Getting to Russia can be a challenge with its horribly complicated, time consuming and expensive visa requirements. But, Russia does offer one way that is painless and that way is to go by ferry. No visa required. The only caveat is that it is only good for 72 hours. Good enough. Deb and I figured that since we were in Helsinki and we were soooo close to St. Petersburg, why not go? The Hermitage with its 3 million pieces of art in one gigantic, beautiful building and the culture and the architechture, and, of course, the borscht. Maybe all that would offset helping Mr. Putin’s economy. We figured that visiting at the end of November with its weather and with all of the uhhhh, how shall I say this, Russia’s attempts at world tranquility would mean fewer tourists making it a bit cheaper and easier to travel. The plan was to leave on a Saturday evening, sleep on the ferry, wake up to St. Petersburg in the morning of Sunday. Leave our luggage at the hotel, wander Nevsky Prospect Avenue sampling cafes and shops, then go to the Mariinsky to see the Lohengrin opera. Spend the night at the hotel, then the next day go to the Hermitage and spend the day exploring the Hermitage, then off to the ferry in the evening for the return trip. It was a plan. Just not a great plan. It had one tiny problem. The Hermitage is closed on Mondays. So we had to get from the ferry to the hotel, get to the Hermitage, see the Hermitage, have dinner and go to the opera. All in one day. Such fun. Leisurely day. Not.
St. Peterline Ferry from Helsinki to St. Petersburg
So we booked two tickets on the St. Peterline ferry from Helsinki to St. Petersburg, Russia. This is an overnight ferry with many choices of staterooms. From the windowless ones that sleep 2 to 6 with private bathroom, on up to rooms with windows for 2, to luxury staterooms. We chose second from the bottom as far as price, the room for 2 with a window and a private bathroom with shower. The room turned out to be fine. Totally fine. Small, yes, but good enough. Private bathroom and shower is always a good thing and appreciated. No free WiFi, but can purchase by the hour. The ferry itself is big with multiple bars, entertainment, and ala carte and buffet restaurants. We did make one mistake and that was to purchase 2 prepaid drink tickets for 12 Euros each that give you 15€ of value. The mistake is that no one tells you that drink tickets have to be used at one sitting. You cannot get a drink before dinner, then get one during dinner or after dinner on the same drink ticket even if it has not been all used. Oh no. If you move, you lose. Ticket gone. With the drinks very reasonable at around 4 Euros each, it was just not possible to spend 30 € at one sitting without seriously regretting it. By the way, I tried a gin martini and I am still puzzled over what the drink really was. Some not-quite-clear liquid in a glass that was vaguely sweet. Maybe martini means mai tai in Russian. Anyway, it was gawdawful. Lesson learned: buy drinks individually (and not order a martini). We ate dinner at one of the ala carte restauants and it was fine. And we ate dinner coming back the other way at the buffet restaurant. Buffet is definitely the way to go. Food was good, reasonable and wide assortment. Once you dock, there is a shuttle that takes you into St. Petersburg. St. Peterline calls this shuttle a “city tour”. I call this a shuttle into St. Petersburg. No tour. No talking. No smiles. Self service on loading luggage. You load your own luggage into the shuttle. Driver opens trunk. Driver points where you should put the luggage. At least he opened the trunk door. But, except for the relatively minor annoyances above, the ferry was great. I would definitely recommend. The Four Seasons Hotel
Deb and I decided to splurge on the Four Seasons Hotel since it was way off season and the ruble is at a really good rate. We are getting a bit jaded with luxury hotels because they rarely live up to the expectations that they create. However, The Four Seasons was the exception and met or exceeded all our expectations. Excellent in all respects. The Food and Beverage Director even had a hand written note welcoming us. Small things and first impressions are important. Even the employees who opened the door always greeted us warmly (no pun), the front desk was knowlegeable and efficient and the concierge staff were all excellent. Beautiful room and the hotel is perfectly located also. It is a new hotel that took 8 years to build and remodel to open. Well worth the effort. Higly recommend. One nice touch is the TV in the mirror in the bathroom. I mean you wouldn’t want to miss an episode of The Real Housewives of Moscow, would you? The Hermitage We lucked out when we got there. No lines. Can you believe it? The first impression is one of pure size and wealth. Huge. Magnificent. Vast. Opulent. Overwhelming. Then double that. We had to hurry a bit since we had such a limited time. The museum would need weeks to do it justice. Deb had heard of the Hermitage cats and we did actually see one outside. It looked very much well taken care of. Interesting story about them if you look it up. The Hermitage definitely lived up to our expectations. The only negative were the women employees in the Hermitage who were consistently gruff and rude. We later heard that they are known as the “women of the Hermitage” who have the reputation of being rude and gruff. Apparently deservedly. They are consistent, I will say that much for them. Mariinsky Theater We had bought tickets on the internet for two tickets at the Mariinsky Theater to see and hear Wagner’s Lohengrin opera. This is an amazing theater and an amazing performance. Magnificent opera, magnificent venue. Seemingly a cast of thousands. This was an epic experience that I will not soon forget. Highly recommended. Note to friends (both of you): I told you I could get some culture. One caveat. Taxis in Russia (at least in St. Petersburg) are not metered. Best to get your hotel to call for you and pre negotiate price. Heard several war stories of tourists who did not do this. Nevsky Prospect Avenue We thoroughly enjoying exploring Nevsky Prospect. This is a very large, wide and grand avenue that, I believe, is the main business street in St. Petersburg. The usual luxury brands were there of course, but so were independent shops and cafes that are really the soul of any city. This is great prowling if you’re willing to walk a bunch even though it was COLD. Like mucho cold. Colder than Finland cold. The shops were interesting and the restaurants were good. Consistently good. For foodies and friends of foodies The food in Russia, at least the restaurants that we went into, were consistently good. Actually very good. Since it was so cold (really cold), after we had spent hours walking up and down the Nevsky Prospect avenue, we decided to stay close to the hotel, rather than walk more. Both the Tandoori Nights and the GastroBar were very good as were the other restaurants.