Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer – Full Review

This week we enjoyed a 4 night upstream cruise from Yichang to Chongqing. Travelling with my Chinese parents-in-law provided an opportunity for me to experience first hand the variations you experience compared to an all foreign passenger cruise such as the Viking Emerald.

Although the modern spelling of the Yangtze river is such, this ship uses an older variation, “Yangzi”.

Boarding began around 4pm on Sunday, as it does each week during the March to November season, at the beautifully named “Peach Blossom Village Pier”. It will take you the best part of an hour by bus to reach the pier from Yichang airport. Curiously, dinner on the first night is not included in the tariff, and the quoted 400 RMB ($65 USD at time of publishing) per head certainly raised my parents eyebrows. We had dinner nearby, at a Chinese speaking restaurant with a great view of the River. The four of us enjoyed a 5 course meal, with beer, for a TOTAL of 250 RMB – about $10 a head.

Back to the ship after dinner, we were surprised that the sailing time was not until 6 AM the next morning, so the first night is actually spent at Peach Blossom Pier.

With a total capacity of 124 passengers, the Yangzi Explorer has 38 deluxe cabins, 20 (so called) suite cabins and 4 specialty suites. I say “so called”, because just yesterday the owner of Viking Cruises, Torsten Hagen, reminded the industry that just calling a large cabin a suite, does not make it so. A true suite, he outlines, is two separate rooms or more, so in this instance the Explorer has 4 true suites.

The Explorer, however, can lay claim to having the largest standard cabins – 31 square meters or 333 square feet. Much more spacious than others on the Yangtze, and balconies that are a very good size to enjoy the passing parade of ships. All the other Yangtze vessels have more cramped balconies, smaller cabins and bathrooms. On the Explorer, the bathroom is a true full size, the shower cubical is vast, and unlike the Century ships easily accommodates full size Westeners.

Our 39 square meter – 420 square feet “Suite Cabin” encouraged us to linger longer in the room rather than seeking out more open common areas. I definitely spent longer in my cabin each day than my previous Yangtze trips.

All cabins have floor-to-ceiling windows giving access to the balconies that have outdoor armchairs and coffee tables. You can request a choice of king or twin bed configuration and connecting cabins are available.

In cabin amenities include hairdryer, safety deposit box, non-branded toiletries – shower gel, shampoo, conditioner & body lotion, mini bar (cost NOT included) and LCD satellite television with a limited line up of CNN, BBC, some Chinese channels (one English speaking) and an internal movie channel. The addition of an international sports and movie channel and a deck cam would be welcomed by guests, I think.

suite cabin

The 39m (420f) square “Suite Cabin”

You probably know that at almost 4,000 miles long, the Yangtze River is the longest river in Asia, the third longest river in the world. It historically divides the North and South of China providing a natural barrier against invaders and more significantly today a waterway for transport and commerce. China’s coming of age as a world power is signalled by the colossal feat of engineering, the Three Gorges Dam, one of the included tours on this trip.

We were blessed with weather not often seen in the area on the day of our stop, and the tour provided a fascinating insight into the enormous scale of the project.

Three Gorges Dam
You can see from this photo I took above how vast the Three Gorges Dam project is, this is the face of the Hydro-electric generating wall.

On our sailing, the first of the season, the guests were divided between those on an APT tour mostly American, English and Australians aged 45-65, local Chinese like my parents-in-law, several of whom were travelling with children of various ages and passengers who had booked directly with Sanctuary. The set seating during meals in the single dining room meant mingling over meals was not possible. Guests were kept in their groups, APT guests sitting together, Asians with other Asians, some couples at tables ranging in size from 2 passengers all the way up to tables of 12. This segmentation, and set dining time is a throw back to the past that the ocean going ships have all but abandoned, but on the Yangtze continues to be the norm.

