Cruising Russian Style On The PRINCESS ANASTASIA, Part Two

Cruising Russian Style on the PRINCESS ANASTASIA, part two

by Kalle Id

Join MaritimeMatters’ Helsinki correspondent Kalle Id in part two of the Russian Ferry Tale onboard St. Peter Line’s PRINCESS ANASTASIA, visiting Tallinn and St. Petersburg.

St. Peter Line official website: www.stpeterline.com

Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are copyright © 2013 Kalle Id.

departing Helsinki in May 2011
PRINCESS ANASTASIA departing Helsinki in May 2011

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

My second night onboard the PRINCESS ANASTASIA passed pleasantly as – thanks to the “heavy duty” ear plugs acquired from a pharmacy in Stockholm – I slept like a log despite the disco going on right above our cabin. Positively from the point of view of my catching up with my sleeping, we only arrived in Tallinn at 11:30 AM so there was no need to wake up early either.

The breakfast venue of champions, Bake & Coffee.
The breakfast venue of champions, Bake & Coffee.

For breakfast, we opted for the same option as we had done the previous day, the 7€ “standardized” breakfast at the Bake & Coffee cafeteria on deck 6. While we were breakfasting there was an announcement on the disembarkation procedures in Tallinn, informing us that passengers in de luxe -cabins and EU nationals would have priority disembarkation and should deport to the reception at 11:30. We finished our breakfasts, got our things from the cabin and went to join our “priority” group.

And then things got a bit strange. Instead of being led from the reception to the forward staircase and down to the forward vestibule on deck 4 (the only possible location for the gangway if it’s not next to the reception), we were led to the aft staircase and down to deck 4. Once on deck four we were guided – by members of the crew who apparently did not speak English (or German, even though most of people in attendance were Germans) – though cabin corridors to the forward part of the ship, past the forward vestibule. Then the line stopped.

Queuing Russian style.
Queuing Russian style.

We spent at least fifteen minutes – probably longer – standing in the cabin corridors, with no information on why we were forced to stand there and no information on when we would get moving again. Surrounded by a throng of other queuing people, it was impossible to go anywhere else. The latter was a particular problem for the people with cabins in forward part of deck 4, as our queue blocked their access to other parts of the ship.

Eventually, we did get off the ship and into another queue, this time to the passport control. I know I’m repeating myself from part 1 here, but there shouldn’t be any passport controls on a ship travelling from one Schengen-treaty country to another. The whole experience brought back in mind the first time I visited Tallinn back in 1993, with the long queuing and the passport checked with Soviet-style thoroughness.

But complaints aside, we did eventually get past passport control and into Tallinn, which bathed in glorious sunshine. Now Tallinn is of course a city we had visited numerous times. The city if filled with myriad wonders, from one of the best-preserved Medieval cities in Northern Europe to the Soviet-era relic Linnahall (both of which have been covered in previous Ferry Tales). Of particular interest to shipping enthustiasts is undoubtedly the 2012-opened maritime museum at Lennusadam.

Tallinn signage. It might be just me, but I wouldn't want to stay at a hostel that's apparently above a strip joint.
Tallinn signage. It might be just me, but I wouldn’t want to stay at a hostel that’s apparently above a strip joint.

However, we decided to skip the more interesting attractions of the city in favour of shopping as Maria required a new backpack and I was on the lookout for new shoes. Now as far as shopping goes, Tallinn is probably one of the best cities in the region for it. The city center is filled with shops and shopping centers, the selections are extremely good and prices are – compared to those in Finland and Sweden – quite low.

Hotel Viru, for many years Tallinn's only high-rise building and the city's major landmark.
Hotel Viru, for many years Tallinn’s only high-rise building and the city’s major landmark.

