The difference between a big ship cruise and a small ship cruise is the difference between boarding a train and boarding a plane. You just walk on a train, no going through layers of security, no arriving hours in advance because you don’t know how long the security lines will be, no taking off your shoes and opening your bag. Getting on a big cruise ship isn’t quite as bad as going to the airport, but it’s a big production. Not so with a 60-suite-and-stateroom river cruise ship like the Avalon Visionary. You walk on. You walk off. The biggest delay: waiting for the crew to put down the gangplank.
You wake up and you’re in a city. The Visionary’s floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows mean that you do have to think about what you’re wearing before you sweep open the curtains to admire the view, because you could find yourself right next to a sidewalk, or, in the case of some ports, looking right into another ship. But that’s the beauty of a river cruise. You’re on street level,not looking down from far above. You can walk into town for breakfast if you want. I went for a run every morning in a new city. The only morning I didn’t was because we left an hour earlier than planned. That’s not typical; I was part of a group of travel press and travel agents on what was essentially a practice run for a brand new itinerary the Visionary will sail next year.
Avalon has the itinerary all set, but they were finetuning it; we essentially packed an eight-day trip into four or five days. I was fine with that, I like covering territory.
Even though we were a relatively small group–roughly 40 of us–we had our choice of several different kinds of tours each day. Our guides loved their topics. One of my favorite moments was when my guide to Arnhem stood with me next to the Visionary, which was parked under the Arnhem Bridge. We had just returned from the museum devoted to Market Garden, the battle for that very bridge. She talked about General Montgomery and his arrogance in pushing through Market Garden and subsequent declaration that it was a 90 percent success. In fact, it was an utter disaster. Instead of swiftly bringing the war to an end, it was a battle that took a terrible human toll, prolonged the war, and helped cause a winter famine in the Netherlands known as the Hongerwinter. On top of all that, Montgomery was highly critical of the performance in Market Garden of the Polish general, the highly experienced Stanislaw Sosabowski. He had been the one general to dispute the prevailing assumption that the Allies would be fighting old men and school boys; instead they hit two highly experienced SS Panzer divisions. Polish troops under Sosabowski made three efforts to cross the Rhine to aid the embattled British 1st Airborne, but the boat the Polish soldiers had been using was sunk. Despite that 200 still made it across the Rhine to reinforce their British allies. My guide said with indignation that it wasn’t until a few years ago that Sosabowski’s was posthumously honored for his leadership. It was as though she had lived through it herself; you can’t beat that kind of intensity.
Avalon also offers you bikes, so you can pedal around the way the Dutch do. I didn’t do that on this trip, but I totally would on the next.
Then, there was the onboard experience itself. I had less of it than you would on an actual cruise, because of our accelerated schedule. And that is, in part, the nature of a river cruise because it is so destination centric. But what time I spent on board, I loved. The food was superb! Stunningly prepared, clearly with the freshest produce available (a cold berry soup was just unbelievable and I think part was the chef’s skill and part was that I know he used berries that had just been picked down the road some where).
We spent one morning crossing the Ijsselmeer, so I did get a taste on onboard life that morning. Avalon had wisely scheduled that part of the cruise for the morning after the ship’s christening, a major bash that involved lots of champagne, not one but two bands (it was a twin christening, one for the Visionary and one for the Vista), 15 minutes of fireworks, a few gatecrashers (who could blame them?) an unbelievable dinner and a spread of desserts that would have put even the most over-the-top bar mitzvah to shame.
The Visionary was a great place for just hanging out. You had your choice of lounges, a large one up front, a smaller one in the back (I really liked that one, there were games, a small library, a flat screen TV which usually showed scenes of the river as we passed by but could also be used for movies, and a killer coffee machine that I hit every morning after my run). I also loved the top deck, that’s where you got the most panoramic views (that’s also where the hot tub was, too).
My room looked straight out on the river, if you wanted, you could watch movies there, (A Bridge Too Far was available–Avalon offers movies that are about the destinations its ships sail through). But there’s no way I’d turn on the TV with the live panorama passing by me at eye level: heavily laden barges, pleasure boats,, rowing sculls, campers, fishermen and fields with grazing horses.