Notes From St. Petersburg

Catherine's Palace in Pushkin, outside of St. Petersburg
Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin, outside of St. Petersburg

A major reason we took the plunge on Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas Baltic Cruise was the unprecedented three, full days in St. Petersburg, Russia. Most lines that visit the region limit their stays to one or two days. This is probably the only opportunity most people will have to visit Russia and three days means you don’t have to give up seeing all the sites.

To get off the ship, you need a visa. No. Not the credit card…an actual visa. Getting one on your own is time consuming with lots of red tape. Odds are that as an individual from the U.S., you would not be able to get one and you will not get past Russian Customs without one.

The fountains at Peterhof Palace.

The fountains at Peterhof Palace.

The good news is that any tour you purchased onboard or from a qualified tour operator there includes that visa. We got our tours directly from Royal Caribbean. I was a little apprehensive about using a tour operator there, but I spoke with several people who did so successfully in advance with Cruise Critic, specifically because they wanted to spend a day in Moscow. They said the prices were half that of RCCL and they spent more time in Moscow.

We purchased our tours almost as soon as we booked. We did that because they do tend to sell out quickly and the highlight of the cruise was to see St. Petersburg. Tours were very expensive and made for some very long days. Among the tours offered were a Russian Ballet performance, a cooking class and vodka tasting, and of course visits to the City’s most notable sites.

On day one, we took a tour to Catherine’s Palace and The Cathedral of Saints Peter and

The  Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul.

The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul.

Paul, along with a city highlights tours. Day two, we spent time at Peterhof Palace and The Hermitage Museum. Each day we were gone about 11 hours. On the third day, we decided to do something frivolous, so we took at class in painting the Russian Nesting Dolls, followed by a Russian Tea Party. That was a mere four hours.

In the coming days I will tell you more about our tours. But for now, know that the cost of those tours was close to $1 thousand. Knowing there was no way we were going to go it alone, we bit the bullet and paid the price.

St. Petersburg was the only port we visited where you had to clear local customs every day, both coming and going. It was also the only port that required us to keep our passports with us at all times.

We apparently got lucky. On the ship’s previous call, it took up to two hours for everyone going on tour to clear customs. On ours, it took about 20 minutes. I was imagining how they chose the people to do this job. I’m guessing that perspective employers ask, “Do you like people?” and, “Do you have a personality?” If the answer to both questions is, “no”, you get the job.

Inside the Hermitage  Museum.

Inside the Hermitage Museum.

On day one, I walked up to the first window and said, Good morning!  No answer. In fact they only make eye contact when they are glaring at you. They look at your passport, move the pages around, glare at you, move the pages around again, then they stamp it and hand it back. That was as friendly as it got.

There are signs everywhere warning of pickpockets. Even our tour guides continually warned us to hold on to everything with a death grip. We are very, very careful as a rule, but generally we don’t have to worry about having our passports stolen because we don’t carry them with us. It makes you more than a little paranoid, especially when you hear about passports being stolen in bathrooms and while walking down the street. We were careful and lucky, but I had several instances of hands going into my pockets at The Hermitage. Fortunately, that’s not where I keep my valuables.


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