As new ships flood the burgeoning river-cruise market, each one-upping the other with better bells and more whistles, the what-will-they-think-of-next game is in full swing. Avalon Waterways' entry into the competition is 164-passenger Avalon Panorama, whose "Panorama Suite" innovation is brilliant in its simplicity.
In developing the new design, Avalon Waterways, part of the Globus family of brands, faced the obstacles that all ships plying the rivers of Europe must conquer. That is, the company wanted to provide passengers with balconies and more public open space onboard, while concurrently dealing with European river constraints. (Think varying water levels, low bridges, narrow locks and tiny docks.)
So, how did Avalon Panorama 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. It's no surprise that reaction has been positive. The two new Avalon ships -- Vista and Visionary -- being added to the fleet in spring 2012 will feature the trademark suites.
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 shiplong sky deck, there's a large indoor lounge, a smaller indoor club 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 -- and the fine wines, such as a full-bodied Cotes de Roussillon from the south of France.
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, 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.
A recent five-night preview cruise on the Rhine and Moselle rivers was a nice taste of what passengers will experience on Panorama's usual 14-night sailings between Amsterdam and Budapest. (Shorter Christmas market cruises will also be offered.) The ship docks at a different place each day and cruises mostly at night, with daytime sailings confined to exceptionally scenic portions of the journey. Included morning walking tours instantly familiarize passengers with the typically small towns, and within a few hours, it's easy to feel a real affinity for each village's markets, churches and riverfront walking paths. The leisurely rhythm of the region's slower pace of life is impossible to resist, and in just a few days, drinking an afternoon beverage among the regulars at the local Biergarten or buying a hunk of fresh farm cheese from a market stand becomes second nature.
Like on most cruises, no one goes hungry on a Panorama sailing. Unlike so many cruises, however, the galley doesn't serve mounds of pedestrian, high-caloric foods that cause instant regret.
Panorama's menu might best be described as Continental with local influences. Wines, produce and dishes from Austria and the Middle Rhine region of Germany are daily features. On a couple of early-morning strolls, I passed a crewmember heading back to the ship carrying fresh local produce, such as succulent strawberries and plump white asparagus, which later showed up on the dinner table.
Service was usually friendly and efficient, with a few bumps: Some servers struggled with the English language, and a few were pushy about taking orders quickly. And, while the included wine usually flowed freely, my request for a second taste of a lovely sparkling rose during a German food and wine pairing dinner was met with raised eyebrows and a firm no.
Passengers have four choices for breakfast: Early riser's breakfast, served from 6 to 7 a.m. and late riser's breakfast, served from 8 to 10 a.m., both in the Club Lounge, offering fruit, coffee, tea, juice and pastries. Room service breakfast, available for a surcharge of about $3 per person, consists of the same choices. The best bet was the buffet breakfast, which consisted of European-style cheeses and cold cuts, yogurts, made-to-order omelets and eggs, fruit, breakfast meats, scrambled eggs and -- my personal favorite -- Bircher muesli, a traditional Swiss recipe of rolled oats, fruit and milk; sparkling wine was also served.
Between noon and 2 p.m., buffet lunch is set up in the main restaurant. And, on most days, weather permitting, an open-air bistro-style grill lunch is offered on the sky deck. Capacity for the outdoor seating is limited, so sign up early. Maybe food just tastes better served outdoors, but the grilled bratwursts, skirt steaks and chicken breasts, accompanied by corn-on-the-cob and fresh salads, all hit the spot.
Buffet lunch in the restaurant has more choices. A typical spread offered salads, a hot soup, cold soup, made-to-order pasta, a carving station and hot dishes, such as cordon bleu and broiled tilapia. Caesar's salad, a grilled dish and a sandwich with fries were also on the daily lunch menu. Save room for the best part of the meal -- dessert. The ice cream buffet of rich vanilla and a second varying flavor, offered daily, is complemented with condiments that range from chocolate sauce to flaked coconut. And don't even think about missing dessert on the days that offer tiramisu with chocolate sauce or the apple strudel with vanilla custard sauce.
