Among the many excellent benefits for agency employees is a company-paid “dream trip” after 20 years on the job. Studio Services Director Nancy Hogan recounts her recent “Big 20” voyage below.

Author: Nancy Hogan, Studio Services Director

Jim and I began the trip with four days in Manhattan. Coping with a badly misrepresented Airbnb rental dampened the city experience, but only temporarily. We hit the sidewalks and subways, connected with the city’s energy, and reconnected with some of my old friends and Jim’s old haunts. He used to live in the city in the early ’80s. Highlights of our time in New York were: a Diane Arbus photography retrospective at the Met Breuer, the powerful 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero, a Tony award-winning Broadway play called “The Humans,” hours of art at both MoMA and The Metropolitan, and strolls through Central Park.

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From JFK we flew Lufthansa overnight to Munich and connected to Budapest by noon to begin the Avalon Waterways Danube river cruise, destination upriver through Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic. Believe it or not, this was my first trip to Europe. Why did I wait so long?

But before boarding the cruise ship, we spent three days in Budapest at the Chain Bridge Sofitel, a luxurious modern hotel overlooking the Danube and the prominent bridges and buildings of the old city. When we checked in to the hotel, we were randomly upgraded to a most fabulous corner three-room suite with a view of the Parliament building. The universe was taking care of me after having spent four nights in a very questionable apartment in New York! Highlights of our time in Budapest were: an organ recital at St. Stephen’s Basilica, guided walking tours of the city’s historical sites, a culinary walking tour, and a guided trip into the countryside to visit a horse farm and see a show of Hungarian horsemanship. It was like I was in a foreign country!

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At dusk on the third day, along with our 148 fellow travelers, we boarded the Avalon Panorama and sailed north watching the lights of Budapest, the ancient bridges, and the ornate Gothic Revival Hungarian Parliament building slowly recede.

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We didn’t know what to expect of the river cruising experience. I’ve never been on any type of cruise. The thought of vacationing on a large cruise ship holds no interest for me. Our ship moved at a very leisurely pace, and it was amazingly quiet and steady – allowing plenty of time to soak in the beautiful riverside scenery, Hungary on the left, Slovakia on the right. Honestly, it’s a five-star barge.

After cruising all night and most of the following day, our boat arrived in Vienna in the late afternoon. Highlights of the next day in Vienna were: a guided bus and walking tour of the city’s famous sites that included the Vienna Opera House, their own St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and the Hofburg Imperial Palace. We enjoyed samples of the famous apple strudel and Viennese coffee. Our cruise director said he’d be taking names if he saw anyone step into a Starbucks while on the trip. The coffee over there was amazing!

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From Vienna, our cruise continued into Germany with daily stops and more guided tours along the way. Stops included Dürnstein, Passau, Regensburg, and finally Nuremberg. Highlights of those days were: touring the tiny 16th century village of Dürnstein, the medieval village of Regensburg, and the somber ruins of the Nazi parade grounds at Nuremberg where the propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl were staged and shot, and the nearby museum of that tragic chapter.

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From Nuremberg, we left the boat behind and continued cross-country by motor coach to Prague, a ride of about four hours. Accommodations in Prague were the Hotel Intercontinental overlooking the Vltava river and the old city. While our luck of an upgrade didn’t happen, our room was beautiful and the hotel was in a perfect location to walk most everywhere we wanted to go. Highlights of Prague were: guided walking tours of the beautiful city, which is often compared to Paris, a concert of opera and classical music staged especially for our group, and a side trip to the village of Terezin and its 18th century fortress, which was captured by the Nazis and turned into a combination ghetto and concentration camp where Jews from Prague were imprisoned, starved, tortured, and worked to death. It bothered me that there was actually a gift shop there until I realized that the only thing they sold were historical books. I bought a book titled “Draw What You See: A Child’s Drawings From Theresienstadt/Terezin.” I will eventually read the survivor’s story.

 

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Notes on the overall cruise experience: Avalon Waterways is one of several river cruise companies, Viking being the most well-known. But the consensus of our group was that Avalon is probably the best in its category. Everything about the boat was first-class: the rooms, the staff, the service, the meals, and other amenities. The onboard cruise director, a skinny Russian dude with a man bun, really knew his stuff and was hilarious. Every local guide we had was very knowledgeable and entertaining.

Along with the beautiful sights, fascinating history, and culture onshore, the river cruising experience itself was a big part of the fun, including the interesting process of navigating the several river locks on the route, some with elevation changes of 30 to 40 feet or more. Not to mention simple moments sitting with a cup of coffee or glass of wine watching the beautiful countryside pass by. We were amazed to see mile after mile of undeveloped natural forest land beside the river.

Of all the things that I actually expected to happen on the trip, it never occurred to me that I’d come away with new friends. Real friends. Jim and I instantly bonded with an older couple from Toronto – Bob and Nancy. I know what you’re thinking…Jim and I are an older couple…but Bob and Nancy outseniored Jim! They were both retired from the ad business. Bob had been a Creative Director at J. Walter Thompson, Toronto, and Nancy a Brand Manager at JWT. Small world. There were actually several Canadians in our group, all wonderful people.

 

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Thank you, Stan Richards, for the trip of a lifetime. Next on my bucket list (after visiting Bob and Nancy next summer at their cottage north of Toronto) is an Avalon river cruise on the Rhine. I’m thinking Zürich to Amsterdam.

 

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