Her voyage of self-discovery – and wanderlust-inducing adventures in Italy, India and Indonesia – was immortalised in Eat, Pray, Love, the best-selling memoir-turned-blockbuster movie. Now American author Elizabeth Gilbert, 49, is experiencing, for the first time, the joys of river cruising. She's the godmother of Avalon Envision, the 13th and latest addition to what Avalon claims is the youngest fleet of ships on Europe's waterways.
Envision will embark on a series of Danube cruises in 2019, with itineraries beginning, or ending, in Budapest, a suitably gorgeous setting for the ship's christening ceremony. Gilbert, all grace and charm, gives an inspiring speech on the transformative power of travel before cutting the rope tethered to a sacrificial bottle of Hungarian sparkling wine. Moments later, amid claps and cheers, it smashes on the gleaming bow of this 166-passenger vessel.
The next morning, as we drift out of Budapest along the winding Danube, past a string of magnificent riverside landmarks into leafy, idyllic countryside, Gilbert (she tells us later) is faced with a dilemma: does she simply relax and enjoy the views or focus on her meditation?
A few cabins away, I have a different predicament. Should I take in this picturesque, sun-dappled slice of Hungary while pacing the ship's top Sky Deck, or enjoy it, in my robes, from bed?
Ultimately, it's an easy decision. I'm staying in one of the 65 elegant Panorama suites – a feature of Avalon's Suite Ships. The double (or twin) beds face the wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling windows, which can be opened almost three-quarters of the way, giving the effect of an open-air balcony, as Avalon calls it. Lying down on Egyptian cotton linens, head on pillows, I'm treated to bucolic vistas, a gentle breeze and birdsong. It's glorious.
European river cruise cabins are often a tight squeeze as vessels have height and width limits due to locks and other restrictions. Avalon's Panorama suites (18.6 square metres), however, are said to be about 30 per cent larger than industry standard and indeed, not having a traditional balcony means more space for other comforts. Beside the windows, next to a mirror-backed desk with USB ports, is a two-person sofa set by a round table, and a chair that you can sit on while putting your feet on the "balcony" railings.
Continental breakfast can be delivered to your cabin, one of several "complimentary" perks included in the cruise fare. These suites also have a flat-screen TV, bathroom with toilet, shower and L'Occitane products, and a decent amount of wardrobe space for hanging up clothes. You can pop your luggage beneath the bed. There's nightly turn-down service and the pillows and mattress can be tweaked between four levels of firmness, depending on your preference.
Envision also has two Royal suites, which are swankier and roomier (28 square metres) with a separate W/C, plus a Nespresso machine and rotating TV. Most affordable are the 16 Deluxe staterooms on the lowest deck. Apart from the size (16 square metres), the major difference from the suites is the view, with two rectangle-shaped panels above the bed rather than large windows. This isn't such a big deal as you can gorge on stunning Danube vistas – think cliff-top castles, imperial palaces and vineyard-laced slopes – from the ship's inviting public areas.
The centrepiece is the Panorama Lounge, which springs off the atrium. It's spacious and cosy, filled with natural light and dotted with potted plants, specially-commissioned paintings by European artists and comfy armchairs and sofas. Mingle here with fellow guests, which will likely mostly be North Americans, but also some Australians, New Zealanders and Brits. Daydream through the vast windows, go online (Wi-Fi is free, ship-wide) or browse the bookshelves. There's everything from John Grisham novels to stories by French author Michel Houellebecq. Nightly piano tunes infuse the lounge and some evenings there are live violinists and singers.
You can help yourself to snacks, teas and infusions, and caffeine hits from a self-service machine. Beverages from the bar cost extra, including unique concoctions by Slovakian mixologist Martin Hudak. Prices are reasonable; about €9 ($14) for cocktails, €5 for a glass of wine. Complimentary alcohol and soft drinks are served with lunch and dinner and you're just as likely to be plied with good Slovakian or Hungarian wine as French or German tipples.
The food on Envision looks and taste good. Most dishes have a regional flavour, with chefs sourcing fresh, seasonal ingredients from ports of call along the way. As well as light, healthy choices, and vegan, fish and seafood options, there'll be the likes of pork goulash and veal tenderloin, pumpkin strudel and foie gras, plus dainty amuse-bouches and desserts.
Dining is flexible. The Panorama Lounge has an easy-going bistro area, with the ship's main restaurant one deck below. Turn up here within a specified period (at dinner, 7-8.30pm) and sit where you fancy. There are tables for two or more if you'd like company. On our cruise, for example, Elizabeth Gilbert sometimes dines with her new "sweetheart", the British photographer Simon MacArthur. Other times the couple join fellow guests, including her parents, John and Carole.
While breakfast and lunch are buffets, it's a multi-course menu and table service in the evening, though the vibe, and dress code, remains smart-casual. The 47-strong crew are pleasant and unstuffy. As Pamela Hoffee, Avalon's managing director, says, "We are friendly not formal. We offer relaxed luxury. We don't have butlers with white gloves hovering over you."
In fair weather, there's often sizzling steak, salmon and Bratwurst at the alfresco Sky Grill on the Sky Deck, which runs virtually the length of this 135-metre ship and has myriad lounging spots, a tiny whirlpool, giant chess board and backgammon area. Yoga and zumba classes are held up here (there are cardio machines and free weights in the gym near reception).
Many river cruise vessels close their upper decks when navigating certain locks, but Envision's smart design means guests aren't inconvenienced. The Sky Deck spans two levels, with the lower section always accessible.
A favourite slogan of Avalon is "The possibilities are as wide open as the views" and this is reflected in the choices guests have in ports. Do your own thing – perhaps go for a picnic using the on-board bicycles or Nordic walking sticks – or take complimentary guided shore excursions. These are divided into Classic, Discovery and Active categories, which include cooking and painting classes, wine-tasting, city jogging tours and visits to famous monuments such as the Hungarian parliament.
Talking of which, as we return to Budapest on the final evening of Envision's christening cruise, that majestic, sprawling building appears once more. Impressive by day, it's even more spectacular after dark, its illuminated neo-Gothic facade, spires and dome lording above the inky Danube. River cruising is rife with spine-tingling moments and this, it's safe to say, is definitely one of them.
Avalon Waterways operates cruises in Europe, Asia and the Galapagos. Its 2019 Danube trips run until December on its Suite Ships, including Envision. A 10-day The Legendary Danube cruise, sailing between Budapest and Nuremberg, with a two-night stay in Prague, is priced from $2788 per person based on double occupancy, and includes gratuities. You can add international flights to your booking, plus pre and post-cruise accommodation. Phone 1300 230 234 or see avalonwaterways.com.au
Steve McKenna was a guest of Avalon Waterways and Globus.