The Austrian woman gave a sharp tug on my dress lacings, pulling them tight over a bell-shaped hoop skirt. "Now you are ready to dance," she said in a thick accent. I turned to look in the mirror -- and an 18th-century counterpart in burgundy velvet stared back at me.
Around the high-ceilinged room in a former Viennese royal residence, the other members of my group from Avalon Passion, the newest riverboat from Avalon Waterways, were having similar revelations. We were taking part in an excursion being tested by the line as part of its Active Discovery initiative, and by the laughter and selfies being taken, I could tell it would be a hit.
Learning to waltz in Vienna. Hiking a World War II smugglers trail on the Austrian/German borders. Canoeing on the Danube. In 2017, Avalon Waterways is introducing Active Discovery cruises, where shore excursions such as these will take passengers beyond the typical coach and walking tours.
"There's a lot more interest in active kinds of vacation," said Patrick Clark, managing director for Avalon. "People want more enrichment." In addition, Clark noted, baby boomers are more active than ever and don't want to take a break on vacation. "They are going to health clubs, they are biking, they are walking. They view river cruises for people who spend time sitting on a ship."
Changing that perception is becoming important in the crowded river cruise field. Avalon is not the first river line to make a bid for these more active -- and let's be honest, younger -- passengers. AmaWaterways, for example, has entered into a partnership with Backroads, an active tour company, to offer serious bike rides and hikes on its river cruises. And Uniworld has set itself apart with its premium excursions that offer once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
But Avalon's efforts have a whiff of hip about them. In Vienna, half of our group biked through the city with Polaroid cameras, taking retro shots of the gorgeous buildings while learning about the history. The others walked through the Naschmarkt, Vienna's main city market, guided by a food blogger who offered samples of wine, cheese and chocolate along the way. These excursions felt fresh, not canned, and definitely offered plenty of chances to grab Facebook-worthy shots.
Right now, Avalon's efforts are limited to the Danube and will not be available on every cruise. The line has scheduled eight Active Discovery itineraries between Budapest and Linz for 2017, with the intent of expanding to other rivers if the interest is there. On these cruises, at least one active excursion a day will be included in the fare; more elaborate efforts, such as the private waltz lessons (which unfortunately will not have costumes when they roll out to passengers), will have a fee, Clark said.
Bikes, though, are becoming a part of Avalon's DNA. In 2017, the line will have modern bikes on all of its European ships that passengers can use in different ports. (Guided bike excursions had already been available on many Avalon itineraries but only as an optional for-fee activity; the new bikes will be complimentary for passengers.)
Along with being more active on land, Avalon is making better choices at the dining table. To that end, the line is partnering with Leo and Karl Wrenkh, two chef-brothers who own one of Austria's most successful vegetarian restaurants, for a culinary initiative called Avalon Fresh. The Wrenkhs will work with Avalon to revamp menus on the line's fleet to offer creative -- and tasty -- vegetarian and vegan dishes at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Although the meals are not going to be formally rolled out until 2017, signs of the culinary sea of change have already appeared on our cruise. At lunch today, we grabbed a generous serving of saffron quinoa with pumpkin and grilled bok choy, without knowing it was a Wrenkh specialty. It tasted fresh, delicious and healthy -- the perfect meal after the 20-kilometer bike ride we had just finished. The breakfast and lunch buffets include superfood toppings like chia seeds for cereal and salads.
When the Wrenkh partnership is recognized fully, Avalon's menus will have Wrenkh dishes marked with an Avalon Fresh logo. "People have been asking for it," Clark said of the healthier menu items. The goal will be to make sure the vegetarian options are as delicious as the rest of the menu; no one wants to feel deprived while cruising, after all. (After the quinoa, I snuck a cookie.)
A few Active Discovery test activities are still to come on this cruise; there's a hiking and honey tasting in Linz, as well as a pub crawl. There's also the ship christening, where Passion will formally be inducted into service. Look for Cruise Critic coverage Wednesday, April 13.
And now back to that dance. Before we arrived at the palace, many in our group worried aloud about what would happen when we went inside. Would the costumes fit? Would we step on our partner's toes? And who would we be dancing with, anyway?
Turns out the dancing school had enlisted the help of a troupe of Bratislavian ballet dancers to accompany the primarily female passengers. The lithe 20-somethings led us through the three-count box step with aplomb, never once registering how weird it must have been for them to be dancing with American women twice their age.
When our group mastered the steps, we changed into the 18th-century costumes. Backstage in the women's changing room, trepidation turned to hilarity as our transformations took place. Once appropriately garbed, we left to meet the men, who had all changed into formal white tie. Blame it on the long dresses and hoop skirts, but I will say that it seemed we were all a little lighter on our feet during the second round of waltzing. We certainly were all smiling and laughing a lot more.
After the dance finished (and we toasted our achievement with Champagne), we took a historic trolley to an Austrian restaurant. There, we reconnected with other Avalon passengers, who had spent their morning making traditional apple strudel. We ate it over lunch, swapping stories and photos from our Austrian adventures.
Building that kind of camaraderie is exactly what Avalon hopes the Active Discovery excursions will do. Said Clark: "If you're cooking strudel or you're waltzing, you're getting to know each other" -- which makes for a far more memorable vacation than a standard walking tour. If this is the future of river cruising, we're prepared to go all in, even if it means looking awesomely silly in a hoop skirt.
--By Chris Gray Faust, Senior Editor