Victoria Anna: Yangtze vessel reborn

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Victoria Anna YangtzeVictoria Cruises took the wraps off its latest renovated vessel plying China's Yangtze River, the Victoria Anna, on March 5, when the updated ship, built in 2006 and reworked this winter, set sail on a newly "maiden" voyage between the burgeoning ports of Chongqing and Yichang.

Facing both a growing appetite for luxury among consumers and new competitive challenges from ambitious Chinese cruise firms -- such as Century Cruises, which debuted two state-of-the-art vessels on the Yangtze River just a week later -- Victoria Cruises has embarked on a program of refreshing its fleet of seven vessels as well as its service offerings.

The Woodside, N.Y.-based line finished a two-year, $10 million overhaul of five ships in 2012 and has invested $4.5 million in upgrading the 270-passenger Victoria Anna, which the line now calls "the epitome of the boutique cruise."

Sister ship the Victoria Katarina, originally slated for renovation alongside the Anna, will undergo a similar redo next winter, according to company Chairman James Pi.

"After sitting down with our New York-based design firm, we decided to focus our greater efforts on the Victoria Anna in order to achieve the best possible results in the limited time between cruise seasons," he said. "Extending the completion of our fleetwide renovation project for one more year will allow us to devote similar time and resources to the Victoria Katarina at the end of this season."

Victoria's newest ship, the Victoria Jenna, debuted in 2009 and will be renovated in winter 2014-15.

A job well done

To passengers on the early March downstream debut sailing, all the time, effort and expense spent focusing on just the Anna appeared to have paid off. The gleaming ship, boasting spanking-new, modern public spaces, refreshed cabins and the scents of fresh paint and new carpeting, offered cozy comfort and cosmopolitan chic in equal measure. Frenzied, last-minute last touches, from dabs of paint to installation of ceiling panels, continued until push-off from the departure dock at Chongqing.

Victoria Anna Shangri La SuiteAccording to Cruise Director Marion Gaston, about 75% of the 348-foot-long Anna can be considered new.

"It's a complete rethinking," she said, comparing it in scope to Victoria's decision several years ago to reduce capacity on ships in the interest of offering fewer but larger cabins.

The Anna, which once could hold 320 passengers, now accommodates up to 270 in two Shangri-La Suites, two Deluxe Suites, 40 Executive Suites and 91 Superior cabins, all with private balconies. All cabins continue to boast satellite TV programming on flat-screen monitors, in-house phone service, private safes, mini-refrigerators and central air conditioning.

Guests traveling in Executive Suites and Superior cabins continue to enjoy the executive-level "boutique services" Victoria Cruises debuted on the Yangtze last year. These include a welcome fruit basket, choice of dining venue, private shore excursions, morning tea and coffee service, all-day hot and cold drinks, WiFi and computer access, laundry, shoeshine, happy hour and diet soda with meals (as well as house wines and beers at dinner).

Not surprisingly, China-based competitors such as Century Cruises are incorporating similar executive-level decks and services on their new ships, too. Pi, however, denied that any local rivalry spurred Victoria's latest round of renovations and upgrades.

"Victoria Cruises has always been committed to frequent overhauls in order to keep our fleet at the forefront of the river cruise industry in general, not just on the Yangtze," he said. "Increased competition from local Chinese companies has played no role in this philosophy."

Victoria Anna Dynasty Dining RoomInstead, he said, its own 2009 launch of the Jenna, which "ushered in a new era of luxury cruising on the Yangtze," was the catalyst for a renovation of the rest of the fleet. Each winter, Victoria has taken at least one ship off-line, gutting "entire decks to pave way for our Executive Luxury Amenities program and refreshing the entire look and feel of the experience." The Anna, second-youngest vessel in Victoria's fleet, has undergone two major overhauls in the seven years since its debut.

Anna's new look

Public spaces now include a four-story, circular atrium, newly outfitted in the Anna's blue-and-white interior palette, highlighted by mirrored tiles, floral arrangements and Chinese artwork; a newly stained-and-sealed wooden rooftop observation deck; two computerized glass elevators; refurnished reading, computer, game and multifunction rooms; a clinic with 24-hour medical services; the spacious Yangtze Club Bar, with adjoining karaoke room; and the reconfigured and elegant Dynasty (main) and Top of the Yangtze (a la carte) dining rooms. Meals taken in the latter, whether served buffet-style or to order, proved both delicious and imaginative.

Shoppers can browse a large, open-plan boutique and several artisans' stalls, specializing in embroidery, snuff bottles and jewelry, while passengers looking for a little pampering can avail themselves of the stylish salon and spa, complete with private massage areas. (The 60-minute rubdown received from onboard masseuse Linda was among the top 10 of the hundreds I have sampled around the world.)

The first-deck exercise room was the only disappointment, facilities-wise. While the space has been redecorated, the exercise equipment was outdated and in disrepair.

According to Victoria officials, the Anna is the first Yangtze cruise ship to employ "five-star hotel management software applications connecting all departments," designed to streamline procedures and improve overall service.

Yankee on the Yangtze

On that note, service on the debut sailing of the reborn Anna not only met but exceeded my expectations. (I have sailed with Victoria once before, on the maiden voyage of the then-new Victoria Jenna in 2009.) The predominantly Chinese staff and crew, largely English-speaking, were efficient, friendly and always available. Gaston, too, was always at the ready, whether to troubleshoot, arrange or simply chat.

Victoria Cruises' U.S.-style service, unique on the Yangtze, is a point of pride for the line. "The main thing that differentiates us from the competition is our understanding of the American customer," said Pi, adding that Victoria has "carefully tailored our onboard experience to maximize our guests' comfort, ensuring that our English-speaking staff and tour guides are easy to understand and that all our passengers' service expectations are met."

"As the only American-managed cruise line in the Yangtze, we also provide our travelers with peace of mind by using a U.S.-based insurance company with global coverage, ensuring our ships and personnel follow the strictest Western safety standards so that passengers can enjoy a worry-free vacation," he added.

On the March 5 sailing of the Anna, the vast majority of passengers were of Chinese and Asian provenance. Asked if Victoria's future lies in the China market rather than the States, Pi replied that the U.S. market "remains strong, with the majority of our visitors coming to us through U.S.-based tour operators. We've seen a significant surge from the Canadian market, as well." He added that Victoria's newly affluent Chinese passengers tend to book during the off-season.

For more, see www.victoriacruises.com.

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