Historic Hotels of Saint Petersburg, Russia

Saint Petersburg is exhausting.

Especially if you’re a traveler with a limited schedule. In seven days you’ll glimpse the magnificence of this city, but it will take much more longer to get under its skin. Admiring the stupendous beauty of The Hermitage before moving onto the mosaic brilliance of The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is too much to take in over the course of a day, let alone a week. The history fused into the fabric of these buildings, a nuanced interplay of hieroglyphs, iconography, sweeping arches, and magnificent masonry, is awe-inspiring.

Saint Petersburg’s historic centre is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This part of the city is traversed by ribbons of canals, and the streets surrounding them curl and twist, leaving the traveler wandering — never lost. Nevsky Prospekt runs through the core and many of the top hotels are located steps from the always-busy thoroughfare. I had the pleasure of touring these hotels and meeting with many lovely Russians along the way. While my photos don’t do them justice, the professional ones that accompany my words on the history and interiors of the top five hotels can be viewed here, on Qantas Insider:Best Luxury Hotels | St Petersburg | Qantas Travel Insider.

As a prelude, here are some of my happy snaps.

Hotel Astoria, seen from the top of St Isaac's Cathedral.

Hotel Astoria, seen from the top of St Isaac’s Cathedral.

The Imperial Porcelain Company created the design of the cup and saucer especially for Hotel Astoria.

The Imperial Porcelain Company created the Cobalt Square design of the cup and saucer especially for Hotel Astoria in the 1930s. It’s one of the most popular designs in Russia.

Corinthia's magnificent lobby

Corinthia’s magnificent lobby

Bar with Church

Kempinski’s glorious rooftop overlooking The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.

Restaurant in the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe

Restaurant in the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe

Night view from the Four Seasons of St Isaac's Cathedral.

Night view from the Four Seasons of St Isaac’s Cathedral.

My Red October Factory, Moscow — Open Skies magazine, Emirates

I’m a little late to the party but I wanted to share my feature on Moscow’s Red October Factory with you. If you’d boarded an Emirates flight in October, you may have reached into the seat pocket and seen it while perusing the inflight magazine, Open Skies. If not, the pdf is linked below.

Moscow’s former chocolate factory is now a labyrinth of creativity, filled with entrepreneurs who are cooking, writing, silversmithing, photographing, partying, and eating. The photos for the magazine piece were taken by Olya Ivanova who has contributed to Monocle and PORT magazines.

Below, a few of my ipad snaps too. Enjoy!

The Street, Moscow — Open Skies October Issue, 2014

red october 2

Labyrinth

View from Reka

exterior

electic Bikes

paper

Bookshop of Brothers Lumiere

Gallery Lumiere

graffiti

flower shopMenu at BontempiWriting at BontempimemorialMizandari Cafered october

Overnight Train Travel, from Moscow to St Petersburg, Russia

4am: I was glued to the window, watching the painterly sweeps of green swoosh past my window. With Russia’s White Nights at their peak I’d hardly slept a wink. Not because I hadn’t drawn the curtains — I just didn’t want to miss seeing everything. The overcast sky only enhanced the verdant countryside as the train traversed over 400 miles: lush grasses, graceful birch trees, and forests of fir green. With my ipad at the ready, I snapped pictures. They blurred from the jerk of the train but I didn’t care. I sent them to my friends and family back home because I could: I had WiFi.

This was taken at around 4am during the White Nights in Russia.

This was taken at around 4am during the White Nights in Russia.

I’d boarded the train five hours earlier, giddy to have found my two-berth cabin empty; ecstatic for the internet connection, absent on my fabulously direct 10-hour flight from Los Angeles to Moscow. My ‘kupe’ felt luxurious compared to a plane seat. Slow travel was scoring some serious brownie points.

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Booking a trip to Russia requires creative coordination. Delays in visa application paperwork meant I had to begin my trip in St Petersburg instead of Moscow, to align with my family’s travel plans. The imperial city is one of the most beautiful spots in the world yet one of the hardest to fly into. I could either: fly direct to Moscow and wait for hours in the airport before catching a connecting flight; fly to Moscow direct and board another airline to decrease transit time, but that would mean landing in St Petersburg at some ridiculous hour of the morning; or fly with a European carrier, transit at their hub and catch a connection, which would average about 30 hours of plane travel.

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In my research, I’d found another, more enticing option: why not fly direct to Moscow and catch an overnight train to St Petersburg? This would mean no wandering around empty airport halls, no falling asleep in airport lounges, and an arrival time of 8am as opposed to 2am. It’s not the swiftest way of getting there but the experience of traveling along one of the country’s oldest railways seemed exciting. With scenes from North by Northwest reeling through my mind, I opted for a first-class cabin.

