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