Fireworks crackle across the sky as the fizz flows on deck. We’re in Budapest, raising a glass (or two) of Hungary’s finest Törley to Avalon Waterways’ sparkling new Avalon Envision – just christened by Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert – and the party is in full swing.
It’s my first cruise aboard one of Avalon’s Suite Ships – Envision is the thirteenth of the line – and after two days on the Danube, I’m already loving its smart, friendly boutique-hotel vibe. But the big attraction of Avalon’s fleet is the gorgeous Panorama Suites, which make up 80 per cent of the accommodation. These are a generous 200sq ft in size, with a unique design that places the bed opposite a glass wall.
Better still, the glass slides sideways to create an open balcony no less than seven feet wide, allowing river breezes to waft in and giving you the best possible view of the passing scenery. Other lines are copying this idea – and with good reason, because it really works (I spent a lovely afternoon in my cabin, lounging in brilliant spring sunshine as the ship sailed from Budapest to Visegrad).
It’s not just the balcony design that’s clever. All sorts of smart touches are thrown in, such as colour-coded towels, so you don’t get yours mixed up with your partner’s. There are a lot of perks, too: robes, slippers, USB ports, an impressive selection of free movies on the TV, two sets of L’Occitane goodies; everything has been thought of.
But then Avalon Envision is all about choice – especially when it comes to places to eat. If the weather’s fine, the Sky Grill on the top deck is opened so you can enjoy your lunch al fresco. Alternatively, there’s informal dining in the Panorama Lounge, a gorgeous space decorated in greys, creams and golds, with bookshelves and cosy corners. Here you can have breakfast, lunch, gooey cakes for afternoon tea, or even sit down to dinner, choosing from a similar menu to the main dining rooms.
A second space, the much smaller Club Lounge, aft on Royal Deck, is flooded with natural light and offers more books, board games, an espresso machine and trays of snacks and cookies. Fresh bottled juice, bought from farmers along the river, is available too (apple and ginger, strawberry or carrot and beet – a lovely touch).
The dining room is open-seating, so you can turn up any time between 7pm and 8.30pm for dinner. And forget about getting stuck with strangers (something many people, me included, seem to dread on river cruises) because more than 60 per cent of the tables are for two – surely a first in river cruising.
The food is excellent, partly thanks to a partnership with the Wrenkh brothers, two Austrian celebrity chefs who run a vegetarian restaurant and cookery school in Vienna. That means there’s always an imaginative veggie option to match the meat or fish – tofu teriyaki, perhaps, or asparagus with lemongrass and polenta as an alternative to tiger prawns done the same way.
At lunch there’s an extensive salad bar, so you can assemble a healthy ‘Buddha Bowl’ – unless you prefer decadent, rich Hungarian dishes including goulash, chicken paprika and a delicious mushroom stroganoff.
For dinner, there are superbly cooked international options such as herb-crusted veal tenderloin, or sea bream with chorizo and sweet potato mash. Decent wines from Austria, Hungary, France and Germany are liberally poured with meals.
Daily excursions come in three varieties, labelled Classic, Active (hiking, kayaking or cycling) and Discovery (including wine-tasting and cookery classes). Most are included in the fare, although you can pay for a handful of extra tours.
The ship has excellent bicycles available to borrow, and I opted for a cycling tour round Budapest, as well as a wonderful hike up to the 13th-century Visegrad Castle, through forests bursting into leaf in the sunshine and giving tantalising glimpses of the river below. There’s plenty of activity on board, too, from Zumba classes to yoga.
All Avalon’s Suite Ships are built to a similar design, but modifications are incorporated into each one. Envision has special ballast tanks that allow it to sit higher in the water when the river is low – a situation that’s becoming increasingly common on the Danube – allowing this ship to sail when others can’t.
Expanding further on the theme of choice, Avalon is introducing ‘Avalon Your Way’ in 2020 – and that’s good news for British cruisers because it adds the option of booking cruise-only, rather than taking the existing package with flights and hotels bolted on.
Also new for next year is a range of shorter itineraries that will see Envision sailing three-night mini-cruises between Budapest and Vienna – perfect for first-timers who just want a brief taste of life on the river. Avalon’s mantra is ‘relaxed luxury’, and that neatly sums up the experience on board their ships.
If you want butler service and ultra-inclusive river cruising – or a cheaper base price with fewer inclusions – there are other lines that might suit you better. But if, like me, you enjoy hiking and cycling, healthy eating, decent wines and an itinerary that’s leisurely enough to allow overnights in Europe’s great cities, you’ll find that Avalon’s formula is just about perfect.