Avalon Waterways Tranquility
We took the Avalon Waterways (owned by Globus) MS Tranquility as part of the Christmastime Cruise Tour WNV1201 starting in Prague with land transport to Nuremberg then cruising on the Danube River from Nurmberg to Vienna during December 3-9, 2008. To streamline the process on leaving the Hilton in Prague, we were divided into four color-coded groups (red, blue, green and yellow - although the yellow group insisted they were actually gold!).
Our Tour Director/Cruise Director was Hans. He was responsible for getting people onto buses from Prague to Nuremberg, arranging local city guides and transport, collecting payment for optional excursions, answering the same questions over and over and, disembarkation procedures. He was distinguished by a loud voice, hysterical laugh and tardy arrival to collect excursion payments. The Tranquility is new (launched in 2007), clean and in good repair. It can accommodate 180 people; there were 150 on our cruise. Because it must pass through locks on the canals and river, the four story boat is long with a narrow central hallway and cabins on both sides. The boat is non-smoking although some men enjoyed cigars on the open deck outside the lounge. Our cabin 219 was bright with light wood trim. It was small but efficiently laid out with adequate closet space/storage space for two people, floor-to-ceiling sliding windows (which we left open a crack for fresh air) and space under the twin beds to store luggage. Our orange bedspread was a visual assault when combined with the aqua and orange wave design on the curtains. Some other cabins had more restrained blue bedspreads. As in most of Europe, the hairdryer is in the bedroom not in the bathroom, ostensibly to protect us from electrocuting ourselves by dropping it into water (DUH!). The vacuum toilet was noisy when flushed but all the plumbing worked well including the tiny shower stall (be careful not to hit the water control handle with your hip and shut off the water).
Because the Tranquility has its bridge and engines in the rear, forward cabins like ours, the lobby, lounge and dining room, were quiet. Cabins back towards the stern did have some engine noise when the river cruiser was underway. Food on board was very good. Breakfasts and lunches were buffet-style while the four-course evening meal was served. Table wine (red or white) was complimentary, kept flowing and was quite acceptable. Open seating meant you could choose different table locations and companions with every meal. Dining room staff, mostly of eastern European origin, were pleasant, efficient and came around with meat and vegetable 'seconds' of the main evening course for those who wanted more. Each night a menu (along with the next port of call information) was delivered to cabins for people to choose their next evening's meal thus giving the kitchen a heads-up on how many of each choice was required. The only logistical problem was the buffet table layout. Because food could only be accessed from one side, there were long lines of people waiting to serve themselves. Ditto for the dessert table. Made-to-order small omelettes were available and this also jammed up the buffet lines. Early arrival recommended. Frequently, breakfast and lunch food was cold when you finally got back to a table after your buffet pilgrimage. Coffee and tea were available during the day in the second and third level lobbies.
Our mooring at Nuremberg was way outside the city with a wonderful view of an industrial park and warehouses. Buses transported us into town for an orientation drive and a stop at the Christmas market in the center of the old town. There are 24 locks between Nuremberg and Vienna and much time is taken up transiting them. After the first few locks, the novelty wore off and we opted for a drink in the lounge. Not that you can stand on the top Sky Deck during all the lock passages. Some of the locks are so low that the bridge is jacked down and the top railings folded in to allow sufficient clearance for the boat to pass. We went through many of the locks at night. Once, at 1:30 AM, we were wakened by a scraping sound of metal against metal. I opened the curtains and looked at a wet concrete lock wall six inches from my nose. Thankfully, I do not suffer from claustrophobia. Other passengers heard the same noise which seemed to be the boat bumping into the lock but, when we questioned the crew the next morning their reaction was, "what noise?" nothing unusual had happened according to them.
Our moorings at Regensburg, Passau and Linz were closer to the center of these towns and local guides took groups of passengers on walking tours in the historic section of town and the little Christkindlmarkts (Christmas markets). Unfortunately, many of the passengers (mostly women) were obese and had great difficulty walking even half a block on level ground. Our enjoyment of the land tours was hindered considerably by the slow pace so these big belugas could waddle along while complaining all the way. Globus/Avalon need to divide their groups into those who can walk and those who cannot walk. Our cruise through the Danube Gorge and visit to the Benedictine abbey of Weltenburg, the oldest abbey/brewery in Bavaria, was also affected by having to wait for these overweight and under-exercised blubber butts. They were, however, always the first into the dining room on board and never missed dessert.
