Itinerary: Prague, Nuremberg, Nuremberg, Regensburg, Salzburg/Linz, Melk, Vienna
December 2017 - This was our first time sailing on Avalon Waterways, bringing our total number of European river cruise line experiences to 14 cruises across five different brands over the past ten years. This was also our fourth European Christmas Markets cruise. In case you are unfamiliar with the event, Christmas markets in Europe can be found in most towns, and were present in every town we visited along the Danube. Vendors set up small stands from which to sell their handmade (and sometimes imported) handicrafts, ornaments, food items, clothing, etc. Towns in Europe really go all out when it comes to decorating for Christmas making this an excellent destination for those who love to be immersed in anything Christmas.
We would categorize Avalon Waterways in the "Premium" river cruise category, comparable to Viking River Cruises and AMA Waterways, other "Premium" brands on which we have sailed. In our opinion, a "Premium" river cruise is one that has modern ships, complimentary excursions in every town/port, comfortable accommodations, and complimentary WiFi on board.
We boarded Vista in the festively decorated Reception area where a line of staff waited to greet us and invite us into the Panorama Lounge to relax before check-in.
Check-in was simple. We dropped our passports at Reception, then one of the stewards grabbed our hand luggage and escorted us to our stateroom (323).
Our Category P Panorama Suite was more like a stateroom than a suite. At 200 sq. ft., it is large for a river cruise ship stateroom, but calling it a suite is a bit of a stretch. It was, however, one of the most uniquely laid out staterooms we have seen. The interior wall of the bathroom is angled, which causes the bed to be positioned at an angle.
The outside wall of the stateroom is made entirely of glass and, with the curtains open, you have an almost completely unobstructed view of the river and passing landscape. The wall of glass is actually made in three sections, two of which will slide open, great for leaning out to take photos! A solid rail keeps you from falling into the river.
A nice-sized desk is big enough for my laptop and a few other gadgets. However, electrical outlets are hard to find. There is only one 220 outlet on the desk, and one next to the nightstand on the opposite side of the room. There were no 110 (US-Style) outlets, so you will need to bring adapters (220 Euro-style to 110 US-Style.) Adapters are available from Reception if you don't have one. There are no USB charging ports, something that every river cruise line should have added by now. There is a desk lamp that can be unplugged to free up an additional 220 Euro-style outlet.
The are a couple of shallow shelves on the left-hand side of the desk behind a door. They are shallow because of an HVAC vent that occupies the back 8 inches or so of the desk (you can see the vent in the photo above). Apparently, the duct for the vent is behind the desk. On the right-hand side of the desk is a mini-fridge/mini-bar stocked with a variety of beverages and snacks (not complimentary). A small sofa, coffee table and chair are at the end of the desk. Complimentary bottled water is placed on the coffee table. There is a closet with an electronic safe. Since there are no drawers to speak of, storage space is somewhat limited.
Other than the limited storage space and lack of electrical outlets, we found the Category P stateroom to be one of the most comfortable of any river cruise ship. The stateroom was well-insulated, making it super quiet. We never heard our neighbors, and since Avalon has a "no announcement" policy, we were never disturbed by voices over the PA system. The mattress was one of the most comfortable we have found on a river cruise ship. The standard memory foam mattress topper made it feel like we were sleeping on a cloud! We would like to see USB charging ports added, and more hooks! You can never have too many hooks to hang jackets, caps, scarves, etc. That said, we would give the Category P a solid 4.5-out-of-5 rating.
Excursions and Activities
Avalon Waterways includes an excursion in each town/city we visited. There are optional excursions available in some cities at additional cost such as an evening concert in Vienna. The optional excursions were reasonably priced. Clean modern motor coaches were used to shuttle guests from the ship to the walking portion of the excursions.
Portable audio devices are available in the Panorama Lounge before each tour and are different colors. Guests taking the walking tours are divided into groups of 15 to 25, based on which color of audio device they selected. This color corresponds to the color of the flag the local guide was holding. Guests could choose to be in the "red" group one day, or the "green" group the next, and so on. Avalon also offered a "Gentle Walkers" group for those who may have mobility issues, or simply choose to go at a slower pace.
Most modern river cruise operators now use these portable audio devices. They allow guests to hear the tour guide through an earpiece, making it unnecessary for the guide to yell information. The devices have a pretty good range, so if you want to drop back a few hundred feet to take photos without a crowd, you can still hear the tour guide. One advantage of the color-coded audio devices is that guests never had to fumble with setting a channel to match the transmitter used by the guide. The devices were pre-set.
