I am relaxing aboard Avalon Panorama, one of the world’s most modern river cruisers, watching the magnificent scenery of the Rhine Gorge slip by. As the next curve in the river approaches, another medieval castle is revealed perched precariously on a cliff edge. Below vineyards ascend from the water line to the castle base, with goats and winemakers dotting the hillside somehow managing to avoid tumbling down its steep slope.
It’s a typical scene along Germany’s Middle Rhine, a spectacular enclave of the European heartland, where daily life revolves around an iconic waterway. Thanks to the innovative design of Avalon Waterways' revolutionary ‘Suite Ships’, I’m enjoying it all from the comfort and privacy of my spacious stateroom, coupled with invigorating fresh air, and the soothing sounds of the river.
Back in 2011, there was a significant buzz surrounding the launch of Avalon Panorama, the first of Avalon’s new breed of river cruisers. For one, the ship not only enjoyed a stylish contemporary decor worthy of a designer hotel, but it had also been purpose built with Australian travellers in mind, the company drawing on responses from its many Antipodean guests.
There was also, however, an appealing design twist focused on the ship’s Panorama Suites which proved to be an immediate hit. There are two decks of them on each ship, and at 18 square metres in size they are 30 per cent larger than the industry average, allowing for both sleeping and sitting areas.
The pioneering idea, which grabbed headlines, was the transformation of these suites into an open-air balcony, thanks to a three-metre wall of floor-to-ceiling sliding windows. They’re easy to operate and ideal for every season, offering cosy, sheltered panoramic views of the passing landscape when closed, and a spacious, alfresco balcony experience when opened, all without losing any precious living space.
Cruising on a Suite Ship you quickly realise that Avalon has an eye for fine detail. With Avalon Panorama’s suites, in a second bold move, it bucked another traditional river cruise ship design trend by turning the queen-sized bed to face the scenery rather than the wall.
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The result so far? More views on my terms, whether I’m kicking back in the privacy of my suite during a lazy afternoon of scenic cruising, or tucked up in bed at night winding down after a full-day tour exploring the alluring sights of Vienna. There’s another bonus too; this clever layout affords you a more spacious bathroom, complete with a lavish marble finish and a full-sized shower.
Cruising with Avalon isn’t just about high service standards and these unique suites, however. It’s a family owned business, part of the Globus group of companies, and has a slightly different ‘big picture’ view of its evolution. Its fleet is one of the youngest in Europe; rather than renovate, Avalon retires vessels when they reach six or seven years old, allowing for regular fleet renewal, and the subtle development of its style with each new launch.
Avalon ships also carry fewer passengers, with no more than 83 accommodations per vessel. So as a guest, I’ve enjoyed more onboard space, from my spacious suite to public areas such as the elegant Observation Lounge, where everyone mingles and savours the view over cocktails in an uncrowded, informal ambience.
Although each Suite Ship has subtle differences, the core of the Avalon experience is consistent across its fleet, from the fine dining and local seasonal flavours aimed to whet your appetite in The Restaurant, to the extra comforts such as fine Egyptian cotton bed linen and bespoke toiletries in your suite.
There’s also Avalon Choice, allowing you to tailor your cruising experience, which includes choosing from a range of included excursions and optional extra tours. It’s up to you, o do as much, or as little, as you wish. In Passau, for example, choices include a full-day tour to Salzburg, taking in some of The Sound of Music sights, venturing to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cesky Krumlov, in the Czech Republic, or just exploring the local environment on your own, and at your leisure.
Avalon Panorama’s debut year was a successful sellout and, since her launch, Avalon Waterways has introduced new Suite Ships each year. This includes the first deployed to France in 2015 and Belgium next year, making a total of 12 ships in an overall European fleet of 16.
Like many guests who return each year, there’s a combination of comfort and ease in knowing the experience will be consistent regardless of where I choose to cruise. And with her innovative design, wall-to-wall views, and contemporary hotel styling, exploring Europe on an Avalon Suite Ship is also undoubtedly one of the best ways to go.