Avalon held a dual celebration in Holland when it christened two river vessels at the start of this northern summer. Jane Archer rates the new sister ships.
Overall vibe Crisp colours, modern furnishings and plenty of marble best sums up Avalon Vista and Visionary. Vista, the bigger sister with 83 cabins compared with Visionary's 64, is a mix of beige and autumn gold. Visionary is more intimate, a vision in red.
Throughout both there is wall-to-wall glass and picture windows so you never need miss the views.
The lounge is the hub, offering everything from wine tasting and cookery demonstrations to pre-dinner port talks and evening entertainment by the resident pianist or visiting local bands.
Wow factor Rather than walk-out verandahs, these vessels have two decks of Panorama suites with wall-to-wall glass windows that open about two-thirds the width of the room. The idea is that on sunny days you can have the window wide open, creating the impression you are outside, but on a cold or wet day you keep it closed and haven't lost cabin space to a balcony that is not being used. Avalon calls them "inside balconies", which I confess I was sceptical about, but sitting by the window with the door open and the sun shining in, I might as well have been on a traditional balcony.
What's new Rattan seats and low tables are in place at the back of the main lounge on both vessels, as starting next year Avalon will be serving a tapas-style dinner there. Also next year, a new guest services program kicks off to help passengers who want to book land-based restaurants, taxis, museum tickets and so on.
Restaurants Each vessel has one dining room, open for buffet breakfast and lunch, and waiter-service dinner. It's open seating, meaning you can sit where and with whom you wish, and wine, beer and soft drinks are served free with dinner.
Pastries, cookies and fruit, as well as tea and coffee, are available all day in the Club lounge at the back of each of the vessels. On sunny days when the vessels are moored, barbecue lunches are served on the top deck. There's no charge but you need to sign up as space is limited.
Best cabin feature By angling the beds so they face the window, and at a slight slant, you get the double bonus of a view of the river when you wake and larger bathrooms. The bathrooms are finished in marble, have large walk-in glass showers and are stocked with ample supplies of L'Occitane toiletries. The "his and hers" towels in white and grey are a nice touch.
Kudos Full marks to the crew, who were friendly and quietly efficient. Like many river cruise lines, Avalon provides Quietvox transmitters and earphones for the guided tours, but rather than putting the chargers in cabins, where they take up space, they are kept by the cruise manager and distributed at the start of each tour. A good plan as they are always fully charged and no one has any excuse for forgetting to bring one. A free scrapbook in the cabins, for collecting daily programs, maps and any other cruise memorabilia, is a neat idea.
Shame about The bedrooms are smart and comfortable but I find the term "suite" misleading as in truth they are just large cabins. However, there are two Royal Suites that are worthy of the name. If size matters, go for them. The Club lounge could be better used as an alternative dining venue. And while it's nice to have a whirlpool on the top deck, it's so small you'd really only want to be in there with a very good friend!
Itineraries Both vessels are sailing eight-day Tulip Time cruises in Holland in 2013, with a highlight trip to Keukenhof Gardens, a 32-hectare park that's a sea of colour in spring when the bulbs flower.
Avalon Visionary is also sailing a new, one-off, eight-day Tulips of Northern Holland itinerary on April 24, 2013, that includes a tour of Hoorn, the town that gave its name to Cape Horn, cruises across the IJsselmeer - a freshwater lake created in 1932 by building a dyke across the Zuiderzee - and an afternoon in Arnhem, site of the famous "Bridge Too Far" from World War II.
Once northern spring is over, Avalon Vista will sail 15-day cruises between Amsterdam and Budapest, as it is this year, while Avalon Visionary moves to the Danube for its 11-day Legendary Danube itinerary - three nights in Prague followed by a seven-night cruise between Nuremburg and Budapest (Blue Danube Discovery is the same itinerary in reverse).
The writer was a guest of Avalon Waterways.
Emirates flies three times a day from Sydney to Dubai and daily from Dubai to Amsterdam and Prague. 1300 303 777, emirates.com.
Spring tulip cruises depart from Haarlem, near Amsterdam, and return to the Dutch capital. Avalon Vista's 15-night cruises start or end in Amsterdam or Budapest. Avalon Visionary cruises start or end in Prague or Budapest.
Cabins start at $2844 a person for the April 24 Tulips of Northern Holland cruise on Avalon Visionary, or $5433 a person for the Magnificent Europe cruise on Avalon Vista. Prices include all meals while cruising, many shore excursions, wine, beer or soft drinks with dinner, port charges, wi-fi and gratuities.
1300 230 234, avalonwaterways.com.au.
New level of luxury
After years in the backwaters, river cruising has come of age, with millions of dollars being invested in smart new vessels that are bringing luxury to a sector where fold-out beds were not unheard of even five years ago.
The change was spurred by Australian company Scenic Tours, which burst onto the European river cruise scene in 2008 with new vessels with balconies, butlers and a speciality restaurant. The company included drinks with meals and a choice of free excursions in the cruise price.
Now the best river companies are in a race to the top. We're being treated to luxurious new vessels with balconies — either of the walk-out or inside variety, or a mix, as offered by APT — modern decor, quality furnishings and state-of-the-art in-cabin entertainment.
Increasingly they offer alternative dining venues and serve free drinks with dinner and sometimes with lunch as well.
The moves to improve show no sign of waning, either, with more being added next year — Scenic goes all-inclusive and Austrian line Amadeus is launching a new vessel with a cafe serving the country's famous Sachertorte — as lines continue to take river cruising to the next level of luxury.