Do Not See Russia by River Cruise

Do not see Russia by River Cruising.  I did and was not a happy camper.  Let me explain.  First of all it is not cheap, and considering that half of the trip was a pointless waste of time, I feel like I was literally taken for a ride.  We spent three days in Moscow and three days in St. Petersburg and six days cruising between them.  For the last twenty years I have lived on a yacht.  So, I know a little bit about cruising.  Before taking this trip I had visions of cruising by little towns dotting the banks of the rivers.  I was wrong.  In reality there was nothing to look at but trees.  Trees, trees and more trees was all one saw for six solid days.

Of course the boat had to make stops in order to dump trash and pick up necessary provisions.  One stop was a make-believe Viking village created by the Viking cruise line…whoopee!  Another was an old Russian village that was a carefully maintained ‘World Heritage Site.’   This was interesting, but still nothing to write home about.  A third stop took us to a small but not very picturesque town.  There was absolutely nothing redeeming about this place so Viking arranged an excursion (two hours on bumpy roads one way) by bus to yet another not very picturesque town where travelers were treated to a visit to an old Governor’s mansion, another church, and home-made cakes, pickles and moonshine loosely described as Vodka served up to them in a local person’s home.  I didn’t choose this exciting option.  Instead, I stayed on the boat and read the Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Catherine the Great,” by Robert Massey.  This was time extremely well spent.  In fact, if it weren’t for Mr. Massey, those six days of uneventful stops would have been unbearable.  The next stop was another small village made up of stores selling tourist goods, a doll-painting studio and a few bath houses.  I stopped at one of the stores and was done.  All in all, the most exciting thing about our cruise were the locks.  These were spectacular.  I have been through locks before on my own yacht but nothing on the scale of these.

Now we get to the two main cities.  Both Moscow and St. Petersburg were incredibly exciting.  There were so many things to do.  However, seeing them from a cruise ship meant going by bus with a minimum of thirty fellow travelers.  Sometimes this number would swell to hundreds.  That is because when Viking docks at these towns there are more than one ship.  Most of the time we were tied up three deep with two more of these configurations along the docks.  That meant nine boats docked at the same place.  Considering that each boat holds almost two hundred people, you can imagine the amount of buses leaving in the mornings for the Hermitage or the Armory.  On top of that you could be looking at not just the Viking passengers, but also larger cruise ships as well, all descending on the same location.  It was sheer bedlum at times.   Round signs above the tour guides’ heads kept the sea of people from dispersing too far.  Thus, to see anything of interest you had to fight your way to the display cases and pray you have enough time to appreciate it properly before losing sight of your specific tour guide’s sign.  This is no way to view fine art or rare items of history!

Knowing what I know now and for the money expended, I would have stayed in a posh hotel and hired a private guide and driver to tour with me for at least five days in each city.  That way you can take the time to savor and enjoy all the sights at your own pace, truly explore the city, and discover interesting restaurants and people along the way.  You are also not subjected to disease that can sweep through an entire boat as was the case on our ship.  By the time we reached St. Petersburg everyone was coughing and sneezing.  It was like an infirmary, and you simply knew that it was just a matter of time before you got yours.  Doing it the way that I’m suggesting will save your sanity, wealth, and above all your health.

The one thing that you won’t experience by doing it my way is the chance to make new acquaintances.  I made friends with several couples from Australia.  I sat w ith them for almost all my meals which gave me a good opportunity to get to know how people live on the opposite side of the planet.  We talked about everything…nothing was off limits.  Subjects ranged from politics, cooking, travel, our families…everything.  I hope I see them again, but as they live half way around the world it seems dubious at best.  Still in all, this was a large plus for taking the cruise.  Is it a big enough plus?  You’d have to answer that for yourself.  For me, visiting an area of the world that I ranked so high on my bucket list takes priority over the chance that I may or may not meet nice people on a boat who I may or may not ever see again.