Are you dreaming of a white Christmas? Cain, from our Customer Sales team, recently experienced an Avalon Christmastime from Vienna to Budapest in late November last year. Read on to hear about his festive river cruise along the Danube.
As someone who grew up in New Zealand and has only ever spent Christmas at home, this time of year for New Zealanders means summer, beaches, barbeques and a Christmas tree in your living room. I’ll be honest – I wasn’t sure what Christmas in Europe was all about. I knew it would be cold; I was hoping there would be snow; and I’d seen pictures of Christmas lights decorating cities…but experiencing it first hand is totally different! Europe does Christmas in style. Seeing all the Christmas markets, lights and ornaments everywhere with plenty of mulled wine and warm food was second to none, and cruising with Avalon was the perfect way to experience this.
I arrived in Vienna in the late afternoon, not realising it would already be starting to get dark by the time I got to the Avalon Visionary at 2pm. The ship was already lit up and the festive setting was clear from the moment you arrived. The lobby was warm, welcome amenities made you feel at home straight away, and there were decorations all around. My Panorama Suite was ready upon check in as staff had noted my arrival time and had done their best for me to access my room on time.
Our first night was a bit rainy but that didn’t stop us from taking a taxi into the town square. The staff were so helpful with advice and arranging taxis since Vienna was the only port where we weren’t docked right in the town centre.
We had just missed some snow so it was cold, but a beer and a hot dog felt like a must do. We then headed back to the ship for our first port talk of the week, complete with a welcome cocktail. It was a pleasant introduction to the crew before our first dinner in the Panorama Dining Room, where the service was incredible and the food delicious. We never felt like we were waiting for attention or food; you were looked after constantly, and I can’t emphasise how wonderful the crew were. They began to know our order before we even made it, knew what suggestions to make based on what we had ordered a couple of nights before, and knew our names by the second evening.
On our second day, we were greeted with sunshine during our included city tour of Vienna, previously a Habsburg empire. I found all the included excursions had been designed to make sure you got a taste of each city, and the guides were a wealth of knowledge. After a leisurely stroll, we had time to focus on what we were there for – the Christmas markets. I had my first glass of mulled wine, bought some gifts and took plenty of photos to show everyone at home what they were missing out on. We had the perfect amount of time there. Nothing felt too rushed or like it dragged on, plus there were free shuttles in and out of the city for people who preferred to do their own thing.
That evening, we visited another Christmas market as part of an Optional Excursion to Schönbrunn Palace. This proved to be my favourite market of the week! There was a big highlight on local food and suppliers who were selling exclusive Christmas products. It had also snowed earlier in the day so the whole castle looked truly magical when lit up at night. It was heartwarming to see the vendors and locals doing their best to make everything feel so real and exciting for the children.
The next morning, we woke up in Krems, also known as the gateway to Austria’s famous Wachau Valley. We were up early for an included guided walk to explore the small town where we stopped for coffee and more Christmas shopping. The markets were closed as it was still early in the morning, however the shops were open and decorated.
We sailed to Melk in the afternoon, doubling as tonight’s overnight docking location. This was my favourite part of the cruise – the visit to the Benedictine Abbey was so special and overlooking the town from the highest viewing point was incredible. Sometimes it’s the small towns that you’d never get to see if you weren’t travelling by river that are the real stand outs. We were also the only ship docked for the night, so it felt like we had Melk all to ourselves.
Day 4 saw us set off for Slovakia for a day that featured some daytime sailing. This was perfect to enjoy the onboard facilities. From the Panorama Lounge at the front of the ship, to the Club Lounge at the back, there were plenty of spaces to relax and enjoy everything Avalon has to offer.
Our final stop was Budapest for more Christmas lights and classic sights. I might have been one of the only people onboard that didn’t know Budapest was historically two different cities, so I found the included morning city tour very enlightening. Our local guide was brilliant, and Avalon goes out of their way to try and get you into spaces that most coaches can’t get into or can only get limited time in. The freedom to listen to your local guide with a headset or unplug and enjoy all the sights around you is great for all kinds of travellers.
The local Hungarian food while in Budapest felt just as important as the history, too. Not only was there an optional food tour offering local bites, but the onboard chefs also used local produce to highlight the quality of food.
It was incredibly exciting to see how the other side of the world does Christmas. Being able to unpack once makes the experience relaxing and unforgettable moments like sailing past small, lit up towns is something you can only experience when cruising.
PS I also now completely believe Santa is real.
Take a look at our full range of festive river cruises with Avalon Waterways today.