Europe 2010: Cruise Review

Amsterdam - Bucharest (North Sea - Black Sea)

MS Artistry, Avalon Waterways (8/9 - 8/30/2010)

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This was our 35th cruise, the 5th river cruise and the second river cruise in Europe.

We were very satisfied with the cruise. Avalon delivered everything they had promised - that's about all you can ask when you think about it.

Of course, weather has a lot to do with a cruise like this and I take credit for the excellent weather we had. Not that I can influence it, but when we cruise we usually have good weather!

Since we had taking a Viking cruise in Europe (Elbe: Berlin to Prague) two years ago you might ask how they compare. I don't see much difference. Certainly the Avalon ship was better, but then they don't do the Elbe. In the meantime Viking has refurbished their ship, but it's still an older ship.

On both cruises the food, crew, entertainment and tours were just fine. I wouldn't hesitate to cruise with either one again.

Small differences: Wine is included on Avalon, Viking does that too on some early bookings. The internet is free on Viking, Avalon has a small charge. Ice for drinks, like iced tea, was a pain on Avalon - you always had to ask for it. Not so on Viking.

Viking has gone to selling all their cruises at 2-4-1. Before they did this they just about doubled their prices, so this is just a marketing gimmick (and I wish they stop it). In other words, don't be fooled by this 2-4-1 nonsense from Viking.

The Ship

The Artistry is the first ship that Avalon had in their fleet (2004) and she will leave the fleet next year and be used by another cruise line, in a German speaking environment. The Poetry (2005), a sister ship to the Artistry, will also leave the fleet at the end of 2010. There are at least 4 other ships like this on the rivers (with other cruise lines),and we saw at least 3 of them (Bolero, Viktoria and Johann Strauss).

Avalon does not own the ship. The company that owns it, Premicon (in German only), has at least 25 other ships that are used by other tour companies/cruise lines. Premicon also supplies the navigation crew for the ship (Captain, etc.).

The ship was like new, I didn't find a single piece of furniture, etc. with a scratch on it. And everything worked just fine. Our balcony door did not lock, but it was fixed right away.

There are 89 cabins: 2 Suites (258 sq. ft.), all other cabins are 172 sq. ft.; Crew: 42

She is 127.4 meters long, and 11.4 meters wide - just wide enough to make it though the locks on the Main and Main-Danube Canal..

There are four decks for the passengers: Sun Deck; Royal Deck (Lounge, Dining Room, Cabins); Sapphire Deck (Reception, Cabins, Fitness Center, Whirlpool); Indigo Deck (Cabins only).

Most river ships have the dining room above the lounge in the front of the ship, but here the dining room (and galley) is behind the lounge. We were on this deck (Royal) and I thought we had to go down one deck to go the dining room and lounge, but there is an outside walkway to go around the dining room.

The Crew

The Artistry carries 42 crew members, most from Eastern European nations (Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, etc.). Some were from Austria and Germany. They all spoke English quite well - we had no language problems. I think less than 10 were from the navigational crew, the rest were from the hotel staff (dining room, cabin attendants, reception, etc,). Only one was employed by Avalon - the cruise director. The navigational crew was employed by Premicon (in German only) and the hotel crew was from Gsell & Partner (German only), which supplies crews for about 25 ships.

The took excellent care of us, we had no complaints. At the end of the cruise many of them had changed, some went on vacations, but at least two left for jobs with big cruise companies. One of the waiters who had worked on a big cruise line told me that the money was not as good on the river cruises but the work was a lot easier - he was happy with his job.

The Cruise Director was from the Netherlands. She has been with Avalon quite a few years, first doing land tours now doing cruises. She did an excellent job, kept us well informed. Part of her responsibility is organizing the daily tours. Although I'm sure a lot of it is done by the home office she still has to be sure it all goes off as planned and also take care of the optional tours. Before dinner she gave a talk about the activities for the next day.

Suggested tips were 12/day/person for the crew and 3/day/person for the cruise director.

The Passengers

The ship was not full - we had 106 passengers on the first segment (to Vienna) and 74 from Vienna to Bucharest. Here's the breakdown by nationality, alphabetically. The ship holds 178 when full.

             To Vienna   From Vienna
Australia 26   18  
Canada 11   17  
Kazakhstan 2   0  
Netherlands 3   1  
New Zealand 1   1  
United Kingdom 20   20  
United States 43   17  
  Total 106   74  

It was a good passenger mix and I would say the passengers got along extremely well, better than other cruises we have been on. This might be true of most river cruises, for all I know. I don't recall anyone complaining at all, which is very unusual!

The Food

We were very satisfied with all our meals, even those off the ship on all-day tours. Here are the mealtimes most days:

    6 - 7 am    Early Riser Breakfast - Lobby
    7 - 9 am    Full Buffet Breakfast - Restaurant
    9 - 10 am  Late Riser Breakfast - Lobby

    12 noon    Buffet Lunch - Restaurant

    4 - 4:30 pm  Coffee & Cake (or Tea) - usually in the Lounge, sometime on the Sun Deck

    7 pm        Dinner - Restaurant

For the Buffet Breakfast they had just about everything you could think of, including a station for omelets or eggs and there was usually one item you could order from the kitchen like pancakes, etc. This varied every day.

At Lunch there was a menu, but you had to serve yourself. Again, there were plenty of choices - nobody went hungry, I'm sure!  The chef and pastry chef were always there to help with the food and answer any questions. There were always two choices of ice cream for lunch and dinner.

