MaritimeMatters’ Helsinki correspondent embarks on another Ferry Tale, a four-night cruise on the Baltic Sea onboard St. Peter Line’s PRINCESS ANASTASIA, a ferry making cruises aimed primarily at the Russian market.
Prologue, or how a ship photo earned me a free cruise
St. Peter Line – or SPL for short – is a Cyprus-based shipping company owned by Finnish and Russian interests. It was founded in spring 2010 to re-establish the ferry connection between Helsinki, Finland and Saint Petersburg, Russia using the PRINCESS MARIA (ex-FINLANDIA, QUEEN OF SCANDINAVIA). Many – including myself – forecast the company would soon fold, as multiple attempts had been made during the previous decade to restart the service and the all failed. But we were wrong. St. Peter Line prospered and in spring 2011 they added a second ship to their fleet – the PRINCESS ANASTASIA (ex- OLYMPIA, PRIDE OF BILBAO) – which was used on St. Petersburg-Stockholm and St. Petersburg-Tallinn-Stockholm services. Early on the ship was used for a pair of four-night cruises from St. Petersburg to Helsinki, Stockholm and Tallinn. These proved so successful that the same autumn her itineraries were changed permanently to these four-night cruises, offering the possibility of starting the cruise from any of the ports visited.
I sailed on the PRINCESS MARIA in winter 2011 and was quite impressed by the product St. Peter Line were offering. Since the PRINCESS ANASTASIA started offering the possibility of starting a cruise from Helsinki I have been thinking I should try her. But I never did.
That is, until now. In March this year I was contacted by St. Peter Line’s marketing department, who wished to buy the rights to use one of my photographs of the PRINCESS MARIA. In return, they offered a cruise on the PRINCESS ANASTASIA in an outside cabin for up to four persons. Since the normal price for an outside cabin is 320 € (about $400), I naturally graciously accepted and booked a cruise for myself and my wife Maria.
Tuesday, 28 May 2013
Our cruise begun, like so many ferry trips, with a tram ride to Helsinki’s West Harbour. En-route we were almost struck by a tragedy when I realised I had forgotten the most important travelling utility: my camera. I quick dash to home and back followed, and we made it to the harbour in good time. We seemed to be the only persons starting our voyage in Helsinki and resultingly check-in was particularly simple. We showed up at the counter and got our boarding cards, plus the various vouchers and forms needed for visa-free entry to Russia, in a manner of moments. Passport control was handled with efficiency (although it should be noted that since on this first leg of the trip we were travelling from one Schengen-treaty member country to another there shouldn’t be a need for passport control) and we soon found ourselves onboard the ship.
The PRINCESS ANASTASIA is a sister ship of Viking Line’s Helsinki-Stockholm ferry MARIELLA (which is the subject of another Ferry Tale) and hence finding our way around onboard was easy. This was a particularly good thing as the information signage onboard is not of a particularly good quality and there were no crew members in attendance to guide passengers to their cabins. Admittedly to my mind the latter practice is annoying anyway.
In any case, we quite easily found our way to our cabin, number 6918 in the aft section of deck 6. This proved to be an un-auspicious location, being located right under the showlounge/night club, but more of this later. The cabin, as you can see, is quite small and turned out to be almost entirely unaltered from its original 1986 appearance – even some of the original signage in Finnish and Swedish remained. This was something of a contrast to the cabins of the sister ship MARIELLA, which have been redecorated and modernised.
While the compact cabin is adequate for the maximum two-day ferry cruise the ship was originally built for, it must be said it is rather small for a four-night cruise. A particular problem was the lack of storage space – there literally isn’t any.
SPL’s uninformative policy continued in the cabin, which didn’t have a cruise programme, a guide to the ship or even a deck plan. There was a fancy-looking magazine advertising various places in the ports of call, but nothing to help with orientation onboard. This being the case, after dropping off our backpack we left to look around the ship and do an orientation tour the old-fashioned way.
