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Not all river cruises are created equal. This is what I realise as I float down the Danube onboard the Avalon Impression.
In my previous story, I confessed that this was my first time on a European river cruise – and that my expectations and preconceptions had been all wrong.
I realised that there is much more flexibility than I thought, more variety than I imagined, and more authenticity than I expected.
But, as I say, not all river cruises are the same. There are two things that make this trip a little unlike others.
The first is the ship itself – because Avalon Waterways has some differences in its layout, style, and service.
The second is that I’m on an ‘Active & Discovery‘ itinerary – a relatively new idea from Avalon that is aimed at a broader market than the traditional river cruiser. That’s why I was invited to try the trip myself so I could tell you more about it.
If you haven’t read my first story about my overall impression of this river cruise from Budapest to Linz, I would recommend you check it out.
Because now I want to go into some of the specifics of an Avalon Waterways ship and an Active & Discovery itinerary, to help you get a better impression of what it’s like to be on the Avalon Impression (see what I did there – pretty clunky, right?).
First let’s talk about the ship overall. I didn’t realise this previously but most river cruise ships in Europe are the same size. That’s because they need to be able to fit into the locks that they pass through. So, because each company makes their ships just small enough to get through a lock, they’ve all pretty much got the same dimensions.
This means it’s what you do with the same space that sets the ships apart. Let me paint you a picture of how Avalon does its ships.
An Avalon ship is 135 metres long and has three interior levels and a deck. You can get an amazing 3D look at the whole thing with this virtual reality tour from Avalon:
The bottom level has technical stuff at the front and guest rooms at the rear. These rooms have windows but not the full length ones that can be opened on the other two levels.
The second level has the dining room and kitchen at the front and rooms at the rear.
The third level has outdoor seating at the very front, then the lounge and bar, with the concierge in the middle, with rooms at the rear, and a club lounge at the very back.
And then the deck has a bit of space at the front, then the captain’s bridge, with some outdoor seating behind that, and then the majority of the space is lounge chairs and some other spaces to relax.
Having never been inside a river cruise ship before, I had not previously given the interior design too much thought. But, because we occasionally docked alongside other ships and had to walk through them to shore, I came to realise there’s a big variety in how they look.
It gave me a real appreciation of the Avalon ships, which aim to be comfortable and casual (you are on holiday, after all) but are still stylish.
It is clear that thought had gone into every detail, like in the lounge where there were tables to play cards, pairs of plush seats for couples that didn’t want company, or large open couch areas for groups – all a bit different but all cohesive in their style. Simple but classy.
Meanwhile, as I pass through other ships, I see one that looks like it should be the setting for an Agatha Christie novel, while the interior design of another looks like a dictator’s mausoleum!
(I guess everyone has different tastes and so these ships cater to them… but they’re not my style, I’m afraid.)
Let’s look now at the bedrooms, which are one of the biggest selling points of the Avalon ships. I am in one of the Panorama Suites, which most of the rooms on the ship are (65 of them out of 83). So that’s what I’ll focus on.
The first thing you notice is the bed, which is facing the window. It seems so obvious that you would want to look at the view from your bed, but most river cruise ships don’t do this, they have their beds facing a side wall.
The other thing that is really special is the window, which runs the full length and height of the wall and opens two-thirds of the way across.
Avalon calls this an ‘Open-Air Balcony’, which basically means that it feels as if you’re on a balcony if you sit inside and open up your window the whole way.
While this is clearly marketing talk, I do agree that it’s the best way to design the room because, if you were to have an actual balcony, the room would have to be much smaller because the ship can’t be built any wider.
Aside from the bed and the window, there’s a small couch and table, a desk, a TV with news channels and free on-demand movies, two wardrobes, and a large bathroom with a shower.
All in all, a very comfortable space that I wish I could have spent even more time in!
It’s also worth mentioning that it was cleaned twice a day and that was done discreetly while you were at meals.
