By Matt Long | Posted to LandLopers.com
Before my first experience sailing with river cruise company Avalon Waterways, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. Intellectually I understood that I was on one of their innovative Active & Discovery itineraries and yes, I even pre-selected my excursions for the trip. But what that means really didn’t hit home until I actually sailed with them. Since this style of cruising is so different from my past river cruising experiences, today I want to devote an entire post to highlighting some of my favorite excursions and, in the process, show what makes Avalon so unique and definitely a lot of fun to experience.
Active & Discovery
I sailed on the Danube from Budapest to Linz, Austria on one of the company’s Active & Discovery itineraries. Offered several times throughout the year on different rivers and ships, these itineraries are definitely not your average river cruise experience. These cruises are for guests who want to do and not just see and offer a wide variety of included-excursions that enable passengers to be active and fully engaged with the local cultures. As I learned, Active is no understatement and on my cruise guests had plenty of options.
Budapest Retro Tour
This optional excursion offered by Avalon was one that I couldn’t wait to experience. The idea of exploring Budapest’s Communist past all while driving around in a vintage Trabant sounded like the perfect mix of active and historical immersion. Picked up in a 80s-era Trabant, our guide spent the afternoon taking us to a variety of different spots around Budapest, all the while sharing not just the history of the Communist era, but his own personal experiences as well. Whether it was touring a ruin bar, enjoying a spritz at the Trabant bar or walking through a grove of Communist-era statues, the afternoon was as educational as it was fun.
Wachau Valley Biking
This picturesque region of Austria is famous around the world for any number of reasons, but especially for its wine and the incredible outdoor activities available to visitors. Thousands of miles of hiking and biking trails wind around the hills and small villages that line the Danube, and I couldn’t wait to get out there and experience it all for myself. During our time in the Wachau Valley, Avalon offered any number of included active excursions to help guests enjoy this remarkable part of the world, but right away I knew that biking through the region was my best option. Stopping in Krems, Austria, our group left the Impression and joined our affable guides for a day out and about exploring Austria’s wine country. Throughout the afternoon we stopped at small towns and wine estates, learning more about the history of the region as we got our exercise for the day. I’m by no means an avid biker, but I thought the pace and route were fine and not too taxing. The group spent a little longer in the famous town of Dürnstein, where we had some free time to explore this gorgeous hilltop enclave and our guides even bought some local specialties to share with us. There’s no doubt that by the time we met our ship in Spitz that I was ready for a shower, but that just means it was a day very well spent.
This was one of the few optional excursions with Avalon, which meant there was an additional fee required, but it was also my favorite experience of the trip. One of the best ways to learn about any new destination is through food. There’s no better way to understand culture, history and traditions than through the stomach, and in Vienna that meant joining a local chef as he spent the afternoon teaching us how to make a traditional Austrian meal. We were welcomed into the demonstration kitchen by our leader for the day, Nabeel. It’s no understatement when I say that he was one of the most entertaining people I’ve ever met and his sense of humor made the day the delight that it was. We were there to work though, and for several hours he led us through each step to create perfect examples of apple strudel, Wiener Schnitzel and all of the accompaniments. The best part came at the end though when we all sat down to enjoy the delicious meal we had created. I’ve consumed my fair share of schnitzel over the years, but this was one of the best perhaps because I had such an active hand in creating it.
Why just visit a castle when you can first hike through a national park to get there? That’s exactly what we did while visiting the small Hungarian town of Visegrad. Walking through the middle of town, it’s hard to imagine that this was one of the most important towns of the medieval era, but it certainly was and remnants from that time can be found everywhere. Before admiring the history of the city though, I joined an active excursion for a hike up to the mountaintop on which the castle is perched. Danube-Ipoly National Park is one of the largest, and most popular, parks in the country, known in large part for its incredible views of the Danube Bend. After a not so difficult hike up, those were the scenes that rewarded us, as well as a visit to the castle and prison tower. It was a fun way to spend an afternoon and to burn off some of those calories consumed in Budapest.
Morning in Vienna
Since I had been to Vienna before, I wanted experiences that delved a little deeper into the city and help me better understand it. This included excursion did just that and more. Met by our local guide, he showed us around his city as it slowly began to wake up, giving us a unique perspective of Vienna before it got too crowded. With perfect morning light, I loved learning about the guide’s favorite parts of town, what he thinks about the city and more. It was an inside look into what is a popular tourist destination and a somewhat rare opportunity to truly understand what makes Vienna so very special. After a classic Austrian breakfast at a local coffee shop, we then visited the Habsburg Museum before it opened to the general public. There we enjoyed a private tour of the collection, learning about the various artworks and unique objects and enjoying the special opportunity for what it was.
Hike to the Oxbow
Staying active was a great way to counterbalance the incredible food I enjoyed throughout the cruise on the Danube, culminating in this final hike to one of Austria’s most picturesque viewpoints. The Schlögen Oxbow bend of the Danube is the river’s famous horseshoe bend and one of the most photographed spots in the region. Getting there and back meant a fairly steep hike, led by a local guide who knew the trails well. It was a fun way to spend time with my fellow passengers, get some exercise and of course enjoy the incredible views of the river and our ship. Staying active when I travel is important to me, even though it’s not something I’m fanatical about doing. By adding in some active elements to the river cruise, it created an experience that was totally unique and one that I know I’ll never forget.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time sailing the rivers of Europe, but so far none of my experiences were quite like the week I spent with Avalon. Their Active & Discovery itineraries are well planned, active, immersive and fun. It was the ideal mix of experiences, ones that I got to choose myself and, in the process, they created a trip that so far is one of my all-time favorites.