Viking Introduces the Century Sky 5-14-2005

TAW is onboard for the maiden voyage

By: Ana Figueroa

Ask anyone in the travel business what the hottest destination in the world is right now, and chances are, they’ll say, China. The China buzz is particularly strong in the cruise industry, which has China in its sights as a huge feeder market as well as a destination. It’s not surprising, then, that the world’s largest river cruise company, Viking River Cruises, has worked steadily over the past few years to establish itself in the all-important Yangtze River trade. In March 2004, the line introduced the 186-passenger Viking Century Star on the Yangtze, operating from Chongqing to Wuhan, in partnership with one of China’s premiere tour companies, New Century Cruise Company. Following the success of the Century Star, Viking rolled out the newly built, 306-passenger Viking Century Sky in April.

More than 150 invited guests, including TravelAge West publisher Michelle Rosenberg, attended the eight-day inaugural event in China. Festivities included a pre-cruise stay in Beijing and a post-cruise stay in Shanghai at Five-Star Hotels featured in Viking’s Cruisetour itineraries. The centerpiece of the inaugural, of course, was a three-day cruise on the Century Sky, which featured stops at the Shibaozhai Temple, Qutang Gorge, the Lesser Three Gorges, and the imposing Three Gorges Dam.

The cruise began memorably, to say the least. Sudden, heavy rains flooded the pier facilities at Chongqing. Guests had to gingerly walk across the river on an impromptu walkway constructed with a combination of pontoon floats and corrugated metal planks, something those with walking disabilities had difficulty managing. It was a sobering lesson that, for all of China’s interest in attracting tourists, the country still has far to go in its infrastructure.

Once all were safely aboard, the sail-away party began. Guests were treated to Chinese lion dancers, musicians, plenty of champagne and speeches by a list of dignitaries, including executives from Viking, New Century Cruise Company, local Chinese dignitaries, and representatives from the China National Tourism Organization (CNTO).

The Century Sky is the second of three vessels resulting from the partnership between Viking and the New Century Cruise Company. The latter built and owns the vessels, which in turn are leased and operated by Viking. A third vessel, the Viking Century Sun (sister to the Century Sky) will debut in 2006.

Viking Chairman Torstein Hagen pointed out that the introduction of a second ship on the Yangtze would give passengers greater travel options and flexibility.

“The opportunities in China are immense,” Hagen noted.

Currently, the line offers five different Cruisetour itineraries in China, ranging from nine to 18 nights, featuring a three- or four-night cruise (depending on direction) between Chongqing and the Three Gorges Dam, or a nine-night cruise between Chongqing and Shanghai.

The new Viking vessel certainly scored highly with inaugural guests. The 415-foot-long, 56-foot-wide Century Sky is the largest in Viking’s fleet, with six decks and a Scandinavian decor, in homage to the line’s Viking name. Each of her 153 cabins has a small, private balcony, bathroom with a shower, telephone, TV, air conditioning, in-room safe and hair dryer. The Century Sky also featured two elevators, unusual for any river vessel, as well as an Internet cafe, observation lounge, sauna, sun deck, bar, shops, business center, gym and beauty salon. Another unique feature was the vessel’s spa facility. Although the ambience could be improved with some soft music and dim lights, the rooms were good sized, and the prices  were very reasonable. (a traditional Chinese massage for $22)

Travel Consultant Nancy Vick, of Worldview Travel in La Jolla, Calif., also sailed on the Century Sky in April, and was quite impressed with the ship’s facilities.

“Everything about the decor was beautiful. This ship was head and shoulders above anything else that we saw on the river,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned, this is the only way to see China.”

There was one detail about the staterooms that Vick thought was a bit odd.

“The suites were quite lovely, but they had the same exact bathroom as the rest of the rooms. I expected to see a bathtub, or some extra amenities,” she said.

Viking’s president, Jeffrey Dash, emphasized during the inaugural that the availability of a huge labor pool is one of the factors that makes China so attractive.

“You don’t see the service ratio we have here in China anywhere else in the world. These people are eager to be a part of something,” he said.

While some of the staff’s English-speaking skills were a bit rough, and some staff, such as room attendants, spoke virtually no English, management-level staff was always available to smooth things along.

“You almost didn’t want to ask the staff to do anything for you because they were all so nice, friendly and had a great attitude. You could tell they were all so proud to be working on the ship,” said Vick.

Staff members were also eager to learn the “American” way of doing things, such as preparing and serving popular cocktails.

“I asked for a Manhattan and it wasn’t quite made right. The bar manager found me, apologized, and came out to the deck to give me another drink, complimentary. That made a real impression on me,” said Vick.

Many of the Century Sky’s staff had taken on “Americanized” names, so there were lots of “Britneys” and “Justins” roaming about. Rosenberg took note of one staff member, named “Chocolate.”

“I asked her if her name in Chinese translated to ‘Chocolate,’ but she said no. She said, ‘People say that I am sweet. So, I picked the name chocolate, because that is sweet,’” said Rosenberg.

Dining onboard the Century Sky was another area drawing praise from inaugural guests. The line is quite proud of its Western kitchen and Swiss-managed service, but also showed off some Chinese specialties. Famous chef and cookbook author Martin Yan, star of the TV show “Yan Can Cook,” was hired to design menus, using the highest quality Chinese ingredients available.

“The food was quite good. There’s a Western-style breakfast and lunch buffet, with wonderful salads and lots of variety. We had Western-style dinners, and a special Chinese night, which we all agreed was the best meal onboard. They served family style, with a Lazy Susan in the middle of the table,” said Vick.

Though onboard facilities and service are crucial to a successful operation in China, Viking is looking at a much broader picture.

“With China, it is about selling the country. We’re hoping to become champions of the destination, and not just the Viking product,” said Dash. “If you can come here and fully experience China, the food, and the culture, then I did my job.”