Snapshot: Victoria Cruises is the only American-managed cruise line currently sailing China’s Yangtze River, the world’s third largest, and home to the hauntingly beautiful Three Gorges area. Victoria was established back in 1993, when traveling in China was a culture shock to many North Americans (and it often still is), offering a familiar setting with western cruise directors and English-speaking onboard river guides and tours guides, and crew to varying degrees. All but one of its 7-ship fleet of nearly identical looking riverboats, each with navy blue hulls and bright yellow detailing, carries less than 300 passengers (VICTORIA JENNA, the newest of the 7, carries nearly 400, and the trend is for ships to get larger due to the Three Gorges Damn which has raised water levels and made waterways wider). Three of the ships were built between 2004 and 2009, and the other four are from the mid 1990s, but they were all substantially rebuilt in 2011 or 2012 (and renamed in some cases) with a modern blend of European and Asian design. They are comfortable, but not super luxurious — “Five Star” to the Chinese market is not “Five Star” to North Americans. Each is fully air-conditioned and has Wi-Fi access. Often there are groups aboard combining a China land itinerary with a short Yangtze river cruise, some with well-known tour companies, Alumni and other special interest groups booked, as well as occasional Chinese conference groups. Individual bookings are also welcome from independent travelers. Note: Unlike some river vessels in China, Victoria Cruises’ fleet was built to international maritime regulation standards.
Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers: VICTORIA GRACE (built 1996 & 198 passengers), VICTORIA LIANNA (b. 1995 & 218 p), VICTORIA SOPHIA (b. 1994 & 208 p), VICTORIA SELINA (b. 1994 & 218 p), VICTORIA KATARINA (b. 2004 & 264 p), VICTORIA ANNA (b. 2006 & 266 p), VICTORIA JENNA (b. 2009 & 378 p)
Passenger Profile: Mostly seniors fairly evenly split between North Americans, Europeans, Australians and Chinese, with Westerners tending to travel more in the spring and fall.
Passenger Decks: 5 VICTORIA ANNA, 4 VICTORIA JENNA, 4 VICTORIA KATARINA, 4 VICTORIA LIANNA, 4 VICTORIA SELINA and all have elevators between passenger cabin decks; 4 VICTORIA SOPHIA & 4 VICTORIA GRACE have no elevators
Price: $ Moderate
Included Features: Meals and accommodation. (Shore excursions are not included, but are fairly reasonable; some wholesalers package excursions into the price.)
Itineraries: The fleet does either 3- or 4-night trips downriver or upriver between Chongqing and Yichang; or 7 nighters to Yichang round-trip from Chongqing. The highlight on all the itineraries is the two-day passage through the Three Gorges, a trio of fjord-like submerged valleys flanked by dramatic walls of rock crowned with forests. The 5-mile Qutang Gorge is the shortest, narrowest and most dramatic and the third Xiling Gorge is the longest at 41 miles and the deepest with its cliff walls rising to 4,000 feet. Unfortunately, fog is common in the Gorges area.
Why Go? The reason to cruise the Yangtze is to sail through the dramatic sheer cliffs of the scenic Three Gorges — it takes about two days to pass through the area and a river guide narrates the passage. Another reason is to see the enormous Three Gorges hydroelectric dam, built in 2006 amid much controversy.
When to Go? Winter is cooler, less crowded and less expensive, while summer is warmer and humid, often very hot. Spring (March to mid-May) and fall (mid-September to November) is a good time to travel on Yangtze, and tends to attract the greatest number of Westerners and Europeans. Expect fog and smog some of the time. It’s best to avoid major public holidays — Chinese New Year, usually in February; National Day in October; and Labor Day in May.
Cabins: All cabins are outside and have balconies, and the vast majority are fairly roomy Superior Cabins measuring about 200 to 225 square feet, including the balconies (with the exception of VICTORIA GRACE’s 157-square-foot standard rooms). All cabins have bathrooms with a tub and shower, and TVs with CNN and HBO. There are a handful of suites on each ship, the largest measures 632 square feet including the balcony (ANNA, JENNA and KATARINA have the greatest number of suites). For the VIP treatment, book a suite or purchase the optional “Executive Deck Program” (for $1000+ per person) to get access to the private Executive Lounge for free happy hour wine and beer, and hot and cold drinks any time. The VIP plan also gets you free house wine and beer at dinner, reserved seating at evening shows, free Wi-Fi in certain areas of the ship, nightly turn down service, and private shore excursions for groups of 6 or more.
Public Rooms: Each vessel has two lounges, one lecture room, two or three bars, two restaurants, and a shiny two- or –three-story atrium lobby. You’ll find an Internet center, library, small gym, massage room, beauty salon and gift shop. There’s also a medical center. Décor-wise, various shades of gold are prevalent in upholstery, furniture and wall treatments, and so are wood tones, yellows, reds and blues.
Dining: Each Victoria ship has two restaurants: the single-seating Dynasty Dining Room serves buffet-style western and Chinese breakfast, lunch and dinner at large round tables with lazy Susans in the center for easy sharing, while a second restaurant on the top deck serves breakfast and lunch buffet style, and dinner from an a la carte menu at an extra charge (or complimentary for those in suites or who bought the “Executive Deck Program” upgrade). Chinese dishes include various stir-fries, rice dishes, soups and seafood, while western favorites such as grilled fish, pasta, beef stroganoff, salads, and typical American breakfasts are always on offer.
Activities & Entertainment: Because there is a lot of time on board as the ships pass through and between the Three Gorges (and most shore excursions aren’t more than 2-3 hours long), activities are plentiful, from lectures about the Three Gorges and the Three Gorges damn to various aspects of Chinese culture (Chinese medicine, poetry and art). There are also morning Tai Chi classes, Mandarin lessons, and calligraphy, painting and acupuncture demonstrations. Before and after dinner in each ship’s Yangtze Club show lounge, colorful cabaret shows feature traditional Chinese music and dance, plus an interesting fashion show that showcases elaborate traditional costumes from all across China and as far back to the Han Dynasty some 2,000 years ago.
Along the Same Lines: Viking River Cruises
Contact: Victoria Cruises, 136-18 39th Avenue, 12th Floor, Flushing, NY 11354; www.victoriacruises.com, 1-800-348-8084