St. Petersburg, Mandrogy, Kizhi, Kuzino, Yaroslavl, Uglich, MoscowHaving sailed with Viking River Cruises several times in the past, we already had pre-conceived ideas of what to expect on our 13-day Waterways of the Czars cruise from St. Petersburg to Moscow. We even did some pre-cruise research online by reading reviews on other websites from others who had been on this identical cruise and ship. The reviews were mixed, so we were questioning our expectations which were based on our own past experience with Viking River Cruises.THE SHIPWhen we first approached Viking Ingvar docked in St. Petersburg, the first thing that struck us was how much larger it was than other river boats on which we have sailed. Unlike Viking River Cruises’ European ships, which typically carry 150 guests (new “longships” carry 190), Viking Ingvar carries up to 206 guests. The ship was completely refurbished in 2011 and they are not kidding when they say “completely”. The condition of the ship was one of our concerns after reading some of the reviews. However, when we stepped aboard Viking Ingvar it looked like a brand new ship! You would never know that this ship was launched in 1989. The Scandinavian, contemporary interior with light colored woods may appear sterile to some, but it oozes modern and newness.Ships that sail in Russia have to be built in Russia, so Viking River Cruises is somewhat limited to the Russian-built ship’s original design and floorplan. However, when this ship was originally constructed during the Soviet Union era, it was designed to carry more than 424 guests! Needless to say, the Soviets were not big on creature comforts. Here is what you will find on each deck:
Main Deck: 200-series staterooms, Reception Desk, Library, small Internet Cafe with 2 laptops and printer, and a nice gift shop.
Middle Deck: 300-series staterooms, Neva Restaurant, Coffee station, public restrooms
Upper Deck: 400-series staterooms, Panorama Bar
Sun Deck: Sky Bar, Sun Deck
All public spaces, hallways and staterooms were included in the ship’s recent refurb, so everything looks new and fresh. Stephan Busch, Hotel Manager, sees to it that the ship is kept spotlessly clean. There is one elevator onboard.Internet access is complimentary and available 24 hours a day via the two laptops in the Internet Cafe on the Main Deck, or, by using the ship’s Wi-Fi with your own laptop or Wi-Fi capable device. Without question, the Internet service on Viking Ingvar was hands-down the best I have experienced on any river cruise. What a pleasant surprise! I was able to post my daily blog each day and keep up with email, no problem. Of course, like any river cruise, there were times when the service was dropped. Whenever a ship goes through a lock, for example; this is just a technical reality of river cruising. Also, when we were far north on Lake Onega, service was unavailable for a long period. Other than that, I have no complaints. Not only was Internet available throughout the ship, even in our stateroom, connection speeds were decent. Good job!Smoking is not permitted anywhere inside the boat. Smoking is permitted in designated areas on the outside decks.With the popularity of river cruising, it is not unusual to have several ships dock at the same pier side-by-side, tying up to each other, making it necessary to walk through the lobby of one or more other ships to get to the shore. So, before you open your curtains, be aware that you might be eye-to-eye with the occupants on the ship that is tied up to your ship! Viking Helgi was sailing the same itinerary we were so it was not unusual to have to walk through her lobby. Since she looks virtually identical to Viking Ingvar, you had to pay attention to be sure you were on the correct ship. At one place on our itinerary, I think we had to walk through at least four ships to get to the shore and there were ships on the other side of us whose passengers had to walk through more than five ships!ACCOMMODATIONSOur category AX Deluxe stateroom #415 is located on the Upper Deck of Viking Ingvar. According to the Viking River Cruises literature, the stateroom has 160 sq. ft. I forgot to pack my tape measure, so I will take their word for it. The stateroom does feel larger than previous Viking River Cruises cabins. Like the rest of Viking Ingvar, the staterooms underwent complete restoration in 2011, and it is obvious. The cabin looks brand new. In fact, the photos on their website do not show the new bed linens which include comfortable European-style duvets.Because of the ship’s structure, there is a post in the middle of our room. It was odd to see it at first, but after a day, you don’t even notice it. There is a large picture window on the back wall that looks out over a promenade deck. You can actually open this window by twisting the handle at the top and sliding the window down. This was a great feature for taking pictures from the stateroom. Just remember that your window opens onto a public promenade! Also, there is no screen on the window, so be careful not to let any flying insects in. In 2013, the ship will be undergoing more renovations to convert that promenade into individual verandas for