Mary, one fine day last year, was surfing travel sites and looking for bargains. Lo and behold, she discovered that Conde Nast Traveler magazine was sponsoring a special Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Event. And the people (well, Mary anyway) saw it was good, and rejoiced! Money and time dictated that we could only reserve one Trip of a Lifetime, so now that we’ve completed it, we’ll just have to retire, maybe to someplace nice, like Tampa. Maybe have the kids down for a barbeque on the weekend. If we had any kids.
The particular Trip of a Lifetime that piqued Mary’s interest was a semi-private tour to Russia, which was offered through the World on Sale at a very substantial savings, over normal rates. The combination of a trip to a location that Mary has wanted to visit for a very long time, and heavily reduced rates, meant that I would soon be packing my bags, yet again.
Our trip was contracted through Exeter International, a company that specializes in custom tours of Russia, as well as Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. The offer was for a semi-private tour of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Semi-private in this case meant that there were going to be openings for ten people total, and a few activities were group in nature, but most of the touring would use dedicated guides and drivers for each pair of customers. And we’d be one of the pairs.
As I may have mentioned in the past, Mary and I don’t much like the group tour thing. While others troop behind the guide who’s holding the umbrella up, while listening to their wireless headphones, we slip nimbly through the crowds, using our ninja-like skills, avoiding the lines and getting a nice table in the museum cafeteria while the big groups mill around indecisively. We’re surprisingly agile for our size and age, or so we like to think. So this Exeter thing seemed like a decent alternative.
Moscow, Domodedovo Airport. The customs and passport experience, though I have read complaints about it, was miles better than my first trip to Russia. Pro-tip from that first visit long ago: Don’t try entering Russia with an expired visa. It’s kind of spendy to get out of trouble. A variety of fees of doubtful provenance were assessed, and there was lots of time spent waiting on hard chairs in somewhat unpleasant environs. Not the most fun I’ve ever had.
After getting stamped, processed and vetted, and retrieving our bags, we were met by our Exeter International Transportation Expediter Extraordinaire (I’m pretty sure that wasn’t actually his title, I just like to assign labels to people for my own amusement). Within mere minutes we were in our people mover van and on our way downtown, and we only had to fend off one or two unlicensed taxi drivers offering their services. Which as I recall, I was warned years ago consisted mainly of driving you out in the country and then demanding all of your cash in exchange for not being left out in the country. But, possibly that was an exaggeration.
Exeter had booked our accommodations in the luxurious Ritz Carlton hotel in the center of Moscow. Built on the site of the late and unlamented Intourist hotel from the Cold War, the new hotel offers a few more amenities than old place. Like hot water. Furthermore, that same hot water is available in quantities sufficient to do more than dampen a washcloth. Ah, progress!
The rooms are spacious and indistinguishable from the standard Ritz Carlton model. Decent climate controls, comfortable bed, fully equipped bathroom with all the amenities. Amenities that included the aforementioned hot water, and a toilet seat, something I had to do without, on a previous trip to Russia. Though truth be told, that particular visit did not involve Moscow, but a rather less urban environment. In Siberia.
You can’t beat the hotel’s location. One block from Red Square and the Bolshoi and the Kremlin. And GUM department store. And there’s actually shopping now, all over the place, everywhere you look. There wasn’t much in the way of retail type establishments available on my last visit. So if I was interested in shopping, in what appears to be the same retail establishments you can find pretty much anywhere else, then I’d be all set. But since I’m not so inclined, the shopportunities are largely wasted on me.
And that concluded our first day in Russia. We had a light meal in the hotel restaurant and went to bed early in order to be ready, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, for our first day of touring.