Wall Street Journal, Off Duty (Travel)
May 25, 2019
For a quick, rather kitschy trip from Helsinki to St. Petersburg, board this cruise
Photo: Amy Yee, somewhere on the Baltic Sea
THE OLDER Russian couple extended their arms over the railing of the ship’s deck. They offered pieces of bread to seagulls that floated and swooped over the glittering Baltic Sea. The couple beamed as the birds grazed their fingertips and chased the ship chugging east toward Saint Petersburg. The gulls’ outstretched wings were etched against the tangerine sky melting to dusk behind us. Other passengers lingered on the deck, but I went inside to escape the windy chill.
I wandered past the duty-free shop, casino, the “Night Funny Rabbit” lounge and a restaurant named “New York City” whose menu boasts steak, cheesecake and Ukrainian borscht. In the Columbus Bar, armchairs faced a wall of windows, the better to watch the sun sink into the horizon. A Russian band was firing up tunes on a keyboard and electric guitar and — as passengers filled the lounge and ordered beers, mojitos and mai tais — I wondered what the evening show would bring.
When I visited Finland last summer I had no plans to visit Russia. But I learned that tourists based in Helsinki can visit St. Petersburg for 72 hours without a visa if they book a cruise with European operator Moby SPL Limited. I was tempted; getting a visa for Russia can be a complicated, expensive gambit that takes weeks. A basic, windowless cabin on the 11-story Princess Anastasia, which can accommodate 2,500 passengers, would set me back about $280. Bigger rooms and suites on higher decks with sea views cost more, and meals in the onboard restaurants are not included. The cruises start in March and continue through a summer of long days and white nights, then into December when trips get rebranded as “ice cruises.”
From the outset, it was clear that the Princess Anastasia, despite her regal name, was no luxury liner. Her slightly worn carpet and furniture evoke a Las Vegas hotel circa 1989. Though my cabin measured just a snug 75 square feet, I found it functional enough: Its two bunks were clad with starchy white linen and it had an en suite bathroom with a hot shower and thin towels.
But the cruise wasn’t just a moving hotel — it was an experience. The evening show featured a trumpet player, a musician coaxing notes from a squiggly electric cello and dancers in swirly chiffon dresses. It reminded me of the schmaltzy-fun nightclubs in Brighton Beach, the Russian enclave in Brooklyn. Then a svelte, middle-aged Russian violinist clad in tall boots and fedora hat played an impressive, crowd-rousing set. Who knew Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” could sound so good on violin?
Once the show wrapped, a DJ took over, playing everything from Russian pop tunes to Depeche Mode. Families, couples, children and groups of friends filled the dance floor. A little girl clasped hands with one of the ship’s dancers — a woman in a blue, fairylike costume — and gazed reverently up at her.
The overnight journey from Helsinki takes about 10 hours, departing at 7 p.m. and arriving in St. Petersburg before 9 a.m. Some visitors go to Russia just for a day trip and re-board the ship in the afternoon to return to Helsinki. But the trip can be extended to two nights and nearly three full days if you show the company proof that you’ve booked a hotel in St. Petersburg, as I did.
For those less interested in kitschy theater and people watching, the ever-changing seascape offered its own kind of entertainment. From the Princess Anastasia’s top deck, the view initially takes in Finland’s coast and the islands of its archipelago, some just ragged scraps of rock sprouting a few slender trees.
Sunset departure from St. Petersburg. Photo: Amy Yee
In the morning, the approach to St. Petersburg revealed a phalanx of cranes, hulking machinery, steel containers stacked like toys and mountains of rusted scrap metal. The ship slid past this industrial landscape for nearly an hour.
During disembarkation, the gruff staff proved unhelpful, forcing us to endure a lengthy wait in a stuffy corridor without any explanation. It became clear that elderly people and families with children have priority to debark; parents and kids trampled over the rest of us as they stormed toward the exit.
