With more choices than ever available for European river cruising, lines are being challenged to come up with activities and concepts that set them apart from the rest of the pack. With its newest "Suite Ship," the 166-passenger Passion, Avalon rises to the occasion with an experience that's modern, but still familiar and relaxing.
One of the major differences you'll see on Avalon, as opposed to other lines, is that the beds face the windows, not the wall. And after a week onboard, we're sold on the concept. There is something refreshing about waking up to a nice view, instead of a mirror. In the ship's Panorama Suites, French balconies come with a glass sliding door that opens up nearly the length of the room, allowing in plenty of fresh air. The marble bathrooms are among the best we've seen on the rivers, well-designed and actually comfortable. All in all, you'll feel like you're in a boutique hotel instead of a river ship. One small quibble: the plugs are all European, forcing North Americans to bring clumsy converters.
The public spaces are also spacious and light, with walls of windows and cozy corners. We were particularly drawn to the Club Lounge at the back of the ship, a glass-enclosed room with tables, chairs and sofa, as well as always available coffee, tea and snacks. The Panorama Lounge, which serves as the ship's main gathering spot, is also divided up into smaller areas that are perfect for small group conversation or reading a book. At night, there's a musician and dance floor and the line has capability for karaoke, if the passengers are so inclined.
For its shore excursions, Avalon draws upon the expertise of its land-tour arm, Globus, and the local guides were generally better than average. As on most river cruises, the line hands out headsets for tours so you can hear the commentary while still being able to wander around. The ship is also adding bikes that passengers can use for free in port.
We weren't as impressed with the onboard service as we were with the ship itself, however. While the service is nice enough, it's not the kind of ship where the bartenders and waiters -- or even the cruise director -- go out of their way to know your name. While we applaud the line's commitment to a quieter ship (very few announcements are made), we found ourselves worrying about missing activities. And we wonder why the line doesn't include wine and beer with lunch as its competitors do. (We've been told this will change in 2017.)
But our complaints, overall, are minor. Avalon passengers tend to return to the line again and again for the ship's size and moderate cost, about middle of the road in the river cruise market. Add in the commitment that the line is making to healthy cuisine -- a pair of notable Austrian chefs will develop full vegetarian and vegan menus for all Avalon ships in 2017 -- and you get an experience that feels like it would appeal to a younger demographic than you find on other river cruise lines.
Avalon Passion's passengers fall squarely into baby boomer territory, with the majority of cruisers around sixty-something. The Denver company's base is primarily American, although you'll also find Australians and people from other English-speaking countries. Many have traveled with other tour companies within the Globus family of brands (of which Avalon is one).
Casual rules the day, with most passengers donning jeans or other sturdy clothes for tours and excursions. Bring your walking shoes for Europe's cobblestoned streets; passengers who plan to participate in the line's more active excursions may also want to bring shoes for hiking or biking. At night, passengers wear country club casual, with women wearing blouses with pants or skirts, and men wearing collared shirts, even at the Captain's welcome and farewell dinners.
Avalon cruises include a choice of at least one shore excursion per day, WiFi onboard, soda at lunch (beer and wine will be added at lunch in 2017) and wine, beer and soda with dinner. In 2017, all Avalon ships will have bikes that passengers can use for free. Tips are not included; the recommended amount is 12 euros per person, per day for the staff and 3 euros per person, per day for the cruise director. Starting in 2017, the fares will include tips for local guides and drivers. You can pay with cash or credit card at the end of your cruise or you can pre-pay online before you board. The onboard currency is the euro.
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Balkans aboard the Avalon Passion and Globus by land tour, was a truly remarkable experience.