Our shopping tour took us to Viru shopping center located right in the center of Tallinn, next to Hotel Viru. The Viru hotel is one of the more interesting buildings in Tallinn. It was built in 1972 by a Finnish construction company (as a part of bilateral trade between Finland and the Soviet Union, several large-scale building projects in the Soviet Union were completed by Finnish firms). For several decades Hotel Viru was the only high-rise building in Tallinn, although during the 21st century several new glass-fronted towers have risen to imbalance the cityscape. In 1994 – three years after Estonian independence – a hidden radio center was discovered in the hotel, from which the KGB had monitored the hotel’s guests through-out the Soviet era. Nowadays the radio center serves as KGB museum (which we did not visit – something for the next time).

The pink wonders of Sanrio lured us in...
The pink wonders of Sanrio lured us in…

The Viru shopping center is much newer than the hotel, being opened in 2004. It proved to be a very good place for our shopping plans, as Maria discovered a Sanrio shop and as a Hello Kitty fan, decided to acquire a backpack there – although the one she eventually opted for was a Chococat one rather than a Hello Kitty one. My ambitions for new shows, meanwhile, were realised at a shop aptly named “Shu”. And just for the record, trying to find shoes for myself isn’t always easy as my feet are size 46 (size 12 or 13 in the US system).

...but we re-emerged with a quite stylish and understated backpack. Photo © 2013 Maria Id.
…but we re-emerged with a quite stylish and understated backpack. Photo © 2013 Maria Id.
Bright shoes for large feet. Photo © 2013 Maria Id.
Bright shoes for large feet. Photo © 2013 Maria Id.

Having succeeded in acquiring what we needed, we toured the city some more and ended up lunching al fresco at the Town Hall Square in the Old Town. After some further promenading around the city we decided to return onboard early, as we had a long day in St. Petersburg ahead of us tomorrow. On the way back to the ship we did drop in at a local supermarket to buy some bottled water, as the ship’s tap water was heavily chlorinated and the bottled water sold onboard ridiculously expensive.

Tallinn's town Hall Square, with the Town Hall and souvenir stalls in attendance. Photo © 2013 Maria Id.
Tallinn’s town Hall Square, with the Town Hall and souvenir stalls in attendance. Photo © 2013 Maria Id.

Getting back onboard past the passport control went without a hitch and soon we were back onboard the PRINCESS ANASTASIA and enjoying the sunshine out on deck. However, the wind was getting slightly nippy by this time and we soon retreated indoors. As we were both feeling the strain of two days of walking around, we decided to try out the ship’s saunas.

There were several cruise ships visiting Tallinn on this particular day, including the COSTA NEOROMANTICA that I had never had a chance to photograph before.
There were several cruise ships visiting Tallinn on this particular day, including the COSTA NEOROMANTICA that I had never had a chance to photograph before.

On the PRINCESS ANASTASIA, the Spa, pools and saunas are located not on the top decks but rather below the car deck on deck 2. There is a practical reason for this arrangement, as this low the large amount of water in the pool doesn’t affect the ship’s stability as much as it would higher up. Although the price for the use of the sauna was very steep – 20 € per person – we decided to go for it anyway.

To our delight the saunas turned out to be one of the parts of the ship that had been recently renovated, and furthermore this had been done to the proper Finnish standards. Everything looked like a proper Finnish sauna should.

Unfortunately everything didn’t work like it should. In the men’s shower rooms it was nearly impossible to get hot water out of the showers. Maria tells me the women’s showers had the opposite problem. Like a proper Finnish sauna, the sauna itself (or steam room, if you want to use the incorrect english terminology) had a bucket and a scoop for pouring water on the heated stones. Except that both the bucket and the scoop were broken. I later informed the spa attendant of this and was told the bucket and scoop were “cosmetic” and that it was dangerous to pour water on an electric sauna stove. And just for the record, I’m Finnish, I know how saunas work and we do this all the time with electric sauna stoves. And indeed, by skilled use of the broken bucket I was able to get decent löyly out out of the stove here as well. Incidentally, Maria later told me the women’s sauna had a plastic bucket and an intact scoop, clearly for the express purpose of using the sauna like it’s supposed to be used.

