We have another epic travel report from Scarlett Stahl. We’re calling it “Adventures in Russia” because Scarlett seems to make every trip into an adventure. Read on to hear about lost luggage, a lost purse, and more… ~~Rick
My Adventures in Russia
Several of my friends had been to Russia during recent years and the more that I heard, the more intrigued I became. So, I began to plan a visit. I even had my hotel reservations in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, BEFORE I began working on my visa. Unfortunately, there is no Russian consulate in Los Angeles and even if I had gone to the one in San Francisco, you have to leave your passport and application as the visa can not be processed the same day. After discussion with travel agent friends, I learned that a Russian visa can be quite a problem and even travel agencies need to go thru an agency that specializes in Russian visas. I also learned that visitors to Russia need an invitation to enter. Now hotels will send you the invitation, but just for the number of days that you are staying with them and they reserve a portion of your hotel stay as a nonrefundable deposit for the invitation. On top of that, once you have cleared security on the return, you have to remain at the airport and can not leave to go to a hotel, if there is any reason that you can not leave as scheduled, without a multiple entry visa. A visa costs around $400!!!! Lastly after reading [THIS], the warnings were rather intimidating, so I canceled my hotel reservations.
However I do not give up easily and began looking online for alternatives. There I found Visa Free Cruises. After calling their 800 number, they sent my request for information to Scandia World Travel in Vienna, Va, where the staff are from Finland and were very helpful. Scandia World Travel worked with the St Peter Line in Russia regarding the cruise. My friend, Linda Swisher, and I booked the package, which consisted of a cruise with an outside cabin for two nights on the Princess Maria overnight to and from Helsinki, Finland to St. Petersburg, Russia. This package also included two nights hotel in St. Petersburg with two buffet breakfast and three days stay, along with a mandatory bus shuttle to and from boat and hotels. None of my travel agent friends had ever heard of the St. Peter Line but there was a good reason they hadn’t. St Peter Line is a Russian shipping company, which was only founded in 2010!
However my friends, who had been to Russia, had complained that on the group tours to the famous palaces, they had been rushed thru like cattle and didn’t even know, nor remember, what they had seen. This was verified by my travel agent friends, who also warned that with such a short stay, we might be stuck in long lines and not make good use of our time there unless we hired a English speaking private tour guide and driver with a private car. So Scandia Travel arranged with Escape Travel in St. Petersburg for us to have tours on all three days with our private guide and driver. Yes, it was a short stay. Yes, it was a very busy, rushed schedule. And I probably could have saved money by checking with the ship company regarding the cruise package or the agency in Russia regarding the private tours, but I didn’t know anything about this in the beginning and was eager to visit Russia. so I chose to work with the agency. Again they were very helpful and had an 800 toll free number. No, this trip didn’t include Moscow, but I like beauty and I had heard that St. Petersburg is where the real beauty is. So I can not tell you about Moscow but it wasn’t visa free and St. Petersburg was!
I had been to Copenhagen previously and remembered that Scandinavia is very expensive, so I could have skipped that part of the trip. However, as Linda has Danish heritage, she wanted to visit Copenhagen, Denmark. In Denmark the second language is English, which does make it visitor friendly. Copenhagen is beautiful and is also a walking city like NYC and San Francisco, which is appealing. However, the airline that we were flying only had flights every other day, not daily, while the ships also were also every other day and they did not coincide. So instead of a smooth schedule, we had an erratic schedule, i.e., one night in Copenhagen, one night on the boat, two nights in St. Petersburg, one night on the boat, two nights in Copenhagen and then one night in Dusseldorf, Germany. We were constantly on the go, which is not my preferred way of travel.
And good traveler that I have always been, I believe I arrived in Copenhagen with the stomach flu. I threw up in the restroom on the plane right before arrival, even though I had not had any breakfast. After I cleared customs, I threw up again in an air sick bag that I had brought from the plane and Linda asked for a nurse. Immediately there was a wheelchair for me and shortly thereafter the paramedics arrived and were efficiency themselves. After taking my temperature, which was normal and taking my blood pressure, which they said was good, they held yet a third air sick bag, which I immediately filled. With the admonition not to take any medicine but go to bed and later eat something salty and also sweet, we took a cab to our hotel, where I had stayed on a previous visit.
The Best Western Hotel City is in a lovely area near Nyhavn Harbor. This area was once an old sailor quarters and the home of Hans Christian Andreson, but is now filled with colorful cafes, bars and sailboats. The hotel is in a quiet, pleasant neighborhood with a lovely reception area and helpful concierge. The buffet breakfast is substantial and frankly the best I had on the whole trip. I was able to enjoy it the next morning. The hotel room was small, but clean and all Scandinavian hotel rooms are small and pricey. The neighborhood is the important thing as I had once stayed for a night in Copenhagen in a red light district. It was so bad that I will always remember the name of that hotel.
When we arrived, I told Linda to ask the concierge re a city tour, while I remained in bed. When Linda returned that evening after a fun filled day of sightseeing, we went out for some air and a little dinner….Coca-Cola and pizza, which supplied the sweet and the salty, prescribed by the paramedics. Everyone seems to like pizza in Scandinavia and in Russia, as we soon learned.
The next morning after breakfast we took the Metro to the airport and checked in for our flight to Helsinki. Even though our bags were the right size for carry-on internationally, we were forced to check them as baggage on this flight and when we arrived in Helsinki, my bag came out on the carousel but Linda’s didn’t. Surprisingly enough on my previous trip to Scandinavia with Carol, her bag arrived in Stockholm from Copenhagen, while we had to wait for mine to come on the next plane!!!!!! This time we couldn’t wait around to find out any information re her bag as we had to get to the dock to board our Russian boat, the Princess Maria. We took a bus from the airport to the center of Helsinki and then a cab to the main shipping building to check in. We could have taken a trolley but our time had been taken up at the airport trying to find help filling out a lost baggage report.
