Sent by Jennifer Mouser
Chelmsford 1/7/2022 4:45:00 PM
Based in Totton
Welcome to my personal webpage at Travel Counsellors. As a bit of background, I have been in the travel industry in various sectors for over 30 years, and have had my own business for 18 years of that! Previous positions have included overseas sailing instructor, holiday rep, corporate/VIP flight attendant, cabin crew manager, cruise product manager as well as long-haul and cruise sales. All of which have given me a broad knowledge of travel as a whole.
Having spent several of my childhood years in East Africa, I've had the travel bug from an early age, and have travelled extensively worldwide throughout my life. I've also been fortunate enough to live and work in Sweden, Bahrain and New Zealand.
My specialist areas of expertise are cruising, Australia/New Zealand, Africa and tailor-made long-haul itineraries, as well as honeymoons. However, I am able to book all types of holiday arrangements including UK breaks, European packages, flight only etc. I am an accredited specialist for Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Tahiti, the Caribbean, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Dubai, South Africa and Namibia, as endorsed by the relevant tourism authorities.
I am also one of only a few Masters with CLIA (previously known as Association of Cruise Experts), and have been awarded "Cruise Expert of the Year" for UK & Ireland by a panel of leading industry executives, and been shortlisted for the national Agent Achievement Awards CLIA Cruise Master for the last 3 years. I have also been nominated for, and awarded, various other national cruise awards, including River Cruise Ambassador. As a cruise specialist I cruise every year and visit as many ships as possible to familiarise myself with the different products on offer - in the last few years I have either cruised with or visited ships belonging to all of the major cruise lines.
Working from my office at home without the distractions and limitations of the high street, and the impersonality and noise of a call centre, I am available at a time that suits you. I offer exceptional customer service to ensure each and every trip exceeds your expectations. I will give a bespoke personal service when arranging your holiday requirements, whether it be a package, tailor-made holiday, business travel, flights or accommodation only and car hire.
If you would like regular updates of my special offers, please do get in touch.
I look forward to hearing from you and helping to plan your dream holiday.
I absolutely live and breathe travel and I love to write about my experiences! Please take a look through my posts - you might find your own holiday inspiration.
15 August 2020
Located off the east coast of Africa, and part of Tanzania, the island of Zanzibar is one of my favourite destinations. I was brought up in Kenya & Tanzania as a child and have fond memories of visiting Zanzibar on holiday. Recently I returned as an adult and here are my top tips: 1. Combine with a safari in Kenya or Tanzania for a truly magical experience 2. Do a multi-centre by combining a stay with the historic capital, Stone Town, and a beach hotel either on the mainland and/or one of the smaller islands such as Pemba 3. Visit Jozani forest to see the rare endemic red colobus monkeys 4. Have lunch at the iconic The Rock restaurant (beautiful views & delicious food!) 5. Do the Princess Salme spice tour with the wonderful guide Anjam to learn about the Omani history, discover Mtoni Palace ruins, and visit a fabulous spice farm 6. Take a dhow boat trip with Safari Blue, find whales/dolphins, snorkel in stunning locations and have an amazing seafood lunch on an island 7. Wander round ancient Stone Town and get lost around the alleyways - find studded wooden doors, a mix of African, Arabic & colonial architecture, local markets & discover remnants of the slave trade 8. Stay in traditional boutique hotels such as Emerson Spice; luxury 5* hotels with overwater villas eg KonoKono beach resort; and barefoot luxury properties such as Fundu Lagoon on Pemba island 9. See the giant tortoises on Prison Island 10. Allow yourself longer than you think to enjoy everything this magical island in the Indian Ocean has to offer
12 July 2019
2 nights Anchorage, 3 nights Seward & 10 nights Alaska cruise on Azamara Quest from Seward to Vancouver Day 1: Anchorage Landing into Anchorage gave me my first glimpse of the stunning scenery and backdrop of the mountains. I stayed in an area of downtown called Ship Creek which is situated on the salmon river, popular with local fishermen. In order to get myself into the right time zone (9 hours behind the UK) I forced myself to stay up and go out, so I went to the Moose’s Tooth pizzeria and bar. This is renowned as having the 3rd best pizza in the US (and it was some of the best I’ve had!), plus brews it’s own beers. Even on a Monday night it was packed with a 40 minute wait for a table. On returning to the hotel I went for a walk by the railway station (across the road) to see the trains that were back in. All the famous scenic Alaskan trains go from here eg McKinley Express, Wilderness Explorer etc. Great to be able to photograph