Ukraine's past, present on an Imperial sailing

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The 260-passenger Dnieper Princess was built in East Germany in 1976.
The 260-passenger Dnieper Princess was built in East Germany in 1976.
My family and friends were apprehensive when I told them I'd be spending eight days on a river cruise in Ukraine, given their association of the region with the 2014 annexation crisis in Crimea.


However, my experience cruising the Dnieper River from Odessa to Kiev, on a trip sponsored by Imperial River Cruises and Ukraine International Airlines, should reassure any American interested in touring the destination.

When our group arrived at the airport in Odessa, we were ferried by bus through darkened city streets (illuminated occasionally by strings of multicolored lights) to the four-star Hotel Ayvazovsky, where we enjoyed a late-night spread of snacks and drinks. Early the next morning, we set out for the harbor, where we joined a crowd of German, Swiss and French tourists aboard the Dnieper Princess.

A twin cabin aboard the Dnieper Princess, with its combined shower/sink.

Kitschy and compact

The Princess has a kitschy charm that won me over. Built in East Germany in 1976, the four-deck, 260-passenger vessel was designed with efficiency top of mind. Travelers accustomed to the upscale amenities of Western European river cruises will find that the comparably spartan accommodations on the Dnieper Princess are the trade-off for a unique itinerary to a less-traveled part of the world.

The snug rooms are remarkably comfortable and come equipped with a combined shower/sink reminiscent of a Tokyo studio apartment. The junior suites, renovated in 2008, offer a roomier design, complete with a queen-size bed and standalone shower in addition to a wall-mounted TV.

Onboard dining adheres to a fixed schedule and features standard continental cuisine. I'll admit to wanting a better representation of local fare, but the desserts in particular were often a delightfully whimsical highlight, such as a chilled poppy seed torte served with raspberry coulis and a mint leaf.

One of the marvels of our itinerary was the incredible food ashore. Stewed rabbit, grilled steak, artisanal breads and decadent pastries could all be found for astonishingly little at the upscale restaurants and shops dotting the wide boulevards and backstreets of Odessa and Kiev. At local markets, excellent sparkling wines, cognacs and vodkas could be fetched for less than $10 a bottle.

A junior suite offers a queen-size bed, standalone shower and other upgrades.

Odessa art and architecture

Our two-day stay in Odessa provided a perfect taste of the city's treasures for the culturally curious. At the Odessa Art Museum, I was delighted to see national treasure Ivan Aivazovksy's 19th century shoreview seascapes, nearly photorealistic oil paintings that rival J.M. Turner's in their Romantic beauty.

Walking around the city, Odessa's mishmash of Soviet and European architecture moves between art nouveau, neobaroque and Stalinist, recalling the city and country's fascinating history.

The Opera and Ballet Theater in Odessa, a soaring 19th century masterpiece of Italian baroque architecture. Photo Credit: Eric Newman

A case in point is the Opera and Ballet Theater, a soaring 19th century masterpiece of Italian baroque architecture, where we saw a ballet interpretation of Bizet's "Carmen." Exiting the theater at twilight, one felt the clash of periods as a horse-drawn carriage fought its way through the chaos of tiny modern cars and pedestrians peering into mobile phones while sculptures of Melpomene, Orpheus and Terpischore looked on from the portico.

As the Dnieper Princess wound toward the less populous destinations of Kherson, the Dnieper Delta and Zaporizhia, it revealed a bevy of delightful shops, restaurants, cafes and historical sites. During a stop in Kherson, I tagged along with a Russophile from Memphis to the Church of St. Catherine -- it helps to have a Russian-speaking companion outside of major cities -- where Grigory Potemkin is supposedly buried.

We were so engrossed in the Orthodox church's architecture, history and mystique that we nearly missed our departure, arriving only minutes before disembarkation. The good-humored staff informed us that our "punishment" would be performing, in tutus and makeshift hair bows, the theme from "Swan Lake" at that evening's "Neptune Show," a sort of follies that drew talent, liberally defined, from the guests. While I doubt there are any auditions in my future, the experience made for good conversation over cocktails at the onboard bar.

Performers in traditional garb on the Dnieper Delta. Photo Credit: Eric Newman

Fanfare in Kiev

Our arrival in Kiev was perhaps the most dramatic of all. Pedestrians looked on from the harbor, flanked by a small brass band playing the songs of Ukrainian composer Vlodymyr Ivasyuk. As soon as we'd touched the dock, a blur of TV cameras and reporters zoomed to the top deck, eager to interview guests about their experience on the first river cruise to arrive in Kiev since 2014.

"Today, it's something like a celebration," our tour guide, Natalia, explained. "The first ship has come to Kiev. For us, it's everything."

Kiev bears witness to the push and pull between the past, present and future that defines modern life in Ukraine, where pre-independence buildings and centuries-old cathedrals sit next to towering glass-and-steel hotels and office buildings. Steps from the majesty of St. Sofia's Cathedral, which offers incredible city views from its highest tower, were signs for the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest hosted in Kiev a week before our arrival.

Hanging at the coffee shops in Upper Town and riding the funicular down to the port provided an excellent feel for everyday life in the capital, while our relaxing evening cruise along the riverbank provided a scenic sweep of Kiev over a glass of Champagne.

 A city to relish, guided tours to the various churches were a treat for religious and secular audiences, testaments to how faith culture survived the socialist period. Particularly stunning was the campus of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, a monastery founded by St. Anthony in 1051 that features an extensive network of underground caves where hermit monks once took up residence; it later became a catacomb hosting the Lavra's honored dead.

After two days of touring Kiev, we headed out in the early morning to catch our flight back to the U.S., heads filled with memories and hearts yearning for more.

Fares start at $1,500 for an eight-day Odessa-to-Kiev cruise, $2,300 for a 12-day Kiev-Odessa-Fetesi (Romania) cruise and $2,400 for a 13-day Kiev-Odessa-Kiev cruise. Commissions range from 12% to 15%, and from 18% to 25% for groups.

For more details and booking information, go to http://imperialrivercruises.com/cruises/ukrainian-waterways.

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