Majestic China Panorama with Ritz Tours.
Thanks again to all of you who contributed and made our trip more enjoyable.
As many of you who are considering a guided tour of China know, most of the tours follow a fairly standard itinerary including: Beijing, Xian, Guilin (Li River), Yangtze River Cruise, Shanghai, and Hong Kong along with Chengdu and the Panda Preserve and Tibet.
My wife and I are independent travelers. However, after considering the advice of some on this forum who advocate an independent tour in China and reviewing several tour companies and packages, we chose Ritz Tour’s Majestic China Panorama (Premiere Series) for several reasons.
First, it covered all the major sights we wanted and did not include what we didn’t want –a 3 or 4-day Yangtze River cruise, the Panda Preserve, and Tibet.
Second, we wanted a small tour, and Ritz Tours guaranteed no more than 20 people on this tour. We had the good fortune of have only two other couples, and Ritz provided both a national guide as well as local guides for our group. All the logistics, hotels, etc. worked well.
Third, when we added up the un-covered meals and “options” on other tours, and this Ritz Tour, while still more expensive than some, was virtually all-inclusive and closer to the total cost of other tours.
In the following brief notes, I’ll avoid the obvious (The Great Wall is great) and mention one or two things you might want to consider in selecting a tour and/or enjoying the one you take.
Beijing: Be extra careful on the streets. The pedestrians do not enjoy a right of way. Take along sinus tabs and/or nasal spray, especially if these are problems for you because there is a haze of pollution in every city most of the time. Try to take a tour that includes the Ming Tomb Temple and Sacred Way. They are tranquil and fascinating sites that have a different feel than the bustle of the Forbidden City. The “Bird’s Nest” is interesting – for about 10 minutes. If this is listed as your major afternoon event, you will probably be taken to some shopping venue. The Temple of Heaven is nice, but the Summer Palace is exceptional and should be on your itinerary.
Xian: Of course the warriors are a must, but the Wild Goose Pagoda and the Little Goose Pagoda are different and very enjoyable stops. We had a couple of hours of free time in the AM, and a walk from the hotel to the Bell Tower, the nearby Drum Tower, and into the shopping streets of the Muslim quarter was a great on-our-own experience.
Guilin and the Li River: We did not want to be on a boat on the Yangtze for 3-4 days, and the Li River cruise (4 hours) was spectacular and enough for us. Caution: The lunches on these cruise boats are cooked with water scooped out of the river, and we heard from other travelers that this seemed to be the source of travelers’ complaint. Stoke up at breakfast, take along some bananas and maybe of bun or two, your own bottled water and avoid the indifferent (at best) on-board lunch. We always travel with a couple of granola or protein bars in any case.
The Elephant Trunk Hill is another “worth ten minutes” experience, but the Reed Flute Cave is a knock-out.
Shanghai: The Shanghai Museum is extraordinary and not to be missed. The Yu Garden bazaar has a better setting than most tourist shops, and the Chinese garden is very, very nice. International shopping malls and good Chinese restaurants are close by. We spent a couple of hours in the French Concession. Again there are international shops on the main sycamore-lined streets with unique buildings, and on the off-streets stucco villas and more typical residential streets give you some sense of how the middle class live.
Hong Kong: The Hong Kong Museum of Art is excellent. Try an inexpensive “junk” boat ride for about $7 US pp at the Aberdeen floating community. Stanley Market is a bit of a ride for the same tourist stuff found everywhere, but the shaded benches on the waterfront make a relaxing spot if you want to skip the shopping. In the evening, take the subway to Central, go right along Queensway to the mid-level escalator, get off at Staunton and wander around HK’s Soho (south of Hollywood) for a wide selection of pubs and restaurants. (La Marmite at the top of Staunton was a very good French bistro.)
Cathay Pacific economy class seating borders on a human rights abuse. Their “innovative” slide-forward, minimal lean back shell seats have generated so much negative reaction, they are replacing them. Unfortunately for us, not soon enough.
Food on the Ritz Premiere Tour was excellent. Buffets in their higher-end hotels were great, the club lounges provided not only a relaxing end-of-day experience, but their complimentary drinks, hot and cold appetizers, and relaxing setting were enough for a generous light supper on two on-your-own evenings, especially since lunches involved more food then we normally eat. Again, this doesn’t make up the entire cost difference, but it was an unexpected bonus. With a small group, we also ate in several excellent “local” restaurants, and enjoyed very good meals throughout the trip.
Books we found very rewarding: In addition to the many guides available, we found the following to be excellent histories, Peter Hessler’s, Oracle Bones and China: A History by John Keay. Wild Swans by Jung Chang fills in many of the gaps, especially the Cultural Revolution, and Peter Hessler’s Driving in China is an excellent look at China today.
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Majestic China Panorama with Ritz Tours.