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Avalon Poetry Review By Joanandjoe (first person references are by Joan)
Date: 4/15/07, 7 days
Itinerary: The Netherlands and Belgium ? Tulip Time River Cruise
Ratings (scale of 1 to 5+):
Public rooms 3
Spa and Fitness: Not rated (there are some machines and a whirlpool, but the main exercise is walking)
Family & children Not rated
Shore excursions 5
Service 3+ (dining room 3, other 4+)
Rates 5 (expensive)
Value 4 (expensive, but you get a lot)
PACKING: WHAT DO YOU MEAN, ONLY ONE SUITCASE??? It took me five times longer to pack one suitcase than two or three. I found instant-dry underwear, solid color interlock knits, and black and white blouses and tops. Every thing HAD to match EVERYTHING else, two long dresses and a shiny shawl were my complete ?dressy? wardrobe, and that was more than adequate. I fell in love with the concept of traveling lightly: When I returned home, I bought more interlock knits in solid colors, and donated some ?travel? clothes I packed but never wore. I resolved to travel with ONE suitcase for the rest of my life.
CHECK-IN: Instead of having a check-in at the ship, we met the Tour Director, Mr. Hendrik Jan Dadema, at a hotel in Central Amsterdam. That was extremely convenient. Although the meeting time was at 3:30, we walked over to the hotel, which was three blocks from our hotel, around 10 a.m. Our bags were left with the cruise line, so we didn?t have to worry about them. We immediately joined up for a big bargain: a bus tour of Amsterdam, with admission to the Van Gogh Museum included, for $29. Since the museum admission was 10 Euros (about $14), that meant that an informative tour was only $15 in excess of the cost of the museum admission. More on this excursion under excursions.
We got back to the meeting place at around 12:30 p.m. to find that no lunch was being provided. Bummer. We went back to touring Amsterdam on our own, based on the highlights of the bus tour, and had only a light lunch because we assumed there would be abundant food when we got to the ship. BIG MISTAKE: the ship does NOT feed you when you come onboard. At 3:35 we were bussed to the ship, and were handed our room key when we arrived at around 4. There was no other paper work: we could give our credit card whenever it was convenient. Great check-in, and our luggage was waiting in our room. However, there was no food to be had, other than peanuts in the bar, until dinner at 7:30. We were very, very hungry by the time dinner was served; possibly the first time we?ve ever been hungry on a ship.
THE SHIP: A river cruiser must be able to fit through the locks on the rivers and canals on which it cruises. Therefore, the Poetry was the same size and shape as all other river cruisers and all freighters on the Rhine, Main, and Danube Rivers: 426 feet long, perhaps 42 feet wide. Sort of pencil shaped. It has four decks: a sky deck where people sit in the sum (and where there?s almost no shade), and three decks with cabins. The upper two cabin decks, including our stateroom on the top passenger deck (Royal Deck) have ?French balconies?: large openable windows with about 6 inches of balcony space. Just enough to air out your room or take in the view. There is one bar (which also serves as the community room), one restaurant, two small sitting areas where they put out fruit and water, and a small indoor fitness room with a whirlpool. In short, not the large number of special areas that you find on an ocean ship, but adequate for 176 passengers. Our cruise had 135 passengers.
Everything is clean and bright, and there actually is some attempt at d?cor (which, we?re told, is unusual for a river ship). Quite a comfortable place for this type of cruise. The crew seems to be constantly cleaning and we enjoyed two turn-downs a day.
DRESS CODE: Very casual. Jackets and long dresses were never required, and only on the Captain?s night were those items suggested. Since the ship restricts luggage to one suitcase (!) and a small carryon, leave your fancy duds at home. In fact, pack and re-pack with less each time.
THE STATEROOM: At 170 square feet, smaller than we?re used to, but very large for a European river cruiser. It?s also laid out much better than our similar size room on the Zenith, and the French balcony with openable window adds to the feeling of spaciousness. It still felt tiny compared to our Noordam suite, but that?s not a fair comparison. The rooms are compact, but well-laid out. Even the suites have only a shower, although the whirlpool is NOT scalding hot and could soothe your tired feet.
The bed was very comfortable, but the pillows were way too soft. There was adequate storage room for two people for a week. The triangular shower was OK for medium size people, but might be difficult for a large person.
Laundry was outrageously priced (around $7 for a pair of pants) but properly and nicely done. There is no dry cleaning. A pair of socks cost 1.50 euros to clean, so pack instant-dry items when possible. My wife did a few loads of wash in the sink, a messy and time-consuming process.
