by Janice Nieder
Just between us I feel it’s only fair to let you know that when I first received my invitation to join a group of journalists for the christening of the Avalon Expression I was a little hesitant, since I’ve never been a big fan of ocean cruises…actually, it’s fair to say I pretty much detest everything about them. But since every trade magazine I’ve read lately has been about the explosive growth in the river-cruise market I decided to take one for the team and give it a try. Fast forward to one week after my return and I can honestly say that the Avalon Expression is the Greatest. Cruise. Ever.
Just imagine yourself putt-putting serenely along the romantic Rhine River, utterly captivated by the spectacular scenery with fairytale castles, historic cathedrals, medieval towns, and fertile vineyards, close enough to almost rub elbows with the villagers, all while lounging on the ship’s deck, sipping a glass of champagne. Well, to put it succinctly, it sure doesn’t suck.
Ahhhh Avalon. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways:
1. Ship size was just peachy
Like Goldilocks testing beds, the 166-passenger vessel size felt just right. Because they’re small, river ships can usually dock right in town, so it’s a cinch to explore them either on a guided tour or on your own.
The Avalon Expression has two decks of cabins that include 64 Panorama Suites that offer 200-square-foot of living space, two 300-square-foot Royal Suites (Hey, big spender…I peeked in these and they were sooo worth a little splurge) and 16 cabins are 172 square feet with picture windows (good for the value-oriented traveler).
Almost endless laze-around possibilities are available on the sky deck which runs almost the entire 443 foot length of the ship (I loved the individual sunshades on the lounge chairs) making it easy to find a little privacy (ha- good luck with that on a ocean cruise) or you can retire to the large indoor lounge in front, the bar, or the cozier club lounge in back, which is stocked round the clock with fresh fruit, juices, cookies, tea and a fab espresso/cappuccino machine. There’s also a hair salon and manicurist, fitness center, library, and a whirlpool-all on the small size but perfectly adequate.
2. Speaking of Suites
Avalon is justifiably proud of their Panorama Suites, which make up 80% of their cabins. The big difference here (so big they even trademarked it) is that every suite features the industry’s only Open-Air Balcony®, providing guests with a super-sized, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall panoramic window that opens 11 feet by 7 feet. That’s a whopping 30% bigger than other river ship cabins!
Avalon Managing Director, Patrick Clark, shares the reasoning behind this unique feature.
“We looked very closely at the balcony and decided, after a lot of debate, that it wasn’t the best use of space,” Clark says.
“Instead of listening to accountants who wanted more people and less space, inspired by our travelers, we did the opposite,” said Clark. “We understand that each stateroom should be an oasis for guests to escape to, not escape from.”
In order to take full advantage of the oversized window, Avalon angled the beds to face the window rather than the wall, which made it possible to also increase the size of the bathroom. This seemingly no-brainer move is also unique in the industry.
And finally someone actually considered a woman’s preferences when designing this puppy. The strikingly decorated suites feature (by ship standards) a huge closet, plenty of shelf space, two banks of shelves in the bathroom, strong shower-power, adequate electrical outlets for plugging in everything, numerous mirrors, plush robes and slippers, deluxe Egyptian cotton bedding, under the bed space for storing your luggage, flowers in your room, and every night a different sweetie was left on your pillow. There’s nothing chinzy about the bathroom either with marble countertops, thick towels, a lighted magnifying mirror and generously sized L’Occitane toiletries.
3. Avalon’s version of Lagniappe
On an Avalon Waterways river cruise you’ll keep coming across the words “included” and “complimentary”. There is absolutely no nickel and diming here. I loved that all of our shore excursions, led by Certified Local Guides were included as well as VIP access into the must-see sites. Wifi was available throughout the ship-for free, as was sparkling wine with breakfast, regional beers, wines at every onboard dinner and unlimited espresso drinks. That’s just the way Avalon rolls.