them under the Midnight Sun with the sun still shining brightly at 10pm. Day 2: 26 Glaciers cruise with Philips Cruises Body-clock not quite adjusted, so awake early, but it gave me time to set myself up for the day! Got a lift along to the Captain Cook Hotel (supposedly one of the best in downtown and where Barack Obama stayed when he visited) as this was my pick up point for my tour. Sat and people watched in the lobby as the hotel seemed to disgorge vast numbers of people on their way to Princess and Seabourn cruise tours. Had a great 2 hour transfer along the Turnagain Fjord, Portage and through the famous longest tunnel in the US (via a couple of lookout points) to Whittier, where we joined the Klondike Express. Our driver/guide was friendly & knowledgeable, which really made short work of the journey. The 5 1/2 hour boat trip was a wonderful mixture of scenic cruising through fjords, past temperate rainforest, waterfalls and glaciers plus wildlife viewing through Prince William Sound. Got up close and personal with several glaciers. Stunning blue ice, the thunderous crack as chunks broke off and being surrounded by blocks of ice was an amazing sight (if freeezing!). Day 3: Train from Anchorage to Seward & Glacier dog-sledding Another very early start to catch the 0605 Coastal Classic scenic train to Seward. I treated myself to the Goldstar level which includes travel in a 2 level glass dome carriage with a large viewing platform, cooked breakfast and free drinks! The views were stunning and a wonderful way to travel between Anchorage (the international airport closest for cruising) and Seward, where the majority of cruise lines start or end. Seward has a great free shuttle bus service around the small town, so you can get anywhere either on this or by foot. And then the highlight of my day - glacier husky dog sledding with Turning Heads Kennels. There were only 3 of us making it a very personal experience. I was lucky enough to sit in the front seat of the helicopter for the ride up to the top of the glacier, giving spectacular views. We learnt about the dogs and training from our musher Rachel before setting off on our dog sled, pulled by a very eager team. And then to top it off we met the 4 puppies that are kept at the camp - enough for one for each of us! I chose the cutest little fawn one, who spent most of the time asleep. They’d only just been named but the team couldn’t remember which dog was which. It was decided mine was Lizzie (or lazy Lizzie!). Dinner was at the highly rated “The Cookery” which happened to be over the road from the hotel (very handy!) I can see why it’s one of the best - great food, wonderful service and friendly atmosphere! I had Alaskan scallops followed by the highly prized Copper River salmon and then instead of a dessert I had Alaskan wild mushrooms on toast! One of the best dinners I’ve had in a very long time. Day 4: Cruise to Kenai Fjords National Park Very successful full day trip on Kenai Fjords Tours trip called “National Park with dinner on Fox Island”. Weather overcast and quite cold, but thankfully it wasn’t raining and seas were calm. Wildlife seen: - 5 humpback whales including a mother & calf - sea otters - Stellar sea lions - harbour seals - cormorants - bald eagles - black oystercatchers - common murres - horned puffins - tufted puffins (which we nicknamed the Trump puffin due to their yellow combovers - poor things!) Also saw some spectacular scenery both on the mainland peninsulas and the islands, including the incredible Aialik Glacier. We stayed here for quite a long time as chunks kept calving off with a thundering crack. Very impressive. We then cruised to Fox Island (where red foxes were once bred for their pelts) for a salmon dinner at the lodge there and a talk from a park ranger. Another great day in Alaska! Day 5: Real Alaska Day Tour with Seavey’s Ididaride Although the Best Western includes a limited breakfast buffet I decided to go over the road to Zudys Cafe for a more superior offering. Had a Hula breakfast - bagel with cream cheese, thick slabs of Alaskan smoked salmon and avocado - absolutely delicious! Today I did a tour offered by Seavey’s Ididaride (a play on words from the word “Iditarod” - the famous dog sledding race in Alaska). The Seaveys are the most successful family with Mitch Seavey winning in 2017 (for the 3rd time)with the fastest time yet (his son, Dallas, came 2nd!). The tour included a hike to Exit Glacier - unfortunately a very fast receding glacier, with frightening markers along the path showing where the glacier used to reach over the last 100 years. I chose to do a relatively flat walk at the base, walking through bear country (interesting when on your own, so I sang as recommended!) Then on to Bear Creek Weir. Although we didn’t see any bears, we did see lots of sockeye salmon running upriver and jumping the weir. And finally to the summer husky dog camp! We met Hugo, the celebrity dog (apparently! I’d never heard of it but he was the star of Disney’s “Snow Buddies”), cuddled husky puppies, learnt about how the dogs and mushers prepare for and run the Iditarod, and went on a dogsled using specially built metal carts for the dogs to pull. Another great day in Alaska.
