Avalon launches latest Suite Ship Envision in Budapest
The new vessel is aimed at younger, more active cruisers, and its sleek design, healthy menu and activity programmes have great appeal, says Sue Bryant
Avalon Waterways has launched its 13th Suite Ship, the 166-passenger Avalon Envision.
The new vessel was named amid great celebration in Budapest last month. The ship’s godmother Elizabeth Gilbert – the acclaimed author of post-divorce travel memoir Eat Pray Love – smashed a bottle of Törley Hungarian sparkling wine over the ship’s bow and fireworks fizzed across the sky.
Avalon has enjoyed great success with its Suite Ships, the first of which was introduced in 2011. The big selling point of these vessels are the Panorama Suites, which make up 80 per cent of the accommodation on board. They’re a generous 19 square metres, with a unique design, pioneered by Avalon, that allows the bed to face a whole wall of glass, which slides sideways to create a two-metre-wide open balcony. The décor is attractive, too; pale gold with dark grey cabinets and splashes of rich purple. These are cabins you really want to spend time in.
All sorts of clever touches are thrown in. The bathroom towels are colour-coded, so you don’t get yours mixed up with your partner’s. There’s a choice of mattress toppers, too, so clients can choose how squishy, or hard, they want the bed. In a bid to scrap single-use plastic, Avalon is planning to ditch the small bottles of L’Occitane bath goodies and replace them with bigger dispensers, as well as adding water stations around the ship and providing passengers with refillable flasks.
Beyond the suites, there’s a lot about Avalon Envision that should appeal to a younger, more active cruiser, not least the Avalon Choice range of included excursions. These are labelled Classic; Active – hiking, kayaking or cycling; and Discovery, which includes wine tastings and cookery classes. I opted for a cycling tour round Budapest, a wonderful hike up to the 13th century Visegrád Castle, and a pub crawl of the hip, grungy ruin bars in Budapest. There are also a number of activities available on board, taking in everything from Zumba classes to yoga, as well as a fleet of bicycles.
“This whole Avalon Choice programme is about attracting to some extent younger guests,” says managing director Pam Hoffee. “It’s also fulfilling the desires of people to whom age is just a number. The ‘Active’ excursions came out of some trials. We found a nice hike in Bamberg, offered it as a tour and then discovered that half the guests on board had joined the hike rather than just doing a walking tour of the village.
“A further evolution is we have specific departures that are even more appealing to our younger cruisers, our ‘Active’ and ‘Discovery’ cruises. These have a different structure; more nights in port, and different activities, like a pub crawl when we’re in Linz.”
The average age on the Active and Discovery cruises, however, is still 62 and up to six years older on the regular voyages. Yet, the whole vibe on Envision feels fresh and contemporary. There’s choice all the way. When the weather’s fine, the Sky Grill on the top deck is opened for lunch. There’s informal dining in the Panorama Lounge, which resembles a smart boutique hotel, done out in greys, creams and golds, with splashes of yellow and big pots of orchids.
The dining room, too, is all about freedom. Gone is the idea that everybody should have dinner together at 7pm; passengers can turn up any time before 8.30. Best of all, more than 60 per cent of the tables are for two, so no more needless stress about sharing a table with strangers.
The food is outstanding, thanks to a partnership with the Wrenkh brothers, two celebrity Austrian chefs who run an almost entirely vegetarian restaurant and cookery school in Vienna. The onboard menus blend healthy, vegetarian dishes – including a fantastic salad bar at lunch,
and fruit juices bought from local farmers along the river – with local specialities and elegantly presented international options. Decent European wines are poured generously with meals, although bar drinks cost extra.
Less visible modifications to this new ship could make all the difference if this summer turns out to be as dry as last year, when low water meant a lot of ships simply couldn’t sail. In a first for Avalon, Envision has special ballast tanks that allow it to sit higher in the water and navigate the shallower stretches.
New, too, is a more deconstructed approach, ‘Avalon YourWay’, with cruise-only pricing starting in 2020. “Our product was traditionally sold as a package,” explains Hoffee. “Now, it’s becoming more flexible – a client can choose pieces of the cruise without the pre and post hotels, or air, to allow the agent to customise it more. We realise that clients don’t necessarily want a package the way the operator has put it together.”
British passengers are still a small percentage of Avalon’s client base – less than five per cent, while Australians make up 20 per cent and North Americans most of the rest. Hoffee wants this to change. “We have doubled the size of our UK sales team,” she says. “We’re doing a few fam trips this year, too. We want the trade feel confident in selling Avalon.”
As they should: for active, more independent river cruise customers, Avalon Envision ticks every box.