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Avalon Envision

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Avalon Envision marks the first new-generation ship for Avalon Waterways, with a shallower draft enabling it to sail in lower and higher water level conditions. Built in the Netherlands, Avalon Envision joins the line's 12 other Suite-class ships with unique features, such as roomy Panorama Suites, with floor-to-ceiling windows that open the length of the room and beds that face the window.

The ship, which will sail the Danube River, hardly ever feels crowded. Even at maximum capacity, there are seats for 166 people in the Panorama Lounge and on the Sky Deck. Avalon Envision does a wonderful job of providing elegant interiors with plenty of window-lined spaces to gather. Without the need to dress for meals, free-style dinner seating at any time during dinner service and three styles of excursions, the ship provides the kind of trip that casual travellers will enjoy.

When it comes to excursions, Avalon offers a range of options from low-intensity tours to dedicated Adventure & Discovery sailings that are geared toward active travellers. These include things like guided canoe and hiking trips and biking along the shore. New Adventure Hosts provide passengers with all the potential options for activity onboard, and they can help organize special requests. Paid choices include a pub crawl in Linz and an absinthe tasting in Vienna for those with the stamina. The cruise line offers an extensive range of pre- and post-tour options through its "Your Way" program because of its affiliation with Globus and its many travel brands, which means it's easier to create a wide variety of unique itineraries designed around your own interests.

Another thing that sets Avalon apart are some of its dining options. The line offers Flex Dining, which allows people to go for dinner at any time during set hours rather than all at once like many river cruise lines. Avalon also offers quite a few two-top tables so that couples feel comfortable dining, although they are often combined as the cruise itinerary progresses and people meet. Continental breakfast can be delivered to a stateroom each morning without charge.

There is no dress code aboard the ship. Even at dinner, jeans are allowed; jackets are not required. Still, many passengers may feel more comfortable among fellow peers dressing in business casual. It certainly is not required. In warmer weather, many travellers wear shorts on excursions, but if you tend to get chilly, pants or a light jacket are great to have. Theme nights are rare, and throughout the day, passengers are relaxed and comfortable in their attire.

Avalon Envision Inclusions

When you sail with Avalon Waterways, regional beer, wine and soft drinks are included with lunch and dinner, and Champagne is part of the breakfast buffet. Shore excursions, in three different styles, including active and discovery options, are included on a daily basis with plentiful entertainment and evening activities. These could include visits to local performances or inviting local performers aboard the ship.

Passengers can borrow free bikes from the Adventure Center or connect to the ship's Wi-Fi system without charge. Eco-friendly water bottles are provided at the beginning of the cruise. Cruisers can then refill them at water stations throughout the ship with options for still or sparkling plus vitamin-infused or flavoured choices. Gratuities and drinks outside of meal times are not included, however, and passengers can choose their own amount for tips.

The shipboard currency is the euro. If you need to perk up, head to any of the lounges for unlimited Lavazza coffee.

Avalon Waterways is unbundling its cruise fares so that people choose if they want to add on pre- or post-tours plus hotel stays. Previously, hotels before a sailing (when necessary) were included.

Each day, cultural lectures and evening entertainment tailored around the current port are available. Often, the cruise director will narrate passing sights as the ship is sailing.

Shore Excursions

Included in the price of the cruise, shore excursions come in different intensity and duration levels from a few hours to a full day in some instances. This allows a mix of both active and low-key tours while also giving travellers more to explore on their own should they wish. A few specialty excursions are available for an additional price.

Many tours involve coach rides to various locations. The cruise director can advise travellers on concerns over mobility or stamina issues for each tour. All shore excursions, including the optional ones with an additional charge, can be booked in advance via the MyAvalon online booking tool. This is especially helpful for the most popular shore excursions that can book up quickly.

Daytime and Evening Entertainment

A pianist performs each evening, and on occasion, local entertainers board the ship.

Enrichment

Depending upon the destination, lectures and discussions about the local culture and history are often given in the Panorama Lounge.

Avalon Envision Bars and Lounges

Panorama Lounge (Deck 3): The Panorama Lounge bar is the focal point of social activity. It is open all day and remains open until the last passenger leaves in the evening. Cruisers can charge drinks to their room tab.

A small bar by the whirlpool on the Panorama Deck is sometimes available. Each evening, it is abuzz with activity, especially since Avalon introduced a line of cocktails crafted by the talented bartenders from London's Savoy Hotel. There's the Rusty Nail, a smoky-sweet concoction of Drambuie and whiskey, and Rollin' on the River, which takes its inspiration from the fruity favourite "Sex on the Beach." Like the tour options, the cocktail menu is cleverly divided into active and discovery options.

Avalon Envision Outside Recreation

In a split-level configuration, the Panorama Deck on the top of the ship has seating for every passenger on the ship (166 lounge chairs that can recline). A shaded section is popular while the ship is sailing, and the whirlpool is a great spot from which to watch the scenery. A large-scale chess and backgammon game area is in the aft section, and there is a small putting green.

Avalon Envision Services

Reception is staffed 24 hours a day, and the new Adventure Host station provides passengers access to active excursions, fitness classes and bicycles during the sailing. The Club Lounge at the back of the ship provides cookies and doughnuts, Lavazza coffee and flavoured water at any time. It is also a place where cruisers can relax with board games, a library of books and impressive views.

Wireless internet throughout the ship is free. It works well but is best when the ship is in port. When passing through locks, the signal can struggle. There are two internet stations for passengers to use, and reception is happy to print boarding passes or other documents upon request.

