28 MAY 2019:Beneath the Buda Hills of Budapest awesomeness happens when you least expect it. Tucked away from the famous banks of the Danube River a group of cruising sightseers are peering into mysterious caverns discovering rocky outcroppings verging on mystical art formations.

Occasionally you feel the tears of good luck, “a jó szerencsék könnyei,” as Attila our Hungarian guide describes the cave water drops of the Pálvölgyi Cave.

Considered the longest cave in the Buda Hills throughout the subterranean world bouts of silence could deafen until an angelic voice erupts into Leonard Cohen's classic “Hallelujah.”

As a soloist performs the poetic anthem behind me is more awesomeness. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love sways to the melody, eyes shut, adding her own earthly layer of vocals. Echoes of other voices now fill this rocky chapel of sound in a beat of love.

There are delightful moments to be had, even for seasoned travellers on a European river cruise christening ceremony sometimes verging on firsts as I sailed the Avalon Envision in a thrilling 3-day Danube River cruise.

Last month Budapest bloomed in spring glory. The Buda Hills dotted by the regal Buda Castle with the turrets of the Fisherman's Bastion that evoke a fairytale setting overlooking the romantic Danube River became a memorable backdrop to an inspiring river ship debut. Award-winning bestselling author Elizabeth “Liz” Gilbert, the one who introduced us to living and loving her way through Italy, India and Indonesia was in the house or rather onboard as the ship's godmother.

Avalon Envision Blessing

Invited guests of Globus family of brands, the parent company of Avalon Waterways, gathered on the banks of the Danube to witness what has now become one of my fondest memories in celebratory christening cruises. “We come from the water, we are made of the water, we are drawn to the water. Our lives are rivers meant to be explored and enjoyed,” Liz relays during the blessing.

“Let every curious soul who steps foot upon this vessel have a safe and blessed journey. May we all be changed for the better by what we discover along this river. And may this boat herself know that she is loved and revered, and that we are grateful to her for her strength and beauty. Onward! I christen thee the Avalon Envision,” she announces as the sea of champagne toasting well-wishers watch Liz cut the (umbilical) chord of the ribbon, smashing the bottle of Hungary's finest Tolney sparkling wine over the bow. A thunderous applause erupts with euphoric whistles alongside a trio of ship horns that blast into the Hungarian sunlight sounding like the deep, belching cry from a baby.

The Godmother who was experiencing her first river cruise got to christen a ship.

The New Avalon Envision

Avalon Envision is the 13th all Suite Ship to join the collection of Avalon Waterways award-winning fleet. Ever since Avalon’s Suite Ships first made its big splash with the Avalon Panorama eight years ago, the river cruise company has not only garnered industry awards – including the “Best Cabins” in river cruising from the prestigious site Cruise Critic for four years in a row, they have also won over river cruisers across the globe.

The main feature: the views.

“For the first time, our entire fleet in Europe and Southeast Asia is comprised completely of Suite Ships, each featuring our signature Panorama Suites with the industry’s only Open-Air Balcony and an inviting bed facing the ever-changing scenery on two full decks of every ship. Even seasoned travellers have never seen – or experienced – the world like this,” says Pam Hoffee, Managing Director of Avalon Waterways.

For new features Avalon Waterways river cruisers can expect the expertise of an Avalon Adventure Host, healthy dining choices with Avalon Fresh, and excursions customized to fit 'YourWay.' “It’s really about cruising your way with Avalon from the length of the trip adding land extensions from the choices of excursions on board activities,” Pam tells Travel Industry Today on the breadth of offerings.

In the new program called Avalon YourWay guests can choose pre and post packages with Avalon and its sister companies Globus and Monograms.  “Agents give us a lot of feedback on how easy it is to package a variety of options with Avalon to give a huge amount of choice,” she notes on the extended experiences.

How to Eat, Pray, Love on the Danube

Over three days there were ample opportunities to be delighted. For Liz, the cruise drew her “Eat, Pray, Love” extinct in new ways. The eating part started on her first night in a Budapest cafe over goulash and dumplings and beer with her Mum. “I don't think it's got to be a lot fancier than that,” she offered but pointed out the culinary offerings onboard are packed with intense variety.

For love, it meant bringing her new sweetheart Simon to meet her parents for the first time.  “Bringing these people together whom I care about and giving them this beautiful environment in which to know each other,” she tells me, and notes for “Pray,” minutes earlier she completed a 45-minute meditation with her open air balcony window open.

Envision Experiences through Travel

Liz marvelled at the refurbished beauty of Budapest, a city she had last visited during the post-Communist hangover in 1990 when the cupboards were bare and the place was grim. “Never has it been more important than to travel ...and meet people who are not the same as you,” she surmised the day after the christening on our way to Visegrad on travel's ability to make connections.

For cruise guest Cathy McManaman, Director of Travel Services, National Programs and Strategies at CAA, despite visiting Hungary in the past, she and her husband Jim encountered several first time experiences on the Envision.  “It was the first time we hiked a mountain as steep as Visegrad, the views of the Danube were breathtaking,” she says describing their selected Active excursion which included a castle visit. Avalon Waterways guests have a choice of sightseeing tours from Classic for lore and legends to the new Discovery for inspiring activities as well as the new Active excursions for high impact fun.

For Gerard Bellino, Executive Vice President of Leisure Travel for Direct Travel, North America's fastest growing travel management company, it was finally embarking on a father-son European getaway. “It was my first trip to Europe with my father, something rather unusual considering the industry the both of us spent so many years in. It is also his first trip to Budapest and his first river cruise experience.” His father Nicholas even celebrated his 90th birthday on board.

For this scribe, I got to sleep in a suite where luxury and comfort intertwine and to sail on a river ship that basks in friendly, service not formal service. In a home away from home atmosphere, I got to hang out with Liz in Buda caves that were unknown to me and to watch her mother Carole climb 162 steep stone steps without a flinch. The cave hike led us outside to a secret garden for a jaw dropping view of Budapest.

In a circle of well-healed travellers, many of whom have an A-list of destinations stamped in their passport, it's refreshing to witness so many firsts on board the Avalon Envision.

Yes, I agree the possibilities are as wide open as the views.

For Avalon Waterways information, visit www.agentlingo.ca

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Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

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