Friday, November 13, 2009

What a year! I'm still catching my breath after a river cruise through Russia in May on the AMA Waterways Tolstoy, followed by our daughter's wonderful wedding in June. This fall brought a military reunion in San Diego, a short Mexican Riviera cruise on the Royal Carribean Radiance of the Seas, and our company's National Conference cruise on the Carnival Pride. Now we're preparing for two inaugural sailings of the new Oasis of the Seas and an inspection cruise of the Ruby Princess.

Waterways of Russia River Cruise
But I'm getting ahead of myself. This entry focuses on our river cruise in Russia from Moscow to St. Petersburg, including three nights in each of those cities onboard ship. En route, we visited Uglich, Yaroslavl, Goritzy, Kizhi Island, and Svirstroy. It was a fascinating journey indeed. The Russia/USSR of our childhood has undergone tremendous social and political changes over the past few decades, and to say that Russians have not completely adapted to these changes is putting it mildly. An excellent Moscow university professor onboard presented three very interesting lectures on various topics. It was obvious she loves her country and has her own opinions about its good and bad characteristics, as well as the manner in which some of those changes have been implemented. More importantly, however, she was a delightful woman who welcomes tourism—and Americans—with gratitude.

Traveling with us were four other couples who booked into our little group. This small group and itinerary made it a wonderful way to experience Russia.

We are very fond of AMA Waterways and tend to gravitate toward that line over other river cruise lines because of our close working relationship with AMA and the product itself. What you need to remember about AMA in Russia, though, is that her ship, like all river ships there, is older than other AMA ships due to high construction costs and Russian laws. Cruise lines simply lease or purchase older ships and then refurbish them.

The Ship
The ms Tolstoy was built in 1979 and refurbished in 2006. There are 85 staterooms including 7 junior suites and 6 suites. Unless you’re in a junior suite on this ship with 220 square feet and a bedroom with sitting area, or in a suite boasting 330 square feet and both a bedroom and separate living room, cabins are tiny at only 110- square feet. However, even at 110 square feet, the Tolstoy’s cabins are actually larger than most other ships cruising Russian waters. A movie hall on the top deck doubled as the lecture room with video/slideshow capability. This ship even has a very small indoor swimming pool on the upper deck. Since the water wasn’t heated, you didn’t find Ben and me in the pool, but a few hearty types did take a dip. The Neva Bar alongside made for a cozy place to read and visit, though. At the fore of the same deck is another bar adjacent to the music hall used for entertainment and dance music. (Bar service was excellent and the drinks were fairly priced considering we were in Russia.) In between were the junior suites and suites. The restaurant and other cabins comprise the two remaining decks

Although all cabins on the new AMA ships sailing in Europe (except Portugal) come with complimentary Internet service, there is no Internet service for passengers on this ship. However, I had no problems at all getting emails and updating my Facebook page via my BlackBerry with T-Mobile. Pretty amazing, when you think about it, considering that we were traveling through some very sparsely populated areas of Russia. I lost service only a few hours while crossing the big lakes.

Although the standard cabins were small, there was enough space for your clothes and other possessions. Luggage was stored in a secure area elsewhere on the ship. The bathrooms were small but adequate. There were no safes in the cabins, although a large safe was available at the lobby. Each cabin was given two complimentary bottles of water daily.

Since operating in Russia, AMA has laid claim to the having the largest passenger cabins of all Russian ships sailing, with even the lowest category cabins featuring separate showers and sinks rather than a shower/sink combo.

The Staff
We undoubtedly had the best looking onboard guides on the Tolstoy than any other ship. These young women (Natasha, Dash, Ksenia, and Tanya) were mostly college students, were very smart, and spoke excellent English. Tanya was our group’s leader and was outstanding! Marina, our cruise director, did her best to balance the demands of the first sailing of the season, a diverse passenger roster, and largely non-English speaking Russian/Ukrainian service staff. As a matter of fact, it was humorous when we’d ask a question of a smiling waiter or waitress who would nod affirmatively and smile some more, sometimes not having a clue what we actually asked, but always eager to help! Their service was prompt and all of them were very pleasant, and their understanding of English, and us, got better each day. Our captain did not speak English, either, but he was polite and friendly and shared some of his interesting nautical background with us through third parties. A couple of times during the cruise, our restaurant manager gave talks on cool topics like vodka, blinys, and caviar (yep, with tastings of each). This was one instance in which a basic command of the English would have been helpful, as some things just got lost in the translation and the presentations sometimes grew too lengthy.

A highlight during the week was our invitation to join the Captain at his table during the Captain’s gala. We were able to finagle an additional invitation for two of our clients, one of whom was celebrating her 70th birthday on that exact day. Not only was she presented with a cake—it was brought to the table by the singing Russian musicians, all the wait staff, the cooks, and all our tour guides! She was overwhelmed, and her husband was so happy that he had tears in his eyes. They both believe Ben is a miracle worker!

