There's something about Russia that stumps even the most intrepid traveler. The language is daunting, the Cyrillic alphabet is difficult, and its 20th-century incarnation as the Soviet Union, aka the "Evil Empire" to Westerners, still lingers in the minds of many.
Viking strives to make this complex country approachable for its North American, British, Australian and New Zealand audience. With four of its own ships on the Russian rivers -- most of the competitors charter their boats -- the company has made a commitment to this region that's evident in its programming and excursion choices.
Viking Rurik, refurbished in 2012, maintains Viking's signature Scandinavian style with blonde wood, muted colors and simple, attractive design. Because it sails on some of Europe's largest lakes, Rurik is constructed to handle waves so it doesn't appear as "flat" as Viking's European longships. Still, those with sensitive stomachs should bring seasick medication, as waters on Lake Ladoga, the largest freshwater body of water in Europe, can get rough. One aspect of the decades-old ship that couldn't be redone: the stairs, which are among the steepest we've ever seen. (Step angles were 68 degrees, as measured by an iPhone app.) Many people opted for the elevator, which runs to all four public decks.
Another feature that required some adjustment is the ship's main lounge, the Sky Bar. Unlike those on most other European river ships, this lounge is on the Sun Deck level and therefore isn't big enough to handle all 210 passengers at once. Passengers learned to come early for port talks, lectures and enrichment programs, which were often staggered and telecast into the cabins so everyone could hear.
Despite the cramped lounge, Rurik's staff did an admirable job of managing passenger flow, and the ship itself rarely felt crowded. Passengers disembarked in groups, usually without too many complaints or backups. Russian-language posters, evocative photos and artwork throughout the public areas imbued a sense of place, while Russian movies -- both contemporary and classic -- played every day on the in-room TV's. Standout optional excursions, such as a traditional Russian banya (bath), a behind-the-scenes look at the Hermitage vaults and tickets to the Bolshoi Ballet, kept even the most veteran travelers excited and engaged.
All in all, a Russian river cruise on Rurik gives passengers plenty of opportunities to explore the country's elaborate palaces, breathtaking art collections and onion-domed churches. While getting a handle on all things Russian could take a lifetime, 12 days spent onboard provide the perfect beginning.
In the world of river cruising, Viking is considered middle-of-the-road, in terms of amenities and value. We would rate the food similarly, neither outstanding nor offensive.
The ship's main dining room, on the Middle Deck, is known as the Neva Restaurant. Unlike kitchens on most river ships, Rurik's kitchen sits in the middle of the room, a layout that provides more privacy for diners and also reduces noise. A fair number of tables are set for two, with the majority being four- and six-tops. A handful of eight-tops are available for larger groups. The walls are decorated with original artwork, evoking Russian monuments.
Meals are held at set times during the day, with the schedule varying slightly, depending on the day's itinerary. Breakfast in the Neva Restaurant consists of a buffet, complete with an omelet station and plenty of hot and cold choices. Sparkling wine is set out for mimosas. (While hours are usually 7 a.m. to 9 am., continental options are available in other parts of the ship for early risers.) Lunches, generally running from noon to 2 p.m., are also buffets, with a salad bar, a pasta choice and both hot and cold entrees that you can order from the kitchen.
For those who don't want a full buffet, an alternate breakfast is served in the Panorama Bar, a light and airy space at the fore of the Upper Deck. Typical breakfast offerings there include rolls, fruit, yogurt, meats and cheeses.
Beginning at 7 p.m. and lasting two hours, Neva Restaurant dinners consist of a cold appetizer, soup or a hot appetizer, a choice of entree (including vegetarian) and a dessert. Regional Russian specialties, such as beef stroganoff or piroshky, are noted on the menu, with at least one option per meal. The rest of the choices, including seafood, meat and a vegetarian option, appeal more to a North American palate, with Caesar salad, salmon, chicken or steak always available for less adventurous eaters. A typical menu might start with a tomato and cucumber salad and roasted garlic soup, followed by pan-seared perch or roasted duck breast, ending with several dessert choices or a cheese plate (or both, if you desire). Lunches and dinners include unlimited beer, house wine (which, unfortunately, is not that great) and soft drinks; you can order premium wines from the bar.
The dining staff is mostly Filipino, while the dining manager and chef are both German. The servers are friendly and prompt, although on my cruise -- the first of the season -- a few kinks in timing were still visible. All servers, as well as the bar staff, make an attempt to learn the passengers' names -- a homey touch.
Coffee, cappuccino, tea and hot chocolate are available 24/7 at a station outside the main dining room. (We found the coffee there better than that served in the dining room.) The station also has cookies in the afternoon. Passengers are discouraged from drinking the tap water in their cabins, so complimentary large bottles of water are placed in cabins daily, and small bottles are given out before excursions. While room service is not available, all cabins have refrigerators, and passengers are allowed to bring alcohol bought on shore -- usually vodka on this itinerary -- into their cabins. Nuts and snacks are available at Happy Hour, although we found we needed to request them.
The ship's hotel-style front desk on the Main Deck is open 24 hours; passengers check in and out there when they leave the ship. A boarding card system allows the crew to keep tabs on who is onboard. (The cards also provide the ship's St. Petersburg and Moscow berths in both English and Russian, a boon to those who might need a cab to get back.)
The Main Deck also houses the ship's computer room, where four laptops and a printer are available for public use. The ship has some of the best satellite-based Internet services that we've seen on the water, and free Wi-Fi is almost universally available. The Main Deck also houses a library with games and books about Russia, as well as a shop where you can buy Russian trinkets like nesting dolls, amber jewelry and vodka flasks, in addition to toiletries and logowear.
