Owned and operated by Russians, Vodohod is all about providing an authentic and in-depth experience of local life and culture to help passengers learn and understand more about Russia -- which the majority of people onboard will not have visited before. There is an excellent shore excursion program that covers a lot of ground. In Moscow and Saint Petersburg, passengers can expect to be out for a full day, with lunch provided at a restaurant. Daily excursions are all included in the fare and, depending on the itinerary, there might be a couple of optional for-fee trips such as a tour of Saint Petersburg by night or seeing a ballet. These excursions are individually priced and the cost can be found in the daily program.
Tours are escorted by the English-speaking host, who provides an overview of the morning, afternoon or full day ahead. On arrival at the destination, they are led by very well-versed local guides. All excursions are conducted with audio headsets so passengers can hear what the guide is saying without having to cluster around. Listening devices are handed out and collected at the start and finish of each excursion. Ear pieces are handed out at the beginning of the cruise and passengers keep these for the duration. Alternatively, they can use their own ear pieces if they have them.
Independently minded passengers are also free to explore by themselves and the host can help with maps, directions, public transport tips and maps.
Walking tours are divided into different language groups and are conducted at a leisurely pace. The host's briefing will include a breakdown of how much time is spent on the bus and how much time is devoted to walking. The tours typically visit major monuments, museums, galleries and places of interest and, being in Russia, many cathedrals, churches and monasteries that contain ancient icons.
Every time passengers leave the vessel, they hand in their individual keycards at the reception desk and these are replaced with boarding cards that contain useful information on the ship's docking location in Moscow and Saint Petersburg along with the telephone number.
It is worth noting that it is useful to carry some small change on excursions as there is a charge for most restrooms -- usually 20 rubles -- including those at museums and other tourist attractions that you might normally expect to be free.
Complimentary bottles of still water -- two per cabin -- are replenished daily and can be taken on excursions. In between times they can be refilled from the water cooler next to the tea and coffee station. On return from shore tours, passengers are given hot towels and a refreshing juice.
Daytime and Evening Entertainment
Unlike most mainland European river cruises where the onboard entertainment is pretty tame and low-key, on MS Rostropovich it is outstanding. This is due to the fact that the ship sails after dark and is not moored in ports of call overnight, aside from the days spent in Moscow and Saint Petersburg on itineraries longer than seven nights. There's a very talented resident pianist who plays nightly in the River Melody Bar as well as joining other entertainers for after dinner concerts in the Conference Hall.
Also onboard during our cruise were the Moskovia Folk Band, including an extremely accomplished female balalaika player joined by an accordionist and vocalist. The trio staged several themed concerts such as Russian and Roma music. For those with any energy left after the shore excursions, the Diamant Duet, a singer and keyboard player, performed international pop hits and modern dance music each night in the Conference Hall, which has a dance floor, at around 10:30 p.m. that kept the night owls happy (on many river cruises passengers are in bed by this time and a common complaint from those who want to burn the midnight oil is that there is nothing to do). The Conference Hall is also used as a movie theater.
There are also quizzes, bingo, a treasure hunt, visit to the bridge and light-hearted events such as a napkin-folding demonstration and matryoshka doll-painting session with a prize for the best doll voted for by passengers.
A small library of novels in different languages can be found in the Conference Hall. A games room is directly opposite the gym on the Sun Deck, with floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides. It has two tables and 16 chairs and a variety of board games and jigsaw puzzles. There is also a flat-screen TV mounted on the wall.
This is another area where MS Rostropovich scores top marks. In fact, it was the most culturally enriching cruise we have ever experienced and provided a really authentic and in-depth insight into many aspects of Russian life. The daily program featured up to seven activities per day including Russian language lessons, a class on how to prepare Russian dumplings, a memorable poetry recital featuring works by Alexander Pushkin set against live piano music and talks on Russian art and fairy tales. Members of the onboard entertainment team also hosted singing and dance classes. Particularly exceptional were the series of illustrated lectures on Russian history by university professor Vladimir Kalmykov. He presented insightful talks on Russian history from the founding of the country to the present day. All lessons and talks included printed handouts for passengers to take home.
Additionally, the English-speaking host provided an overview of various excursions and highlights during the trip and passengers can listen to information about the sailing route on the in-cabin radio. A recap of the following day's schedule is also featured in the daily program left in the cabin each night during evening turn-down service.
Conference Hall/Maestro Lounge (Main Deck): Situated aft on the lower Main Deck, this bar serves the venue that is also known as the Maestro Lounge. It is set out theater-style with rows of seats, enough to seat all passengers on the vessel. There are also six tables, with four chairs at each, down one side of the room and a further five stools at the bar. The bar is open when the room is used for briefings and entertainment and it is also the venue for the captain's welcome cocktail. It serves the same drinks menu as in the main River Melody Bar (see below).
River Melody Bar (Boat Deck): The combined lounge bar is located forward on the Boat Deck. Overlooking the ship's bow, and with large panoramic windows on three sides, it is a comfortable room with a mix of sofas, armchairs and higher seats surrounding tables with a couple of pillars and a low shelf with floral arrangements in the center that divides the room into two halves. It is decorated in shades of brown, taupe, green and turquoise. The small bar, with three stools, is situated on one side of the door into the room and on the opposite side is a piano and wall-mounted flat-screen TV, which is switched on at passengers' request and also used to illustrate lectures.
Unusually for a main lounge there are not enough seats -- around 60 in total -- to accommodate all passengers at one time. However, this never caused a problem on our cruise and at any time of the day and night, including during talks and entertainment, there was always seating available. There is also an outdoor terrace with two tables and 20 chairs, which is a lovely spot to lounge on sunny days.
