A two-day chunk out of a 15-day cruise deserves some special planning so me and my friend Google spent quite a bit of time together to (hopefully) make the visit to St. Petersburg (SPb) the best it could be.
Here’s what I did not have any idea about as an ocean cruise newbie: It’s quite common for cruise passengers to book a “private” tour at various ports. These are not the ship-provided ones which the your cruise line advertises (and takes reservations for) ahead of time, but a tour operated by a firm or an individual. They can be “canned” excursions with pre-planned itineraries or specialty tours you choose based on your interests (heading to the Baltic, I didn’t really think I’d find any ukulele-centric tours so I didn’t even ask…Mom’s probably happy about that).
I learned that, when booking a private tour, you should consider a variety of things:
- You must get back to your ship in time. On a ship’s tour, you’re guaranteed that the ship will not leave the port until your excursion group is back on board. Not so a private tour; if that big horn makes its final bellow out to the berth community and you’re not on board, it floats away regardless. It’s then your responsibility–and your cost–to hopscotch to the next port. And your toothbrush and clean undies are still in your stateroom, so you’ll be doing your unexpected detour without their support.
- Know what’s included–and what’s not. Does the price include admissions to museums, all transportation and any meals? Find out so you can compare fairly between the companies.
- What qualifications/special knowledge does the guide have?
- How many people will be in your tour group? Most in St. Petersburg were a maximum of 16 passengers. Keep in mind that smaller numbers make for faster restroom stops and meals. Smaller numbers also mean that an “odd” personality in the group will stand out more… Smaller groups typically cost more (makes sense, huh?).
- Do you have any special needs for your tour? This could include mobility issues, travel with a child, hearing difficulties.
- How responsive is the tour agency *before* your tour starts? If they’re not quick to answer your questions–thoroughly and with plenty of details–before you give them your reservation, don’t expect the situation to improve.
- Reputation. This can include length of time in business, any certifications and reviews. I’m a frequent reviewer on TripAdvisor, but I’ll be the first to tell you that some of those reviews (either particularly glowing or slamming a business) are simply not written from a real experience with the company. SPb seems to really get a lot of these overly great and overly bad reviews. I understand from a city resident that there’s a lot of competition–for personal as well as business reasons–between the agencies. Some, I’ve been told, are downright malicious in harming their competition through bogus reviews. TripAdvisor works hard to screen out these reviews, but many get through. That’s why I wasn’t worried when our chosen company, Anastasia Travel, was listed as a “questionable” agency on TripAdvisor due to overly positive reviews. I believe a competitor tour company posted the positive reviews to trigger a “this isn’t real; watch out” warning from TripAdvisor. I can’t be certain of this, but you can bet I read the reviews and tossed out the extra high and extra low ones. TIP: Look for reviews with photographs; it’s hard to fake those, especially if they have the real people taking the tour in the picture.
St. Petersburg, Russia (commonly abbreviated to SPb or SPB on the CC boards) is a bustling hive of tour operators, all of them uber-eager to have you spend your time (and dollars) with them. Readers on the forum (as well as TripAdvisor) are also passionate about the tour agency/guides they’ve personally used (or a “friend” used).
Okay, here’s the scoop: About 90 percent of the people posting there have only been in SPb one time so their tour “reviews” are based on that one instance. Fair enough–my opinions of the tour agency we used in SPb are predicated on my own experiences, too; but I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the last few days asking others about their experiences so I’ll add that into today’s mix.
I chose Anastasia TravelAnastasia Travel after researching (ad infinitum) the major and http://anastasia.travel companies, sending emails and reading reviews and blogs. All of them seemed to include admission to the major SPb museums and tours of the same sites.
Frankly, the difference was that Anastasia Travel offered us a great, customized and totally private tour for just Mom and me for $309/USD. This was only a little more than the other companies were charging for a tour of “up to” 16 people (though I did hear a couple on our ship say that theirs only had four people both days) and a LOT less than the ship-offered two-day excursion.
My pre-trip correspondence with Katherine was exemplary, all museum admissions were included as was the visa paperwork and cost. The only catch for me was that the full trip needed to be paid for at time of reservation, which for us was four months away.
I don’t know about you, but sending my credit card info to Russia, even in a “locked/secure” email, felt a little sketchy to me. Heck, we’ve had our credit card numbers hijacked three times in the past 12 months and I’m betting some Russian thievery was involved in at least one of them.
Still, my husband countered, since it would be charged to the credit card, the bank would provide a back-up in case there were problems with the tour service not being as represented. I sent ’em the numbers.