The PRINCESS ANASTASIA’s layout is rather simple. Public spaces are grouped on the three topmost passenger-accessible decks: deck 8 has a cinema, VIP lounge, fashion store and discotheque, deck 7 has all the restaurants, a pub, a casino and the night club/showlounge and deck 6 has the reception, a cafeteria, the main duty free shop and a large children’s playroom. A modest three-deck-high atrium connects the decks with public rooms. Most cabins as located on decks 6, 5, 4 and 2 (with a small numbers of cabins also on deck 8). Deck 2, below the car deck, also has a sauna and spa complex.
By the time the ship was departing we had roamed through most of the public spaces (as well as the outer decks) and managed to secure a cruise program for the day from the reception. Next we turned our thoughts to dinner. There are four restaurants onboard: Seven Seas buffet, New York and Napoli Mia à la carte -restaurants, and Kampai sushi bar. Since this was a four-night cruise, the plan was to test all four restaurants in turn. (It should be noted that, as is customary on Baltic Sea ferries, on SPL meals are not included in the cruise fare).
We decided to start our tour of the restaurants with the easiest and most familiar option, the buffet. Puzzlingly, there was no information available anywhere on how and when one could make a booking for a table, but we simply waited for the restaurant to open and walked in when it did. The price of a buffet dinner was fairly sensible (by Baltic Sea ferry standards) at 29 €, but we ran into difficulties when trying to pay for our meal, as the head waiter told us it was not possible to pay with a credit card. Fortunately we did have enough cash to pay for two dinners, but the head waiter’s explanation – which seemed to indicate credit cards were not accepted anywhere on the ship – left us with an unpleasant puzzle to ponder while eating, as we were now almost entirely out of cash. I had, of course, tried to find out beforehand which payment options are accepted onboard, but SPL’s website was completely silent on the subject. Onboard, all prices were displayed in euros only, implying only euros were accepted. This could have led to the strange situation of needed to withdraw Swedish krona in Stockholm from an ATM and then going to a local bureau de change to change them to euros (which would have resulted in fees). Eventually, after dinner, we visited the reception and managed to get the issue cleared out: credit cards are accepted onboard, but there had been a technical problem that day which meant credit cards didn’t work.
If it seems I skipped the food part entirely when writing out the restaurant, there is a good reason for that: the food was nothing to write home about. The selection was slim and the dishes were very basic. At 29 € per person the meal was, in my opinion, overpriced – even when you remember the price includes unlimited complimentary wine.
The weather was absolutely brilliant when we sailed, and after the frankly unsatisfactory dinner we headed out on deck to take in the sun and spectate the sea around us.
We eventually retired indoors in order not to get sunburn and found our way to the Columbus Night Club on the aft of deck 7. The Columbus is a single-level space, but the space is quite nicely terraced considering the limitations of the room and sight lines were surprisingly good from most parts of the room. This is also one of the few spaces that has clearly been completely renovated recently.
In the early evening the Columbus lounge offered what was advertised as a ”rock ‘n’ roll concert”, which in reality turned out to be a three-man band. Not a bad band, but calling it a rock concert was stretching things a bit.
At 9 PM things promised to get interesting, with an advertised 1½ hour show program by ”one of the leading St. Petersburg ballet theatres”. This, in all honesty, was extremely disappointing. The show was a tired, run-of-the-mill cruise ship song-and-dance cabaret. It even featured a tired rendition of the most worn-out cabaret number, the can-can. An additional annoying feature was the fact that the volume during the show was extremely loud. This got me worried as our cabin was almost directly below the dance floor and there was to be a disco in the lounge lasting until well in the morning.
Halfway through the cabaret show there was an audience participation number with the cruise hostess, a ladies’s fashion show. After this ended and the cabaret threatened to continue, we relocated to sit along the arcade on deck 7, further from the noise and with fine sea views. After admiring the sea for a while longer, we decided to retire to the cabin.
Once back in the cabin, my fears of difficult night were confirmed. I’m not exaggerating when I say that things in the cabin literally shook from the loud bass emanating from upstairs. Fortunately Maria had come prepared with two pairs of ear plugs meant for use at rock concerts. Unfortunately even these were not enough; the volume in the night club was so loud that even one deck below and with ear plugs on, you could still hear the music. And not just the bass, but most of the other instruments as well.
