The main focus of river cruising is on ports of call, and a full program of shore excursions (included in the cruise fare) are offered -- sometimes more than once per day. On our sailing, we toured museums and other local landmarks in the off-the-beaten-path towns we visited. During our separate cruises in The Netherlands and on the Danube, we saw fields of colorful tulips, checked out the world's oldest planetarium, witnessed cheese being made and auctioned, went on a "pub crawl," toured abbeys and castles, and learned tons about the local history and culture. Guides were knowledgeable, friendly and spoke fluent English.
All passengers receive personal earpieces and are given receivers when they leave the ship on excursions. This means they don't have to cluster around guides to hear what is being said.
In addition to the included excursions, each itinerary will have a number of "premier" optional excursions at extra cost. On the Vienna to Passau cruise these included an 18-mile bike ride with a picnic lunch for €50, an evening waltz concert for €62 and a full day tour to Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic for €73.
Note: Despite the high-tech feel of our onboard card/room key, the staff's only method of keeping track of who's ashore and who's back onboard while in port is a series of laminated paper cards with room numbers printed on them. If you forget to pick yours up before leaving the ship, nobody will know you're gone. Likewise, if you forget to turn your card in at the desk when you arrive back after an excursion, they'll think you're still in port, checking out the souvenirs -- so you can expect a call to go out on the public announcement system. That said, the cruise director always reminds passengers to pick up cards and hand them back in.
Daytime and Evening Entertainment
As shore excursions begin early and are often tiring, nightlife is usually fairly quiet on river cruises. That said, one night, Avalon offered after-dinner entertainment in the form of a Genever (alcohol similar to gin) and cheese tasting, hosted by local experts. Another night, an outstanding trio of local string musicians played everything from classics to Gypsy music. Both events were well attended. On all other nights, evening entertainment consisted of live piano music in the main lounge performed by the onboard musician, who sang American songs with a flat voice and a thick Bulgarian accent. This is one area where we think the line can improve; the after dinner mood on the ship picked up the one night that a groove band from Cologne boarded. When the musician began playing, the room cleared pretty quickly.
Guest speakers sometimes hop aboard at various points on the cruise. On our Danube cruise we had a hugely entertaining talk (and tasting) on wine from the UNESCO-listed Wachau Valley.
Avalon Visionary Bars and Lounges
Panorama Lounge (Deck 3): The main lounge is located on the Royal Deck and is the ship's only bar, accented with red leather bar stools and a cream-colored marble countertop. The bar menu offers a variety of white, red and rose wine from Germany, Austria, France and Switzerland, priced from €3.70 for a glass of sparkling wine and €5.30 for a glass of still wine. Sparkling wine by the bottle ranges from €22.50 for the house fizz to €145 for a bottle of Laurent Perrier. Single spirits start at €5.20 for a 4cl/1.36fl oz. measure, or €9.10 for mixed drinks such as gin and tonic or whiskey and cola. The extensive list of cocktails is divided into "classic," "pre-dinner" and "after-dinner" (although, of course, you can drink them when you want!). The majority of them are priced at €9.90. There are also nonalcoholic "mocktails," starting at €6.80 for a fruit punch. Each day the bar features a cocktail and mocktail of the day, priced at €7.50 and €5.20, respectively. There is also a daily happy hour, usually from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., when all drinks are half price.
The main lounge, used for pre- and post-dinner drinks, alternative dining and nightly entertainment, is located just forward of the reception desk. With its panoramic windows, it's bright and airy, despite darker furnishings of brown faux wood and chairs upholstered in deep red and gray. Various couches are also scattered about, boasting either red vinyl or stripes of red, black and gray chenille.
Club Lounge (Deck 3): The ship's secondary lounge on the Royal Deck is a small space at the aft of the ship on Deck 3. It's got funky burnt-orange carpeting, dark tables and black wicker seating with black cushions. If you're feeling peckish between meals, freshly baked cookies and a variety of hot beverages are always available there, along with fruit and juice during the day. There is also an ice machine. This lounge is the location for Avalon's past-passenger meetings onboard. On select "movie nights," movies are shown after dinner on the large flat-screen TV in the Club Lounge.
Avalon Visionary Outside Recreation
The top deck, the vessel's sun deck, spans the entire length of the ship. It offers one hot tub, a giant chess board and a decent number of sun loungers -- some covered to offer respite from the sun -- from which passengers can enjoy 360-degree views as they sail through tiny towns. A small area of covered tables and chairs is also available forward, just in front of the bridge. One nice touch is that the front portion of Visionary's sun deck was designed 3 feet lower than the rest, allowing passengers the ability to safely remain outside when the ship passes under low bridges.
Avalon Visionary Services
The main doors to the ship feed directly into a small lobby and reception area, which is bright and welcoming. The reception desk faces a small gathering area with cream-colored leather chairs and a coffee table. Next to that, passengers will find two computers -- one Mac and one PC. They're free to use, as is the Wi-Fi, available in cabins and throughout the ship, for those who wish to bring their own laptops and mobile devices. Reception was decent, and load times seemed faster than those on some other vessels.
A first-aid kit is available at the ship's front desk, but there are no medical facilities onboard. Because river cruises sail so close to land, qualified medical professionals are only a phone call away in case of an emergency.
Each day a selection of newspapers containing the main news from each country -- U.S., U.K., Australia and Canada -- are put out near the entrance to the main lounge. There is also a daily crossword and puzzle sheet.
The ship's secondary lounge, aft on Deck 3 has a small library of books and board games. (It was only toward the end of our cruise that we discovered lots more books and games in the cupboards beneath the open shelves!) This lounge is also the location for Avalon's past-passenger meetings onboard. With its comfortable black wicker seating and small open deck area outside, it's a quiet spot to read, do puzzles or take a nap.
Self-service laundry facilities are not offered to passengers, but cleaning and pressing services are available for a fee. Prices for pressing range from €3 for a shirt or blouse to €8 for a suit or dress, and dry cleaning is priced from €1 for a handkerchief to €6 for a skirt or slacks.
The ship has an elevator serving all three passenger decks, but it does not go up to the sun deck, called the Sky Deck, which has to be accessed by stairs. The line advises that anyone sailing on the ship should at least be able to walk up the gangway and one flight of stairs. None of the cabins is specifically wheelchair-accessible.
Smoking is only allowed on a designated area on the sun deck.