Thursday, April 13, 2017

Avalon Waterways - Myanmar - Part IX (The Ship: Avalon Myanmar)

Avalon Myanmar
Avalon Waterways’ Myanmar (Burma) river cruise is, in my opinion, the best overall Irrawaddy River cruise product today.  There is no question, as the only river cruise that sails north of Mandalay, that its itinerary – especially if you are truly interested in seeing what Myanmar is truly like – is the strongest.  And its ship, Avalon Myanmar, launched in 2015, is extremely well designed and clearly purpose built.  Add to that extremely knowledgeable guides and cruise director, a diverse and well executed culinary experience, along with a warm, friendly, and competent crew, and you have an excellent experience waiting for you.  (And, folks, let’s face it, you know I would never say it if I didn’t believe it.)

While I will back up the foregoing in my last article, this article is focused on Avalon Waterways’ ship:  The Avalon Myanmar.

Avalon Myanmar
The Avalon Myanmar is an 18 “all suite” ship.  The ship is designed with an extremely shallow draft and shorter length and height (so that it can go places the other river cruise ships cannot).  That is not to say the ship’s design compromises in other ways, because it really does not (unless you want multiple dining and indoor lounge venues). 

Avalon Myanmar with sampans
The Avalon Myanmar has a large, very comfortable aptly named Panorama Lounge on Deck 2 that is a study in bringing the outside in – with full window walls forward, port and starboard.  Filled with extremely comfortable chairs and sofas, as well as card tables and a small bar, the lounge provides a visually very appealing effect as it looks out onto the outdoor covered Observation Lounge. This makes both spaces appear even larger than they are; and both can easily handle the maximum of 36 guests.  It is, alas, the social hub of the ship and where the Happy Hour and Daily Briefings happen.

Avalon Myanmar's Panorama Lounge

Avalon Myanmar's Panorama Lounge
All the glass brings the outside inside
Avalon Myanmar's Panorama Lounge
Avalon Myanmar's Panorama Lounge Bar
The Observation Lounge with its many lounges and all-weather wicker sofas and chairs is a great semi-protected space overlooking the bow.  While lounging or sitting and reading a book as the Avalon Myanmar cruises down the Irrawaddy River is great, I found that enjoying an early morning coffee or even an evening cocktail while tied up to the shore (with ceiling fans and recessed lighting giving ambiance and comfort) a daily ritual.

Avalon Myanmar Outdoor Observation Lounge

Avalon Myanmar Outdoor Observation Lounge
There is also an open outdoor lounge on Deck 3 with similar furnishings which is a great space in the cooler evenings and for an occasional performance.  I especially like the architectural aspects of the boardwalk.  Note:  There is no spa or plunge pool.  This was explained to be as a concern for too much weight increasing the draft of the ship.  Honestly, having one available on a Mekong River cruise I took a few years ago, I don’t know that most guests would miss it at all.

Avalon Myanmar Deck 3 Lounge


All meals are served in the Dining Room also located aft on Deck 2.  It also has floor to ceiling windows port and starboard so you dine with a great view.  Breakfast and Lunch are a combination of buffet and cook to order items.  Waiters pour juices and coffees, bring you items you later desire and any cook-to-order items if you don’t want to wait.  Dinner is full waiter service.  There is no room service offered. 

When you consider that service is for only 36 people the quality and variety of offerings on the Avalon Myanmar is very impressive.

Breakfast consists of a robust variety of Western offerings (with breads, cereals, fruits, cook to order eggs/omelets, smoked salmon, bacon, potatoes, sausages and more offered every day) plus some Myanmar culinary offerings (usually a hot soup or congee).  The coffee is excellent and is served via French Press.

Avalon Myanmar's Cook to Order and Buffet Breakfast

Lunch is even more diverse in its offerings with a variety of Western and Asian cold salads, a hot and cold Western soup, a Myanmar cuisine soup, cold cuts, finger sandwiches, at least three hot dishes (one being local) and one usually being fish, plus enough vegetables and non-meat offerings to please even strict vegetarians (Broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, tomatoes and potatoes are large part of the local cuisine so Western friendly fresh veggies are plentiful.)  A cheese board with three types of cheese is also offered. (The blue cheese was a favorite on my cruise.)


Avalon Myanmar's Cook to Order and Buffet Lunch



Dinner is a more elaborate affair (though still casual) with a menu offering at least three starters, two soups, four or five main courses (plus Western standards of chicken breast, salmon and steak) and three different desserts; one being a different variety of ice cream.  The only little niggle (and it is little):  You have to order your dessert when ordering your meal, but the cheese board is always available as well.

The quality of the food ranged from excellent (most often) to very good.  This is not haute cuisine, but well prepared, flavorful and well presented dishes.  The chef was truly a chef with a lot of talent and a staff that cared about preparation and presentation.  That said when we first arrived there were some complaints that the food was too bland; Avalon (not the chef) focusing on most Western palates not wanting to venture too far into the spicy Asian cuisine.  So we did an experiment:  Avalon slightly kicked up the spices on most dishes and offered one that was authentically prepared.  It was a huge success.  (Plus the chef was happy – possibly thrilled – to be able to use his talents…and he graciously specially spice up my dishes at lunch and dinner.)

