A cruise on the Saimaa Canal seemed like a good idea at first. I imagined waving to people strolling down the towpath, watching farmers bring in the autumn harvest and sipping a gin & tonic as we sailed leisurely from one lock to the next.

After a while, it’s a bit too leisurely, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Half of the route passes through Russia so you can’t just get off and flag down a bus. From one end to the other is only 40 kilometres (25 miles) but it still takes five hours.Highslide JS

It's not all canal. You also travel through various lakes, which are rather scenic. Much of the time, though, you are sailing through forests. A tree is a tree is a tree.

We passed only one ship all morning, a freighter registered in Holland called the Diamant. The canal was designed for cargo rather than people but it’s not getting much in the present recession. What's more, there’s no one to wave to on the towpath when it’s pouring with rain. Highslide JS

It's the destination that makes this cruise worthwhile. Most cruise visitors to Russia go to St. Petersburg, with its great avenues, squares, palaces and 5 million people. But between it and Finland, Vyborg is a very different place that few people have seen.

If you look at the map, it seems to be on an estuary.  In fact, there’s no river at the end of the bay but there used to be. The ancient Vikings sailed up from Vyborg to reach the great lakes of Ladoga and Saimaa. It is a very old settlement compared with St. Petersburg.Highslide JS

Regardless of the other merits of Tsar Peter I or the people of his city, the marshes of the River Neva were a foul place to build. Even Peter’s first wife thought so, although being divorced and shut up in a nunnery may have left her with some bitterness towards her husband's endeavours.

Certainly the builders of St. Petersburg thought it a dreadful job, especially the ones that died in the process. They say that constructing St. Isaac’s Cathedral alone killed off sixty thousand workers, praising heaven and populating it at the same time.Highslide JS

In contrast, the Bay of Vyborg has natural beauty and a healthy climate. The town is a bit dilapidated compared with other Baltic towns, but it's fairly neat compared with most Russian ones.

VISA FREE The quick way is to get there from the west is to take the train from Helsinki, but if you arrive by train you must obtain a visa in advance. If you travel by ferry, you don’t need one. So at the start of September, I took the only ferry route into Vyborg, down the Saimaa Canal from Finland.Highslide JS

Finns like to visit the place because it used to be in Finland. It was once a cosmopolitan trading centre, with Germans, Jews, Karelians, Ingrians and Tatars as well as Finns, Swedes and Russians. Today, its population of 80 000 are mostly Russian.

Sweden built the first fortress there, when Finland was part of Sweden. The border with Russia moved back and forth a few times until Finland became independent at the start of the 20th century, taking Vyborg with it.Highslide JS

In the 1920s and 1930s, Vyborg was Finland’s second largest town and, by many reports, a lot more fun than Helsinki. That has changed since it became part of Russia at the close of World War II , but it’s still well worth a visit.

The canal cruise starts from the Finnish town of Lappeenranta on Lake Saimaa. We steamed away from the quay at 7:45 past a great paper mill and, by about 8:30, we were entering the first lock of the canal.Highslide JS

When the Saimaa Canal was built 150 years ago, it was 15 kilometres longer and there were 28 locks to descend from Lake Saimaa to the Baltic. They named it the Canal of the Tsars. It was to have a bright future, connecting the economy of inland Finland to the outside world.

It had a bright beginning, too. At its inaugural celebrations in Vyborg in 1856, the fireworks set fire to the castle tower, which burned down.

Highslide JSSince the canal was rebuilt in the 1960s there have been just eight enormous locks. To my mind it's a bit tedious after the third one, but other passengers were sitting back and enjoying the ride and a fine meal on the way. We finally arrived at Vyborg passenger terminal just after 2 p.m. local time. You sail in past the shipyards, which are now the main local employer.

Highslide JSThe contrast between Vyborg and St. Petersburg could hardly be greater. If you’ve taken a summer cruise to St. Petersburg, you’ve experienced an immensely busy town where groups of visitors are shuttled by bus from one queue to the next, under the watchful eyes of guides. But in Vyborg, the groups break up soon after passing through customs and everyone does their own thing at their own pace.

LOCAL ATTRACTIONS Of course there’s far less to see than in St. Petersburg , but Vyborg has a medieval castle (rebuilt after the fire), fine churches, elegant avenues and good cheap restaurants. To the northeast there is even a spacious park, Monrepos, laid out in the English style.Highslide JS

Monrepos was created from the end of the 18th century onwards and, although the manor house is closed, the grounds and follies are very pretty. In the 19th century it was a favourite place for Finnish artists to go and paint. They exaggerated its grandeur, which confirmed its reputation.

Transport is no problem in Vyborg. Almost everything is within walking distance. Monrepos is a hike of 45 minutes from the centre so I got a taxi back. The driver asked for 100 rubles, and any local would have laughed at his audacity, but it was cheap for me at just over 2 euros.Highslide JS

Vyborg’s other big plus is shopping. In St. Petersburg this is a rather overwhelming experience and many visitors leave again without finding anything that's actually useful. Vyborg is full of friendly shops.

In the very centre is its market hall, a treasure chest of produce, clothes, souvenirs and intriguing junk. Most sellers don’t speak anything but Russian, plus the Finnish words for “try” and “buy”, but pointing works fine.Highslide JS

There are several hotels. Admittedly, Hotel Druzhba, where I spent the night, is not top of the range but it was inexpensive. Druzhba means friendship and hundreds of hotels of this name were built in the old Soviet Union. In truth they were very unfriendly places but Vyborg’s Druzhba was revamped in post-soviet times and is now clean and modern.

The rooms on one side have a view of picturesque Salakka Bay, with its fountain. My room was on the other side, overlooking the railway yard, which was a lot more interesting. Highslide JS

The long return I caught the boat back the next evening. Captain Eero Metsä was as courteous as ever but, unsurprisingly, the return took as long as the outward voyage had.

It would have made better sense to return by train, only two hours all the way to Helsinki, but Russian regulations say that you have to go both ways by ferry if you don’t have a visa. Next time I’ll get a visa.

Pat Humphreys, 5 September 2009

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