A river cruise is something I previously didn’t consider as a means to travel and explore a place – the idea of being stuck on a ship with hundreds of other people and visiting places fleetingly didn’t sound appealing to me. That changed when I decided to give it a try several years ago. I enjoyed the experience more than I thought I would – the number of passengers was significantly smaller than I thought and there were many excursion options – and I’ve been on a few more since. So, when I was invited to join an eight-day Active & Discovery Danube River cruise with Avalon Waterways from Budapest (Hungary) to Linz (Austria), I didn’t hesitate for a moment. It turned out to be, arguably, the best river cruise I’d ever been on! A bold statement I know but I say this based on my prior experiences and how impressed I am with Avalon Waterways. Read on about my experiences during the cruise, the highlights and what impressed me most. Scroll down and you’ll also find a video which includes a tour of my suite and the ship, and highlights of the cruise.
My Avalon Waterways Danube River cruise
Avalon Waterways is a luxury cruise company that operates a fleet of 16 river cruise ships, built in the Netherlands, which are based in different parts of the world, though primarily in Europe. I travelled on the Avalon Impression.
These so-called ‘Suite Ships’ feature spacious staterooms with en-suite bathrooms and floor-to-ceiling windows for panoramic views. What I especially liked about the windows is that you can slide them open (almost fully) and the room turns into one big balcony! I also loved how the beds were positioned, facing the window, so I could just lie in bed and enjoy the views.
I explored the ship right after checking into my suite and found the elegant Panorama Restaurant, the cozy Panorama Lounge and Bar, a small gym and my favourite space: the Club Lounge, located in the back of the ship where guests could sit quietly or play board games while enjoying a soft drink, coffee or hot chocolate with fresh pastries.
The cruise started in Budapest before making its way up the Danube River at a leisurely pace to Vienna, then through the gorgeous Wachau Valley to Linz in Upper Austria.
A broad variety of Avalon Waterways excursions were offered at every stop, most of which were included in the package, and there was quite literally something for everyone. The sporty guests could choose a host of hiking, cycling or canoeing excursions, whilst others could opt for cultural or historical excursions. It was sweltering in Europe that week so I opted for more easy-going outings. Here were some of my favourite excursions:
Retro tour of Budapest in Trabant cars
Read about the Farmers Market at Szimpla Bar.
Read about the historic baths of Budapest.
Read about things to do in Budapest.
Medieval Knights Tournament in Visegrád
VIP tour of the Fine Arts Museum in Vienna
Cooking class at Andante in Vienna
Visit to the St. Florian Monastery
Read about my visit to the St. Florian Monastery.
The food on board was terrific! The cruise package also includes beer and wine at lunch and dinner, which I thought was a great deal! Furthermore, I thought the drinks prices at the Bar were very reasonable – and those prices are further reduced by half during the daily Happy Hour!
Breakfast and lunch were buffets (with a cooking station) whilst dinners were lavish four-course meals (with choices for starters, soups, main courses and desserts). On certain days, a grill lunch was organised on the Sky Deck.
One thing I appreciated was that guests were not bound by fixed meal times, and they could choose to have a full meal at the Panorama Restaurant or a simpler option at the Panorama Lounge. In addition, I really liked how the dishes (and wines) reflected the places we visited, allowing the chef to showcase local ingredients, recipes and wines.
What I loved about this Avalon Waterways Danube River cruise
Before I embarked on the trip, I downloaded the AvalonGo app on my phone and I was really impressed with its capabilities. The app contained my cruise itinerary, flights, destination information and tips for places to see, restaurants, etc.., as well as (offline) maps.
There’s also a very cool augmented reality function – view a certain street or place through the app and it tells you what you’re looking at!
Unrivalled variety of excursion options
I’ve never been on a river cruise that offered this many excursion options. As I said before, there was literally something for everyone! For instance, in Vienna, there was a walking+public transport tour (loved the fact that they used public transport for the tour), cooking classes, a Secret of Absinthe tour, a morning run tour, a bike tour, a guided hike tour, dinner at a wine tavern, a VIP tour of the Fine Arts Museum and more! To top it off, almost all these excursions are included in the cruise package! As you can imagine, it was sometimes hard to choose!
Good mix of fellow travellers
On my previous river cruise experiences, I was often one of the youngest on the ship and the guests were mainly from North America. On this Active & Discovery Danube River cruise, there were about 120 guests on board and it was a good mix of age groups and different nationalities, which made the trip more interesting. I also met two guests who are avid Velvet Escape readers! I also appreciated the layout of the Panorama Restaurant, which features big tables for groups but also tables for two. This way, if you’re travelling alone or as a couple, you don’t have to mingle with other guests during meals if you don’t want to.
Involving local communities
This is something I’d not seen before. I was very impressed by how Avalon Waterways works with and supports local communities. To start off, local guides were utilised and I noticed that the tour and activity providers were primarily small businesses from the area. The Avalon ship has its own set of bicycles which guests could use freely but the bikes used for tours were always provided by the local tour company. Another example is the Medieval Knights tournament in Visegrád, which is run by a group of hobbyists who strive to preserve the medieval culture in Visegrád. Organising the tournament specially for Avalon guests helps them to keep their hobby and culture alive.
Another thing I absolutely enjoyed was the leisurely pace of the cruise. Wherever we docked, there was often plenty of time to go out and venture on my own. In Budapest, I had the entire morning to myself before joining the retro tour in the afternoon, and in Vienna, I booked morning and evening excursions, leaving me with the whole afternoon to stroll around on my own.
If you’re keen to explore Vienna on your own, check out my self-guided walking tour of Vienna for river cruise travellers.
Oh gosh, the bed! It’s arguably one of the best beds I’ve ever slept in (top-5 for sure)! And it was pretty mind-blowing that I should find it on a river cruise ship! After my first night on board, I discovered that the ‘Comfort Collection Bed’ is specially-made for Avalon Waterways and guests can choose from four different options! I slept very well and it was a joy to lie in bed and watch the scenery pass by!
Dedicated ‘Adventure Host’
In addition to the excursions, guests could also participate in yoga and pilates sessions on the deck, or join the dedicated ‘Adventure Host’ on bike rides, hikes or jogs. He sure kept the guests moving!
Commitment to sustainability
Another thing that really impressed me is Avalon Waterways’ commitment to sustainability. By encouraging guests to use the AvalonGo app (to check itineraries or access maps of places), they’ve reduced paper waste by 80%. In addition, the ships are fuel-efficient and a state-of-the-art sewage recycling system ensures that only clean water is discharged back into the rivers. The toilets have a vacuum system which further reduces water usage. Moreover, single-use plastics will be eliminated across all the ships by 2020. As part of this operation, all guests will be provided with refillable water bottles and there will be water kiosks stationed throughout the ships.
And finally, the crew! From the Cruise Director to the F&B and housekeeping staff, they were simply fantastic! They made sure the guests felt welcome and taken care of, and after a while they knew each guests preferences in terms of drinks or food. They really made my stay on board special.
If you’re thinking of going on a river cruise, I can definitely recommend Avalon Waterways. In addition to this Danube River cruise, they have many more routes along other major rivers in Europe, like the Rhine, and in Asia and South America. I hope to do one of their Asia cruises one day. Pretty sure that would be amazing too!
Note: this post is a result of the #AvalonAD project, a collaboration between iambassador and Avalon Waterways. However, all views expressed above are mine, and mine only. Yes, I meant it when I said that this was perhaps the best river cruise I’ve ever been on.