With more choices than ever available for European river cruising, lines are being challenged to come up with activities and concepts that set them apart from the rest of the pack. With its newest "Suite Ship," the 166-passenger Passion, Avalon rises to the occasion with an experience that's modern, but still familiar and relaxing.
One of the major differences you'll see on Avalon, as opposed to other lines, is that the beds face the windows, not the wall. And after a week onboard, we're sold on the concept. There is something refreshing about waking up to a nice view, instead of a mirror. In the ship's Panorama Suites, French balconies come with a glass sliding door that opens up nearly the length of the room, allowing in plenty of fresh air. The marble bathrooms are among the best we've seen on the rivers, well-designed and actually comfortable. All in all, you'll feel like you're in a boutique hotel instead of a river ship. One small quibble: the plugs are all European, forcing North Americans to bring clumsy converters.
The public spaces are also spacious and light, with walls of windows and cozy corners. We were particularly drawn to the Club Lounge at the back of the ship, a glass-enclosed room with tables, chairs and sofa, as well as always available coffee, tea and snacks. The Panorama Lounge, which serves as the ship's main gathering spot, is also divided up into smaller areas that are perfect for small group conversation or reading a book. At night, there's a musician and dance floor and the line has capability for karaoke, if the passengers are so inclined.
For its shore excursions, Avalon draws upon the expertise of its land-tour arm, Globus, and the local guides were generally better than average. As on most river cruises, the line hands out headsets for tours so you can hear the commentary while still being able to wander around. The ship is also adding bikes that passengers can use for free in port.
We weren't as impressed with the onboard service as we were with the ship itself, however. While the service is nice enough, it's not the kind of ship where the bartenders and waiters -- or even the cruise director -- go out of their way to know your name. While we applaud the line's commitment to a quieter ship (very few announcements are made), we found ourselves worrying about missing activities. And we wonder why the line doesn't include wine and beer with lunch as its competitors do. (We've been told this will change in 2017.)
But our complaints, overall, are minor. Avalon passengers tend to return to the line again and again for the ship's size and moderate cost, about middle of the road in the river cruise market. Add in the commitment that the line is making to healthy cuisine -- a pair of notable Austrian chefs will develop full vegetarian and vegan menus for all Avalon ships in 2017 -- and you get an experience that feels like it would appeal to a younger demographic than you find on other river cruise lines.
Avalon made a name for itself with its cabin designs, which rank among the most innovative in river cruising. By dropping the balcony and focusing instead on a panoramic wall of windows that open, Avalon gained space to make the cabins larger. We've also bought in to another touch that Avalon touts in advertisements: Beds that face the window, not the wall. While it sounds gimmicky in concept, the reality is that it IS much more enjoyable to watch the world float by from your bed. It's not a surprise that other lines are now copying the concept. We also loved having the wide sliding door open to let in the breeze and observe life along the Danube. It's a concept that works beautifully, particularly during the shoulder season when it's highly unlikely you'd be spending time outside on a true balcony. You really do see more.
With no balcony to steal square footage, the cabins on Passion are comfortably sized. The Panorama Suites, which make up the majority of staterooms, are all 200 square feet, and even the cabins that only have a window are 172 square feet. All rooms come with a vanity desk with drawers and chair, a closet, and nightstands, as well as a safe, a mini-bar (for fee), robes and slippers. The "comfort collection" beds live up to their name (in all rooms, you'll find queens that convert to twins), and there's a blanket stored in the closet for those who don't like the European duvet concept. Bottled water is complimentary and refreshed daily.
One drawback is the plugs, which are all European voltage (bring your converter), although there is a plug located conveniently near the bed. Each room has a flat-screen TV with a clock underneath that's handy at night. Channels include BBC, CNN, Bloomberg, CNBC and a fireplace, as well as complimentary on-demand movies. Suitcases fit under the bed, and blackout curtains keep the early morning sun away.
A lot of thought has been put into Avalon Passion's spacious bathrooms; the wall where the beds are placed is slightly diagonal, to give more square footage to the bathroom. The space is marble, with a chic brown and white color palette, and the products are L'Occitane. Special notice needs to be paid to the shower, which is glass enclosed and tilted at the same diagonal to provide passengers more room. We also loved the under-cabinet night lights and the makeup mirror, which could either be pulled out from the wall or pushed up to get it out of the way. Hair dryers are provided.
Avalon calls all of its Panorama class of vessels "Suite Ships," but they aren't true suites with two rooms. The ship's two Royal Suites come close, however, with a clever media cabinet that partly divides the living area from the bed.
Riverview: The 16 "aquarium class" rooms on the Indigo Deck have small windows that let in light. Keep in mind that if you choose these cabins, the beds are in the traditional position (as there's no view to point them at). The cabins are 172 square feet, and do not have a sofa or coffee table.