The only thing that tells you the low location of the PRINCESS ANASTASIA's pool area are the sloping walls, conforming with the shape of the ship's hull.
The only thing that tells you the low location of the PRINCESS ANASTASIA’s pool area are the sloping walls, conforming with the shape of the ship’s hull.

The rant aside, the PRINCESS ANASTASIA’s sauna department was acually rather nice. There was a nicely proportioned pool, a hot tub and a children’s pool. And as we were there just as the ship was departing, the place was virtually deserted. Which turned out to be a good thing. As we were getting out, a group of Russians came in to the saunas, carrying with then a large bottle of vodka. As I was outside the dressing room, waiting for Maria to come out, I could quite clearly hear someone violently vomitting in the men’s dressing room. It had clearly been a good time to leave.

For dinner we opted for the Napoli Mia Italian restaurant. This seemed to be a particular favourite of the ship’s German passengers, as – like the previous night – it was filled to the brim with Germans. Despite this we managed to secure a table.

The Napoli Mia restaurant is located off the arcade on deck 7 and is actually a “drop-in” space, with no walls or other barriers between it and the arcade.
The Napoli Mia restaurant is located off the arcade on deck 7 and is actually a “drop-in” space, with no walls or other barriers between it and the arcade.

Now it must be said that Napoli Mia had one of the most basic, down-to-earth Italian menu I have ever seen. Pasta Bolognese and Carbonara set the tone, with the most adventurous item in the menu being a pizza with both ham and mushrooms. From the this very limited selection we both opted for melon with Parma ham for a starter and risotto al fungi for the main course.

Melon and Parma ham with... sundried tomatoes and balsamico vinegar?
Melon and Parma ham with… sundried tomatoes and balsamico vinegar?

The melon with Parma ham turned out to also include sun-dried tomatoes and balsamico vinegar, neither of which was mentioned in the menu (and indeed have no place is a dish of melon and ham). The risotto meanwhile was dry and lacked taste. Definately nothing to write home about.

The atrium with it's central sculpture as seen from deck 8.
The atrium with it’s central sculpture as seen from deck 8.

After taking a look around the ship for the night’s entertainment options and finding nothing of interest, we decided to head for the ship’s Duty-Free shop. Located on deck 6, adjacent to the atrium, this is one of the spaces onboard that does not appear to have changed at all since 1986. Large by that day’s standards, the shop seems decidedly small when compared to the flowing shopping malls onboard Baltic ferries of today. The shop includes a small perfumery, a selections of clothes, sweets, tobacco and alcohol. As this is a ship aimed primarily at Russians, all products sold were western brands. Russian products – that would undoubtedly be of interest to the non-Russian passengers – we completely absent. Furthermore, despite this being a Duty-Free shop, the prices were actually notably higher than on land. A large Fazer’s Blue chocolate bar, which costs 2,50 € at our local grocery store in Helsinki, cost a whopping 4 € on the PRINCESS ANASTASIA.

Getting into the spirit of things with vodka liquer fills – made by Fazer in Finland.
Getting into the spirit of things with vodka liquer fills – made by Fazer in Finland.

Since we were en-route to St. Petersburg, Maria decided to get into the spirit of things and bought a box of vodka-filled chocolate candies. We then proceeded to sit in the atrium and chatted while she devoured the chocolates. I tried one and discovered they still taste awful. After destroying the chocolates were headed for bed.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Leningrad!
Leningrad!

After another fairly-well slept night it was time for the grande finale of the trip: St. Petersburg. Unlike most cruise ships calling at St. Petersburg, we did not dock at the city’s new cruise terminal but rather at the Morskoy Vokzal maritime station slightly closer to the city center. I have nothing against the new cruise terminal, but the Morskoy Vokzal is a fascinating historical relic in itself, having been built during the Soviet Era in 1980.

The Morskoy Vokzal maritime station was, like many other major buildings in the Soviet Union, built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
The Morskoy Vokzal maritime station was, like many other major buildings in the Soviet Union, built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

For breakfast, we opted this time for the Seven Seas buffet instead of Bake & Coffee. This turned out to be a rather good choice; even though the Seven Seas is more expensive (12€ per person versus 7 € pp) the selection was much better. Plus, being Finnish, we have an in-built liking for serving ourselves and buffets are of course perfect for this.

