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Bon Appetit

September 12, 2017

Try Me a River

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A first-timer sets sail for Europe aboard Avalon Waterways.

By Elizabeth Martinez | Published in Porthole Magazine

 

If you’re like me, you have a slight fear of the unknown. It doesn’t stop me from living life, but I do get butterflies whenever I’m about to make a change or do something new. So, needless to say, I had a hint of nerves when I planned to embark on a first for me: a river cruise.

I was that girl. Hailing from South Florida, I’d only ever been on ocean cruises mostly throughout the Caribbean. With Miami’s cruise port practically in my backyard, taking a trip with 3,000 of my closest friends is a fun, easy and affordable escape from the everyday. But when I heard that 84 percent of river cruises are previous ocean cruisers, I figured it was worth a try. And when I read about Avalon Waterways’ 10-day Canals, Vineyards and Paris European sailing, I was lured by the promise of small towns, castles, vineyards, and idyllic pastures.

After flights were booked and dates confirmed, I anxiously checked my tiny apartment mailbox every day for my cruise documents. But instead, a knock came at the door and when I opened it, a bigger-than-a-birthday-cake-sized box stood before me. The box was imprinted with the word “HAPPY” all over it and after opening it, I knew why. Surrounded by confetti-style filler was a portfolio – great for keeping passports and travel documents throughout the trip – with a personalized, bound (bound!) booklet including a detailed day-by-day itinerary; flight, hotel, and transfer information; optional tour details; a swanky luggage tag; ship tips; and everything else that immediately put my worries at ease.

At that very moment, I felt like I had already started traveling. My body was still in Florida, but my heart was already cruising through the canals of Amsterdam and the Rhine River.

 

View with a Room

Including transfers to and fro is just one way that Avalon makes traveling easier. I was greeted at the airport by an Avalon representative and transferred to the ship in a comfy van with fellow cruisers. Also included would be great tours on shore and special touches on board, including bicycles for sightseeing in town, Nordic walking sticks, and onboard WiFi.

At first glance, the Avalon Visionary – built in 2012 and about 37 feet wide and 361 feet long – looks impressive. It’s the perfect size to fit through the locks and under low bridges that we’d traverse on our journey along the Rhine and Moselle rivers. Docked in the heart of Amsterdam, the ship offered the perfect starting point for walking into the center of town to visit shops, restaurants, and attractions.

As the all English-speaking crew of 37 prepared our rooms and readied the ship for departure, we were treated to lunch, refreshments, and a quick tour. The Panorama Bistro at the front of the ship serves as a spot for light lunches as well as cocktails and entertainment in the evening. The Club Lounge at the back offers a quiet corner for coffee and cookies (available 24 hours a day), games, reading, or a comfy chair to take in the vistas. The Sky Deck boasts 180-degree unencumbered views and a grill lunch, weather permitting. It was too chilly to use the hot tub, but I suspect it’s a popular spot in warmer months.

The main dining room accommodates everyone comfortably in one seating, and a gym – complete with complimentary bottled water and towels – is available if you feel compelled to work off a few calories. (Sadly, I was not so compelled!) A salon that offers cuts and blowouts rounds out the creature comforts. (And even though she was a hair stylist, the young lady staffing the salon did manage to solve a minor nail polish emergency for me.)

Your cabin on any cruise can sometimes define your trip, and it seems Avalon gave this quite a bit of thought. A sneak peek into one of two Royal Suites revealed 500 square feet, only a tiny bit smaller than my first apartment and much more well appointed with a queen-sized bed, separate sitting area, and large bathroom with double sinks and separate water closet. But you don’t have to be in a Royal Suite to feel spoiled and with just three decks and three cabin tiers, enjoying your temporary home away from home is easy.

My Panorama Suite felt spacious, with large closets and plenty of under-bed storage for luggage (it makes a difference when you don’t have to walk around your suitcases), a room safe, Comfort Collection bed, desk, sitting area with small sofa, table and chair, complimentary bottled water, swivel TV, mini bar (with very reasonable pricing), fresh orchid, a fluffy robe and slippers, room service for breakfast, and a large bathroom made all the more special with L’Occitane amenities, a Millefiori Milano reed diffuser, and get this: two different color towels so if you’re traveling with someone, you will always know which towel is yours.

The piece de resistance in the cabin, however, is the lack of a balcony. Not having an actual carved out balcony is just one of the things that Avalon does marvelously. Suites all boast an 11-foot floor-to-ceiling sliding glass door/window that opens 7-feet wide, which essentially makes your entire room a balcony. Pop a chair in front of the railing or lay in bed (which faces the water) for the view of your life and fresh air on your skin.

Dining options aboard Avalon Visionary do not disappoint. Breakfast is served buffet style with hearty fare, light options, and everything in between. Mimosas and sparkling wine are always included. You can opt for a light lunch in the lounge – serving mostly salad, soup, and lighter fodder – or a buffet in the dining room with a few added options. Dinner gathers everyone for a fresh and seasonal four-course a la carte menu featuring regional specialties beautifully connected to your itinerary. Whenever possible, the ship’s executive chef goes ashore and visits local food markets to create dishes inspired by that day’s port.

