Somewhat seasoned travellers, my wife and I are in our late 50's and residents of a small village in Eastern Canada. We wanted to visit Asia while our health still permitted it. We decided on an extended 8-night cruise on the Yangtze River from Shanghai to Chongqing with a few days in Shanghai at the beginning and some time in Hong Kong to end a 16-day trip.
We had experienced river cruising in Europe in 2007 with Uniworld from Basel Switzerland to Amsterdam and we absolutely loved that cruise. Aboard the River Ambassador, we had a small but very comfortable stateroom, excellent meals, visits to scenic sports and nice scenery along the way. We were then confident of receiving the same type of quality service since Victoria Cruises is used by Uniworld for their China river cruises. Also, if one looks at their promotional advertisement on U-Tube, Victoria Cruises appears like a vacation of luxury, relaxation and gastronomy. They tell you about executive chef Walter Stade preparing their gastronomic adventure and about the mixture of Chinese and western food to please all palates. They talk of great wine, of personnel trained to meet your every need, etc. Lovely indeed...
We boarded the Victoria Prince leaving Shanghai on May 2, 2010 and arriving in Chongqing on May 10th. The ship is relatively well maintained. The staterooms are small but comfortable. The beds and linen are good. We had a mini fridge and a small balcony with 2 chairs that we enjoyed a lot. Each cabin had a HDTV with HBO and CNN. The public rooms were well appointed and quite comfortable. It was very acceptable if not quite the same quality and good taste as the Uniworld European fleet.
The first very unpleasant experience was morning coffee followed quickly by food.
I generally go to bed early and get up early, around 5 a.m. When I get up, in a comatose state, I need 2-3 coffees to become human again and help me wait for breakfast. Cruise Ships (including Uniworld) and hotels usually have coffee available around the clock. I never had problems before anywhere. On the Victoria Prince, it was impossible to get a coffee before "coffee hour" which varied every morning according to their precisely managed daily schedule, generally around 7 a.m. I tried everything to get coffee. I got myself a thermos of hot water delivered to my cabin at 11 p.m. at night but could not get a thermos of hot coffee delivered the same way, even by begging or bribing. For some unknown reason, this small need could not be accommodated. I then tried to buy some instant coffee from the ship store but they had none (as a matter of fact, the food section of the ship store consisted of only a few chocolate bars such as M&M or Snickers - no chips, no peanuts, nothing unless you wanted to eat a t-shirt!). I was not the only coffee hound on the ship. A smart Australian oman found a supermarket in Nanjing and was kind enough to let me have a third of a Nescafe jar. I am forever grateful and in debt. With that, I managed to get a small cup of milk from the bar every day that I kept in my mini-fridge. With my hot water delivered at night, I could make myself some very bad coffee every morning but that made me happy.
The food was also a sorry affair. Far from the promised adventure in gastronomy, as described in the publicity, it was below par and could not be compared with anything I had in the past. Generally, I am not a fussy eater if I can manage to get some decent proteins and a bit a carbohydrates. ON large cruise ships, I rarely visit the dining room and I am quite satisfied with cafeteria-style food. And I have had many mals in very good Chinese restaurants, mostly to m y liking and often to my delight.
I lost a lot of weight on that trip because the food was simply lousy. The first morning, I was pleased to see that they had scrambled eggs and bacon, my saviour food when I don't like what is served at other meals. The following day, the bacon was gone, replaced by a milky white tube they called a port sausage. Certainly did not taste like pork or anything I have ever tasted. And I did not see bacon for another 4 days, then sporadically only. When there were potatoes, they were fried in very old dark oil, leaving an overcooked burnt oily taste in the mouth. The soup was a corn starch base with finely cut vegetables in it. It tasted like glue, cold and repulsive. Their designer chef Walter Stade must be quite pleased with this new gastronomic wonder!
For meals, we were assigned to a table of 9. Our table companions were 4 Australians, 2 Americans and one German gentleman and they were all very pleasant. We used to re-order 5 to 6 baskets of bread and butter per meal. The bread was good and so was the butter. We tried the 10 different plates served family-style at every meal. Ate a little of this, a little of that, in an attempt to feed ourselves. Most of it was vegetables covered with thick bland starch thickening agent or what was called marinated vegetables, which was basically just lumpy and tasteless. The quality of the meat was also very poor, chewy and nerdy. No fish, Small breaded shrimps once. They had good fresh green salad with what they called ranch dressing.