French Balcony: The ship's 65 Panorama Suites make up the bulk of the staterooms. These cabins come with a sofa, a coffee table and chairs placed strategically in front of the sliding door, to take advantage of the views and fresh air.
Royal Suite: The 300-square-foot Royal Suites (there are two onboard) have two flat-screen TVs, a sitting area meant for six people, a full-size bathroom with double sinks, a shower with a bench and a separate toilet.
Avalon does not have cabins that can accommodate wheelchairs. While there's an elevator, it does not go all the way to the Sky Deck.
By 2017, Avalon's culinary partnership with Karl and Leo Wrenkh, Austrian chefs noted for their commitment to sustainable and healthy dining, will be in full force. But even now, vegetarian and vegan dishes are a highlight of traveling on Passion. We've never seen such attention to dietary restrictions on a river cruise, with every dish being marked with icons and a convenient guide to allergens in the back of all menus. The line believes that its initiative, called Avalon Fresh, will appeal to baby boomers as well as younger passengers, and after sampling a range of tasty vegetarian options on Passion, we agree.
That doesn't mean you can't indulge. Cookies, muffins and doughnuts (including gluten-free items) are available all day in the ship's aft lounge, there's a daily teatime with yummy cakes and pastries, and caloric puff pastries are passed around during the Captain's Welcome and Farewell Happy Hour. The ship's available anytime menu includes familiar standards such as beef tenderloin, grilled chicken, Caesar salad and broiled salmon. But with modern offerings such as saffron-pumpkin quinoa, an innovative "schnitzel" made from celery root and a green pea soup that tasted like the veggies were just picked, even a die-hard carnivore may decide to go light.
Main Dining Room (Sapphire Deck): The main dining room is airy and light, with windows on each side and a dividing wall to cut down on noise; the effect is modern and contemporary, not stuffy. Tables are arranged in groups of four, six or eight, and meals are open seating. Breakfast and lunch are served as buffets (with hot items available made to order) and dinner is a full four-course meal with waiter service.
Full breakfast runs from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. There's an omelet station, as well as muesli and fruit; hot items such as mushrooms, eggs and breakfast meats; bagels, cream cheese and smoked salmon; and sliced meats and cheeses. Sparkling wine and fruit juices are available. The health fans in our group loved the daily "superfoods" -- chia seed and nuts you could put on your cereal.
Lunch usually begins at noon and runs until 2 p.m. There's a full buffet, and also several "always available" options such as a roast beef sandwich, grilled chicken with fries and Caesar salad. The buffet items change daily, but there's always a full salad bar, several hot entrees such as saffron-pumpkin quinoa or a carving station with roast pork, a fish dish and a soup.
Dinner is a four-course meal, plated with waiter service; times can vary, depending on the evening's activities. A typical meal includes vegetarian and non-vegetarian choices at all courses; gluten-free and other allergens are noted on the menus. Portions are reasonably sized, and you can order a full meal without feeling overwhelmed or bloated.
Appetizers might include vitello tonnato (chilled sliced veal in a creamy dressing) or grilled balsamic asparagus. Soups may be a chicken consomme or creamy sweet corn. Entrees always include a choice of meat, fish or vegetarian; items could be roasted Barbary duck breast with savory cabbage and Duchess potatoes; pan-fried fillet of perch in a Riesling sauce with Romancesco broccoli and couscous or vegetable goulash with couscous. Always available options at dinner include Caesar salad, beef tenderloin steak, grilled chicken breast and broiled filet of Norwegian salmon. There's also a delightful array of butters and tapenades for the fresh bread and rolls (go for the cheesy ones!)
For dessert, a cheese plate is always available, as is ice cream and fruit. There's also a cake of some sort every night.
Wines are served at dinner, and pours are plentiful. On our Danube cruise, we had a choice of local Gruner Veltliner and an Italian Sauvignon, a French rose and a Spanish Syrah. Beers, soda, coffee, tea and nonalcoholic wines are also available.
Twice a cruise, there's a special five-course Captain's Welcome Dinner and Farewell Dinner. These meals usually have slightly fancier ingredients, as well as an amuse-bouche and intermezzo course; on our cruise, this was lobster over risotto. There's also a full complement of vegetarian items available too, and you can mix and match from both menus. Passengers tend to dress up slightly more for these meals, and there's a cocktail happy hour with snacks and complimentary drinks in the lounge before you dine.
