The Yangtze itself is the primary entertainer on these sailings. In a way, river sailings can be thought of as 'round-the-clock sightseeing boat trips. In addition to the farms and river ports along the shore, often wildlife, such as monkeys, can be sighted. In addition there is a seemingly unending variety of river vessels plying up and downstream, from fishing boats, to rickety sampans to shallow draft freighters and barges to high-speed hydrofoil ferries that look just like the rocket ships in the Flash Gordon serials of the 1950s, even a cruise ship constructed in the shape of a dragon.
During the more interesting passages a river lecturer narrates on the ship's P.A. system. By far the most scenically interesting portion of the cruise is the passage through the "Three Gorges," lushly verdant precipitous cliffs forming narrow twisting canyons, strongly reminiscent of the fjords of Norway. All itineraries feature passage through the locks of the Three Gorges Dam, which, when completed in 2009, will be the largest concrete dam in the world. Though the dam is still under construction, the locks have been completed, and their transit, like that of the Panama Canal, is fascinating.
The Yangtze Club, Katarina's sole lounge, is perfectly designed to provide a vantage point for these passages. It extends from one side of the ship to the other, save for a narrow horseshoe-shaped outside promenade, and nearly half the length of Deck Four. Floor-to-ceiling windows facing forward and to the sides provide great views, and a number of doors open to the promenade to allow shutterbugs to dash outside to grab a shot. Because of its length, the Yangtze Club can be used for multiple activities simultaneously. Passengers can engage in a rowdy game of mah-jongg at tables near the bar at the aft end of the room, while others listen to the river lecture or learn kite construction up forward.
Other daytime entertainment/enrichment offerings include Chinese brush painting and calligraphy, and, at night the lounge features entertainment either by crewmembers or by professionals brought aboard, such as programs of martial arts or performances from Chinese Opera. Later there is dancing or karaoke.
Entry to Victoria Katarina is through a two-story atrium finished in highly polished luxuriant wood paneling, floored in plush carpeting woven in blues and golds. Central to the atrium is a huge floral arrangement, around which passengers gather each day to disembark for shore excursions. A gently curving staircase winds up to the second deck's shops and passenger cabins, then to the third deck, the location of the combination library and meeting room. The ship has an indoor observation lounge as well as an outdoor observation deck that occupies an entire deck and is festooned with lounge chairs during periods of comfortable weather.
According to the brochure, Victoria Katarina features an Internet cafe. However, this facility is so inadequate it is virtually unusable. Instead of the satellite-based broadband service found on most modern ships, Katarina's Internet cafe is made up of four very slow laptops driving even slower dialup modems hooked up to -- believe it or not -- cellular telephones whose antennas sit unanchored along the windowsill. Not only is this system tortuously slow, but every turn of the ship or passing cliff bombs out whatever data transfer was in progress. Furthermore, a number of popular services -- including AOL -- fail to properly function on Katarina's system.
On the positive side, at least the service is affordable. One hundred Yuan (about $6) will get you unlimited cafe usage for the entire voyage.
On a serious note, though many of us remember the days when being on a cruise meant being out of touch for a week, it was tolerable because there was a lack of expectation of being able to connect with home. However, since Katarina has no in-cabin telephone connection to the outside world, and there is little or no opportunity to place phone calls ashore, being unexpectedly incommunicado can make family members highly uncomfortable.
Victoria Katarina has neither a pool nor a hot tub. It does, however, have a small, but decently equipped gym. Deck Five, the open observation area, attracts a small number of joggers, and people considering booking cabins on Deck Four should take this into consideration, especially since, due to the double-hull construction of the ship, the steel used for interior decking is thin (to save weight) and tends to "oil can," i.e., noisily pop in and out when stepped on at various points.
One unique offering is a morning Tai Chi class taught in the Yangtze Club by the ship's doctor.
The spa features massage in a number of Asian techniques, including reflexology foot massages, which received rave reviews from most passengers. There is also a small hair salon.
Shore excursions, which should be Katarina's strong suit, given the rich spectrum of scenic and cultural treasures ashore is, sadly, its most egregious deficiency. On the plus side, for most passengers, shore excursions are offered free of charge. However, there is only one shore excursion offered per port call, and, since daylight sailing is important to the core mission of the cruise, passengers feel squeezed by being traipsed through too many sights in too short a time.
For example, when we visited Wanzhou, our two-hour tour included three individual stops. First we visited an unnamed street which featured a number of galleries, of which we visited three: The Gallery of Handicrafts of China, the Gallery of Relics of the Cultural Revolution, and the Gallery of Rare Stones From the Three Gorges Construction Site. We were hustled lickety-split through all three galleries, and, though there were plenty of attractive handicrafts in the gift shop of the first, and beautiful, semi-precious stones and fossils for sale in the third, we were granted no time to shop or buy, and off we were swept to the next stop, a fascinating open-air, fruit, vegetable and meat market that stretched for several blocks down a narrow, serpentine street. We were allowed five minutes for exploration! Then off we went to the last stop, The Three Gorges Museum, which included archeological artifacts and relics unearthed during the dam excavations. Though other days' port calls were not quite as frenetic, each still featured only one shore excursion, and, in each case there was not enough free time at the end even to find a pay phone and call home.
And, while it is clear that a short cruise requiring daylight sailing time has limited time for shore excursions, it would have been far more beneficial and productive to have broken this excursion into three separate tours: a gallery tour with shopping time, a visit to the open air market (perhaps with a tour leader who would suggest a sampling of local exotic flavors to taste), and a museum visit for those whose interest is piqued by Bronze and Neolithic Age archeology.
Also, though it is understandable why most passengers would avail themselves of shore tours if they are offered at no additional charge, I have never been on a cruise before where there was no instructional talk on each port presented the day prior to calling. Those presentations typically provide information on exploring that port independently, and that goes for even the most entry-level cruises in the least exotic of locations. This conspicuous omission must be laid squarely at the feet of the ship's cruise director, who made no effort to provide such information.
Though children are not prohibited from sailing, this cruise has no children's cruise staff, facilities, menus or programs for them, and thus is not a good choice for family travel.