We just returned from the Viking Cultural Delights Cruise and found it marvelous. We are not cruise/tour people either and usually plan our own trips using Karen Brown's guide books as our bible. However, this was such a great trip, we are considering taking their Russia river cruise.
If you book this cruise, insist that your tour director be "Arnold." The ship holds up to 300 people, but is broken up at the outset in to smaller tour groups, to which are assigned a toru director. Arnold is a very western, English speaking Chinese man, very fluent--more than I (I am a born and raised Texan) -- and can relate to a Western sense of humor. He seems to honestly answer any question you ask him, without being offended and most often wanting to just share with you his view of Chinese life and philosophy. People from other tour groups parasitically joined ours--he was just that good.
I recommend going from Shanghai to Beijing, primarily because the cruise itself gets more impressive in that direction and you might be disappointed starting the other direction. Viking has a great itinerary, with these few complaints: they take you in various cities to silk, jade and porcelain factories. The itinerary for shopping for these items is very much directed to the factories--where I think you pay a premium. You do gain knlowledge at the factories about how carpets, silk material, etc. are made so that you can later judge for yourself the quality of items--whether puchased in China or elsewhere, but you have no real opportunity for good buys in these items--since it is pretty much limited to the factory shops; you have little time for wandering on your own, the schedule is jam packed. It helps you get on the Chinese schedule and since I would get lost in the elevator, proably best I didn't have time to wander on my own. You don't feel like you miss anything, except for shopping for some finer items outside of the factory shops. You will be inundated with street vendors--all along the way, where you can by silk jackets, paschmina's, chinese purses, etc; and finally, while it wasn't a complaint of ours-- a few people were sick of the Chinese food toward the end.
As for the food, overall it was very good. If you Viking takes you in town to eat, rather than on the ship, it will always be Chinese. The meals served in the hotels usually have a very international menu. Often is you are going to a factory stores, the factory serves you in a dining room. On ths ship they serve you a variety of Western and Chinese food and it was always good. We are foodies too, and didn't feel like we missed anything.
If they offer the beverage package and you are a big beverage drinker--cokes, water, wine, cocktails--get it. Otherwise on the ship, they charge you for any beverage not offered as part of the afternoon tea or at meal service. On the day excursions, they always have water bottles you can purchase on the coach for about 35 cents.
The ship was lovely--we were on the Century Sun, the newer of the two.
We have taken a lot of trips over the years and this sits at the top of our list. As much for Viking's organization and accomodations (the hotels are first class) and great service as for the eye-opener we found China to be.
Right before we left on out trip, the Dallas Monring News did a back to back review of Uniworld's comparable China trip and this Viking trip. The way the article was written, it appeared that Uniworld edged out Viking-so we were concerned. The article concludes that if you didn't take the two cruises back to back, you would never know the difference. The differences they pointed out, after having now taken the trip, would not make a difference to me.
The difference was Arnold. Arnold worked for Uniworld and joined Viking as it was building its ships and laying out its itinerary for China. Arnold joined at that time to help do that. He didn't agree with the article's comparison at all--but he now works for Viking--but he also had the Uniworld experience to give the input to Viking. So.......
Anyway, please feel free to ask more questions. One very practical tip: always take Kleenex with you--Viking always tries to take you to a five star bathroom(-no kidding--the Chinese bathrooms are rated)--but sometimes the closest is a two-star--no toilet tissue and only Chinese style bathrooms.
Hope this helps.