Wine and beer are “free flowing” during both lunch and dinner.  The included beer is Mandalay on tap and Myanmar in a can.  The included wines are a small selection of inoffensive chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, tempranillo and Cabernet wines.  I would like to see some better wines and definitely more variety in the complimentary pours.  There is actually a very well chosen premium wine list if you are so inclined.

During your cruise the bar is always open for local spirits (gin, vodka, whiskey, rum), beer and soft drinks.  A solid selection of premium liquors is also available for a very reasonable charge.  And the bartender can actually make a good drink (something I have seen falling off on many of my recent cruises.)  There is a happy hour every evening at 6:00 p.m. where there is a creative drink of the day which many of the guests enjoyed.  One niggle:  Wine is not included as a complimentary beverage from the bar, even during happy hour. I think it should be.

Avalon Myanmar Suite
At approximately 245 square feet, I am not sure the identical accommodations – located on Decks 1 and 2 - qualify as suites, but they are quite large, well designed and beautiful.  Below the attractive headboard is either twin or king bedding, which is very comfortable with high quality bedding.  There are overhead, individual lights and table lamps on the night tables, plus USB charging points on either side of the bed.  There is also a multi-speed fan over the bed when used in combination with the impressive air conditioning will keep you cool even when the temperature climbs over 110 F (38 C) degrees. 

The suites have a good size desk with a small refrigerator wwith soft drinks, beer and water (restocked daily), a small comfortable sofa, table and chair.  A large hanging closet with automatic light and a cupboard with shelves and a larger safe are also provided as are bathrobes.



One of the nicest features is the suite-width floor to ceiling windows which easily slide open so that you have effectively a huge balcony.  But making that even better is the similarly disappearing screen system that allows you to have the doors open to let the sights, sounds and breeze in, but the insects out.

Slide open your doors in your Avalon Myanmar Suite
and enjoy the outdoors.
(A nifty sliding screen is available to keep the insects out.)
The bathrooms are extremely well designed with very large showers with rain fall and spray heads that received unsolicited raves from most of the guests.  L’Occitane shower amenities are provided, but in wall-mounted pump bottles (not my favorite way to provide same) and there is a thoughtful step for women to shave their legs.  The toilets are quiet and work.  There is a single lavatory with plenty of shelving behind and to the side of it along with a pull out lighted vanity mirror.  The bathroom lighting is very good, with lots of options (as with the bedroom).  A hair dryer is provided (located in a bag under the lavatory.) I would like the bath towels to be a bit more plush.

Avalon Myanmar has large showers

While you pretty much never see your room steward (at least in that function, as they are around during the excursions to provide assistance) they are trained to leave your stuff alone!  Yay!! To leave my papers as I left them and my toiletries in the order I like is a little, but appreciated, thing.

Avalon Myanmar's Fitness Center


 Located on Deck 3 is the Fitness Center.  The Fitness Center is small, but includes high quality equipment including a treadmill and an elliptical walking machine as well as free weights and yoga mats.  The Fitness Center is open 24 hours a day, but with a request that no running on the treadmill before 6:30 a.m. (walking is fine).


Across from the Fitness Center are two spa rooms.  A nice variety of massages are available and beside the two excellent massages I had the other guests also spoke positively.  The nail service did draw a few complaints.

What Makes the Avalon Myanmar the Best Irrawaddy River Cruise Option

Without question, the most luxurious ship physically speaking is The Strand.  However, it only sails on 3 or 4 day itineraries from Bagan to Mandalay or the reverse.  Let's face it, that is not an itinerary that really visits much of anything.  It is, more than not, a hotel stay on a river with a couple of day excursions.  Further, its staterooms (other than the largest suites) are thes same size or smaller than the Avalon Myanmar. There is butler service and in suite wifi (versus Avalon's wifi only in the lounge), but the wifi is limited to the relatively poor cellular service that exists in Myanmar.  And, while the dining and bar facilities are larger, there are almost double the guests onboard.

Scenic Aura is another all-suite ship from a fine river cruise company carrying 44 guests.  However, not only do you not travel further north than Mingun (and, let's face it, north of Mandalay is where the real Myanmar is), you are facing a 7 hour bus ride from Yangon to Pyay to start your cruise (while Avalon Myanmar charters flights).  The suites are very well designed and do provide a true balcony with sizes the same or larger than those on the Avalon Myanmar.  The ship does have multiple dining venues and lounges, a pool and more in a true all-inclusive experience.  The personal balance to be made is whether missing out on 50% of the itinerary and facing a 7 hour bus ride is offset by a more shipside more luxurious experience and costing literally 50% more.  (For some this may be a good option if the Avalon Myanmar itinerary is thought to be too challenging.)

AmaWaterways has actually suspended its Irrawaddy River cruise because its prior ship, AmaPura - not so dissimilar to the two above are too large to fully deliver the best itinerary.

In summary, the Avalon Myanmar provides a fulfilling, enriching, and very comfortable experience that allows you to not only discover Myanmar, but to do so without long bus rides and missed ports.