Buffet breakfast and lunch, and a-la-carte dinner, the dining room did a good job at keeping guest nourished with a wide variety of food, necessitated by the different tastes of all passengers. The challenge for the kitchen was to produce the variety of food necessary for the 80 or so passengers on board this sailing. Each meal had to cater for distinctly different palates while still maintaining a high standard for all. Was the food as good as Viking…I would say no, but, the variety was greater.

Limited snacks are served each afternoon in the lounge bar on deck 6, along with included teas & coffee.

Those of you that have read my Viking Emerald Review will also recall the drinks package available as on option to guests. Unfortunately there is no optional drinks package on the Explorer, so if you do enjoy a drink, cocktail or glass of wine outside of the dining room lunch and dinner times, you will have to pay for it on an individual consumption basis. Expect to pay FULL international 5* prices for such, as below. (Click on picture to enlarge)

wine list explorer

Entry level red or white wine by the bottle, including the 15% service charge is OVER $70 USD.

Small beer, including Budweiser, Carlsburg & Tsing Tao : $5.00 USD

Sodas : $4.50 USD per can

Cocktails : $12.00 USD each

…as a result of the assigned meal seating,the drinks charges and the fact that the passengers were not on the same China trip, there was a distinct lack of mingling between guests that we saw on the Viking Emerald the week before.

Apart from the a la carte dining, the ship offers a large luxury spa (at additional cost per session), an observation deck, 24-hour room service (all at additional cost for example: Hamburger @ $15 USD), a two-floor theatre, business centre, a fitness centre with mostly stationery cycles, a small lounge for SUITE occupants with included soda’s, beer and house wine during limited periods, a photo corner, some small gift shops and a private function room.

I was told that usually there is a Pilipino duet on board, entertaining guests with covers in the evening in the deck 6 bar. While I saw the piano, unfortunately our cruise had no duet, apparently due to a ‘visa issue’. Perhaps with them aboard the entertainment would seem more rounded, as the ‘Variety Show’ on one of the nights, which was basically the only evening entertainment and hosted by the knowledgable American Cruise Director, Bob, could at best be described as amateurish.

Each day had an included tour, and there were two optional tours which were not well patronised. Perhaps the $44 USD charge for the walking tour dissuaded some guests? During times when the ship was sailing during the day, a number of on-board activities were available, including early morning Tai-Chi, China chats, traditional Chinese medicine lectures, silk embroidery demonstrations, a bridge tour, golf chipping contest, mahjong lessons and as shown below Chinese dumpling making lessons.

Cooking class

The highlight of the trip for me came on day 3, an 8.30 AM departure to the Shennong Stream via a smaller ferry. The advantage of having just 80 passengers aboard was about to reveal itself. After a 45 minute trip where we saw ancient hanging coffins on the cliffs and wild monkeys we were loaded in sampans where local trackers paddled and pulled their way through a mini-gorge. There is NO way a ship larger than the Sanctuary can offer such an intimate experience, and is a real point of difference.

Shennong Stream boatmen

Part of the journey along the river involves the navigation of the massive lock system, the photo below shows the first of five locks, all the same GIANT size of this one.

Three gorges dam ship locks

If you would like to see some photos, typical of what you will see on your Yangtze cruise, please have a look at my earlier post: Yangtze River photo composition.


Here you can see my father-in-law expressing his joy at the end of the trip, in the background typical of the views to be enjoyed of the journey, soaring mountains and local villages.

In summary the Yangzi explorer offers one of the most intimate and luxurious tours along the river, but there is room for improvement. The ship offers guest more cabin space than the competition and unlike the Viking Emerald the cruise is available on a stand alone basis and not part of a longer China tour for the independent traveller.

You can visit the Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer web site here: SANCTUARY

…alternatively visit the APT China tour page, which includes the Yangzi explorer as part of a longer China itinerary, here : APT China Tours

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    • Tim Fielding says:

      Hi John, the Explorer has FREE wi-fi on deck 6, in the bar/lounge. Expect the speeds and availability however along the Yangtze to vary, it is best when you are docked in the towns along the way. Wi-fi is not available in your cabin.

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