The Itinerary
Our time in Moscow included an overview city tour to visit Red Square, Sparrow Hills, and New Maidens Convent; a tour to Tetyakov Gallery known as the national treasury of Russian Fine Art; a river boat tour and lunch while sailing past sights in central Moscow; a tour of the Kremlin Armory and Kremlin grounds; and a tour of part of the ornately designed Moscow Metro boasting chandeliers, artwork, and murals—all graffiti free. Ben and I also booked the optional tour to the Moscow Circus. WOW! Other optional tours went to Novodevichy Convent and Pushkin Fine Arts Museum. We absolutely loved the Kremlin Armory and circus, as well as just walking around the entire Kremlin area. But Moscow traffic is absolutely awful. Now that Muscovites CAN buy a car, they do—and drive them to work one by one and backed up for miles. Luckily, our weather in Moscow stayed clear, dry and pleasant and we relaxed and went with the flow. It is a shame that they are congesting their city when they have one of the most beautiful and reliable subway systems in the world.
The town of Uglich proved a very special stop, as we were divided into groups of 12 and sent to Uglich homes for a traditional Russian dinner. This event took place on one of just a couple of rainy days we experienced and after visiting the Transfiguration Cathedral and Church of St. Dmitry on the Blood. Our group lucked out in getting the home of a woman who teaches English at a local college. She and her daughter spoke it very well, though the husband and young son did not. Our meal of potatoes, cabbage and carrots (preceded by the ever-present shot of vodka, of course) took place over a makeshift enlarged table in a small living room lined with bookshelves of family photos, English literature and novels, and family memorabilia. A photo of the woman’s grandfather begged a thousand questions about his military service under Czar Nicholas II that time wouldn’t permit.

In Yaroslavl, we embarked on a bus tour with visits to the Church of St. Elijah the Prophet and the Transfiguration Monastery whose gift ship could have become even richer if we’d only had another hour to shop. Then it was to Goritsy the next day where we toured the Monastery of St. Cyril of the White Lake. This was perhaps our least favorite stop, but maybe it was because of the rain that kept our umbrellas up and our feet dodging muddy puddles. This was also our coldest day, making me glad I’d taken my all-weather coat with zip-out lining, gloves, and warm hat!

The next day dawned clear, however, just in time for our cruise across huge Lake Onega (3,753 square miles), second in size only to Lake Ladoga (6,700 square miles), the largest lake in Europe, which we crossed the next day. Our destination was Kizhi Island, situated in the northwest region of Lake Onega and home to an outdoor museum of fascinating edifices of northern wooden architecture, including the remarkable Transfiguration Cathedral. Beautiful! Lake Onega itself boasts a mineral composition second in purity, we were told, only to distilled water.

Our final stop before St. Petersburg was the little town of Svirstroy that we were able to simply explore on our own. Several small souvenir shops/kiosks had sprung up near the dock, as you might guess, but after browsing in a few and leaving a little money, we walked around the neighborhood to see how small-town Russians live. One man opened his home to any takers and invited them in for vodka (of course!) and a snack. Our guides told us it was perfectly legitimate, so yes, we went, and yes, we left them a nice tip. A very nice man and his wife with warm smiles, tea and vodka for everyone!

Finally, we arrived in the most Western of all Russia cities, St. Petersburg. Included in our time in this amazing city were an overview city tour (which was much too brief), a tour of the magnificent Hermitage Museum, a tour to Peterhof, and the ballet performance of “Giselle” at the Hermitage Theatre. The optional tours Ben and I added were to Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin, home to the famous Amber Room, and the Cossack show “Bagatitsa.” Talk about energy! One of our clients who wore a bright red shirt made the mistake of sitting on the end of the aisle. Of course he was picked to participate in the show…and loved every minute of it. Other tours offered went to Peter-and Paul Fortress & St. Isaac’s Cathedral and to the Yusupov Palace. All tours were outstanding, and the palaces and museums, breathtaking!

River cruise chefs are limited in their menu choices by what is available locally, particularly when it comes to fresh vegetables. In Russia, think “root vegetables.” Lots of root vegetables. So, how many ways can YOU prepare cabbage, carrots, and potatoes? We had to hand it to our chef for his creativity, but we definitely tired of cabbage! Ever eaten “cabbage schnitzel”? The food was good, though not as tasty as the AMA menus in Europe, but I definitely didn’t gain any weight. Wine was free-flowing, as always on AMA, but we decided Russians don’t know how to make it yet. Breakfasts were American buffet style, and generally well done. Lots of choices for breakfast. Soups were exceptionally well prepared.

This cruise featured entertainment by an onboard native Russian singing trio who spoke no English, and a couple of pianists on several evenings, as well as classes in Russian language, dance, crafts, cooking, and of course, vodka tasting. All were very well done by hard working and sincere performers and instructors, with education being a key component of entertainment. A highlight one day was a guided tour of the ship, which included a visit not only to the bridge, but also to the engine room, normally off limits on the big ocean liners. It was interesting to see three huge Caterpillar engines powering our Russian ship!

River cruising is for the mature client who wants to experience an itinerary rich in history and breathtaking scenery at a more leisurely pace. If you enjoy history and culture and want a more all inclusive experience, then you would likely enjoy river cruising. But river cruising isn’t for everyone, especially those who like casinos, big shows, and adventuresome excursions. Most kids would not enjoy it. It’s also not for folks who are unable to walk distances on cobblestone steps and keep up the full pace of a port (or two) each day.

We have become big fans of river cruising ourselves and look forward to the next trip we will host in April 2010 to Portugal—again on AMA Waterways. Please let us know if you would like to join us!

To see photos of our cruise, go to the following links:

RUSSIA: Three Albums

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

1 comment:

Ranjeet said...

River cruise is always a unforgetable experience. Nice to see you people had a beautiful experience.And by the way congrats.
Don't ask me why? you already know it!