Sleeping is not one of my fortes to start with and when faced with disturbing noise (or even a small amount light) I have trouble sleeping. Hence I laid in bed for several hours not sleeping. The noise, coming after the various other small irritations and difficulties onboard during the day, did make me seriously ponder packing our bags once we reached Stockholm, walking off the ship to the nearby Silja Line terminal and booking the evening’s departure back to Finland.
Wednesday, 29 May 2013
I did eventually fall asleep and was woken up by Maria the next morning. In Stockholm disembarkation was only possible until 10.15 AM and hence we needed to wake up early enough. By morning light things did look brighter than in the deep of the (noisy) night and I abandoned the plans of getting off the ship. Okay, so maybe Maria telling me in no uncertain terms she wanted to see St. Petersburg and would not be getting off the ship before that had an effect.
In any case, as the first thing after waking up and showering we headed to the reception, explained our noise problem and asked if it would be possible to change cabins. We were told to come back after returning onboard from Stockholm and they’d see if anything could be done. Armed with the hope we might get a different cabin, we left for breakfast at the Bake & Coffee cafeteria, across from the atrium from the reception. This was an interesting affair, as the cafeteria served a fixed menu breakfast, with the staff giving you very precise and unvarying amounts of things served. Although the care by which the exact correct amount was applied reminded – at least myself – strongly of the Soviet Union of old, the breakfast was tasty and enough to get one far into the day.
Our plan for the day in Stockholm had been to walk to the city centre (SPL ships dock at Frihamnen, about a 45 minutes walk from the old town) and visit the Royal Castle. This plan was put on ice when an announcement on the wonders of Stockholm told us the Royal Castle was closed to the public due to the upcoming wedding of Princess Madeleine to Christopher O’Neill. Fortunately we had a back-up plan, visiting the Nordiska Museet (actually a museum of Swedish cultural history, though the name suggest a more international scope).
The weather continued to be brilliant and the walk to the Djurgården island – where the Nordiska Museet as well as many other attractions are located – passed pleasantly. In the end we actually arrived at the museum about 15 minutes before it opened, to discover a surprisingly large group of people waiting outside and enjoying the sun.
Nordiska Museet turned out to be rather brilliant, with exhibition displaying things such as clothing and furniture from from 17th century to the present. There were also several clever juxtapositions about, such as displaying 19th century “mourning jewelry” (in fashion during the later reign of Queen Victoria) next to metal chair necklaces favoured by the punk subculture. The two were surprisingly similar.
There was also a part of the museum exhibiting various important festivities celebrated in Sweden around the year and the customs related to them. This really brought to home to me how utterly similar Finland and Sweden are culturally; differences to Finnish customs were few and far between.
After the Nordiska Museet we continued on foot towards the city center. Walking on the seaside esplanade we passed a fascinating article of Finnish-Swedish maritime history: the archipelago steamer STOCKHOLM, which in an earlier guise as the KORSHOLM III was the first car-passenger ferry to sail between Finland and Sweden. Somehow, they managed to fit 35 cars inside the small steamer back in the day.
Lunch was enjoyed al fresco at an oriental restaurant in Kungsträdgården park (the name literally translates as “King’s Garden”). After passing a church delightfully advertising a queer mass every Tuesday, we found ourselves in the old town and next to the Royal Castle. Since we were there, we decided to take a look in. It turned out the castle was not, in fact, closed like the announcement onboard had claimed. Our annoyment with this fact was lightened by the fact Nordiska Museet had been utterly fantastic and probably better than the Royal Castle would have been. Still, giving passengers incorrect information is hardly acceptable. And no, we didn’t go for a tour of the Royal Castle as it was getting quite late and neither of us could have taken a second museum-like tour so soon after the Nordiska.
After wandering around the city for a while longer we headed back towards the harbour. We arrived at the terminal at a little past four pm when boarding only begun at five pm. (The reason for the limited boarding times turned out to be the fact we shared the terminal with the Stockholm-Riga ferry Romantika and due to the structure of the terminal it isn’t possible to separate the passengers of the two ships in a way that ascertains the right people get onboard the right ship). Since we had extra time we visited a nearby supermarket, acquiring some bottled water (the tap water onboard was heavily chlorinated and bottled water expensive), sunscreen and two salads for a late second lunch to be enjoyed before boarding. And more effective earplugs from a local pharmacy, in case we would need to spend more nights under the Baltic’s loudest night club.
