Blocked from leaving Explorer
We met our three friends by Reception and went down to the lower deck to leave the ship. The RCI tours had been scheduled to leave earlier so naïvely we thought we be okay to leave the ship. As we left the lift we were met by a grumpy ship’s officer who made it very clear that regardless of when our tours might be leaving we would not be allowed to leave Explorer. We were directed up to the 5th floor of the Sapphire restaurant.
We joined a handful of other passengers and sat at a table close to the door. As time passed more members of the ship’s company arrived with signs that read E15, E30, E45 etc. I began to feel a little sympathy for the staff by the door. They had to keep explaining that RCI would not let passengers leave the ship if they were on a private tour of St Petersburg. The passengers were directed to different parts of the restaurant to wait behind or near to the staff holding the banners.
We sat and listened to crew members challenging passengers that their private tour tickets would not get them past Russian immigration. Even to the extreme of telling others that the only safe way to leave the ship was on an RCI tour.
Pretty outrageous behaviour.
By 8 am the restaurant was heaving. By 8.10 it looks like the restaurant was way past its safe occupancy level as it was jammed with passengers. The ship’s tours were all long gone but still we were not ‘allowed’ to leave.
After 8.15 the shout went up that anyone by the E15 board could now leave. It felt as if the half the restaurant leaped and pushed for the exit. We were swept along by the human tide as we descended once again down to the lower deck to finally leave the ship. As we walked down other crew members randomly challenged passengers as to what time the tour left the terminal.
Finally off the ship and on land
Once off the ship we headed across the large open space to the terminal and joined the queues for Russian Immigration. RCI holding everyone back for and then letting them go all at once, made sure that everyone on a private tour had to queue through immigration.
The queues eventually went down and after a cursory glance at passport and tickets, our passports were stamped and we were through all the immigration formalities.
TJ travel had a representative waiting just after customs in the souvenir hall and she directed us out to where the TJ travel guides were waiting. Once there we met Svetlana and the five of us followed her to the waiting Mercedes-Benz minibus to start our private tour. Our driver was Valeri and then we were off.
To Catherine‘s Palace
We left the port area and had to pass through numerous apartment complexes that lined the streets before we joined the motorway to head off to Pushkin to visit Catherine‘s Palace.
We asked Svetlana why was there a change of plan for the two days. She explained that the centre of St Petersburg would have lots of streets closed on Sunday for the local marathon.
The journey out to Pushkin was fast as Valeri stayed on motorways for the majority of the way there. The traffic was equally fast and despite the odd lane change in front of us with no signal the journey did pass by very quickly!
This minibus was a little more basic than the one we had had on our last visit. The big missing for me was no Wi-Fi connection to the Internet. As we were only a small party we did not have radio receivers to listen to Svetlana either. The minibus had a good speaker so we listened to Svetlana all the way to Pushkin . . .
Arrival at the Palace
We arrived at the Palace before the gates opened. Standing in the shadows while we waited, I realised that I was not dressed for the weather. Luckily the re-arranged itinerary would keep us inside more of the day than originally planned.
Svetlana hustled us through the gates and past all the crowds once they were opened.
We walked across the courtyard in front of the palace to enter through one of the side doors.
I had left my camera bag behind in the mini-bus as we had been warned not to take bags as these would need to be checked. Once inside we had to put on overshoes to protect the floors and then we all started our tour of the Palace.