Part of a paid project. Complete honesty, as usual.
I’m on the ship, on the Danube and I can’t hear a thing. Stretched out on the bed, one wall has become a window, thrown wide open to ooze in the summer from floor to ceiling with a light, tingling breeze. The slow ripples of the river cruise past, soft and supple, a soulful slinking procession of jade.
This morning, I was swimming in that water. Or was that the day before?
Swim, cycle, kayak, hike. The Danube has nowhere to hide when it comes to activities on this Avalon Active & Discovery River Cruise. And with state rooms that replace one wall for a window and a glass-themed design that always look outwards, every part of the ship looks out at the Danube.
From the moment I pull back the curtains in the morning to the moment I close them at night*, the Danube is mine, all mine. From Budapest to Vienna, Linz and back again, she has wowed me with her beauty and her guile.
And she’s come as a great surprise. When I accepted this project, I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy a European river cruise. (That’s Brit polite for I hoped it wouldn’t be too bad.)
Now that I’ve finished. I’m on a mission to recruit everyone I know to the river cruising cause: I LOVED the concept behind the Avalon Waterways Active & Discovery Cruise.
Why? Because of these thirteen surprising features on their journey.
* Only kidding. Someone else closes them as part of the turndown service ;-)
The rooms pack in a wow factor right from the start. Unique among cruise companies, the bed faces the window and the window takes up nearly a whole wall. The space saved by scrapping the traditional river cruise balcony means that a table and two chairs and a desk fit in easily too.
The whole room is a balcony, only one with better privacy than the real ones could offer.
Real balconies offer views of your neighbour’s towels and drying swimwear. With these rooms, it’s just you and the mighty Danube.
Many cruises force passengers to dine together and the group excursions are always large.
Avalon have switched things around a little, for the introverted, or fans of a little peace and quiet. Either description works for me.
Dining tables can be split into two, four, eight or more and table reservations bypass the need for a scrum at the door. Careful design of the shared areas mixes mingling and privacy, even down to creating a large and small coffee area.
Interestingly, they’ve found that dining patterns change during the course of the cruise. At the start, people sit separately. By the end, they’re friends and people stop reserving tables. It’s just happened at a more natural kind of pace.
Is this your first time?
Note! This was my first river cruise through Europe. Read the comparisons from people like Cacinda at Points and Travel for how Avalon compares to the other big names in the business.
Nothing fills me with horror quite as much as the thought of queuing to get off a boat. Lay the blame at early exposure to Kate Winslet and Titanic, if you will, but I like to feel free and move when I can.
Obviously, while the ships cruises along, it makes sense to stay on it.
But once it’s stopped (moored? Anchored?) Avalon has just a short walkway to dry land and there’s no need to queue to get out. Or back on. The ship uses room card technology that lets you tap in and out.
The itinerary means that cruise time is fairly limited, so most of the time you can come and go at will. Avalon also have a fleet of sixteen bicycles at the ready, as well as an Adventure Host, so in addition to the multitude of excursions on offer, you can just do your own thing too.
Oh yes. No enforced evening meetings. Hurrah! Some places make you sit through an announcement of the next day’s activities every single night. Lots of passengers love them. For me, they’re excruciating. Happily, Avalon doesn’t insist you sit through them and it’s easy enough to find the information on the printout in your room, the screens in the lobby and the free app on your phone.
The heading makes it sound obvious. But it still took me by surprise.
Through my youth, I had no trouble on the waves. As I grow older, if the waves are choppy or the room confined, it’s easy to feel hot and bothered.
My seasickness has never been bad enough to stop me going on the water, but it’s there at the back of my mind. I carry travel sickness pills, sit at the back of a boat and stare, quasi-religiously, at the horizon.
On small ship cruises, I’ve been fine. Just felt a little “jet lagged” the whole time.
On a river cruise, there’s none of that. It is (forgive me) plain sailing. A smooth journey, without the sideways rocking about.
When you head through the locks, it’s probably a good idea to head to the top deck if you feel claustrophobic. But other than that, it’s a breeze.
Speaking of locks – it’s geekily amazing to see such brilliant engineering in action! I’d seen plenty on the canals in Britain, but the ones that make up the navigation of the Danube are built on a completely different scale.
Without the wild waves of the sea, river cruise ships can let their hair down. If the ships don’t need to plan for pitch and yaw, crick and craw, then rooms can be far more “normal.” Cupboards and drawers don’t need to be clipped shut and bathroom doors can open properly.
The Panoramic Suites on the Avalon Impression measure 200 square feet. The Deluxe Staterooms measure 172 square feet and don’t have the floor to ceiling window.
In total, the Avalon Impression has 83 cabins: 65 panoramic suites and 16 deluxe state rooms.
Another confession: I expected the food to be bland, international, standard fare.
Not bad food. But good either and certainly not in touch with the local area – and for me, combining food and travel seems half the point of going somewhere.
Every single menu, every single day delved deep into the character of the city or small town we were in.
In Visegrád, for example, Hortobagyi palacsinta and turós csusza graced the menu (that’s Hungarian pancakes and savoury noodles, in case you were wondering.)
Plus, for anyone interested, a hamburger and chips were always available on request.
Some nice touches >> Beer and wine are complimentary at lunch and dinner. Continental room service breakfast is also complimentary. A full cocktail bar operates, with happy hour each day too.
Although all meals are included, you can also dine off the boat as well without any complicated rearrangements. Lunchtime switched to a sundeck BBQ when the weather behaved, adding a splash of variation.