Panorama Bistro (Royal Deck): If you'd like to eat a light lunch, served buffet style, you can do so at the Panorama Bistro, a part of the main lounge that's been carved out for meals. The menu for the light lunch isn't that much different from what's at the buffet, but it's a nice choice if you're in a rush or want a change of scenery. A typical menu might include sauerkraut soup; rigatoni pasta with tomato sauce, anchovies, capers and Parmesan cheese; veal ragout with onion and bell peppers; a roast beef sandwich with french fries; a choice of salads such as potato salad or beet and cabbage salad; a green salad bar with condiments and dressings; and dessert such as blueberry sheet cake.
The Bistro also hosts afternoon tea, available most days at 4 p.m. The setup includes a choice of sandwiches, cookies and cakes.
Two or three times per cruise, the chef serves a special 15-course tasting dinner inspired by the region, with accompanying wines, in the Panorama Lounge. Every passenger is able to sign up at least once. While that might sound like a lot of food, the portions are small (just one or two bites), and you can also pass on what you don't want. On our cruise, the menu included four starters (smoked trout fillet on brown bread, a tiny Wienerschnitzel with potato salad, a Waldorf salad and a basil tofu praline on spelt salad); a soup (Hungarian goulash); two entrees (beef roulade filled with gherkins, bacon, onion and mustard, and fillet of pike perch in savory cabbage); a vegetable (artichoke and vegetable ragout); a cheese plate, and three desserts (coconut cream Halou, apricot ragout with ice cream and a chocolate cake). Vegetarian plates can also be substituted, with passengers able to order as many as they want. The wine pours were generous and paired appropriately with the courses.
Club Lounge (Royal Deck): For early risers, muffins, doughnuts and other pastries are available in the glass-enclosed aft lounge, starting at 6 a.m. (passengers who are gluten-free can ask the chef for options). There's also a coffee maker that produces specialty drinks, and an array of teas, available all day long.
During the day, the doughnuts and muffins switch over to cookies and pastries, if you need a snack.
Sky Bistro (Sky Deck); On the ship's top sun deck, the Sky Bistro serves lunch when weather permits, at least once and if weather is great, two or three times per sailing. Items here are grill specialties such as bratwurst, burgers, grilled chicken and more.
Room Service: Avalon does have room service for breakfast -- Continental, only --, but it comes with an additional charge of 2 euros.
Casual rules the day, with most passengers donning jeans or other sturdy clothes for tours and excursions. Bring your walking shoes for Europe's cobblestoned streets; passengers who plan to participate in the line's more active excursions may also want to bring shoes for hiking or biking. At night, passengers wear country club casual, with women wearing blouses with pants or skirts, and men wearing collared shirts, even at the Captain's welcome and farewell dinners.
Avalon cruises include a choice of at least one shore excursion per day, WiFi onboard, soda at lunch (beer and wine will be added at lunch in 2017) and wine, beer and soda with dinner. In 2017, all Avalon ships will have bikes that passengers can use for free. Tips are not included; the recommended amount is 12 euros per person, per day for the staff and 3 euros per person, per day for the cruise director. Starting in 2017, the fares will include tips for local guides and drivers. You can pay with cash or credit card at the end of your cruise or you can pre-pay online before you board. The onboard currency is the euro.
Avalon Passion offers a choice of included shore excursions in each port. The excursions, usually a coach or walking tour, may be a half day or full day, depending on where the ship is. Avalon uses wireless headsets on its tours, so you can wander a bit from the guide and still hear; there is, however, still a "follow the lollipop" feel about things. Excursion groups are divided into three pace categories: a fast-paced option that gives people more free time; a leisure option and one for people with limited mobility. Avalon uses local guides for its tours, often relying on the same ones sister company Globus hires for its land trips. On our Danube trip, we found these to be good quality, with a good sense of humor and knowledge.
Avalon also offers optional excursions in ports, with fees ranging from 29 to 64 euros. In Vienna, for example, choices include a visit to Schonbrunn Imperial Palace (47 euros), a Royal Waltz concert (58 euros) or a trip outside the city to the Vienna Woods (55 euros). Reservations for these can be made ahead of time or on the ship.
Daytime and Evening Entertainment
With daily shore excursions included in the fare, Avalon Passion doesn't have too many extra activities during the day; those that it does have fall under the Enrichment category (see below).
At night, there's a musician in the lounge; the ship also has capability for karaoke and a dance floor, although how happening the ship is depends completely on your fellow passengers. At least once a cruise, the ship holds a movie night on a drop-down screen in the Panorama Lounge.
Besides the nightly port talks and activities such as wine tastings, each sailing has between two to three opportunities for passengers to get more involved with the region. This could be a visit to the ship by local artisans and entertainers, or a lecture by a visiting expert on the region. For example, on the Legendary Danube sailing, there's a sausage, sauerkraut and beer tasting. On our sailing, we went to the well-attended wine tasting where we sampled varietals from Austria's Wachau Valley, a region noted for crisp Gruner Veltliner and dry Riesling. The line says that these activities are often "surprises" for passengers, meaning they will be in the daily bulletin but not on the website for the itinerary.