the staterooms.The two twin beds (combined to form a queen-sized bed in our case) are on one wall with end tables which are mounted to the wall. Each end table is basically a small table top and a single shelf for storage. There are light switches next to each bed to control the individual reading light and other cabin lighting. There is also a 220 outlet above each night stand. The beds are firm, but comfortable and the new linens, duvets and pillows are very comfortable. There is plenty of room underneath the beds to store empty luggage.On the wall facing the beds is a long desk/entertainment/bar console. There is a lot of tabletop space for your laptop, cameras, or other personal items. A bowl of fruit and complimentary bottled water can be found here as well. You will also find a telephone and the Quiet Vox charging station located here. A large mirror above the desk allows this area to be used as a vanity. There is a small stool underneath where you can sit and put on makeup, or work on your laptop. Ingvar’s designers did an excellent job of including plenty of electrical outlets. There are two 220 Euro-style outlets at the desk and a single 110 US-style outlet. As long as you pack a few Euro-to-US prong adapters, you should be good to go! One thing Rickee would have liked to have had was a magnifying makeup mirror on the desk. There was plenty of room for it and even outlets for the plug if it were a lighted magnifying mirror. That would be a great addition!As for storage, there is a decent-sized closet to hold your hanging items and enough space underneath for shoes. A large shelf above the hangers is another space for storage of items. The only drawer in the stateroom is the small drawer under the desk. Designers opted for shelves instead of drawers. There are three open shelves next to the mini-fridge. On either side of the desk, there is a three-shelf unit behind hinged doors. The use of shelves instead of drawers is most likely to keep cabin noise to a minimum. If you have ever been awakened by the sound of slamming drawers, you will appreciate the use of shelves. There are also four hooks on the back of the cabin door, perfect for hanging jackets, caps, backpacks, etc. Because of the post in our room, there is no other table, but there is a chair.The bathroom is pretty typical. There is a nice-sized shower stall with curtain. A small vanity top and a three-shelf mirrored medicine cabinet offers plenty of space for most personal items. There is also a shelf underneath the sink/vanity. The sink is large and has a new, modern faucet. All bathroom fixtures look brand new and everything worked flawlessly. And, Ingvar’s engineers have figured out how to make a ship’s toilet flush without the sound of a jet engine at full speed! The vacuum system is whisper quiet. Robes and slippers are available upon request. Nice L’Occitane amenities are provided in the bathroom and replenished as needed.The 26″ flat screen Sony television is mounted high and can be easily seen from the bed. There is also very good programming including CNN International, BBC World, CNBC, a movie channel, a ship’s channel and some foreign stations. Unfortunately, no Fox News or Sky News on this sailing. There is a small electronic safe under the television for valuables. There is enough room between the end of the bed and the desk, so that if one person is seated at the desk the other person can walk behind them (we have been in some cabins where you have to crawl across the end There is enough room between the end of the bed and the desk, so that if one person is seated at the desk the other person can walk behind them (we have been in some cabins where you have to crawl across the end of the bed to get past someone seated at the desk). The bed and bedding are comfortable and we love the pillows and duvets. The cabin is reasonably quiet, in part due to the use of shelves instead of drawers and cabin doors that close quietly without slamming shut. If people are standing the hall talking, you can hear them. Fortunately, everyone on our floor was usually very considerate and we had no noise issues. The A/C system works VERY well and will freeze you out of the room if you crank it up. There is a thermostat to adjust temperature, but no on/off switch. The housekeeping services were as good or better than any cruise we have ever been on. Our stateroom attendant, Damira, kept our stateroom absolutely spotlessly clean. Rickee accidentally walked in on Damira one day and she was in the bathroom on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor! I observed her in the hallway one day actually wiping down the door frames. She even cleaned our stateroom window regularly so we always had a spot-free view of the river. Damira did not speak much English, but she always greeted us with a warm smile and did her job excellently. Oh, and by the way, she also happens to be an accomplished Classical Pianist!The daily newsletter, Viking News, which Damira left on our bed each evening, introduces the next day’s destinations, provides a little background on some of the places we will visit, and offers tips, advice and helpful information. It also