Sailing the Russian waterways between Saint Petersburg and Moscow on the Grand Circle Small Ship Cruises' river ship M/S Rossia is the best way for cruisers to get an understanding of some of the heartland and cities of Russia--its history, culture, people, and future.
Russia has long seemed to be a country of mystery to me. Maybe it is my age--I grew up during the Cold War, read spy novels, watched James Bond movies, and wished my parents would build a bomb shelter. All those stories, enforced by the fascinating historical tidbits I learned in school, were enough to put a visit to Russia on my wish list.
Since I love cruising, a Baltic Sea cruise to Saint Petersburg was one of the first European itineraries I chose. Several years later, after visiting Saint Petersburg twice on ocean ships, I still wanted more.
Having met cruisers who loved sailing the Russian rivers and waterways, I enthusiastically jumped at the opportunity to sail between Saint Petersburg and Moscow with Grand Circle Small Ship Cruises.
Grand Circle targets its cruises and tours to the over-50 American traveler, and the company does an excellent job of both educating and entertaining this growing age group. After 16 days in Russia, I came away with some marvelous memories of its cities and countryside. The Grand Circle team greatly facilitated our learning and discovery process, and we all learned much more about this mysterious country than we ever could have done independently. Personally, I also came away from this cruise with an appreciation of why Grand Circle Travel has so many loyal customers who return time after time to their cruises and tours.
This article focuses on the M/S Rossia--its cabins, common areas, outdoor decks, dining, and onboard activities. Page 7 of the article provides information and photos of the ship and ports of call.
Grand Circle Small Ship Cruises M/S Rossia - Cabins on Russian Waterways Cruise
The only negatives I ever heard from those who sailed the Russian rivers and waterways (on any cruise line) was that the cabins were not as spacious as those on other European river ships. So, I was prepared for something only a little better than the closet-like cabins found on classic sailing ships.
However, I was pleasantly surprised at our cabin on the M/S Rossia. Yes, it was small; but the beds and pillows were comfortable, the picture window was large, the service was excellent, and the shower was one of the best I have seen anywhere.
The cabins are on three decks, ranging in size between 130 and 150 square feet. Beds can be either twin or pushed together for a queen. All cabins have an outside view, with a picture window that can be opened and a covered promenade deck separating the window and the water. You definitely have to remember to pull the curtains if you are lying around in your skivvies!
Most of the other amenities are those you would expect on any other river ship, including air conditioning, a refrigerator, satellite TV, in-room safe, telephone, emergency call button in the bathroom, and closet and shelf space. The small dressing table has both 110-v and 220-v outlets, and the room comes with a hair dryer. Cabins have a small table and two chairs, but they just got in the way in our cabin, which wasn't as wide as some of the others.
As I noted above, the shower was exceptional. It had a glass door, which is much better than a curtain, and terrific water pressure. The bathroom sink area was small but had plenty of storage in a cabin underneath. The water was fine for brushing our teeth, but most of us used the bottled water provided in the cabin free each day for drinking.
All in all, our cabin on the M/S Rossia was much better than expected.
Photo Gallery of the M/S Rossia Cabins and Interior
Grand Circle Small Ship Cruises M/S Rossia - Common Areas
The Grand Circle M/S Rossia was significantly refurbished in 2007, and the ship's atmosphere is pleasant, casual, and warm. Like most river ships, everything on the ship is nearby. As much as I enjoy large ship cruising, it is a wonderful change to be able to get around the ship without having to walk hundreds of yards to get anywhere.
The ship has four decks, with an elevator to decks 1, 2, and 3. However, there is no elevator access to deck 4, where many of the onboard group activities take place. Therefore, this ship is not recommended for those who are wheelchair bound or who cannot climb at least one flight of stairs.
Deck 1 has cabins, reception, the gift shop, a small library, and the doctor's office. It also has a small self-service bar for coffee, tea, water, and ice. I'm not a coffee drinker, but my mother loved the lattes from the coffee machine. I loved the small cookies and hot tea. Like many of the other passengers, we also refilled our water bottles at this refreshment bar. Deck 2 has cabins and the restaurant. Deck 3 has cabins and the Tsar's Bar, which is a delightful observation lounge on the front of the ship. It has floor to ceiling windows and great atmosphere. Deck 4 has the outdoor sun deck and the large President's Lounge, where most of the group activities are held. It also has windows all around, so passengers can enjoy the scenery while attending lectures or other scheduled events. The Navigational Bridge is also on deck 4.
