We chose the luxurious Radisson Seven Seas Voyager to get us there because she offered three full days docked in St. Petersburg.
When it comes to touring an area, even if it's only a short visit by ship, Mrs. Kuki and I have an adventurous spirit. We enjoy trying to tour independently, often using only taxis, good guidebooks, a map, and our feet. We feel we get a more personal/up close experience than we would by riding in a large tour bus. Plus, we avoid the one big drawback of ship excursions -- the fact that the group moves only as quickly as its slowest participant.
But in Russia, it isn't so easy just to set off your own. Visas are required for anyone not using the ship's excursions, and Customs & Immigration at the pier is very watchful of this in regard to independent travelers.
There are companies in North America that will assist those who want to apply for visas and tour independently, but this requires some advance work and extra costs to make certain all paperwork is in order before your departure. And unless you have at least a basic ability to communicate in Russian, you might find more adventure than you bargained for.
We were fortunate enough to find another means of touring the area, still avoiding the large tour buses and the necessity to apply for visas in advance. A three-year-old Russian company called Red October Land Sea Travel, owned by a very hospitable and hardworking lady named Laura, offered tour options that perfectly suited our needs. They will handle everything from couples to large groups. Prices vary depending on the number of participants, but you'll find the rates very competitive with ship's excursions, even for small groups.
For example, we booked three full days of tours with Red October. On two days, there were four of us, and one day it was just Mrs. Kuki and me. The total cost for two of us for the three days was $1,170. No advance deposits are required!
For just under $200 per person per day, we had our own private air-conditioned Mercedes minivan with a qualified guide and driver. The fee also covered the visa requirement (which Red October took care of), entrance fees where applicable, and a hot lunch each day in a different restaurant. Another advantage of touring in this manner is that you can alter your itinerary as you go -- something you can't do if you're touring with 50 or 60 shipmates.
Our guide was Helen, a professor at the University of St. Petersburg, and truly a fountain of knowledge and a wonderful story teller. Our driver was a third year medical student working at his summer job. Each day we were met on the pier, and returned to the ship at the end of the day, exhausted and exhilarated.
On our first day in St Petersburg we toured the city a bit on our way to the Peter and Paul Fortress, and St. Peter and Paul's Cathedral, where we spent approximately an hour. We then headed over to Russia's most famous museum, the Hermitage. Seeing the amazing artwork here with Helen's running commentary would have been worth the cost of the entire tour, and it wasn't even afternoon yet.
At the Hermitage, and other palaces and museums we would visit later, we encountered many long lines waiting for entry. However, Red October seems to have the right connections, because at each stop we were escorted directly to the entrance and admitted -- no waiting in lines. In many cases we saw tour groups from Celebrity, Cunard and Costa waiting to get in.
After our visit to the Hermitage, we were escorted to a restaurant for a Russian lunch. This restaurant, the Adamant, was located in an old palace, and was interesting to visit, even if the food was not perfectly suited to our North American taste buds.
From here we drove 19 miles to Peterhof, and visited the Grand Palace, once the official summer residence of the Tsars. It's been totally restored. The grandeur of this Palace and its Lower Garden are breathtaking. Once again, Helen's storytelling and walk through history enhanced the experience so much we could almost feel the Tsars and aristocrats in our midst.
As we drove back to the city, she told us about the occupation of Peterhof by the Germans in World War II, and showed us where the front line was located. It was amazing to think the German armies had come so close to conquering the city of St. Petersburg and thus changing history.
The next morning, we awoke refreshed and visited the Alexander-Nevsky Laura, and then the Holy Trinity Cathedral and monastery. The Tikhvin Memorial Cemetery is here as well, where many famous Russians are buried. Visiting the gravesites of Tchaikovsky and Dostoyevsky helped connect us even more to the history of this country.
From here, it was a short ride to the Russian Art Museum. Unlike the Hermitage, where collections of artists from around the globe are stored, this is strictly a collection of Russian artists.
Before lunch, we had a relaxing one-hour tour of St. Petersburg by boat. Ours was a rather large tour boat, but with Red October, it was only us and another group of six from CruiseMates onboard. The canal ride gave us a different perspective of the palaces and cathedrals we had visited earlier. We also got a better understanding of all the islands, joined by hundreds of bridges, that compromise the city of St. Petersburg.
Then it was off to the Kochubey Restaurant for lunch. It was relatively new, and we noticed a few Russians enjoying the restaurant as well. Helena explained that eating out is still a foreign habit to most Russians, though there are changes in the wind, as they are hearing of a few Chinese restaurants offering takeout.
Following lunch we toured the Yusopv Palace, where the plot to kill Rasputin was formulated and carried out. Once again the grandeur and opulent display of wealth seemed in stark contrast to the Russia of today.
Our final day in St. Petersburg began with a 15-mile drive south to visit Catherine's Palace and Alexander's Palace. Catherine's Palace is totally restored, closely resembling the look it had when occupied. We toured through the bedrooms, dining rooms and grounds; again with Helen's storytelling in the background, we could feel the history that had taken place here. Alexander's Palace was a more interesting contrast. Only a small part has been restored, so we could see how worn and dilapidated many of these buildings had become before the government intervened with renovation projects.
As noon approached we drove back into the city for lunch at the Old Petersburg Restaurant. Another atypical Russian lunch I suspect, but a nice breather for weary tourists.
Following lunch we stopped for a short time at the Synagogue of St. Petersburg. It happened to be Saturday, and there was a service going on. The synagogue is in the midst of restoration, but was as splendid as many of the cathedrals we visited. This gave us a glimpse into the changing Russia, where not all that long ago, freedom of religion was basically nonexistent.
Our three-day tour ended with visits to St. Issac's Cathedral and the magnificent Church of the Savior of the Spilled Blood.
As we were returned to the pier for the final time, I told Helena how delightful she had made our visit to St. Petersburg, and that as a professor she should be proud, because in just three days she had made me way too smart.
St. Petersburg is a fascinating city, with culture so very different from our own. If the opportunity arises to visit, I highly recommend it. And if you heed that advice and want the experience enhanced considerably, try the services of Red October Land Sea Travel.
You can book Red October tickets directly with the company in Russia by email (go to www.redoctober.spb.ru, or email [email protected]), but Red October now also has a U.S. representative, Mike Finn, at www.redoctober.us who can make the same arrangements for you. Or, if you already have a regular travel agent they can make the Red October arrangements for you. Just tell your travel agent you want Red October tours, and Red October pays a commission to the agent. The price is the same no matter which of these methods you choose.
A new option for 2005 will be independent bus tours with Red October guides for cruise ship passengers -- available from www.redoctober.us. This will be a new, less expensive option for passengers to get the Red October tours as an alternative to the cruise line bus tours.