Over the next few months, I'm going to feature five river cruise lines. The first is Avalon Waterways.
Translating ocean-cruise speak into river-cruise speak can be difficult. Although river lines use the star system, it doesn't quite match up with ocean vessels that have a more-established résumé. As Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon, points out, because there are only five major lines in Europe the range from top to bottom is a much closer ranking than in ocean cruising. The competition to create a distinct brand is tough -- and essential.
After initially building a variety of cabin sizes on their ships, Avalon decided to go all-suite only on its newer ships three years ago.
"Our suites have open-air, French balconies, extra-large sliding glass doors with seven-by-10-foot openings," Clark says.
He also believes the cabins are among the industry's roomiest, with 80 per cent of them either 200-square-foot panorama suites or 300-square-foot royal suites.
"No other European river cruise line can say this," he adds.
This type of room offers the opportunity to have beds that face the water, and there's nothing like eating breakfast in bed and watching the world go by. And, "another clear point of difference is our larger bathrooms," says Clark.
"We have had such tremendous success with our all-suite ships," he adds, "that we will be launching three more in the spring: the 128-passenger Avalon Poetry II, the 166-passenger Avalon Illumination and the Avalon Impression, bringing the number of panorama class ships to eight, with more planned for 2015."
Avalon is a partially inclusive line. Wine and beer are offered only at dinner, and soft drinks at lunch and dinner. All tours are complimentary. Suggested gratuities, according to Clark, are about $126 a week.
Who goes on Avalon ships? Generally, 55 per cent of passengers are U.S. citizens, 25 per cent are Australians and 15 per cent are Canadians, says Clark.
Europe and Asia are well-covered by Avalon, which has a smaller presence on South American and U.S. rivers. However, the massive building by major river lines in Europe has meant having to make slight adjustments to schedules.
"With more barges and more cruise ships on the river, it's taking a little longer to negotiate locks," he explains. "Rather than wait at the locks, we advise our captains to slow down, offering more time for viewing."
Avalon is increasing its South American presence, with its newest cruises in Peru, on the Amazon, Yarapa, Yanalipa and Ucayali rivers. Starting in February, passengers will be on these chartered ships for four days, with a guided expedition starting in Lima.
I asked Clark how he would rate Avalon's ships. "If I was comparing them to ocean-going ships, probably in the premium category."
Clark doesn't expect to see many first-time cruisers, adding most of Avalon's passengers come from ocean-going ships such as Celebrity and Princess.
Still, "river cruising is growing at blinding speed," says Clark, "but keep in mind that one departure of a large ocean ship equals a whole year of departures for one river ship. However, we keep building and passengers keep booking. The 55-plus demographic continues to grow and so do we."
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