Speaking of meals, the food on the cruise was one of my highlights and it’s definitely an element of the trip that shouldn’t be understated.
If you’ve ever been on an ocean cruise and still have traumatic memories of huge crowds of people fighting for the large buffets of mass-produced food trays, don’t worry, this is the complete opposite.
The main meal each day is the dinner, which is a sit-down four-course meal. (This is included in the price for everyone). There is a menu with choices for the entree, soup, main dish, and dessert… and it’s all the quality you would expect at a top restaurant in the city you are near.
In fact, that’s one of the aims – to make it seem like you are in a local restaurant. The menu is based on where the ship is at the moment, with regional ingredients used to make regional dishes.
When we’re still in Hungary one evening, I have Hortobagyi Palacsinta (Hungarian pancakes with minced pork) for my entree, Palocleves (Hungarian lamb chowder) for my soup, and braised beef cheek as my main. (Other options included a Karfiol Levels cauliflower soup, Turos Csusza noodles, and Fogas Korhely sea bass fillet.)
Lunch is slightly more relaxed because, with the activities, not everyone has time for a long meal. So it’s generally served as a buffet but with the chefs on hand to slice meat and serve some special dishes.
Twice during the cruise, there is also a BBQ on the deck as an option for lunch and I really enjoying sitting outside with my steak and salad.
Breakfast is also a buffet meal with a good selection of hot and cold options, with local influences but also the standard food you would expect at any international hotel chain.
Another impressive aspect of the meals is that beer and wine is free during lunch and dinner. And they’re not shy about topping up your glass!
I probably drink a bit more than I really should’ve because each night there are different wines on offer that come from the local regions and, in such a famous wine-producing area of Europe, it seems a waste not to taste them all!
Seeing as we’re talking about drinking now, let me tell you a bit about the bar on the Avalon Impression.
Again, if you have bad memories from ocean cruises, don’t worry. There are no drinks packages on the Avalon ships and this is not a booze cruise (frankly, there’s just too much to see and do on the trip to waste your time with a hangover!).
But that doesn’t mean people don’t want to unwind with a drink in the evening and that’s how it’s designed.
The bar is in the large lounge area at the front of the ship where people tend to gather and where the daily ship briefings are given. It’s there for those who want it but it is not a focal point of the common area.
Each night there is a happy hour before dinner (which also coincides with the ship briefing), where the drinks are half price. It’s a great way to do things – you can have a cheap cocktail or glass of wine while you listen to the information.
The standard prices for the drinks are about €4.5 for a pint of beer, €5 for a glass of wine, and €8 for a gin and tonic. It makes the half-price happy hour very affordable!
After dinner, if you’re like me and you’ve had a fair amount of wine during the meal, all you may want is another glass or two as you continue your conversations before you go to bed.
This Avalon cruise from Budapest to Linz is no ordinary cruise. It’s called an ‘Active & Discovery’ trip and I want to quickly explain what each of those things mean.
There’s often a perception that European river cruises are quite boring because there’s not much to do. Well, the ‘active’ part of this trip defies that notion. Each day there are included activities that get the blood pumping (obviously you can choose whether you want to do them or not).
For instance, one day I join an excursion that goes cycling through the Wachau Valley in Austria. This cultural landscape is actually a World Heritage Site because of the rolling hills of vineyards and quaint villages that lie within it.
It’s a beautiful part of Austria that follows the course of the Danube River and that’s what we do on our bikes.
As we go past vines, old churches, and pretty town squares, our local guides tell us the stories of the region. But beyond that we also see some incredible landscapes while appreciating the challenge of the exercise as well.
Another day I join a group of passengers for a hike up to the top of a hill, along a dirt path and through the forest, to an incredible viewpoint.
From here we have an amazing view of a hairpin curve of the river, the blue sky shining above the green trees running down to the shore, and our ship sailing through the water to meet us at the bottom of the hill when we walk back down.
There are also opportunities to do your own thing – you don’t always have to be on an organised activity. For instance, we’re in Vienna for two days and I borrow one of the ships bikes, as you can do at any time for free.
