Monday, September 26, 2011

SPb Tours in St. Petersburg

 The fountains at Peterhof

I was very excited when I looked over the itinerary of our Baltic cruise. Except for Copenhagen, I hadn't been to any of the places on the list: Warnemunde (Germany), Tallin (Estonia), St. Petersburg, Helsinki and Stockholm.  I immediately went on "trip-research mode" starting with  From  the discussion groups on that site, I learned that the only port where a tour guide was needed was St. Petersburg.  The rest of the ports are supposedly easy to navigate on our own either on foot or with the hop-on, hop-off transport in the cities.
The Bronze Horseman--Monument to Peter the Great, founder of St. Petersburg
All the ports on this Baltic itinerary are covered by the Shengen visa, except for St. Petersburg. For Russia, you need a separate visa. The information given by the cruise line says that you don't need to get a separate visa if you book the St. Petersburg shore excursion with them, because they have a visa exemption for their passengers. What they don't specifically point out is that all passengers are covered by a 72-hour visa exemption if they can show they have pre-booked a tour with a locally registered tour operator.
 This is the Tallin port. The St. Petersburg port is brand new and modern.

With tons of cruise ships now visiting St. Petersburg, there are also many thriving local tour operators focusing on this specific market. Some of the companies that get mentioned a lot on the online boards are SPb, Alla and Red October.

I shot off an email to each of these companies, and the first to respond was SPb. After a few weeks and numerous emails back and forth with Evan, I finally booked a 2-day St. Petersburg tour for our whole group. We didn't need to make a down payment--in fact, we were requested to pay for the tour only on the morning of the second day. With our own tour group, we were able to customize our tours, stop when we wanted and do a few extra things.

We were a big group of 27 people which had to be split into two smaller groups because of differing interests. It worked out because the vehicles of SPb maxed at 16 passengers. This could've been a complicated operation, but Evan had this "yes-we-can-do-that" attitude in all his emails.  So impressed was I with his superior command of English, that I suspect he is actually an American or Englishman posing as a Russian.

In our own executive-type vehicle, we visited as many sights as we could squeeze into two full days : the gardens of Peterhof, Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin,  Yusupov’s Palace, the Hermitage, Peter and Paul’s fortress and the Church of the Spilled Blood. We also got to experience a ride on the Russian subway, visit a typical food market, and stop at souvenir shops.

Our guide in St. Petersburg was Luba, who is originally from Siberia. She was very knowledgeable and  articulate--and was also easy going and funny. Her English was impeccable. To use the cliche--she was a fountain of knowledge, and kept prodding us to ask more questions about St. Petersburg. Everything was so unfamiliar to me, that it was hard for me to put into words the many questions I had in my mind. Mostly I was taking in everything Luba was saying, trying to imagine how a regular Russian survived with all this hardship. What I found most interesting were her own experiences as a university student during the cold war and other stories of her family.

With a local tour operator that focuses on smaller groups, we got personalized service and (being with a group of all hardworking entrepreneurs) everyone was thrilled to have saved a substantial amount of money. This exact tour would've cost much more with the ship's shore excursion, and we wouldn't have been as flexible either.

In fairness to the cruise line and their tour options, they had one tour which was exclusive only to  cruise line passengers--the Hermitage Night Tour. The Hermitage stays open on some nights only for these cruise line tours. Half of the  group signed up for this night tour (In addition to their 2-day SPb tour without the Hermitage visit) because they didn't want to battle the day crowds at the museum.

 The Hermitage Museum

Meanwhile, our half of the group went with the complete SPb program which included some highlights of the Hermitage and found it sufficient. Luba knew how to maneuver the crowd, and as a "group tour", we never had to wait in line for more than 5 minutes. On the evening our friends were soaking up more culture on their night tour, we took the opportunity to dine at Sadko, one of St. Petersburg's local restaurants. It was an experience I fully enjoyed.

St. Isaac's Cathedral at night

It turns out SPb is considered a "new" tour operator since they have been only in operation for 4 years. The owner, Viktoria Rother, has been a tourguide herself for 19 years and is a hands-on owner.  I know from the information I gathered online that her husband runs the business in Berlin, allowing Viktoria to offer tours in both St. Petersburg and Berlin (and now Tallin and Helsinki too).
On the second and last day, Viktoria made it a point to meet us, to thank us for visiting St. Petersburg,  and for booking with SPb. It was nice to finally meet the entrepreneur behind this well-run operation.
The Hermitage has amazing interiors, lots of it patterned after the Vatican museum

I would highly recommend SPb. It's good to know that there are options aside from the shore excursions of the ship.  I think too that independent tour companies tend to bend over backwards to delight their customers. Unlike cruiseship tours, their success really depends on word of mouth and the reviews people give them.

And even if all things were equal with all those offering similar tours, I'm more than happy to support an entrepreneur who's hands-on, and shows that she really cares about her customers. I think Russia needs more entrepreneurs like Viktoria.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was very happy to find your blog. I am about to cruise to the Baltics and have been looking into alternatives to my ships excursions which are extremely expensive. I have been e mailing back an forth with Viktoria and now, due to your post, I am definitely going to book with them. Thank you and, by the way ,your photos are beautiful!


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