The 90th birthday celebration river cruise
It’s not often I have a kind word to say about getting to, and through, any of our national airports but let’s hear it for Avalon Waterways home chauffer service and Gatwick North!
Collected at home by a charming driver who carried our cases to the car and unloaded them onto a trolley at the airport made for an extremely stress-free start to the holiday. My mother’s walking has recently deteriorated so she was worried about the journey. It was, however, the smoothest transit we have ever experienced. The service was outstanding on departure at Gatwick North and also on arrival back into Heathrow T5, where we were met by a driver and taken home. Clearly, Avalon Waterways have put a lot of thought into making the journey as relaxing as possible and our airports are now much more user-friendly for passengers, like Mum, who need assistance.
With Mum in a wheelchair we were whisked through passport control and security like celebrities, legitimately jumping the queues. With head held high I sashayed accordingly. I enjoyed the experience so much I’m thinking of taking Mum whenever I travel so I can benefit from the Special Assistance. Yes, definitely more departures like that please.
Throughout her life Mum has avoided anything on water so I was interested to see her first impressions of the ship. Not only was she a little worried about motion sickness but also concerned she might feel rather claustrophobic. After a thorough tour of Avalon Felicity, Mum was impressed by the spacious lounge, dining room, 24 hour coffee lounge, sun deck, the size of our stateroom (cabin) and the lovely decor. Although with only a few decks on board there was a small lift, a bonus for anyone who finds stairs a challenge.
I think Mum imagined bunk beds in a confined space, but was pleasantly surprised by the full-length balcony window, ample storage and the general comfort she proclaimed to be of a higher standard than many hotel rooms. As for the motion, she couldn’t feel anything other than a gentle, soothing, movement. Off to a good start we left Basel basking in sunshine on the sky deck.
After the mandatory safety drill all passengers remained in the lounge for a welcome drink and introductory talk by the Cruise Director, Tibor, who gave a short pre-dinner port talk each evening whilst guests sipped their Happy Hour drinks.
Between Basel and Strasbourg, our first stop, there are 9 locks – each one a spectacular feat of engineering – a few of which we passed through during dinner. As a light sleeper, I must admit to being woken up several times as the water gushed through the sluices with a gentle feeling, Lazarus-like, of rising from the bed! However, in spite of this we couldn’t hear a thing from any of our fellow travellers’ cabins throughout the journey, so good sound insulation. The extremely comfy beds and staterooms also made for a relaxing trip.
Our first night in the dining room did not disappoint. Avalon’s shared table policy is a great way to meet new people. Interestingly, during the week many guests gravitated to the same table every night but we made a point of sitting in a different place for most meals and, as a result, met a wide range of nationalities and interesting people. The majority of guests were from North America but also as far afield as Hong Kong and Australia, with a scattering from various places in the UK. Given the intimacy of river cruising by the end of the trip we had dined and chatted with most people – this was an extremely friendly cruise.
It goes without saying that food is a major feature on any cruise. But it’s the quality, choice, presentation and service that set the standard and Avalon Waterways set a very high bar. There are a number of dining choices if you don’t want to go for the full meal option in the dining room. With an a la carte cooked menu for both breakfast and lunch there is also a large buffet with healthy salad options so you can eat as much or as little as you like. On most nights there was also an option for 20 guests to experience a different dining atmosphere in the lounge with a tasting menu of three small plates for each course and an assortment of wines. Delicious and intimate.
Whilst on board there was an opportunity for a galley tour with Minko, the Executive Chef who has worked on cruise ships for ten years. He outlined Avalon’s policy of buying fresh local foods in every port and the importance of silence in the kitchen! No Gordon Ramsey types in Minko’s kitchen then. With a staff of ten cooking an a la carte menu for up to 138, (plus staff), he stressed the importance of uninterrupted, quiet, concentration to ensure every guest’s food was cooked and delivered piping hot to each table at the same time. This they consistently managed, with more aplomb than many top-class restaurants, on every occasion.
I am always amazed at how many people refuse to go on a cruise because they worry about weight gain. Trust me, by exercising a little will power and with a walking tour in each destination you can easily burn off any extra calories. I probably overdid it at the start of the cruise but two days in I skipped breakfast, did 45 minutes on the walking machine and had a salad lunch, which left room for afternoon tea in the lounge to the backdrop of relaxing piano music. So rest assured, cruising doesn’t have to equal weight gain – well, not much!
The average guest age was 60 plus, with a few oldies and youngsters in their early 40s. Like us, quite a few guests had chosen their trip to celebrate a special occasion and Avalon Waterways definitely pull out all the stops to mark each event with birthday cakes, balloons, champagne etc. I overheard one guest chiding her husband for arranging the birthday cake, only to be told he hadn’t. No doubt the mandatory passport checks on embarkation alerted the purser who planned cakes accordingly!
The Romantic Rhine cruise is one of Avalon’s most popular cruises and I can see why. With so many interesting destinations and wonderful scenery, included and optional extra excursions, there is plenty to see and experience. All the destinations include walking tours including a ‘slow walkers’ group, which is the one I joined with Mum along with other guests who were not quite as agile as they once were. Without exception, the local guides were all excellent and with the addition of the wireless guiding system and a personal earpiece it was easy to listen to the guide comfortably. The anecdotes and historical facts brought everything to life and gave a real insight into every destination that you would miss sightseeing on your own. Plus, there was always additional free time to wander at your leisure – a perfect balance.
Entertainment provided by the ship’s in-house musician, during afternoon tea was relaxing and after supper was upbeat enough to strut our stuff on the dance-floor – hardly Strictly Come Dancing but we enjoyed it! Additionally, when the ship was docked overnight we also enjoyed performances by local artists. Towards the end of the week there was a Crew Talent Show, which could have been tacky and disastrous but was, actually, extremely good. Which made me wonder if the crew also have to sing or dance before they are given a position with Avalon.
The capacity of the Felicity is 138. There were 124 guests on our cruise and with quite a few single guests most staterooms (cabins) were occupied. However, even with a near full capacity there was always ample space in the dining room and lounges, so the ship never felt cramped in any way.
Whilst on board I heard only praise and positive comments, including seasoned river and ocean cruise passengers who were comparing Avalon’s service against other companies. Certainly on this basis I suspect there will a large percentage of repeat passengers from the Felicity clamouring to book another cruise.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Avalon Waterways
- Part 1 – Chrissy prepares for a 90th birthday treat
- Part 3 – Strasbourg to Koblenz highlights
- Part 4 – Cologne & Amsterdam highlights