Avalon Visionary, the newest of Avalon Waterways' five planned "suite ships," is also the tiniest. The 361-foot-long, 36-foot-wide, 128-passenger vessel was built as a sister ship to Avalon Panorama and Avalon Vista, but it's about 84 feet shorter than they are and carries 38 fewer passengers -- modifications which are necessary for the ship to sail its scheduled Rhine itineraries.
Although it's smaller in stature, Visionary is still big on style, boasting dark-wood finishes with pops of color and fun art throughout. Of the ship's 64 cabins, 52 are suites, and they're about 15 percent larger than the industry average. Cabins are comfortably furnished, offering memory foam mattress toppers and plush pillows and duvets. Flat-screen televisions offer a plethora of options (including nine fireplace settings), and spacious bathrooms offer marble countertops, glass shower doors and L'Occitane bath products. However, the biggest sell for these cabins is arguably the 11-foot-by-7-foot panoramic sliding-glass doors that turn the accommodations into open-air balconies.
Breakfast and lunch are both served buffet-style, but the quality of available fare is very high. Dinners are superb, and whether you're adventurous or prefer to stick to the "always available" menu, you'll find something tasty.
Overall, a cruise on this ship feels like a boutique hotel experience, thanks to its swanky decor and impeccable service. We were able to walk, with our luggage, directly from our cab to the ship without the hassle of baggage checks and security screenings. Even the check-in process was painless -- we just gave our name; it was that simple.
Cruises on Visionary are port-intensive, so they're great for anyone who enjoys European history and sightseeing. And, unlike sailings on mega-ships, voyages include shore excursions in their pricing. But it's important to note that, since river cruising focuses on the culture and history of the ports visited, there isn't much to do onboard, and the number and duration of shore excursions offered daily may leave you feeling a little less relaxed and refreshed than you might after other vacations. You will, however, be apt to feel enriched, enlightened and well traveled.
Visionary has one main dining room, midship on Deck 2, which can accommodate all passengers at one time. It's split down the middle by dark wood decorative shelving, and tan upholstered benches rest against either side of the divide. Tables with white tablecloths are placed throughout the space, accompanied by dark wood and blue upholstered chairs. Walls are cream in color, and carpeting features a blue, brown and cream floral pattern. Lighting is soft, and panoramic windows surround the dining areas, offering nearly 360-degree views. At the back of the dining room, you'll find a marble-topped buffet serving station, which is where breakfast and lunch buffets are located each day.
Since the ship is so tiny, the waitstaff consists of only four or five people, so you'll easily learn their faces and names over the course of your sailing, even though you might not necessarily have the same waiter or waitress every night. We found service to be terrifically attentive.
Breakfast is split between the ship's main lounge (early riser from 6 to 7 a.m. and late riser from 9 to 10 a.m.) and main dining room (buffet breakfast from 7 to 9 a.m.). Don't let the buffet-style offerings fool you -- the quality is great, and you'll be able to choose from varied options that include cereal, oatmeal, fruit, cold cuts, bacon, sausage, hash browns, yogurt, pancakes and more. Additionally, there's an egg station where a chef will make a fresh omelet or scramble right in front of you. Room service is available for breakfast only; the menu is small and includes continental items like coffee, tea, orange juice, croissants and pastries.
Lunch is also served buffet-style in the main dining room. Choices on our sailing included vegetable and pasta salads; chicken, fish and beef options; soups; vegetables; and cooked-to-order pastas. Everything we tasted was simply delicious. There's also a non-buffet, always-available menu that includes items like minute steak and Caesar salad. Times vary based on each day's activities, but the standard lunchtime is generally from about noon to 1:30 p.m. Lighter fare (sandwiches, fruit, etc.) is available simultaneously in the ship's main lounge.
For lunch on nice days, a portion of the ship's sun deck may be converted to Sky Bistro, an outdoor dining venue offering grilled fare. It wasn't available on our sailing, so we can't comment on the quality of the food.
Dinners are served in the main dining room. Although passengers can choose their tables and tablemates, dinner is served at a set time each night, generally around 7 p.m. Seating is also first-come, first-served, so if you're dining with a group, be sure to show up early. Some two-tops are available, and tables for six or eight can be pushed together to accommodate larger groups.
Menus mainly consist of four or five courses: appetizer, soup or salad, sorbet, entree and dessert. Most items, such as foie gras and carpaccio, have a French or Italian influence. Other dishes we tried included Canadian rock lobster, lemongrass-flavored chicken consomme, dumpling soup, grilled North Sea bass, pistachio ice cream and a plate of assorted cheeses. Everything was skillfully prepared and beautifully presented. Always-available options -- Caesar salad, grilled chicken, grilled rumpsteak of beef and roasted salmon -- are included on the menu daily. "Healthy" selections like potato and watercress soup, glazed codfish, and roasted plums are also on the list.
Although the food is superb, the time between each dinner's many courses is occasionally a little long. Don't expect dinner on this ship to be a short affair; on some nights, ours lasted as long as three hours.