Very Scandinavian breakfast in St. Petersburg, complete with Finnish margarine.
Very Scandinavian breakfast in St. Petersburg, complete with Finnish margarine.

Disembarkation in St. Peterburg lasted from 9:30 to 11 AM. We decided to get off the ship late and avoid standing in lines passport control. This plan was not entirely successful, as still even at a few minutes shy of 11 the lines extended outside the terminal. Still, despite the reputation of Russian bureaucracy and their need to stamp everything, the disembarkation was easier and more pleasant than the one in Tallinn.

The Finnish language has a separate word, “propushka”, to describe papers needed for Russian bureaucracy. The migration, arrival and departure cards for getting in and out Saint Petersburg clearly fall into this category.
The Finnish language has a separate word, “propushka”, to describe papers needed for Russian bureaucracy. The migration, arrival and departure cards for getting in and out Saint Petersburg clearly fall into this category.

In order to get into Russia without a visa, you must book St. Peter Line’s shuttle bus from the terminal to the city center. This costs 25€, and while this is quite hefty for a bus, it is both cheaper and easier than getting a proper visa. The shuttle service is provided by minibuses connecting Morskoy Vokzal to Saint Isaac’s Cathedral in the city center.

SPL's neat little shuttle buses run every 15 minutes between Morskoy Vokzal and the city center.
SPL’s neat little shuttle buses run every 15 minutes between Morskoy Vokzal and the city center.

I’ve often wondered why Saint Petersburg is considered such a “must” to visit on the Baltic Sea. As far as histories go, it’s actually a fairly young city (established in 1703) compared toTallinn (first mentioned in 1154), Stockholm (first mentioned 1252) or Helsinki (established 1550). Yet something about the former Russian imperial capital that captures the public imagination.

Saint Petersburg appeared to be in an almost constant state of traffic jam. Things are probably not helped by the gradual disassembling of the city's public transport network; for example the once World's largest tram system is now only a shadow of itself.
Saint Petersburg appeared to be in an almost constant state of traffic jam. Things are probably not helped by the gradual disassembling of the city’s public transport network; for example the once World’s largest tram system is now only a shadow of itself.

As we were driving though the traffic jam that seems to constantly occupy St. Petersburg’s streets, I started to get an inkling of why St. Pete’s is so interesting: it looks older than than other cities visited on this trip. Perhaps thanks to the time spent as a part of the Soviet Union, there are essentially no modern buildings within the city center. The few additions made by the Soviets are in the neoclassical style favoured by Stalin and actually mix into the cityscape perfectly (except for the hammer and sickle emblens, that is).

Even the public toilets in St. Pete's are in a style matching the overall architectural style of the city.
Even the public toilets in St. Pete’s are in a style matching the overall architectural style of the city.
The impressive Saint Isaac's cathedral is in fact the fourth church to stand in the same location. During the Soviet era the chuch functioned as a museum (initially as the Antireligious Museum of all things!), but since the fall of the Soviet Union it again functions as a place of worship.
The impressive Saint Isaac’s cathedral is in fact the fourth church to stand in the same location. During the Soviet era the chuch functioned as a museum (initially as the Antireligious Museum of all things!), but since the fall of the Soviet Union it again functions as a place of worship.

The shuttle bus deposited us at the impressive Saint Isaac’s Cathedral and we begun our short walk to visit the main attraction we wanted to see: the Hermitage. Originally opened in 1764 by Empress Catherine the Great, the Hermitage is one of the largest and oldest museums in the world. Today it also includes an exhbition of the former living quaters of the Tsars. Unfortunately these were looted during the early Bolshevik rule and very few original furnishings remain. Even so, these are probably the most interesting part of the Hermitage collection to a foreign visitor – particularly as these seemed to be the only part of the museum with some kind of explanation of the exhibit in English.