Viking Rurik has seven cabin classes and four room types onboard, ranging from 142 square feet to 405 square feet. Most of the 98 cabins on the ship -- 68 percent, on the Middle and Upper Decks -- have private verandas with sliding-glass doors and room for two chairs and a small table. The Deluxe staterooms on the Main Deck have picture windows that can be opened.
All cabins have clock radios with iPod docks, telephones, mini-fridges, hotel-style beds in twin or queen configurations, desks and vanities with chairs and flat-screen TV's with a selection of news channels and movies. They each also have at least one U.S. plug in the cabin, along with several other European outlets. Storage space is plentiful with several closet-style cabinets and wooden hangers, as well as several drawers for clothes. Suitcases fit under the beds.
In most cabins, each bathroom have a shower separated from the toilet by a curtain, plugs for men's razors, a built-in clothesline to drip-dry clothes, and a glass vanity. Toiletries, such as shampoo, conditioner, body wash and lotion, are from L'Occitane.
Viking Rurik has six suites on the Middle Deck. The two junior suites, at 340 square feet apiece, have queen beds, which can be separated into twins, and alcove seating areas. The junior suites each have a glass-enclosed shower and a separate bathtub. At 405 square feet, the largest cabins are true suites, with separate sitting areas, walk-in wardrobes and two TV sets each. All six suites have full-sized private verandas that stretch along the length of the cabins, each with two sun loungers, two chairs and two small tables.
While Rurik does not have wheelchair-accessible cabins, there were people with mobility issues on our cruise. Having a room close to the elevator would be a must in this situation.
The ship's onboard currency is the euro. While the front desk can't exchange money, staff know the locations of ATM's in port so passengers can pick up rubles. (On our cruise, a stop was even made to convert U.S. dollars at the beginning of the trip.) Travelers checks are not accepted; credit cards include Visa, MasterCard and American Express.
Gratuities for the crew are paid at the end of the trip, in cash or with your credit card as an addition to your total bill. The company pools tips, and you can also give individual amounts to waiters or housekeeping staff if you desire. The recommended amount is $15 per person, per day. The tour director receives a separate tip, with a recommended amount of $10 per day. And, finally, you'll want to budget small bills, preferably in local currency, for frequent tips for local guides and bus drivers.
Families with young children would not be comfortable on Viking Rurik, as the cruise is geared toward adults; there are no facilities for children. Multigenerational families consisting of adult children and their parents are common, however.
As with most river ships, Viking Rurik's fares include a daily city walk or excursion, which you take in groups with your program director or a local guide. At times, groups are designated for slower passengers. Personal headsets are issued at the beginning of the cruise, and you bring them along on group excursions.
Besides typical city tours, unusual excursions included with the cruise took passengers into a Russian home in Uglich, gave them a ride on the Moscow Metro, allowed them to see a ballet in St. Petersburg and took them to an outstanding folk symphony orchestra in Moscow. Exciting optional excursions were also available, particularly in the two large cities, where passengers had plenty of choices.
For cruisers used to leisurely port stops along the Rhine or Danube, the pace of a Russian river cruise will require an adjustment. The beginning and end of the cruise, about three days each in St. Petersburg and Moscow, are packed with activities so people can get the most out of these world-class cities. The rest of the itinerary is light on time spent in port (highlights include the Golden Ring city of Yaroslavl and Kizhi, both UNESCO World Heritage sites) and heavy on cruising along the Volga, Neva and various lakes. That's because the ships must traverse approximately 1,000 miles of waterway and stick to a strict lock schedule on the Volga-Baltic waterway.
The ship does its best to fill these hours with things to do. Lectures on different segments of Russia's long history are held every day at sea, as are cooking demonstrations, visits with the captain on the ship's bridge and language lessons.
The ship's main lounge, the Sky Bar, is on the Sun Deck level and is not big enough to accommodate all passengers at once. It has a small dance floor and a piano, where the onboard musician performs during Happy Hour and after dinner. As with most lounges, the bar is a big draw, and drink prices range from 3 to 7 euros. While traditionally river ships don't attract a late-night, partying crowd, on our cruise, convivial groups of travelers from Canada, Australia and New Zealand kept the bar open longer than we've seen on similar trips, especially on days that weren't as port-intensive.
The Panorama Bar on the Upper Deck provides a secondary lounge and bar for passengers who want to enjoy a floor-to-ceiling view. During the day, several people used this area for reading or surfing the net on their personal devices.
The average age of Viking Rurik's passengers has been decreasing every year, according to the ship's hotel manager. While the trip used to draw mostly those in their 70's, passengers are now typically in their late 50's and 60's, with a smattering of younger (for a river cruise) passengers in their 40's. The ship is also drawing more people outside North America, with British, Australian and New Zealand passengers onboard. Most people have taken at least one other river cruise before tackling Russia, and you'll hear stories of China, the Danube and the Rhine at dinner.
As with most river cruises, the ship eschews formal nights, and onboard dress is casual. Shorts and jeans are not permitted at dinner, however. Russia's weather can be iffy, even during the summer, so layers are a must. While dress at the Captain's Welcome and Farewell dinners seemed no different than it is on other nights, men and women who want to explore the theater scene in St. Petersburg and Moscow might want to throw in a sports coat, a dress or a nicer top and pants. You'll also want comfortable walking shoes for touring, as many towns have cobblestone streets. Women won't need heels.
|Fitness and Recreation|
The second half of the Sun Deck is an outdoor space, with both covered seating and loungers in the sun. This is the only spot on the ship where smokers may indulge.
Unless you count the steep stairs that connect the decks (which give your quads quite a workout), Viking Rurik has no fitness or spa facilities. The ship does have a doctor onboard; a visit costs 30 euros.
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