Grand Circle Small Ship Cruises M/S Rossia - Outdoor Deck Areas
The M/S Rossia has four decks, all with easy access to the out of doors. Each deck has a promenade encircling the ship, and the walkways have a non-slippery covering. Some of the promenade decks have nice wooden deck chairs for those seeking a quiet space. The sun deck is on deck 4 aft, next to the mid-ship President's Lounge. Like most river ships, the sun deck is very popular for enjoying a 360-degree view of the passing river scenery. The teak wooden deck chairs and pads are very comfortable, and the umbrella tables are used for holding drinks, writing cruise journals, or composing postcards to make your friends and family back home jealous.
Grand Circle Small Ship Cruises M/S Rossia - Dining and Cuisine
Dining on the M/S Rossia was casual and basic, much like dining in a traditional American restaurant with no pretense or formality among the crew or the passengers. All meals were served open seating in the restaurant on deck 2.
Breakfast was buffet style, with all the standard fare and a few Russian specialties. The Rossia had early bird coffee at about 6:00 am, with the buffet breakfast from 7:00 to 9:00 am.
Lunch started off with a delicious salad bar, followed by soup, main course, and dessert. Passengers had two kinds of soup and two main course choices for lunch. I really enjoyed the cold yogurt soups.
Dinner was at 7:00 or 7:30, depending on the daily schedule. Some dinners were traditional Ukrainian or Russian dishes, and all were good. The service was a little slow at dinner, with longer than normal between courses, but no one was in a hurry. Passengers had a choice of a glass of white or red wine with dinner.
Things to Do on the Grand Circle M/S Rossia Russian Waterways Ship
The onboard activities on the M/S Rossia were well-attended, enjoyable, and excellent. Many were linked to Grand Circle's Learning and Discovery program, and most focused on improving our understanding of Russia. For example, one day we had a Russian language lesson followed by a talk on Russian handicrafts. This presentation, accompanied by excellent handouts from Grand Circle, helped us not only learn about the different types of Russian crafts but also how to distinguish between real and "fake" items. Other Russian programs included history, a nautical lecture and bridge visit, vodka tasting, blini making, fairy tales, songs, folk dances, matryoshka painting, and musical instruments. They kept us as busy as we wanted!
Other programs were more traditional for cruise ships--discussions of the ports of call, napkin folding lessons, and vegetable carving.
One of the most unique and educational programs was a question and answer period with the six program directors. Their perspectives on life in Russia in the 21st century compared to the early 1990s and before was a great educational experience.
We were on the Svir River on the 4th of July. Grand Circle caters to American tourists, so the ship's crew went all out to help us celebrate our Independence Day holiday. Watching the crew raise the American flag on the ship's deck in the early morning as we sailed along a Russian river and sang the National Anthem was a day we will all remember. The fireworks in the evening topped off the day!
Map of Grand Circle Small Ship Cruises Russian Waterways Itinerary
As the map shows, river ships must navigate several rivers, lakes, canals, and waterways of Russia to link Moscow and Saint Petersburg. The waterways are very busy since this route is the only outlet Moscow has to the Baltic Sea. Ships pass through 21 locks during the 900-mile, 7-day journey. Most of the ports were unfamiliar to me, but I'm glad we had such great diversity, including very small villages, national parks, small towns, and mid-sized cities. I came home feeling like I had seen more of the "real" Russia than just the marvelous sites in Saint Petersburg and Moscow.
Day 1 - Fly to Saint Petersburg
Day 2 through 5 - Saint Petersburg at the Ambassador Hotel
Day 6 - Embark from Saint Petersburg in the afternoon on the M/S Rossia
Day 7 - Svirstroy, a small village on the Svir River
Day 8 - Kizhi Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on Lake Onega
Day 9 - Cruising on the M/S Rossia
Day 10 - Yaroslavl, a mid-sized city on the Volga River
Day 11 - Uglich, Russian town of beautiful churches
Day 12 - Arrive Moscow in the early afternoon
Day 13 - Disembark and transfer to the Holiday Inn Moscow Suschevsky Val
Day 14 and 15 - Tour Moscow with hotel as base
Day 16 - Fly home in the early morning
This cruise is ideal for active adults who love learning and experiencing new places. I hope to return to Russia one day in a few years to see more of the changes in this fascinating country as they continue to embrace capitalism and the freedoms and responsibilities that accompany an open society. Thanks to Grand Circle for a great cruise tour!
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary cruise accommodation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.