4. Our Romantic Rhine Itinerary
Since this was a special mini-Christening tour, we just got a sampling of a week long cruise, but my appetite was certainly whetted. We left from Frankfurt and ended in Amsterdam, stopping along the way in Rudesheim, Koblenze, Cochem, and Cologne. We cruised on the Rhine and Moselle Rivers through the dramatic Rhine Gorge, where we saw the legendary Lorelei Rock. The back story is as follows: Lorelei was a beautiful maiden who threw herself into the Rhine in despair over a faithless lover. She was then transformed into a siren who lured fishermen to their death with her sad songs.
At each stop, Avalon had arranged the most fascinating tours, which ran the gamut from historical to quirky. The picturesque, wine town of Rüdesheim, was a real crowd-pleaser with its cobbled alleys, crooked, half-timbered houses, and Drosselgasse, a popular street lined with one wine bar after another. We boarded a little Disneyland-like train that dropped us off in the center of town, where we toured “Siegfried’s Musikkabinet” in a building from the 13th century which houses the largest collection of mechanical music instruments (approx. 350) in the country. We were completely mesmerized by the stories our guide told us as we listened to music on everything from the teeniest music box topped by a little bird to a massive Concert-Piano-Orchestrion.
Afterwards we went for a coffee tasting at Rudesheimer Schloss, where they made us the most decadent mug of coffee, topped with sugar, chocolate, flaming Asbach Uralt brandy and schlag (a huge cap of freshly whipped cream.) Starbucks should so add this to their menu.
5. Most importantly-How’s the food on board?
Well, you certainly won’t go hungry. As a matter of fact, you might want to go on a little diet beforehand to take full advantage of the Avalon dining experience.
A typical on board day of culinary delights on the ship:
-We luckily had a suite close to the clubroom, so we’d roll out of bed (still in our jammies) and dash down to the self-serve espresso machine for a couple of cappuccinos.
-The breakfast buffet always included a different flavored fresh smoothie and a full array of cereals, pancakes, pastries, fruits, smoked salmon, and the other usual suspects. Omelette’s and other egg dishes were cooked to order.
-Lunch (also buffet) offered a variety of salads and soup, pasta, hand-carved meats, various hot entrees and desserts. My fave was the outdoor Sky Bistro BBQ lunch, where you could choose (or pig-out on them all which is what I did) grilled sausages, chicken, steak or fish.
-Then you had to tough it out until teatime at [4:00] that included cakes and other sweeties.
-Dinner was a more elegant affair, featuring an a la carte menu with copious amounts of wine. We appreciated the bottles of quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar that graced each table. Just to give you a hint of the caliber of food that they offer, here’s some highlights from our eight course Christening Dinner. It opened with Canadian Rock Lobster and Salmon Caviar with Lobster Bisque, followed by Halibut with King Prawn, a palate cleanser of apple sorbet splashed with Veuve Clicquot, Roast Beef with fat White Asparagus, and a scrumptious Warm Chocolate Souffle with Basil Vanilla Ice cream and Rhubarb Compote.
-Call me a lightweight, but I never made it to the 10:30 pm feeding so can’t comment on that.
ABOUT AVALON WATERWAYS
Award-winning Avalon Waterways offers travelers the youngest, most innovative fleet of ships in Europe, China, Southeast Asia, Egypt and the Galápagos. Our travelers have inspired us to utilize more than 80 years of travel expertise to design the best river cruise experience possible. We’ve taken everything special about river cruising and made it even better—down to the last detail. Our views are panoramic and spaces large and inviting; comfort is king and dining both personal and flexible. And, thanks to our partnership with Globus, our itineraries are legendary. By design, Avalon cruisers are privy to all-inclusive access to a destination, including guided sightseeing in every port, VIP entry into key destinations and unparalleled cultural immersion and storytelling thanks to highly skilled Cruise and Tour Directors. In addition to countless trade accolades, Avalon Waterways has garnered some of the industry’s most prestigious honors: Among them, the river cruise company was voted the Best River Cruise Line in 2010 by Cruise Critic editors, among the top 5 river cruise lines in Travel + Leisure’s 2011 World’s Best Awards and Condė Nast Traveler’s 2011 Reader’s Choice Awards; the river cruse line was also chosen as the “Best Value in River Cruising” by Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. Avalon Waterways is part of the Globus family of brands.