A fully laid table in my cabin.

A fully laid table in my cabin.

My Transaero flight had landed at the modern Vnukovo airport at 7.30pm the night before, where I boarded the point-to-point Aeroexpress, which trained through Moscow’s apartment-clad suburbs before reaching the center. Prebooking train etickets was the easy part. Getting to the long-distance terminal, Leningradsky Vokzal, via the subway proved a little more challenging. I’d transferred at the nearby Kievsky station, where, at 9pm, the subway buzzes as if it’s peak hour. Unfortunately, what the underground metro system offers in gilded opulence, it lacks in facilities for the elderly and travelers. Once I’d gotten off at Komsomolskaya station, my look of dismay at the prospect of Stairmastering it with weighty bags before reaching the mile-high escalators must’ve been apparent because a few kind Russians came to my rescue. In spite of the trek and luggage lugging, Moscow’s energy is energizing. Just a short walk around the corner of Komsomolskaya Square and I’d finally made it to the 1851-built Leningradsky terminal.

Aeroexpress at Vnukovo airport.

Aeroexpress at Vnukovo airport.

The beauty of catching the train versus the plane is the non-existent security line. This means that if your train is scheduled to depart at 11.30pm, boarding at around 11pm is de rigeur. No stress, no fuss, apart from the fact that the first class cabins are located at the front of the train, so I probably should’ve left a tad earlier than 11.20pm (my seat in Costa Coffee in the terminal was so comfortable)! I’d hustled down the station and with seconds to spare, checked my name off, hauled my luggage onboard, flung myself into the empty cabin, and promptly been offered a cup of coffee by the kind train attendant. Sweet relief.

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6am: I was still in bed, belly down, with my head pressed against the window. To my left, the small table jutting from beneath the window was no longer a pristine setting but a display of midnight feasting: The two crystal glasses were christened with water and wine; the unwrapped chocolate bar was half eaten; and the bread rolls – well, they’d been delicious. The only thing left untouched was a green apple, which was being looked upon by a still-vibrant yellow rose in its white vase. On the floor lay a flimsy pair of slippers, yesterday’s Russian newspaper, and an amenity bag with ear plugs and sewing kit. Next to the wardrobe was a sink, where I’d left an open sachet of detergent after doing some laundry. The TV in the top left corner had been playing a black and white Russian movie, but I’d switched it off before turning in. The sound of the wheels on the tracks was my white noise. I didn’t mind the gentle rocking either.

The quasi bathroom.

The quasi bathroom.

I reveled in the luxury of space, stretched out my legs, charged my computer and camera, and caught up on emails before venturing out of my comfortable nook to the (clean) bathroom, located at the end of the hallway. The air was cool; the row of cabins, still. We were about an hour away from the destination when, after getting dressed, there was a knock on my door and a “dobroye ootro” (good morning) by the smiling attendant from the night before, who was holding a breakfast plate of crepes with smoked trout, slices of cheese, and a black coffee. The food was simple and lovely – a warm welcome to the country that so loves its cold cuts and appetizers.

Breakfast is served

Breakfast is served

As the train pulled into the Moskovskaya train station in St Petersburg, I was relaxed, recalibrated, and excited to see my mum and sister, who were at the station, waiting to greet me. I alighted to hugs and kisses in the open air, relieved that there wasn’t a long drive from an airport to the centre — I was in the midst of it all already. As we strolled, chatted, and made our way into the heart of St Petersburg, it occurred to me just how much slow travel allows you to savour the deliciousness of the journey. I’m a hopeless romantic, and despite the rigmarole of train transfers and lack of shut-eye, the seamless train experience more than made up for it. I wondered when I’d have the luxury of such “thinking” time again.

Me, my sister, Katherine, and my mum, Nathalie, reunited. Picture taken at the top of St Isaac's Cathedral, St Petersburg.

Me, my sister, Katherine, and my mum, Nathalie, reunited. Picture taken at the top of St Isaac’s Cathedral, St Petersburg.

Moscow’s Best Hotels, Russia

Writing about Moscow gives me pause to reflect on those favourite moments spent in the city. I love the cobblestoned Red Square, the lively Gorky Park, the cafe and bookshop at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, the architecture of the new Tretyakov Gallery, meeting the local characters… and I will never tire of the candy-coloured swirls that crown St Basil’s Cathedral.

