Europe's River Cruise Boom Continues With Debut of Glass-Filled Avalon Panorama

May 16, 2011
(11:30 a.m. EDT) -- There's another innovative new player in the river cruise game: Under gray skies brightened by Champagne and cheers, Avalon Panorama was christened in Mainz, Germany, on Saturday.

"May her captain, her crew and her passengers be blessed and kept safe in their travels, and may she always enjoy clear skies and calm waters and bon voyage everyone," said the ship's godmother, Australian TV personality Lisa Wilkinson, as she released a bottle of Champagne that cooperatively smashed against the ship's hull.

Fears that low river levels along the Rhine would short-circuit the ship's five-night preview foray were allayed during Saturday's festivities. With rain in the forecast, Avalon Waterways officials were optimistic that Panorama's next cruise, scheduled to depart Amsterdam on Wednesday, will proceed as planned. (See our news piece, Europe's River Cruise Season Off To A Dry Start?, for more on the river levels.)

The 166-passenger Panorama, with its boutique hotel vibe, is the latest in a rash of new ships modernizing the river cruising industry, which, until recently, had remained relatively staid compared with the ever evolving ocean-cruising scene. Panorama's debut comes on the heel of Uniworld's splashy new S.S. Antoinette, which launched in March and includes a swimming pool, a 22-seat cinema and glassed-in cabin alcoves that can be converted into balconies with the switch of a button.

The 443 foot-Panorama -- longer than a football field by 83 feet -- offers several innovations, most notably 66 suites with floor-to-ceiling windows. The entire 11-by-7 outside wall of each suite is covered with three glass panels, two of which slide open to reveal a seven-foot-long open-air expanse.

Avalon Waterways managing director Patrick Clark told Cruise Critic the line decided to equip the fleet's 11th ship with the panoramic windows rather than balconies because it "utilizes space better."

"With balconies, we would have had to remove 30 square feet from the indoor living area," Clark said. "You can use this space all the time."

The ship's two royal suites offer 300 square feet, while the 64 panoramic suites are 200 square feet, significantly larger than the industry standard, Clark said. The ship also has 17 172-square-foot staterooms on the lowest of three cabin decks.

The Panorama suites offer several innovative design features, including floor-to-ceiling marble in the bathrooms, a larger expanse of mirrors along one wall and beds that face the sliding glass. "You can view the beautiful scenery from your bed," Clark noted.

The ship's public spaces, while similar to other newer Avalon vessels, offer several enhancements. The fitness room, for example, has been expanded to twice the size of those on other Avalon ships, with a stationary bike, an elliptical, two treadmills and free weights.

The ship was built to the maximum size allowing it to navigate the 26 locks between Amsterdam and Budapest, where it will sail from May through November on 14-night Magnificent Europe itineraries. According to the line, it is 97 percent sold out through November. Shorter Christmas market sailings in December remain available.

The ship has attracted many Australian passengers. Its inaugural cruise, for example, was just about sold out to citizens of Australia, where Avalon has heavily marketed the brand and the new ship.

--by Carol Sottili, Cruise Critic Contributor