We opted to take the excursion to Salzburg because the weather was sunny and we wanted to go up to the castle as well as shop at the small Mirabell Palace Christmas market. En route we stopped at Oberndorf chapel, home of the Silent Night Christmas carol. Three of our intrepid travelers, in addition to not being able to walk, chose this location to exhibit their inability to tell time. They kept 28 people waiting on the bus as they "forgot" what time we were to leave then thought it was a big joke that they were late. Our city guide Veronika made it clear this was not acceptable behavior. She, in addition to Elisabeth in Regensburg, were two of the best guides we had during the entire tour. City tours also included "Whisper" technology which we had first encountered in Italy in 2005. The guide has a microphone and each person taking the tour has a receiver and earpiece so they can hear what is being said without clustering around the guide. This gives you much greater freedom of movement and, when you can no longer hear your guide, you need to catch up!
When we got to Melk Abbey, Cruise Director Hans had heard enough complaints from the non-walkers and arranged a series of buses to take people to and from the site. We then had a wonderful trip down the Danube though the Wachau Valley past terraced hills of vineyards, the ruins of Durnstein Castle and on to the ancient city of Krems. We stayed up on the sky deck for the entire 35-mile length of while Hans gave a travelogue of the sites on each shore from the boat's public address system in the lounge. He got quite irritated when people in the lounge chose to talk among themselves rather than listen to him. Then, through a few more locks and we were on the home stretch to Vienna. The Tranquility moored across the Danube from the United Nations City complex. We were given directions to the nearest metro (U-bahn station) which would take us into Stephansplatz in the heart of old Vienna. Because we had been in Vienna before, we opted to skip the city tour and re-visit our favorite streets and Christmas markets by ourselves.
Unfortunately the location of the Tranquility in Vienna was almost a mile away from the metro station - along the quay, up a series of steps, over an expressway, along a pedestrian pathway and down three city blocks - and not a route I would choose to take at night. However, next morning we walked to the Vorgartenstrasse station and took the red line to Stephansplatz station without incident and spent a wonderful day and evening in Vienna. Our return trip to the boat was uneventful except for encountering a drunk near the quay but he was way too inebriated to pose a threat to anyone except himself.
Entertainment during the cruise consisted of a piano player, Cruise Director Hans' repertoire of six well-used jokes ("everything has an end except a sausage which has two ends"), a frenetic 'Bavarian' tuba player with handle-bar moustache and lederhosen, amateur night where the crew entertained the passengers (and sought to create a bond that would result in higher tips) and, two informative seminars. The talk on the history and operation of canals and locks was interesting (believe it or not) and useful considering our route and the 24 locks through which we passed. The talk on four types of all-natural German beers was fun with an unending stream of jokes, information and samples of each product (which undoubtably added to the amusement value). Our last night on board included a farewell dinner complete with the kitschy lights out and parade of flaming baked Alaska desserts around the dining room.
Then came the moment of reckoning. Passengers were instructed to settle their on board accounts - bar bills and other charges (Internet access, laundry, etc.) and to pick up their passports which had to be left with the front reception desk throughout the entire trip. We were given a sheet outlining expected gratuities. It said: " Crew of MS Avalon Tranquility: Subject to your satisfaction and to show your appreciation for the job well done, our printed guidelines suggest a gratuity of Euros 12.00/or US $18.00 per person per day (6 days: Nuremberg - Vienna per couple EUR 144 or US$216). This may be dropped into the "Tip box" at the Reception desk and will be shared by the members of the crew. Please use the envelope provided (When paying by Travelers Cheques, please leave "pay to order of" lime empty). Cruse Director Hans: The Avalon Cruise Director does not participate in the crew's tip pool. Our printed guideline is a gratuity of Euros 3.00/US$4.50 per person per day. (8 days: Prague - Vienna per couple EUR 48 or USD 78). A separate envelope is provided for this purpose and can be handed over to him personally or deposited in the "Tip box" at the Reception Desk."
Obviously Globus/Avalon expect passengers to significantly subsidize their wage and salary costs even though they (Globus/Avalon) probably pay housekeeping and serving staff a minimal stipend, if anything at all after deducting room, board and uniforms. This expectation was not met. Consider also that gratuities are distributed on a hierarchical basis with higher ranking staff getting more than lower ranking workers who have a more direct impact on passengers.