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Travel and You

Boat Trips Available Sans Visa

January 15, 1989|TONI TAYLOR | Taylor, an authority on the travel industry, lives in Los Angeles.

Taking a visa-free trip to the Soviet Union by boat is becoming a popular option for many American travelers.

When you're in cities such as Leningrad or Tallinn or other Soviet ports for 24 hours or less, a visa isn't required, according to a spokesman for Sally Line, one of the companies offering Helsinki-Leningrad sailings.

Without a visa your explorations of Leningrad, for example, must be done in a group. With a visa, you can explore on your own. Some cruise lines offer elaborate tours, which include temporary visas handed out by Soviet customs and are returned at the end of the tour, but passengers pay extra for these.

The visa-free sailings, including some ships with Soviet crews, may also be part of tour packages embracing Scandinavia and the Soviet Union (Leningrad is a port of call on the sailings of several major U.S.-based cruise lines).

Travelers should be aware of variations among these two- or three-night sailings, however.

One is meals. Most American travelers are accustomed to having all meals included in the price of the cruise. Not so here.

One-Day Tour

On a sailing to Leningrad aboard the Sally Albatross of the Sally Line, we left Helsinki on a Saturday night, had most of Sunday in Leningrad and returned to Helsinki on Monday morning (the 1989 schedule will also offer Monday departures, with returns on Wednesday).

Breakfasts on Sunday and Monday mornings were covered by the cruise price, but not dinners on Saturday or Sunday nights.

For the dinner meal on the Sally Albatross, the buffet seemed to be the most popular choice. It cost 70 Finnish marks (about $17 U.S.), with drinks extra. The ship, which went through an extensive renovation early this year, also has a more expensive a la carte restaurant.

Dress is casual, and there is a small gambling casino (roulette and blackjack tables) as well as a liberal sprinkling of slot machines.

Passengers are predominantly Finnish but many Americans were aboard my sailing, with large contingents also from Switzerland and Japan.

English is widely spoken, even by the entertainers, who featured more American songs than others. There was enough rock 'n' roll, as well as Finnish tangos and polkas, to please a variety of musical tastes.

Duty-Free Market

If shipboard shopping intrigues you, the tax-free store on this ship is like a supermarket, with food and liquor, as well as baskets in which to carry your items. The ship will exchange traveler's checks for a charge of 10 marks.

On visa-free sailings you have to take a land package in Leningrad, which is part of the cruise price.

The choice is between programs featuring the Hermitage Museum or Peter the Great's summer residence at Petrodvorets. The tours, which are about seven hours each, include a tour around parts of Leningrad and lunch at the Moscow Hotel.

A floor show featuring Russian dancers and singers is held during the luncheon.

Expect to lose an hour once off the ship. Time on the vessel is Finnish, even when the ship is docked in Leningrad. There is a one- hour time difference between Helsinki and Leningrad.

Visit the Russian Beryozka, the foreign-currency stores. You don't need rubles to buy anything. Dollars are accepted. You also can pay in other currencies. My purchases, for example, were with Finnish marks.

Choosing the Hermitage Tour, as I did, doesn't mean that most time ashore is spent at that renowned museum, part of the Winter Palace.

Our group spent about 1 1/2 hours to admire the remarkable collection of Rembrandts, Goyas and works by other famous artists.

Even though we visited after 6 p.m. when it was less crowded, the rooms were packed with people. Don't be surprised if a museum guard tags along with your group, to keep people from straying.

Also make sure which attractions you only view and which you can go inside. Despite the brochure stating that our tour would include St. Isaac's Cathedral, our group was frustrated when our Intourist guide, Raya, said that our tour didn't include the church's interior.

Instead, we were allowed about five minutes to take pictures and wander around the exterior. On return to Helsinki, the cruise line said the brochure was in error.

Despite that letdown, Leningrad was an attractive city. Stately buildings grace wide embankments along the Neva River. Sudden bursts of brilliant late-afternoon sunlight sharply accent wide squares, gleaming canals and gilded cupolas.

Russian Character

Although we only passed by such sights as the Peter and Paul Fortress and the Admiralty Arch, we were able to board and roam the Aurora, a Russian navy cruiser that played a pivotal role in the Russian Revolution. Moored on the Neva River near the Hermitage, the ship swarmed with visitors.

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