The terminal on Basil Island is in an area of heavy industry 5.5 km (3.5 miles) from the centre.

These river berths offer limited facilities but great views.

The new passenger port, already partly in operation, will be far superior to the old Sea Terminal.

When other berths are not available, cruise ships have to use the busy cargo port 

PORT OF st petersburg

St Petersburg is splendour incarnate. There is nothing else like it in the Baltic or indeed the world. A tour of its baroque centre is a journey through Russian history.Highslide JS

But first you must get there. The city centre is on the broad but shallow River Neva rather than the Gulf of Finland. It seemed like a good location for a shipping centre when St Petersburg was founded three hundred years ago, but no one then imagined the size of modern vessels.

The main navigation channel to St Petersburg is narrow and passes close to islands and the shore. It does not even reach the old Sea Terminal on Basil Island. Larger cruise ships have had to tie up by Cannoneers' Island, amid the city's ultra-busy Cargo Port.Highslide JS

Smaller ships can actually sail into the mouth of the River Neva, although not past the first bridge. The great advantage of berthing on the Lieutenant Schmidt Embankment, on the north bank, or the English Embankment on the south, is that passengers have a great view from the ship itself.

But a shallow draft is not enough to ensure a river berth. Much depends on how many other ships are arriving in port at the same time.

This situation is changing as a new port on Basil Island approaches completion. A fairway has already been dredged and the first two berths were opened in September 2008. Another three berths are scheduled to be ready in 2009 and the final two in 2010.

All main berths are rather far from the nearest metro underground railway station, but most passengers have a bus waiting anyway, as part of a pre-arranged tour. This is because foreigners arriving in Russia by cruise ship must obtain a visa in advance for their visit, unless they are accompanied when ashore by a licenced guide from an authorised tour company.

Highslide JSThis does not mean that you are compelled to go on the shore excursion that is booked via your cruise line, although that is obviously the simplest alternative. But if you prefer the luxury of personal service, dislike touring in large groups, or can simply get a better deal with a different authorised tour company, you must make the arrangements in advance.

According to the current Russian law, a cruise passenger who wants to leave the ship and does not have a visa must have a valid passport, a photocopy of the passport and written proof that he or she will be escorted by an authorized tour operator. It is a good idea to make the photocopies in advance.

It is possible that, as of 2009, citizens of Europe's Schengen area who arrive in St Petersburg by ship will be able to freely leave the ship for up to 72 hours without being on an authorised tour. However the change in regulations has not yet been confirmed by the Duma, Russia's parliament. It would be unwise to rely on it.

Highslide JSPerhaps the nicest thing about visa-free touring would be the possibility to take a stroll along the Neva on a warm evening, if your ship is berthed on the river. It takes a special determination to do other things on your own in St Petersburg. All the city's signs are in Cyrillic script and few ordinary people speak foreign languages.

Individuals also face fearsome queues at the main sights, which licensed guides can get around.

Highslide JSThe old sea passenger terminal on Basil Island, or Vasilevskiy Ostrov, was built at the end of the 1970s, in Soviet times. It is more convenient than a berth in the Cargo Port although passport, shopping and other services are not always customer friendly.

The terminal is about 5.5 kilometres (3.5 miles) from the city centre, along a rather ugly route. It passes through an area that is historic for Russia's early years as a Baltic power but the old shipyards and workshops are now covered by heavy industry.

Highslide JSThe residential part of Basil Island, with its squares of parallel streets, is an interesting example of city architecture in the 18th and 19th centuries but you need to cross an industrial labyrinth to reach this.

Russia's first modern sea passenger port is now under construction on Basil Island, just along the coast from the old passenger terminal. The first two berths are already available.Highslide JS

This is part of a development programme that will change St Petersburg's sea facade forever, creating a new business city on its Baltic coast while protecting the historic centre.

So far there's little to see at the site of the new port, apart from a lot of reclaimed land, but it promises a much better experience for cruise ships that call. For one thing, it has its own approach channel.Highslide JS

The new port is slightly farther from the centre than the old passenger terminal but the route is more direct and the roads are better. One day, passengers may be able to transfer onto river boats that can take the scenic route into town, but not perhaps for a couple of years.

The nearest metro station, Primorskaya, is just over a mile (2 km) from the new port, a straight and tedious walk down the canalised River Smolenka. From there it's just two stops on the underground train to Nevskiy Prospekt in the centre of town.

The new port will eventually have its own metro station. In the meantime, the conditions for visa-free visits often make access to public transport irrelevant anyway.

Highslide JSCruise ships that can't be accommodated at the New Port, and are too large to use the old passenger terminal, have to make do with primitive facilities in the city's cargo port behind Cannoneers' Island or Kanonerskiy Ostrov.This is not an area to stretch your legs in. The narrow streets are filled with trailers that make walking almost impossible.

The idea of having a cargo port so close to a heavily populated area and so far from wide roads has not made sense since the 19th century.Highslide JS In the past decade, Russia has been quickly developing new ports to the west, on the northern and southern shores of the Baltic, but trade has been increasing so fast that St Petersburg's own port remains extremely busy.

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Publisher: Nordic Communications Corporation