Adding to the options is the always-available Caesar salad, chicken, salmon, or steak. Making its debut this year is the company’s new Avalon Fresh menu, featuring mostly vegetarian, but always healthy and locally inspired appetizers, main courses, and desserts. Partnering with brothers Karl and Leo Wrenkh – the culinary gurus behind the first vegetarian restaurant in Vienna – Avalon now offers even more guiltless and delicious dishes. A late-night snack in the lounge also always hits the spot. And because one of Avalon’s favorite words is included, beer and wine are complimentary during lunch and dinner (as are soft drinks, sparkling water, and juices).

 

Small Ports, Big Impressions

If you think you won’t have enough to do on a river cruise, think again. The size of the ship assures that you can stop in quite a few cities, sometimes even two in one day. The towns we visited are what movie sets are made of. I fell in love with the canals and bike culture of Amsterdam, the winding streets of Cochem, and the wine village of Bernkastel. Also on our itinerary were the German towns of Cologne, Rüdesheim, and Zell as well as Luxembourg City and neighboring Remich.

Despite my excitement to set sail for all of these charming towns, as an overnight stay on the ship in Amsterdam – complete with a festive embarkation dinner and musical entertainment in the lounge – offered the perfect breather to settle in and unpack without feeling as if I were missing anything.

Right after breakfast the next morning, still docked just a few yards from town, I partook in the relaxing (and included) canal cruise – a guided jaunt through the city’s charming waterways – followed by a guided walking tour back to the ship. The crisp air was typical of spring in Europe and offered the perfect weather for exploring.

We left Amsterdam that evening and sailed through the night, reaching Cologne the next afternoon. Here, I opted for a bike tour of this bustling city that included a stop at the must-see Cologne Cathedral, a marvel of gothic architecture and UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was equally impressed the next morning when we spent three hours navigating the Rhine Gorge, a stunning river scenery jaunt boasting dozens of castles and vineyards, which was wonderfully narrated by the ship’s cruise director, Jerome.

By lunch, we had arrived in Rüdesheim, one of Germany’s best-known wine towns, and I hopped on an invigorating cable car ride up to a wonderful lookout spot to spy the terraced vineyards that make this such a popular spot for wine lovers. After some time to explore on my own, I went back to the ship and readied for dinner as we set sail for our second port of the day, Engers.

Even though we arrived after dark, we were treated to an unforgettable private chamber music concert (included) in the town’s castle. Since we were spending the night in the port and were docked within easy walking distance, I meandered afterward and found a few of my shipmates at a local watering hole where I momentarily set aside my newfound love of the region’s Riesling and enjoyed a local beer.

Leaving the Rhine River and entering the Moselle the next morning, we were treated to more castles and quaint wine villages dotting the riverbank. Our first stop was Cochem, which boasts markets and a fairytale-like castle atop the hill. I visited the Reichsburg Castle and its romantic interiors and grounds and then jumped in and out of an (included) walking tour, rambling around for a bit of shopping and soaking in the mix of medieval and modern in the landscape and architecture.

While we slept, the ship made its way to the neighboring towns of Zell and Bernkastel, one more charming than the next, which allowed me to feed my photography habit. In Bernkastel, the Weinmuseum (Wine Museum) was the obvious choice to sample and enjoy the fruits of the steep wine slopes we had passed on our journey. It was the perfect happy hour before passengers gathered for the second-to-last night on the ship and the traditional Gala Farewell Dinner.

Early the next day, we arrived in Grevenmacher, Luxembourg, the point of departure to explore ancient Trier, just over the border back in Germany. There, a guided walking tour through the town – one of the oldest in Europe – visited monuments and the ruins of the majestic Roman baths. In the meantime, the ship had sailed from Gervenmacher to Remich with some choosing to stay on board. I traveled back to my floating hotel via luxe coach, taking in even more of the pleasing vistas of Europe’s richest country. Before settling in, I indulged in some sightseeing in Luxembourg City with some new friends and enjoyed a hot coffee, which tasted as rich as the country is heralded to be.

Our last night on Avalon Visionary included a farewell cocktail party with the captain and a great dinner with the 120-plus other passengers, who were now as familiar as friends. Transferred to the train station the next morning, the cruise ended dreamily with a high-speed train ride and two overnights in Paris. Finding things to do in port was not difficult, as there are plenty of included excursions plus quite a bit of time to explore on your own.

In fact, I was lucky enough to experience Avalon’s new Active Discovery program, a unique mix of outings designed to immerse in the culture of a particular town. The program was already part of the company’s Danube sailings, but I was happy to play guinea pig to some trial runs on my trip, including a Van Gogh – inspired painting class in Amsterdam. When the program rolls out completely, other Active Discovery offerings will include cooking classes, bike tours, hiking, canoeing, and even conducting an orchestra.

Hosting only 128 passengers, cruising on Avalon Visionary felt more like sailing on a private yacht. The itinerary was full, but not too busy; the accommodations were comfortable, but not overdone; the food was varied and tasty, but not pretentious. And the entire trip lived up to Avalon’s “Relaxed Luxury” philosophy. So, if you’re contemplating a river cruise, I say, Do it! After all, when was the last time you did something for the very first time?