At the first lunch I asked for a glass of milk, which I got, but then the dining room manager asked for my cabin number. I thought she was kidding, but they charged me for the milk. I thought it was kind of stupid - I never saw anybody else ordering milk for lunch  - but they were at least 2.20 richer on this cruise!  At breakfast and dinner milk was included, just not at lunch.

Dinner included a choice of appetizers (3), salad, soup (2) and three entrees (fish, meat & vegetarian). Also you could always order salmon, chicken or Caesar Salad with chicken. I later caught on that you could also order the Caesar Salad before the meal (without the chicken).

They always came with seconds.  Although the servings were not that large, we've never needed seconds. I didn't hear any complaints at all about the food - I think it's because people were happy. I know I heard many compliments. Well, I didn't find too many people who liked the coffee - that includes us.

Dinner included all the wine you can drink. We don't drink, so I can't vouch for the wine, but the other people we ate with were happy and I never heard any complaints about the wine. You could also get juice or soft drinks instead of the wine.

Since we weren't full they could use some of the tables in the dining room to set up food (salads, deserts, etc.) which are usually set up in the lobby. After Vienna they also removed some tables so that the dining room wouldn't look so empty.

You could always sit at any table you wanted, but at dinner everyone was expected to be there at 7 pm. Due to the limited facilities in the kitchen they just can't handle people arriving at different times. It's amazing that they can do what they do with the space that they have.


The Cabins

Except for the two suites, all the cabins are the same size (172 sq. ft.), similar to many cabins on the big cruise ship. It certainly was big enough for us.

On the top two passenger decks the cabins all have French balconies, which means that there is no balcony! Just a sliding door that opens and a railing. Which is better than just a window. Most of the newer ships on the rivers now have this type of balcony (at least in some cabins), but there are some ships which have a balcony you can actually sit on. I really wonder how much they are used. Since you are always within sight of land you really want to be able to see both sides of the river and you can't do that from your cabin. I wouldn't pay much extra for a real balcony.

The only problem with the cabin was the shower - it was just too small. You could hardly turn around in it and they used a handle to turn the shower on and unless you really concentrated on it, you always turned the shower off as you were moving in the shower. How they approved this design I'll never understand.

There's plenty of storage space in the cabin. The refrigerator has some extra space for drinks, etc. and I guess you can always remove some of the stuff they want to sell you. We never bought anything - well, they have a bottle of water in the cabin for 3 and we bought some of those. It's a large bottle and it was reasonably priced.

I was looking for outlets and behind the curtain next to the balcony I found a folding chair - which was nice because there was only one other chair in the cabin. Other people never found this chair and we asked the cruise director to mention this in one of her talks, which she did.

Cabins on the lowest deck have only a window and are very close to the water line. So you can't open the windows. I never did get to this deck, there are only cabins there.

This ship, by the way, has no elevators - which could be a problem for some people.

The Tours

At each stop we had a tour which was included in the price of the cruise. Sometimes they were just walking tours, if we docked close to the town, other times we took buses and then walked in the town. Just about all the towns in Europe have "pedestrian zones" downtown and you have no choice but to walk.

No questions there is a lot of walking on these cruises and many times it's on cobble stones and other assorted not so easy to walk on surfaces. When appropriate they had an 'easy walk' group for some. A couple of people did fall, but no bones were broken as far as I know.

I think all tours now use headsets so you can hear what the tour guide is saying even if you are not close to the speaker.  They really work well.  We always had good tour guides, usually one per bus, if we were on a bus.

There are some optional tours offered in some of the towns, but there was no pressure to take them and some did not operate because not enough people signed up. You certainly had plenty to do without taking other tours.

The Entertainment & Activities

On river cruises entertainment is quite different from other cruises.  We had a piano player who always played after dinner, in the afternoon for coffee & cake and sometimes on the sun deck. On some evenings various entertainers joined the ship - folk groups, etc. We enjoyed them all.  Since dinner was usually from 7 - 9 pm and we toured almost every day you really didn't need entertainment every night.  We also had various lectures on Europe and the rivers, which were also well done.

I kind of missed some games - trivia, etc.. I think this depends on the cruise director and she wasn't interested in these. I asked!  There is a small library.

The News & Internet

We were able to keep up with the rest of the world. We had TV of course, but we never watched it.  Each day there were condensed versions of newspapers from the US, Australia, Great Britain and Canada.

And for some of us there was the Internet, of course. They had two computers and Wi-Fi was available throughout the ship. The charge was 5/day, 15/week or 29/two weeks. I thought this was very reasonable,. especially compared to what I have paid on other cruises. I had called Avalon in the US and asked about the charge and they told me it would be 5/hour. You just can't believe everything you hear.  I suspect this was a recent change, however.  Considering we were on a ship I thought the internet was pretty fast - faster than on any other ship I have been on. I think the equipment is getting better all the time.

Money & The End

We got the best exchange rate on the ship, much better than at the airport or other money exchanges. We used Euros in most countries, even those where Euros is not the official currency, except Serbia where Euros are not allowed. Credit cards are widely accepted in all the countries, but be aware that you will be charged a fee by the credit card company so it's not a good idea to us them for small purchases.

We charged the tips to the crew. They don't talk about this but you can do it. We gave cash to the cruise director for her tip. She also collects the money for the optional tours, credit cards accepted.

As I said in the beginning, we liked Avalon. However, I suspect that all the river cruise lines do a good job and I would always look at all the cruise lines which do a certain itinerary to find one which meets my needs.

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