The trip to Vladivostok starts six months in advance.
Not so much the planning, but the jokes, innuendos and fear mongering because we don’t know what to expect.
Rumours of Russia’s most eastern port suggest vodka-swilling men intent on bar fights and a range of other unsavoury acts.
Or perhaps it was just our clichéd and active imaginations.
Either way, our island community seems to enjoy escalating the legend just as much as we do (well, except maybe for Anna).
Whilst the flights and accommodation are booked in February, there is a quick flurry of research only two weeks before leaving; apparently we’re four girls seemingly happy to let the chips fall where they may on this three day get-away.
It’s champagne, cheese and laughs (most often, nervous) on the one hour drive to the airport. If we have reservations about what to expect in Vladivostok, we have bigger ones knowing we’re flying direct into the path of a typhoon.
Lisa, Clair and I are seated together on the plane. Anna – our most anxious flyer – is across the aisle.
Within five short minutes of take-off, a clearly-inebriated man wearing sunglasses staggers up the aisle past us to the rear toilet.
“Can you smell smoke?” says Anna from across the aisle.
Clair, without hesitation, says yes.
I insist it’s not smoke. I mean, after all, Anna (and now Clair’s) anxiety is high enough without having to worry about some drunk guy smoking in a toilet.
It doesn’t matter.
The guy is smoking.
And whilst the flight attendants do their best to have him put it out and return to his seat, he’s back another three or four times with at least one more successful light-up. On his final stagger up the aisle, he removes the sunglasses to reveal two black eyes. It’s very clear he’s been in a mighty fight – and obviously in Busan.
By now we’re all thinking that if this is the typical Russian man returning from genteel Busan with fight wounds, what are we headed for?
As it so works out, we don’t have time to dwell. We’re all instead gripping the arm rests and tightening our seatbelts. The turbulence is so great that, at times, we’ve left our seats.
Anna is close to tears, Lisa is silent and Clair has literally broken out in a full body sweat (believe me, I felt her arms and hands). I’m laughing like it’s a joy ride at the fair.
I genuinely believe that it’s not my fate to go down in a plane crash so I tend to enjoy a strange euphoria in such circumstances. Having now been in a number of very close calls on planes, I will however acknowledge, it’s one of the worst instances of turbulence I’ve encountered, so their reactions are valid – even if I am finding it a huge source of amusement.
When we land, the entire plane erupts into spontaneous applause. Enough said.
As we leave the plane, our smoking man and his mate are passed out in aisle ten. Shortly, they’ll find immigration, police and medical staff waiting for them.
Welcome to Russia girls 🙂
We clear immigration, collect our bags and book a taxi. The typhoon weather conditions mean we wait 30 minutes for one to arrive. The drive to the city is slow. We have zero visibility, pelting rain and flooded roads. There’s literally nothing to see.
Our cab driver speaks a little English and tells us he’s been to Sydney. He’s a complete gentleman, hauling our bags in and out of the car in the rain. There’s a chance he may rectify our first impression of Russian men.
It’s now nearly midnight. We get into the elevator with what are clearly, two prostitutes. I’m having enormous trouble supressing the need to laugh out loud. Could this trip get any more clichéd?!
They get off on level 7 (which will become a running joke over the weekend as the floor where we can earn money if we need to).
Lisa and I change in our PJ’s, walk the corridors and into the elevator four flights down to Clair and Anna’s room, where the room service order consists of four club sandwiches, two bottles of red wine and eight bottles of water (we’re hydrating for the weekend apparently).
It’s a 2.00am finish and a 9.00am start. We’re off to explore the city. It’s a day of walking the main square, shopping precinct and coastline. Lunch is an unfortunate selection – Chicago – which offers a great view, but terrible vodka and food.
The main square
This statue represents freedom of choice in music, clothes and expression
We decide by 4.00pm to head to the hotel’s happy hour at the roof top bar. We find it doesn’t open till 6.00pm so it’s back downstairs to the restaurant for a wine to fill the time until……well, more wine time.
The SkyBar has great views, an impressive wine and cocktail list and a duo playing songs we know (including INXS and Gotye). Despite best laid plans to go elsewhere for dinner, we eat here. Five bottles of wine and four margaritas later, Lisa and I decide we’re going to bed whilst Anna and Clair decide to head out.
Lisa and I get a message at 9.00am telling us they are alive. Just.
To our complete surprise, both make it to breakfast declaring that they’re still drunk. In reality, they didn’t need to. We could tell.
To say I had a bad case of FOMO is an understatement. They’re showing us photos taken at the music bar they found, where they’ve done more shots of Grey Goose vodka than they can recall, taken selfies with bar staff, clientele and self-declared police officers – and all the time doing their darndest to make the Russians smile (it’s a genuine challenge*).
