by Alice McNutt Miller
Day 7-St. Petersburg
Today is my birthday! What a great place to spend it in. We arrived in (sunny and hot!) St. Petersburg at about 12:30 p.m., but because our excursion was not leaving until 4:30 p.m., we took our time over lunch at Topsider's and took the opportunity to do a couple of loads of laundry. I must say here that the laundry situation on a longer cruise is a bit difficult. There are lots of guests vying for limited laundry facilities, and sometimes things become not so magical. Arggghhh!
Anyhoo, after a leisurely afternoon at the pool, we headed down to our stateroom at about 3:30 to change into our formal finery for our excursion "Royal Ball at Catherine's Palace." This was the excursion that we were most looking forward to, and it did not disappoint. We met for the excursion in Rockin' Bar D, and walked down to the gangway and off of the ship to go through Russian immigration. This was the only port of the cruise where we were required to go through immigration and customs in order to enter the country. Russia also requires that every visitor has a visa, so the easiest way to do this port was through the Disney excursions, where all of the visa requirements were taken care of. We did meet lots of other folks who did their excursions through local Russian tour companies, which also took care of this detail.
After an hour and a half bus ride to the St. Petersburg suburb of Pushkin, we arrived at Catherine's Palace (to great fanfare!). The palace was built for Catherine I (not Catherine the Great) by her husband, Peter the Great. The first thing we noticed about the Palace was its intense robin's egg blue hue. Oh, and lots of gold.
The palace was destroyed during the Second World War, when it was occupied by the Nazis, and was only recently restored for St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary in 2003. In fact, it was so extensively restored that it can almost be considered to be "new." When we arrived, we headed to one of the out buildings for some light hors d'oeuvres before heading to the palace.
After the hors d'oeuvres and a bathroom break, we walked to the entrance of the palace. It was breathtaking and spectacular.
Then, the Princesses arrived in horse-drawn carriages. There were Belle, Aurora, Cinderella, Snow White and Tiana. The scene was truly regal, and was what everyone on the excursion was waiting for.
After the Princesses entered the Palace, the rest of us followed in our smaller groups with our guides. We were asked to don cute blue paper booties over our shoes to protect the wood parquet floors, and were told that unlike most visitors to the palace we would be allowed to take pictures in every room, including the famed amber room.
There were adorable Russian children playing musical instruments in each of the rooms.
After our tour ended we were led into the Ball Room, where a small orchestra was playing. We were asked to wait until our group number was called, so that we could have our picture taken with all of the Princesses. There was a group of professional dancers dancing to the music, and also a small group of children from what looked like a local ballet school, that were leading the younger visitors out onto the floor for a dance. We all danced and had a wonderful time!
A bit later champagne was distributed for the adults and non-alcoholic cider for the kids. "Catherine" came out with her Prince, and offered a toast (in Russian) to peace between all of our countries.
Finally, the evening was over, and we were led back out to our waiting carriages (er, buses) to begin the journey back to the ship. It had truly been a magical evening.
After returning to the ship, Rob and I went to the Alfred and Seymour comedy show, then out to Goofy's pool at 10:15 (!) for a show featuring local Russian dancers, singers and acrobats. (Amazing that it was still light enough for a show outside at 10:15.)
Day 8-St. Petersburg
Today we had a tour to the Peterhof Palace, again, in a suburb outside of St. Petersburg, then back to St. Petersburg, itself for lunch and a tour of the Hermitage. The ride in the bus was uneventful, and we arrived at the Peterhof in less than an hour. We were struck, again (!), by the amazing color of the palace, a bright yellow. After a quick walk through a number of souvenir hawkers (Rob should have taken the time to buy the Russian Ovechkin hockey jersey, argghh!!), we entered the palace, and donned more blue booties.
The tour through the palace and the grounds was lovely, but it really made me appreciate the access to Catherine's Palace the evening before, without crowds, and with the ability to take pictures inside. (We were not allowed to take pictures in the interior of the Peterhof, and our guide explained to us later that it was for commercial reasons-i.e. they want to get you to buy their pictures. The Peterhof Palace (or "Monplaisir" ("my pleasure") was built by Peter the Great. Like Catherine's Palace, the Peterhof was severely damaged during World War II, and has been recently restored.
We were outside of the palace in time to view the start of the Grand Cascade and other fountains outside, which really was a marvelous sight, and like many Disney attractions, set to appropriate music. After our tour, we returned to central St. Petersburg via high-speed hydrofoils. This was a much quicker way to get back into town.
Once back in town, we boarded our bus, and went to a local "luxury" hotel (as described by our guide-it was a Radisson) for lunch. The lunch was quite good-even if the setting somewhat mundane-and included a glass each of vodka and champagne for the adults.
After lunch we went to the Hermitage. The Hermitage, in Catherine the Great's Winter Palace in the center of the city, serves today as a museum of art and Russian culture. Unlike Catherine's Palace, and the Peterhof, this palace was not destroyed in World War II, and retained many of its original features. As a result, I liked this palace much more than I did the other two. It felt much more authentic, and much less contrived.
The museum also houses some amazing works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Matisse, and others. The art collection was originally started by Catherine, herself. I absolutely loved this museum, and would love to go back some time when I have a lot more time to explore its vast collections.
We returned to the ship, and had dinner with our exhausted tablemates. None of us had evening excursions today, and were very glad of that fact. The kids ran off after dinner, and Rob and I went to the Walt Disney Theatre to see Toy Story 3D. We saved seeing this movie for the cruise, and loved it. I cried. I admit it. My kids are getting older, college is on the horizon, and the whole thing just struck a chord with me.
By the way, sunset was at 11:20 p.m. tonight, and it never really got dark that I could tell. Experiencing the White Nights in St. Petersburg was amazing!
The previous post in this blog was Northern European Capitals Disney Cruise, Part 3.
The next post in this blog is Northern European Capitals Disney Cruise, Part 5.