Guests can dine on an outdoor deck. // © 2012 Avalon Waterways
Last year, Avalon Waterways’ 166-passenger Panorama introduced the company’s new design, featuring the concept of the stateroom as an open-air balcony.
Space limitations on river cruise vessels that need to traverse the locks of Europe make balconies a thorny issue: They cut the space available for the stateroom and are not likely to be used in inclement weather. With the river cruise season running 10 months of the year, it’s a real issue, but passengers are still demanding balconies. Avalon solved the problem with a 10- by 7-foot, floor-to-ceiling window wall that opens the entire suite into a balcony on the two decks of the 200-square-foot Panorama suites and the 300-square-foot Royal suites, with seating areas near the window wall and beds positioned for maximum river views.
Avalon’s Panorama design has been so successful that two new Suite Ships debuted this year — the 166-passenger Avalon Vista and the 128-passenger Avalon Visionary, with two more — the Expression and Artistry II — slated for 2013. The Visionary was modified to a smaller size to accommodate its Rhine itineraries.
Onboard Visionary, 52 of the staterooms are suites (64 on Vista), and all accommodations have memory-foam mattress tops and flat-screen televisions, but the feature that has brought the most praise is the spacious bathrooms, with glass shower doors, L’Occitane amenities and marble counters.
The use of large windows goes beyond the accommodations. Visionary and Vista are wrapped in glass, with dark wood and restrained colors accented with bright touches. The main lounge and dining room have sweeping views, and the Sky Deck fun pool and open-air Bistro for grilled lunches are backed by constantly changing scenery. Even the expanded fitness center has a view.
Responding to guest comments, Avalon has dropped the forward part of the Sun Deck, so passengers can stay up top when sailing under low bridges.
Dining onboard is excellent, both at the sumptuous breakfast and lunch buffets and at dinner, where there is a rotating menu along with some constant favorites. The breakfast buffet makes healthy eating easy, with low-calorie, high-fiber, low-cholesterol and low-fat selections available. There is no charge for soft drinks at lunch or for regional wines, beer or soft drinks at dinner. The ships are a coffee lover’s dream, with self-serve complimentary cappuccino, Lavazza coffee, espressos and lattes, along with hot chocolate and tea.
Very attractive light lunches are served in the lounge, and light dinners with local specialties and wines are offered in the bistro, where outdoor lunches also draw guests who linger to chat and enjoy the view. Continental breakfast is available in staterooms and, on balmy days, a barbecue is provided on the sundeck. Food, beer and wine tastings are held onboard, along with the regional entertainment offered in the evenings. In addition, the new guest services team will help arrange onshore dining options starting in 2013. Service throughout the ships is exceptional — polite, intelligent, friendly and helpful.
Included shore excursions are impressive, using Quietvox transmitters and earphones that enhance the experience for both guides and guests. Next year, Avalon will be introducing Avalon Choice, three tour types to suit all tastes and physical abilities: Traditional Sightseeing, Leisurely Sightseeing and the new feature, Essential Sightseeing, where guests are given an orientation and turned loose to explore. The Leisurely option slows the pace and, for active cruisers, there are guided bike excursions in several ports; next year the company will provide Nordic walking sticks. Also in 2013, the guest services team will work with individuals to set up an alternative sightseeing plan, allowing them to focus on their special interests.
Current passengers average in the 60s, with younger guests gravitating to the shorter itineraries. English is the onboard language, and about 60 percent of the passengers are from the U.S., with most of the remaining guests from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.K.
For 2013, Avalon Vista is sailing five- to 16-day cruises, including the 11-day Legendary Danube itinerary and the eight-day Tulip Time route, as well as the 15-day Magnificent Europe vacation and a number of different holiday cruises. Avalon Visionary also sails Legendary Danube, Tulip Time and Magnificent Europe, in addition to the 13-day Blue Danube Discovery and the unusual and very charming new eight-day Tulips of Northern Holland, which sails into Friesland, a world of its own.