Last year I was lucky enough to experience firsthand the wonders of river cruising.
My 8 night Austrian Highlights and Bavaria Tour began with a 3 night stay in Munich before joining our ship, 'The Avalon Vista', in Passau and cruising down the Danube to Vienna.
Travelling with some of my Wanaka team, we arrived in Munich a bit stressed out and tired after getting delayed for several hours in Dubai, but our friendly Avalon representative was still ready and waiting to transfer us straight to the hotel! :)
Three days in Munich
That evening, the group met for a welcome drink and introduction to our fantastic tour director for the week, Sabine, who was born and bred in Vienna. Drinks were followed by dinner and as it was 'own arrangements', we chose a traditional German meal of beer, pretzels and schnitzel in the biergarten attached to our hotel.
The weather was on our side after snow at Easter weekend, and we were treated to glorious sunshine whilst we explored the capital of Bavaria, Munich. It's a beautiful city with lots of trees and gardens, traditional markets and a bike friendly atmosphere. Our days were made up of a mixture that included guided sightseeing, free time and optional excursions - highlights included a trip to Dachau concentration camp - a sombre but very moving experience, a visit to King Ludwig's Neuschwanstein Castle - the inspiration for Walt Disney's Disneyland castle, and a trip to Oberammergau - a small town with typical Bavarian houses & painted scenes from fairly tales, but most famous for the Passion Play performed here every ten years.
The next morning we headed for the hills - as in "the hills are alive with the sound of music"! As part of an optional excursion we visited Salzburg (the birthplace of Mozart and & home to "The Sound of Music") and enjoyed a walking tour with local guide and free time before heading to Passau to embark on our cruise.
We were most excited to arrive and unpack in our home for the next 5 nights aboard "Avalon Vista". Built in 2012, it's a suite ship and we were staying in a spacious panorama suite. What makes that so special? Only the wall to wall panoramic windows which can open up to transform the living area into a large open air balcony so that you can sit and watch the world go by! Pretty unbeatable! And even with twin beds, the cabin size was definitely big enough. The ship takes 160 passengers and although we didn't have a full ship due to the time of year (April), there are several public areas where you can relax, read a book or just have some time out.
Over the next 5 nights, we sailed through Linz, Grein, Melk and Krems before arriving in our destination, Vienna or "The City of Music"
On most days, there was either a guided walk or some local sightseeing, plus an optional excursion. I'd recommend joining these as they were a great insight into the history of the area and we saw some amazing palaces, abbeys, museums and architectural styles from the different eras. A definite highlight for me was the optional excursion to Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO World heritage site.
TIP: Gratuities for the tour director and crew can be included when booking with your agent in New Zealand, but it's still expected that you tip the local guides in each area: 1-2 euros is usually sufficient depending on the length of the tour.
There's a mix of sailing during the day and overnight, so you get the best of both worlds - making the most of your time in ports and also sitting back and enjoying the beautiful countryside that goes by your window! We passed through a number of locks and the excitement of this interesting new experience was quite obvious for the first couple with most passengers out on deck, but towards the end it was just another normal occurrence aboard a river cruise!
Let's not forget the food!
As if we could forget the food as there was definitely no shortage of it. Each morning starts with a buffet breakfast as well as an a-la-carte dish of the day. Don't worry if you're up at the crack of dawn - a light early riser breakfast is on offer, and if you need a sleep in, there's also a late risers breakfast so all your bases are covered!
Lunch consists of a buffet option or a light lunch option in the lounge... and on one of our afternoons, the weather was just perfect for a BBQ lunch up on the skydeck - so that's what we had!
Dinner is mostly a-la-carte with 5 courses and at least 3 or 4 different choices each night, but if none of those took your fancy, there's also a few standard items on the menu available all the time. The menu is often based around food specialities from the region that the cruise is passing through, with beer, wine and soft drinks included with dinner. We also experienced the new Panorama Bistro, a casual atmosphere offering a variety of regional and tapas-style dishes, hand-paired with local wines - yum!
And if breakfast, lunch and dinner isn't enough - cappuccinos and cookies are available 24/7 in the lounge, there's coffee and cake every afternoon, plus late night snacks too!
Life on the river
Every day there's a port talk with your cruise director that includes a briefing on schedule for the next day, plus the nighttime brings music and dancing with the onboard musician! And occasionally they even bring local entertainers onboard for the evening too.
We had a really great mix of people on our cruise that included couples, extended families - grandparents, parents and kids, friends and a wide range of ages and nationalities.
I've sold plenty of river cruises in my time but I can honestly say that Avalon exceeded my expectations! River cruising is a fantastic way to explore some of the smaller towns and cities of Europe and is a comfortable, relaxing way to travel.
Now I just have to decide what cruise I'll do next?