Note: This was our second cruise on an Avalon river boat, and our third river boat cruise (see my review of our Uniworld cruise). The first, in August 2009, was the Western Danube, aboard the Avalon Tapestry. THAT was a wonderful cruise, with excellent service and better than average food. The quality of that cruise influenced our choice of THIS cruise. By comparison, a POOR decision!
This cruise began with an extended stay in Bucharest, Romania and included an excursion to the Transylvania region and Bran Castle, both of Dracula fame. Incidentally, Dracula was a Prince and not a Count, was a national hero for protecting his country from the Ottoman empire, never lived in Bran Castle, and was not a vampire (sorry to disappoint), although he did enjoy impaling his enemies in such a way that death was slow and extremely gruesome - it is said that Vlad the Impaler, as Vlad Dracul was known, enjoyed the screams of his victims!
Avalon put the group in the Bucharest Athenee Hilton hotel. A shame that this wonderful hotel did not sail on the Danube! After our thoroughly enjoyable stay in Bucharest, we were bussed to the Romanian Danube port of Oltenita where Avalon's true colors showed immediately through the cold attitude of most of the staff. Not all! Kristina, the restaurant manager, and Marianna, our cabin attendant, were both wonderful.
Besides the apparently uncaring crew, the food was mediocre AT BEST. Soups were disappointing and/or SO salty as to be inedible. Food selections and offerings were uninspired, boring and not very good. Thankfully, there was a daily choice of salmon, chicken or steak! My wife has no dietary restrictions and was able to sample all their offerings. HOWEVER, I have special dietary needs in that I am gluten free. It is UNDERSTANDABLE that my food will differ from every one else's. Having been on Uniworld and having food specially prepared for me with taste, flair and quality by Chef Bogdan, I expected MUCH better from Avalon. Incidentally, advised well in advance of the cruise that I requested that the ship have gluten free beer for me (readily available in Europe; slowly becoming available in the United States), I was particularly disappointed to be told on this cruise that "a passenger on the previous cruise of the ship had finished all the gluten free beer." I would EXPECT a service provider like a river boat cruise company to recognize 1) that meant that there are other consumers of gluten free beer and, 2) they needed to replenish the supply! They did have gluten free bread for me, but not much else. Uniworld did a MUCH better job caring for special dietary needs,as well as offering gourmet dining in general.
From something we saw on the kitchen staff uniforms on the last day of the cruise, we surmise that they may have been contractors and NOT regular Avalon employees.
While the cabin was spacious and quite comfortable (compare with my comments about our cruise aboard the Uniworld Ambassador). Under bed storage of suitcases is VERY nice. HOWEVER, we heard every sound from the floor above ours. We heard shoes dropping to the floor, people walking and all sorts of ship sounds. While some of this is inevitable, ALL cruises are expensive and should be "luxurious." I include quiet accommodations in "luxurious."
The crew, in general, with the two exceptions noted earlier, seemed listless and not to care. The dining room wait staff was mostly inattentive and the front desk staff did not seem to care.
The ship provided free wifi ... BUT ... service was inconsistent and unreliable. An officer of the ship offered the following explanation that made ZERO sense to me: "The ship's wifi service is via satellite. Service can vary from country to country." I CAN understand that service might be disrupted by storms and/or high cliffs or bridges, and when deep in the locks on the Danube. However, I CANNOT understand how the country in which you are currently sailing has ANY influence on a signal going UP and coming DOWN from a satellite! Furthermore, my wife and I ran into a problem with our Verizon email that I have yet to investigate: while we did receive Verizon server based emails, we were UNABLE to send using our Verizon accounts. I WAS able to send and receive Gmail, though.
Flooding of the Danube -
At this point, I need to mention an aspect of our cruise that, although affecting my wife and I only in that we suffered a long bus ride to Budapest from Belgrade, Serbia instead of a pleasant sail, had very serious consequences for many other passengers. Acts of Nature are just that. They cannot be predicted and, sometimes, cannot be "worked around." We were on the lower Danube when heavy rains flooded Germany and Austria resulting in the highest water levels on the Danube in at least 200 years, and possibly, in all of its history! Due to the high water levels, we were advised that our ship could not pass under some of the bridges over the Danube and that the ship was not able to sail to Budapest, Hungary from Belgrade, Serbia. Avalon did a good job of arranging for bus transportation and even included a couple of alternative stops to those we would miss. HOWEVER, some of the passengers had opted for the full Danube cruise: from Romania to Austria. Since the ship could not make it past Belgrade, the remainder of the cruise, above Budapest, was cancelled. It is our understanding that the passengers booked on the full cruise, many of whom traveled approximately 24 hours from Australia and New Zealand, with complicated flight scheduling, were simply told to "contact travel agents to make alternative plans." SURE! Just like that! Make alternative flight arrangements, at the last second, paying maximum fares. AND, on a ship with inconsistent and unreliable internet service!! The cruise director, Akos Szalay, was put in the uncomfortable, to say the least, position of having to inform passengers of this with no means of assisting them other than providing the names and numbers of Avalon associated travel services!
Compounding this problem, at least initially, the crew was not informed whether or not they would be paid for the missed cruising time. This is not conducive to good customer service!
In fairness to Avalon, I should mention that the cruise company offered people booked on the shorter cruise and in our cabin class an UNSOLICITED and unexpected refund of $1,000 per passenger. Whether or not this refund is delivered remains to be seen.
A river boat cruise is VERY DIFFERENT from an ocean cruise. Please see my comments on this subject in a review, if I can find a place to write it on this site, or elsewhere. River boats do not have movie theaters, art auctions, stage shows or casinos. BUT, they do offer regional "entertainment." In this regard, Avalon did an excellent job: we had a local wine explanation and tasting, musicians/dancers in traditional regional costuming, a wonderful geopolitical history seminar explaining the creation and breakup of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and the hysterically funny crew show.
Ports of Call -
I highly recommend a cruise of the ENTIRE Danube, whether you do the Western part separately, as we did, or all at one time, if you can afford the cost and the time. From Austria to Romania, you will get to see some of those two countries plus Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria. All are wonderful places to visit, full of history going back centuries, warm and welcoming people, and interesting foods to sample.
Shore Excursions -
One of the benefits of river boat cruising (at least on Avalon and Uniworld) is an included city tour at every port of call. All tour guides we had we were wonderful. Transportation to and from were also well managed.
SOLELY because of the food (I lost weight on this cruise!) and service, I would NOT recommend this Avalon ship. We were surprised and disappointed after, and in comparison with, our wonderful experience on our first Avalon cruise.