All content was accurate when this story was published in February 2008.
It is just past sundown in the Chinese city of Chongqing, a place you grew up calling Chungking. You are at the city's highest point, overlooking the huge People's Square and the dark Yangtze River beyond. You can't believe your eyes and ears. While rock and roll blasts from pole-top speakers, literally hundreds of Chonqing's citizens engage in impromptu dancing in the square below. Some seem to be waltzing; some strut in a ragged country and western line dance; some seem to have come up with a cross between Tai Chi and the Macarena. They come here twice a day, you are told, morning and night. This they do for exercise. You descend a broad concrete stairway toward the square, wanting to join in, but every few steps a crowd of teenagers runs up to you, happily put their arms around you and pose with you while their friends snap pictures.
Back in your bus now you follow the wide boulevard leading down toward the riverbank, down through streets wallpapered Ginza-like in indecipherable neon, down past sidewalk tables with flames licking around pans set in holes in the tabletops, surrounded by families picking with chopsticks at those pans of the incomprehensibly spicy local delicacy, "Hot Pot."
Your bus stops and you get off to embark your ship, Victoria Katarina. But this is like no cruise terminal you've ever experienced. A hundred yards of sandy riverbank stand between you and the pier. A white-gloved steward offers to take your carry-on and together you walk between two flanking rows of crewmembers in crisp white livery, each one smiling and greeting you as you follow the snaking route.
Outside this reception line barefoot porters walk with bamboo yokes over their shoulders, the way their ancestors have carried wares for hundreds of years, though dangling from these poles is not rice or feed, but large Pullman suitcases and garment bags; your checked luggage. As you reach the end of the sand, the beginning of the pier, an eight-piece brass band loudly strikes up "Yankee Doodle." "Yangtze Doodle," you think, and groan at your own pun.
Later when you have gotten settled aboard the ship you learn that your cruise staff includes someone called a kitemaster, and that the ship's doctor not only practices conventional medicine, but is also skilled in Chinese herbal remedies and acupuncture; in the mornings he teaches tai chi.
It becomes crystal clear to you. You're not in anyplace even remotely resembling Kansas anymore.
Booking the Cruise
In all likelihood you will take this cruise as part of an extended land tour, so your primary booking will be with the tour operator, not the cruise line. In our case we were on an escorted tour from Ritz Tours which started in Beijing, followed by a domestic Chinese flight to Chongqing. U.K.-based cruise travelers can book via tour operators like CTS Horizons and Cultural Tours). We sailed downstream for three nights to Yichang, then caught another domestic flight to Shanghai, where we spent the remainder of our tour. Though the tour operator will handle the booking of the cruise portion, you will be able to make cabin, dietary needs and other cruise-specific requests through them. (For a list of tour operators offering this cruise, see the ship review for Victoria Katarina.)
No matter how you slice it, there are few flying experiences worse than transpacific flights. Most tour operators will book you in economy. With 13 1/2 hours in the air, if you can see your way clear to upgrade to business class, it makes all the difference in the world. You may have a choice of airlines from your tour operator. Remember that your American Airlines mileage works for Cathay Pacific, and Air China is a partner of United. Check it out; you may have enough mileage for the upgrade.
Forget every expectation you ever had about mainland China; it's modern, it's thriving, it's hip, and it's a market economy. If you are picturing hordes of people in identical blue "Mao suits" forget it: if they're wearing blue it's likely denim with a Diesel or Guess? label. If you picture streets jammed curb-to-curb with bicycles and a few cars, turn that image upside down; in the cities a large portion of the populace owns cars, and there appear to be more motor vehicles than bikes on the street.
If you are expecting your tour guides to lecture you on the wisdom of Chairman Mao you will be surprised; ours was more intent on bragging about how much her home had appreciated in value in the last couple of years. But the biggest surprise of all? Americans are truly admired in China (I feel much more appreciated in Shanghai than I do in St. Thomas!). The Chinese word for Americans? Mei Guo Ren. Translated it means "The Beautiful People."
High Points Onboard
The banquet-style Chinese dinners in the ship's dining room rivaled some of the best meals we had in restaurants in Beijing and Chongqing before boarding the ship. We loved watching the passage of scenery as we cruised through the "Three Gorges" (for those who have sailed the fjords of Norway, this will seem like familiar territory, with an Asian spin).
