Intrepid Asians try Avalon's eastern journeys

On this river cruise from Bucharest to Budapest, passengers delve into a fascinating part of Europe, writes Kristie Kellahan


“We’re here for the bragging rights,” says a 40-something frequent cruiser from Hong Kong. I’m chatting with him up on the sun deck of the Avalon Illumination, as we set off on the first day of Avalon Waterways’ voyage from Bucharest to Budapest. His brother and parents have joined him, travelling from mainland China to Europe for the family’s bi-annual cruise holiday.

Having sipped their way through Bordeaux and enjoyed the gems of the Rhine - twice -, the enthusiastic river cruisers wanted to go where none of their friends had gone before. Eastern Europe had an adventurous ring to it, a region with fascinating monuments and a modern history narrative that’s capturing the attention of the been-there, done-that crowd.

I hear the same intrepid sentiment from four retired couples from Mumbai. The husbands play golf together and decided, one day between backswings, that this cruise would give all of them the opportunity to explore four countries they’d never visited.

Those countries - Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary - offer visitors an intriguing mix of post-Communist culture, untouched nature and monuments that capture the imagination. In Bucharest, we gawk at the gargantuan Palace of the Parliament; built by former Communist leader Nicolae Ceaucescu at an estimated cost of three billion Euros, it’s thought to be the heaviest and most expensive building in the world. By the time we reach Budapest, we’re happy to feast our eyes on the beauty of the city’s Belle Époque opera house and cafes.

Cruising on Avalon Illumination, one of Avalon Waterways’ Suite Ships, there’s always the temptation to hole up in the cabin and watch the scenery float by. Avalon has been savvy in creating accommodations unlike other European river cruise vessels, with beds that face the view and wall-to-wall sliding glass doors that fully open to turn the entire cabin into an open-air balcony.

“The genius decision to position beds to face the view, rather than the wall, puts all the focus on the passing scenery.”

After realising that river cruisers want balconies - or at least they think they do - but they don’t like to give up the interior space that a balcony demands, Avalon had to get smart about design. With ocean ships, it's not such a big deal to add balconies to exterior cabins, and rarely affects where the ship can go. River ships are a different proposition, as the width of the ship determines which river locks it can travel through, and therefore the destinations it can visit. With some locks just 38 feet wide, there's not a centimetre to spare. An added balcony means significant space must be taken from the cabin interior.

The clever design of Avalon's Panorama Suites gives cruisers the option of turning their entire cabin into an open-air balcony by opening wide the glass doors. It also gives them the option not to do that - remember, the weather in Europe during shoulder season is often chilly, and summer can bring pesky flying bugs. With glass doors closed, the Suites measure a spacious 200 square feet - that’s at least 15 per cent larger than many river ship cabins. Big enough for a queen bed, a table and chairs, plenty of closet space and a roomy marble bathroom. It’s no surprise the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.

The genius decision to position beds to face the view, rather than the wall, puts all the focus on the passing scenery. And what captivating scenery it can be on this eastern stretch of the Danube, where the river flows into the mouth of the Black Sea.

The crew is recruited mostly from the countries we visit, and they add local insights to our daily excursions as they share stories of growing up in Bulgaria and learning to live on rationed food in Romania. While the service is not the same gentle, cheerful attention we have come to expect from Asian cruise staff, there’s a valuable learning experience in hearing these stories. Cruise director Andrzej Sanakiewicz, a delightful Polish man who now lives in Vienna, has us spellbound when he recounts the night he escaped forever from behind the Iron Curtain.

On the day we go exploring the vibrant city of Belgrade, Serbian Executive Chef Djordje makes the most of the opportunity to visit his family. The kids declare they want to live on the ship and eat Daddy’s food every day. Who could blame them? Passengers are treated to delicious local fare that includes potato pancakes doused in sour cream and caviar from the well-stocked breakfast buffet. The lunchtime selection covers the gamut of tastes from Asian stir-fries to sandwiches and hearty goulashes.

At night, we dine on Chef Djordje’s three-course feasts in the restaurant (one seating for 166 passengers, no table reservations), choosing from lobster, filet mignon, curries, grilled fish and more. On several nights of the cruise, a second option is offered for those passengers who feel like enjoying a more casual dinner experience. Tapas-sized portions of the dishes from that night’s restaurant menu are laid out on a buffet table in the Panorama Lounge, appealling to all of us who like a little bit of everything.

THE VERDICT

HIGHS: Exploring parts of Europe that most river cruise passengers have not yet visited. That means locals who are happy (and curious) to see you, uncrowded attractions and lower prices on everything from beers to Babushka dolls.
LOWS: Some of the port facilities have been pieced together in a hurry, with many expenses spared. Not surprising, when you consider some of the towns receive only one ship visit a week during cruising season. As a result, elderly passengers or those with limited mobility might be challenged by steep ramps and longer-than-average walks from the ship to the buses.
WHO SHOULD GO: Seasoned Europe river cruise passengers, with a thirst for new experiences, will find much to love in this itinerary. When you’ve eaten your way from Avignon to Lyon, and visited all the gems between Amsterdam and Budapest, turn your sights to this emerging cruise region.
BOOK IT NOW: The Danube From Black Sea to Budapest cruise departs Bucharest on Avalon Waterways Suite Ships. The 11-day voyage visits four countries: Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary. There are 12 guaranteed departures between May and October 2020. For more information see avalonwaterways.com.au.