I couldn’t be happier that I did. Our tour with Anastasia Travel was perfect in every single way. As a private tour participant, we didn’t have to wait until the ship’s crowds hit the Russian passport control center just outside the ship. We had no line as we walked through at 7:30 am–but they sure don’t greet you with friendly faces. However the guide, Anna, waiting just past the control center’s exit, *was* smiling and holding a placard with our name on it.
She greeted us warmly, asked if we were ready to go and then lead us through (another) government screening and out to the parking lot where our driver, Slava, waited with his four-door Mercedes (black, of course–all the “special” cars are black Mercedes’ in SPb it seems). Climbing in the back seat (the car was immaculate inside and out–plus it was fresh and did not smell of cigarette smoke at all) we each found a large bottle of water (we received another at the start of our second day) as well as a red lightweight backpack loaded with “a few gifts,” as Anna termed it. These included an inexpensive rain poncho, a fruit/nut bar, a book about St. Petersburg, a pack of cookies and even a small metroshka (stacking) doll.
Gee, we just got started with Anastasia Travel and already we felt pampered. Any reservations I’d harbored evaporated.
As the two-day tour continued, we were even more certain we’d chosen the right option for us.
Anna was professional yet exceedingly personable. She confidently shared with us every single important historical figure (so many named Peter, Nicholas, Catherine and Alexander!) but she told us not just dates but “personalities” so they seemed much more like real people than two-dimensional portraits on an ornate palace wall. She wasn’t one of those tour guides who overwhelms you with information you’re not interested in–in short, Anna had the information ready and presented it well, but she would start off with the basics and then let us ask questions about topics which interested us. Anna’s knowledge of art and the history of its creator was astounding–we later found she had worked at The Hermitage so that explains some of it; the rest, I think is just Anna’s personal passion.
She focused on, as she described it, the “best of the best” at each site but if we found something else we enjoyed, Anna was amenable to adapting the plans. I’d wanted to see Peter the Great’s cabin and, while it’s not on most big-group itineraries, Slava made a detour so I could walk around it (not open that day) and Anna told us more about the founder of St. Petersburg as a “royal” city.
But more than architecture, emperors and art, we earned from Anna about daily life in St. Petersburg plus stories from her family (including her grandmother, who had shared her account of living through the Siege of Leningrad with Anna). She arranged a visit to a “working” Russian Orthodox church when a service was in session (they last two to three hours, I guess), and, as a churchgoer herself, explained the various elements of the service and what we were seeing (I understand the icons so much better now).
At Peterhoff, Anna suggested we enjoy a nice walk through the park after seeing the palace and fountains. She showed us several of the “trick” water features and told us how her son enjoyed the fountains and how the “tricks” worked. She laughed that when she gets old she wants to be the person sitting incognito on the bench and operating the plunger that squirts unsuspecting children in the fountain. She even had a small baggie of nuts, prepared to feed the red squirrels which, she told us, are almost like pets, at the park.
Mom and I didn’t really relish sitting for 1.5 hours of each day for lunch and Anna understood. She took us to a Russian “quick’ chain restaurant the first day (explaining the menu in detail) and suggested blinis (is that the plural?) for the second as a “quick food” break. Anna joined us for the meals and was more than ready to pay for her lunches but we took care of the check at both of them (well, except I was 50 rubles short on the blini day; oops, planned the money a little too tight!).
Slava’s driving was impeccable; we felt safe in a city with a lot of traffic. He had coordinated the driving plans so we could see Nevsky Prospekt as well as some “countryside” roads. They were both quite disappointed one day when a detour forced us onto the belt road (like a freeway) which they said was not too picturesque but we found interesting just the same because it showed us more of the non-tourist section of the suburbs of St. Petersburg.
Having just two of us on this tour was ideal; Anna moved us to the front of every line at the museum and knew where all the best bathrooms were (very important!). We were able to wander around, stopping to shop in a little store featuring amber items created in the workshop that had remade the Amber Room at Catherine’s Palace. Mom’s especially enamored of lilacs (as a young woman, these simple flowers graced the pews of the church when she and dad married 62 years ago in a small Wisconsin town) and, when Anna found out, she took us to what she described as a “lilac alley” at Catherine’s Palace that was rich with the sweet fragrance of the lavender- and cream-colored flowers.
This was truly St. Petersburg “our way” and we couldn’t have done it without Anastasia Travel.
[Note: I’ll write about St. Petersburg as a port city for us in the next post.]