A few weeks ago I had the great opportunity to sail with Avalon Waterways on an Active & Discovery cruise along the mighty Danube. Having sailed the Danube before, I thought I knew what to expect but, almost immediately, I saw that the Avalon Waterways experience was completely different from that onboard other river cruise ships. I’ve teased some of these differences before, but today I want to share a more thorough review of my time with Avalon. This post is part of a sponsored project with Avalon Waterways but, as always, all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.
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.
What Does Active & Discovery Mean?
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. Every day around three different included excursion options were offered, designed to appeal to just about any type of traveler. Typically this meant something active, like a bike tour through the Wachau Valley or a running tour of Vienna. Also included was something more culturally oriented, like a cooking class or the chance to join a local as they shared their favorite parts of a city. The third option tended to be a more typical tour, sharing the highlights of the destination. The included excursions fluctuated, but what honestly amazed me were how many there were and how interesting they all seemed to be, all without an extra fee. The river cruises I’ve been on in the past offered a sightseeing tour as an inclusion, but if you wanted to do something a little more interesting extra costs were involved. This wasn’t the case with Avalon and it made the entire experience so much more interesting than it otherwise would have been. Active cruises aren’t always offered, but when they are they’re incredibly popular and I now understand why. It’s what the modern traveler really wants, they want an opportunity to get out and be part of a local community. They want to stay longer and do more, and Avalon helps guests accomplish that.
Cabins and Public Spaces
On your average river cruise ship the cabins are fine, but nothing particularly noteworthy. One reason for that is the size of the vessel; due to locks they can only be a certain size. It’s also because river cruises are very destination focused and that’s what people tend to care most about. It’s also nice though to have a decent cabin and Avalon has made both their cabins and public spaces a priority for their guests. 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.
This focus on bringing the outside in extends to the rest of the ship and large windows are the common element that, although not all guests may notice at first, make a huge impact. The dining room is open, light and airy; a relative oddity in the river cruise industry. Guests can see through the windows on any side, never missing an opportunity to sightsee as the ship cruises along. Lounge spaces maintain this same aesthetic, creating welcoming spots that are fun to relax in. Whether it’s on the sundeck or the back club lounge, there are plenty of spaces to seek some solitude and to just enjoy the experience.
Food and Service
Cruise ships, be they ocean or river, have nearly all dramatically improved their culinary offerings in recent years. It matches what guests look for when they travel, but Avalon takes this to the next level. Nearly every day the onboard menus included items that matched the regions or cities through which we were sailing. In Hungary this meant Lángos and in Vienna of course schnitzel was on the menu. The wines also though matched the regions, an added touch that not all guests may have noticed, but which absolutely adds to the culinary experience. Food was also an important aspect of the included excursions, adding a lot of cultural education into fun experiences like breakfast in Vienna or snacks in a Hungarian castle.
Throughout the travel industry though what matters most is the service. You can visit the most expensive luxury hotel in the world, but if the service is bad then they’ve failed. It’s notoriously difficult to maintain high service standards even in just one hotel, much less across a fleet of ships. I can only speak to the ship I was on, the Impression, but the service was beyond reproach and, after having chatted with other guests, I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. We usually see this in the most minor of details, like remembering a favorite drink or food preference. One guest told me that when she skipped a meal at her “normal” time, the wait staff checked in to make sure she was ok and didn’t need some chicken soup or something. Cabin stewards knowing that yes, I put my pillows here and towels there thank you very much and leaving me nice little notes. These aren’t big things, they aren’t the broad strokes but, when they all come together they matter almost more than anything else. Excellent service is very hard to identify, we just know it when we see it and I experienced it every day of my cruise with Avalon Waterways.
If you’ve made it this far in the review, then you know how much I enjoyed my experience with Avalon Waterways. I’ve been on many river cruises, I thought I knew what to expect – especially on a Danube itinerary – but I was surprised at every step of the way. Avalon challenged what I thought I knew about river cruising and, in all honesty, made it exciting for me again. 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.
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