A nice perk on Avalon cruises is that juices, sodas and a selection of alcoholic beverages (beer and wine, both white and red) are available gratis during lunch and dinner.
For between-meal or late-night snacks, cookies and fruit are available in the ship's aft lounge, along with tea, hot chocolate, juices and an assortment of coffee beverages from a Lavazza machine.
The main doors to the ship feed directly into a small lobby and reception area, which is bright and welcoming. The reception desk faces a small gathering area with cream-colored leather chairs and a coffee table. Next to that, passengers will find two computers -- one Mac and one PC. They're free to use, as is the bow-to-stern Wi-Fi for those who wish to bring their own laptops for use throughout the ship. In our experience, reception was decent, and load times seemed faster than those on most other vessels.
The ship's secondary lounge is a small space at the aft of the ship on Deck 3. It's got funky burnt-orange carpeting, dark tables and black wicker seating with black cushions. This room also offers a small library of books and board games. If you're feeling peckish between meals, freshly baked cookies and a variety of hot beverages are always available there, along with fruit and juice during the day. This lounge is also the location for Avalon's past-passenger meetings onboard.
A first-aid kit is available at the ship's front desk, but there are no medical facilities onboard. Because river cruises sail so close to land, qualified medical professionals are only a phone call away in case of an emergency.
Self-service laundry facilities are not offered to passengers, but cleaning and pressing services are available for a fee. Prices range from 0.50 euro to 6 euros, depending on the article of clothing and service chosen.
The ship itself is wheelchair-accessible throughout, but passengers with limited mobility may find getting on and off the ship to be difficult, if not impossible, due to the types of gangway planks used while docked. The onboard elevator also does not go up to the sun deck, as low-hanging bridges don't allow for that sort of height. The line advises that anyone sailing on the ship should at least be able to walk up the gangway and one flight of stairs. None of the cabins is specifically wheelchair-accessible.
Note: Smoking is banned on all Avalon ships, with the exception of designated areas. On Visionary, these are outdoors at the very front of the ship, just outside the main lounge, and at the rear, just past the aft lounge.
Avalon Visionary is part of the line's Suite class, which means all accommodations on two of the ship's three cabin decks are considered suites. Of the 64 total cabins onboard, 52 are either 300-square-foot Royal Suites or 200-square-foot Junior Suites (also known as Panorama Suites on other Suite-class ships), both of which boast floor-to-ceiling sliding-glass doors that convert the cabins into wonderfully serene open-air balconies. (A railing is just outside, with no additional outdoor space.) It's important to note that, while these cabins are considered large by river cruise industry standards, they don't compare to what you'll find in many suites on mass-market ships.
The remaining dozen cabins are standards, the smallest of which clock in at 172 square feet and offer two small windows that peek out just above the waterline.
The color palette for all cabins includes dark brown woods (desks, closets, headboards); whites and creams (walls, duvets and pillows); and burnt oranges (couches and chairs). Art adorns the walls above each cabin's twin beds, two of which can be pushed together to create one queen. Memory foam mattress toppers and super-cushy pillows make them some of the most comfortable beds we've ever slept in.
All cabins include desks, decently sized closets, safes, nightstands with reading lamps, stocked mini-bars (prices ranging from 1.50 euros for soda to 5 euros for alcohol), free bottled water daily, individual climate and loudspeaker controls, bathrobes, L'Occitane bath products, two colors of towels (convenient when identifying which are yours if you're traveling with a companion), hair dryers, shaving mirrors and flat-screen TV's that offer a variety of movies, television shows, music, a ship Web cam and info channel, and nine different "fireplace" settings to help you relax. There are also red panic buttons located in each cabin, but they should only be used in case of emergencies. Other nice touches include a built-in clock on each in-cabin TV and a nightlight of sorts, which subtly illuminates the bathroom near the floor, so you can find it easily in the dark.
Royal Suites, the ship's largest accommodations, each offer two flat-screen TV's (one that can be viewed from the bed and another that swivels to be watched by those lounging on the orange chenille sofa and chairs); a bookcase; a large bathroom with double sinks and a shower; a separate powder room with a toilet; and extra closet space.
Junior (Panorama) Suites have only one TV each, no bookcases and bathrooms that encompass all facilities (just one sink instead of two) in one room with plenty of storage space for toiletries. Like the Royal Suites, Junior Suites also include glass coffee tables.
Standard cabins, although adequate, are pretty small. There's no room for couches, chairs or coffee tables, and bathrooms don't seem to have as much shelf space for storage. Closet space is comparable to what's available in Junior Suites, however.
We did notice that noise from cabin to cabin was minimal, but we could hear folks talking in the hallway clear as day.
Bathrooms in all cabins consist of dark brown faux wood cabinetry, tan tiled floors and walls, and marble sink tops. All cabins offer showers only, and they're equipped with glass doors, rather than clingy shower curtains. Showerheads are large and detachable, and the water pressure on our sailing was very good.