Compiling a list of the the city’s top five hotels for A Luxury Travel Blog was a pleasure, not only because I adore hotels but because I was whisked on a journey to the beautiful capital.

You can take a read of the post here: 5 of the best hotels in Moscow – A Luxury Travel Blog.

Some images that took me back:

View of Red Square from Hotel National

View of Red Square from Hotel National

The bookshop at Garage

The bookshop at Garage

Volleyball at Gorky Park

Volleyball at Gorky Park

Interior of the New Tretyakov Gallery

Interior of the New Tretyakov Gallery

Chef Valentino at Bontempi restaurant

Chef Valentino at Bontempi restaurant

The Moscow River, from The Red October Factory

The Moscow River, from The Red October Factory

The Red Square

The Red Square

Happy International Peace Day

Love. You’ll find references to it everywhere you look: on walls, with family, inside a fortune cookie, and in latte art.

Love is the antidote to fear. I’m sending a generous dose of feel-good your way to amp up the peace quotient across the world. I hope you’ll pass it on…

Street art, El Paso, Texas, October 2012

Street art, El Paso, Texas, October 2012

Shadows: me and my little sis, San Francisco, February 2013

Shadows: me and my little sis, San Francisco, February 2013

Street art in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, April 2012

Street art in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, April 2012

Close up of the above street art

Close up of the above street art

Strawberry Fields in Central Park, Manhattan, NY, July 2012

Strawberry Fields in Central Park, Manhattan, NY, July 2012

Coffee at Brooklyn Roasting Company, DUMBO, Brooklyn, October 2012

Coffee at Brooklyn Roasting Company, DUMBO, Brooklyn, October 2012

Pasted poster, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 2012

Pasted poster, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 2012

Downtown Los Angeles, July 2014

Downtown Los Angeles, July 2014

Staten Island September 11 Memorial with view of Lower Manhattan, Staten Island, NY, August 2012

Staten Island September 11 Memorial with view of Lower Manhattan, Staten Island, NY, August 2012

Chocolate = love, Red Hook, Brooklyn, May 2012

Chocolate = love, Red Hook, Brooklyn, May 2012

Love locks on Brooklyn Bridge, January 2012

Love locks on Brooklyn Bridge, January 2012

Near the Red Square, Moscow, July 2014

Near the Red Square, Moscow, July 2014

Fortune cookies at Jade Island, Staten Island, NY, August 2012

Fortune cookies at Jade Island, Staten Island, NY, August 2012

Street art, Bushwick, Brooklyn, July 2012

Street art, Bushwick, Brooklyn, July 2012

A kiss from my husband, Sedona, Arizona, November 2012

A kiss from my husband, Sedona, Arizona, November 2012

Magnificent Moscow in Oryx Magazine, Qatar Airways

Anaïs Nin: “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”

It’s a nice feeling to relive travel memories. My “Weekend Away in Moscow” was published in this month’s Oryx Magazine for Qatar Airways. If you’re not traveling on the airline in September, you can take a read of the snapshot here:

“At 867 years of age, Moscow shows no signs of slowing down. Rather, the sprawling metropolis is an energetic international hub, buzzing with 12 million residents and ranking second in the global billionaire stakes. This fascinating city is a melange of glitz, glamour, and a rich cultural heritage.” Read more: weekend away – Magnificent Moscow – Europe – Oryx In-Flight Magazine.

These pictures will make sense after you’ve read the piece.

Red Square2

The cobblestoned Red Square

Red Square x 2

Red Square x 2

The 19th-century premium shopping mall, GUM

The 19th-century premium shopping mall, GUM

New Tretyakov Gallery, housed in the Central House of Artists

New Tretyakov Gallery, housed in the Central House of Artists

Art in New Tretyakov: The New Moscow (1027) by Yuri Pimenov

Art in New Tretyakov: The New Moscow (1937) by Yuri Pimenov

Gorky Park and the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art run by Dasha Zhukova

Gorky Park and the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art run by Dasha Zhukova

Cafe at Garage

Cafe at Garage

The moonlit Red Square

The moonlit Red Square

The Red Square illuminated from the Moscow River

The Red Square illuminated from the Moscow River

 

A Weekend of Photographing

Well, that’s the plan anyway…

This long weekend marks the end of the summer (not technically) in the USA. With some spare hours, I hope to pick up the camera and become a tourist. Obviously, it’s easier to do so when on holidays… Oh, Happy Labour Day!

My sister took this photo of me in St Petersburg, Russia.

My sister took this photo of me in St Petersburg, Russia.