Grand Tour of the World stops in St. Petersburg...Palm Springs heating up
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Of the stops on Star Travel’s Grand Tour list, St. Petersburg may be the most unfamiliar to Canadians. It’s not easy to enter; you need an entry visa, which can top $200 for just a short stay. It’s expensive, with few bargains to be had for food, souvenirs or accommodations. It’s thought of as unwelcoming to westerners.
Yet, when we were putting together our itinerary of top destinations to visit this fall, the Russian metropolis of nearly 5 million was one of the first to make the cut. That’s because it’s among the most unique big cities in the world. Distinctly Russian with its onion-dome churches (the shapes are actually meant to resemble candles with burning flames) and giant statue of Vladimir Lenin near its southern boundary, St. Petersburg is also the most European city in the country.
With more than 400 bridges, there’s a resemblance to Amsterdam. Peter the Great, who commissioned the city to be built in the 18th century, had an affinity for all things Dutch. So there are hundreds of kilometres of canalways, lots of low-lying buildings and green spaces, and pedestrian-friendly streets in the heart of the city. Peter and his successors spent lavishly on building palaces and ornate buildings throughout the city and surrounding area.
The most exquisite of them include the Hermitage museum, the focus of this week’s Grand Tour installment. The Hermitage has the largest collection of paintings of any museum in the world. You’ll find two dozen Rembrandts, as well as Da Vincis, Raphaels, Monets, Picassos, and work from just about any other master you can name.
The Hermitage is on the bank of the Neva River, facing Petrograd, one of the St. Petersburg’s larger islands and home to the Grand Mosque. A boat ride on the Neva will take you to Peterhof, Peter’s summer residence that was fashioned on Versailles.
One of Europe’s busiest shopping streets is Nevskiy Prospect, which is filled with designer fashion stores, hotels, markets and historic buildings like the Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral, a major Russian orthodox church.
Although Russians learn English in school, older citizens tend to be out of practice speaking it. When you do find an English speaker, it’s like finding an old friend. The Other Side bar and O’Hooligan’s Irish Pub, both close to the Hermitage and Palace Square, are good spots to run into ex-patriate Anglophones.
As for the Russian people, the Americans, Australians, Canadians and British who are living in St. Petersburg say they’re not easy to get to know but once you do they’re wonderful. For visitors, the language barrier is an issue, but the people in the hospitality industry are very helpful, and more and more of them speak English. If you can’t talk to the Russians, you’ll at least enjoy looking at them. Many of the women are tall and thin, dressed in heels and designer clothes, and you figure if they’re going all out to impress then the guys must be attractive too.
The food’s great, the vodka’s outstanding, the weather isn’t as cold as you might think, and the culture and history are utterly fascinating. St. Petersburg was on our list, and probably should be on yours too.
PALM SPRINGS EAGER FOR CANADIANS
Palm Springs, California, is ready for an influx of Canadians. WestJet begins twice-weekly flights from Toronto on Feb. 2 to the beautiful desert city surrounded by mountains in the Coachella Valley, just a couple hours east of downtown Los Angeles.
WestJet already flies direct from Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary. And soon Torontonians will be able to get easier access to one of the biggest music festivals in the world. The annual Coachella Festival has become, in less than 20 years, among the most star-studded music and arts gatherings going. The site of the April event at the Empire Polo Fields in Indio is just a half-hour drive from Palm Springs.
The city of 20,000 is also close to Joshua Tree. The famous national park that every U2 fan has heard of will celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2011. Other enticements include an annual Modernism Week in February that shows off Palm Springs’ unique collection of mid-20th-century architecture and a 22-year-old film festival that runs in January.
There’s also loads of golf and seven casinos in the area, plus days of 20 Celsius and up in the winter, and some pretty neat looking boutique hotels, not to mention funky bars and some great restaurants, everything from sushi to steak and Thai. Travel Editor Jim Byers loves the tom yum goong soup at Thai Smile in nearby Palm Desert.
If you’re looking for a warm-weather getaway this winter, Palm Spring is definitely worth checking out.