All that irresistible food and wine on board – there must be a way to balance the river-cruising life! Jane Nicholls river-tests Avalon Waterways’ Active Discovery program.
The classic European river cruise has one common failing: rich food and tempting wines are as plentiful as the magical sightseeing, culture and history. Having indulged every one of your senses over the course of your cruise, it’s probably not your imagination if the plane seat on the way home feels a little more snug than it was.
Avalon Waterways has come up with a way for you to have your Linzer torte and eat it, too – the Active Discovery program. Activities offer passengers a unique, close-up look at the places they’re passing through. Exploiting their insiders’ knowledge of the history, cuisine and fun to be found along Europe’s great rivers, the Avalon team devised, then tweaked the Active Discovery excursions, and the result is truly special. Not all the experiences are physical, many are centred around cultural experiences designed to link you more deeply with the destinations.
I river-tested the program on a cruise between Vienna and Linz and I reckon I stepped of the boat a little fitter than when I stepped on! True, I was also stuffed full of Wiener schnitzel, spätzle (a dish where Austria ups the ante on macaroni cheese) and kaiserschmarrn (shredded pancake). And those flinty Austrian wines required enthusiastic sampling, too.
By signing up for all of the Active Discovery (AD) options, I managed to strike a balance.
In Vienna, AD offerings included an early morning jogging or cycling tour of the city, setting out from the ship, docked by the Imperial Bridge on the edge of the gorgeous city.
An unseasonal storm wiped out my biking tour (the joggers stoically set out in the rain, and returned smiling!). But Avalon swiftly arranged for the thwarted cyclists to join a morning excursion to Andanté, a swish set-up designed for “cultural and culinary encounters”. We were bound for the “Vienna experimental” bread-making workshop.
Our mission was to make the bread for the ship’s lunch, and our instructor patiently (or at least with good-natured exasperation) showed us how it was simple to dimple (and roll and fold) the mohnflesserl (braided poppy-seed bun), handsemmel (Vienna roll), salzstangerl (salty bread sticks). We filled baskets with traditional Viennese bread rolls made from scratch, and proudly took them back to the ship.
AD runs a range of classes at Andanté, including Viennese cooking demonstrations that go beyond our most excellent bread, and sometimes even lessons on the finer points of European etiquette. All are exclusive to guests.
Another AD option is rising early for a guided tour of the waking city. The next morning, our guide Robert took us to the weekend flea market next to the Naschmarkt, the city’s fruit and veg market, open six days a week and dates back to the 1770s.
After a traditional Viennese breakfast in a coffee house run by the same family since 1919, we were treated to an early-opening tour of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, with Robert telling us the stories behind some of the treasures of the Hapsburg Empire.
That afternoon, I had the chance to play conductor with the Vienna Supreme Orchestra, as they rehearsed ahead of their evening performance for other guests from the ship. Baton in hand, I let fly and, being professionals, the orchestra played perfectly, even though I am to conducting what Jackson Pollock was to pointillism. Having an orchestra even appear to follow your direction, and feeling the music vibrate through your bones, is glorious.
After we bade auf wiedersehen to Vienna, we made our way through the locks of the Danube through the night and awoke in the Wachau Valley, with its mountain-goat vineyards climbing the hills all around.
Canoeing on the Danube sounded a little challenging, but Avalon has worked with the local tour operator to ensure the craft are capsize-proof (really! I’m a known boat-tipper and these babies are super stable). It’s also in a part of the river that’s very calm, and heads downstream. So for our canoeing expedition, we sat back with the odd paddle-stroke here and there and enjoyed the scenery for an hour or so.
We stopped briefly on a beach opposite the storybook town of Dürnstein before making our way back to the ship.
Next up was cycling. This was slightly harder work, but so worth it and certainly within the reach of anyone with moderate fitness and the ability to pedal a bike. Our 30km ride took us along the river, through vineyards and villages, and included a delicious packed lunch midway, where we waved to our ship as it slid past, bound for Melk.
A support vehicle shadowed us on the main road, so if you wanted to wuss out (only one of about 30 did) or found you had a puncture (me), help was at hand. We arrived Melk with just time to pop aboard and change before joining our non-Active Discovery friends for a tour of the truly gobsmacking Melk Abbey.
Other AD expeditions included several around Linz (including a special after-hours tour of Ars Electronica), a hike along the Danube trail and a wander through beautiful Grein, where we had a private tour of the Staddttheater, said to be the oldest theatre in Austria. We then climbed the stairs to Greinburg Castle; on selected cruises, the count will be on hand to greet guests. We made do with guided sticky-beaking around the castle and learning about its close history with the British Royal Family.
On AD tours you spend more time with your guide than on a standard city walking tour, and usually in a much smaller group, so you find out more about the sights you’re visiting, as well as about local life and politics. The guides have been carefully chosen by Avalon, for their deep local knowledge, of course, but also their ability to read a group and morph the experience to be in tune with that bunch of people. And the experiences are designed to give you a close-up view of the local culture, too.
As well as injecting a little aerobic activity into your cruise, the Active Discovery program has a heap of experiences that turn into personal stories, making memories of your cruise that bit more special.
Active Discovery is a perfect moniker for a program that’s bound to attract a new generation of guests for Avalon Waterways, and deservedly so.
CRUISE LINE: Avalon Waterways
VESSEL: Avalon Luminary
PASSENGER CAPACITY: 138
TOTAL CREW: 39
PASSENGER DECKS: 3
ENTERED SERVICE: 2010
LENGTH: 110 metres
FACILITIES: Four suites and 65 staterooms, four Panorama Bistro, open-air Sky Bistro and the Sky Deck, whirlpool, fitness centre, hair salon (manicures available), lounge and bar, complimentary WiFi, library.
BOOKINGS: Nine-day Active Discovery on the Danube cruise on Luminary from Budapest to Linz is priced from $4637 per person twin share. Visit: avalonwaterways.com.au
highs: Canoeing, which was so easy and fun, and conducting the orchestra, which the gifted musicians made so easy and fun.
Low: A flat tyre on the 30km cycling tour from Durnstein to Melk.
Best suited to: River cruise fans who enjoy being active.