Once during the trip, we had small slices of beef in a pepper gravy with mashed potatoes. That emptied in seconds and everybody was smiling for a day. Once we had one spring roll each, very oily and not very good but to us, it was better than the usual fare, so we emptied it. Most of the food went back to the kitchen at every meal but nobody every asked us why. So I guess they knew why...
And with poor food on a cruise, you start feeling like a prisoner in a camp very quickly. You look for possible alternatives but there are none. You wonder why you have a mini fridge in each room with nothing in it. Daily excursions bring you to museums, temples, mountaintops, not to a store where you can buy something to eat. Contrary to Europe, there is very little free time to mix with the Chinese or try local restaurants. You are in and out of buses and back on the ship. Everyday you always hope that things will improve but they never do. At the end of the trip, you have no appetite left. You feel like a zombie. Thank God the last day has come,Fengdu temple, the temple of the dead, how fitting!
But there were some positive things on this trip.
The ship hotel staff, all young and willing, are impressive in their funny way. They are more than willing to please but they don't know how and the management is drilling them into little patterns like military personnel. When you shop up for morning coffee, for example, there are 3 of them standing around the coffee machine, white shirts and black suits. One welcomes you, the other one give you a coffee or a tea, the third one wishes you good day. Every morning, same routine, same personnel, same method.
When you get off the ship for an excursion, there are 10 to 20 young employees in uniform, every 25 feet or so, everyone taking turn in wishing you a good day. The same is true when you come back. They are all lined up, everyone in turn welcoming you back. I guess this is what their management tell them is good customer service. This line up is important but still no coffee in the early morning just the same.
On each floor on of the ship, in front of the stairs, there is one of those young employees sitting behind a desk 24-7. As you go by, he or she gets up and says hello. Strange again. There is a pone in each cabin but no room service. If you need ice, they say you should ask the attendant on your floor. When you ask your attendant, he/she does not understand. If you say "bing kwai tchii" or "ice please" in mandarin, he/she does not understand because of your poor pronunciation. You then make a little ice cube with your hand and then shiver, they get it and literally run to get you ice. They are bored but quite willing to be of service and somebody should teach them what ice means, or a few simple words, like towel, or sop, basic things like that. But what they know how to do, they do extremely well. Our stateroom was made up the minute we stepped out of it in the morning and again during supper and was kept spotless.
Just as the hotel management of the ship leaves to be desired, the junior attendants to wonders. I figures that after months or years in the corridor, when they have enough English, they graduate to the dining room. We had 2 attendants in the dining room that we could have basic conversation with. They also taught us some Chinese sentences and it was very enjoyable. They serve 3 meals a day, then do floor shows cabaret style during the evenings. They really have full days and work hard but are always smiling. Like I said, great staff, very poor hotel management. I still can't believe this company is owned by Americans.
There were some interesting excursions on this cruise but everything in China seems to come with a lot of stairs in it Sun Yat Sen Mausoleum 392 steps, Huangshan mountain 380 steps, Fendu 700 steps (thank God there is a chair lift that solves that one by 80%).
The highlights are definitely the 3-Gorge and the Dam, very beautiful and impressive. The low point is that you meet so few Chinese people outside the government appointed guides giving you the official story. You always seem to be kept away, isolated, in tourist land.
We had to use the ship doctor, also the tai chi instructor. My wife developed a bronchitis, due to uncontrolled air conditioning, high level of humidity and constant diesel fumes. The doctor identified a small throat infection and suggested administering antibiotics through an IV. She flatly refused so he gave her some throat losanges. He did not have any syrup or anything to make her sleep and she kept coughing all night which added to the lack of sleep. The problem got easily fixed in Hong Kong a week later. Do not count on the ship doctor, bring lots of medicines for various ailments as some of the other passengers did. They can be useful.
Finally, let me say that it was an interesting trip but not a pleasant one. We thought the cruise would be the highlight of our trip to Asia. It was not. We enjoyed Shanghai a lot at the beginning and the cruise was quickly washed away in Hong Kong, where I had possible the best meal of my life or so it seemed after a week on the Victoria Prince. If you choose to do a cruise on the Yangtze, choose a short cruise (3 or 4 nights) to visit the 3 Gorges and the Dam. Stay away from the long 8-night cruise.