Choice eats on Avalon Expression

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The Avalon Expression sailed its christening cruise in early May.For passengers seeking a lighter yet equally sophisticated alternative to the main restaurant, Avalon Waterways has introduced a four-course, tapas-style dining venue, the Panorama Bistro, onboard its new Avalon Expression river cruise ship.

Fresh from the Netherlands' Den Breejen Shipyard and sailing its christening cruise in early May, the Avalon Expression debuted the bistro concept to a group of journalists onboard for the ship's maiden voyage. The main course consisted of a beef roulade, a thin, rolled flank steak seasoned and baked to perfection, which sat on a small dinner plate alongside a broiled sea scallop and an artfully plated helping of alpine spaetzle.

The Panorama Bistro is part of the river cruise line's Avalon Choice program, an effort to offer passengers a greater array of experiences. The program, which was announced last year, is being rolled out across Avalon's Panorama-class ships.

The Panorama Bistro is an elegant experience providing four courses of tapas-style dishes in the forward section of the ship's main lounge.

The venue is available to a maximum of 24 people, seated at six tables for four, and is offered two to three times per each seven-day sailing.

That means that not all of the ship's 166 passengers will be able to partake, and reservations are required, but there is no extra fee.

During the christening cruise, each course was paired with wine, and the other courses featured cold asparagus salad, cream of potato soup and Hungarian goulash. Desserts included a mini berry tartlet, chocolate banana mousse and opera cake, a type of layered sponge cake.

"We tested the concept of Panorama Bistro with customers last year and had a great response," said Patrick Clark, Avalon's managing director. "Now we're making sure to get the presentation right.

"People were telling us that they're eating so much every night in the dining room, it would be great to have a lighter, small-plate option in a bistro-style setting," Clark said.

A second alternative dining venue, also part of Avalon Choice, enables 40 passengers to occasionally enjoy an alfresco lunch, also at no extra charge, on the ship's top deck.

Tables seating four to eight people are arranged under a shaded canopy area, and a buffet offers various salads along with grilled fish, chicken, beef and sausage. Reservations are required for this venue, too.

A grill lunch also will be offered two to three times per seven-day cruise, weather permitting.

"Ocean cruise customers have driven some of these dining decisions," said Clark, noting that specialty restaurants abound on blue-water ships and are popular with customers.

In addition to the two alternative dining options, Avalon Choice includes new options for the line's shore excursions. While there's been no change to Avalon's policy of including a guided tour in each port of call, it has broadened the pace and scope of the tours.

"We now offer three categories: a leisurely tour, offered at a slower pace; a traditional tour, which is a standard walking tour; and an essential tour," Clark explained. "The essential is a more brisk pace, where we take the group to the city's or the village's highlights and then provide maps so they can go off on their own."

A fourth category, called an alternative option, is offered on a limited basis in some cities. "In Amsterdam, for example, we'll offer an off-the-beaten-track art tour.

"We will be expanding our alternative tours in the future, but you can really only create these in the larger cities," said Clark.

Clark said that all of the new tours will not necessarily be offered in every destination. Logistically, there needs to be a minimum number of passengers who want each option.

"The numbers have to work," he said. The cruise director will determine which options will be offered based on those numbers, and the traditional tour will always be offered.

The Avalon Expression is a sister ship to the Artistry II, which launched earlier this year, and is the fifth ship in the company's Panorama class of vessels.

Like other Panorama-class ships, the Expression's Royal and Panorama suites feature a full wall of windows with sliding glass doors that open to 7 feet wide, transforming each suite into what Avalon calls an open-air balcony.

The Avalon Expression was christened May 6 in Koblenz, Germany, during a five-day Rhine and Moselle river cruise that began in Frankfurt and ended in Amsterdam.

Author Patricia Schultz served as godmother. Schultz wrote "1,000 Places to See Before You Die: A Traveler's Life List," and "1,000 Places to See in the USA and Canada Before You Die."

For 2013, the Avalon Expression is sailing seven- and 14-day cruises between Amsterdam and Budapest.

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