Luxury cruise lines’ goals are to provide upscale accommodations, outstanding food & beverage service, and a sound itinerary to keep guests happy on their cruise, however the intangible moments are what make the experience an exceptional one. Cruising on Viking Longship Ingvar, we traversed six waterways and hit seven ports of call on our 12-day journey of cultural exploration, culinary discovery and relaxation. Every day there was something expected, extraordinary, funny or uniquely Russian that combined to create an unforgettable travel experience.
Best Museum: The Hermitage Museum – seeing the golden Peacock Clock, commissioned by Prince Grigory Potemkin (allegedly the secret husband of Catherine the Great), in person is mesmerizing.
Best Tours: Canal Tour by Water – There is no better way to see the splendor of St. Petersburg than by water. Our no nonsense, yet comical guide Syetelana gave us historical and fun facts as we traveled underneath handsomely gilded bridges. We also noticed an adorable young man enthusiastically waving to us from the top of one. Our attention to Syetelana’s captivating narrative was broken each time we came upon another bridge, as we began to notice the same youth heartily gesturing to us on our boat. We caught onto the game and admired his physical stamina to run between each bridge in time to greet us. It was a pleasure to tip our personal acrobatic ambassador at the end. He spoke very little English, but his genuine smile was fluent. He left us admiring his entrepreneurial spirit and we have no doubt he will be a successful young man in the future.
Viking’s Panoramic Tour – included beautiful canals, elaborate bridges, and many architecturally significant buildings. Highlights included the Cathedral of Kazan and the Church of our Saviour on Spilled Blood where Alexander II was assassinated. Local color along the way, we encountered record numbers of brides and grooms taking wedding photos in front of every major sight!
Tips: Take advantage of the free time built into the schedule. During one stop we made a beeline for the bar at the gorgeous The Four Seasons Hotel. Their version of a Moscow Mule was killer, no pun intended. Outside the Church of Our Saviour there is a small market filled with inexpensive, but amusing souvenirs such as nesting wooden dolls (matryoshkas) of U.S. Presidents, Elvis and Putin on horseback.
Best Way to Get Around: Metro – Practically speaking, travel by Metro (Subway) in Moscow is incredibly easy and cheap. Aesthetically, several of the stations are striking – both architecturally and artistically.
Tip: Don’t miss stations Dynamo for the bas-reliefs, Teatralnaya for the white marble, and Mayakovskaya with the mosaic tiled vaulted ceilings.
Best Tours: Red Square – It was a surreal experience approaching the St. Basil’s Cathedral with the iconic flamboyant domes that have been etched in my mind since childhood. Standing adjacent to Lenin’s Tomb in the middle of Red Square looking at these symbols of old Communism, it struck me how extraordinary this adventure was.
The Kremlin –The word Kremlin means “fortress inside a city” and is remarkable for the five palaces and four cathedrals within its walls.
Best Local Shopping: The Kremlin in Izmailovo – an expansive marketplace replete with antiques, traditional souvenirs, military memorabilia and kitschy bric-a-brac. Part flea market, part “Un-PC” tourist attraction, there are small “museums” like The Museum of Ill-Bred Children. No joke, the description says it’s a running literary hooligan club where they read books aloud about ill-bred children. However, like our Viking Program Director Sasha advised, “If you can’t find what you are looking for in Izmailovo, then it probably doesn’t exist.”
Gum Department Store – located in the northeastern side of Red Square, it is essentially a large shopping mall with most luxury European brand stores, but if you want local delicacies try the specialty grocery store Gastronome No. 1, which sells unique Russian chocolates, candies, caviar, cookies and wines.
Tip: Be prepared with cash (Rubles or Dollars) as the majority of vendors don’t accept credit cards.
Why Viking River Cruises
Why consider a Viking River Cruise in Russia? I was keen to experience the art, culture and landscape for myself. Traversing the vast landscape of Russia to experience the history and current climate was made so much easier via cruising. I was able to admire the scenic landscapes and meet interesting locals in each city. The programs consisted of a wide variety of thought-provoking and engaging activities and tours, something I have come to greatly appreciate from Viking. Cruising the Waterways of the Tsars was a thoroughly relaxing and effortless way to experience Russia for the first time.
Cruising the Rivers
A series of connected lakes and rivers took us from St. Petersburg to Moscow. The vast majority of the route we saw nothing but densely populated forests, small villages with fisherman out at all hours of the night, and people camping along the shores. It was a peaceful route with calm waters, stunning sunsets and plenty of pretty onion dome churches.
No Hotel Jumping
Such a treat, we covered hundreds of miles but never needed to pack and unpack! The ship was updated, admittedly not as glamorous as Viking’s counterparts in Western Europe, but as comfortable and well appointed with all the amenities you would expect from a Viking cruise. We were in stateroom 426 which had a spacious veranda, a nice perch to view the picturesque landscapes as we floated along the lakes, canals and rivers.
Tip: Check ahead of time the layout of rooms and request ones without poles in them – these ships were converted to increase the capacity thus they have bracing poles for the upper decks inside.
Food & Vodka
Cuisine on Viking Ingvar – I didn’t expect to eat so much fish, tasty fish, delectable fish! I believe I ordered seafood for dinner at least 10 of the nights. Several of the appetizers or main dishes came with dollops of fresh Russian caviar atop which I adored. Executive Chef Joachim Moeller conducted a hilarious cooking demonstration that had the audience in stitches. My favorite meal was the “Taste of Russia” lunch we had on the Sun Deck. Enthusiastic Program Director, self-proclaimed “Sasha from Russia,” sang traditional Russian songs like Dorogoi dlinnoyu (By the Long Road) or what we know it as, Those Were the Days. The crew joined in the revelry while we dined on Russian epicurean delights – most notably, the pastries!
Vodka – One of the ship stops was at the small replica village Mandrogy on the Svir River. Home to a Vodka Museum, this spirit lovers’ paradise had over 3,000 bottles to choose from. We paid $15 for a series of four shots. The bartender asked us what types of flavors we favored and chose accordingly, keeping in mind our individual penchants. My friend, Vodka connoisseur Elizabeth, wound up having a Goldilocks’ experience…two of them were too strong as in hot flash inducing, one too bland, but the last was just right – perfect blend of water and ethanol, clean and neat.
Q&A with our Guides – The Russian Viking Cruise ships had three “in-house” guides who spoke perfect English and were quite candid about their experiences growing up Russian. Two of the guides, Slava and Phillippe were particularly engaging during bus rides from one event to another. We had the opportunity to find out more about everyday life in Russia through their lenses. They were open about their experiences before and after the fall of Communism.
Home Visit – While in the small town of Uglich we had an outing to a charming family home. We met the matriarch of the family, her daughter and three of her grandchildren. We dined on fresh organic cucumbers, tomatoes and bread. We sipped hot tea and took shots of an amber colored homemade moonshine – quite strong, but tasty. She toasted us warmly via help of a local translator and we learned the proper way to drink the libation. You down the shot, then take a piece of the hearty wheat bread, breathe in a whiff and then eat it.
Live Performances – There were two amazing live acts we attended. One was a Cossack Folkloric Show where the stars performed the ancient ethnic art of “squat” dancing that we as Americans think of as typically Russian although its roots began in southern Russia and the Ukraine. The other was a whimsical classical folklore concert featuring compositions by famous Russian composer Tchaikovsky conducted by a young, humorous, and very talented showman.
Note: Pilon was a guest of Viking there to review the cruise, but all opinions expressed here are those of Pilon.