STAFF: Mostly Eastern European (about 75 percent from two countries, Slovakia and Hungary), and very friendly. Service other than in dining room was efficient and so well done as to be invisible. B plus or A minus. Dining room service was spotty: sometimes prompt, but sometimes we felt we were being ignored. C plus or B minus. To be fair, half of the passengers were from one group (55 women and 9 men from Tennessee), and the staff seemed to attend to the group first. The staff preferred to serve each course all at once, so service was pretty even for everyone. We didn?t feel pampered in the dining room, in spite of the unlimited wine (HIC!) offered at dinner.
Suggested tips are about double the suggested amount for ocean ships: 3 Euros per person per day for the cruise director, 12 Euros per person per day for everyone else. That?s about $21 per person per day, compared to $10.50 on HAL or Celebrity. You can charge tips on your shipboard account. Note, however, that the cruise director has a separate account (in dollars) from the shipboard account (in Euros), so you?ll probably end up giving his tip in cash.
CRUISE DIRECTOR: The cruise director, Hendrik Dadema (aka Heinje? on the ?critical? board), was knowledgeable and quite a live wire. His function was a bit different that that of a large cruise ship cruise director, since he didn?t organize games or act as MC for large scale entertainment. Instead, he made sure that people knew what was in store for the next day, led PAX toward the tour buses (often crossing through another ship), and was available to give information when needed. That may not sound like much; but actually he was quite effective. We found him intelligent and personable, as well as informative.
He really ?blossomed? during the tulip talk. (You had to be there!). An intelligent extrovert who led most of our talks, and a wealth of information. He helped us with our luggage, consoled me about the lack of bargains and was right about the difficulty of finding Batik. On the rare occasions you found him with just a few people, he revealed a knowledge of world affairs almost as accurate as Joe?s. Everyone brightened up when he walked into the room.
MONEY EXCHANGE: We didn?t exchange any dollars for Euros, but the rates seem to be fair: a bank rate, plus a clearly stated surcharge.. The ship will cash dollar travelers checks at no charge.
PORT TALKS: On some days, the cruise director gave us information about the places we?d visit and the options available. One was expected to know a little about the areas we visited. The Avalon?s own choice of tours were included in the price of the cruise, and were well attended.
WEATHER: The weather couldn?t have been nicer. For our nine days in Europe (with the middle seven days on the ship), the first three days had a high of about 75 and a low of about 60. The rest of the time we had highs around 65, lows 45 to 50. Sunny or partly cloudy all the time, with no rain (while the folks back home had 8 to 10 inches of rain due to a Nor?easter).
THE ITINERARY AND EXCURSIONS: Since most excursions were including in the price, we?ll cover itinerary and excursions in one section of this review.
General comments on excursions: The excursions were conducted by knowledgeable, energetic guides in excellent English. Each guide was an individual, and all but the Arnheim guide charmed us. In some places, the ship was docked close enough to the city for the walking tour to start at the dock; in other cases, we were bused to the tour. Arnhem and Keukenhof involved buses to one or two locations; every other tour involved substantial walking.
In most areas, the tours did give you time to explore options on your own. MOBILITY is a MUST for Avalon travelers. If you can?t climb stairs, walk for 90 minutes, or travel for two hours without using the bathroom, you?re going to have trouble on the Avalon. My heart went out to some of the people with canes, who exhausted themselves keeping up with our guides. The ship does not have any elevators.
In most areas, the tours did give you time to explore options on your own. MOBILITY is a MUST for Avalon travelers. If you can?t climb stairs, walk for 90 minutes, or travel for two hours without using the bathroom, you?re going to have trouble on the Avalon. My heart went out to some of the people with canes, who exhausted themselves keeping up with our guides. The ship does not have any elevators or handicap rooms.
Sunday: Amsterdam. This was embarkation day. We did take the optional Amsterdam city tour, with museum, as described above. It was also possible to take an afternoon tour to a folkloric city, with transportation directly to the ship.
Monday: Arnhem, Dordrecht, and Kinderdijk. Avalon should rethink the trip to Arnhem. Visiting a WW II museum and cemetery is not everyone?s first choice. I was moved by the simple dignity of the cemetery, but the rest of the tour left me cold. Arnhem boasts an open-air museum and a folk museum, which we would have preferred. We would have been better off skipping the tour.
The ship sailed to Dordrecht during lunch. We took a bus tour to Kinderdijk, a scenic windmill town. Touristy and pretty, Kinderdijk gave us an appreciation of what the Netherlands would have been without dikes and windmills: under water. ?G-d made the world, but the Dutch made the Netherlands.? Fascinating. When we got back, there was still about an hour to walk around Dordrecht, a very pretty town.
Tuesday. Antwerp. I felt a bit bushed after 90 minutes of power-walking through Antwerp; but it was a lovely walking tour, and we went back to the city in the afternoon . Most people took the extra cost side trip to Brussels, and came back exhausted. It is NOT worth going to a major city such as Brussels for just two or three hours. We came back to the ship around 4 p.m., exhilarated from our trip to the Rubens House and an art museum, and had the ship virtually to ourselves.