The cruise fare includes a shuttle bus ride — euphemistically billed as a “city tour” — straight to the center of St. Petersburg across from St Isaac’s Cathedral with its massive red granite pillars and gold dome.
If I had to do it over, instead of dancing to techno pop for hours in the ship’s nightclub, I would order myself to get a good night’s sleep so I could be fresh to explore St. Petersburg. I spent my first morning walking miles in a sleep-deprived haze in this architecturally over-the-top city founded by Tsar Peter the Great. Everything seemed big in St. Petersburg, from the grandiose, baroque and neo-Classical buildings spread over interminable boulevards, to the vast Hermitage Museum overlooking the Neva River.
Peter, depicted in a bronze monument on a horse pawing the air, founded the city as a “window to Europe” and made it Russia’s capital in 1712.
Statue of Peter the Great. Photo: Amy Yee
Everything I passed seemed oversize, from the baroque and neo-Classical buildings spread over interminable boulevards, to the vast Hermitage Museum overlooking the Neva River. I explored the Hermitage in a marathon seven-hour session that included its excellent but lesser-known modern art collection across the plaza.
Hermitage Museum. Photo: Amy Yee
That night I bunked down at a new and modern budget hotel a short walk from Saint Issac’s Cathedral.
The next day, I walked a couple miles to the Anna Akhmatova Museum and appreciated the humble intimacy of the poet’s former home. The house where the Russian poet lived with scholar Nikolai Punin and his wife while somehow having an affair with him, was filled with photos, books, furnishings and personal effects, and is home to three perpetually-napping, resident orange cats.
Anna Akhmatova Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo: Amy Yee
In the evening, Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main boulevard, was crowded with strolling pedestrians, street musicians and rock bands playing al fresco. The colourful, onion-shaped domes of the stunning Church of the Savior on Blood is visible down a side street next to a glimmering canal.
It’s not just bars that stay open late in St. Petersburg. Singer House, a lovely bookstore with a cafe, was thronged with people after 11 p.m. A bakery with sumptuous cakes, Metropol-Sever, catered to discriminating gluttons 24 hours a day, as does Stolovaya, a bustling Russian cafeteria chain. In the name of research, I loaded my tray with chokecherry pie and “herring under a fur coat,” the traditional salad of herring under grated beets.
At Teremok, a sleek fast casual chain known for bilini, I ate delicious salmon crepe and borscht for a few dollars.
At a restaurant called Khinkal’naya Na Neve, I had my first taste of food from neighboring Georgia, including khinkali, twisted doughy dumplings normally filled with meat though I got the vegetarian potato ones, khachapuri, a flat bread with gooey hot cheese baked sinfully into its crust.
A paper placemat had diagrams demonstrating how to tear off pieces of crust and dip it into an egg yolk swimming in a pool of butter in the bread’s center. I staggered out of the restaurant stuffed to the gills.
Seventy-two hours passed too quickly in St. Petersburg. I returned to the ship thinking about all the cakes and Russian doughnuts that I didn’t get to eat and the river boat and subway art tour I didn’t take.
As we headed back to sea on the Princess Anastasia, I spied from the top deck a word spelled out in large Cyrillic letters on the jutting shore. Russian passengers started singing in unison. Two young women leaning against the railing beside me told me the song — like the word — was “Leningrad,” the city’s former name under Soviet rule.
Photo: Amy Yee
The young women, both Russian, were eager to speak English. We chatted a while inside.They were en route to Helsinki for a day trip. They told me about the vast geography of Russia and how it’s cheaper to fly to Europe than to take long domestic flights. They explained that Russia was so ethnically diverse that it was common to see people with Asian features in Saint Petersburg.
My new friends wisely decided to go to sleep early. I hesitated at the prospect of bopping uninhibitedly around the dance floor, conscious that my feet still ached from walking miles in St. Petersburg. More dancing seemed ill-advised, but somewhere in the middle of the darkened Baltic Sea, I caught my second wind.