The Avalon View—Avalon Waterways’ newest river cruise ship—will set sail on the Danube this coming April. The christening of the line’s fourteenth “Suite Ship” in Europe had originally been scheduled to take place two years ago (April 2020) until the pandemic put most travel on pause.
But with more travelers having been vaccinated and infection rates predicted to drop in the spring, the river cruise industry seems poised for a comeback.
Like the other ships in the Avalon fleet, the Avalon View features two full decks of 200-square-foot Panorama Suites, all with open-air balconies. A sister ship to the Avalon Vision, the new ship is the first to feature all-glass railings.
Forbes.com spoke to Pam Hoffee, managing director of Avalon Waterways to find out what travelers can expect from the river cruise line during the coming season:
Avalon Waterways has reported operating 100 river cruises since July 2021 without a single case of COVID infection. What health and safety precautions did the line put in place to make these voyages as safe as possible?
Pam Hoffee: The world has changed but what remains certain is Avalon Waterways’ steadfast commitment to guest safety, comfort, and peace of mind. We’re incredibly proud of our health and safety record.
Very early in the pandemic, we developed and unveiled our Avalon Assurance program, with help from our Global Health & Safety team. It features seven major categories and protocols that span across guest experience touch-points – all of which have been reviewed and renewed, based on ever-changing recommendations.
We were also one of the very first cruise lines, worldwide, to require all guests and crew to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. We have extended that requirement through 2022.
Why are river cruises such a convenient way to travel and see Europe up close?
PH: River cruisers know it’s possible to cruise without a crowd, explore new destinations with ease and sail in an intimate setting. But that’s not all.
On a river cruise, legendary landmarks and landscapes are always in view. We make our splash at intriguing ports of call where we lead travelers down the paths less traveled to the sights more revered – all without the wait. On an Avalon cruise, dock to discovery takes mere minutes.
The size of river ships has always been appealing, especially now. What is the passenger capacity of the Avalon View and the other ships in your fleet?
PH: Size matters – more than ever. Our river cruise vessels are built to slowly ply the world’s weaving and meandering rivers, to port in storybook settings, sail under centuries’ old bridges, and squeeze between 12-meter-wide locks.
Avalon Waterways’ floating “boatique” hotels hold an average of 150 guests, although some are much smaller. Our newest ship, The Avalon View, is 443-feet long and holds 166 guests in 67 suites and 16 deluxe Staterooms. We also have Suite Ships in our European fleet that feature 52 suites and 12 deluxe staterooms holding 128 guests.
Two full decks of every Avalon Waterways ship feature Panorama Suites, providing our guests the space they crave on their cruise. Our Suite Ships on the Mekong River have just 18 rooms – all Panorama Suites – accommodating just 36 cruisers.
What are some of the most popular European river cruise itineraries with your passengers?
PH: For first-time river cruisers, the most popular itineraries are those that cover some of the most iconic waterways – and destinations – in Europe. The Romantic Rhine and Legendary Danube are favorites among cruisers for different reasons. The cliffside, castle-lined Rhine River weaves together a tapestry of history and culture, not to mention countless UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Danube, by contrast, flows through or along the borders of 10 countries and features the vineyard-clad Wachau Valley as well as storybook small villages and spectacular capital cities like Vienna and Budapest.
For travelers looking for more immersive, off-the-beaten-path exploration, Active & Discovery on the Rhone is one of my all-time favorite itineraries. Flowing from the Swiss Alps to the Mediterranean Sea, the Rhône River winds its way through the beautiful landscapes that inspired Van Gogh, and this special itinerary features 28 excursion choices.
River cruises are excursion-extensive with much of a passenger’s time spent off the vessel. Given changing border restrictions in Europe, has the line had to modify itineraries since the pandemic?
PH: The short answer is that we were able to operate nearly every planned excursion in Europe in 2021. We did have a few last-minute border closures that required us to alter itineraries. In those very rare cases, we ensured the integrity of the itinerary was intact before operating so our guests could enjoy the vacation they chose, with just minor alterations.
Travelers are more eager than ever to spend as much time as possible outdoors. How will the ship and stateroom configuration of the Avalon View appeal to these travelers?
