Victoria Cruises' latest vessel in its premier class of ships sailing China's Yangtze River, Victoria Anna, has the feel of larger, ocean-going vessels even as it exclusively traverses Asia's most dynamic and fascinating waterway.
Indeed, the Yangtze River, called China's "Golden Waterway," hosts 80 percent of the nation's inland shipping traffic. Fully one-third, or 450 million, of China's 1.3 billion people live along its banks. It shares the title of "Birthplace of China" with the Yellow River to the north, and recent archaeological finds have proved that the oldest Chinese civilizations developed here.
Population centers like Chongqing, home of Allied Command in the China - Burma - India Theater during WWII and now a city of 30 million, sprang up precisely because of their location on this important trading and strategic route. The Three Gorges Dam, the largest water conservancy project ever undertaken by man, makes the Yangtze a major source of hydroelectric power for this thoroughly modern, industrialized nation. The Three Gorges themselves, places of storied beauty, are a national treasure. All these factors combine to make the Yangtze River the cruise destination of choice for travelers interested in an authentic experience through the heart of China.
In this case, Victoria Anna provides an excellent backdrop for exploring this part of China. The locks of the Three Gorges Dam were nothing short of a marvel. Five in number, they were of staggering dimensions, especially compared to the locks at the Panama Canal. Passengers took advantage of the sunshine on the top deck as we waited for up to five other tankers and barges to berth themselves next to us for the vertical journey from one lock to the one above. Once we traversed the locks, the sublime scenery of the Three Gorges awaited us, with their craggy, sheer granite cliffs, huge caverns, precipitous, verdant slopes and broad valleys of terraced farmland. River guide, Daniel Li, gave informative commentary over the public address system during notable passages of the Gorges and lectured on the history of the Yangtze River in the Yangtze Room.
And Victoria Anna offers a lovely home base from which to explore. Highlights include a grand, three-story atrium, complete with two glass elevators, shopping galleries, specialty restaurant, fitness center, spa, Internet center, observation lounge, gigantic observation deck, and generous balconies in every stateroom.
As much as the ship's accommodations and luxury amenities impress, it is the friendliness and attentiveness of its staff that leave a lasting impression. As guests approach the ship from the pier, an honor line of ship's crewmembers greets each warmly with "good afternoon" and "welcome aboard." In the spacious lobby, cruise director Dick Carpentier makes the acquaintance of every passenger and from that moment on, is a fixture in their onboard experience. In his many capacities -- master of ceremonies, guide, companion and entertainer -- he is constantly looking out for the welfare of guests and seeing to their comfort. The rest of the ship's crew is first-rate.
One oddity -- at least in the river cruising mileau -- is that Victoria Anna operates like the Queen Mary 2, in which passengers in more expensive cabins can choose to dine in an alternative, more intimate restaurant, and those in standard staterooms eat in a more traditional dining room setting. Standard folk can purchase the option to eat all meals in the Sun Deck for $40 per day.
There were just 11 Chinese passengers onboard our sailing. However, the emerging Chinese middle class represents a target market for Victoria Cruises. Other passengers were equal parts American and European, mostly from Britain and Germany, in addition to some Australians. Staff members are fluent in English and Chinese, and most announcements and lectures are translated into Chinese.
Dress is extremely casual with an emphasis on comfort. Shorts were common, as were tennis shoes. Many wore hats for sun protection. Evenings were also fairly casual with the exception of the Captain's Welcome Aboard Reception and the Captain's Farewell Dinner, during which women wore casual cocktail attire and men wore jackets and ties.