An lift makes all decks, except the top Panorama Deck, easily accessible. New security features include all doors being accessible only with the swipe of a key. Two new electronic kiosks in the reception area are used for scanning cruisers into and out of the ship. They also provide menu and itinerary information and are an important part of the ship's focus on reducing the use of paper. Over the past year, they have contributed to an 80 percent reduction in paper usage.

The entire ship is non-smoking, with the exception of a balcony in the aft of the ship. Avalon Envision has also done away with plastic straws, stirrers and lids.

A fitness centre with modern equipment is available at all hours. The Adventure Host program also offers fitness classes and free pedal bike rentals. The jogging track on the Panorama Deck is especially popular, but there are no spa treatments. Instead, the staff can recommend onshore spas.

There are plenty of options for every appetite on Avalon Envision. Vegetarian? Check. Gluten-free? Check. Meat-lover? Check. Just plain old picky eater? Check. There are many all-inclusive options where you can enjoy great food, which is often themed around the destination. Appetizers, main courses and desserts at dinner are varied, and there are always a few staple items, like Caesar salad or grilled chicken, available. At breakfast and lunch, buffets offer an impressive array of dishes with live cooking stations and separate bread and dessert stations.

The Avalon Fresh program, created in collaboration with a Viennese restaurant, offers a selection of healthier options on buffets and à la carte menus. A few unique touches in the restaurants include reading glasses for passengers to borrow and 60 percent more two-top tables for couples. Over the course of the cruise, these can be pushed together based upon demand for communal dining.

Panorama Restaurant (Deck 1): This is the main dining room and where cruisers enjoy all meals. The décor is modern and bright, and walls of window provide plenty of natural light. Designers took note that often when the ship is docked, one side of the restaurant has reduced views. They removed barriers in the centre of the dining room to assure that everyone can look outside when eating.

It is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner during set times with seating for 166 people. The new Flex Dining option at dinner allows cruisers to arrive at any time between 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. to begin their meal (many river cruises have passengers arriving at the same time for dinner).

The menu is quite varied, often focused on the destination through included wines that change daily and buffet items at breakfast and lunch. During the dinner service, the à la carte menu is different each day. Hungry diners can take an advance peek via the new AvalonGo travel app or electronic kiosks near the reception.

Service is incredibly personalized, and with open seating, there is plenty of opportunity to make new friends both with passengers and staff. Breakfast and lunch hours can sometimes change depending upon the day's itinerary so be sure to read the daily program.

Panorama Lounge (Deck 3): A light early-riser breakfast is served here each morning before the buffet downstairs opens. For dinner, a buffet is available for those that prefer a faster dining experience with open seating either indoors or on the sun deck. The tapas menu on other Avalon Waterways ships has been exchanged for a buffet that varies each evening.

Club Lounge (Deck 3): The aft club lounge is always open with all-day coffee, refreshments, doughnuts and cookies. It is usually unstaffed so simply help yourself.

Room Service: Included for all cabins, continental breakfast can be delivered each morning. The remainder of the day, room service items carry a modest surcharge.

All cabins have two twin beds that can either be separated or connected to make a seamless king with a topper mattress. Built-in mahogany desks feature a row of European power outlets and USB ports. Bedside power outlets are on one side, and within a year, USB ports will be added to both sides. One wall is covered with a mirror from side to side to expand the sense of space.

A mini-bar beneath the desk is well-stocked. Large closets hold a safe, robe and slippers. One of the more ingenious in-room features is the coffee table by the sofa and chairs. It is adjustable to three different heights so it can be used as a work or dining space; when lowered, it does not obstruct the exterior view if you're lying in bed.

Comfort Collection Beds are the brand standard with four levels of mattress firmness (very soft to very firm) that can be adjusted by the stateroom attendant. By the way, firm is the most popular. Egyptian cotton linens and four pillows add extra comfort.

Bathrooms are spacious with vanities that have several shelves and cabinets that store tissue boxes and hair dryers. Makeup mirrors are affixed to the walls. L'Occitane toiletries are a nice touch, and the cruise line is moving away from small plastic bottles to avoid excessive plastic use. New wall-mounted pump bottles are coming to all ships starting with Avalon Envision, although during our visit, this was still in the process. Couples love that there are two different towel colours to avoid confusion.

There are no connecting cabins, but adjacent cabins can often be arranged.

Standard: The standard category staterooms (cabins D and E) are located on the first floor and are 172 square feet -- among the larger entry-level cabins on the river. The only difference between D and E cabins is that E cabins are slightly further down the hall. Their horizontal windows are located at the eye level.

Panorama Suites: Nearly 80 percent of the ship's cabins, known as the 200-square-foot Panorama Suites, have beds angled toward windows, which is a standard on all 13 of the company's European "suite ships."

Speaking of windows, they are floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall. Instead of exterior balconies, these larger footprint cabins have extended the living space to the edge of the ship. The three-panelled windows slide completely open blurring the lines of outdoors and indoors. It makes cabins brighter, too, since balconies often shade some of the sunshine. The angled beds facing the windows also helps to expand the real estate in the bathroom, most notably in the showers.

Royal Suites: Two Royal Suites offer the most exclusive accommodations with an en-suite living room and a TV on a swivel so that it can be seen from the bed or the sofa. These suites enjoy similarly enormous windows that eschew exterior balconies for more living room space. When the glass doors are open; the effect is similar to having a balcony. The large bathroom features a separate enclosed toilet from the shower and vanity area for more privacy (especially if other passengers come by for a drink).

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