We have travelled to 40 countries on our own - walking, renting vehicles, taking trains, using local airlines - visiting the major sites as well as exploring places tourists normally choose not to see. But, felt a river cruise from Moscow to Saint Petersburg best met our needs at this time. Partly because of the language barrier, partly because of the current world tensions, and partly because of security concerns. We learned the Russian alphabet and mastered a few key phrases (but English was spoken almost everywhere), international tensions were not an issue as the Russian Federation appears to use tourism as a major source of income, and Viking or local representatives were with us every day should some unforseen event occur (very helpful and conscientious) - no issues whatsoever.
Representatives from Viking met us after we exited Moscow immigration and customs. They had lists of who was arriving on what airline, by time, and flight number. Our baggage was placed on carts and we did not see them until we entered our room on the ship. A bus was waiting for us a took us directly to the boat. During that transition time, the Viking representative explained the arrival process at the ship as well as pointed out several local sites. Checking into our room on the Akun was easy and uncomplicated. Very smooth and organized process from airport to room.
Viking offered multiple included tours and additional paid tours options. Our days were full - often starting first thing and ending late at night. Consequently, we had not fully recovered from jet lag before beginning our scheduled tours. We highly recommend arriving one full day before your cruise to get acclimated. Several of our fellow trip goers, who have taken many river cruises, stated they always arrive a day or two early. Viking put them up at very nice hotels - even if they do not sign up for the extended before and after tour options (which we did not).
The Viking Akun was ship worthy and functioned very well. We hardly knew we were on the water. No smell of exhaust fumes. The boat's floorplan was well designed and posted at several locations for ease of finding restaurants, bars, meeting places, library, business center, entertainment, gift shop, stairs, elevator, and front desk. Exits were marked and getting on and off the boat was easy.
Our cabin was light, airy, and well maintained. The bed was comfortable and we slept well. More comments are in the Cabin Remarks section of this survey.
Meals were excellent with samples of Russian cuisine as well as American favorites. Breakfast offered typical American buffet with eggs, bacon, sausage, cereal, rolls, juice, coffee, etc. as well as the more European Continental meal. Lunch and Supper were menu offerings. We ate our breakfast and lunch meals in the forward panoramic bar since we prefer Continental bills of fare. Breakfast in the restaurant was too plentiful and the bar at lunch offered at least two of the main menu lunch items. Evening meals were always in the restaurant and we tried all the Russian food offerings. As with any food in any country, much of it was very tasty and a couple items less palatable. One note, if you enjoy alcohol libations we highly recommend the "Silver Drinks Package".
Our participation in on-board activities were limited as we signed up for multiple off-ship tours. We were too tired to partake in the evening games, dances, musicians, and singers events. Although we did hear from many guests who stated they had a great time at those activities. That being said, we participated in a few events: the Russian wine tasting, Vodka tasting, and lectures on Russian history, the Czars, the Soviet era, Perestroika and Glasnost, and the Russia government today. Those lectures opened the door to discuss, in more detail, Russia today with some of the local guides. As we learned Russian before our trip, we did not participate in the Russian language classes on the boat.
Overall service was wonderful. The staff was friendly and were gracious hosts. Many were open to discussing where they were from, how they became Viking employees, what they did outside of tourism (expecially when the river froze and during off-season), and what was their original field of endeavor. Prices in the gift shop were modest, competitive, and not overly expensive as with most places of similar nature. We were not "gouged" because of our captive audience status. At only one restaurant meal was the service "off" as we seemed to have been ignored. We think that was because we may have inadvertantly offended or embarassed the server by pointing out to the Maître d' her excellent performance the previous night.
There was no issue with ports of call. All, except one, were located in or within walking distance of the local community. Shore excursions were well orchestrated and informative. Local guides offered insights not provided by "company" tour guides. Often, we were allowed entry into the venue an hour before the general public. The only disappointing aspect were the hour-long bus rides, from the boat to the event, through city traffic in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. However, those were offset by the knowledgeable guides who passed the time pointing out additional key sites, talking Russian history, or answering tourists' questions. For specific events, we recommend the Russian Ballet and Cossac Dancers. Sites worth your time are: Red Square, St. Basil's Cathedral, and the Kremlin in Moscow (and again at night); the Hermitage extended tour, the Winter Palace, and Peterhof Palace in St. Petersburg. We took both local river cruises. Moscow at night was disppointing, but necessary to see Red Square lite up at night. For the adventurous, one could go there on their own. The daytime river cruise in St. Petersburg was shotened because of heavy rains which flooded the river and prevented the boat from passing under multiple bridges. So, we cannot offer a full opinion. The communities and sites along the rivers and lakes between Moscow and St. Petersburg are worth the trip, as well.
Checking out of the Akun, paying our bill, and leaving Russia was as coordinated, orgainized and easy as arriving. Our luggage was handled by Viking until we got to the airport. The Viking representative expedited our processing through security and baggage screening. Having been through similar scrrenings in other countries, we are sure having a Viking person at security afforded less scrutiny that usual.
We are definitely considering additional Viking River Cruises as well as Ocean Cruises which we have never before taken.
Excellent Room. Equal to Fairmont, Hilton, Marriott in quality even though smaller floor space and reduced size bathroom. A television plus, on those few times I was in my cabin, were the ship's camera displaying the bow of the ship and the river view in the direction we were heading, a GPS map tracking the ship's movements through the country, the ship's events programming and reminders of schedules and procedures, the ability to view on board lectures and entertainment from my room, and movies and international news and weather. Room was cleaned (vacuumed, dusted, bath scrubbed, towels replaced, trash emptied) daily. In room security safe and refrigerator. Individual controlled thermostat for heating and air conditioning.