Launched in 2011, Viking Emerald is Viking River Cruises' sole ship operating on China's Yangtze River.
A chartered vessel, it has all the "feel" of a Viking-owned ship with the familiarity of branded products, menus, newsletters, day-to-day schedules and service standards. Repeat passengers won't feel short-changed. Unlike the line's predominantly European-based fleet, where low bridges and water levels restrict the size of ships, 256-passenger Emerald is a larger vessel, with four passenger decks and a sun deck, plus additional facilities that include shops, a spa, hair salon, Internet cafe and gym. With a sleek glass atrium extending through the decks, it's akin to a small, pared-down cruise ship.
Although it's relatively new, Emerald does not have the ultra-contemporary decor of some modern European river cruisers and is more traditionally furnished, although comfortable throughout. During our cruise, the onboard ambience was relaxed and friendly, and grumbles were few and minor. Crewmembers definitely stand out, unfailingly smiling and charming even when standing in the rain helping passengers up and down steps. This more than made up for small service issues in the dining room, such as occasionally running out of dishes at the lunchtime buffet.
Between March and November, Emerald sails on three Yangtze River land-cruise itineraries that range in duration from 12 to 18 days, again different to the European product that only features river cruises.
Attracting a predominantly American market, Viking's trademark attention to detail extends to the land stay with a company tour guide taking care of everything, including the collection and transfer of luggage for internal flights and even providing suitcase locks for passengers that need them.
Unlike European river cruises, which mainly draw a 50-and-older market, China cruises attract a more diverse crowd, including younger couples and families with adult children. A large number on our cruise were river cruise veterans, many loyal to Viking. Others were confirmed ocean cruisers curious to find out about river cruising, and a few were on their first-ever cruise.
Passengers are divided into groups of up to 30 on arrival and stay with the same people on excursions for the duration of the itinerary, so many had already bonded by the time we boarded Emerald and stuck together for the rest of the trip. Those who want to socialize can broaden their circle, as the small and informal nature of river cruises makes it easy to circulate at mealtimes and in public rooms.
An average 75 percent of Emerald's passengers are from the U.S. The remainder hail from Canada, the U.K. and Australia.
Dress is casual and comfortable onboard and ashore, with no formal nights that require special outfits. Jeans can be worn in the restaurant, and there's no obligation to change for dinner, although most people do. The captain's welcome dinner and/or farewell dinner provide an excuse for passengers to dress up a bit, albeit this still errs on the side of smart-casual.
Viking Prestige, which debuted in 2011, was Viking River Cruises' last new-build before it introduced its revolutionary Longship series in 2012. It has a lounge, dining room, library, a sun deck and cabins on three decks.
One of the original "Longships," Viking Aegir and its sister ships represent a new take on river hospitality, one in which a sleek, Scandinavian ambience is the antithesis of river's traditionally fusty vessels.