contains the schedule for the next day’s activities and meal times and notes the opening times for the bars and the gift shop.As for overall comfort, we would rate this stateroom a 4 out of 5 stars. Even with the pole, it is certainly one of the most comfortable riverboat staterooms we have ever occupied, and the most comfortable Viking River Cruises stateroom we have enjoyed to date.FOOD AND DININGAll full-service dining aboard Viking Ingvar takes place in the Neva Restaurant. The restaurant is laid out with a large forward dining area with tables for 4, 6 and 8. Another dining “room” is located aft with more tables for 4 and 6. The two dining rooms are connected by “hallways” on either side of the ship with a row of tables for two. This is where Rickee and I chose to sit each time we dined. We love tables for two and they are rare on a river cruise ship. There are 8 two-top tables on Viking Ingvar (4 on Port and 4 on Starboard).An early-riser, buffet Continental breakfast service is offered in The Panorama Bar on the Upper Deck each morning at 6:00am. The Panorama Bar is a not-so-hidden treasure of a venue. This was my favorite blog spot each morning as I could enjoy my coffee and low-carb food bar as I pecked away on my MacBook Pro. Sukamto or Nicki were always on hand to serve coffee or take care of any other needs. Sukamto would even offer to clean out my French coffee press for me each morning after I was finished downing multiple cups of the dark master.A full buffet-style breakfast is served each day in the Neva Restaurant, usually beginning at 7am. Buffet lines are formed on both Port and Starboard sides of the Neva between the forward and aft dining areas. It is actually one of the best layouts we have seen for buffet service on a riverboat. However, at breakfast, be advised that there are different items served on each side. The Port side buffet line has the scrambled eggs, bacon, mushrooms, sausages, breads, fruit, cereal, etc. for a complete breakfast while the Starboard side only has cold cuts, cheeses, breads, pastries and an omelet station. Eggs made-to-order can be ordered from your waiter, who will also serve you juice or coffee. Generally, we found the breakfast to be very good. One day my poached eggs were slightly undercooked, but other than that, everything was spot on. The two sausages (pork and chicken) were some of the best I have had.Lunch service typically begins at 12 noon and is a hybrid buffet/made-to-order system. A variety of salads are offered every day buffet style along with a hot dish. There is also a pasta station where a different creation is offered each day. A lunch menu offers a choice of appetizer, soup, a choice to two main courses and two dessert choices. Menu items can be ordered from your waiter and are made to order. We found the salads to be very good each day. The menu items varied from just okay to very good, depending on the day. There were some standout items. Rickee said the pasta with blue cheese sauce was the best pasta dish she has ever eaten. That is high praise coming from her because she is almost impossible to please when it comes to food. Remember Mikey?On most days, there is an afternoon tea service served in the Panorama Bar with cookies, light snacks, and of course, tea. There are, however, a couple of days where an extravagant tea is served in the Neva Restaurant. One is the Traditional Russian Tea where the galley prepares a variety of Russian dumplings and Peroshky. Excellent!Dinner is served from 7pm to 9pm in the Neva Restaurant. There are no set table assignments, so you can sit wherever and with whomever you wish. Most people came to dinner when the restaurant opened at 7pm, so it was generally crowded. If you want a specific table, you should arrive when they open. We never had a problem getting “our” table (#10) for lunch or dinner. A typical dinner menu will offer a choice of four First Course items, one being a soup. Three Main Course choices usually include a meat, a fish and a vegetarian option. A variety of desserts are offered including cakes, pies, fruit, ice cream, and sorbets. A cheese plate is also offered each night with a selection of three cheeses. The cheese plates, by the way, were very nicely prepared and presented.In addition to the daily menu items, you always have the choice of a Caesar Salad, Grilled Fillet of Salmon, Pan Roasted Chicken Breast or Charbroiled Steak with herb butter. On several evenings, I ordered the Charbroiled Steak which was a nice, thick cut that was flavorful, but typically undercooked. I always order Medium, and it seemed to routinely come out Rare to Medium Rare. I began ordering Medium Well and that seemed to do the trick. I often will try to eat a very light dinner and will have a Caesar Salad as my main course. When I did this, I received a larger portion than if ordered as a salad dish only. The Caesar Salad was excellent: Fresh Romaine leaves perfectly dressed in a tart Caesar dressing and topped with shaved parmesan cheese. Anchovies are typically added, but I always asked for them to be withheld, which they were.Viking River Cruises serves complimentary beer, wine and soft drinks with