Peterhof to ply Russia's Volga waterway

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NEW YORK -- The Peterhof, the second "deluxe" river ship to cruise the Volga waterway between Moscow and St. Petersburg, will be introduced next year.

A church in YaroslavlThe 180-passenger vessel, formerly a hotel ship docked in St. Petersburg, will follow in the footsteps of its sister vessel, the 250-passenger Kirov. That ship was touted as the first Western-managed ship on the Volga, when it debuted in the early 1990s. Both ships are owned by Viking River Cruises, a European firm staffed by former executives of the Royal Viking cruise line.

In March, Viking River Cruises purchased the ships, which cater to Americans, as well as two other vessels that serve the European market. These are the only ships of the two dozen that ply the Volga that are owned outright by non-Russian companies. The new ownership is likely to assure a high quality of service, according to industry sources. (Most other vessels on the Volga are chartered and managed by non-Russian European or American companies, which co-own the ships with Russian partners ).

The Volga cruises are a leading Russian attraction, drawing more than 100,000 Americans to the region annually. They have shown significant growth since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as many tourists feel more secure exploring the country by boat than by land.

The river ships of the Volga, built in the early 1980s in East German shipyards, are nearly identical in their design. They vary in their degree of renovation and quality. Importing European staff, cuisine and furnishings has raised the quality of some vessels, despite the fact that their cabins remain tiny. Itineraries range from nine to 12 nights and include stops at some of Russia's most picturesque ports, such as Kizhi Island, Uglich and Yaroslavl.

Significant changes are under way that will affect the positioning of the Kirov and the Peterhof. Leisure Voyages in San Francisco (formerly Leisure Cruises) was the general sales agent for the Kirov but will instead sell and manage the Peterhof next year, in cooperation with Viking River Cruises.

The Peterhof will be extensively refurbished for the 1999 cruise season, according to Tony Santa Maria, Leisure Voyages' inside sales manager. The color scheme of the ship will remain the same, Santa Maria said. The Peterhof is swathed in mauve and aqua; the Kirov is upholstered in beige and brown. Part of the refurbishment will consist of converting 12 standard cabins with twin beds into six deluxe cabins with queen beds.

Santa Maria said the Peterhof is a few years older than the Kirov, but it has been refurbished more often and is, in his opinion, more upscale than the Kirov. Both ships have two dining rooms, but the Peterhof features two galleys instead of one, which Santa Maria said will ensure that food is served hot. There are telephones in every cabin, an unusual feature for a Volga river ship. Prices start at $2,200, double, for the 11-night cruise.

Leisure Voyages, Phone: (800) 392-9888 or (415) 673-9625, Fax: (415) 673-9940

For 1999, the Kirov will be chartered by Uniworld in Encino, Calif., which will have a key role in the ship's management. Serba Ilich, president of Uniworld, said the ship's itinerary will change from 10- and 11-night cruises to 12-night sailings. The Kirov will spend three nights in Moscow, three nights in St. Petersburg and six nights cruising, giving passengers more time in the big cities as part of the cruise package. "We will also make the food more American and less European, in keeping with what we offer on the Krasin," Ilich said, referring to another ship operated by Uniworld on the Volga.

The 1998 starting price of $2,398, double, for the cruise will remain unchanged for 1999, despite the extra day, according to Ilich. Excursions, such as a Moscow circus performance or a tour of Zagorsk, will be included in the price.

Another first for the Kirov will be the creation of six deluxe cabins, a reconfiguring of 12 standard cabins. The ship also will offer two suites, which will equal the space of 3.5 standard cabins. The cabin size changes are marketing advantages for the sister vessels. Nearly all competitors' cabins on the Volga have one or two single beds. The new deluxe cabins and suites will have queen-size beds and much more space.

Uniworld, Phone: (800) 733-7820 or (818) 382-7820, Fax: (818) 382-7829

Smaller Volga ports hold historical, architectural attractions

Where do Volga River cruises go? In addition to Moscow and St. Petersburg, ports along the river include the following:

  • Valaam. The main attraction here on this Lake Ladoga island is the 800-year-old Transfiguration of Our Savior Monastery.
  • Kizhi. Another island, this time on Lake Onega, Kizhi boasts one of Russia's most stunning architectural feats: the wooden, 22-domed Church of the Transfiguration, which was built without nails.
  • Yaroslavl. This city, dating back 10 centuries, is famous for the frescoes in its churches, such as those found in the 17th century Church of Elijah the Prophet.
  • Uglich. Russian crown prince Dmitry was murdered here in 1591 at the Church of St. Demitrus on the Blood.
  • Nizhni Novgorod. Closed to foreigners until 1990, Nizhni once was home to dissident Andrei Sakharov. The 13th century city has a bustling pedestrian thoroughfare, Sverdlov Street, and the rainbow-domed Stroganov Church.
  • Kazan. The 16th century kremlin (citadel) here has three soaring towers ranging from 147 feet to 180 feet tall.
  • Plyos. Russia's "green city" is filled with parks that inspired one of the country's most admired landscape painters, Issak Levitan.
  • Kostroma. Besides being home to Ipatiev Monastery, where the Godunov family are buried, Kostroma has several examples of outstanding 18th century architecture.
  • Perm. Anna Pavlova, the famous ballerina, hails from Perm. The State Picture Gallery has an outstanding collection of icons and sculpture.
  • Operators package Peterhof sailings

    Volga River cruises aboard the Peterhof will be packaged by several operators next year, including General Tours and Eurocruises. The cruises are operated from mid-May through early October.

    General Tours in Keene, N.H., which also sells the Kirov, the Peterhof's sister ship, is offering a deluxe cruise/land option on the Peterhof. General's Imperial Experience gives clients six nights aboard the Peterhof along with stays at deluxe hotels in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The air-inclusive price starts at $3,799, double. General Tours, Phone: (800) 221-2216

    Eurocruises, based here, is offering a 12-night trip priced from $2,995, double, on the Peterhof, including air and a stay in Helsinki, Finland. Phone: (800) 688-3876

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