On our summer holiday we mostly drove around Finland, but we did a short trip to Russia also. We sailed to Vyborg via the Saimaa Canal. And even though it was raining cats and dogs in the morning, the day turned out to be quite nice and sunny. A trip to Vyborg was an interesting adventure through history and today's life at the same time.
SAILING ON SAIMAA CANAL
We hopped on the MS Carelia in the morning in Lappeenranta, and headed towards Vyborg. Even just the trip through the canal was pretty interesting for me since I have never travelled in a canal like this. The Saimaa Canal was opened in 1856 and it is quite unique since Finland has a 50 year lease with Russia for this area. There is no such thing anywhere else in the world. The canal has a total of 8 locks, with three of them in Finland and 5 on the Russian side. The border crossing is in Lake Nuijamaa. Even though the canal is only 40 kilometres long, it still takes five hours or even more to get to Vyborg. Ships can't go very fast in the canal and a couple times we had to wait for other ships that were in the locks to get out. Our trip back home to Finland was a little faster.
The drop down from the highest lock is 12.4 meters and the canal is 6 meters in depth at it's maximum.
The views in the Saimaa canal on a beautiful day are rather nice. In both directions one gets to see how the locks work and to see some huge Russian mansions close to Vyborg. From time to time one can also spot part of the old canal going next to this new and bigger one. We also saw some floating islands which can change their location. Some of them are still held in place by the roots of the plants growing on them. Very fascinating phenomenon! There is also a historical spot close to old Tuohimäki lock that is worth seeing. There is golden text on the rocks which was made to greet the emperors when they passed by. It says Nikolai I and Aleksander II both in Finnish and Russian. The text was made by the sculptor I.A. Deneis. Too bad I missed the photo opportunity there.
Cruises on the MS Carelia are sold through Saimaatravel, and it has 200 seats. There are two restaurants: one offers lunch and dinner, and the other is more like a cafe type restaurant with a full alcohol license. At the top of the ship one can enjoy the outdoors on the sun deck. We booked a table in the restaurant when we left Finland, and we ended up sitting at the same place for the whole trip to Russia. Usually they have two servings, but since our table had not been sold for the second serving, we got to keep it. It was nice to have a spot where we could all gather up even though we did spend a lot of time outside as well. The food on the ship was great and I can recommend booking either lunch or dinner. The lunch was served as a buffet and came with salad, bread, beverages, coffee and desert. The main course was fish and beef. Kids also got an ice cream cone. When sailing back from Russia we were not so hungry, so we ended up just ordering a soup. Even that was delicious and kept us going all through the rest of the trip. They offered salmon soup with bread. Coffee and cookies for desert.
There was also a small play room for kids on the ferry, which was nice, since the cruise hostess told us that there was a record breaking amount of kids on our trip. It still didn't seem like a huge amount though, so I guess the Vyborg cruise isn't the first choice for families. Our hostess for the cruise took really good care of us during our trip, and told us funny stories from history. She had a great personality and really seemed to enjoy her work. We all loved her! On our way back home there was a bingo game for kids and a colouring contest. As a program for adults, they had a one man band. We were happy to have some kind of activities on our way back since we had already seen the views from the ferry on our way to Vyborg. At the very end of our cruise we got to enjoy a beautiful sunset and we stayed on the deck for a while.
The duty free store on the ship sells some souvenirs, candy and beverages and they can also change your euros into rubles.
A VISA FREE DAY IN VYBORG
When you take a visa-free cruise to Russia, you can only stay on shore for 72 hours. We did the similar cruise to St. Petersburg a few years ago. We used the visa-free cruise since my husband and kids travel with American passports and getting visas for them while in Finland was complicated and costly. Before arriving in Vyborg, the hostess of the ship did a little info event at the cafe. She told us about the customs formalities, and how to exit the boat. Since the visa-free trip requires some kind of organised program in Vyborg, and we hadn't booked the bus tour, we were given a coffee voucher to the Round Tower.
I highly recommend going to this info session and getting all the tips from the hostess. She warned us that with American passports we might end up in a secondary interview at the border but said not to worry. We were pleasantly surprised that we were not asked anything when entering the country. The hostess also hands out some customs forms and shows you how to fill them out. Each person needs to have their own form. When we got back to the ship, our bags went through a screening and our passports were stamped. When booking the trip we were told that we have approximately three hours in Vyborg which was not the case for us. Since our boat docked late, we only had less than two hours. This was the only down side of the trip and they should inform more clearly when booking this trip, that this might happen. If we would do this again, we would definitely stay the night and come back to the ferry the next day. Other than that, the trip was very well organised.
More about our day in Vyborg coming soon so stay tuned!