lunch and dinner. Marina would come by our table each day at lunch or dinner with a bottle of white and red. We usually skip wine with lunch, but enjoyed the red each night with dinner. She always kept our glasses filled. Premium wines are also available at an additional cost from the ship’s wine list. Another nice perk of a Viking River Cruise is the ability to bring a bottle of your own wine to enjoy at dinner sans corkage fees. So, if you find a local wine in one of the towns you visit that you would like to try, you can!The service in the Neva Restaurant far exceeded our expectations. Our wait staff trio of Tri, Tyo and Marina took excellent care of us for the entire trip. Occasionally, Julia would also stop by to fill a wine glass if Marina was busy elsewhere. Julia, a fiery redhead was always zipping by our table while delivering meals or drink orders to her tables in the main dining room. We nicknamed her “Flash”. The wait time to place an order, or between courses, was minimal. If we arrived for dinner at 7pm, we could easily be out of the dining room by 8pm. Every member of the service team we encountered during the 13 days was friendly, smiling, and exceptionally pleasant.Austrian Chef de Cuisine, Andre Frischmuth, oversees the preparation and delivery of all meals served onboard. We have noticed an improvement in food quality on each and every Viking River Cruises sailing over the years, and the trend seems to be continuing. While I would not go so far as to say the food rises to 5-star status on Viking Ingvar, there were a lot more hits than misses. And, the food and service were the best we have experienced on any Viking River Cruises sailing to date. Rickee even used the word “BEST’ to describe two dishes, the aforementioned pasta with blue cheese, and a Halibut dish served one evening at dinner. She said it was the best piece of fish she has ever eaten. Getting a “BEST” out of Rickee is comparable to a Michelin star!ENTERTAINMENTEntertainment on river cruises is pretty much centered around the destination rather than onboard activities. Ocean cruise ships are much larger, spend more time “at sea” and have theaters and lounges dedicated to entertainment. On Viking Ingvar, daytime entertainment takes the form of interesting and enlightening lectures, usually conducted by one of the Russian tour guides. During our trip, we enjoyed a series of lectures on the history of Russia, all of which were very well prepared and delivered. Tatyana even tried to teach the guests to speak a little Russian. In the evenings, Eduardo Espinola entertains guests in the Sky Bar on the piano and a small dance floor is available.One evening we enjoyed a wonderful classical piano concert performed by none other than our excellent stateroom attendant, Damira Talipova! Another evening, we had a passenger “talent” show in which a couple of guests sang and a group of volunteer passengers performed a skit directed by lead tour guide, Valera. It was a fairy tale, complete with rudimentary costumes, and mostly overacted by each guest! Rickee aptly served as “Curtain #1” and had a great time participating in the performance. Another fun evening found Mirja conducting a “Name That Tune” trivia contest in which each team could earn extra points if someone from the team went to the dance floor and danced to the music being played by Eduardo!On several evenings, we were treated to evening excursions such as a performance of Swan Lake by a ballet corps in St. Petersburg and a Russian folkloric concert in Moscow. We also had the chance to sign up for optional for-a-fee nighttime excursions such as a Cossack Show in St. Petersburg and a”Moscow by Night” excursion which included a canal cruise.EXCURSIONSViking River Cruises includes most excursions in the cruise fare but also offers many additional excursions that you could purchase for an additional fee. On some days, included “alternative” excursions were offered and you could choose to skip the cathedral visit and opt for something else. These “alternative” excursions proved to be quite popular. At times, a “leisurely” group was established which saw all the same things everyone else saw, just at a little slower pace. Bottled water is always available and offered to you as you exit the boat. During our Waterways of the Czars voyage, there were usually six motorcoaches, each manned by one of the Russian tour guides, and guests were supposed to travel on the same bus for each excursion. At times this was not possible, such as when the guide assigned to your motorcoach was heading up an optional excursion. This necessitated choosing a different bus/guide for that day. In some locations, in addition to our Viking River Cruises’ guide, we also had the services of a local guide who knew a particular area quite well. Just so you will know, Viking suggests that you tip the local guiides and local coach drivers in cash on the day of the tour as you are not likely to see them again. The suggested amount is $2 per person for the guide and $1 per person for the driver although I sometimes thought this was backwards based on what the drivers had to accomplish, especially in St. Petersburg and