Cruise News UK goes on tour with Orthodox Cruises as the ms Anton Chekhov sails from Saint Petersburg to Moscow.
The following is the first in a series of articles aimed at describing, firsthand, a cruise on one of the most rapidly developing niches within the industry and how best to tailor this product to potential clients. Here we will do our utmost to explain why many of the industry’s leading figures are becoming increasingly excited by the prospect – and commercial viability – of river cruising.
As we are driven towards our vessel we catch sight of it – from the windows of an airport taxi – the city of Saint Petersburg. Few recommendations, or images of famous landmarks, could have prepared us for the sight. The city – Russia’s cultural capital – is beautiful. Built only 300 odd years ago, it stands on former swamplands and interprets a system of waterways which have acted as the city’s transport network since inception. The canals and rivers are the lifeblood of Saint Petersburg and comparisons to Venice are not too far off the mark. So, what better way to see a city – for which water has been so vital – than by cruise? The question was posed to us by Orthodox Cruises – a company which specialises in voyages through Russia’s waterways – as part of an invitation to take part in their 10-night sailing. Needless to say we jumped at the chance to experience Russia in what is becoming one of the fastest growing segments of the industry: river cruising.
Saint Petersburg sits on the most easterly point of the Baltic Sea, an area which has exploded in popularity in recent times; with its port heavy itineraries meaning that it is no longer a necessity to cruise for months on end. It is a destination which suits an industry that is modernising. Essentially it boils down to this: many potential cruisers, who can financially afford to take part in a voyage, can not afford to be away from their desks for long periods of time. If you couple this with the rapidly growing river cruising, then a Russian river cruise begins to make a lot of sense.
But, as with any destination which has a glut of desirable locations, destination differentiation is a major issue. The Caribbean suffers with it, the Mediterranean suffers with it and so does the Baltic. So, how to stand out as a destination when the competition is so fierce? Copenhagen – a hub for many cruise lines – also sits on the Baltic and the city is a huge draw for many tourists. The answer lies in communication. Saint Petersburg, and to a great extent Russia, has, in the past, failed to market itself as a desirable location. There are obvious historical reasons for this but the facts are plain to see: Russia is a sleeping giant.
So what does Saint Petersburg have to offer potential clients? Why should tour operators be interested in selling a Russian river cruise? On our first morning we are taken on a tour of the city and it is laid out in front of us: Saint Petersburg is beautiful. As previously mentioned, the city is often described as Russia’s cultural capital – it was in fact the capital city during the country’s golden age – through the 18th and 19th centuries – and palaces, cathedrals and museums line the streets. Never has a place looked so picturesque and as we are taken from the dominating shadow of St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the world famous Church On The Spilled Blood we are surrounded by signs of that prosperous time. And, while the city is dedicated to the memory of that period, the Soviet era is still a big part of Saint Petersburg’s genetic make-up. For instance the Church On The Spilled Blood, we are told, was used as a storehouse for decades, after Stalin closed all of the churches in the 1930s.
In the afternoon we are taken to Peterhof, Peter The Great’s summer palace. Here – in a palace which rings Versailles – is another example of the decadent life Saint Petersburg’s elite found themselves able to enjoy. And, while the palace itself is hugely impressive – it is the gardens for which Peterhof is probably better known. The water avenue, which leads directly into the Gulf of Finland, is crowned by a golden statue of Samson prising open the jaws of a lion – with a 62 metre jet of water rising from the beast’s mouth. Samson, it is explained to us, represents Peter The Great’s victory over the Swedish, which won them the Gulf of Finland and the entrance to the Baltic Sea. The location which now gives Russia access to the lucrative Baltic cruise market.
The day is finished by a visit to the ballet to see Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. What could be more Russian? The world famous spectacle in its homeland, complete with live orchestra in the intimate setting of the Hermitage theatre.
Our ship, the Chekhov, is berthed in the centre of the city, on the River Neva – an advantage which river cruising will always hold over its ocean counterpart – and getting to and from the vessel couldn’t be easier. On top of the shore excursions, the great location and the city itself – it’s beginning to become abundantly clear why river cruising is undergoing the popularity increase. The unspoilt – and criminally undervalued – Russian market clearly will not stay this way for much longer. As the increasing number of oceangoing calls testifies. And, with river cruising gaining an increased slice of the cruising pie, companies like Orthodox are no doubt going to hold the key to unlocking the vast land and its unchartered waterways.
Read Day Two of our Cruise Diary here