Intrepid Asians try Avalon's eastern journeys

On this river cruise from Bucharest to Budapest, passengers delve into a fascinating part of Europe writes Kristie Kellahan.


“We’re here for the bragging rights,” says a 40-something frequent cruiser from Hong Kong. I’m chatting with him up on the sun deck of the Avalon Illumination, as we set off on the first day of Avalon Waterways’ voyage from Bucharest to Budapest. His brother and parents have joined him, travelling from mainland China to Europe for the family’s bi-annual cruise holiday.

Having sipped their way through Bordeaux and enjoyed the gems of the Rhine - twice -, the enthusiastic river cruisers wanted to go where none of their friends had gone before. Eastern Europe had an adventurous ring to it, a region with fascinating monuments and a modern history narrative that’s capturing the attention of the been-there, done-that crowd.

I hear the same intrepid sentiment from four retired couples from Mumbai. The husbands play golf together and decided, one day between backswings, that this cruise would give all of them the opportunity to explore four countries they’d never visited.

Those countries - Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary - offer visitors an intriguing mix of post-Communist culture, untouched nature and monuments that capture the imagination. In Bucharest, we gawk at the gargantuan Palace of the Parliament; built by former Communist leader Nicolae Ceaucescu at an estimated cost of three billion Euros, it’s thought to be the heaviest and most expensive building in the world. By the time we reach Budapest, we’re happy to feast our eyes on the beauty of the city’s Belle Époque opera house and cafes.


Cruising on Avalon Illumination, one of Avalon Waterways’ Suite Ships, there’s always the temptation to hole up in the cabin and watch the scenery float by. Avalon has been savvy in creating accommodations unlike other European river cruise vessels, with beds that face the view and wall-to-wall sliding glass doors that fully open to turn the entire cabin into an open-air balcony.

After realising that river cruisers want balconies - or at least they think they do - but they don’t like to give up the interior space that a balcony demands, Avalon had to get smart about design. With ocean ships, it's not such a big deal to add balconies to exterior cabins, and rarely affects where the ship can go. River ships are a different proposition, as the width of the ship determines which river locks it can travel through, and therefore the destinations it can visit. With some locks just 38 feet wide, there's not a centimetre to spare. An added balcony means significant space must be taken from the cabin interior.


The clever design of Avalon's Panorama Suites gives cruisers the option of turning their entire cabin into an open-air balcony by opening wide the glass doors. It also gives them the option not to do that - remember, the weather in Europe during shoulder season is often chilly, and summer can bring pesky flying bugs. With glass doors closed, the Suites measure a spacious 200 square feet - that’s at least 15 per cent larger than many river ship cabins. Big enough for a queen bed, a table and chairs, plenty of closet space and a roomy marble bathroom. It’s no surprise the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.

The genius decision to position beds to face the view, rather than the wall, puts all the focus on the passing scenery. And what captivating scenery it can be on this eastern stretch of the Danube, where the river flows into the mouth of the Black Sea.

“The genius decision to position beds to face the view, rather than the wall, puts all the focus on the passing scenery.”

The crew is recruited mostly from the countries we visit, and they add local insights to our daily excursions as they share stories of growing up in Bulgaria and learning to live on rationed food in Romania. While the service is not the same gentle, cheerful attention we have come to expect from Asian cruise staff, there’s a valuable learning experience in hearing these stories. Cruise director Andrzej Sanakiewicz, a delightful Polish man who now lives in Vienna, has us spellbound when he recounts the night he escaped forever from behind the Iron Curtain.

On the day we go exploring the vibrant city of Belgrade, Serbian Executive Chef Djordje makes the most of the opportunity to visit his family. The kids declare they want to live on the ship and eat Daddy’s food every day. Who could blame them? Passengers are treated to delicious local fare that includes potato pancakes doused in sour cream and caviar from the well-stocked breakfast buffet. The lunchtime selection covers the gamut of tastes from Asian stir-fries to sandwiches and hearty goulashes.

At night, we dine on Chef Djordje’s three-course feasts in the restaurant (one seating for 166 passengers, no table reservations), choosing from lobster, filet mignon, curries, grilled fish and more. On several nights of the cruise, a second option is offered for those passengers who feel like enjoying a more casual dinner experience. Tapas-sized portions of the dishes from that night’s restaurant menu are laid out on a buffet table in the Panorama Lounge, appealling to all of us who like a little bit of everything.

THE VERDICT

HIGHS: Exploring parts of Europe that most river cruise passengers have not yet visited. That means locals who are happy (and curious) to see you, uncrowded attractions and lower prices on everything from beers to Babushka dolls.
LOWS: Some of the port facilities have been pieced together in a hurry, with many expenses spared. Not surprising, when you consider some of the towns receive only one ship visit a week during cruising season. As a result, elderly passengers or those with limited mobility might be challenged by steep ramps and longer-than-average walks from the ship to the buses.
WHO SHOULD GO: Seasoned Europe river cruise passengers, with a thirst for new experiences, will find much to love in this itinerary. When you’ve eaten your way from Avignon to Lyon, and visited all the gems between Amsterdam and Budapest, turn your sights to this emerging cruise region.
BOOK IT NOW: The Danube From Black Sea to Budapest cruise departs Bucharest on Avalon Waterways Suite Ships. The 11-day voyage visits four countries: Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary. There are 12 guaranteed departures between May and October 2020. For more information see avalonwaterways.com.au.