Thursday, 22 October 2015

The Danube, in style

The Danube, in style

The Avalon Expression on the Danube in Austria’s Wachau, a valley that boasts sights such as Schloss Schonbuhel castle.

When Avalon Waterways asked me in 2013 to be the godmother of its then-new Expression Suite Ship, I was both honored and perplexed. 

I had been following the burgeoning popularity of river cruising in Europe but considered myself neither authority nor godmother material. Avalon Managing Director Patrick Clark explained the company's reasoning, pointing out my love for the sites that line Europe's great rivers and featured in my book "1,000 Places to See Before You Die."

"Avalon's mission is to connect those dots and bring our guests there with the utmost in comfort," Clark said. "We're a good match." 

He was right, of course, and I jumped onboard — and that festive May ceremony in the Rhine town of Koblenz will forever remain a special moment for me.

My first real immersion in the comfort and enveloping charms of the Expression, however, didn't happen until last month, when I hosted a one-week cruise on the legendary Danube, Europe's longest river; we would visit four of the 10 countries through which its not-so-blue waters flow. (No other river passes through so many countries.)

Traveling east to west, we began in Budapest and were scheduled to disembark in Nuremberg, Germany, but not before having explored stops in Austria and with a sail-by visit of Bratislava in Slovakia. A rich itinerary like this deserves to close on a high note, and it did, with a post-cruise transfer to. 

Avalon taps the destination knowledge and logistical backup of its Globus Family of Brands sister companies to create an impressive roster of included land programs to cities large (Vienna; Regensburg, Germany) and small (Durnstein and Melk, Austria). Extra-cost options, ranging from Strauss concerts and horse shows to wine tastings, fleshed out each day's possibilities.
Budapest is one of four capital cities sitting directly on the banks of the Danube.
Budapest is one of four capital cities sitting directly on the banks of the Danube.
We arrived in Budapest even before Avalon's predeparture package began, wanting extra time to explore one of the four capital cities sitting directly on the banks of the Danube. Budapest is a magnificent city; with eight illuminated bridges and outdoor restaurants with strolling violinists, it exudes a festive air. Walkways line the banks of the Danube, popular with locals and tourists out for nocturnal strolls. 

Avalon's base at the waterfront InterContinental Budapest was peerless for its location, steps from the famous 19th century Chain Bridge (the first to connect Buda and Pest). It is within sight of the city's (and country's) finest hotel, the exquisitely restored Four Seasons Gresham Palace. We lingered there over a palinka (fruit brandy) in the hotel's theatrical bar-lounge, imagining life in the Belle Epoque. 

We had just returned from an excellent Context Walking Tour, an insightful three-hour stroll through the city's golden age, the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries when the Hungarian capital flourished as a center of art and learning, and intellectuals throughout Europe gravitated here; that tour was not part of Avalon's precruise package. Keeping the historical theme alive, we dressed up for a quintessentially Hungarian evening at the Gundel restaurant, in business since the late 1800s. A four-piece gypsy orchestra and a rich menu of classic Hungarian specialties sealed the deal with our new love affair with the city. 

Avalon's coach tour the next day covered the capital city's many highlights and filled in the holes with a crash course on the country's rich and complex history.

But the Expression called, and soon we were boarding the 166-passenger vessel, one of Avalon's 10 Suite Ships. (Its Europe fleet currently numbers 15, with two 36-guest All-Suite Ships sailing Asia's Irrawaddy and Mekong debuting this year.) 

The beauty of river cruising is that you only unpack once, so it might as well be in one of Avalon's spacious 200-square-foot accommodations. They are 30% larger than the industry standard on Europe's waterways and make up 80% of the rooms. (The balance are marginally smaller at 172 square feet, while just two 300-square-foot Royal Suites await a lucky few.) The unquestionable standout feature goes to the "floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall panoramic windows that open 7 feet wide to create an open-air balcony," Clark said. Add to that Comfort Collection beds that are positioned to face the windows — not a wall — to watch European vignettes of steep, terraced vineyards and hilltop castles drift by. 

The ship's layout was explained to us the first evening by our personable cruise director, Nancy Paredes. River vessels, she said, are limited by the size of the river locks through which they will travel, so adding a conventional balcony would compromise room space. Hence that remarkable wall of windows. "Comfort," Clark reminded me, "is king."

The mix of excited passengers was predominantly from the U.S., with a good number from Canada and a handful from New Zealand, Australia and the U.K. By the end of the cruise, if we didn't know each other by name, we certainly recognized everyone. 

The casually elegant dining room was a fun spot to sit with fellow guests, sharing culinary experiences that ranged from very good to excellent and were often influenced by our host country and the local markets' (and vineyards') offerings. 

With the record-breaking numbers of river ships that are exiting the boatyards every year, it still seemed like there was plenty of Danube to go around for all of us. Some days we saw more vessels docked at the ports along the way than we did sailing the river itself. It often felt like we had the Danube to ourselves.