Want to explore a country from the comfort of a cruise ship, but don't know where to start? Learn from Silver Traveller Steven Aldridge's experience of river cruising as a beginner.
While I'm normally happy to breeze into most of Europe with just my notes from personal research, I somehow felt uncomfortable doing this on my first, much desired, visit to Russia.
Perhaps it's irrational thoughts driven by watching too many Cold War movies, but I wanted our introduction to the jewels of this vast country to be with a company that had a track record in Russia and a reputation for excellence.
A visit to the Cruise Show at London's ExCel Exhibition Centre convinced us that a river cruise could be the answer - we could see a number of places, unpack once and have our hotel float along with us.
After taking the opportunity at the show to compare the various providers, we chose Viking as an experienced operator, and we knew they would sprinkle a little bit of luxury into a packed program on their Waterways of the Tsars cruise.
When you choose your cruise, it’s worth noting that not all cities allow the ships to dock in the city centre. In Moscow and St Petersburg, the ships were docked a 45 to 60-minute coach ride from the centre.
In hindsight, I'd have investigated the excellent metros more thoroughly and travelled in earlier and come back later than the coaches to be able to see more of these magnificent cities. Moscow's metro is also an attraction in itself with magnificent artwork at some stations.
River ships are small and intimate
One of the pleasures of travelling for us is the people we meet, and the size of most river ships means that there's an intimacy with the crew and your fellow passengers that's sometimes lost on vast ocean going ships.
The Rurik had a capacity of approximately 200 people, so very quickly we got to make new friends - over dinner, on the sun deck or in the bar. This along with a packed itinerary, meant we spent hardly any time in our cabin.
We’d chosen a cabin (DX) without a balcony which turned out to be clean, en-suite and big enough for us. If 'me time' is important for you, a ship of this size has few quiet places, so a larger cabin to enjoy your solitude might be the right choice.
Before selecting your cabin type, talk to your provider about the opportunity to use a balcony on the cruise.
In both Moscow and St Petersburg, our ship was stacked with other ships at the dock, so while it was easy to walk through the ships to get to the dock, often the view from a cabin’s balcony was blocked by the other ship.
The Rurik crew worked hard to immerse us in Russia as much as possible, so the program was full of briefings, lectures, some wonderful excursions (such as The Kremlin, a family home and Ballet), vodka tasting, cookery lessons and Russian dishes on the menu each day.
Check that an immersive programme is part of the package (if this interests you) and make sure you understand what else is inclusive in the cruise price, such as wine and beer with dinner or bottled water.
The dress code on the ship was smart casual, which left plenty of room in my case for comfortable clothing, plus study shoes and sandals to cope with all the walking on the excursions.
It’s worth saying that there were a considerable number of steps to tackle at the attractions and when getting on and off the coaches. Add this to a fair bit of walking and some cobblestone streets and anyone with mobility issues will need to check quite carefully if this type of cruise suits you.
As well as taking your camera to capture all the wonderful sights you encounter (I was convinced St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow was really Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory - amazing!), consider packing a pair of binoculars, so you can get a closer view of things you pass on the river banks.
Although there was little movement on our cruise, there can be some motion, particularly if the weather is bad. Think about taking some ginger tablets, which are very popular for settling your stomach.
This article is brought to you by Steven Aldridge from Silver Travel Advisor. You can read more about Steven's Russian cruise or another river cruise that began in Antwerp on the Silver Travel Advisor website.