I take the bike for the whole day and go cycling through the city centre, all the way to Schonbrunn Palace, where I tie it up and go inside this incredible residence of the Habsburgs.
In some ways, this is more activity than I’ve had in recent weeks and I enjoy the chance to get my body moving so much. Then again, I am eating and drinking so much, I’m sure I’m not losing any weight!
The ‘discovery’ part of the cruise also involves activities that you can choose to go on, and they aim to offer more in-depth experiences that show you a different side of the places that you’re visiting.
For instance, when we’re in Budapest, I go on a caving tour that takes us on paths underneath the ground to see the formations created by thermal waters.
At the same time, other passengers go on a Retro tour, where they drive around in a Trabant car to visit some of the sites in the city that remain from the Soviet days.
In Vienna, there’s a morning tour that shows us a slice of local life – the public transport, markets, residences. And there’s also the opportunity to go on a tour of an old absinthe shop to learn about the history of the drink and do some tastings.
There’s a very special experience one evening when we go to Clam Castle, a historic home on a hilltop near where we’ve moored for the night in Austria. Here, the castle’s owner, the count, shows us his home and hosts us for some drinks.
And on one of the last nights of the cruise, there’s a pub crawl through Linz with some local guys that is also a good cultural tour of one of Austria’s main cities.
Many times in my travels I have seen large groups of retirees shuffling through museums listening to a guide through an earpiece. Most of the time, these were cruise excursions. Nothing we did on this trip even came close to that.
Now, I have no fear in giving a balanced review and I would want to share with you any criticism I have about the ship or the itinerary. The problem is, I honestly don’t really have any.
I thought my room was so comfortable and I always loved being in it. I enjoyed the food, the wine, and the coffee. The onboard staff were really lovely, and it was nice to mingle with other passengers. I always felt safe and the captain was excellent.
The only slight comment I would have is about the excursions. While some of the excursions were the highlights of my trip, I did find some to be better than others. However, I think this was more about my expectations.
There were times when I had something in my head, and the activity turned out to be a bit different. If I had known better, I probably would have chosen a different option. There were certainly plenty of other things I could’ve done instead.
So, if you are going to do an Active & Discovery trip yourself, my only piece of advice would be to ask a few more questions about what the excursions involve, to make sure the one you choose is what you expect it to be.
And, finally, the other thing to talk about is the price – and this is a big thing (and a big price).
European river cruises are generally not cheap and I think this is probably one of the reason why they have traditionally been popular with older people. But that’s not the full story.
This Avalon Active and Discovery Cruise is 9 days long and costs about US$4500 per person. That means for a couple, the cruise is costing $1000 a day.
In some ways, there is good value here. You are getting very comfortable accommodation, transport, an included activity each day, three meals, lots of wine – not to mention the convenience and comfort that comes with the cruise.
On the other hand, if you were to plan your own trip from Hungary and Austria, you would be able to find the same level of luxury for less than $1000 a day.
There is good news, though. The figure I am quoting is the standard price for the cruise – but it’s actually often quite cheaper. If you aren’t travelling in peak season, you will normally find a better price. And there are also quite often really good deals advertised that include free flights or upgrades.
So, my advice is to be aware that there is a large cost to a trip like this but, if you want to come on the cruise, you can save a lot of money with some clever timing!
As I wrap up, I realise that I haven’t mentioned things like the free wifi, the free coffee and biscuits available 24 hours a day, and the friendly staff who you get to know quite well by the end of the trip.
All of these small things add to the experience I’ve just described and I don’t think I need to tell you much more about them. Hopefully you’ve already got the idea that the Avalon ships are full of little details that are designed to make your cruise experience as enjoyable as possible.
They certainly made my cruise better than I could have imagined. This was my first time on a European river cruise and I didn’t quite know what to expect and was worried I wouldn’t enjoy it. In the end, I loved it, and I think it was this ship and the unique itinerary that made it so great!