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The Yangtze River may not look like it once did, but neither do the new ships that sail it. Prior to my cruise, friends had warned me to lower my expectations for five-star — that the amenities, lodging and foods found on the Yangtze were of a different, perhaps less equal, kind. This was not so on Century Cruises’ freshly launched ship, the Century Paragon, and its sister ship, the upcoming Century Legend. From sunrise, when I watched women in high heels practice tai chi on the sun deck, the Paragon delivered what is, for many, the purpose of the short Yangtze cruise. Sailing on the Paragon offers a break from a comprehensive China tour — a chance to rejuvenate, indulge in nature and meditate on the greater China experience.
For most of our voyage from Chongqing to Yichang, I wasn’t even sure if the ship was moving. The Paragon’s electric propulsion system and rudder propeller system with an automatic engine room, firsts for the Yangtze River according to Century, result in a notably smooth and quiet voyage. Also, the vessels felt familiar, having been designed by Yran & Storbraaten, the Norwegian architect firm responsible for the Seabourn Sojourn and the Viking Legend, among others.
I also found many of the features I’ve grown accustomed to from previous high-end cruising, including a spa, an indoor pool almost too pretty for swimming, a gym, a sun deck with a bar, buffets stocked with fresh produce and a variety of high-quality options, a reading room, a dedicated concierge, a children’s playroom and more.
The staterooms are also comfortable and spacious, with each category featuring larger rooms than Century’s other ships. The standard cabins now measure 92 square feet, an increase of 10 square feet, due to larger bathrooms, with flourishes that include a deep bathtub and a shower with both a high-pressure removable showerhead and a rain shower. Those staying in one of the 34 Executive Suites gain even more space, and the option of dining at the exclusive Executive Club restaurant, Pavilion, though all guests can pay a fee to have a Western-style a la carte dinner there.
The ship is beautifully appointed throughout, and I particularly liked the glass elevators which are windows to the enveloping gorges, shrouded in mist and sprouting skyward from the Yangtze’s emerald waters. The multifunctional Cheers Bar & Lounge — flanked by two private karaoke rooms — is a great place to take in an educational lecture, enjoy a nighttime show or, as I found myself doing, lazily watch the weather and scenery change as old junks transporting goods sail by. Another spot sporting a few hats is the 150-passenger capacity HD Cinema, which doubles as a meetings space, benefiting from a spacious stage, auditorium seating, multilingual interpretation devices and great sound.
With the new ships, several tour operators have begun partnering with Century Cruises. Avalon Waterways, which previously sailed with Victoria Cruises, will now be sailing on the Yangtze with the two new Century ships. Brendan Vacations will also be using the new Century vessels for its Boutique Journeys to China. Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection will be sailing exclusively on the new ships. Vantage Deluxe World Travel, AHI Travel, China Discovery Tours, China Focus Travel and several European tour operators will also sail on the new ships. For now, Viking River Cruises will continue to charter the Century Emerald.
After touring Century’s older ships, it’s obvious that the new vessels are a game changer. Though not all changes to the Yangtze have been embraced, these ships are a welcome evolution.