Wednesday. Ghent. Another terrific, but exhausting, power walk, this time a substantial bus ride from the ship. Terrific. In the afternoon, we were two of the four people on the ship not taking the optional ()extra cost) excursion to Bruges, which we had visited before. We opted to relax around the ship and do some shopping, and I picked up some bargains in (of all things) a household goods store. Based on the comments we heard, the other PAX enjoyed Bruges much more than Brussels.
Thursday. A fascinating day. In the morning we had a walking tour around small, but pretty, Middleburg, then went to the Delta works, This was the massive project to close some of the outlets to the North Sea, while having flood gates, which are normally open, for one environmentally sensitive arm of the sea. Absolutely fascinating.
We then sailed to a small, but pretty, town, Veere. There was no excursion here, but we were two blocks from the town. I stayed on board to rest, while Joe walked around, bought some ice cream, and almost bought some jewelry. All in all, a lovely day.
Friday. We docked at Rotterdam, and had another interesting power walk. This city is worth a whole day or more, not just a half day. In the afternoon, it was time for:
THE TULIPS: YES! They are JUST that beautiful, and deservedly crowded. They were almost worth the two-hour bus trip to the Keukenhof gardens each way in heavy traffic. We were frequently reminded that this is a COMMERCIAL enterprise. Each grower had their own ?patch?, where they displayed their best blooms. Lovely, but lacking the themed areas one would find at, say, Longwood Gardens. Maps cost three euros, but some tours gave a simpler version of the official map for free. I took a picture of two map-sellers in costume, and it is one of the best I?ve ever taken. The Avalon offered an option of an all-day stay at Keukenhof, and it was sold out.
Saturday. Winding down, but still active. In the morning, we docked at Volendam. I walked around the city, and got some of the bargains described under shopping. Joe took the tour to Edam, another walking tour with some free time (but not enough). He was about to buy some cheese, but the line was too long, so her ran back to the bus.
We arrived back in Amsterdam in the afternoon, and took the included canal boat tour, which was given by the guide we had on day one for our Amsterdam tour. Relaxing and nice, and our final excursion. After 5 p.m., we had free time. After dinner, about half the people on the cruise took the walking tour of the Amsterdam red light district. No thanks!
On Sunday, we disembarked the ship, and went to a hotel in Amsterdam. We flew home on Monday.
SHOPPING: PRICY: The best bargains for the quality were the sale items at the Van Gogh Museum store. The high quality and ?get rid of it? sale prices meant you could find some unique gifts at normal prices. Elsewhere, I managed to find t-shirts at 4 for 10 euros, but when the euro buys 1.4 dollars, you?re going to feel the pinch. Joe bought a tulip tie for 11 Euros, and it was much admired when he got home.
I confess ? I made cheese sandwiches at the unlimited breakfast to supplement lunch. We ate two Rijstafels in Amsterdam because we didn?t want to pay 8 euros for a hamburger.
FOOD AND WINE: Each dinner had choice of three entrees: meat (4 nights pork, 1 night each for beef, veal, and chicken), fish, and vegetarian. Dinners leaned heavily to fish and pork, and we don?t eat pork. The chef could work wonders with fish, and I?ll remember his Veal with Spaetzel for a long time. The final night, the fish looked awful (A RARE EXCEPTION!) and the captain graciously substituted chicken. You could always substitute chicken or salmon for a main dish. Breakfast and Lunch were buffet-style, often excellent. However, for sandwich lovers, there were sandwich ingredients (meat and fish) and breakfast but not at lunch. Odd. The free wine was mostly German and Austrian, and very high quality. There was a ?Happy Hour? with reduced-price drinks an hour before dinner. We ate my cheese sandwiches during the long gap between lunch (served at noon) and dinner served mostly at 7:30, twice at 7).
ENTERTAINMENT: Make your own. Sascha played the keyboard in the lounge, a trio came in briefly one night, and other talks related to the excursions. There was a lovely trio one night, briefly.
RIVER CRUISING COMPARED WITH OCEAN CRUISING: River cruises don?t involve seasickness, dressing up, paying for wine with dinner, or elaborate on-board shopping or art auctions. We found ourselves busy with excursions for most of the day, and the scenery was lovely. Ocean cruising offered more food, more often, cost less, offered internet access, and had more elaborate entertainment.
AMSTERDAM: An open-minded city with great history and museums. We found it expensive, entertaining, and Jewish. We quickly learned to supplement lunch with cheese sandwiches from the breakfast buffet, to travel by tram, and ask for Senior Citizens? Discounts.
OVERALL: A once-in-lifetime vacation?