The color-coded system works really well. If you forget which group you are in, just look at the color of your audio device. Then, look for the guide carrying that color flag. There is a color-coded sign in the window of the motor coach, too, so you will always get back on the correct bus!
We found the excursions to be very good. In Regensburg, Avalon gave us complimentary tickets to the Thurn & Taxis Christmas Market (7.50€ per ticket). This "private" Christmas market is set up on the grounds of the Thurn and Taxis Palace and was one of our favorite Christmas markets we visited during our two-week assignment. It was here we found more local craftsman and handmade items than at some of the other markets.
Avalon also provided us with vouchers for a meal at the historic Wurstkütcht (Sausage Kitchen) located on the south bank of the Danube at the Old Stone Bridge.
Whenever we visit Regensburg, we always try to visit the Sausage Kitchen. They simply have the best sausages in the world. So, when Avalon gave us vouchers for a free meal, we were delighted! It is the first time any cruise line has done that. The voucher paid for a plate of six sausages, sauerkraut, one roll and one beer or Coke. So, once you are seated and have placed and received your order, the way it works at the Sausage Kitchen is as follows:
Grab one of the crusty rolls from the basket on the table
Slice it open
Place 3 sausages on the roll
Slather on some of the sweet honey-mustard
Repeat steps 1 thru 5 (but be aware that each additional crusty roll you consume costs .90€!)
Now, in all honesty, we would have visited the Sausage Kitchen anyway, but it was a nice treat to have Avalon pay for our meal!
Food and Dining
As with most modern river boats in Europe, the main restaurant is located on Deck 1, forward. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style and dinner is full menu service, a' la carté dining, complete with white tablecloths and linen napkins.
There are six two-top tables for those couples who prefer a more intimate dining experience; however, the four that are located in the center of the dining room have very little space between the two-top and the adjoining four-top, so it is almost like dining at a six-top table. If you want more separation from your fellow diners, opt for one of the two-top tables near the entrance into the dining room.
The breakfast buffet offers anything you could want including fruits, cereals, breads, pastries, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages, etc. There is an eggs/omelette cooked-to-order station in the center of the buffet line. You can also order Eggs Benedict or daily specials from your waiter. Something you will not find on any other river cruise ship, or at least the ones on which we have sailed, is a huge honeycomb!
Lunch buffet selections change each day and there is a carving station, and a fresh pasta station, in the center of the buffet line.
During breakfast and lunch, guests can start at each end of a semi-oval buffet line and they ultimately meet in the middle where the traffic can get pretty crazy. The design of the buffet can result in traffic jams. One problem is that there are different items on each side of the buffet and, rather than go to the end of the opposite line and wait their turn, when guests complete the first line they just jump in and grab whatever item they want on the opposite line, often in front of guests already in line.
The food was quite good, certainly as good as we have found on any other river cruise. Our advice: arrive early and beat the crowd!
During breakfast and lunch, waiters are on hand to deliver your drinks or take orders for á la carté selections. Complimentary red and white wines, beer, and soft drinks are offered at lunch and dinner. Sparkling wine is available in the mornings to make your own Mimosa. We found the wines offered to be of good quality and a nice variety was available.
An early-riser breakfast is available in the Club Lounge on Deck 3 aft, and in the main lounge each morning. I should also point out that the coffee served throughout the ship is very good, and that is something you don't usually find on any cruise vessel.
The Club Lounge has a 24-hour coffee and tea station and was the perfect spot for my early morning coffee workstation.
Something we have not seen on any other river cruise is an Afternoon Tea. Around 4pm each day, there is a very nice selection of cakes, macarons and finger sandwiches available in the forward part of the Panorama Lounge. They even offered glühwein each day at tea time on our cruise. The finger sandwiches are some of the best we have had on any ship.
An alternative lunch venue was set up in the forward part of Panorama Lounge, serving a lighter fare. As an alternative to dinner in the Dining Room, Avalon offers The Bistro, an 11-course wine/food pairing "experience" served in the Panorama Lounge. The Bistro was only available on three nights during our sailing, so we made sure to get our names on the reservation list early. A maximum of 30 guests can be served each evening in The Bistro.
The 11 courses served at The Bistro are tapas-style, almost like a tasting menu. There is a variety of seafood, beef and vegetable dishes served. To be honest, we felt some of the dishes were a little too ambitious for a river cruise ship galley.
The food was good, but no better than what we experienced in the Dining Room. However, it is a much quieter, more peaceful dining experience than the Dining Room, which could get quite noisy when full of guests since there is only one seating for dinner. If you are on an Avalon Waterways cruise, you should definitely try The Bistro at least one time during your cruise. There is no charge for this unique experience.
