As my ship arrived in St Petersburg, I felt excited but nervous. It was my first visit to Russia and, like anyone who grew up during the Cold War, I remember when the Soviet Union was our greatest enemy.
But there was another reason to be worried: I was taking advantage of a new loophole that allows people to visit Russia without a visa ... as long as you arrive by ship.
Even though I had been told it was perfectly legal, I couldn’t help feeling the KGB were going to arrest me at any moment. I didn’t fancy being sent to a gulag just because my travel documents weren’t in order. Of course, I needn’t have worried - everything about my journey to Russia worked smoothly.
The city-break cruise to St Petersburg is run by the Russian St Peter Line. It is making the most of this little-noticed change that allows visa-free visits of up to 72 hours for passengers arriving by ship.
Why was I so keen to avoid the official paperwork? Well, a visa usually costs up to £210 (about R2 500) - and can take weeks to sort out. Using St Peter Line, visitors can decide at the last moment to hop on a regular sailing from Stockholm, Helsinki or Tallinn, and stay in Russia for up to two nights before sailing back. All you need is your passport.
St Peter offers cruises plus stays in stylish St Petersburg hotels.
I flew to Helsinki to join the line’s Princess Maria, leaving the Finnish capital at 7pm and arriving in St Petersburg at 9.30am. I noted that my ship and her sister vessel, the Anastasia, were named after the daughters of the last Russian tsar, who were murdered by the Bolshevik secret police after the Revolution. This was a sign that the new Russia has revised its views on its own history.
Princess Maria carries vehicles and up to 1,600 passengers, and has a few cruise-ship features: an entertainment lounge, casino, tax-free shop, cinema, sauna and even a small swimming pool deep in the bowels of the ship. However, cabins are basic by cruise standards but plush compared to a ferry. Fortunately the prices are more like ferries too.
Many of the passengers on board were Russians returning from shopping trips to Finland. The women all wore heavy make-up while the men were thick-set, scruffy and often seemed the worse for wear. That’s one good reason not to opt for the budget-price ticket - as it puts you in a four-berth cabin alongside three strangers.
On-board entertainment included a cabaret and Amazonian blondes in satin hot pants miming traditional balalaika tunes, while the buffet was an interesting mix of fresh seafood and local specialities, although they were mostly disgusting. Being Russia, there are, of course, bureaucratic restrictions. Part of the visa-free deal is that visitors must take an official bus tour. St Peter Line bypasses this restriction by using an “official” shuttle bus to take passengers from the dockside to the city centre.
Once in St Petersburg, there was so much to see that I felt 72 hours wasn’t enough. I could have spent all that time in the Hermitage, the world’s largest museum containing more than three million items.
I also loved wandering around the shops, bars, restaurants and cafes. In one shoe shop I found a fabulous string quartet serenading shoppers with Tchaikovsky.
The old orthodox churches were fascinating too. One was packed with worshippers listening to atmospheric chanting. In another I saw a collection of photographs of priests who had been murdered by the KGB. And, most typical of the new Russia, I popped inside another church to find noisy teenagers watching a gymnastics display.
I was having a great time but as I walked past a group of armed soldiers in greatcoats and fur hats, I tried not to catch their eyes. I didn’t want them to ask to see my visa ...
St Peter Line (stpeterline.com) offers three sailings a week from Helsinki to St Petersburg, which can be taken along with one or two-night hotel packages. An additional sailing calls at Stockholm, Tallinn in Estonia and St Petersburg.
Prices start at £20 for a one-way crossing from Helsinki to St Petersburg in a shared cabin below the car deck. At the other end of the scale, a two-berth cabin on an upper deck costs £133.
St Peter Line hotel and cruise packages cost from £220 per person for two nights in St Petersburg. - Daily Mail