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Copyright © 1995-2001 
Linda Coffman

Sergei Kirov ~ Viking River Cruises
Moscow to St. Petersburg
June 23 to July 6, 2001

by Gary Karschnick

I haven't seen this subject often before, so I thought a report on our trip might be of interest to some. Let me start off by saying that we have been fortunate enough to have taken almost 70 cruises and about a dozen bus tours in Europe and Asia. In my opinion, this river cruise was one of the best, if not the very best of all the trips we have taken. We took the Moscow to St. Petersburg cruise on the MS Sergei Kirov with Viking River Cruises. We departed the U.S. on June 23rd and returned last Friday, July 6th.

Diane in front of St. Basil's

Before I get into the specifics about the trip, let me make some observations. Viking River Cruises does an outstanding job! Everything is well thought out from the friendliness of the staff, to the quality of the food, to the comfort of the cabins (including plenty of large fluffy towels), to the quality of the tour guides, and to the entertainment/lectures on board. They provide great value for the money. The cost of the cruise is comparable to a quality ocean cruise of the same duration. The Russian people we met were warm and friendly. Many spoke English. They were open about the problems they are having adjusting to a free economy. They can relate to Americans and our history. They understand that as some of the Russians are against the new system, so also were some of the colonists against breaking away from King George back a couple of hundred years. They have a love/hate relationship with us. They would love to have our fancy cars and consumer goods and hate that they are going to have to slowly develop a system to allow it. Their banking system is not set up to allow for mortgages or car loans. Their tax system almost requires them to lie about their real wages (and then they can't qualify for those loans that are available.) Within their social system, a doctor is paid $50 a month. So is a pensioner. Neither can live on that, but the doctor can find some other work, while the pensioner must beg.

Other observations, the Russian women are beautiful! They dress daily as if they are on their way to a disco. You don't see any overweight young women. They are slim and wearing the latest fashions on the streetcar to work. Also, regular goods are available. There are no lines for toilet paper anymore. Markets are everywhere and meat and vegetables are readily available.

We caught a morning flight on Delta Airlines to Atlanta to connect with Delta 96 to JFK in New York. I usually plan on having at least one back-up flight, but with a 2-hour cushion in Atlanta and another 2-hour cushion in JFK, I thought we were safe. Wrong! Weather in Florida delayed our equipment into Atlanta by 2 hours. After getting loaded, we were stopped again by a mechanical malfunction. That took another hour to get cleared. Then Air Traffic Control delayed our takeoff for another hour so that we were scheduled to arrive in JFK at the same time as our flight to Russia was scheduled to depart. We were nervous as were many other international connecting passengers. When we arrived, we found, to our delight, that Delta had held all the international connecting flights except for those where they could accommodate the passengers on other carriers. My hat is off to those Delta Passenger agents in JFK who had to endure the panicked shouting of concerned passengers and who patiently helped them get to their proper gates. I might add that we were served a delightful snack on the way to JFK. 

A side note here. We have accumulated quite a few frequent flyer miles in our travels, so instead of trying for free tickets, we found it easier to buy coach tickets and use the miles to upgrade to Business Elite for the entire trip. I am tall and have a great deal of difficulty with the coach seats, so this made the flights very nice. We transferred to Delta Flight 30 to Moscow and had a very nice flight. The Flight Attendants were very nice and the meals were excellent! Delta has evidently responded to some criticism of its' food. My steak was very nice, and my wife had Mexican Chicken, which was also good. I like the course by course service they do. Because of the delay at departure, we arrived in Moscow about an hour late also. 

What you have heard about the long lines and delays at passport control is true. There were only 2 lines for foreigners entering Russia. The women officials did not have the advantage of computers, so they were thorough in doing their job, They took about a minute studying each passport. When you count about a hundred people in line ahead of you, you know it's going to be about an hour and a half until it's your turn. The officials are not necessarily unfriendly, but it is evident that they don't want to chat. Once through Passport Control, a smiling young girl carrying a sign that said Viking River Cruises met us. She spoke very good English and helped us claim our baggage. We walked right out past customs to the curb. No one seemed to want the customs form we had filled out on the airplane while enroute. Viking arranged for a private car to take us right to the ship. In Russia, they drive very fast and don't usually stay within the confines of the painted traffic lanes. After a half-hour trip we arrived at the North Riverboat port and boarded the Sergei Kirov.

We were welcomed aboard the Sergei Kirov with a glass of champagne. Our bags were taken to our cabin while we checked in at reception where they took our visas and our outbound airline tickets. Visas so that they could register them with the proper authorities and airline tickets so that they could re-confirm our flights and arrange for our transfers to the airport in St. Petersburg at the end of the cruise. 

We had opted for a Deluxe (or double) cabin. I'm glad we did. The standard cabins on the Russian boats are rather small, around 110 sq.ft. The bunks in the standard cabins are a little too short for me and the bathroom has a shower arrangement where you pull the shower head out of the sink (much like your kitchen sink at home) and clip it to the wall or hold it when you shower. Needless to say, everything gets wet and you have to remove all your toiletries before using it. I did not hear anyone complaining about it, so it must have worked out. On the other hand, our cabin had 2 beds together to make up a (almost) King-size, a sofa, a refrigerator, TV and a large bathroom with a big walk-in shower. Throughout the cruise we had plenty of hot water. Showers were a delight. 

