Onboard the Avalon Envision, Sue Bryant enjoys the line’s do-it-your-way ethos, especially their more active options.
“We come from the water, we are made of the water, we are drawn to the water. Our lives are rivers meant to be explored and enjoyed,” declared bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert as she cut the ribbon to smash a bottle of Törley – Hungary’s most famous sparkling wine – over the hull of the new Avalon Envision. As godmother to Avalon Waterway’s 13th Suite Ship, the Eat Pray Love author will, the company says, “inspire transformative travel experiences”.
Let’s hope so. Either way, though, one thing is for sure: a voyage on this sleek new ship is certainly very comfortable. The 166-passenger Envision is the same model as Avalon’s other highly successful Suite Ships, with a few tweaks as the design evolves. One of the most significant changes is special ballast tanks that allow the ship to sit higher in the water than other vessels when the river is low – a situation that’s becoming increasingly serious on the Danube in summer. With a shallower draft, Envision will be able to sail even when there’s not much water.
A big selling point of Avalon’s whole Suite Ship fleet is the gorgeous Panorama Suites, which make up 80 per cent of the accommodation. They’re a generous 18.6 square metres, with a unique design that allows the bed to face a whole wall of glass, which slides sideways to create an open balcony feel and allow river breezes to waft in. Other lines are copying this, for good reason: it works. I spent an afternoon lounging in brilliant spring sunshine in my cabin as the ship sailed from Budapest to Visegrad. You really feel a connection to the river – to the extent that two Germans paddling past in a kayak stopped for a chat.
It’s not just the balcony design. The cabin décor is smart; pale gold with dark grey cabinets and splashes of rich purple. All sorts of clever touches are thrown in, such as colour-coded towels, one brown, one white, in the chocolate-and-cream marble bathroom, so you don’t get yours mixed up with your partner’s. There’s even a choice of mattress toppers so you can choose how squishy, or firm, you want the bed. Robes, slippers and USB ports are standard features, while there’s an impressive selection of free movies on the TV and two sets of L’Occitane goodies to choose between. Bottled water is shortly to be replaced by refillable flasks for every guest, and water dispensers added around the ship.
Avalon Envision is all about choice, which is a promise more complex than it might sound on a European river boat, which can’t get any longer or taller as their size is restricted by the locks through which they have to travel. There’s a choice of places to eat, for a start. When the weather’s fine, the Sky Grill on the top deck is opened, so you can dine al fresco at lunchtime. There’s informal dining in the Panorama Lounge, where you can have breakfast, lunch, cakes and sandwiches for afternoon tea and even dinner, with a similar menu to what’s on offer in the main dining room. This lounge, which is also the bar and dancing space, is gorgeous, done out in greys, creams and golds with splashes of amber, big pots of orchids and cosy corners with books on shelves. Original contemporary art, specially commissioned to match the colour scheme, completes the picture.
A second space, the much smaller Club Lounge, aft on Royal Deck, is flooded with natural light and offers books, board games, an espresso machine and trays of snacks and cookies. Fresh bottled juice, bought from farmers along the river, is available, too – apple and ginger, or strawberry, or carrot and beet – it’s a lovely touch.
There’s a new and welcome development in the main dining room, too, in that more than 60 per cent of the tables are for two. Dinner is open seating, so you can turn up any time between 7pm and 8.30pm for dinner without the anxiety of getting stuck with strangers.
The food is excellent, not least thanks to a partnership with the Wrenkh brothers, two celebrity Austrian chefs with an almost entirely vegetarian restaurant and cookery school in Vienna. There’s always a vegetarian option to match the meat or fish, so tofu teriyaki when the amuse bouche is chicken teriyaki, or asparagus with lemongrass and polenta as an alternative to tiger prawn done the same way. At lunchtime, there is a satisfying mix of a healthy salad bar and rich Hungarian dishes, like goulash, chicken paprika and a delicious mushroom stroganoff. For dinner, there are international options like herb-crusted veal tenderloin, or sea bream with chorizo and sweet potato mash. Decent wines from Austria, Hungary, France and Germany are liberally poured with meals.
Daily excursions are labelled Classic; Active, which includes hiking, kayaking or cycling; and Discovery, which includes wine tastings and cookery classes. Most are included, although you can pay for a handful of extra tours. I opt for a cycling tour round Budapest, which is more a lesson in dodging tourists than actual sightseeing, and a wonderful hike up to the 13th century Visegrad Castle, through forests bursting into leaf in the sunshine, tantalising views of the river below. There’s plenty of activity onboard, too, from Zumba classes to yoga, and high-quality, Dutch-built bicycles to borrow.
Expanding further on the theme of choice, Avalon is introducing ‘Avalon Your Way’ in 2020, which is good news for Australian cruisers as the whole offering suddenly becomes more flexible. Packages, which at the moment are sold with hotel stays bolted onto each end, can be deconstructed, so you could just do the cruise and make your own arrangements in cities like Prague, Vienna and Budapest. Alternatively, custom-made itineraries can be designed via Avalon’s partnership with Monograms, or an entire land tour bolted on, offered by Globus. Also new is a range of shorter itineraries; Envision will mix three-night mini-cruises between Budapest and Vienna with its longer voyages in 2020 – perfect for first-timers who might just want a brief taste of life on the river as part of a longer tour in Europe.
The whole experience is dubbed ‘relaxed luxury’ by Avalon, which sums it up perfectly. To me, as someone who’s into hiking and cycling, healthy eating, decent wines and an itinerary relaxed enough to allow overnights in both Budapest and Vienna, it’s the perfect formula.
Highs: The healthy food, the active excursions and the gorgeous Panorama Suites.
Lows: Not lows, as such, but if you’re hoping for butler service and an all-inclusive bar, other cruise lines may be more appropriate. Strangely, in the two Royal Suites, the poshest accommodation, the bed doesn’t face straight out over the river – the view is partly obstructed by a wall, while the sitting area enjoys the view.
Verdict: A beautiful new ship far better tailored to today’s independent, adventurous traveller than many of its rivals on Europe’s rivers.