The inner courtyard of the Hermitage. As you can see, the place was quite popular.
The inner courtyard of the Hermitage. As you can see, the place was quite popular.

Since photographing within the Hermitage was only possible with an extra charge (and I’ve made a policy not to pay such extras), I’m afraid I do not have any photos from inside the museum to share with you.

After having spent several hours wandering around the Hermitage, we emerged back into the bright sunshine and begun walking towards our next destination, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. En route we made a pit stop at a local grocery store, acquiring a light lunch and ice creams. The latter included one with the historically informed name CCCP that had the most basic of tastes – vanilla. These were enjoyed at the Michailovsky Garden (first established 1717) right next to our destination.

Retro ice cream.
Retro ice cream.

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. Although constuction work begun in 1883, it was not completed until 1907. The church was secularized by the Soviet Union and used as a vegetable storage. In 1970 work begun to turn the former church into a museum, but it was not until 1997 that it was finally opened to the public.

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is probably the most impressive of Saint Petersburg's churches.
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is probably the most impressive of Saint Petersburg’s churches.

Adjacent to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood there is a fairly large area dedicated to souvenir sellers. While Russians in general are pleasantly reticient in pushing their wares, this is not the case with the souvenir sellers. On the other hand, since most of the items sold by them are fairly pedestrian, it’s quite easy to say “no”.

Saint Petersburg is known as “the Venice of the North” thanks to it's canals – though it must be admitted these are not as numerous as those of the real Venice, and over the years many have been filled to create wider streets.
Saint Petersburg is known as “the Venice of the North” thanks to it’s canals – though it must be admitted these are not as numerous as those of the real Venice, and over the years many have been filled to create wider streets.

As we still had some time to spare, we promenaded around the city, taking a walk along Nevsky Prospect and along St. Petersburg’s famous canals. Finally, we boarded the St. Peter Line shuttlebus back to the harbour. Passport control on boarding the ship was surprisingly easy, with no lines in sight.

 

Not all buildings in Saint Petersburg are in neoclassical style...
Not all buildings in Saint Petersburg are in neoclassical style…

Our good luck with the weather during this trip again held nicely. The weather had been great the entire week thus far, but it started to rain as soon as we were back onboard. Still, it the rain wasn’t that bad and it was quite easy to find a sheltered niche on deck to spectate our departure.

The canal leading to (or in this case from) Morskoy Vokzal is rather impressive.
The canal leading to (or in this case from) Morskoy Vokzal is rather impressive.

When departing and arriving in St. Petersburg there is definately something to see, as the shipping lane to Morskoy Vokzal passes through a narrow canal flanked with the freight harbour on one side and an island with Soviet-era apartment buildings on the other. During our visit, a large section of Russia’s huge icebreaker fleet were in attendance and I amused myself by spotting the Finnish-built ones amongst the flotilla. It should be noted that ships sailing to the new(er) Saint Petersburg cruise terminal do not sail through this canal.

KAPITAN NIKOLAEV, one of the Finnish-built Russian icebreakers. The NIKOLAEV's interiors are quite luxurious and her sisters KAPITAN DRANITSYN and KAPITAN KHLEBNIKOV are used for cruising in the polar areas.
KAPITAN NIKOLAEV, one of the Finnish-built Russian icebreakers. The NIKOLAEV’s interiors are quite luxurious and her sisters KAPITAN DRANITSYN and KAPITAN KHLEBNIKOV are used for cruising in the polar areas.

KAPITAN NIKOLAEV, one of the Finnish-built Russian icebreakers. The NIKOLAEV’s interiors are quite luxurious and her sisters KAPITAN DRANITSYN and KAPITAN KHLEBNIKOV are used for cruising in the polar areas.

Once we were past the most impressive sights along the canal it time for dinner. Although we had originally planned to sample all of the restaurants onboard, the prices in the Kampai sushi bar were so high we decided to give it a pass. Instead, we opted for another go at what had been the best restaurant of the three we had sampled: New York.

