Whoever said the best things on life are worth waiting for was spot on. I was supposed to cruise on Avalon Waterways’ new river ship Avalon View in 2020 and then you-know-what came along and the launch was put on hold.
I have waited two years for this moment – now I’m finally stepping on board and can tell you it’s been worth the wait. I’m greeted by smiling crew, a stylish atrium and just wait until you see my room.
I’m in a Panorama Suite, which has an entire wall of glass facing the river – literally a window on the world so you always have a view of the passing scenery (now you can see how the vessel got its name!). Better still, the glass is a door that opens two-thirds the width of the room, creating an inside balcony. It sounds weird I know, but stick with me.
It’s a design Avalon came up with to cater for the growing number of cruisers migrating from ocean ships to the rivers and wanting a balcony. Thing is, you can put balconies on ships sailing the wide-open ocean, but it’s not so simple on rivers because vessels can’t be wider than the locks they have to pass through – and there are lots on Europe’s rivers. Add a traditional balcony and you have to take space from inside the cabin. But on Avalon you get the best of both worlds – a full-size cabin and a balcony. Honestly, when the sun shone and the window was fully open, it was like being outside.
Because space hasn’t been taken away from the inside of the suite, there’s room for a large bathroom with a glass-enclosed walk-in shower and ample cupboard and wardrobe storage for even the heaviest packer. Adding a large mirror along one wall makes the room feel bigger than it is (200 square feet for those into numbers) and by angling the bathroom wall slightly, Avalon has been able to put the bed facing the river so you always wake to a view. Luxury indeed!
And my goodness, are there some views to be had on this, Avalon View’s inaugural Active & Discovery cruise on the Danube from Deggendorf in Germany to Budapest in Hungary. It’s a brilliant itinerary that takes us past historic towns and through the Wachau, a beautiful valley lined with apricot groves, castles and vineyards. With just 166 of us on board, it’s small, intimate and so easy to make new friends.
Along the way there are hiking, cycling, canoeing and wine-tasting tours, trips to monasteries and even a medieval knights tournament. Phew! No wonder these Active & Discovery itineraries skew to a younger audience than classic river cruises. More recent history is not forgotten either, I join a sobering guided tour of Mauthausen Concentration Camp, which is now a museum remembering the thousands of Jews who were murdered there by the Nazis during the Second World War.
With most tours included in the cost of the cruise, you can do as much as the shore schedule allows without having to worry about the budget. You bring the stamina, Avalon promises the adventure.
I’m not the only one in a room with a view. Most of my fellow passengers are in one as these suites make up 80 per cent of the ship’s accommodation. “We have river cruising’s only suite fleet,” Avalon president Pam Hoffee proudly tells me. She is also on board for this special inaugural cruise. “This is our 14th European suite ship so wherever you cruise with us in Europe, it’s like coming home.”
For those who want more space, two posh Royal Suites on the upper deck have the same design but an extra 100 square foot of room. For a more affordable option, 16 cabins on the lower deck are a tad smaller than the Panorama Suites and don’t have the view.
Head to Avalon View’s restaurant and lounge and there are more walls of glass. The restaurant is open daily for self-service breakfast and lunch, and served dinners. The waiters are charming, cheery and always ready to top up your glass (wine, beer and soft drinks are included in the price during lunch and dinner, otherwise drinks are extra – around $7 for a large beer, from $8 for a glass of wine).
There are plenty of fish, meat and veggie options on the menus, and if you need anything tweaking, just tell the waiter as the chefs are pleased to help. Look out also for the Avalon Fresh logos. These are meals – both vegetarian and pescatarian – created specially for Avalon by Viennese chefs Karl and Leo Wrenkh, of whom more later. Luckily there is a gym on the lower deck of the vessel where you can run off some of the calories.
The lounge is the hub of the vessel, used for everything from early morning yoga and cardio classes with the ship’s ‘adventure host’ to wine-tasting, cooking demonstrations, port talks and evening entertainment. A light bites tapas-style dinner is also served here a couple of times on each cruise. In a small aft salon you can help yourself to teas, coffees, juices, cookies and muffins throughout the day, as well as still, sparkling and flavoured water dispensed from a fountain.
