In the last 7-8 years, I’ve been on a number of river cruises not only in Europe, but also in many other parts of the world. My enjoyment with this style of travel isn’t unique either; interest in seeing the world from a smaller and more intimate ship has increased dramatically. I just returned from another one of these fun travel experiences, but sailing with a company that was new to me and on an itinerary that certainly wasn’t average. Since I’m in a position to compare and contrast with other cruise experiences, that’s what I want to do today and, in the process, hopefully share what the experience of sailing with Avalon Waterways on the Danube was really like. This isn’t a full review; that’s still to be published. No, rather I think that given just how many river cruise lines there are, that it’s first important to learn what makes some of them stand out.
What is Avalon Waterways
Founded in 2004, Avalon Waterways regards itself as a relaxed luxury cruise line that operates 16 ships in various parts of the world, but especially in Europe. Their ships are called Suite Ships, which I’ll detail more in another paragraph, but it means that their rooms are larger than the industry average and feature incredible panorama windows. From my own experience, they are a company that doesn’t fear innovation and offer unique experiences that do indeed make them stand out from their competitors. They also have a fierce commitment to the welfare of their crew and staff that, in turn, improves the guest experience in almost every way. Ships also accommodate slightly fewer guests than the industry norm, creating a more intimate and almost private experience. No, Avalon certainly isn’t your average cruise line and I think it’s the experiences off the ship that best prove that.
Active & Discovery
I sailed on the Danube from Budapest to Linz, Austria on one of the company’s Active & Discovery itineraries. Offered several times throughout the year on different rivers and ships, these itineraries are definitely not your average river cruise experience. These cruises are for guests who want to do and not just see and offer a wide variety of included-excursions that enable passengers to be active and fully engaged with the local cultures. As I learned, Active is no understatement and on my cruise guests had plenty of options including: biking in Budapest, hiking through national forests, jogging along the streets of Vienna, just to name a few. This is tempered by the Discovery side, which is very much focused on bringing local cultures to life in any number of ways. For me it meant learning some Hungarian in Budapest, taking a cooking class in Vienna and visiting a Trappist monastery in Austria followed by a beer and cheese tasting. When combined, the Active & Discovery itineraries feature some of the most engaging excursions I’ve ever seen, whether on a river or ocean ship, and nearly all were included at no extra charge. Looking back at it now, the excursions made an already fun experience so much more robust and engaging and it’s a concept I can’t believe more companies haven’t copied.
Unless I am in a suite, I am nearly always underwhelmed by cruise ship cabins. They are what they are and over the years I’ve become accustomed to their compact size. Avalon is different though and for the company, it’s one of the major features that sets them apart from others. Onboard their Suite Ships, nearly all rooms are Panorama Suites and feature a much larger room size than the standard cabin on any of their competitors. When I walked in, it didn’t feel like a small river cruise cabin and, for me at least, that was the first test. What drew my eye instantly though were the massive windows, a standard feature in all of their Panorama Suites.
With the widest opening windows in river cruising, these wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling windows open 11-feet wide and, when combined with the innovative Open-Air Balconies, create an incredible feeling of bringing the outside in. To feature these views, the beds in the cabins actually face the windows, another unique design concept that shockingly hasn’t been copied by rival lines. Beds can be further personalized with a mattress and pillow menu, ideal for picky people like me who want a certain firmness in their beds. All together, these features come together to create a luxurious and infinitely comfortable experience the likes of which I’ve never seen onboard a river cruise ship.
I usually tell people that no matter their background or inclinations, there is somewhere in the world a cruise for them. I believe that strongly because I’ve been on a fair number of them and understand the different personalities that cruise lines possess and how those personalities greatly impact the travel experience. This was my first time sailing with Avalon and after more than a week with them, I walked away impressed. They feature many special touches I would expect in a luxury experience, but without any stuffiness or rigidity. The cruises aren’t just destination focused, they are guest-focused which, oddly (and sadly) enough is not the industry norm. Every guest was made to feel special, that their unique needs would be met, allowing them to enjoy their trip. Finally, all of these disparate features coalesce for me to create an intangible feeling that I can’t necessarily put into words. Avalon felt like a warm and welcoming space, a ship that would allow me to explore but also have fun. It all just felt right and sometimes in the travel experience, that’s enough.
As I mentioned in the introduction, expect a more comprehensive review of the sailing experience soon. I first though wanted to share not those quotidian details one might find on any river cruise experience, but the special attributes only found onboard an Avalon Suite Ship experience.