The Greeks wrapped their heads in olive branches, the Romans prayed to Neptune and the Babylonians spilt ox blood. All believed a bit of pomp and pageantry (and the occasional sacrificial slave) would bring good luck to their newly launched ships.
Thankfully, by the late 19th-century it became customary to break a bottle of bubbles against the ship's bow. On a sunny, spring afternoon in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava a locally produced sparkling wine is the celebratory drink of choice to launch Avalon Waterways' newest ship.
"May all aboard her travel safely with eyes wide open to the wonders that await," says Meredith Vieira, the ship's godmother and well-known anchor in the US. "I now christen thee, the Avalon View. Take a little time to enjoy it."
I don't need to be told twice. I plan to enjoy every moment as we cruise the Danube River from Vienna, Austria to Budapest, Hungary via Bratislava on Avalon View's inaugural five-day, four-night sailing. To enjoy the new ship, the places we visit, but mostly the sheer joy of being able to cruise the watery highways of Europe again.
The new 166-pasenger Avalon View, Avalon Waterways' fourteenth Suite Ship, was initially planned to debut in 2020, but the pandemic kept the champagne in the cellar for a bit longer. Now, as the bottle smashes and the wine flows there's a palpable feeling of excitement among the guests and crew. Some of us (guilty as charged) wipe tears away. For more than two years we could barely dream of such things.
We start in Vienna, a city of baroque beauty and Hapsburg palaces, where Lipizzaner stallions dance and soloists sing. With free time I stroll the Ringstrasse, a 5.3-kilometre tree-lined boulevard that circles the city like a jewelled necklace.
An included excursion through the Old City by horse-drawn carriage (fiaker) shows off Vienna's most gilded attractions, but it's a late afternoon walk that reveals the finer details: cherry blossoms bubbling from the branches of bare trees, coffeehouses filled with conversation, once again an extension of the home living room, and a modern art installation of a neon-gold ladder shining from the top of St Stephen's Cathedral, a symbol of hope, courage and determination.
Down by the Danube our floating carriage awaits; a new ship for a new era of river cruising. From April 2022 the 135-metre Avalon View will sail the Danube River on several itineraries including Taste of the Danube, Danube Symphony, Active and Discovery and Gone Girl!, part of the celebrity-hosted 'storyteller' cruise series.
With fresh, out-of-the-box itineraries and an expanded program of included excursions, Avalon guests have the opportunity to customise their holiday to suit their interests, while forger deeper connections with the places they visit.
In our post-pandemic era of travel there is much reassurance from cruising on a small ship (Avalon averages just 150 guests across all ships — some much less), and arriving into a major European city where you step straight into the heart of the action without hassles or delays. All Avalon guests must show proof of full COVID-19 vaccination and return a negative RAT immediately upon boarding (at time of publication). This is dealt with quickly and efficiently in my cabin (for free) by a staff member.
I'm staying in one of the 67 Panorama Suites (the ship also has 16 smaller Deluxe staterooms and two Royal Suites) where wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling windows slide open to create the industry's only open-air balcony. A feature of all Avalon's Suite Ships, this innovative design blurs the line between outside and in without sacrificing floor space. The big plus is extra room for a spacious sitting area with a two-person sofa, a single chair and round table, which miraculously lifts up for those mornings when you decide on a complimentary, in-cabin continental breakfast.
And then there's the bed, the Rolls Royce of the river cruising world. Cleverly positioned to face the ever-changing view, fitted with a Comfort Collection mattress, which, for princess-and-the-pea types can be configured to four levels of firmness, made up with Egyptian cotton linen and designed with under-bed-storage to stow empty luggage. There's also a work desk, flat-screen TV, well-stocked mini bar, ample wardrobe space and an elegant, marble-topped bathroom with excellent lighting, including handy, under-cabinet lighting for middle-of-the-night bathroom visits.
The thoughtful touches continue with sets of white and beige bath towels (ending the "stop using my towel!" argument between couples), a nightly turn-down service and a helpful guest services attendant only a phone call away. WI-FI is complementary and available ship-wide.
Built and designed to the same specifications as all Avalon Waterways' Suite Ships — a feature that ensures a consistent experience whichever ship you travel on — the View's look is stylish and sophisticated, yet unpretentious. Throughout the public areas the colour palette is a blend of blonde and dark woods, taupe and burgundy with extensive picture windows adding to the sense of light and space.
The Panorama Lounge is the place to enjoy an afternoon tea or mingle with guests for a pre-dinner cocktail or after-dinner dancing. While wine, beer and soft drinks are complimentary with lunch and dinner, drinks from the bar cost extra. Health-conscious travellers will appreciate the morning yoga sessions, energising juices at breakfast and a variety of lighter meal options designed by vegetarian Viennese chefs Karl and Leo Wrenkh.
Dining is flexible, with meals served in the Panorama dining room, bistro or alfresco-style on the Sky Deck, weather and itinerary permitting. While breakfast and lunches are buffets (face masks are required while self-serving food) dinners are four-course affairs featuring the likes of creamy garlic soup and herb-crusted beef tenderloins, three-vegetable gnocchi or grilled tuna steak. Desserts run the full gamut from chocolate layer cake to honey biscuits, cheese platters to marinated pears. The intimate Club Lounge is the spot to grab a self-serve hot beverage or pastry (now individually bagged). Be quick for the doughnuts.
On every Avalon cruise complimentary shore excursions are divided into Classic, Discovery and Active categories. Over the course of four days I enjoy a guided tour of Vienna's Belvedere palace, a hands-on, vegetarian cooking class in the kitchen of the Wrenkh brothers, lunch with paired wines in the ZOYA museum in Slovakia's Carpathian wine region and a hike and meditation session in the Hungarian hills. On other itineraries interactive experiences range from kayaking to e-bikes, wine-appreciation to making your own signature chocolate.
Guests are also free to "go their own way" and borrow an onboard bike, daypack or walking poles from the Adventure Centre, or download local information from the AvalonGo Mobile App.
On a clear, sunny morning we slip into Bratislava, its cafes, castles and churches as fine as any of Europe's best. I've opted for an included walking tour of the Old City followed by a painting class held in a historic inn. Wandering the cobblestone alleys I catch a glimpse of a young man in a flowing burgundy cape, his sudden appearance borrowed from the pages of a magic realism novel. I recognise his face, not a local, but a fellow guest simply filled with joie de vivre and compelled to dress for the occasion. Cities on the Danube are like that; demanding theatre at every turn.
But it's nightfall I grow to love, when the ribbon of river unfurls and a plump moon hangs overhead. Each evening I stand on the Sky Deck and watch as Danu, the river mermaid, swallows the sun only to give birth to it again in the morning.
The stretch of Danube flowing into Budapest divides the city into two parts — hilly Buda and flat Pest. Tonight we glide into this remarkable city under the cover of darkness, the illuminated facade of the Hungarian parliament glowing citron against an inky sky, pulling us ever forward.
Tomorrow we will disembark, but for now we raise our glasses — filled with schnapps, not champagne — united in gratitude for the wonder of travel and the promise of new beginnings.
Avalon Waterways operates cruises in Europe, Egypt, Asia and South America. International flights can be added to your booking, plus additional pre and post-cruise accommodation. The eight-day Active and Discovery on the Danube, sailing between Budapest and Deggendorf, costs from $5060 based on double occupancy. Avalon's parent company Globus family of brands has just announced a partnership with Qantas Frequent Flyer. See avalonwaterways.com.au