A river cruise is the best way for travellers to explore the heartland and great cities of Russia, says Jeannine Williamson.

Russia was in the spotlight last year when it hosted the World Cup, and it is also a winning destination for river cruises.

CLIA’s annual River Cruise Review 2018 revealed that out of the record number of 210,400 UK passengers embarking on a river cruise in 2017, Russia was one of three countries – the others being Portugal and India – that experienced the most significant growth.

“The popularity of Russia river cruises has grown significantly over recent years, and 2017 saw bookings rise 70 per cent from the previous year,” says CLIA UK & Ireland director Andy Harmer. “From the mesmerising beauty of St Petersburg to the might and splendour of Moscow, Russia remains as intriguing as it ever was.

“It is as vast as it is beautiful, and there is no better way to traverse the distances than among Russia’s majestic waterways.”

Cities and countryside

All river cruises sail between Moscow and St Petersburg, or in reverse, and provide two or three days in both cities, with passengers staying on the ship or in hotel accommodation.

It is worth recommending the latter if your clients are averse to long coach rides, because the transfer from the docking spots to the centre of Moscow and the main sights such as Red Square can be very slow due to traffic congestion.

These two great cities are just 400 miles apart as the crow flies, which is a comparatively tiny distance in the 6.5 million square miles of the world’s largest country. Yet visitors hopping between the two on a short flight never discover what lies between: a network of historic rivers, lakes and canals providing an unforgettable and contrasting insight into the heart of Russia.

In a country where independent travel remains challenging due to most signs being in Russian, and with English not widely spoken, particularly in rural areas, a river cruise is a hassle-free way to travel and provides clients with total peace of mind.

A notable difference between sailings in Russia and mainland Europe is the size of the vessels. Unrestricted by low bridges and small locks, Russian ships are much larger, carrying up to 280 passengers, with bigger public areas and more facilities including lecture theatres and a choice of lounges.

St Petersburg, Russia, river cruise,
St Petersburg.

Cultural immersion

Ships take around six days to travel between the two cities along the Neva, Svir and Volga rivers, taking in forested islands, remote villages and rural life along the way. A highlight is navigating Lake Ladoga, Europe’s largest lake, and in early spring there is sometimes ice on the water.

“Our guests are always looking for experiences that take them to parts of the world they may not have experienced before. In the past year we’ve seen an increased demand for trips to Russia as it is a fascinating country, rich in culture and steeped in history,” notes APT managing director for UK & Europe Paul Melinis.

Itineraries feature stops at Kizhi Island with its amazing 22-domed wooden church, which was built without using a single nail, and visits to the historically significant ‘Golden Ring’ cities of Yaroslavl and Uglich, which played a pivotal role in the founding of the Russian Orthodox Church. Back on board, lectures and language lessons provide a fascinating insight into the local culture, and other activities often include Russian doll-painting workshops and vodka-tasting sessions.

Choice of cruise lines

Familiar mainstream operators include APT, CroisiEurope, Emerald Waterways, Saga, Uniworld and Viking. There are also less familiar specialists including ship company Volga Dream, which carries just over 100 passengers and has the lowest passenger-to-crew ratio among Russian river ships.

At the opposite end of the size scale is Vodohod, the country’s largest operator, which has 25 vessels and nine international ships serving the UK market. Unusually for a river line, and useful for agents, Vodohod gives its vessels a three to five-star hotel-style rating. This year the line’s brand new deluxe ship, Prince Vladimir, joins the fleet.

Elsewhere, APT is offering more Russian cruises on two new and larger ships – the 196-passenger, all-inclusive luxury ship MS Valentina and the 224-passenger premium ship MS Rossia. Looking ahead, Uniworld will embark on a complete refurbishment of its River Victoria vessel for the 2021 season.

The final word on this fascinating destination goes to managing director of Uniworld UK Chris Townson: “While the historic cities of Moscow and St Petersburg are appealing travel destinations in their own right, the benefit of cruising through Russia is that guests can see the country from a unique perspective.”

Selling tips

  • Stress-free travel with fully escorted itineraries
  • Overnight stays that make the most of Moscow and St Petersburg
  • Easy access to remote rural destinations
  • Authentic on-board experiences and in-depth lectures
  • Larger than average ships offering plenty of public space