10/03/2012 07:33 am ET Updated Dec 03, 2012

Who Knew Russia Was So Cool?

I grew up in the Cold War and Russia was the Red Menace.

So I was surprised that, on my first day in St. Petersburg, a young man and his girlfriend, perfect strangers, searched their iPhone for an address I wanted, and then walked us there.

What did I know about St. Petersburg? Even though I had traveled the world -- starting with Olympics and Super Bowls and then just for fun during my career as a reporter for The New York Times -- I had the sense of a dour, drab, dismal place. After all, my one experience with Russia had come off a cruise ship that docked for a day in the muddy Siberian port of Kamchatka during the spring thaw.

But when I decided recently to do Russia in style, I did it under the protective umbrella of Abercrombie & Kent, the travel specialists. And I realized I had waited much too long.

Virtually everyone I had ever met who had gone to St. Petersburg arrived there by cruise ship or river cruise. Thus, the ubiquitous two nights, three days. But A&K set us up for five nights, along with a private guide and a daily driver.

The city is alive. Its main street reminded me of my own New York City, people walking quickly, speaking different languages, students in groups laughing. And the buildings -- so many landmarks, although admittedly from Czarist times.

Our A&K guide, Lenna, set the tone for the visit when she picked us up at the airport. "Did you notice some of the security people actually smiled?" she said. "I know what Americans believe. I spent time in the States. A group of Mennonites I had shown around St. Petersburg got together, took up a collection and brought me there for a visit!"

She dropped us off at our hotel, the Grand Hotel Europe, which A&K describes as "Russia's finest." Imagine that a cadre of bellman and security people hover near the front door, greeting people warmly with a "Good afternoon, nice to see you, welcome." This was not my textbook Russia.

I had Googled Russia and "rubles" back home, and had learned that it was illegal for Russians to do business in dollars. But that first day, when we were on our own and walked to a nearby flea market, the English-speaking vendors asked, "Dollars? Euros? Pounds?" I think they took anything except Monopoly money. So a thought: bring along dollars, especially singles for tips, and lots of fives if you take cabs.

That was another aspect of travel in Russia that is unlike, say, Western Europe. Even though many of the taxis have meters, we still negotiated a fare in advance. And just as we did at the flea market, we didn't say "yes" to their first price request. It was remarkably easy to bargain.

To be part of the rhythm of the city, you have to sleep in it. You don't get this off a cruise ship. So we walked after breakfast -- at our hotel, breakfast was more like a Hollywood fantasy: a pianist in a red dress, playing Gershwin and Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart; a chef flipping omelets; four kinds of hot cereals at the buffet; eight kinds of bread; etc.

And we walked the city after dinner. We strolled the canals, took in the remarkable candy shops, even went into a supermarket or two. They'll take Visa in the big shops and stores, but virtually no one, except at the hotel, takes American Express. And be prepared to have to pay cash at the smaller restaurants. In fact, several of them posted signs showing the classic logos for Visa, MasterCard and Amex -- with an "X" through them.

Speaking of food, every meal everywhere we ate was tasty -- even at the coffee shops adjacent to museums and palaces. There is an 18 percent VAT, so when you leave a tip, you may want to base it on the cost of the meal without that surcharge.

And what about the museums? Well, for the most part, that is a misnomer. Places such as the Hermitage are the attraction in and of themselves -- and not just for what is hanging on the walls. Yes, we had heard about the Hermitage, and the Pushkin and the Peterhof. Still, nothing prepares you for the grandeur of these places, often remarkably, lovingly restored.

It struck me as so ironic that after 70 years of Communist rule, the places and the names that resonate in St. Petersburg harken to the Czarist times -- almost as if they are celebrating a bygone era.

Not once did we hear the name "Stalin" spoken. "And you won't," said our guide.

I didn't think it was possible, but the city ranks up there with our greatest trips -- almost eclipsing India, African safaris and a tree house (where Bill Clinton slept) in the Amazon. Who knew?