Dinner is a four-course banquet, served promptly at 7 p.m. There's no option for arriving within a window of time. Seating is open, and most tables hold at least four people. Portions are sized to avoid that uncomfortable post-Thanksgiving-dinner feeling. Each day, a local regional specialty, such as Quarkkeulchen, a pancakelike dish, or Kartoffelsuppe, potato soup, is served. A healthy menu option is also offered, featuring items like summer vegetable soup, glazed cod and poached fillet of chicken with steamed vegetables. Also, grilled salmon and grilled chicken are available every night. Some favorites from my voyage: crispy roast duck leg a l'orange, the dessert cheese platter and cream of eggplant soup.
Oenophiles rejoice: Included white, rose and red wines accompany each dinner. Premium bottles of wine are also available for purchase, and passengers are allowed to bring their own wine onboard. (A corkage fee of about $13 applies to personal wine served in the dining room.)
And just in case three meals a day are not enough, coffee, tea, cake and sandwiches are served in the main lounge at 4 p.m., and late-night hors d'oeuvres are on offer in the main lounge at 10:30 p.m. Fruit, cookies and cappuccino, coffee and tea are available 24/7 in the club lounge.
Fans of clean-cut, contemporary design will feel comfortable in Panorama's boutique-hotel-style decor. The dark woods, creamy whites and beiges and rich reds and burnt oranges create a swanky, elegant vibe.
From the understated yet stylish lobby, a curved, split staircase leads up to the third deck (watch your step -- these stairs can be tricky), and a five-step split staircase leads down to the second deck, giving the illusion of an extra deck and a larger, airier space. The lobby includes two computer terminals and a printer, but free Wi-Fi throughout the ship also supports personal laptops. Warning: Don't plan on working or even keeping in constant touch via e-mail on this cruise, as the Wi-Fi often cuts out in the more rural areas of the itinerary.
In the ship's forward is a large lounge that's comfortably furnished with cushioned rattan-inspired chairs and sofas, and a horseshoe-shaped bar, all surrounded by windows. The lounge serves as a gathering place for entertainment, lectures and happy hours. Two sets of screens and projectors, which drop from the ceiling, can be used for presentations.
At the bow of the ship is the smaller club lounge, where continental breakfast is served and the cappuccino machine, available 24/7, is situated. The room also includes a wide-screen 55-inch television that swings out for presentations and is equipped with a Wii video game system; a small but adequate library of books, running the gamut from "The Da Vinci Code" to "Lord of the Flies"; and board games like Monopoly, Yahtzee and Deal or No Deal.
Smoking is allowed only in outdoor areas of the ship where ashtrays have been placed. An elevator is available for those with limited mobility.
You won't find any large-scale or lavish productions onboard Panorama, but live music is presented in the main lounge each night. A piano player is most common, but full dance bands are also offered. Accessible classical music performances are not to be missed.
A happy hour is typically held at the bar before dinner each night, with two-for-one and drink-of-the-day specials. Drinks, especially beer and wine, are reasonably priced: A glass of beer at the bar typically costs about $4.50, while wine is about $5.70, and a martini about $10.80.
Daily educational seminars, led by the cruise director on topics like the history of the surrounding countryside or details about the next port, are held in the lounge or on the sky deck. Well-done handouts, such as a map of all the castles visible from the ship between Koblenz and Rudesheim, are available.
A daily guided shore excursion is included. Walking tours, which are usually about two hours long, are informative and interesting. Tours of specific sites, such as Siegfried's Mechanical Musical Instrument Museum in Rudesheim and the Benedictine Abbey in Melk, are also included. Optional tours are offered, too, and range in price from about $40 per person for a guided tour of Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum to about $103 per person for a full-day tour of Salzburg with lunch.
Euros are used on the ship. The line recommends three euros per passenger, per day, (about $126 per couple for the 14-day sailing) for the cruise director and 12 euros per passenger, per day, (about $504 per couple for the 14-day sailing) for the crew, which is divided among the personnel. It is also customary to give local guides one or two euros.
|Fitness and Recreation|
By river-ship standards, the fitness area, which includes a treadmill, two stationary bikes and a set of free weights, is rather large. Free refrigerated bottled water is a nice touch.
The ship usually docks somewhere that offers a riverfront path, convenient for outdoor walking or running. Bikes are not available onboard ship, but optional bike excursions are offered in Amsterdam and Durnstein, Austria.
The ship's sky deck has lounge chairs, tables and chairs, a whirlpool, a small golf putting area and oversize chess and backgammon games. Four separate, shaded areas are provided.
