Launched in 2011, Viking Emerald is Viking River Cruises' sole ship operating on China's Yangtze River.
A chartered vessel, it has all the "feel" of a Viking-owned ship with the familiarity of branded products, menus, newsletters, day-to-day schedules and service standards. Repeat passengers won't feel short-changed. Unlike the line's predominantly European-based fleet, where low bridges and water levels restrict the size of ships, 256-passenger Emerald is a larger vessel, with four passenger decks and a sun deck, plus additional facilities that include shops, a spa, hair salon, Internet cafe and gym. With a sleek glass atrium extending through the decks, it's akin to a small, pared-down cruise ship.
Although it's relatively new, Emerald does not have the ultra-contemporary decor of some modern European river cruisers and is more traditionally furnished, although comfortable throughout. During our cruise, the onboard ambience was relaxed and friendly, and grumbles were few and minor. Crewmembers definitely stand out, unfailingly smiling and charming even when standing in the rain helping passengers up and down steps. This more than made up for small service issues in the dining room, such as occasionally running out of dishes at the lunchtime buffet.
Between March and November, Emerald sails on three Yangtze River land-cruise itineraries that range in duration from 12 to 18 days, again different to the European product that only features river cruises.
Attracting a predominantly American market, Viking's trademark attention to detail extends to the land stay with a company tour guide taking care of everything, including the collection and transfer of luggage for internal flights and even providing suitcase locks for passengers that need them.
All meals are served in the Deck 2 restaurant and are open-seating. Circular tables seat eight people and feature a lazy susan, a revolving glass section ensuring the smooth passage of shared dishes and other items around the table without the need to pass them.
Breakfast is a leisurely affair from 7 to 9 or 9:30 a.m., depending on shore excursions. The expansive buffet of meats, cheeses, cereals and pastries includes delicious homemade yogurt with unusual flavors like green tea, a fresh fruit station and healthy choice section. Small fruit smoothies are served at the table with juice and hot drinks. For the full works, the buffet chefs cook omelets and hot dishes to order, and for table service, passengers can order from the menu, which includes buttermilk pancakes, French toast, porridge (oatmeal), eggs Benedict, crispy bacon, sausages and hash browns.
Sparkling wine is available at breakfast and served at the entrance to the dining room at lunchtime, and staff don't stint on the decent complimentary wine and beer available at lunch and dinner. No wonder the passengers seem such a happy bunch!
Lunch is served at noon but is less regimented than on some other river vessels, and staff don't seem to mind if you come in later. This helps ease the inevitable queues that form at the buffet as people shuffle along with trays. At both lunch and dinner, samples of the main dishes are on show at the entrance to the restaurant, which can help you decide what to order. The lunchtime buffet has a good range of salads and hot and cold Western and Asian dishes with the most adventurous -- chicken feet, more lyrically called phoenix feet, and pigs' ears -- probably wisely saved until the last day. There is also a sit-down service that typically features a choice of two appetizers, three main courses and two desserts. The chefs have fun with the menu, serving dishes like The American (a hamburger) and The British (a roast beef baguette with fries).
There is no afternoon tea service; however, pastries and cookies are available throughout the day at the 24/7 tea and coffee station outside the Observation Lounge.
Dinner, from 7 p.m., is table service and includes four choices of appetizers, three main courses and three desserts, plus a cheese plate. Typical dishes, with daily vegetarian options, include smoked duck breast with salad and sweet chili sauce to start, then olive-crusted fillet of sea bass in a lemon sauce, followed by tiramisu. Special diets can be catered to, and "always available" main courses of Caesar salad, salmon, chicken or steak can be ordered. The captain's dinner is a four-course affair with more choices, and chefs rise to special occasions. Our cruise coincided with Thanksgiving Day, and roast turkeys held aloft on silver platters were borne into the restaurant and carved with great aplomb.
Staff have a very clever knack of remembering names (even if you forget to wear the obligatory name badge) and food and drink preferences from day one, adding to the very personal touch. Sometimes the service lacked finesse, with menus handed to men before women and meals served in the same way. Butter comes in pre-packs, not dishes, and some passengers commented that most buffet items were already dressed or in rich sauces with few lighter options. During our cruise, the restaurant was sometimes uncomfortably warm during dinner.
A beverage package, including drinks from the bar during opening hours and unlimited fine wines, is available for around $182 and has to be bought by both people sharing a cabin. If you fancy a local tipple, such as Chinese wine -- yes, there is a growing wine industry with brands featuring memorable names like Great Wall and Dynasty -- you're free to bring them onboard, and there is no corkage charge.
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.