12 July 2019
Day 6: Joining Azamara Quest Up most of the night to experience midsummers night in Alaska. Took photographs at 10pm, midnight, 4am, 5.30am (ship coming in!) - all in daylight. Packed in the morning and headed over to Zudys for a coffee before the hotel shuttle took me to the cruise terminal. A very quick and easy process here as only one ship in at a time in Seward as a whole, and as Azamara ships are small, I was there early and being a Discoverer level of Le Club Voyage (giving a priority queue) I sailed through and was on board shortly after 12pm. Great to see old friends (which is what many of the crew are now after 10 sailings!) Enjoyed lunch in the buffet restaurant looking out at the stunning views. Can’t believe how lucky I’ve been with the weather. Got into the cabin at about 1.30, to find it had been decorated by my cabin steward, and had beautiful flowers and bottle of champagne from the hotel director for my birthday. Very touching. Magnificent sailaway down Resurrection Bay - going to be hard to beat that in future cruises. Early dinner and relatively early night as want to be bright eyed tomorrow for cruising the Hubbard Glacier. Day 7: Hubbard Glacier What a beautiful day in Alaska. Today we cruised Hubbard Glacier. Only 1 ship is allowed to approach at a time so although we were at the entrance to the bay early in the morning we were 3rd in line and so bobbed in the water admiring the view and spotting orcas (I missed them!). For those cruise ship geeks, Norwegian Jewel was the first ship in, followed by Holland America’s MS Maasdam, then us, then Golden Princess (which loomed above the rest). I love the fact our little ship was able to get a lot closer to the face of the glacier than the others. I did take the one and only excursion offered - a trip on a boat as close to the glacier as possible. The boat pulled up right alongside our landing platform and we transferred over. There was plenty of space for everyone to get amazing views and pictures. The scale of the glacier is staggering and listening to it crack and chunks calve off with a crash was stunning to watch. In the evening I had dinner with my lovely friends Ngawhira (guest relations manager) and Fabio (food & beverage manager) before going to the Captains Welcome reception and the Azamara singers and dancers show. Being a boutique ship with a show lounge, entertainment is quite traditional and low key, so don’t expect Broadway style shows in 2 storey theatres on here! Day 8: Icy Strait Point Oh dear - another stunning day in Alaska. I’d even go so far as to say it was hot. (The locals called it a scorcher!) We were the first ship in and last one out of port - one of Azamara’s great features - longer in port to really explore the destination. I did the ships shore excursion “Whale watching, wildlife & search for brown bears”. Being the first tour ashore in the tender it was lovely to see the small town before it was mobbed! We did the bear hike first with our lovely guide Amy and ranger Michael. Initially it looked like we were going to be out of luck but at the final viewing platform a brown bear appeared on the other side of the river, waded across and came up our trail. I can’t tell you how exciting this was - silly grin time! Our small group (only 11 guests - perfect for looking for wildlife) then boarded our own high speed boat to take us out to look for humpback whales. I’ve never seen so many in one place, including a mother and calf. We were treated to several tails as the whales dived plus I heard them singing - something I’ve never heard before. Also surrounding us were many playful sea lions and overhead lots of bald eagles. An absolutely amazing boat trip. I had considered doing the famous zip line in the afternoon but felt rather lazy and stayed on board admiring the view! For dinner I ate in one of the speciality restaurants, Aqualina, with a couple I’d briefly met before on a day trip from Southampton- and who happened to also be on here (small world!) Day 9: Cruising Finally - my first day in Alaska not full on hectic with seeing & doing! I know some people aren’t keen on sea days, but I love them as I can do just as I please - sleep in, have sit down breakfast in main restaurant, catch up on laundry, read a book, go through photos, watch the world go by etc etc So I did most of these, and more! I also did my Jane McDonald impersonation and ran round the ship with my selfie stick - video to come later once it has been edited! As I’m Discoverer level in Le Club Voyage (Azamara‘s loyalty club) I was invited to the special LCV breakfast - always a great event with a superb brunch laid out and served by senior officers and crew. Just one of the onboard perks!
