As on any river ship, the unique views of the river and coastal areas are a constant source of enjoyment. Stateroom balconies, interior and exterior observation lounges, and generally speaking most public spaces on the ship, lend themselves to taking in views of the constantly changing scenery.
There were myriad opportunities for personal enrichment, including seminars on Chinese language, calligraphy, painting, Chinese silk rug making and Chinese kite-making. A favorite of many passengers was the presentation by Jaime Fang, whose family made kites for the emperors of the Qing Dynasty, with over two and a half centuries of experience. He followed his lecture with a demonstration of various types of kite-flying on the observation deck. Guests were allowed to take control of soaring birds, fish and dragonflies, against the lovely backdrop of Xiling Gorge.
On a ship this size, the ship's staff does do double-duty as entertainers. Our crew presented a well-attended and much-appreciated fashion show, during which they modeled various ethnic costumes and demonstrated various folk dances. On subsequent nights, guests were invited to share their own talents. Cruise Director Dick Carpentier wowed the audience with an impressive rendition of "My Way." Other shows featured illusionists and martial arts demonstrations. Following these, there would be karaoke sessions and dancing.
Shore excursions were a highlight of the cruise. Each small tour group was assigned a local guide, fluent in English, who would accompany that group through the day's journey. Whether the tour took us to the Three Gorges Dam and visitor's center, or some of the smaller gorges, such and Parrot Gorge and Bamboo Gorge, our guides were enthusiastic and knowledgeable. From the ancient "hanging coffins" of the Tujia people, who believed that the higher they placed the remains of their loved ones, the closer they'd be to heaven, to the "trackers" of Shennong Stream, a vanishing breed, who for generations have pulled small sampans over the crystal-clear waters of their beloved valleys, our excursions helped us realize a pure experience of Chinese native culture.
Many guests were extremely moved when individual guides serenaded them with Tujia folksongs, while strapping young "trackers" quietly rowed them along the stream in their peapod boats, or even sang along. Still another excursion took us to the famous "Ghost City of Fengdu." An ancient temple complex, high on a hill overlooking the Yangtze, the Ghost City has drawn pilgrims of the Buddhist faith for generations to pray for health, for wealth, for fertility or for happiness in the afterlife. A series of 200 steps leads up the hillside for the more adventurous; for the less hearty, a cable car system takes visitors to the upper temple complexes, culminating in the "Palace of Heaven."
These shore excursions are offered for a flat fee of $80, payable upon booking, and participation was nearly universal.
My first impression of Victoria Anna was one of spaciousness and understated luxury. From the gangway, one enters a three-story, circular gallery supported by gilded columns and flanked by a curving staircase at one side. A mahogany table in the center of the gallery supports a huge arrangement of fresh flowers. The curved staircase is echoed on every floor, and with its comfortable rise-to-run ratio, it was used by almost all passengers to the exclusion of the glass elevators on either side of the ship.
Warm wood paneling is used generously throughout the public spaces, complemented by a carpet in tones of blue and gold. The shops offer for-sale items such as gifts and jewelry -- there's also a kite shop!
Other features include a game room where guests can be seen playing mah jong and other board games at all hours. Opposite the game room is the Internet Center, where $8 U.S. buys passengers unlimited Internet access (that's a per day fee), such as it is, on four flat-screen monitors. Warning: Reception is slow and sporadic.
Nearly half of the fourth floor is devoted to The Yangtze Room, the ship's combination lounge, lecture-hall, theater and nightclub. Dominated by a freestanding bar at the entrance, the room has a circular dance floor/stage, theatrical lighting, and enough lounge chairs for 150-plus guests. Sliding doors allow guests to wander outside to a promenade deck wrapping around the forward, starboard and port sides of the ship.
The fifth floor is dominated by the Sun Deck and an enormous, outdoor observation deck covered in green outdoor carpet. A large reading lounge/library is also located on this floor, offering a selection of newspapers, magazines and books.
Though there is no pool or hot tub onboard Victoria Anna, a fitness room on deck one provides a variety of equipment including exercise bicycles, a bench and free weights. However, there was some criticism that open windows allowed engine fumes inside the gym. Upstairs, on the Observation Deck, passengers took walks, performed stretch routines, or merely sunned themselves.
The spa consists of a reception area and two treatment rooms, one of which has three massage tables separated by curtains, the other with leather reclining chairs for the ever-popular foot reflexology massages. A third room is set up as a hair salon. There is also a doctor's office for Dr. Xu's medical treatments. Dr. Xu's offered a variety of massages, the most popular of which was the reflexology foot massage, which attempts to isolate pressure points as a means of relieving overall body stress and tension.
For early risers, Dr Xu offered classes in Tai Chi in the Yangtze Room. Starting with basic poses, he would gradually add more and more complex poses as the days went by, giving guests the benefit of these conditioning and toning exercises as well as of studied breathing techniques.
Though there was a handful of passengers age 13 or under, the ship makes no special provision for them in the form of recreational programs, special staff, menus or facilities.