Emerald's 128 cabins are located on Decks 2 to 5, and they are all outside cabins with balconies and sliding-glass doors. They are divided into four categories with two Explorer Suites, 14 suites, four junior suites and 108 verandah cabins. There are no designated single cabins.
Verandah cabins, on Decks 2 to 4, are 250 square feet, and the junior suites on Decks 3 and 4 are 260 square feet and located next to the stairwell and elevators. Suites, situated aft on Deck 5 are 301 square feet, and the two Explorer Suites, on the bow on Deck 3, are 603 square feet.
Cabins have the option of double or twin-bed configuration, and all have roomy wardrobes and storage areas, including space under the beds for suitcases. Cabins also feature air-conditioning, safes, telephones, kettles, bottled water replenished daily, proper plug-in hair dryers and flat-screen TV's with 10 English-speaking channels, films and the ship's Web cam. Two chairs and a small table are available on each balcony. Visitors to China are advised not to drink tap water, and a special filtered water tap in all the bathrooms is a really useful amenity for cleaning teeth. Although the brochure states robes and slippers are available on request, they had been placed in all the cabins on our "Imperial Jewels of China" cruise.
Moving up the cabin grades, extra perks include a refrigerator, plus wine and fruit on arrival. All cabins are decorated in tasteful, muted tones with oriental touches featured in the artwork and large, colorful floral decorations. Electrical sockets are both 220V and 110V.
Bathrooms in all categories are well lit with large mirrors and good-sized shower cubicles with sliding, glass doors. L'Occitane soap, shampoo, conditioner and body lotion are supplied and replenished as needed.
We were impressed with our suite, which was kept spotlessly clean by the room steward, who seemed to develop a sixth sense for whenever we were out and imperceptibly went in to do the morning clean and nightly turn-down, which included novelties like chopsticks and delicate Chinese paper art on the pillow -- an innovative change from the predictable chocolates. The wardrobe had plenty of hangers, and we appreciated extra touches that included an umbrella, shoe horn and clothes brush. If you miss daily briefings, the Viking News is left on the bed each night with detailed information on the following day's schedule.
The top category Explorer Suites, with separate bedroom and lounge areas, occupy a prime spot in a quiet position on the ship. Our only disappointment was the lack of privacy between the adjoining wraparound balconies.
There is a very efficient onboard laundry; items are picked up from the cabin and delivered the next day, with the option of a more expensive express service.
To avoid any surprises, the tipping guidelines are clearly set out in Viking's advance passenger information. The suggested gratuity is $15 per passenger, per day, which is distributed equally among the ship's staff, including the program director. There's also an additional $10 per passenger, per day, for the individual tour escort who's with you for the duration of the land and river-based itinerary. Normally tips can be added to the onboard account and settled with a credit card at the end of the cruise. The gripe on our cruise, the last of the season, was we were not forewarned that gratuities had to be paid in cash, so they could be given to the staff before they disembarked, meaning people who had already budgeted for their spending money had to withdraw extra cash.
That aside, Emerald is a cashless ship, and all onboard purchases are added to personal shipboard accounts. The onboard currency is the renminbi yuan (RMB, China's official currency), and if you settle any part of your account with U.S. dollars, U.K. sterling or euros, the cash amount will be converted into RMB at the current exchange rate.
In addition to the ship's crew, it is suggested that local guides and drivers are tipped at the respective rates of $2 and $1 per person, per day, in cash. Tips can be given in Chinese yuan or U.S. dollars.
|Fitness and Recreation|
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.
River cruising is not geared to young children, and there are no dedicated facilities for them.
Unlike European river cruises, which mainly draw a 50-and-older market, China cruises attract a more diverse crowd, including younger couples and families with adult children. A large number on our cruise were river cruise veterans, many loyal to Viking. Others were confirmed ocean cruisers curious to find out about river cruising, and a few were on their first-ever cruise.
Passengers are divided into groups of up to 30 on arrival and stay with the same people on excursions for the duration of the itinerary, so many had already bonded by the time we boarded Emerald and stuck together for the rest of the trip. Those who want to socialize can broaden their circle, as the small and informal nature of river cruises makes it easy to circulate at mealtimes and in public rooms.
An average 75 percent of Emerald's passengers are from the U.S. The remainder hail from Canada, the U.K. and Australia.
Dress is casual and comfortable onboard and ashore, with no formal nights that require special outfits. Jeans can be worn in the restaurant, and there's no obligation to change for dinner, although most people do. The captain's welcome dinner and/or farewell dinner provide an excuse for passengers to dress up a bit, albeit this still errs on the side of smart-casual.
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.
|Expert reviews are provided by CruiseCritic.com, an award-winning cruise community. This objective information can help you choose just the right ship for your next cruise vacation.|