In addition to these activities, handouts about the region are available at the cruise director's desk in the lobby.
One nice feature about Avalon Passion is that it doesn't feel crowded. Public spaces are airy, with chairs, sofas and tables arranged far enough apart that things seem intimate without being squashed or noisy. Everyone is able to get a seat during the port talks, and even on a rainy day, there are enough indoor places to hang out that passengers aren't on top of each other.
Panorama Lounge (Sapphire Deck): Passion's main bar is where all the action happens. This is where you'll go for port talks, wine tastings, movie nights, welcome and farewell cocktail parties and other group activities. The space is an attractive and modern brown and cream, with comfy chairs, sofas and tables arranged for conversational groups, and floor-to-ceiling windows. Peanuts are served when the bar is open. Drinks are priced in euros; sample costs are 3.70 for a glass of house sparkling wine, 5.30 for wines by the glass, 6.80 for alcoholic and nonalcoholic cocktails, 4.10 for draft beer, 5.90 for bottled beer, 3.10 for soda and 2.90 for bottled water (it's silly to buy in the bar; just go out to the lobby and get a shore excursion water, or bring it from your room where it's complimentary). A first-rate coffee maker makes free specialty drinks. A musician plays here nightly, and there's also a karaoke machine and dance floor, if the passengers are amenable.
Observation Lounge (Sapphire Deck, forward): Forward of the Panorama Lounge toward the front of the ship, the Observation Lounge is an outdoor seating area that's covered by an overhang. It's a nice spot on warmer days; there are no heat lamps.
Club Lounge (Sapphire Deck, aft): This completely glass-enclosed room at the back of the ship is a winner. With comfy chairs and sofas, views on every side, plus snacks and a coffee maker that makes specialty drinks, the space proved to be one of the most popular with passengers on our cruise. There's a door where you can step out to a small outdoor seating area (only a few chairs), or take stairs up to the Sky Deck.
Passion's top deck has plenty of lounge chairs, both covered for shade and open. There's also a small whirlpool. The Sky Deck is where you'll also find an oversized chess set and a walking track.
Most of Passion's services are arranged near the atrium where passengers board. Here you'll find a front desk, where cruisers are required to pick up a card before heading out on land. Opposite is a desk for the cruise director; you'll also find brochures and informational leaflets here too.
Within the main lounge, there's a corner with a small library. A video screen displays pictures from the trip, which you can buy on a USB for 20 euro at the end of your cruise.
WiFi on Passion is complimentary and works throughout the ship. Expect some outages while going through locks. If you don't have your own computer or mobile device, there's a computer that's free to use at the cruise director's desk.
Avalon does not promote family cruising at this time, although parents often travel with their grown children. The minimum age to sail is eight. There are no cabins that house more than two people. There are no planned activities when children are onboard, although cruise directors may come up with ideas, if they are so inclined.
Avalon Passion's passengers fall squarely into baby boomer territory, with the majority of cruisers around sixty-something. The Denver company's base is primarily American, although you'll also find Australians and people from other English-speaking countries. Many have traveled with other tour companies within the Globus family of brands (of which Avalon is one).
Passion has a hair salon toward the aft of the ship, where men and women can get cuts, styles and highlights. Prices are 25 euros for a wash, dry and style; 35 euros if you add a cut. Eyebrow shaping (11 euros) and manicures (16 euros) are also available.
The ship also has a small fitness center with a treadmill, recumbent bike and regular bike. Mats, towels and water are also available. Nordic walking sticks are available on demand. Passion also has bikes onboard that passengers can reserve for free.
Crew Nationality: International
Officer Nationality: International
Language(s) Spoken:< Multiple Languages
OverviewYet another beautiful Suite Ship graces the rivers of Europe in 2016. The Avalon Passion welcomes passengers to their home-away-from-home with two full decks of Panorama Suites, featuring Wall-to-Wall Panoramic Windows that transform into a unique Open-Air Balcony. With 200 square feet, Panorama Suites are more than 30% larger than industry standard and ideal for stretching out and relaxing-or even throwing a private cocktail party for up to six adults in the spacious sitting area. On board, passengers enjoy free Wi-Fi access, complimentary computer use at the Internet Corner, a Fitness Center with state-of-the-art equipment, a hair salon, elevator, and an expansive Sky Deck with shade system, premium lounge chairs, whirlpool, deck games, and the delightful Sky Bistro for al fresco lunches of light grill fare.
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