Unfortunately our second outing at the restaurant was rather forgettable. I ordered one of the new newyorkian dishes on the list, pork fillet Brooklyn style, while Maria opted for pike perch. My Brooklyn style pork was not particularly brooklynian (and included a rather odd choice of red cabbage as a side dish – the combination didn’t work) and Maria’s fish was dry.

A tribute to Peter Knego: totally random Columbus carpet shot.
A tribute to Peter Knego: totally random Columbus carpet shot.

For the evening’s entertainment, we nipped to our cabin to get ear plugs and headed to the Columbus Night Club for the night’s entertainment. The “rock concert” preceeding the actual show was tonight by a different band, the band having apparently changed in St. Pete’s. Halfway through their performance I noticed we were passing Iberocruceros’ GRAND MISTRAL at nice photographing distance (the shipping lanes from Morskoy Vokzal and the cruise terminal having merged some time earlier) and thus headed out to photograph the ship.

GRAND MISTRAL dropped off pilot and offered nice photo views.
GRAND MISTRAL dropped off pilot and offered nice photo views.

I managed to miss the introduction of the crew while photographing, but was back in Columbus just in time for the start of the evening’s show. This, again, was a run-of-the-mill cabaret performance that really wasn’t that interesting. I spent more time peeking through the curtains at passing ships and once I noticed the GRAND MISTRAL was now about to pass us, I had no qualms of heading back out on deck to photograph her. She was followed by MSC Cruises’ MSC MUSICA and both sailed past us impressively  in front of the sunset.

Sunset views, GRAND MISTRAL and MSC MUSICA passing us on the Gulf of Finland.
Sunset views, GRAND MISTRAL and MSC MUSICA passing us on the Gulf of Finland.

The cabaret show was followed by an audience participation segment, a quiz show about the ship. This was suppsosed to be carried out in both Russian and English, but in practice the cruise manager tended to ask the question in Russian, accept the Russian ansver, and then just told the ansver in English. Not that this would particularly matter (drink vouchers are not that appealing, even if I knew most of the ansvers), but the inherent chauvinism was somewhat irritating.

However, this first part of the show and the audience participation section were well worth sitting through for the second part. Instead of another pedestrian cabaret performance, we were treated with a genuinely creative and interesting dance show themed on the Baltic Sea. This number was genuinely a joy to watch and definately ranks amongst the best show I have ever seen on any ship, be it on a cruise or ferry.

The “Pride of the Baltic” was, for once, rather excellent.
The “Pride of the Baltic” was, for once, rather excellent.

After the show we relocated to the arcade on deck 7, sitting by the large windows and admiring the impressive sunset. Eventually it was time for bed and the end of our last full day on the PRINCESS ANASTASIA.

Friday, 31 May 2013

There is really nothing much to say about our last morning on the PRINCESS ANASTASIA. We got up, headed for the Bake & Coffee cafeteria so that Maria could have her morning coffee. After this it was off the ship, through passport control one final time (this was, for once, surprisingly swift) and off to home with the tram that handily runs from the West Harbour ferry terminal right in front of our door.

Homeward bound.
Homeward bound.

St. Peter Line are currently the only company offering around-the-year cruises on the Baltic Sea. They are also the only company offering cruises for the Russian market. This has perhaps left them in position where they are too sure of themselves, which translated as an onboard experience that has plenty of room for improvement – and that had actually degraded compated to my first trip with SPL in 2011 with the PRINCESS MARIA. But this aside, the company might become a notable player on the cruise market in the future: according to Cruise Business Review, SPL are planning to start Black Sea and Mediterranean cruises for the Russian market, and have been negotiating with both the Carnival Corporation and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd about a joint venture. We haven’t heard all about Russian-style cruising yet.

 

End of part 2 of Cruising Russian Style on the PRINCESS ANASTASIA.

Special thanks to Maria Id and Martin Cox.

For more photographs by Kalle Id, visit kships.blogspot.com.

Kalle Id

Kalle Id

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.
Kalle Id
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