Moscow traffic! So, it is a good idea to take lots of one dollar bills along on your trip. The amount for local guides is in addition to the $10 per person per day they recommend that you tip your Viking River Cruises’ Russian tour guide who will be with you the entire trip.If you wanted to take off and explore on your own, maps and information about local attractions were available at the Front Desk. In both St. Petersburg and Moscow, a shuttle bus into the city was made available on our “free” day for a cost of 20 Euros per person for the roundtrip ride. One of the Russian guides went with the shuttle and was available to answer questions or provide suggesitions on what to see and how to get there.Most all excursions made use of the Quiet Vox audio system which is great for listening to your guide’s information without having to stay close. With the crowds we experienced in the Hermitage, these Quiet Voxes were essential for us to be able to hear our guide.For a look into what we did each day during our Waterways of the Czars itinerary, check out our blog below:TOUR ESCORTSA unique feature of this Viking River Cruise was the group of Russian tour escorts that were with us for the entire trip. There are six tour guides, one for each motor coach used for local excursions. Guests are advised to choose one of the group numbers and remain with that group through the entire cruise. We chose coach/group number 4 since our stateroom was 415, easy to remember. Our escort for the trip was Olga. Olga’s English was difficult to understand at first, but as the days went on, either her English got better, or our ability to understand it got better. Probably the latter. In any case, she did an excellent job of explaining everything and answering any questions we had. All of the tour escorts were surprisingly candid and willing to express their own opinions about their country, politics, or any other topic. It was refreshing and interesting. We were able to spend a little time with several of the other guides on various excursions and found all to be friendly and eager to share their knowledge of their native country.STAFF AND CREWThe senior staff on Viking Ingvar runs the ship with German precision. Perhaps that is because both Hotel Manager, Stephan Busch and Program Director, Mirja Geertz, are German! Both were always visible and available to assist with guest requests. Mirja runs a tight ship when it comes to timing of tour groups and departures. When she says a tour will depart at 8am, you had better be on the coach by 8am. I love that! There is nothing worse than making 50 people who show up on time sit and wait for one or two people who are late. Mirja’s daily talk, usually before dinner, covered the events coming up the following day. We found her to be engaging, enthusiastic and a terrific Program Director.The crew members on Viking Ingvar are a combination of Indonesians and Russians. We have never had a problem with any Viking River Cruises’ crew, but the crew on Viking Ingvar stands out as the best we have experienced so far. Everyone with whom we came in contact was happy, smiling and pleasant.Viking River Cruises suggests tipping the crew an amount of $15 per person per day in U.S. dollars. You can add your crew tips to your onboard account if you like and pay by credit card at the end of the cruise or pay in cash using the provided envelopes. The on-board Program Director in Russia does not share in the onboard staff gratuities – it is customary to tip them separately and in cash.DISEMBARKATIONSince all bills were settled the day before, any purchases made after bill settlement had to be paid for in cash or by credit card. All departure times for airport transfers were posted in the lobby near the Reception desk. Bags were to be outside your stateroom by midnight. Those with late departures were asked to vacate their staterooms by 10am but could stay on the ship and use the bar on a cash basis. Our transfer left at 2:30am and, to their credit, Viking Ingvar had set up a nice continental breakfast in the Panorama at that ungodly hour! One of the Russian guides accompanied us on our van to the airport and helped us find the proper line in which to stand for our flight. The entire process was smooth and efficient.CONCLUSIONSRussia is a different experience from any other river cruise we have experienced. The itinerary is fairly intense with a different stop each day and lots of excursion options. If you are seeking a relaxing, slow pace, this may not be the itinerary for you. There is a lot to do and see and Viking River Cruises’ tour escorts are excellent. Viking Ingvar feels like a brand new ship and, in 2013, she will get private balconies on the Main Deck and Upper Deck staterooms. The staff and crew are super and the ship is spotlessly clean. Be prepared to spend a lot of time in traffic in Moscow and St. Petersburg. And, there is a fair amount of walking on the tours. The additional cost of Russian visas and higher-than-normal recommended gratuities make this a more expensive vacation than a European river cruise. But, if you want to see Russia, there probably is no better way than on a Viking River Cruise.