Entertainment on river vessels is never going to be an all-singing all-dancing spectacular, but from the moment a colorful lion dancer welcomes passengers onboard, Viking Emerald stages a small but perfectly formed entertainment program that fills in the gaps between shore excursions.
Early birds can start the day the Chinese way with a 7 a.m. Tai Chi session on the sun deck, and there are daily activities, demonstrations and talks in the Observation Lounge. On our cruise, the former included interesting insight into the art of tea-making (much more than throwing a tea bag into a cup) and -tasting, a Chinese painting demonstration and a vegetable-carving workshop with a chef.
The enrichment program, including a landscape narration through the Xiling Gorge, was informed and engaging, really helping passengers to immerse themselves in local culture. Chinese lessons, talks on the Yangtze and a lecture on modern day China, where the enthusiastic and knowledgeable program director was happy to tackle the subject of politics and other potentially prickly subjects, were well received.
Daily shore excursions are included in the price of the cruise with the exception of a couple of optional evening tours. They ran like clockwork, and crewmembers were on hand every step of the way to assist us from the ship to the waiting buses. All excursions utilize Quietvox audio systems, a radio receiver and ear piece for each passenger, so there's no need to cluster around the guide. This means you can spread out or linger in front of a particularly interesting museum exhibit without missing a word of what's being said.
It's worth noting that if you take the "Imperial Jewels of China" cruise and want to see pandas, you need to book the upstream cruise from Shanghai to Beijing; on the reverse itinerary, the trip to Chongqing Zoo is not included.
A Viking tour escort provides continuity, staying with each allotted group for the land- and river-based elements and handing it over to local guides on excursions. Well-versed to fill in any gaps, always on hand to smooth over any wrinkles, and with an encyclopedic knowledge extending far beyond the places and attractions we visited, our guide was deemed the best the passengers in my group had ever had.
Back onboard, there's an hour of easy-listening music from the resident pianist in the Emerald Bar in the late afternoon, and evenings kick off with a daily briefing about the next day's schedule in the Observation Lounge. After dinner, the Rhymes and Reason song and keyboard duo entertain a dwindling audience in the Emerald Bar, which has a small dance floor. Passengers are not hardcore night owls, and most of them are tucked up in bed by midnight.
While the bingo evening was a bit of a damp squib, the highlight on our cruise was the crew cabaret show, where young members of staff from all departments staged an enchanting evening that ran the gamut of traditional Chinese dancing, a "face changing" performance of rapidly changing masks, rap, comedy and a touch of magic. It was incredibly well choreographed and on a par with any professional cruise ship show.
Public rooms are located on Decks 5 and 6, with the heart of the ship being the Observation Lounge on Deck 5. Situated on the bow, with floor-to-ceiling windows and plenty of comfortable chairs surrounding a circular bar, it provides the perfect environment for watching the passing world go by or catching up on the news with the potted papers -- U.S., U.K., Australian and Canadian versions -- printed each day.
The smaller, cozy Emerald Bar -- situated above the Observation Lounge on Deck 6, the sun deck -- also has large windows and, by day, it's a quiet spot to relax. The wood-floored sun deck at the aft of the ship has chairs, tables and sun loungers. There's also a library -- really a euphemism for a quiet area, as the shelves contain a limited number of books on China and no fiction. There are five tables that can be used for board games -- including Monopoly and Mah-jong -- and jigsaw puzzles, which are provided.
Next to the Observation Lounge is the wood-paneled Internet room, equipped with eight desktop computers that are free to use. In theory, it looks and sounds great but, in reality, it's a bit of a white elephant. Passengers are forewarned in the ship's literature that the connection is "very poor or even nonexistent" when the ship is sailing. On our cruise, this was the case virtually the whole time, sailing or in port, leading to some frustrated passengers questioning the point of having a whole room dedicated to it. Also on this deck is a shop that sells jewelry, including Chinese pearls.
Deck 4 houses the onboard tailor, another really nice touch. Passengers can buy off-the-peg Chinese jackets, dresses, Tai Chi clothes and other garments or have them made-to-measure during the cruise. The children's clothes are fun to take home as gifts. Prices start from around $12 for a hat, and you can expect to pay $128 for a jacket.
More attractive gift items can be found on Deck 3, where an onboard artist paints intricate fans, glass and pictures. A general shop also sells Viking logowear, panda toys, books and other souvenirs.
The reception and cruise manager's desk is located on the lobby level on Deck 2. Although short lines invariably formed at busy times, the reception desk was well staffed, and crewmembers dealt quickly and efficiently with questions and requests. Occasionally there were some small language issues, in which case another crewmember was requested to assist.
Other facilities include a medical center and an inexpensive photo backup service where digital images are transferred from your camera to disk. The ship has an onboard video photographer who records elements of the cruise. The resulting DVD package, which also includes a photo CD with more than 300 images and a route map, makes a lasting memento and costs around $40. The decks are linked by two elevators.
The small and mostly under-used Deck 6 gym is open throughout the day and has a treadmill, elliptical cross-trainer, two static bikes and a selection of free weights. Towels and bottled water are provided, and users have the pleasant diversion of looking out onto the river and passing scenery as they work out. Large windows in front of the gym equipment can be opened to provide natural air-conditioning.
Opposite the gym on the same deck is the spa, where treatments are a bargain when compared to those found on many ocean cruises. The menu includes traditional Qigong massage, based on balancing the body's energy system, and Chinese massage, which is not for the faint-hearted. Our 90-minute full-body massage, costing around $94, was, at times, breathtaking as the therapist kneaded our knotted muscles with her palms, elbows and even her knees. To be fair, she did ask several times if we were OK with the pressure, and we decided to say nothing and go with it. In turn, we were rewarded with feeling fantastic the next day. Weary passengers returning from shore excursions spoke very highly of the foot massages, too.
Given the sales pitch to buy expensive products that ensues in many spas, it was a totally refreshing change to see the therapist using plain old baby oil, which felt absolutely fine, and of course afterwards there was no spiel. In keeping with the low-key approach, the treatment rooms are simply furnished with silk screens. Relaxing music was played throughout our treatment, but we could hear the spa phone ringing on a couple of occasions, which was a bit distracting. The spa is open until 10 p.m., and it never seemed too difficult to get an appointment.
Close to the spa, in a separate room, is a hair salon that offers cuts for men and women, hair-styling, facials, manicures and pedicures, with prices starting at about $17 for a man's cut.
Viking is an adults-only cruise line; passengers must be 18 to sail.