This was my first river cruise with Viking Cruises, a trip I’d dreamt about for weeks! Russia, the world’s largest country, takes up an eighth of the world’s surface, borders 14 different countries, 12 oceans and seas and spans 11 time zones.
Getting Ready to Cruise Through Russia
Including start and end points St. Petersburg and Moscow, our cruise includes seven stops with optional offshore excursions, some included in the fare, others at an additional cost. You can also add on pre- and post excursions (in Moscow and Helsinki). Passengers can pre-book all excursions online and the best part is having an overview in the My Viking Journey section, complete with maps and flight information. There’s even a countdown showing how many days until you set sail. It was a thrill each time I visited here, just knowing I’d soon be aboard the Viking Truvor for an amazing 13-day journey.
This password-protected page details the itinerary, describes the ship with your stateroom highlighted, what to pack and what to expect on board. A few weeks before my trip gets underway, a package sent via US Priority mail reveals a felt grey zippered pouch with my customized itinerary, flight recap, a leather baggage tag, a couple of temporary luggage holders plus stickers that identify me as a Viking passenger at the airport.
The Viking Cruise Experience
From having read previous reviews, I already knew that Viking Cruises sets the bar pretty high when it comes to service. Small ships and passenger load mean a more intimate experience is in store.
Following my Vancouver to St. Petersburg flights aboard Lufthansa (including a stopover in Frankfurt), I was met at the airport by a couple of Viking Cruises guides. Together with a group of fellow arriving passengers, we boarded a bus to the ship. I checked into my Veranda stateroom, unpacked and showered up in time for dinner.
The Veranda Room
All staterooms have a queen bed with comfy bedding and good amount of storage for clothes. You only need to unpack once, fill the shelves and closet with your stuff then leave the suitcase under the bed during the entire trip. Bathrooms are small but fully functional with lots of towel racks and storage space.
Food, Entertainment and Service on Board
Meals are served inside the restaurant. Open seating allows you to mingle with new passengers. The menu varies with a few regulars and a few options for starters, entrees and desserts. Beer, locally-bottled wines and soft drinks come standard with an option to choose a premium drink pack during the cruise.
Daily port talks in the ship’s Sky Bar give a great overview of the following day’s events and tours. If you’re feeling lazy, you can watch the talks via live feed from your room’s TV.
Port of Call: St. Petersburg
Our first few days are spent in St. Petersburg, docked on the Neva River. Headed on a bus from port, we make our way to the Hermitage as our guide Alla gives us background info on St. Petersburg and some of the buildings we pass on our approach to the historic city center. Of all things, I’m amazed to learn that 16th and 17th century Russian royal families dined on swans!
Once through Hermitage’s security, one of the first impressive eyefuls is the French Baroque grand staircase. Upstairs, the chandelier inside Neoclassic Field Marshall Hall is the heaviest in the palace. Gilded gold columns inside the Emblem Hall and costumes showing off aristocratic fashion and opulence continue to amaze.
The massive complex houses art collections from the around the world. It’s a lot of take in but we get a great overview during the couple of hours we spend touring. That evening, it’s a return to the Hermitage theatre for a ballet performance of Swan Lake followed by goulash soup and snacks served in the restaurant back on the ship.
The next couple of days are spent exploring St. Petersburg. Highlights for me included the opulent Catherine Palace in Pushkin with its Amber Room dripping with 1,000 kilos of amber and viewing St. Petersburg by water. Here we got a great glimpse of the 300-year-old city as we cruised along its canals.
After three nights docked in St. Petersburg, it’s time to set sail and head along the Neva. At 7 pm, we toast with the crew and fellow passengers as our boat begins to leave the pier.
Port of Call: Mandrogy
I’m awoken to natural scenery with changing colors of the leaves on the trees. Most of the night’s been smooth sailing as we approach Mandrogy, aka Verkhnie Mandrogi, or Upper Falls.
Mandrogy was destroyed during World War II and disappeared from maps for years to follow. In 1996, enterprising Russian Sergei Gutzeit rebuilt Mandrogy as an open air museum, filled with brightly painted wooden houses, windmills, vodka and bread museums plus numerous artisan workshops.
Being the crafty type, I took part in the optional matryoshka doll-painting workshop. Did you know that the well-loved Russian nesting dolls aren’t even fully Russian? According to legend, the original matryoshka were inspired by a doll from Honshu, Japan over 100 years ago.
The first set of eight dolls was designed by Sergey Malyutin in 1890. A decade later, they were shown at Paris World Expo where they received a bronze medal for their uniqueness, later becoming an essential Russian folk art staple.
Traditionally, one artisan carves the dolls while another paints them. We got to paint a set of three and enjoyed some Russian pastries and tea served in the adjacent room of a heritage house in the village.