And let's not forget the outstanding onboard service -- one example is, after returning to the ship after trudging through the muddy streets of Wanzhou, we were informed that every passenger onboard should leave their shoes outside their cabin door when they went to lunch (lo and behold, upon returning from lunch, each and every pair of shoes had been thoroughly cleaned of mud). And, finally, the smoothness and simplicity of disembarkation -- we just strolled off the ship.
Under "Needs Improvement"
The limited wine choices offered with our terrific dinners were really weak. China produces a slew of excellent beers, but the one wine label offered, Great Wall, will bring back memories of that grape-flavored medicine your mom gave you when you were six. Katarina needs to expand her wine list beyond the one French Bordeaux offered. Not everyone is a beer drinker...
We also grumble about inadequate information provided on our ports of call, and lack of choice in shore excursions (only one shore excursion choice was offered per port, and no information was provided to passengers on exploring independently).
Best Experience Ashore
Passage through the four-stage locks of the Three Gorges Dam. Ultimately when the dam is completed six stages will be required. Unfortunately, due to the vagaries of navigational scheduling we wound up having to go through the locks at night, but, like transiting the Panama Canal, experiencing having your ship weighing in at thousands of tons lifted or lowered seemingly effortlessly is an awe-inspiring experience.
Worst Experience(s) Ashore
The shore excursions. For the most part they try to cram far too much into far too short a time. And, only one shore excursion is offered per port. Worse, since there is no information provided on independent exploration, shore excursions, while free of charge, are still far from an ideal choice.
What I Missed Most About Big Ships
Live music and a good dry martini! In short, a full spectrum of bar offerings, snacks, and a variety of lounge entertainment, a functional Internet cafe and in suite telephone access to international phoning, and we may repeat on this one but the fact is, when you come all this way to sightsee you really do need a complete and varied shore excursion program -- including port lectures for independent explorers.
When flying home, because of flight availability between Shanghai and JFK, it was necessary to take a domestic Chinese flight to Beijing and change planes to an international flight to JFK. Unexpectedly, this turned into a problem. Air China is not able to check bags through, even if the first leg is totally within China's borders. Worse, they can't even issue boarding passes for the international leg, so it is necessary not only to claim your luggage at the end of the domestic leg, but to go back into a ticketing line at Beijing, and the duration of this process of getting one's bags to getting one's boarding pass took over two hours.
Fortunately, our outbound flight was delayed four hours; otherwise we would have missed it. It is the first time I was thankful for a flight delay! Our recommendation: If you have a choice of air arrangements, and can't fly directly from China to your gateway in the U.S., opt for a flight directly to any hub in the U.S., and make the connection to your final destination there.
I'd choose a cruise/tour package that allows a maximum amount of free time -- not just free time in the middle of an organized tour, where participants are granted twenty minutes to shop here, fifteen minutes to explore there, etc. I would opt for one that left entire days for self-exploration.
One of the real treasures of visiting China, for example, is enjoying restaurants in the various cities, restaurants that don't cater mainly to large tourist groups. Are there foods you wouldn't want to sample? You bet. I'm still wondering what I would be getting if I ordered "15-color donkey." But there are dozens of delicious things on menus that are non-threatening, and -- here's a nice surprise -- unbelievably affordable. A full meal in a nice Beijing restaurant can be had for no more than $4 per person; in one of the trendiest bistros in Shanghai four of us dined on four cold appetizers, four hot main courses, a soup and dessert. Including two drinks per person and tip, we each had to fork over about $17!
What I've Learned
Be prepared for unusually configured toilets and a 50-50 chance of finding toilet paper (unroll a bit from your hotel and keep it in pocket or purse for use in a pinch), and insist on a whole day to shop Shanghai. Prices in China are unbelievably low. Think of men's leather jackets for under $40, strings of freshwater pearls for under $100, fine cloisonne vases for under $200. Everyone can afford to shop till they drop, but it's no fun dropping from exhaustion from trying to cover everything in too short a time.
--by Steve Faber, Cruise Critic contributor/i>