A small salon with hair and nail services is also available.
Children older than 8 are permitted, although no planned activities or reduced pricing are offered. The ship would be appropriate only for more thoughtful teens who appreciate the company of their elders and are intrigued with visits to castles and cathedrals.
The ship, with its 14-night Magnificent Europe itinerary between Budapest and Amsterdam (except for shorter Christmas market sailings), appeals to retired Americans and Canadians, with an average age of about 60. The ship has also been heavily marketed in Australia and New Zealand, whose citizens tend to take longer vacations when visiting Europe. About 50 percent of Panorama's existing bookings are Australians, which may skew the average age lower, as Avalon's passengers are typically only about 25 percent Australian.
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.
Inasmuch as the ship's claim to fame are its 64 Panorama Suites with "open-air balconies," much of the discussion during my stint onboard centered on the innovation. A purest would argue that a suite means a separate sitting area, and onPanorama, each cabin's small couch, chair and table are in the same room as the bed. A case could also be made that a balcony is typically a separate outdoor area.
But let's not quibble. The Panorama Suites, at 200 square feet each, are significantly larger than those found on most river ships. The 11-foot-wide, seven-foot-tall wall-to-wall windows open to a gaping seven feet, with protective horizontal rails across the lower half. The concept appears so smartly simple that it's a wonder no one thought of this a long time ago. On my recent sailing, when I sat on the chair or lay on the bed (naturally, it faces the window), it felt as if I were outdoors. The sounds and smells of the shoreline -- horses neighing, ducks quacking, beer garden laughter, kids playing -- all wafted through the room as the boat cruised through the scenic tableau.
Going through locks was an up-close-and-personal experience: It was tempting to reach out and touch the stone sides as the cabin darkened. The only downside was that passing bugs and occasional less-than-welcome smells, such as farm manure and factory smoke, also became part of this open-air scene. But, even with doors closed, the cabin's expansive views made me feel connected to the outdoors. Yes, there were thick drapes to block the sights of waving locals, but it seemed a shame to cut off the ever-changing view, even at night.
The ship also offers 17 172-square-foot deluxe cabins outfitted with standard windows that offer limited views (read: no open-air balconies) and two 300-square-foot Royal Suites with panoramic windows.
Cabin design and decor throughout is simple yet elegant. All cabins have Avalon's signature "Comfort Collection," with orthopedic mattresses, Egyptian cotton linens, firm or soft pillows and fluffy European-style duvets. For some Americans, the lack of traditional sheets may be initially disconcerting, but I had no trouble getting used to the European system. Twenty-six--inch flat-screen TV's (each Royal Suite's duo of TV's has 26-inch and 31.5-inch screens) with several English-language news channels and movie channels (all non-news TV channels are in German) is standard; an odd offering is several channels of fireplace videos.
In the Panorama and Royal suites, long expanses of mirrors on one side make the cabins seem even bigger, although it can be confusing to watch the view both coming and going if the mirrors are within your sight line. The suites' couches and upholstered chairs (two chairs in the Royal suite) are sturdily comfortable instead of plush, and small tables raise and lower for easier in-cabin dining. The Royal suites also have separate toilets, twin sinks and king-size beds that can be converted to two twins. Panorama Suites and deluxe staterooms have queen-size beds that can be converted to twins.
Other cabin features include adequate shelves and closet space with lots of hangers, an in-cabin safe and a live orchid. On my sojourn, two liters of complimentary water were always at hand. A mini-bar that you can examine without getting dinged offers drinks only, which range from Coca-Cola for about $2.15 to spirits for $7.20.
Comfortably proportioned bathrooms are decorated with floor-to-ceiling marble and outfitted with L'Occitane bath products, hair dryers and cotton robes. A thoughtful touch is differently colored towel sets, so couples can easily recognize their own. Bathroom downsides are poor lighting that even a dedicated makeup mirror can't overcome and a pull-out trash container that often gets caught when closing.
Pack clothes that don't wrinkle, as there is no iron. Laundry service is offered; a shirt, for example, costs about $3.50 to wash and iron. Also, to handle the 220-volt electrical system, bring an adapter for charging electronics and/or a converter for appliances like curling irons.
Noise is not an issue, as the ship has been designed with special soundproofing materials.
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