Viking River Cruises on course to flood Yangtze

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omething's always happening on the river, particularly when it is the Yangtze: The world's third longest waterway, flowing nearly 4,000 miles from the Tibetan mountains to the east China Sea port of Shanghai.

It is the site of the massive Three Gorges Dam, China's largest construction project since the Great Wall. It also is a cruising ground to cargo ships and passenger vessels of all shapes and sizes, newly joined by the new Viking Century Star.

With the April launch of this first in a planned 10-vessel fleet of custom-built Yangtze River cruisers, Viking River Cruises is broadening its geographical horizons beyond its established routes in Europe and Russia.

"China is one of the most exciting travel markets in the world," said Torstein Hagen, Viking River Cruises founder, chairman and CEO and recently host to the company's friends and investors, Chinese partners, U.S. tour operators and press on board for the official inaugural sailing of the Viking Century Star.

Hagen said he intends to develop the Yangtze cruises as a centerpiece to a full program of land itineraries. Next year, in cooperation with its China partner, New Century Cruise Co., Royal Viking Cruises will launch a second ship in March, the Viking Century Sky, which will carry 306 passengers and will be the largest ship in the Viking River Cruises fleet.

The 186-passenger, five-deck Viking Century Star, meanwhile, is a first step in Hagen's mission.

The ship is filled with stylish Scandinavian-influenced decor in polished woods and local marble. In addition to the lobby-level restaurant, ship facilities include panoramic views from the Sun Deck bar, a coffee bar and an observation lounge. On board services include laundry, a beauty salon, Internet room and combination gym/ sauna/massage area.

All passenger cabins are outside with private balconies, and each is equipped with hotel-style beds, good storage space, sitting areas and TV and DVD players. Cabin choices range from the 84 standard cabins, with 177 square feet of space, all the way up to the Presidential suite with an enormous Jacuzzi tub, beautifully furnished living room and great big terrace.

Next year's vessel, the Century Sky, will be a larger version of the Star but will include at least two major upgrades: larger standard cabins and elevators will be added -- a welcome improvement for less agile clients.

Viking contracted celebrity chef Martin Yan, cookbook author and star of Yan Can Cook, to develop its regional menus. And indeed, both Chinese and European dishes were delicious, particularly the buffet breakfasts.

River cruising puts the accent on the destination, and we were introduced to China's rich culture with the colorful spectacle of a traditional Lion Dance at the boarding point in Chongquin, and we were treated onboard to a concert of

Chinese instrumental music and a demonstration of traditional Chinese crafts. Cultural enrichment programs on all cruises range from lectures and Chinese language lessons to early morning tai chi practice.

The destination, of course, is the Yangtze River itself, a waterway that is changing dramatically with the construction of the $28 billion Three Gorges Dam. The leading aims of the dam are controlling the river's devastating floods, providing electricity (least 25% of China's total power supply) with the world's largest hydroelectric power plant and providing for safer navigation and increased river shipping.

Yet with the river rising more than 400 feet behind the dam by 2009 to form a 385-mile-long reservoir, more than a million people are being resettled in new cities on higher ground; traditional farmlands are being submerged, along with wildlife habitats, ancient tombs and historic monuments.

Along the 430-mile stretch between Chongquin and Wuhan, there is indeed much magic to cruising on the legendary Yangtze. It is not the world's prettiest river, but it's one that provides on-deck vistas of rice paddies and fishing villages, new towns springing up on high ridges, colorful river traffic, misty mountains and the dramatically beautiful Three Gorges themselves.

One particularly good reason to fold a river cruise into client itineraries is that it provides a comfortable, hassle-free way to view China, a respite from sightseeing mania of major city touring.

For me, there were several highlights of the Century Star's inaugural cruise, in addition to the people-to-people experience of poking about riverside markets.

Viking River Cruises' Viking Century Star stops at several places along the Yangtze River. Above, shopping at a bazaar in front of Shibaozhai Pagoda. Shibaozhai Temple, for example, is a 17th century Qing dynasty-era relic that hugs the cliff above the river, a fairyland red pagoda that's glazed with tiles. Visitors pass through an entrance gate of welcoming lions and dragons, to ascend through the decorative interior via 12 narrow staircases to the top. Equally fun is the hillside outdoor bazaar.

Three Gorges cruising is a special experience: one requiring warm clothing, because it's cold out there.

The five-mile long Qutang Gorge -- 500 feet at its widest point and the shortest but grandest of them all -- is a place where mists swirl around towering limestone peaks. In the Wu Gorge below Wushan, the cliffs are so high and sheer that it is said the sun rarely penetrates this 25-mile-long stretch.

To cruise on the Lesser Three Gorges of the Daning River tributary, passengers switch to a smaller riverboat for the 20-mile excursion through the Beautiful Dragon Gate Gorge, the Misty Gorge and the Emerald Gorge.

Sheer cliffs, dotted with ancient tombs, and steep mountains rise on either side of the waterway. Waterfalls spill down the rocks and terraced fields separate the gorges.

The Three Gorges Dam is a spectacular, albeit quite different, attraction. During a five-lock transit, the Century Star shares the lock hold with vessels loaded with cargo and passenger boats whose Chinese commuters and families go about their morning tasks of brushing their teeth, preparing breakfast, warming up with tai chi practice and waving to us foreigners.

To contact reporter Carla Hunt, send e-mail to [email protected].

Sailings offer Yangtze sampling

WOODLAND HILLS, Calif. -- Operating through December, all seven-night cruises on the Viking Century Star here, feature a Snow Jade Cave excursion, Shibaozhai Temple visit, Three Gorges scenic cruising, Lesser Three Gorges sampan excursion, lock transit and tour of the Three Gorges Dam site, visits to the Viking-supported primary school in Jingzhou and the Hubei History Museum in Wuhan.

Cruisetours add fully escorted land arrangements from arrival to departure, including hotels, all meals, sightseeing, transfers, and intra-China/Asia air; prices below are per person, double occupancy.

• Misty Mountains of the Yangtze: nine nights, including the cruise and one night each in Beijing and Shanghai; from $1,649.

• Imperial Treasures of China: 12 nights with cruise, three nights in Beijing, one night each in Shanghai and Xian; from 2,129.

• In the Footsteps of Marco Polo: 16 nights with cruise, three nights each in Beijing and Shanghai, two nights in Suzhou, one night in Xian; from $2,709.

• The Ancient Kingdom of Siam: 16 nights with cruise, three nights each in Beijing and Bangkok, two nights in Kunming, one night in Xian; from $2,999.

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