12 July 2019
Day 10: Juneau The largest port on our itinerary so far - although most shops seem to be tourist jewellery traps! I did manage to find a nice T-shirt though! Perfect port if you’re a cruise ship geek - apart from us there was also Golden Princess & Star Princess (both Princess Cruises) & MS Noordam (Holland America Line). Today I did another ship’s excursion called “Mendenhall Glacier & Whale watching photo safari”. This was a great tour led by a professional photographer with a very small group (only 9 of us), so he could take us to the best places for photographs and help with settings and composition etc. The first part of the tour was a hike in the Tongass National Forest. Most tourists don’t go here as you have to have a permit so it was beautifully peaceful. A great place for photographing nature, and then at the end the view to the glacier and lake. Following this we went on a fast boat out to the main area the humpback whales congregate and had some wonderful viewings of well-known whales of the area, such as Flame and her calf Bunsen. After the tour I took the Tramway to the top of Mt Roberts for an amazing view, short walk around one of the trails and lunch of their famous crab nachos. Despite ordering the half size portion the serving was ridiculously huge (but delicious!), so no I didn’t manage it! The Alaska Amber beer was also worth a go. Then in the evening I booked to take part in the French Chefs Table - a highlight for foodies of a 7 course food & wine pairing menu, which was gorgeous. There were also Alaskan and Japanese themed Chefs Tables on this cruise. Day 11: Skagway (My birthday!) Another glorious day in Alaska - in fact positively roasting. (All the locals were complaining it was too hot!) Walked ashore and went for a quick explore of this old Klondike Gold Rush town. It really isn’t very big but has some interesting history and several of the buildings hold museums or replica interiors of the times. I particularly liked the Corrington Museum which holds a lot of indigenous artefacts as well as the Gold Rush information. And of course I had to have a drink in the infamous Red Onion Saloon - formerly a bar/brothel, where the girls still dress a little like those of the day (maybe a few more clothes!) My booked excursion was a round trip ride on the White Pass railroad, which was originally built to help get gold miners over the mountains to the gold - however by the time it was completed the Gold Rush had ended! The journey is so scenic and you travel in restored vintage carriages. As my birthday treat I’d booked the Legacy Club car which was exceptionally swish, with comfy leather swivel chairs, food & drink on demand, a very friendly & informative attendant and a great view from the viewing platform overlooking the back of the train. A must do experience if you ever go to Skagway. In the evening I was treated like a princess being hosted on the top officers table for dinner, with a surprise birthday cake and great company. Day 12: Sitka By now you might think I’d have had enough of boat cruises and wildlife - but no, today I did the excursion called “Sea otters, raptors & bears”. This started off with a boat cruise to find wildlife. Sitka is known for its sea otter population, after being hunted to near extinction by the Russians in the past and now they’re back. We found a raft of females with their pups tied up in the kelp - pictures will follow as my iPhone couldn’t pick them up from a distance! We then proceeded to find sea lions, harbour seals, male sea otters, bald eagles (now got to the point of being blasé about seeing them) and a humpback whale. On returning to land we went to the Raptor rehabilitation centre, which was fascinating, including seeing several bald eagles being prepared for release plus a partially blind juvenile who can never be released but is used for education - amazing how big these birds are. As an adult (at about 5, when they gain their distinctive plumage) they can have a 7 foot wingspan. And then finally to the Fortress of the Bear - a bear sanctuary that takes in orphaned cubs. Unfortunately due to Alaskan regulations they can’t be released back into the wild. I could have stayed there for hours watching the cubs and young adults at play. It was an especially hot day so most of the bears were in the water! Loved watching the 2 x 1 year old sisters playing and the older bears lazing in the heat. After the tour there was just enough time to run up to the famous Russian church, St Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral, for a quick look around at the artefacts and learn the history of the church and the Russian influence on Sitka. In the evening I ate in my favourite specialty restaurant, Prime C, the steakhouse with my friend Ngawhira (isn’t it great that senior crew on Azamara are encouraged to mix and find with the guests? You don’t find that on many cruise ships.) Beef carpaccio, lobster salad, chateaubriand with jacket potato, spinach & bearnaise sauce, chocolate fondant. Sounds yum? It was!
