|Lika Wilkinson, Godmother, with Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways|
Sporting 200-square-foot Panorama suites that feature an 11-foot-wide wall of glass that slides open seven feet, the new Avalon Waterways Panorama is drawing 166 river cruisers per voyage eager to explore the heart of Europe and enjoy great views along the way.
Clearly, the ship has done just that as it’s 97 percent sold this year. And that’s even before the ship’s first 14-day cruise begins on Wednesday.
Last Saturday, Travel Agent magazine was on site as Avalon Waterways unveiled and christened the Avalon Panorama in Mainz, Germany. “The rivers of Europe are filled with the stories of humankind -- of civilizations past and present,” said Lisa Wilkinson, the Australian television host and journalist who served as the ship’s godmother.
“May all who sail on these rivers in this vessel add their own tales to these fabled waters, and take from them the joy and friendship of a shared journey.”
She then christened the ship, noting: “May her captain, her crew and her passengers be blessed and kept safe in their travels, and may she always enjoy clear skies and calm waters.” A bottle of champagne crashed against the vessel’s hull, an event watched pier-side and atop the ship by crew, Avalon staff members, travel agents and news media from Australia, Canada, Europe, the United Kingdom and United States.
The skies, which has been clear earlier as the christening guests toured Mainz, were dreary with drops of rain by christening time late in the day.
So after the bottle broke against the ship’s hull, guests returned to the ship’s lounge for official remarks by Jacques den Breejen, owner of Den Breejen Shipyard, which built the 443-foot Avalon Panorama; Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways; and Stewart Williams, president of Avalon Australia.
River cruising as an industry attracts, by the line’s estimate, some 325,000 cruisers annually, far from the 16 million expected to sail on big ship lines this year.
Still, four of five Avalon Waterways clients are big-ship cruisers, and as more amenity-laden river vessels launch, more big ship cruisers and tour guests will undoubtedly be drawn to river products.
Avalon Waterways operates nine ships in its fleet this year and will have 11 next year. “We will be building more ships like this,” said Clark. He noted that a sister ship to Avalon Panorama will launch in 2012. The line also plans to build a similarly designed class of vessel that’s slightly smaller, at 361 feet in length.
Den Breejen noted that the new vessel is the 18th river boat built by his line, and the sixth one built for Avalon Waterways. “In eight years, we’ve gone from an idea to a major river cruise operator,” Clark said. He thanked the trade, stressing that the line’s vessels would have stayed empty if it weren’t for travel agents.
Ninety-eight percent of Avalon Waterways’ guests say in feedback that the line met or exceeded their expectations. Clark told media on the christening cruise that his line’s guests desire the intimacy of small ships, like the ambience of the product, and enjoy the proximity of the attractions.
Calling the Avalon Panorama, “the latest expression of what we call inspired design,” Clark noted that his line’s approach to interior décor is “clean lines, crisp interiors and vibrant colors.” He said Avalon strives for a modern look with optimum use of space to provide for the things guests enjoy like panoramic dining and lounge areas.
Captain Ralf Remus showed his sense of humor when he told the christening guests that “my wish is for a full ship, happy passengers, and little bit more water,” a reference to the low water levels on the Rhine this summer. After a very dry winter in Europe, not as much snow is present to melt and flow into local rivers.
Walls of Glass
The new vessel has 64 Panorama Suites, 17 deluxe staterooms and two Royal Suites. The lower-level Indigo Staterooms are 172 square feet, 15 percent larger than the industry standard; they have two elongated horizontal windows across the top of the outside wall. They provide light – but generally not views – for guests.
In contrast, the majority of accommodations on two separate decks are the Panorama Suites; these feature an 11-foot-wide wall of glass, divided into three sections. Guests slide the glass doors from the right to left, creating a seven-foot section that opens fully to the outside air from floor to ceiling.
Guests are protected by horizontal rails on the bottom half of that opening. The look is certainly spectacular for couples and singles who want a view with minimum obstruction.
Essentially, by sliding the doors, the balcony becomes the suite itself. The upholstered sofa and chair create a comfortable seating enclave from which to watch the action outside – quaint villages, cascading vineyard, barge traffic on the river, city sights and river life.
Why doesn’t the line just create a traditional balcony?
Clark said the ship, which has a beam of 37 feet, is at maximum width for navigating some European river locks. So, to add traditional balconies would mean 30 square feet less for those Panorama Suites, said Clark. Thus, the line believes the wall of glass with sliding doors is the best perk – allowing suites to remain spacious.
At 200 feet, the Panorama Suites are 30 percent larger than most in the industry. Besides the seating area, they have a large-desk and vanity area with mirror, as well as a mini-refrigerator, several shelves within cabinetry, a king bed that can be converted to two twins, two nightstands, a wall-mounted flat screen television with television and movie channels, closet space and a very small personal safe.
The private bathroom has a decent sized shower, singular sink, toilet, and several shelves and a wastebasket within cabinetry under the sink. The bathroom also features L’Occitane bath amenities. One oddity throughout the suite is that it has only European-style outlets, so American guests should bring both a converter and adaptor.
Two 300-square-foot Royal Suites boast a separate living area with large flat screen television that can display a nifty “fireplace” video. The suites also have their toilet housed in a separate closet-type room so guests who visit and want to use the facilities don’t have to see the guest’s personal effects in the bathroom. The bath itself has a large shower and double sinks within a marble-topped vanity.
Currently, the line offers breakfast room service for a nominal fee, but Avalon officials said they’re exploring a couple of other room service options. Among them is the potential for guests to book a small cocktail party for up to six people in a room.
Spacious Public Spaces
Beyond the accommodations, Avalon Panorama has a large open seating dining room on the top interior deck, and a lounge in the same location just one deck down; that lounge also has a small outdoor seating area.
The hotel-style lobby is spacious, with a concierge-type desk adjacent to the purser’s desk; here the cruise director answers guest questions and provides maps and tips for those going ashore. Also in the lobby is a two-terminal Internet café with large monitors and a printer.
Fitness buffs will discover a small fitness center with two treadmills, several other machines, and free weights on the lower deck. It has upper windows on the outside wall. A cozy aft lounge has Early Risers continental breakfast, a huge flat-screen television and comfortable seating; it can be reserved for private functions. There is also a beauty salon onboard.
The large Sky Deck atop the ship provides chaise loungers (each with their own nifty, built-in shade to keep out the sun, if guests so desire), a Bistro grill area that can accommodate up to 60 for a barbecue lunch, a putting green and a hot tub.
This year, the Avalon Panorama will set sail on the “Magnificent Europe” cruise, a 14-day itinerary between Amsterdam and Budapest that’s virtually sold out for the remainder of the year, with limited availability primarily on holiday Christmas market cruises. This long voyage appeals to retirees and those with plenty of vacation time.
So not surprisingly, 50 percent of the bookings on this ship are from Australians, hence the selection of an Australian godmother. Typically, 60 percent of Avalon’s guests are American, 25 percent Australian, 10 percent Canadian and 5 percent from the United Kingdom.
For more information, visit www.avalonwaterways.com.