Somehow, they find their way back to the hotel, and for much of the journey, fend off offers of car rides from men. Clair puts Anna to bed (I’ve seen the photos) and orders room service. It’s an impressive innings.
Xenia, our beautiful tour guide meets us in the lobby and for four hours, we walk the city.
Vladivostok is often touted as ‘Russia’s San Francisco’ – steep streets, mountainous, similar bridges (including the Golden Bridge) and a network of bays, most strikingly the crooked dock-lined Golden Horn Bay (named for its likeness to Istanbul’s). Only opened to external visitors (including other Russian citizens) in 1999, the city is young, having been officially named in 1860 (although with a lengthy Chinese history prior).
The Golden Bridge
Inside the railway station
The Trans-Siberian rail journey to Moscow leaves from here
On a Russian submarine. As you do.
View to the Golden Bridge
The local law enforcement lads, who asked to take a photo after this with our gorgeous host, not us!
Closer up, it’s a mixture of architecture and influences. Soviet housing blocks are squeezed between new condos and century-old mansions, strongly resembling European design.
In 2012, Vladivostok hosted the Asian Pacific Economic Conference (APEC), which resulted in billions spent on infrastructure. You get the feeling that the city has significantly flourished in only two years.
The girls manage to recognise the bar from the night before
By 2.30pm, Anna is back in bed and we’re lunching with Xenia at Moloko & Med (Milk & Honey), which is clearly a café for the trendy and stylish set, boasting an extensive menu and amazing smoothies. It’s a smoothie for Clair (she needs her anti-oxidants) and champagne for us.
Clair and our host, Xenia
Cut to an hour or so later and we’re all back in bed for a much-needed nap.
Dinner is at Studio, a sleek, stylish bar and restaurant with banquet seating, patio, balcony, exposed brick and concrete floors. We’re entertained by a group of what we assume, are models at the next table, who have bought their own photographer. As we’re sipping cocktails, they’re posing all around us, doing their best to flaunt their size six bodies in twelve inch heels.
Whilst they pick at salads, we make our way through the menu – seafood, pasta, racks of lamb and the local (and famous) layered turtle cake. Well… we did walk 15,000 steps today.
Cocktails at Zuma
Rack of lamb for less than $20AUD!
The famous layered turtle cake
We enjoy the walking tour so much, that we ask Xenia to show us around again for our final day. She enlists the help of her friend to drive us.
For six hours, we’re crammed into a car (Xenia is actually in the boot compartment of the hatch) whilst we make our way from the highest observatory over the city and Golden Bridge, to breakfast at a fabulous Parisian bakery, across to Russky Island where we tour the forts and underground tunnels, to the South Eastern Russia University (home to 30,000 students). We have an hour shopping at Zara and Pandora where everyone comes away with something.
About to explore the Russky Island forts
Which were dark, wet and scary!
View from the observation point
Walking the East Russia University campus
Walking Russky Island
Lunch is at Zuma, the number one rated restaurant in Vladivostok and for good reason. The extensive menu features an Asian-fusion selection – everything from sushi to Thai soups, dumplings and Chinese stir-fries.
We finish the day with a quick visit to the home of Yul Brynner, best known for his portrayals of Rameses II in the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille movie The Ten Commandments, and of King Mongkut of Siam in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I, for which he won two Tony Awards and an Academy Award for the film version. He played the role 4,625 times on stage.
At the airport, we buy a duty free bottle of red to enjoy a final Russian toast before boarding the flight home, where we are again surrounded by leering vodka-swilling men. The perfect book-end experience to the weekend apparently 🙂
*Our guides tell us that it is not culturally expected or accepted to smile often or without good reason in Russia. We are told that the Russians believe those that walk around smiling, look like fools. We’re left in no doubt that we were HUGE fools on this weekend.
A word about The Hat
The Hat featured in many of the photos was sent by my mother-in-law from Mount Gambier, South Australia. It was purchased at an auction to raise money for cancer awareness and with the commitment for it to be photographed in as many international locations as possible. We did our best.
- There is enough to do in Vladivostok to warrant four days. Try to time it for a Friday and Saturday when the city markets are held in the main square. A great selection of produce to try and/or bring home.
- Contact Xenia to arrange a personalised tour. Contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org or phone +79147214681..
- Learn the Russian words for hello, goodbye and thank you (they take a bit of practice!).
- Have your hotel accommodation printed in Russian for the taxi driver at the airport.
- Take the hotel card with you when you leave each day, should you need to ask directions or hail a cab.
- When going out to bars at night, Clair and Anna were told to keep their bags in their laps at all times and be very aware.
- No tipping is required (although we did tip our tour guides and buy their lunch).
- Change money at the airport or at a bank. If changing greater than $500 in US, Won or AUD, you will need your passport. Be aware that the banks will not accept anything but pristine notes (I had a number rejected for exchange).
- Buy a Russian doll (or two). There are a number of shops selling the dolls and Christmas decorations. Highly recommended for momentos and gifts.