Both large and small lounges offered self-service tea and coffee throughout the day (and night, I suppose. But I was making the most of my time to be able to sleep!)
On that note, early and late riser breakfast sittings also added to the flexibility of the setup.
A triad of myths busted:
1 – Cruise ships never benefit the locals
2 – Crowded walking tours (past shops owned by the cruise companies) are all that’s on offer
3 – It’s all unsustainable
The view from the room wowed me. The excursions look a little longer for their importance to seep in. They were incredible.
From VIP access to classical sights in Vienna to swimming in solitude in the Danube to discovering craft beer made by the last three remaining monks in a hidden village I’d never have found, the excursions brought the area alive.
Avalon pledge to work with local companies wherever they go, and they meant it. Even though the ship carries its own bikes, they use local bike tours when they’re in town.
Some excursions ran with one person (jogging around Vienna at dawn. Not me, you won’t be surprised to hear.) Others took virtually the whole ship (wine and beer tasting in the hills surrounding Vienna at a local Heuriger or tavern.)
Some excursions carried an additional fee, which complicated things a little, and each had different booking deadlines. But there is a Cruise Director on hand all the time to help you manage your choices and provide information.
So who will you be travelling with? Mainly Americans, with around one third European and perhaps ten percent from elsewhere in the world. Age? Anywhere from thirteen to ninety.
The cruise included solo travellers, couples, extended families and, of course, groups like us (around 10 travel bloggers, half of whom I knew well already, while the others were new to me.)
It looks ideal for “intergenerational travel,” which typically means children, parents and grandparents. Light excursions, lifts (elevators) and talks on board the ship mean that those with reduced mobility can still enjoy the trip. And the wide variety of active excursions allow those with more energy to blow off steam.
Families can still spend plenty of time together, with opportunities to escape as well. And arguments can be sidestepped with the prearranged excursions and someone else in charge of time keeping ;-)
Just like walking a city on foot reveals a better grasp of a place than hiding on the subway, so, too, does a river cruise illuminate the connections between neighbouring countries in a way that flying from city to city never could.
Have you ever heard of Grein? Of Visegrad? The Engelhartszell-Schlögen Oxbow?
I certainly hadn’t until they popped up on this itinerary. I disembarked expecting a pleasant stroll through a pretty place.
What I found instead, amazed.
At Visegrád, I took to the Danube on a kayak and then plunged into the cool. Other passengers entered into battle in a medieval Knights Tournament in the Lower Castle.
At Spitz, I joined a cycle tour, heading through the stunning wine Wachau Valley with a stop off at Dürnstein with is blue Stiftskirche and apricot-fuelled sweets. Grein revealed the oldest theatre in Austria and Mauthausen revelaed the 9th century St Florian Monastery with an organ recital that gave me the chills.
Even in the big cities that I already knew and loved, Avalon uncovered something new. In Budapest, a fleet of retro trabants whisked us through the ruin pubs and off to the monument graveyard and home of Stalin’s boots.
Vienna crammed in classical sights with a dawn walk and breakfast, followed by a leisurely afternoon learning how to make strudel and schnitzel.
It’s my job to track down the unusual, the brilliant and the interesting in a destination and I know the people and tools and tricks to help me do it in half the time. But finding all of these would have taken so long if I’d been trying to do it myself. Here, Avalon did it all for me.
Ooh, this is a good one. You can be active and lazy at the same time and it’s utterly brilliant.
First, up the active part. The excursions include active components like cycling, hiking, running, swimming and kayaking. There is an onboard Activity Instructor who runs yoga session in the morning and keep fit in the afternoon. Bikes are available to hire (for free) on land and light bites are available for meals instead of the full shebang.
Now, what about the laze?
Well, for starters, all the logistics are taken care of. Accommodation, travel and where to eat, on and off the ship if you wish. Airport transfers are sorted. Luggage transfer likewise. Turndown service, cleaning, planning your itinerary.
Heck, Avalon even have an app that you can access offline for when you’re wandering around on your own. And printed maps for each place in which the ship stops.
Sports equipment appears on demand, including helmets, plus refreshing drinks when you return to the ship.
Done, done and done, allowing you to laze in your room, soaking up that incredible view.
I’ve been writing about sustainable tourism since the dawn of blogging here on Inside the Travel Lab. And I approach it in a pragmatic way, thrilled to see progress rather than furious at imperfections.
And Avalon are indeed sustainably minded. Next year, they will introduce refillable bottles to replace plastic. They work regularly to reduce paper waste by moving information to email and apps.
As I mentioned before, they work closely with locals in terms of tour operators and food produce. Staff come from across the EU. Ships are fuel efficient and the sewage recycling system discharges only clean water into the river (staff swim in it after all, as well as guests.)
It’s not just the cruise set up, Avalon organise hotels as well. As any seasoned traveller knows, things can easily go wrong. For that reason, the first night involves a city hotel so that any stragglers can still join the ship the next day.
We stayed at the Hilton Budapest, right opposite the Fisherman’s Bastion on Buda Hill. Frankly, the perfect view to start a visit to the city.
Of course not. But honestly, this was one of the best trips I’ve been on in a very, very long time. Yes, it was part of a paid work project but then, most of them are!
What to know
From cruise sceptic to European cruise fanatic in one single trip.
Rivers of Europe: here I come!
Disclosure: I experienced this cruise as part of a paid partnership with iAmbassador and Avalon Waterways. As usual though, my honesty is shared here without any limitations in the hope that it helps your own trip.
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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