PH: There’s only one point-of-view on an Avalon Waterways river cruise – the suite view. Our entire fleet in Europe and Southeast Asia is completely comprised of Suite Ships, each featuring our signature Panorama Suites with the widest-opening windows in river cruising, the industry’s only Open-Air Balcony, and an inviting bed facing the ever-changing scenery on two full decks of every ship.
Living up to its name, the new Avalon View also features clear-view glass panels on each balcony – replacing exterior railings – for unobstructed views. Even seasoned travelers have never seen – or experienced – the world like this.
Our open-air balconies were designed with our guests’ views in mind. The Panorama Suites have wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling windows opening 7-feet wide in Europe and 11-feet wide in Southeast Asia. The balconies blur the line between outside and in while forming a comfortable and spacious seating area for six, simultaneously creating an open invitation to discover and dream. Perhaps most important, these oversized balconies don’t sacrifice room space.
Public spaces also provide guests room to move and experience views galore. And, Avalon’s Suite Ship Sky Decks run the length and width of each vessel (approximately 20 meters longer and 2 meters wider than a football field) with wide-open spaces, fresh air, and lounge chairs aplenty.
Always within a few feet of shore, our Suite Ships offer travelers easy access to enjoy outdoor experiences – from guided excursions to on-your-own-exploration – day and night.
What opportunities does the line provide for more active travelers?
PH: On our luxury ships, every guest is the captain of his/her experience. We call it “whim-powered” cruising. Not only have we redefined the cruising experience, but we’ve also redefined all-inclusive.
We have unveiled an entire series of cruises – across all the major waterways of Europe – called “Active & Discovery” itineraries. On these cruises, travelers enjoy a curated collection of the most intriguing experiences to immerse themselves in – as many as 28 of them.
“Active” can mean different things to different cruisers. On these itineraries, Avalon guests can stir-up a dish passed down through generations or mix-up paints on a palate; warm up with a guided sightseeing walk or chill out in a cave wine tasting; wander the halls of history or step-through the ancient castle ruins; paddle on a kayak through spectacular scenery or pedal an e-bike around scenic cityscapes.
We also provide access to an Adventure Host on every cruise who arranges onboard exercise classes, guided hikes, bicycle excursions and can also help our guests check-out complimentary Nordic walking sticks, bikes, and e-bikes for on-their-own exploration.
Have you planned any special themed cruises to woo travelers back to the rivers?
PH: Our 2022 cruise line-up is exciting, including several “exclusive” sailings for Avalon guests.
We have unveiled a new Storyteller Series of cruises featuring award-winning authors and chart-topping musicians as hosts for a boatful of fans. Celebrity hosts for 2022 include Cheryl Strayed, Gillian Flynn, Candace Bushnell, Christopher Moore, Edwin McCain, and Sister Hazel.
On these special sailings, guests will take part in several, specially planned activities onboard and will be able to interact with their favorite storyteller one-on-one at dinners, during happy hours, and on excursions.
For travelers looking for another excuse to try river cruising in 2022, we’ve got two. Next year, for six months, the Netherlands will bloom brighter, and a Bavarian village’s faith will be restored thanks to once-in-a-decade experiences: The Floriade and Oberammergau’s Passion Play. While these special events only happen every 10 years, for the first time, 2022 will see both play out across Europe. We offer special departures featuring these “special events” throughout the year.
Are there opportunities for solo travelers?
PH: River cruising is one of the best ways to travel when going solo. You’re setting sail with a small group of like-minded travelers and enjoying excursions with people who share your passions. In fact, ten percent of Avalon Waterways’ guests are solo travelers. To cater to solo travelers, we waive the single supplement on every Europe departure for a select number of staterooms as well as select sailings on the Mekong in Southeast Asia.
Have booking/cancellation policies been modified to strengthen consumer confidence during uncertain times?
PH: Avalon Waterways understands that our value and our service are measured by what we do when things go wrong even more than when everything runs as planned. Within the first few weeks of the pandemic, we created and unveiled a Peace of Mind Travel Plan to ensure want-to-be travelers the opportunity to move their plans to a later date, a different location, or even an alternate brand and travel style easily, risk-free and without penalty.
Note: This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.