Passengers can also use the fountain to fill the glass water bottles Avalon provides as part of its war on single-use plastic. In bathrooms, wall-mounted L’Occitane toiletries have replaced small bottles for the same reason, and there are even wooden pens in place of plastic ones. Paper programmes and menus have also been banished; instead the info is on an app, which even this technophobe found easy to use.
The sundeck is the place for 360-degree views. There is ample seating, either in the sun or shade, as well as a small whirlpool, walking track and giant chess set. A couple of times per cruise, weather permitting, there’s a BBQ lunch in the rooftop Sky Grill.
Avalon hasn’t just done things differently with its river ship design. It has also shaken up the days ashore to offer something for everyone, whether they want to be active, see the sights or learn something new.
This is how I find myself with 15 other passengers on a special cookery tour learning to make mushroom stroganoff, barley risotto and breadcrumb dumplings in Vienna with Karl Wrenkh. He and Leo are legends in the city after opening a ‘mostly’ vegetarian restaurant and cooking school there in 2009, long before the concept of healthy eating had made its way to the Austrian capital.
“If the world ends, come to Vienna, as everything happens 10 years later,” Karl jokes as he gets us all chopping, grating and mixing various ingredients for the feast we are making, while we keep our spirits up with a glass or two of the local wine he has thoughtfully provided. I like to think I did a sterling job stirring the stroganoff sauce – essentially butter, flour, capers, vegetable stock and a hefty glug of white wine – but an even better job when it came time to eat it.
While I am cooking, friends head off on a bike tour of Vienna’s Ringstrasse, a grand boulevard lined with opulent palaces and neo-classical and neo-renaissance buildings. But I’m also doing my fair share of active stuff (it’s actually necessary to counter all the eating, but far more rewarding than going to the gym as you get to hear fascinating stories along the way).
From Engelhartstzell in Austria, I join a steep hike up to a viewpoint over the Schlögen Oxbow, a perfectly formed horseshoe bend in the river; in Spitz, also in Austria, I saddle up for a bike tour along the Danube to Krems, stopping en route in Dürnstein, a pretty village overlooked by a now-ruined castle where English king Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned in 1192 (long story but all to do with a spat with the then-Duke of Austria). From the Hungarian town of Visegrád, I’m back on two legs, this time hiking to a tower where Vlad III, aka Vlad Dracula (and yes, the man who inspired the name of Bram Stoker’s fictitious vampire), was held prisoner between 1463 and 1475. Another long story, but this time a spat with the then-King of Hungary.
Budapest, our journey’s end, looks stunning as we sail in after dark, past the spectacular Parliament building and fairytale turrets and arches of Fisherman’s Bastion all lit up. Talk about keeping the best view to last. Like the View we’re sailing on, it’s one I will remember forever.
Favourite meal on board: I didn’t have to wait long for this. My dinner on day one started with an Avalon Fresh cocktail of fresh apples and sun-dried tomatoes in maraschino syrup and continued with a chicken consommé followed by braised short ribs with porcini sauce, creamy polenta and spring leek and carrot. All accompanied by a delicious Austrian Zweigelt wine.
What to pack: The dress code on Avalon View is casual and comfortable. Plan for light summer clothes for the months of June, July and August, something warmer for the rest of the year, especially in winter, when it gets very cold on the Danube. If you’re planning to join active excursions (cycling, hiking and the like) pack accordingly. For the evenings think smart casual. Avoid shorts in the dining room or lounge in the evenings.
Sample price: Mine was a seven-night Danube Dreams cruise from Deggendorf in Germany to Budapest in Hungary. The same itinerary departing September 17, 2022, costs from $4,588 per person for a Cat E cabin or $6,137 per person for a Cat B Panorama suite. Prices are based on double occupancy and include most shore excursions, beer, wine and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, tips and WiFi. Flights are extra.