ONBOARD THE VIKING PAKHOMOV -- It's unlikely you're going to read about a newly built river cruise ship on Russia's Volga-Baltic waterway anytime soon. The Russian government has put a cap on river cruise ship construction due to high traffic along the country's rivers, according to Stephen Busch, hotel manager of Viking River Cruises' newly renovated Viking Pakhomov.
So, the Pakhomov, a 210-passenger ship that recently underwent a hull-to-stern gut renovation and was relaunched this year, is about the closest you're going to get to a new vessel in Russia. And anyway, Busch said, it wouldn't be worth it for Viking to build a ship like the Pakhomov, with its solid steel construction, manufactured in the former East Germany. This ship, he said, has lasted 25 years, and it will easily sail for another 50. (View a slideshow of the ship by clicking here or on the photo at left.)
But given that this is a country whose river cruise industry was once defined by uncomfortable cots and marinated vegetables presented as a dinner salad, the results of Viking's investment in the Pakhomov bring the vessel much closer to the standards being set by the booming Western European river cruise market.
The Pakhomov has a simple Scandinavian freshness to it. The decor is not over the top but rather pared down, clean and modern, accented by wood features and warm tones of brown and red. All it takes is a trip through one of the older Russian river vessels, with their Soviet-era interiors and furnishings, to see the difference between the new Russian river cruising market and Russian river cruising of yesterday. (It was, in fact, very apparent to passengers embarking and disembarking the Pakhomov, as we were often alongside other river cruise ships in port.)
This season, Viking supplemented its Russian staff with workers from Indonesia, whose bright smiles and general friendliness have been very well received by many of the passengers. And the cuisine is a combination of Western and Russian fare, with comfort options that are hard to obtain this far east, such as steel-cut oatmeal. The breakfast and lunch buffets are complemented with table-service menu options, and dinner is a sit-down, three- to four-course meal with complimentary wine.
A new interior and service aside, though, it's also important to note in the wake of the tragic sinking of the Bulgaria, a vessel that went down in June on the Volga River, 450 miles east of Moscow, killing at least 114 passengers, the Viking Pakhomov also appears to be a safe and well-equipped vessel.
Immediately following the sinking of the Bulgaria, Russian authorities inspected Viking's four owned-and-operated Russian river cruise vessels, said Dmitry Ryabov, general director of the Russian fleet. "But there was no need to inspect them," he said matter-of-factly.
Ryabov said that despite what appears to have been little oversight in the case of the outdated, overcrowded Bulgaria, Viking's ships are inspected regularly.
In fact, he said, "Russian regulators are very strict," stricter, he claimed, than in other countries in Europe.
I could be wrong, but the Pakhomov, with its pristine wheelhouse chock-full of high-tech navigation equipment and shiny lifeboats hanging off the sides, instills confidence that this vessel is in a whole other league safety-wise than the Bulgaria.
Indeed, Viking's entire Russian operation appears to be a well-oiled machine. Viking has been in this market for more than a decade, and with four vessels running up and down the Volga between May and October, you get the sense that Viking knows what it's doing in the Russian river market.
And Viking isn't the only Western operator anymore. This year, Uniworld River Cruises and Ama Waterways entered the market with one leased vessel each. But Viking executives who have observed the new entrants into the market with their equally spiffy new interiors said they welcomed the competition.
As for the itinerary, the classic route is between St. Petersburg and Moscow, with several days of sailing in between, visiting small villages and churches along the way. But perhaps if Viking can find another ship to expand its fleet, it will explore a longer route that extends south of Moscow to the Caspian Sea, something the company tried to do a couple years ago.