Americans heading to Russia are faced with the obstacle of obtaining a visa, but arriving by cruise ship ironically negates this requirement. While most cruise lines stay in St. Petersburg for only a day or two (and only during the summer months), Americans will find there is so much to do here that such a limited time is not enough. The St. Peter cruise line is a new venture that allows travelers the opportunity to stay in Russia visa-free for up to three days. This works only if arriving by ship.
Built in 1986, but totally overhauled in 2011, Anastasia is St. Peter Line’s flagship traveling at a top speed of 22 knots per hour. While not as grand as the megaships of American cruise lines, this luxury liner offers something for everyone thanks to plentiful entertainment, shopping, and dining options. Registered in Malta, the ship can carry 2,500 passengers, 350 crew, and 580 cars.
Passengers enter on the main deck to find wall-mounted maps describing the ship’s amenities. Staffers, most of whom are Russian, are friendly albeit English is not their first language. The majority of passengers are Russian, but the cruise line carried more than 6,000 passengers in its first year of operation thanks to its visa-free entry to Russia with hopes to expand. The primary ports of call for the ship are Helsinki, Tallinn, Stockholm, and St. Petersburg.
Dining options abound. The main buffet restaurant specializes in fresh, inventive cuisine with the Swedish table (or smorgasboard) being the showpiece of most cruises. Everything from herring to Swedish meatballs is on offer during this highlight meal. International buffets are on offer the rest of the time with a variety of accompanying drinks. Guests can purchase packages that include all meals or choose to pay as they go, which is a popular option with many travelers.
The Rabbit Bar, named because of the playful bunny hats that servers wear, serves drinks pub style with a casual menu to accompany it. Guests can dine in booths or tables on chicken wings, sandwiches, and burgers throughout the day and even into the wee hours of the morning.
Room No is the ship’s elegant dining room serving guests in suites and those wishing to pay for this upgraded experience. Dining here is an event that rivals the finest restaurants in St. Petersburg. All types of caviar begin the experience here accompanied by the finest Russian vodka, of course. Menu items include everything from the chef’s signature Scandinavian crayfish to rack of lamb and freshly caught seafood. All guests booking Commodore cabins, Deluxe rooms, or suites have champagne breakfast included in the rate.
Other dining options include a homemade ice cream parlor, coffee bar preparing freshly brewed coffee in traditional Georgian style, champagne bar, sushi bar, cabaret bar, and room service. A cinema shows regular screenings, but entry costs an additional five euros per film. Nightly entertainment in the theater includes magicians, dancers, singers, and Broadway revues of a high standard. The nightclub features plentiful late-night dancing with an erotic twist.
Relaxation comes easy on the ship with wide decks proving a popular spot for sightseeing or smoking. The beauty parlor offers hair styling, facials, and massage services with a window-lined treatment room facing the water. On deck two, an indoor swimming pool provides a saltwater plunge with high walls to prevent splashing plus two whirlpools. Four saunas are available, two of which can be rented privately for families or small groups (Finland is a port of call, after all) with separate changing areas and showers. Lounge chairs on deck are typically available except during colder months when guests often choose to read by the panoramic windows of the central lobby area as the scenery passes by. There is little worry for icebergs as the ship is classified as an icebreaker itself.
Conference space is available in boardrooms or theater-style with amenities like wireless high speed Internet, audiovisual capabilities, and printing services available. Two cinemas keep guests entertained if they wish. The large duty-free store is especially popular with Russians who can buy vodka tax-free. A supervised children’s club, casino and business center are also on hand, and reception is always available to assist with excursions or transportation needs at any of the ports of call.
Guest rooms are arranged on decks 2, 4, 5 and 6 with a select number of Deluxe cabins on deck 8 with windows overlooking the water and the main deck and suites located on deck six. No cabin has a private balcony, but a third of the rooms have windows looking outside. All rooms feature comfortable twin beds pushed together or pulled apart with duvets and plump pillows. Flat-screen TVs and work desks in corners keep guests entertained. Small sitting areas, minibars, and closet space are available. Baths are standard cruise ship-size with showers, plentiful toiletries and towels, and hairdryers.
Class E is the smallest and most economical with two single beds and ensuite shower. Class B is the same size, but features bunk beds to accommodate a total of four people. Both are interior-view cabins. Class A is also similar in size to the lower categories, but adds an exterior window, which does wonders in these cramped quarters. The A Deluxe category is the next grade up and adds more living space plus an armchair. Commodore cabins feature the same amenities as suites, but are slightly smaller. Suites have plentiful closet space, larger bathrooms with L’Occitane toiletries, robes, slippers, complimentary minibars, and sitting areas.
Guests on board use Anastasia for multiple purposes: some use it as an affordable and relaxing means of transportation between countries while tourists use it as a visa-free opportunity to visit Russia affordably for up to three days. The cruise line does not claim to be Royal Caribbean, but it does have plans to renovate its ships to even more upscale standards. The bargain price and lack of Russian visa make St. Peter’s Anastasia one of the best deals for sailing the Baltic year-round.