by Colleen DebaiseCollege Press Service
Sitting at a table in St. Petersburg with two Russian friends and a lot of vodka, an American student decided he should open Russia's doors to other students.
Steven Caron, a graduate student at Oxford University, spent his summers from the University of Southern California backpacking and Eurailing throughout Europe. Like most students, he paid for an international youth hostel card and took advantage of the low prices for lodging.
One country he didn't visit while a USC student in the `80s was Russia, then part of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately for him, none of the costly hotels there fit his budget.
When a few Russian friends he later met at Oxford invited him to stay at their house in St. Petersburg, he jumped at the chance and soon fell in love with the canals and palaces of the 300-year-old city founded by Peter the Great.
That led to the January 1992 conversation at the table with his friends. "We thought it was too bad that it was so hard to find good, inexpensive accommodations in Russia," Caron said. "This country needed clean, friendly and safe places where international hostellers could meet, exchange travel tips and make new friends."
He and his friends began searching the city for a dormitory that could be converted into a hostel. Before long, they found a four-story, pink and white stone building in the center of town.
"We put my life savings into renovating it," Caron said.
By June, the St. Petersburg International Hostel had opened, complete with new floors, bathrooms and showers, and enough beds (three to five per room) for about 70 people.
Nearly 20,000 travelers have stayed at the hostel since its opening, and about 75 percent have been students, Caron said. The hostel features a common room with movies shown nightly and a "cybercafe" where guests can e-mail friends.
The hostel, included in Let's Go! Europe and other travel books, has received favorable reviews, many noting its low price, about $15 per night, including breakfast.
"Cheap digs, dorm style, in St. Petersburg," wrote Lawrence Malkin of the International Herald Tribune. "In the era of worker's paradise, a visit to Russia's art treasures used to cost a czar's ransom in hotel bills. No longer."
Students who have stayed at the hostel have also voted it a success.
"Wow! This is the best hostel I've been in all year, and I've traveled through just about every country in Europe," Andrea Charlock, a student at Stanford University, wrote in the hostel's guest book.
The hostel also makes one last travel plan a little easier: obtaining a visa. Anyone who makes a reservation will be sent papers confirming their lodging plans, which is needed to obtain a visa, Caron said.
Seven other hostels have since joined the Russian Youth Hostel Association, founded by the St. Petersburg International Hostel.