Boarding was very crowded, with a long line to the passport control. While standing in line we again wondered why they needed to check our passports when travelling from one Schengen country to another – and then I spotted a very small, discrete sign reading “St. Peter Line – Schengen passengers”. We got off the line, followed the sign and were greeted by very friendly Swedish customs officers who quickly glanced at our passports to ascertain we were from a Schengen country and then whisked us past the passport control.
Once back onboard, we inquired at the reception about the chance to change our cabin (as we had been instructed). Now we were told to come back an hour after departure. To pass the time we headed out on deck as the weather continued to be beautiful. an added incentive for me was the fact that before our depature time there would be a chance to photograph both the Stockholm-Tallinn ferry BALTIC QUEEN and her sister ship, the Stockholm-Turku ship GALAXY.
After departure we lingered on deck, until chased indoors by a slightly chilly wind. We then headed to the Columbus lounge for further spectating of the Stockholm archipelago via the large windows on the aft of the lounge. The nights’ programme in Columbus turned out to be a repeat of the previous night: a “rock concert” (the same band, even playing many of the same songs), followed by a cabaret act and a disco.
At the appointed hour we again inquired about the possibility of changing our cabin. This time we were told that changing cabins was impossible due to the large number of passengers that had come in from Stockholm. This is perfectly understandable – if the ship is full then it is full. But the staff must certainly have known about the large German group coming onboard in the morning when we first asked. The very least thing they could have done is tell us then that it’s unlikely they can give us a different cabin. Furthermore, we were offered no compensation, not even an apology. It must be said that thus far SPL’s customer service was not making a good impression on us.
Having cleared up the cabin debacle, we lingered around the Rabbit Bar pub on deck 7. For some reason all bars onboard are named Rabbit Bar: there’s the plain Rabbit Bar on deck 7, while on deck 8 there’s the Night Rabbit Bar disco amidships and the Sky Rabbit Bar outdoors bar aft. The decor also has a bizarre rabbit theme, which extends to the staff wearing sailor uniforms complete with rabbit ears. The “plain” Rabbit Bar featured sports broadcasts on widescreen TVs and the karaoke. Here too the volumes were extremely loud. Things were ok in the arcade outside the bar itself, but inside the bar one needed earplugs.
Since we had enjoyed two lunches, we decided to go for dinner at around 9 pm, at the same time as the cabaret show was due to begin at Columbus, hoping there would be ample space in the restaurants then. We were – partially at least – wrong. The Napoli Mia Italian restaurant, which would have been our number one choice for the evening, was filled to the brim with Germans. (Who I strongly suspect singled it out as the cheapest option). We took a look at the Sushi Bar’s menu but found it to be quite expensive and thus turned towards the New York restaurant. There were no menus for the restaurant anywhere on sight, but we bravely asked for a table without knowing it beforehand.
“New York” turned out to be misnomer. There were some vaguely American-sounding dishes on the menu, but it was really a eclectic collection of dishes from various different sources. I opted for a duck as a main course and tiramisu for dessert (we skipped the starters as the selection was uninspiring). It must be said that both were excellent. According to Maria the duck was not crispy enough, but that’s just her watching too much Top Chef. I don’t know how to do a duck “properly” and I thought it tasted fantastic. The excellent meal was topped off by our friendly and skilled waiter Sergei.
After dinner we took a look at Columbus again. The evening had moved to the audience participation section, a “how to put on a life jacket” competition. We quickly left and decided to retire for the night, with high hopes that the new earplugs acquired in Stockholm would grant us a good night’s sleep. And indeed they did as I slumbered pleasantly all the way to Tallinn.
End of part 1 of Cruising Russian Style on the PRINCESS ANASTASIA. More to come…
Kalle Id, MaritimeMatters' Helsinki correspondent, is a Finnish maritime historian, photographer and journalist, with a Master's Degree in history from the University of Helsinki. His early-age exposure to ferry travel led to a lifetime fascination with passenger ships, both the cruise ferries of his home waters and the cruise ships and ferries of further afield. Kalle maintains his own ship photography blog at kships.blogspot.com. Contrary to the popular belief, he writes under his real name.