|A Victoria Jenna Executive Suite is spacious, with two single beds and a large balcony.|
It had been a good seven years since I last came this way. The mighty Yangtze, a tame river now, was truly not the same twice. As I boarded the Victoria Jenna in Yichang for a slow, four-night float to Chongqing, I knew the cruise, too, would not be the same.
I was met at Yichang Sanxia Airport by a Pacific Delight Tours (www.pacificdelighttours.com, 800-221-7179) guide, a lovely girl dressed in a party dress and high heels, who took me on a whirlwind tour of the town before leading me to the boat parked downstream from the famous Three Gorges Dam.
“Wait here,” she said, pointing to a comfortable seating area in the Jenna’s lobby, assuring me that because of my Executive Suite status, all check-in would be handled by her.
Up I went on one of the ship’s four glass elevators to my cabin, an oversized room with two single beds, a desk, flat-screen TV, stocked mini-fridge and full bathroom with a bathtub—one of the luxuries I crave on a cruise. The room had a large balcony over the river as well as an unexpected view of China going by, well, from the bathroom— another small luxury as, by traveling alone, privacy was not an issue.
The balcony provided a quiet, private China escape where I could watch the quotidian mores of modern China on the side of a watery super highway used by coal and mineral barges. At the same time, we moved past cliffs bearing the traces of ancient Ba burial sites, mostly caves and hanging coffins, all much more visible now that the water level was so much higher following the completion of the dam. The quiet medieval fishing villages, the temples and primitive steps leading down to the river banks were all gone this time, buried under the muddy waters of progress.
My expectations of a Yangtze cruise were not stratospheric. I had traveled the Three Gorges before on a vessel owned by a China-based cruise company. My cabin fit a tiny single bed, had a TV the size of a Kleenex box and came with just enough room to pass from bed to bathroom—a tube fitting a shower, sink and toilet. It even had a balcony, big enough for a chair, from which I could view the dam site and inhale all the cigarette smoke from my shipmates nearby. The cabin happened to be just under the lounge and so had through-the-wall karaoke entertainment till 2 a.m. nightly.
|The Jenna sails a four-night cruise from Yichang to Chongqing on the Yangtze.|
On the Jenna, then, the first thing I did, after circling my stateroom in celebration of all the space I had, was scope out where the karaoke would be. Nowhere near me!
Victoria Cruises (www.victoriacruises.com; 212-818-1680) runs eight nonsmoking luxury cruise vessels on the Yangtze, and as an American company with an American product, gives those vessels all the style, pomp and pumped-up amenities its Western passengers are inclined to expect. Its five-star flagship, the Jenna, launched a year ago as the largest in the fleet and boasting several “firsts.” It is the first river-cruise ship to possess four elevators. It provides Internet using digital cellular technology that allows passengers to stay in touch throughout their voyage for a nominal charge daily. The Victoria Jenna is looking to lead in the field of “green” cruising in China, starting with an efficient fuel-passenger system of navigational design and weight distribution, as well as recycling programs and efficient water usage systems. In addition, each of the ship’s 198 cabins comes with a full bathtub and private balcony over the Yangtze.
Most recently, the Jenna rolled out its Executive Suite program to go with Executive Suite bookings. Privileges include dining in two restaurants, including the fancy upper deck à la carte option of the VIP Club, plus concierge services, executive check-in, Internet and private shore excursions for small groups. Executive Suites are really just larger cabins measuring 333 square feet with space for a desk, love seat and parlor table next to an ample balcony with patio chairs. The four stateroom configurations range from the 224-square-foot Superior Cabins to the 587-square-foot Shangri-La Suites. All cabins come with marble-accented bathrooms, mini-refrigerators, a 26- to 42-inch Philips flat-screen TV and comfortably firm, tufted mattresses.
Dining takes place mostly in the Dynasty Dining Room, the largest on the Yangtze, seating 350 guests (along with two kitchens for groups with special dietary requirements). On this voyage, somewhat unusually according to Cruise Director and General Manager Dick Carpentier, the ship was loaded up with passengers mostly from China, Japan, the Philippines and Malaysia. There were five Americans and two Brits to share the English language, touring and meals, and we all sat together through most of the trip, discussing, at the end of the day, ins and outs of what we had learned.
“Most Westerners I meet have no idea what China is all about. They think it’s still a country of Mao jackets and oversized Mao portraits,” says Carpentier, who joined Victoria Cruises in 2004. “Also, they are somewhat afraid to travel alone because of the language issues. But when they get here and especially on the cruise, they find a lot of luxury and amenities they did not expect and they find plenty of English.”
|A cruise on the Jenna comes with excursions that allow guests to slip away from the crowds.|
The buffet-style meals always contain a balanced mix of Chinese and Western offerings. Waiters and customer-service staff speak English and all presentations are made in English. As an American company, Victoria Cruises ensures English will not be a problem when it comes to shipboard experiences and even guidance for its daily excursions.
For passengers in suite accommodations or enjoying the Executive Suite program, complimentary dining in the VIP Club is a nightly option. The limited three-course menu may have such choices as lamb chops and pan-seared salmon as well as onion soup au gratin and an assortment of Chinese dishes. A sophisticated wine list bearing rarified labels from Australia and New Zealand is served by the glass or bottle.
Post-dinner entertainment involves mostly dining staff taking up Chinese instruments, dancing, singing, staging slices of Chinese opera, even executing a final-night talent show with impressive flair. Other onboard activities include morning t’ai chi lessons along with early coffee and muffins, spa and salon treatments, a small exercise room with equipment and attendants, and access to an acupuncture specialist who can cure anything from overeating to headaches to sciatic pain for about $35 per treatment. I opted for a weight-loss session coupled with “cupping” for my shoulder ache and some acupuncture for my sciatic pain. After sticking herb pins in my ear to abate my appetite, a hot glass sucked the aches right out of my shoulder while the needles, at least for that night, left my lower back pain-free. My appetite slowed as well, although in a buffet environment I was not sure if one less helping of beef noodles or pizza really made a difference.
But walk it off I did on a hike up Ming Mountain to the Ghost City of Fengdu, to the temples of White Emperor City, to the overlooks by the Three Gorges Dam. There were others who enjoyed the use of a ski lift or hired porters to carry or wheel them to each site for the price of a Coke. But walking lets one slip away from the crowds (every attraction in China comes with crowds) and take to ancient stone paths with the rustling bamboo—perhaps the way they were intended to be experienced.
A trip on the Victoria Jenna, and indeed all of Victoria Cruise’s Yangtze offerings, can be booked through the line’s partners, including Avalon Waterways, Orient Flexi-Pax, Globus, Trafalgar, Travcoa and Uniworld. For details, get in touch with Victoria Cruises’ Larry Greenman at 800-348-8084, ext. 338.
Pacific Delight Tours specializes in China destination products and offers a trip down the Yangtze with Victoria Cruises as a land-only module for rates starting at $469 per person double for four to nine days, or as part of a larger multi-city package lasting from nine to 18 days. Some special rates available through 2010 include a 12-day Imperial Yangtze Journey that comes with complimentary upgrades to Executive Suite and its usual perks, and top-class hotels in Beijing, Xi’an, Chongqing and Shanghai as a land-only package from $2,899 per person double. All packages have options for meet-and-greet assistance and backup by local ground contacts. Contact Pacific Delight Tours’ Joseph Fields at 800-221-7179, ext. 1241 for details.
|As an American company, Victoria Cruises helps Western guests ease their way into an authentic Chinese experience.|