Senior editor Michelle Baran is on the inaugural cruise of Century Cruises' Century Paragon. This is her first dispatch.
Gliding through the Yangtze River's famous Three Gorges on Century Cruises' newly launched, 398-passenger Century Paragon, I was beat over the head by a recurring theme: This was not your grandmother's Yangtze River cruise. Not by a long shot.
Neither the scenery nor the ship, I was told, resembled anything from a decade ago (let alone before that) when the Three Gorges Dam project was unveiled to a flurry of controversy.
And while to us Yangtze neophytes, the soaring gorges still appeared stark and impressive as we ran out on deck to snap photos of what is undoubtedly the cruise's main attraction, those who had experienced the Yangtze River in the past couldn't help but shake their heads in awe at the overwhelming changes the river and the product has undergone. (View a slideshow of more of Michelle's journey on the Century Paragon here or by clicking on the photos.)
One passenger muttered about how much higher the gorges soared prior to the river's dam-induced water level surge. And another recalled bringing clients to theYangtze River in the 1970s and 1980s, long before there were upscale overnight passenger vessels winding between the towering mountains.
And while the Yangtze of yore, a waterway that traveled back in time past remote farmlands and fishing villages, is gone for good, part of the attraction of the new Yangtze is its dramatically changed persona, one that represents the complexities of a rapidly evolving China.
The Paragon, a vessel created out of determined entrepreneurship, also encapsulates the new China, and tells another side of the Yangtze's story of evolution and change, one that clearly benefits the passenger.
While some will argue that the Yangtze was more scenic and had more character and charm prior to the Three Gorges Dam project -- which displaced 1.3 million people from the river's banks to higher ground, or to urban areas throughout the country -- it's hard to argue that the Paragon isn't a welcome improvement over a yesteryear Yangtze.
With its European engineering and design, the Paragon represents an evolution in desire for and execution of a luxury river cruise product. Having toured one of Century's older vessels, the Century Diamond, which was built in 2008, it's clear how much the hardware has evolved in five years to more closely resemble a Western interpretation of what high-end river cruising should look like.
Everything from the interior design, which is more in line with the clean and modern interiors the European ships have adopted, to the larger cabins and amenities such as an indoor swimming pool and cinema indicate that as far as Century Cruises is concerned, the Yangtze is far from a bygone tourism product. Rather, with ambitious plans to continue to build and enhance upon its fleet, Century clearly sees this as a new era of opportunity and experiences on the river.
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.