Finally on the ship, we went to Customer Service for help in contacting the airline re her bag. We still had hope that it would be delivered to the ship. And through the next four days, we kept checking with either the ships or the hotel desk in hopes of learning of its existence, but to no avail. Linda did get tired of the same outfit for four days and I wasn’t happy over the same outfit in all of my 259 pictures. And I will admit, I was concerned about her too, even though I am joking now. Anyway, the Customer Service agent, Nadia Polikarpova, was so very kind and caring, that she made us feel we were not alone and lost any longer….yes, we were feeling that way after all that had happened. She went out of her way to help us in every way that she could and luckily was with us on the return trip as well.
Our cabin had a nice window and our two beds were comfortable enough. Over each of our beds were upper bunks so the cabin would accommodate four. This made it easy to take and use the upper pillows as extras for ourselves. There was a small shower as well. We watched out of our cabin window to see the boat leave Helsinki and later explored the ship. There was a small duty free shop and Linda did search for other clothes but couldn’t find anything she liked. There were several bars, one was called the Rabbit Bar but there was another called the Drunken Rabbit Bar on the outer deck. There were several restaurants and we chose the Napoli Mia, which is one of the ones Nadia had recommended. Again we shared pizza as I didn’t want to take any chances on my recovering stomach. The restaurant was on one side of the gambling area and overlooked the Gulf of Finland, which was the route of the ship from Finland, past Estonia, to Russia. We were too tired for the Finnish sauna, the cinema, swimming pool or the gym. We didn’t need to book tours at the tour desk as we already had ours reserved. Instead I fell asleep, while Linda chose the Internet Café to keep in touch with her assistant re: her collectible business.
In Finland we had already been told about the White Nights and knew that this continued into Russia and to a degree in Denmark even. We both knew that in the far north, there were six months of night, followed by six months of day but we hadn’t heard of that term before. Our trip was in June and we were told that June 22, there would be no night at all. What we experienced was more like the dusk before dawn throughout the night. And I awoke that night, seeing the light, and thought we had overslept. Unfortunately it was only about 4am and we couldn’t get back to sleep.
Our buffet breakfast at Restaurant Explorers was nice and the view was good. Mimosas (champagne and orange juice), as well as herring was available. We hadn’t unpacked but took turns looking out the window at the little towns we passed. I had my camera out and when Linda exclaimed to look out the window, I took a quick picture, which was a little blurry as I hadn’t had time to focus. I had seen a group of men standing on an embankment of the river. It appeared that they were truckers as there were trucks parked on the street. So when I told Linda that I had gotten the picture of the men, I was stunned to hear her exclaim “What men, what about the body!!!” So I looked at my photo and indeed there was what appeared to be a body below the men on the embankment near the water. I thought of going to Customer Service to show them the picture but thought better of it as I was in Russia on a Russian boat. And I told myself that the truckers would have already reported it or at least I hoped so.
When the boat arrived at the dock, you couldn’t see St. Petersburg as it was a long distance from that area. The customs agents were not smiling, nor welcoming and it was like being in one of the old cold war films. Outside we were met by our English speaking tour guide, Katya and the driver of a Mercedes car, Slava. They proceeded to take us on a whirlwind three hour tour of the city, which appeared on the whole just to be a big city and was not really remarkable, except for the canals.
Then they took us to our hotel to check in, where we left our belongings in our room, which was larger than the tiny one in Copenhagen and had some refreshment. We were then taken to the Hermitage, which is one of the oldest and largest museums in the world, with also the largest collections of paintings. It was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and through the years, her successors amassed more and more collections, while building more and more palaces adjoining one another. There are six historic buildings, including the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian emperors and Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage and New Hermitage. The other two are the Hermitage Theatre and the Reserve House. There are also the Menshikov Palace, Museum of Porcelain, Storage Facility at Staraya Derevnya and the eastern wing of the General Staff Building.
We walked and walked, then limped and limped through one gorgeous and lavish gilded room in the palaces, one after the other. The different collections included the following: Egyptian antiquities, Classical antiquities, Prehistoric art, Jewelry and decorative art, Italian Renaissance, Italian and Spanish fine art, Knight’s Hall, Dutch Golden Age and Flemish Baroque, German, British, Swiss and French fine art, Russian art, Neoclassical, Impressionist, and post-Impressionist art. We marveled at the incredible chandeliers, thrones, gilded tables and chairs, jewels, sculptures (even some by Auguste Rodin!) goblets, dishes, porcelain snuffboxes, hair combs, cameos, vases and even a silver tomb!
There were paintings by Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas, Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci, Lucca della Robbia, Raphael, Titian, Michaelangelo, Rembrandt, Velázquez and on and on and on…
After four hours we were taken back to our hotel with aching bodies and bewildered minds, so we ate our dinner in the hotel dining room….pizza again.
By tightly drawing the drapes, our room was dark enough to be night and we just passed out in our beds. Morning came too soon and down we went to our buffet breakfast, where tourists at the neighboring table told us of an incident that had happened in the breakfast dining area the day before. They said that it was shown on surveillance cameras that a man, dressed as a tourist, came into the room and just took the purse that was hanging on the back of a ladies chair before walking out. Then at the front desk we were warned by two desk clerks to beware of pickpockets on the streets. Our hotel was nice and in a good neighborhood, not really in the heart of the city, but buses were nearby.
Stay tuned for part two of my report!