Meals on board were wonderful. Our chef was German. He had worked the previous year as one of the chefs on Crystal Cruise lines and for the 2 years before that on Princess Cruise lines. 95% of the food was imported from Europe. The only Russian food we had was sturgeon, caviar, and Russian wines, which were complimentary with each meal. Meal formats were as follows. Breakfast was always a buffet with fresh fruit, cereal, breads, some cold meats, bacon or ham, French toast or pancakes, and a station where one of the chefs would cook eggs to your request. There was also juice, coffee and tea. Lunch usually consisted of a buffet salad bar with 3 kinds of dressing and an entree and desert served at your table, with drinks. Dinner was at the table and consisted of an appetizer, soup, main entree with vegetable, and desert. All of the waitresses were pretty young Russian girls who spoke excellent English. Our cruise was underbooked, so we pretty much had a waitress for each table. Service was excellent. Our first meals on board were a snack of sandwiches in the Panorama bar available all afternoon so that as each one boarded, some food was available. At dinner the first night we were served a good salad, French onion soup Venison Ragout, and Poppyseed cake. The restaurant was all open seating so you were free to sit with whomever you wanted or by your self at a table for 2.

The ship had the capacity for about 220 passengers and we had 30 Americans, Canadians, and Australians and about 50 Germans. Viking River Cruises arranged separate programs for the English speaking and the German speaking guests. We even took opposite halves of the dining room. In retrospect, we wished we had mixed more, because at the end of the cruise, we made some friends in the German group and they also wanted to be with us. The language barrier wasn’t so great that we couldn't communicate in some fashion. Anyway, all our events and tours were conducted in English. In our group of 30, there were 8 who had booked with Abercrombie & Kent. They stayed in a hotel in Moscow and again at the end of the cruise in St. Petersburg and did their own city tours. I think A&K is a fine company, but in this case it wasn't so good for their clients. They paid a couple of thousand dollars more for their cruise and got the same city tours as us, meals no better than ours, and had to move and pack up 3 times. As an example, we went to the Moscow circus. It was great! The other group went to an opera (in Russian). They said the opera house was beautiful, but they didn't get to see an elephant on ice skates. (We didn't either, but the circus was wonderful and the other group was sorry that they missed it.) Really, the best and most comprehensive tours were those arranged by Viking. Day by day to follow

Gary in Red Square

On Monday, we started our tours early. (After a breakfast with wonderful chewy bread baked on board.) We had our Viking tour director, Misha, with us and also picked up Oxanna, a Moscow city tour guide. She was a beautiful woman who had been an Intourist guide under the communist system so was able to tell us about the life now versus the old system. She was also a very knowledgeable guide. The first stop was the Kremlin and the Armory Museum. Next we went to Red square where we were met by none other than Jack Nicholson who was there visiting also. Took a long stroll through the famous GUM (pronounced GOOM) department store which is really a large building housing many high-class boutiques and shops. The Russians don't shop there, not that they can't, but prices are 3 times higher there than elsewhere in Moscow. It is a sight to see. 

Oxanna then took us on a ride on the Metro (subway) It was quite an event to get all 22 of us onto the same car and off at the proper stops. Each station is like a different museum. Beautiful! From there, back to the bus and we stopped at a scenic outlook and ate box lunches provided by the ship. Excellent lunches containing 2 sandwiches, an orange, a candy bar, fruit juice, a hard-boiled egg, and a bottle of water. Let me mention here, that while they said the water on the ship was ok, they recommended that we always use bottled water just to be sure. It was available on the ship at $2/liter. After lunch we went to Arbat street, the local and tourist shopping area. Had lots of free time for our first look at the souvenirs and a chance to use McDonalds for a rest room break. Rest rooms are usually available and most are free, but in some museums, there is an old "babushka" at the door waiting to collect 7 rubles for your visit. This is her salary for keeping the place clean and they are clean and well stocked. You don't need to bring your own toilet paper anymore. We went back to the ship and took a short nap. (Still suffering from jet lag.) Then a quick dinner and off to the Moscow Circus. The first half was basically a very good ice show. Dancers, clowns, animals and some acrobats. After a short intermission while the safety nets were rigged, we were treated to an extraordinary flying trapeze act. They had the crowd on their feet. It was spectacular. After that, back to the ship to bed.

Oleg & Barry bidding farewell from Moscow

Tuesday, after another all you could eat breakfast, we visited the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum. Back to the ship for lunch and our 1:30 departure. Lunch was salad bar, Beef Stroganoff over seasoned Rice, followed by an eclair stuffed with Coffee Mousse. I want to digress here to tell about an experience we had. On our first afternoon after checking onto the ship, we took a little walk around the dock area. We met a young man walking his dog. It was a Pomeranian just like ours back home. By gestures, we asked if we could pet him. He said ok and we soon found out that he, Oleg, spoke English. We had a very nice conversation and soon became instant friends. Now back to our departure from Moscow. Oleg had come to the dock with his dog to bid us farewell. As the boat sailed, they played some lovely music over the PA system. It was just like the movies and was a touching scene and a precursor as to how warm and friendly the Russian people are.
The weather was sunny and warm throughout our stay. We sailed along the Moscow canal, which was lined with children and families taking advantage of the weather to sun, and enjoy themselves. There were also quite a few fishermen. 

At 4:00 P.M., we went to the Captains Welcoming Cocktail Party. There was no receiving line. We were served lots of Russian Champagne and the Captain, through an interpreter, introduced his officers and wished us a happy cruise. Most men did not bring along coat and tie, so the entire cruise was casual dress. At dinner, the entree choices were Veal Picata or Pike-Perch. The Maitre'D usually comes to each table at lunch and asks what the dinner entree choice will be. This is to prevent wastage and to make sure everyone gets his or her choice. This system worked well. Even if you changed your mind, there was no problem. Later in the week, when we took our galley tour, we marveled at how so much food could be prepared in such a small space.

Continued in Part Two