- Hotel Hyundai; ideally located within walking distance of Svetlanskaya Street, the main square, bars, cafes, shopping and the coast. The rooms are modern, clean, a good size and with very comfortable beds. Be sure to book with breakfast included (a reasonable buffet style selection). The SkyBar lounge and restaurant is also recommended.
Currency and Costs
- The currency is the Ruble
- At the time of publishing this blog, 1 Russian Ruble = 18.79 (easiest way is to times everything by 20).
- Guide on what you should be paying:
- Good bottle of wine; py6 602 or 12,000W
- Basic dinner for two in pub; py6 1811 or 36,000W
- Dinner for two at Italian with desert and wine; py6 4417 or 83,000W
- Cocktail; py6 327 or 6,500W
- Coffee; py6 118 or 2,500W
- Cigarettes; py6 70 or 1,500W (!!)
Taxi: Taxis (tel: 8 (423) 244 4444, 8 (423) 292 25 55 or (908) 992 2555) are available outside the terminal. The fare from the airport to the city centre is руб 1500 (or 30,000W) and the journey time is around 45 minutes. There is a desk at the airport where you can agree the price, book and pay. Recommended.
Taxis wait outside the terminal, but it is often difficult to find a good deal. A share-taxi costs RUB 500 to RUB 600 and private taxis cost between RUB 800 and RUB 1200. Be sure to agree on the price before leaving the airport.
Bus: The airport is served by two buses that stop at the airport terminal square and then travel into Vladivostok. Bus 107 and 101 both travel to central Vladivostok. Fares are RUB 55.
Airport Facilities: Bank, ATMs, currency exchange, luggage storage, medical centre, mother and child room, handicapped facilities, wifi, souvenir shops, newsstands, duty-free shops, a coffee shop and a restaurant are all available within the terminal. Once you clear customs, you can purchase a bottle of wine from the duty-free shop and the café will supply glasses.
Timing wise, June can often be grey and wet, while September and October are the nicest, sunniest months (another thing Vladivostok has in common with San Francisco).
Things to do
The Hotel Hyundai has a tourist information office located in the lobby. There are a range of walking and sightseeing tours on offer, including to the Russky Island fortresses, Communist secret passages, museums and art galleries. We also explored the length of Svetlanskaya Street, which has bars, restaurants and major shops like Mango, Zara, Pandora and United Colours of Benneton.
By Taxi; There are a number of taxi companies, and hailing one is easy. There is no meter because most companies and freelance drivers charge a flat rate of RUB300 for one hour. The rate is usually negotiable but not below RUB150 per hour. Expect to pay at least this much for a single journey over a short distance.
By foot; The city centre is only a short walk from the train station, and most of the sights can be reached easily on foot. Aleutskaya St runs north/south, passing the train station; head north to Svetlanskaya St, which is the main east/west road for the city. As much of Vladivostok is situated on steep hills, walking can be physically demanding.
- Club Cuckoo,1A Okeanskiy Prospect (city centre, near the overseas passenger terminal and main city square), ☎ (4232)995858, . F Sa 11PM-6AM. Apparently, the most glamorous night club in the city. The very strict ‘door bitch’ however will let the foreigners in, just because they speak English. Club hosts best parties in town, including DJs from Moscow and London. Ticket RUB500 at door; drinks RUB150-350. Despite our efforts, we didn’t make it here.
- ZUMA: Fontannaya St., 2,Vladivostok 690091, Russia Click here for the menu. Number 1 on Trip Advisor. Features an Asian-fusion menu. Highly recommended.
- SYNDICATE: Komsomolskaya St., 11,Vladivostok 690078, Russia; “best steak in town”, like a 1930s Chicago speakeasy. Number 2 on Trip Advisor. We didn’t make it here.
- STUDIO; Svetlanskaya St, 18A, Vladivostok 690091. Stylish eatery serving European and Russian food.
- Nikolai Shtukkenberg(Николай Штуккенбергъ), 28 Okeanskiy Prospekt (city centre, close to Sibirskoe Podvorie hotel), ☎ +7 4232 26-69-49, . 8AM-12AM. The restaurant is situated in the flat, where Nikolai Shtukkenberg lived. Russian artist Nikolai Maksimovich Shtukkenberg arrived to Vladivostok in 1913, where he served on “Kazak Poyarkov” icebreaker. Nikolai Maksimovich was the first Far Eastern marine painter.
- Cafe Moloko & Med (Milk & Honey),6A Suhanova St (city centre, opposite Suhanova square), ☎ +7 4232 589090. Midnight-3AM daily. European cuisine in a very nice and stylish atmosphere, very popular with foreigners and expats. Staff speaks English and an English-language menu is available. There is also a selection of Russian dishes on the menu. There are outdoor and indoor seating areas. Highly recommended, as is the patisserie next door.