Why I Got On Board With River Cruising
Even as someone who spends a lot of her life thinking about getting away (occupational hazard if you vet travel deals for a living), I confess: I’d never seriously contemplated a river cruise. However amazing the itineraries, I couldn’t imagine they left much room for some of the other things I look for in a vacation—especially those tucked-away local treasures that require freedom to explore.
But when one cruise caught my eye—and I couldn’t seem to look away—I decided the time had come to check my skepticism at the dock and spend a week on the Danube. (Yes, I know. Cry me an actual river.)
The vessel? Avalon Artistry II. And as anyone who’s ever traveled on it—or any of Avalon Waterways’ award-winning ships—might guess, it had me at hello. Or guten tag, as the case may be in Nuremburg, where I set off.
Read on to learn how wrong my preconceived notions were—and how right river cruising turns out to be for a huge array of travelers (present company included).
The crowd was the perfect mix
If I’m being honest, another reason I’d never imagined river cruises to be quite my scene was the—how to put it?—generationally homogenous passenger set I had pictured…right up until I boarded Artistry II and found everyone from mother-daughter duos to honeymooners to girlfriend groups.
And getting to know people happened totally organically, given the small group size (around 100 people total) and endless opportunities to mingle. Over cocktail receptions, excursions and meals (when you could sit on your own, but the group tables always seemed more fun), we shared pictures, travel stories and our favorite recommendations around the world.
I wound up making friends with everyone from cruise junkies to people who were all toured out from other kinds of guided trips and wanted to try something new.
This was no average field trip
I’d envisioned river cruising to be, basically, one extended field trip, complete with follow-the-leader programming, designated times for everything—and little freedom to wander off. My experience was anything but that. In fact, I quickly realized that my cruise was exactly what I wanted to make of it.
Avalon offers three categories of excursions: classic, active and discovery — think guided tours of historic sites, mellow hikes through scenic terrain and immersive local experiences, respectively. People who like to plan could map out their days before boarding the ship, while more spontaneous travelers (yours truly), could make decisions last minute (up to the morning of an excursion).
And I don’t know why this hadn’t occurred to me before I boarded, but there’s always the option to skip the day’s included activities entirely and explore independently—or just take advantage of the considerable amenities on the ship (yoga, afternoon tea, board games and lounging on the Sky Deck, just for starters).
So whatever we imagined our own best version of vacation to look like, each guest experienced it.
You can get off the beaten path
For me, a trip isn’t complete until I’ve set out on my own and mixed it up with the locals. And Avalon’s Adventure Host—yes, that’s an actual job title, and a brilliant invention—was my key to doing exactly that.
There was the time I spotted a seemingly untouristed riverfront path in Vienna and had the sudden urge to explore. Milen, our Adventure Host, hooked me up with one of the ship’s bikes (plus his considerable local knowledge), and within minutes, I was cycling along a beautifully forested trail, not a tourist in sight—though the occasional swan did block my way.
Another standout was the time we were in Budapest, and Milen led me on a hike that showcased—to Insta-perfection, I’ll admit—both the hilly Buda side of the river and the flat terrain of Pest. The famously bustling city seemed surreally hushed, and I knew I was experiencing a magical side of it from our hilltop vantage point.
Once again: preconceived notions shattered.
Even with the amazing surroundings, I had to force myself to leave my suite
Spanning the full width and height of my suite, the sliding glass doors I found in place of an external wall made me feel like I was staying in an extension of the river. Each morning I woke up with views—from bed—that I could get only from the water. Picture kids playing in the riverfront yards of pastel homes that have been passed down through generations of Danube dwellers. Or gardeners tending to equally ancient castle and church grounds. We’ve all heard of “Europe Through the Back Door,” but this was Europe through the back dock…and I was hooked.
Of course, my suite was hardly unusual for Avalon. The line is famous for its innovative and spacious quarters, which were awarded Cruise Critic’s Best River Cruise Line Cabins title last year. At 200 square feet, the Panorama Suite (the kind I stayed in) is at least 30% larger than the industry standard. And there’s not a bad room on board, either: Avalon’s entire fleet consists of “Suite Ships,” meaning nearly every cabin is a suite.
The cruise was a foodie’s fantasy
Here’s another misconception I went in with: Traveling by ship meant forfeiting a lot of local flavor. But in almost every town we passed through, the chefs would disembark in search of seasonal produce, fresh specialty breads and other local market finds. The resulting meals, which ranged from Bavarian Sweet Mustard soup to Hungarian Chicken Paprikash, were so good, I got the recipes to take home with me.
Other amazing foodie experiences were arranged for us on board, too. In Austria, for example, a culinary expert named Bianca hosted a cookie tasting, hand-delivering the goods from a bakery in her small town. After setting out plates of eight options apiece—everything from powdered almond vanillekipferl to cocoa-covered schokobusserl—she encouraged us to take in the intricacies of each handmade treat. We then closed our eyes to heighten our senses of taste and smell, and giggled as we guessed at a succession of ingredients.
In Bavaria, the onboard beer tasting was a huge hit, complete with lederhosen-clad hosts who were, well, fonts of local beer knowledge. One takeaway: If you try nothing else there, make it the Gutmann Hefeweizen, aka “Bavaria in a bottle.” (And a side note for dedicated brewophiles: Avalon runs entire beer-centric cruises through Europe, where you'll visit historic breweries, attend onboard beer lectures, workshops and tastings—and feast at an expert-led, brew-paired dinner.)
The culinary journey continued on land as well. As guides oriented us to each city we visited, they made sure to include the best local foodie finds. After a group walk past Salzburg’s Fürst chocolate shop, for example, I may have snuck back for the famed house Mozartkugel (marzipan and pistachio surrounded by nougat and dark chocolate).
I got bonus vacation time
Instead of traveling for hours on buses between cities or worrying about missing a train—as is my way—I enjoyed extra sleep, onboard workout classes and happy hour with friends. Better still, despite the fact that I visited no fewer than seven cities, I unpacked and repacked a grand total of once.
In fact, all the logistics were incredibly easy, mostly because Avalon handled everything from flights to airport transfers to meals and sightseeing. When I say I did not have to lift a finger except to pop another Mozartkugel into my mouth, I’m not exaggerating.
Ready to test the waters yourself?
They don’t require a limitless supply of free time. Or even a week. Among the 50 or so itineraries on offer, there’s a selection of 4-6 day Short and "Suite" getaways that are perfect for anyone who’s tight on time—or newbies who are river cruise-curious.
If you do have the time and inclination, you can tack stellar land-based extensions onto your cruise. Many of my fellow travelers spent two guided days in Prague prior to our cruise—an option I wished I’d added after hearing the stories.
Through mid-April, Avalon Waterways is offering cruises with a range of perks from complimentary airfare to $2500 off per couple to free extensions on select 2020 Danube cruises. Put otherwise: There’s no better time to discover the world through its rivers.