We’re dead in the water. And the ghosts seem to be rising as glimmering wisps of mist rise from the water all around us.
Overnight the temperature has dropped and the cold damp air over the warm water of the Volga River has turned into a dense fog that makes it difficult to see the shore that’s only a few feet away from us. The Scenic Tsar’s passengers were supposed to do another half-day exploration ashore today starting at 8:30, but opening the curtains in the morning it was clear we weren’t going anywhere—at least not just yet.
The fog adds to the moody timelessness of rural Russia, but it proves a nuisance. It’s so thick that all ships on the river had to drop anchor overnight en route to their next ports and wait for the pea soup to clear.
The delay made for an unplanned but welcome morning with some free time after five days with all-day shore excursions. It was a perfect opportunity to find out more about the ship.
Getting oriented on a ship as compact as Scenic Cruises’ new ship is simple. Deck one is where all the public areas are: the front desk, workout room, sick bay and the “massage parlor” are to the right of the lobby. The lounge, the bar and gift shop and the dining room on the left. On decks two and three are the 56 staterooms—nearly all with private balconies. And the upper deck is set up with lounge chairs for sunning and tables for dining outdoors, which no one was using on this trip in mid-October with temperatures hovering around 5 degrees Celsius. That works out to 40 Fahrenheit.
But there’s plenty of cozy space inside. Although not as spacious and elaborate as Scenic’s fleet of “Space Ships” on other European rivers, the designers have done a wonderful job of making Scenic Tsar comfortable and contemporary, with picture windows all along the public rooms providing unobstructed views of the river and shore.
Launched in July of 2012 as the Alexander Grin, Scenic Tsar is officially the first newly built river ship built in Russia in 25 years. But there’s a twist. While everything on the ship above the water line as well as the engines, plumbing and navigation equipment are all brand new, the ship was built on the hull of a previous ship under a new government shipbuilding program that gives owners grants for rebuilding ships that became surplus in the post-Soviet era.
Passengers were invited in small groups to make their way to the bridge, where Captain Oleg and officers demonstrated the latest digital navigation equipment. With our advanced radar and sonar equipment, we could easily make our way through this fog the captain explains through a translator. However, other older ships on the rivers aren’t equally equipped and that means rules call for shutting down all ship movement on the river and sitting at anchor until controllers give the all clear.
We wouldn’t be getting under way until lunch time and would have to skip our scheduled stop at the monastery and nunnery in the ancient village of Goritsy on the shore of the Volga.
So with an impromptu day of leisure, Scenic’s crew set to work devising ways to keep the passengers amused. Those who want to learn some pleasantries in Russian can gather with one of the cruise guides for a language lesson. Those with an artistic bent or who just want to create a souvenir are offered paint boxes and some unpainted Matryoshka –those big-eyed nested dolls that hold even smaller versions of themselves inside. There’ll be a judging of whose decoration is the best later in the day, but it turns out you don’t need huge artistic skills because the faces are already in place on the blank dolls and all you have to do is paint on decorative aprons.
After lunch was a good time to check out the books in a small library in the corner of the lounge. The collection includes illustrated editions of Alexander Pushkin’s fairy tales, art books of Soviet art and propaganda posters from the Stalinist era with all their paintings of fresh faced smiling workers marching dutifully in to work every day. It made me wonder whether today we in the West aren’t being fed just as fanciful and subliminal messages in the stories about celebrities and the music videos that are ubiquitous in the media.
Hmmm, I am part of the media….Maybe it’s time for a drink.
And right on cue there’s an improbable happy hour: a pina colada party, something you’d think of as more likely on tropical cruise on a sun deck with tiki lanterns. It’s a bit too cool to be sitting on Tsar’s sun deck so we have it in the lounge, with a little Don Ho tropical music laid on by Tsar’s jack of all trades one man band. He did regular solo acts in the lounge after dinner as well and was so versatile he was able to do a credible and unaccented rendition of songs as varied as Elvis and Bruce Springsteen.
Oh, and the town of Goritsy we were supposed to visit. Well, there was no time to stop if we want to keep on schedule for the rest of our trip so we sail slowly past it as the afternoon sun finally breaks through the clouds. I got some photos to remember it by.
After all the excitement and libations on board, I doubt we would have had the ambition to go on a tour anyway.