The bar is open from 8 a.m. until midnight, although it should be noted that it shuts when lunch and dinner is served and during these times drinks can be ordered from wait staff in the restaurants. Drink prices start at 100 rubles for a small fruit juice and 120 rubles for coffee and still or sparkling water. Cocktails range from 350 to 420 rubles and Russian beer starts at 230 rubles. Needless to say, there is an extensive list of vodka priced from 210 rubles for a shot. Imported drinks, such as Jack Daniel's Tennessee priced at 390 rubles, are more expensive. Wine is priced from 300 rubles a glass and the list includes Russian, French, German, Italian, Spanish and South African wines. Bottles range from 1,400 rubles for the Villa Felice red and white house wine from Georgia to 3,200 rubles for Tenuta Sassoregale Sangiovese from Italy. The extensive bar menu also includes specialty lemonades, such as citrus and honey, pear and caramel, and raspberry and passionfruit, costing from 280 rubles. There is a daily cocktail, flagged up on the bar each morning, with a 20 percent discount.
The public area of the Sun Deck, called the Solarium, occupies an area situated aft (the rest of the upper deck is an enclosed cabin area and the section in front of the bridge is not open to passengers). It is a sunny, open space accessed by a small ramp. The decking material replicates a wooden deck and it is set out with five all-weather tables, each with four chairs, and 30 loungers. The area is not large enough for a walking track and there is no other outside recreation.
The main doors on the Main Deck, the lowest of the four passenger decks, lead into the lobby and the airy three-deck atrium topped by a round trompe l'oeil depicting the sky. On one side is the reception desk, which is manned from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. If passengers have an emergency or need to call the reception outside these hours, they can dial the number shown on the telephone in their cabin. Next to the reception is a TV with a real-time map showing the ship's position and, on the opposite wall, information is posted daily on the weather and the time passengers need to be back aboard. Further information on the destinations being visited is posted on the wall at the entrance to the cabin corridor next to the reception desk.
There are three tables and 14 chairs in the reception area, which are useful for passengers that want to use the Wi-Fi as the reception area is one of the three hotspots on the vessel. Postcards, stamps and envelopes can be purchased from the reception desk and mail will be sent from the nearest port.
Opposite the reception is a boutique selling an attractive range of accessories, including scarves, jewelry, hats, Vodohod logowear and Russian souvenirs like amber, lacquered boxes, shawls and, of course, colorful matryoshka nesting dolls. Two spiral staircases are situated on either side of the lobby and respectively lead to the Middle and Boat Deck cabins and public areas.
Wi-Fi is free of charge and available, subject to connectivity, in the area around the reception desk, River Melody Bar and tea and coffee station. It is not available in cabins or any other areas. In common with all river cruises, connection is not guaranteed and there might be times when it is slow or nonexistent. It tends to work best near large cities. Passengers are given a login name and password on embarkation and there is no limit to the number of devices that can be used per passenger. After the first login, passengers are automatically logged in to the Wi-Fi when they switch on their smartphones or devices and there is no need to re-enter the password.
Two onboard photographers take still and video images throughout the cruise. Individual photos, in three sizes, can be purchased for 300 to 450 rubles, or $5 to $7, (cash only) by filling in the order form left by the tea and coffee station. A film of the cruise can be ordered from the reception desk priced at 2,000 rubles or $35 for a DVD and 2,700 rubles or $45 for a USB memory stick. Again, these have to be paid for in cash.
A laundry service is available and passengers leave items in their cabin in the bag provided in the closet. Charges for washing and ironing range from 100 rubles for socks to 400 rubles for pants. A pressing service is also available, with prices ranging from 50 to 200 rubles. Laundry is returned within 24 hours. It should be noted that laundry charges cannot be added to the onboard account and must be paid in rubles to the cabin attendant after receiving the clothes. A useful facility, and a rarity on most river vessels, is an ironing room. Situated toward the back of the ship on the Middle Deck, it contains a wash basin, two irons and two ironing boards. It is open 24/7 and is free of charge.
It is worth noting that MS Rostropovich has an elevator that serves all four passenger decks, which is very unusual for a rivership where the top deck is usually only accessible by stairs. Again, this is down to the fact that the height of Russian ships is not restricted by low bridges and is a boon to any passengers with mobility issues who want to be able to access the Sun Deck with ease.
The ship has a resident doctor who is available 24/7. Emergency onboard medical treatment is free and further treatment incurs a charge. If medical conditions require further treatment ashore or hospitalization, the doctor will call a taxi or ambulance for transportation to a clinic or hospital. While treatments are available free of charge at Russian state medical institutions, other hospitals and private clinics charge a fee so it is imperative to take out medical insurance prior to travel. In the case of short term medical treatment ashore (one or two nights), Vodohod arranges transportation to enable passengers to catch up with the ship.
Ice is freely available from the River Melody Bar during opening times.
Smoking is allowed on a designated area on the Sun Deck.
The ship has a small air-conditioned gym located in the indoor section of the upper deck. Open 24/7, it has floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows on three sides and the exercise machines overlook the river. There is a treadmill, upright bicycle and step machine. There are also three pairs of free weights, in assorted sizes, a hula hoop and exercise mats. Towels, water and wipes are provided and there are two weighing scales.
There are no spa facilities.
Vodohod attracts an international audience and -- unusually for river cruising -- a wide spread of ages. Although the cruises are not directly marketed for families, and there are no onboard facilities or specific activities for children, there were several multigenerational families on our cruise and the kids included a baby, 3-year-old along with older teenagers and young people in their 20s. The size of MS Rostropovich also provides more space for small children to roam around without being a nuisance to other passengers. Based on the youngsters on our cruise, the itinerary would appeal to families with children who would be excited by the exotic nature of the destination and not get bored walking around cathedrals and museums (there is always the option to dip out of excursions but this would mean parents or relatives missing out).