<em>Novikov Priboy</em> in Russia

My wife, Esta Lee, and I took a Russian river cruise between St. Petersburg and Moscow, June 4-18, ’03. We used Vantage Deluxe World Travel (90 Canal St., Boston, MA 02114; phone 888/734-0188), which had chartered the Novikov Priboy for several trips. The cost of the cruise was just over $3,000 per person, including round-trip airfare from Washington, D.C., all meals and most sightseeing.

We think Vantage did a first-rate job of organizing and overseeing the trip.

A river cruise is a very convenient way to tour Russia, but realistic expectations are essential and it cannot be compared to river cruises in other parts of the world. The East Germans built all the Russian riverboats and were not seeking to meet American or Western European norms of comfort.

Standard cabins aboard Novikov Priboy are SMALL (usually less than 100 square feet). Storage space is adequate, but this just makes the cabins more cramped. Beds are thin mattresses placed on hard wood; if you have back problems or are over six feet tall, you may have difficulties. (My wife, well under six feet, several times kicked open the door of the mini-fridge in her sleep.) The bathroom and the shower stall are virtually identical, with the extendable sink tap doubling as the showerhead.

Recommendation — many Russian riverboats (not the Novikov) offer a limited number of substantially larger cabins that are worth the splurge even at much higher prices.

Space for the public areas aboard Novikov Priboy is also limited (in proportion to the number of passengers), so it was almost impossible to find a quiet interior space outside of our cabin.

On the positive side, the food on this cruise was very good and, other than occasional language problems, service both in the ship’s restaurants and overall was excellent. The crew went out of their way to be accommodating.

Several passengers on the cruise who had visited the country in the “bad old days” of Soviet rule could not get over the enormous improvement in food quality and service. They also remarked on how the general population was much more welcoming and upbeat.

The standard itinerary for these trips includes three nights in St. Petersburg and three nights in Moscow. The scenery on the six days of travel between the two cities consists mostly of thick pine forests broken by occasional small settlements and passage through numerous locks. There is a stop at one large city (Yaroslavl) and one small city (Uglich).

St. Petersburg was lovely — just shined up for its 300th anniversary. We were very lucky to have had two gorgeous, sunny days during our stay.

While not unattractive, Moscow lacks St. Petersburg’s beauty, but it has an air of prosperity we did not expect. In addition to regular sightseeing in Moscow, the trip included the Moscow Circus (fun, but we thought the animals were not always well treated) and the Bolshoi Ballet. We expected the Bolshoi to be much grander and ornate than it was. Warning: even the best seats have little padding and can get very uncomfortable during a 2- to 3-hour performance.

No. Bethesda, MD