Plugs in each cabin are European-style, so be sure to bring an adapter or two if you're traveling from North America. One minor annoyance we found is that there was no full-length mirror in our cabin. Additionally, the shelving in the Junior Suite bathroom is so close to the sink and at such a height that we found it nearly impossible to wash our faces without bumping our heads.
Currency onboard is the euro. For a good job, the line recommends 3 euros per passenger, per day, for the cruise director and 12 euros per person, per day, to be divided among the crew (including room stewards, waiters, chefs and other folks behind the scenes). You may also want to give local guides and shore excursion bus drivers a tip, so be sure to have some small denominations on hand.
|Fitness and Recreation|
The top deck, the vessel's sun deck, spans the entire length of the ship. It offers one hot tub, a giant chess board and a decent number of sun loungers -- some covered to offer respite from the sun -- from which passengers can enjoy 360-degree views as they sail through tiny towns. A small area of covered tables and chairs is also available forward, just in front of the bridge. On nice days, this space sometimes hosts the line's Sky Bistro -- an outdoor eatery, which features grilled fare. One nice touch is that the front portion of Visionary's sun deck was designed three feet lower than the rest, allowing passengers the ability to safely remain outside when the ship passes under low bridges. There are no swimming pools or wraparound promenade on Visionary.
There is also no spa on Avalon Visionary, but a small salon is found near the aft of the ship on Deck 3, offering haircuts, styling, head massages, coloring and highlighting for both men and women. Manicures and pedicures are also available. Prices range from 6 euros for fingernail painting to 46 euros for highlights.
Passengers will find a very small workout room midship on Deck 1. It has enough space for one treadmill, one recumbent bike, one regular exercise bike -- all Life Fitness brand -- and a TV. There's also a tower of free weights offering increments up to 10 kilograms. Water and towels are available at no additional charge at the back of the room. No fitness classes are organized onboard.
Children eight years and older are permitted onboard, but there are no children's facilities or special activities offered for youngsters. Older children and teenagers, particularly those who enjoy history and don't mind long days, would probably be fine on this type of sailing, but there's not much else to distract them if they're bored. Babysitting is not available, nor are there cabins designed specifically for families. (All cabins have a maximum occupancy of two passengers.)
The average passenger is in his or her 60's, although shorter sailings draw younger travelers. According to Avalon, about 60 percent of the mix hails from America, 23 percent from Australia or New Zealand, 10 percent from Canada, 5 percent from the U.K. and 2 percent from other countries. English is the language spoken onboard.
The dress code for all sailings is listed as "smart casual," which generally means khakis and collared shirts or blouses. Jeans are acceptable on shore excursions, and comfortable shoes are a must. There are no formal nights, so gowns and tuxes aren't required, but passengers do tend to dress up a bit -- jackets (no ties) for men and dresses and skirts or pants with blouses for women.
Because the main focus of river cruising is on ports of call, you won't find a lot that will convince you to stay on the ship while docked. Instead, shore excursions (included in the cruise fare) are offered -- sometimes more than once per day. On our sailing, we toured museums and other local landmarks in the off-the-beaten-path towns we visited. During our cruise in The Netherlands, we saw fields of colorful tulips, checked out the world's oldest planetarium, witnessed cheese being made and auctioned, and learned tons about the local history and culture. Guides were knowledgeable, friendly and spoke fluent English.
Note: Despite the high-tech feel of our onboard card/room key, the staff's only method of keeping track of who's ashore and who's back onboard while in port is a series of laminated paper cards with room numbers printed on them. If you forget to pick yours up before leaving the ship, nobody will know you're gone. Likewise, if you forget to turn your card in at the desk when you arrive back after an excursion, they'll think you're still in port, checking out the souvenirs.
As shore excursions begin early and are often tiring, nightlife isn't very popular onboard. That said, one night, Avalon offered after-dinner entertainment in the form of a Genever (alcohol similar to gin) and cheese tasting, hosted by local experts. Another night, an outstanding trio of local string musicians played everything from classics to gypsy music. Both events were well attended. On all other nights, evening entertainment consisted entirely of live piano music in the main lounge.
The main lounge, used for pre- and post-dinner drinks, alternative dining, and nightly entertainment, is located just forward of the reception desk. With its panoramic windows, it's bright and airy, despite darker furnishings of brown faux wood and chairs upholstered in deep red and gray. Various couches are also scattered about, boasting either red vinyl or stripes of red, black and gray chenille.
The main lounge is home to the ship's only bar, accented with red leather bar stools and a cream-colored marble countertop. Two beverage menus are offered -- one for wine, beer and drinks like juice and soda, and one for mixed drinks. The first list offers a variety of white, red and rose wine from Germany, Austria, France and Switzerland. Per-bottle prices range from 27 euros for a French rose to 180 euros for Dom Perignon Champagne; by the glass, you'll pay 3.80 euros. Mixed-drink items from the second menu range in price from 3 euros to 14.50 euros, but most hover around the 5- to 7-euro range.
On select "movie nights," movies are shown after dinner on the flat-screen TV in the ship's secondary aft lounge on Deck 3.
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