During the night we leave the Svir River area and by morning, my first views of Lake Onega come into view. The lake’s brownish tint contains a high mineral content that provides nutrients for over 40 species of fish (including freshwater salmon, trout and whitefish). I’m already getting excited about tonight’s dinner prospects!
Port of Call: Kizhi
Kizhi is located at the north end of the lake and it’s here we get a morning tour of its open air museum of architecture. This collection of historic structures was moved here from various regions of Russia for preservation; today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The big photo op here is the Transfiguration Church and its 22 cool onion domes. I’m staring in amazement knowing that this structure was built without the use of a single nail.
Back on ship, we’re treated to an awesome view of it all and enjoy a little party on the Sun Deck with champagne and red caviar-laden snacks as we cast off again at 10:30 am, because there’s never a bad time for champagne, nyet? As we’re cruising all day, there’s a great variety of things to do on board: a Russian lesson, Captain’s deck tour, tea and cakes in the Panorama Bar and a Romanov Dynasty lecture.
Port of Call: Kuzino
At around noon, we arrive in Kuzino where we board busses to the village of Kirillo for a visit to the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery on the shores of Lake Siverskoye. Back in the day, this impressive structure was considered the largest monastery in Russia. It contains 11 churches dating to the 15th through 17th centuries and its biggest draw are the detailed icons and frescoes.
We’re also brought to a local secondary school to learn a bit about Russia’s educational system and a couple of young students meet with us towards the end to chat with our group. The area is part of a national park filled with wildlife and varied vegetation. We wind up back on the ship with a fun cooking demo by our ship’s chef and learn to make tasty pelmeni dumplings.
On the dinner menu that night are Russian dishes and later in the evening, an optional vodka tasting where I discover a new fave containing thyme and herbs (second from right in the photo above).
Port of Call: Yaroslavl
After a relaxing morning of passing by adorable little churches and small villages, we arrive at the 1,007-year-old Golden Ring city of Yaroslavl, my favourite city on the trip so far. Our group took a three-hour walking tour of its compact, picturesque center, stopping inside the Church of St. Elijah the Prophet to admire the colorful, ornately decorated ceilings and frescoes.
We’re treated to a couple of beautiful melodies by four members of a local choir and the acoustics add richness to their voices. From there, we head to a covered market for a quick food sampling prepared by the Viking culinary team and enjoy some free time to shop before continuing along the embankment to view several Yaroslavl buildings at night. This pretty town is worthy of a repeat visit!
Port of Call: Uglich
As we arrive at the village of Uglich, it begins to dawn on me that we’re almost in Moscow! By now, passengers have gotten to know one another and dinner time is a buzz of conversation throughout the dining room.
Uglich, a sweet little town on the river founded in 1148, is where we’re hosted by a local family for homemade vodka, Russian pastries and tea and learn about Russian life through culture, sport and economy. First off though, we walk along the river to the main square to take in the Kremlin (Russian for fortress, not a government building in Moscow). The colorful Church of St. Dmitry on the Blood has a gorgeous exterior containing several turquoise blue domes with golden crosses.
Back on board, lunch is a Taste of Russia, accompanied by Russian beer and an amazing assortment of desserts. An afternoon talk focuses on Putin and Medvedev.
The Captain’s reception and farewell dinner is our last full evening aboard the ship before arriving in Moscow with three full days of touring before our cruise ends. We’ll be docked in Moscow (a 15-minute walk to the closest metro station) and headed into town for several visits.
Port of Call: Moscow
After cruising along 79-mile, man-made Moscow Canal, we’re in the capital. This amazing metropolis is home to 2,500(!) historical and architectural monuments.
I’ve signed up for the Moscow Up Close tour, which takes in Moscow by metro and on foot. The gorgeous stations (Mayakovskaya, Ploshchad Revolyutsii) start our first day here. It’s a cool, rainy October Friday afternoon but the Square is busy with tourists.
The creme-de-la-creme St. Basil’s Cathedral delights in its beautiful colors, right next to The Kremlin and uber department store GUM (pronounced GUUM). I decide to tour the cathedral interior, equally stunning with hand-painted walls and gorgeous works of art throughout the two levels open for visitors.
In the early evening, our entire ship is treated to a concert by Moskva Orchestra, with bayan, guslie, domra and balalaika musicians performing a variety of pieces.
The next couple of days are spent touring The Kremlin, Cosmonaut Museum, Jewish Museum and a night tour by boat. It’s a packed few days but there are enough tours to choose from to customize three days in Moscow to everyone’s liking.
From arrival to departure, the staff took great care of us. Baggage was picked up in St. Petersburg airport, brought right to our room and upon returning to Moscow, straight to the ticketing counter so the only thing we needed to do was to load our suitcases onto the belt. I look forward to visiting other regions with Viking in the future.
I was a guest aboard the Waterways of the Tsars sailing. Opinions, as always, are my own.