ABOARD THE OCEANIA MARINA: Finding The Tour Group: Time Runs Out
Continuing to search for my Oceania Marina tour group, I leave Peterhof’s Lower Gardens and go to the one spot where we should meet at some point. The overlook above Peterhof’s famous Grand Cascade with its 64 different fountains, and more than 200 bronze statues and other decorative objects. This iconic spot is a place any decent tour group should visit. It also turns out to be both a good observation post for overseeing the Lower Gardens sidewalks as well as nicely situated near Peterhof’s main exit on the right side of the palace.
I stay there, glued to the Grand Cascade overlook, never going anywhere else for photos. Yet never a glimpse of Linda or our group. I estimate the bus will depart around 12:45 p.m. since the tour is supposed to be back at the Marina at 1:30 p.m. When the group fails to appear by 12:45, I decide to search the parked rows of tour buses lining the roads behind the palace. No Oceania bus and not a single bus driver who speaks English! It doesn’t look good for getting back with the others. At least there’s no worry about the Marina sailing without me. It’s only the first of our three days in St. Petersburg. Still, I’ll pay dearly for getting separated; it’s bound to be an exorbitant taxi ride to the Oceania Marina.
At 1 p.m., I play my last option, visiting the information booth next to the main exit. Thankfully, the woman there speaks English. I explain my predicament, that undoubtedly the bus has left without me. (although deep down inside I’d really like that bus magically to appear). What I need to do is inform the Marina—and for them to let Linda know–that everything is fine despite my disappearance. I’ll be there as soon as I can.
The woman closes the information kiosk and leads me to a large building adjacent to the main Palace. She suggests I take a chair and then walks behind closed doors into what I presume is an office area. I sit and watch Russians talking and sometimes laughing as they come and go through the entrance hall.
My Very Strange Day
Several things about today seem odd. Despite Linda’s usual quiet manner I’d expect her to create a memorable disturbance to have me found. She and I are out of touch because we didn’t bring our cell phones on this trip. With unlimited internet on the ship, we didn’t think we’d need them. Worst of all, we left behind our small walkie talkies for staying in contact aboard ship. Those walkie talkies have a range of five miles, perfect for this situation.
The woman from the information booth reappears with a colleague who asks me a series of questions in Russian. Those are translated into English for me and my answers converted into Russian for her. What easily could be a complicated dialogue is efficient and brief. Interview over, the two women disappear back behind the office door. I glance at my watch: 1:15 p.m. That Oceania bus definitely is long gone.
The other thing that seems odd about today: our guide does carry a cell phone and yet no one at this main office has been notified about a wandering American tourist now MIA for more than two hours. Losing a tourist in Russia used to be a very bad thing for a guide. Maybe not so much anymore?
The office door abruptly swings open again and the two women reappear with a colleague. In fluent English, the newcomer says “Your bus is waiting. It’s just around the corner. Come with me.” The relief I experience is hard to describe. I ask her how she can possibly know where the bus is. Or know who I am? As we briskly walk to the left of the palace– the exact opposite side of where I searched–from our conversation I come to realize this woman essentially is the-boss-of-all-guides. And Marie only has just phoned in that I am missing. The big boss does not look pleased. Is she upset with me or Marie?
An Unexpected Outcome
After perhaps two minutes of walking, we reach a row of craft shops, turn left at a corner and standing there are Linda and Marie, with our bus parked behind them. I profusely thank the woman who reunited all of us, clamber up the bus stairs and immediately apologize to the group for making them wait so long. They probably have waited for at least 30 minutes yet no one seems upset. Thankfully. I plop into my seat beside Linda. I tell her I’ve searched everywhere for the bus but where we are now is so far from the main exit—I had no idea this small out-of-the-way area even existed.
She updates me about her day. “We only got on the bus 5 minutes ago,” she says. “I let Marie know you were missing as soon as we lost you this morning. But she never did anything. When we found the bus and you still hadn’t shown up, I told her this bus wasn’t going anywhere without you. Some of the others felt the same way. Only then did she start making phone calls.”
How did everyone disappear so quickly this morning? Turns out the prolonged restroom search consumed almost all of the group’s time at Peterhof. From the Chessboard Fountain where I’d lost everyone, Marie marched the group a short distance before taking a sharp right to walk away from the Lower Gardens and into a forest with thick tree cover.
Marie’s promised 5-minute stroll instead took around 20 minutes before reaching a remote area with little for tourists to see but trees. No wonder the restrooms were empty. From the time we boarded the train tram until everyone had restroom access must have been over an hour. If I’d been on Linda’s expedition and had an urgent need I’d have watered the forest. Wasting everyone’s tour time like this was senseless considering the restrooms available before the tram ride.
Linda says that from the restrooms Marie retraced their route until reaching a bridge over the canal flowing between the palace and the Gulf of Finland. Everyone crossed to the other side, then continued plodding through a wilderness of trees. Once they reached Peterhof’s open Lower Gardens and its fountains, the group then ascended the stairs beside the Grand Cascade, never pausing long enough for Linda to take any video.
Instead of taking the group to the Grand Cascade overlook, Marie immediately exited everyone through an out-of-the-way turnstile far from the main exit. Then she gave everyone time for craft shopping near the bus. “You saw a lot more of Peterhof than we did because we saw hardly anything,” Linda points out. “And I wasn’t the only one looking for you. Some other passengers were, too.” While being lost wasn’t the best of times, it was a lot better than being part of that ridiculous, unnecessary trek.
Riding back to the ship, I reflect on my decades-long curse at Peterhof. Was it active yet again today? My cameras may have worked well but I don’t get to use them much because I spend most of my time at the Grand Cascade overlook. Having my tour guide receiver cut out as it did is strange yet fortunate. That malfunction allows me to avoid joining Linda’s walking tour to hell and back. At least I get some photos. But it doesn’t compare to what I normally take on such a perfect sunny day.
One thing is certain. This is my last time at Peterhof. For whatever reason , I am forever jinxed there. It is a place of bad juju for me. This is my forever farewell to it.
Read more about Tim and Linda’s travels at his blog site, Travels with Tim O’Keefe