As new ships flood the river cruise market, each line has been one-upping the other with better bells and more whistles. Avalon Waterways' newest entry into the competition is the 164-passenger Avalon Illumination, the latest in the line's "suite ship" class.
In developing its “suite ships,” Avalon Waterways, part of the Globus family of brands, faced the obstacles that all ships plying the rivers of Europe must conquer: how to provide passengers with balconies and more public open space onboard, while dealing with European river constraints. (Think varying water levels, low bridges, narrow locks and tiny docks.)
So, how did Avalon Illumination and its seven nearly identical siblings rise to the challenge? Magnificently. Each Panorama suite features an 11-foot-wide, seven-foot-tall wall of glass that can slide to reveal a gaping, almost magical open-air expanse. When the doors are opened, take my word, you'll feel as if the entire cabin was outdoors.
Freed from having to set aside space for dedicated outdoor balconies, the 200-square-foot Panorama suites are 15 percent larger than many river ship cabins, allowing room in each for a queen bed, a small couch, table and chair. An innovative slightly curved wall leads to larger-than-expected bathrooms, with lovely marble floors. These are the most common staterooms onboard Illumination and it's no surprise that reaction has been positive.
Public gathering spaces have also been maxed out on the 443-foot-long, 37.4-foot-wide ship with four decks. In addition to the ship-long sky deck, there's a large indoor lounge, a smaller indoor lounge and an outdoor covered seating area in the front of the ship, perfect for open-air sightseeing on rainy days.
Interior design is contemporary chic, with lots of dark espresso woods highlighted with colorful modern art and deep orange rugs and furniture. Think Scandinavian rather than French Provincial. A French influence can be felt, however, in the high-quality L'Occitane bath products -- which sport a delicious lemon verbena scent.
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The mostly Eastern European staff was generally efficient and pleasant, although not all spoke fluent English. Knowledgeable, English-speaking local guides led shore excursions (at least one daily excursion was included), and the excursions were enhanced with the use of wireless headsets.
While the ship markets almost exclusively to passengers from the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, it retains some not-so-welcome European influences, including 220-volt outlets, mostly German-speaking TV channels and the euro as ship currency, which, because it is strong against the dollar, means higher gratuity and drink costs. But those are minor complaints.
Avalon Illumination sails on a selection of itineraries on the Seine, Rhine, Main, Rhone, Saone and Dutch waterways, which range from seven to 15 nights.
The ship, which cruises the Danube River, attracts travelers from North America, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand. Passengers tend to be retired (or in the 60-plus bracket), and well-traveled.
Country-club casual is the order of the day. Leave the jeans and T-shirts, as well as the opulent evening gowns and tuxes, at home. At dinner, understated cocktail dresses and jackets (sans ties) are appropriate. Bring good walking shoes.