We sailed on the new 166-passenger Avalon Expression for its christening cruise, and although the cruise line offers the utmost in onboard delights (we’ll get to those later), it was those expansive views of sloping vineyards, deep forests and ancient castles along the Rhine from our suite’s French balcony that made this river cruise experience truly exceptional.
Part of the line’s Suite Ships, the Avalon Expression offers two full decks of Panorama Suites offering wall-to-wall panoramic windows with open-air balcony. These are the accommodations you need to recommend to your clients—no hesitation (as it was recently pointed out during the Cruise3Sixty conference in Vancouver during one of the General Sessions, don’t be afraid to recommend a higher category suite).
Avalon Waterways’ managing director Patrick Clark says the glass-walled cabins—two full decks of the Panorama Suites on the Avalon Expression and its sister ships—are supposed to make you feel like you are seeing the sights from your living room.
Rather than its sliding glass walls, the line could have gone with traditional balconies, but purposely chose a different approach.
“It’s not that we don’t like balconies. We just think they should be on a big ship going on the ocean,” Clark says.
Part of the long-established Globus family of brands, Avalon first introduced the Suite Ships concept in 2011, and like all the top river lines in Europe, has been rapidly expanding its fleet. This year, there are five of its ships on the Rhine and Danube. Three more are on order for next year.
Most of the cabins on Avalon Expression are Panorama Suites, which at 200 sq. ft. are about 30 percent larger than the industry standard. Cleverly angling the bedroom wall allows for a larger than usual glass door shower in the bathroom—where there are also such niceties as makeup mirrors, and L’Occitane bath products.
The extra space counts. When sitting on the carefully positioned, hotel-like bed or on the couch, with the glass open to form a French balcony, clients will be able to hear the sounds, see the sights and even feel a light breeze off the Rhine.
Clark says the ambiance the line was going for is casual comfort. With river ships in Europe limited in size due to low bridges and tight locks, the Avalon Expression and its sister ships are designed to make the most of the space.
“When we created this class we looked at how to best utilize space so guests can enjoy the experience and have the creature comforts,” Clark says.
christening a new ship
River cruising, with its destination-focused itineraries bringing cruisers to inland sights, is being touted as the hottest segment in the travel industry.
To celebrate the popularity, Avalon chose as godmother of the Avalon Expression Patricia Schultz, author of the bestselling “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.”
U.S.-based travel agents were among those on board for the christening—the actual ceremony took place in Koblenz, Germany—checking out the ship to share details with their clients.
“Everybody wants river cruises. There’s a lot more knowledge about river cruises right now,” says Mary Hanigan, managing partner of Uniglobe Travel Partners in Lake Oswego, OR. “People are calling and asking about river cruises.”
The fact that river cruises are mostly inclusive, including unlimited beer and wine at dinner and shore excursions, is a big plus for clients, Hanigan adds. The whole trip is basically managed for the client.
Avalon’s shore programs are with certified guides and focus primarily on history and culture.
“You don’t have to pull out a guidebook and walk out and flag a taxi. It’s an easy way to do Europe,” Hanigan says.
From its windowed Panorama Lounge, where new carefully created dividers add intimate nooks for conversation, to its classy dining room, the Avalon Expression is a thoughtfully designed ship.
The attention to detail shows. The vessel brings a contemporary elegance complete with cushy seating, pleasant artwork and designer lighting, enhanced by such little touches as fresh flowers.
Up on the Sky Deck, passengers can soak in a whirlpool, practice their golf putting on a tiny green or play a game of chess with a giant set—when they are not catching views from lounge chairs or tables, some under shaded canopies.
An expanded fitness center has equipment (treadmill, exercise bike, weights) for those who want to keep up their workout routine.
Most meals are open seating in the dining room, where dinner is a multi-course, waiter-served affair. But a brand-new Panorama Bistro option is a reservations-only meal (complimentary) served in a corner of the lounge and featuring a dozen European cuisine-inspired small tastes, presented in creative fashion.
A dish of veal, tomato and goat cheese served in a shot glass, a taste of Viennese goulash and a rich opera cake were
If clients don’t want to indulge at the buffets in the dining room, they can choose light alternatives served in the lounge at breakfast and lunch.
Several times per cruise a grill set up on the sundeck offers an open-air meal alternative. Clients can munch on German sausages as they pass by views of the German countryside.
Agent Linda Cherwin Gow of Posh Travel in Greenland, NH, was impressed with the whole shebang.
“The ship in its entirety is so contemporary but yet so very warm, all the decor, the plants, the flowers, the colors, the artwork, the cabins, to die for. The wall-to-wall cabin windows, it doesn’t get any better. I think that Avalon has nailed it,” she says.
The sweet spot in terms of customers for Avalon Waterways is English-speaking (about 55 percent of passengers are from the U.S.) and age 55 to 70, Clark says.
But like all river cruise companies, Avalon is also recently seeing a slightly younger group, especially on its wellness theme cruises and on its Christmas Market itineraries, he adds.
Agents say they are also seeing a shift in demographic.
Says Gow, “People have the impression that river cruising is like, ‘When I retire and I’m 80 and in a wheelchair, I’ll go on a river cruise.’ That’s not true.”
The Avalon Suite Ships cruise the Rhine, Main and Danube. Fares include shore excursions, sparkling wine with breakfast and beer, wine or soft drinks with dinner, plus complimentary WiFi (though it can be slow). There is limited availability on 2013 cruises. Avalon also has ships on the Seine, Moselle and Rhone rivers in Europe and in Egypt, China, Cambodia/Vietnam and the Galapagos, plus cruises on the Mississippi (on the American Queen).
Fares for an 11-day The Legendary Danube cruise in 2014 aboard Avalon Expression start at $3,509 pp.
Avalon Waterways: (877) 797-8791; avalonwaterways.com