Rule of thumb. When visiting a country, respect their rules and their ways of life. This Waterways of the Tsars cruise was an eye opener. I have completely changed my perspective about Russia and their people. Was completely surprised when we asked Russians and they said they wouldn't mind living all their life in Russia. The country is very discipline, orderly, clean and everything seem to be working well for them. People might not be smiling like crazy to you, but there's no frown or worries on their face. They seemed contented. And what's not to like, right?
Highly recommend this cruise. It was my first time on Viking, and I was very impressed. The ship was lovely, the food was good, and the tours and lectures were excellent and informative - particularly enjoyed the interactions with the Viking guides, as well as with fellow passengers - it was easy to meet people at meals and during excursions and share travel stories. I learned a lot about Russia, and have come away with a new perspective. Viking also throws in some "surprises" that were very enjoyable (e.g. a short concert or show). I will definitely cruise on Viking again.
We enjoyed this cruise although it was organized very differently from our previous Viking River Cruise. The itinerary was good and enabled us to optimize our time in Russia. Unfortunately, one of our ports of call, Kizhi Island, was canceled due to issues with the fog. We didn't like the layout of this ship as much as we did the longboats as there were many steps that were rather precarious. The food on this trip was not nearly as good as the Grand European although the desserts were divine. We thought the costs of the shore excursions was very expensive, but they were excellent tours with great guides. Our biggest surprise was how beautiful and colorful Moscow is. The Russians were very friendly and welcoming. We felt very safe the entire time.
This was our first trip with Viking, and we were pleased with our choice. The ship was clean, well run. The waiters and waitresses were Roumanian. Their knowledge of English was limited, but adequate for our needs.
Our cabin was small but with adequate storage under the beds. We had no problems. It seems to have been the average size on Viking ships.
We were fortunate in that the ship was not full, so we did not have long wait times for dining or other activities.
The Viking River Cruise "Waterways of the Czars" (July 31 - August 12, 2009) was our first cruise experience, and will likely be our last. While we enjoyed Russia and its many attractions, we were very disappointed in most aspects of the cruise itself. Specifically:
Overall value for money: Most people we met on the cruise paid several thousands of dollars less than we did, and for supposedly better cabins. In fact some passengers alleged that Viking had made refunds for earlier, higher payments when asked to do so. This knowledge, which may reflect only our naivet about the cruise business, lessened our enjoyment considerably.
Food quality: Despite claims in Viking advertising, the food was of consistently poor quality, e.g., every fish dish I ate was tasteless, mushy, and obviously frozen not fresh. Other passengers with previous Viking experience agreed with us, but said that Viking cruises in Western Europe have much better food and service. Several other passengers also spoke with the hotel manager to note their unhappiness with food quality.
Service: The dining room staff was mostly young Philipinos, who were all eager to please but clearly not sufficiently experienced, properly trained for efficient service, and too few for a fully booked boat. Dinner normally took well over two hours, and we and many others had to cut short dinner in order to attend other scheduled events on board.
Our cabin: The cabin (227) was comfortable enough, except that it seemed to be directly above the engines used to stabilize the boat when going through locks. These engines were so noisy and vibrated so much that when lock passage occurred at night sleep was impossible. Viking should warn potential customers about this noise in main deck cabins, and advise them to bring ear-plugs to cope with the noise or select other cabins.
Doctor: The Kirovs Russian doctor, whose English skills were very limited, had a remarkably diffident manner when my wife banged her forehead on one of the Sky-Bars glass doors. The clinic had no proper ice-bag, so to reduce the large swelling he recommended using a plastic garbage bag or laundry bag. Given the average age of Kirov passengers, shouldnt an ice-bag or two be among the clinics supplies? The doctor also failed even to stand up during her visit to his office, declining as unnecessary a suggestion that he examine her forehead.
Bottom line: We wrote to Viking about these problems, to which they responded with an offer of a $500 credit for a future Viking cruise. Our response to that will be "nyet."
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