Overall, we found the food and dining to be on par with other Premium river cruise lines. We always like to point out that rating food is difficult because taste is so subjective.
The Panorama Lounge is located on Deck 2 forward and is very nicely laid out with comfortable furnishings and tasteful, contemporary decor. One of the nicest features of the lounge is the virtually unobstructed panoramic view provided by the surrounding floor-to-ceiling windows.
The bar is located at the back of the lounge, near the entrance, and is stocked with virtually any adult beverage you could ever want. The price for cocktails is on par with other Premium river cruise lines.
A Crown Royal (neat) was 6.30€ (about $7.50 US) for only 1.36 oz., which is a little on the skimpy side. A 1.5 to 2 ounce pour for a whisky neat is more common. House sparkling wine (3.38 oz.) was the best value at only 3.70€ (about $4.35 US), and it was quite good.
A better value is Happy Hour which occurs each evening for an hour before the daily briefing. During Happy Hour, all drinks are half price! Bar service from the wait staff was very attentive. And, there are two occasions where you can enjoy a complimentary glass of sparkling wine: the Captain's Welcome Cocktail Reception, held on the evening of embarkation, and the Captain's Farewell Reception, on the last night of the cruise. Waiters circulate with trays of sparkling wine and, if you drink fast, you might even get a second glass! These two receptions are also the only evenings where waiters serve a selection of hors d'oeuvres.
The lounge also has a large wooden dance floor in the center of the room. Piano music is played each evening during Happy Hour and after dinner. The resident pianist was one of the best we have heard on any river cruise.
We have already mentioned the piano player in the Panorama Lounge each day during afternoon tea, happy hour and in the evenings. In addition, it seemed there was always some special event going on each day in the lounge. One afternoon, we enjoyed a Christmas cookie demonstration and tasting.
In Regensburg, we were treated to an excellent onboard acapella Christmas concert performed by Spitzweig quartet, former members of the Regensburg Boys Choir.
Earlier that same evening, we enjoyed a Bavarian Beer Tasting in the lounge where we had the opportunity to try four different Bavarian craft beers and learn all about how different beers are made.
Overall, our Avalon Vista cruise was one of the best we have experienced in the area of entertainment offerings.
Other Ship Features
Avalon guests enjoy complimentary WiFi/Internet. The WiFi worked about as well as on any river cruise...that is to say, poorly. It is just the nature of the beast. Whenever river ships go under bridges, go through locks (there were 23 on this cruise), or even narrow valleys with steep hills, satellite communications (Internet and TV) can get interrupted. We also experienced a two-day "blackout" near the end of our cruise when we had no Internet or TV due to "technical difficulties."
The Daily Newsletter for the following day is placed on the bed each evening during turn-down service, along with a map of the next place we are to visit. The newsletter is very well organized and gives a chronological view of the day's activities along with weather updates and local destination information.
For those so inclined, there is a small Fitness Center on Deck 1 with treadmills, stationary bicycles and a few free weights. Towels and bottled water are provided in there. A beauty salon is located on Deck 1 where, in addition to salon services, you can also get a massage. There is an elevator to use to move from deck to deck.
Before disembarking the ship for an excursion there was complimentary bottled water available for guests to take with them.
A pad of tear-off maps showing details of the local area were also available at Reception, which is great for those of us who like to get off the ship and explore the town on foot.
On our cruise, the weather prohibited visits to the Sun Deck, other than to quickly go up to take some pictures. But, you can see that in warmer weather, this space would get a lot of use. There is a hot tub, one of the obligatory large chess sets that I have yet to see anyone use on any river cruise, and lots of covered and uncovered lounge seating.
Since this was a Christmas Markets cruise, the ship was nicely decorated for Christmas. There were Christmas trees in the Panorama Lounge, Reception and Club Lounge, and ornamentation in every public space. It really helped to put the spirit of Christmas in the air.
Staff and Service
We found the entire crew to be very friendly and always willing to go out of their way to offer assistance. Cruise Director, Tony, is a river cruise veteran and did a great job of keeping everything moving smoothly. The housekeeping department kept our stateroom, and the rest of the ship, spotlessly clean during our cruise.
We would not hesitate to recommend Avalon Waterways to anyone considering a European river cruise. Comfortable accommodations, an excellent, caring staff, good food, exceptional entertainment and well-conducted excursions combine to make Avalon Waterways a real contender in the rapidly expanding river cruise market. The no-smoking and no-announcement policies enhance the onboard experience. We look forward to experiencing Avalon Waterways again!