attractions. Often the bus had to let off passengers not close to the sight so walking on uneven walkways/cobbles could present a problem. At most sights, there were many stairs to climb as well.
Entertainment - a pianist/singer - on the ship was provided each evening after dinner, but we headed straight to bed to rest up for the next day's activities and, also we usually were early risers. In the mornings when cruising the northern sections of the Volga River, the Scenic crew provided Russian lessons, a Matryoshka doll painting session, a gift shop talk, a Q/A session about all things Russian. Many on board enjoyed these activities
We enjoyed the meals on the ship. Breakfast and lunches were served buffet style and augmented by selections on the a la carte menu. Dinners were a la carte with 3 selections each for starters, soup, salad, mains, and desserts. There always was a vegetarian selection for the mains. Buffet breakfasts had an egg station, potatoes/sausages/bacon, waffles, crepes or pancakes, hot porridge, cold cereals, deli selections, delicious breads, fresh whole fruit trays as well as cut up oranges/grapefruit, fresh pressed fruit juices. Lunch buffets always had a variety of prepared salads as well as just greens and tomatoes and cukes to make your own salad; different hot soups every day, a carvery with hot vegetables, as well as sandwiches and a dessert table with cakes, pastries, ice cream selections. When we sat down at lunch with our filled plates, we realized that the a la carte menu also had dishes we may have preferred. Wine/beer was included in the meals. The white Russian wine was delicious, but they also offered selections from South Africa, and Spain. I preferred having drinks just with the meal. There were 2 special nights in the dining room featuring Russian and Ukrainian foods. The waitresses, who spoke limited converstaional English but enough to take meal orders, were dressed up in ethnic costumes and the tables had special ethnic decor. The captain also had 2 special dining room nights - a welcome and farewell dinner.
I enjoyed the meals on board as well as the lunches we had in the local restaurants in Moscow and in St. Petersburg. These were set up for large groups so service was efficient, the meal was set (no choices, people with special diets showed a card to the waiters), the food varied from Russian foods to international foods, but always the lunches were 4 courses - salad (usually a mixture of cukes and tomatoes), hot soup, main dish, dessert. Lunches lasted about 1 hour and took at least 1/2 hour if not more to reach due to the traffic. Also, these restaurants which seemed to specialize in meals for tour groups usually were located outside of the the main tourist area, except for a Russian Restaurant close to Red Square. Their food was just so delicious from the clear beet broth to the beef stroganoff served in a bread bowl to the 2 delicious cherry filled blinis/crepes for dessert. It was best to have a light breakfast on those days when lunch was at a local restaurant! Another memorable lunch was the BBQ lunch in the picnic area at Mandrogi were the balalaika entertainer was fantastic and the BBQed skewers were delicious.
This trip on the Volga was a once in a lifetime trip for us although we had been to St. Petersburg on an ocean cruise before. We had a most enjoyable time on Scenic's Volga cruise!! The sights were terrific, the tours were well planned, the tour guides were informative and understandable; the food was plentiful, varied and tasty; the ship was comfortable. Our time was well used. Embarkation and disembarkation went smoothly. The coaches were like new - clean, comfortable rides. After our trip, we had a changed view of Russia. What lovely memories we have of this trip - a highlight in the many years of travelling. Scenic should promote their Volga river cruise in their presentations. It's a gem of a cruise.
Spacious cabins with comfortable beds and bedding. Duvets become too hot during the night. 3 piece white tiled bathrooms were clean and fresh but on the small side. Toilet was noisy like on airplanes. Configuration for hanging clothes was odd so it limited the number of clothes to be hung. Blackout drapes cut out early morning light. Lots of outlets. Floor to ceiling sliding glass doors opened onto a private balcony just like on a cruise ship. Rooms were clean, well lit with natural light, well maintained and maid service was as expected. Turn down service provided chocolates as well the program for the next day.