12 July 2019
Day 13: KETCHIKAN Sadly the final day in Alaska, before we headed down to Canada. Another beautiful day sailing into Ketchikan. We were the 2nd ship into port, but ended up being busy with 4 ships! Today’s excursion was another boat cruise - this time the Misty Fjords Wilderness Adventure. I’d been a little bit concerned that after all the magnificent trips I’d done that this would be slightly disappointing as it was billed as a scenic cruise, however it was excellent, with some wonderful scenery, excellent narration from the naturalist on board, and a fascinating talk from a local Tlingit bone carver about the people and their culture. One of the highlights for me was seeing a young black bear swimming in the sea and then climbing the rocks onto an island. Afterwards I explored the town including the boardwalk along the front, and onward to Creek Street - the infamous Red light district in the Gold Rush days (and now full of cafes and gift shops!) Although touristy the area is well-preserved and makes for great photos with the multi-coloured buildings. In the evening we had our special AzAmazing Evening - a complimentary event put on by Azamara on the majority of its sailings. Tonight was great fun at The Lumberjack Show with a welcome by First Nations tribal singing and dancing plus great music by the Ratfish Wranglers. The show itself was highly entertaining as well as being very skilful with competitions to show off all aspects of a lumberjacks work including axe work, chainsaws, climbing poles and running logs in water! Day 14: Day at sea Cruising the inside passage today from Alaska to Canada. Sea like a millpond. Lovely to sit out on my balcony or on the promenade deck and watch the world go by. I love the sight and sound of the sea. One of my favourite Azamara foodie events took place today - the jazz brunch. This is a spectacular brunch buffet put on in the Discoveries restaurant with great live music. It’s always popular and people queue from early on to be the first ones in! Bit of a foodie day really as went back to Prime C for dinner again with new friends I made on board. But before dinner started we were treated to a fabulous spectacle. It was dusk (about 8 ) and suddenly we were amongst lots and lots of humpback whales. As far as you could see there were whales breaching, fin slapping, diving with flukes showing etc. This went on for quite some time and was a real treat. Everything stopped for the whales - even the chefs came out of the kitchen to see! I’ve never seen anything quite like it. No matter how often you see whales they never fail to impress. (Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me so no pictures to show you - you’ll just have to believe me - or come and see for yourself!) Day 15: Victoria, Vancouver Island, Canada We came into Victoria today - but I didn’t go ashore. You see I’ve spent some time here before and had seen/done everything I wanted to, plus it was Canada Day and the city centre was bedlam, plus it’s my last day on board so it’s nice to make the most of the ship when it’s quiet as well as boring stuff such as packing! In the evening we had our White Night party on deck. This normally wouldn’t be done on the last night of a cruise but due to noise regulations in most Alaska ports plus weather considerations it made the most sense. The crew put on an amazing event as ever with a huge buffet and great live music. Once the sun set it did get a bit nippy but it just made you dance all the more! Day 16: Vancouver Disembarked to explore the Aquarium & Granville Island market before heading to the airport for my flight home. To roundup this was the ultimate trip of a lifetime ... and I’d love to return some day.
03 May 2019
You’ve booked your cruise, and are all excited when you get on board. So, what should you do first? Here’s my top tips for things to do in the first couple of hours: Personally I try to get to the port in good time so that I can be one of the first on board. Please note however that some cruise lines, especially those with large ships, stagger the boarding process and you are given a check-in time so that they don’t have 6,000 guests all trying to check-in and board the ship at the same time – nothing worse than a very long queue. Depending on when you board, your cabin may not be available just yet while the crew work hard to turn the ship around and clean/prepare all the cabins. Some cruise lines will have an area where you can leave any large pieces of hand luggage that you may have with you and don’t wish to carry around. You will be notified over the PA system when the cabins are available. Once you’re on board, here are my top 10 things to do (not necessarily in this order – it depends on what’s most important to you!) 1. Firstly, if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably be pretty hungry and ready for some lunch. The buffet restaurant will always be open straight away, and is a great place to get something to eat and drink, relax and work out your plan for the day. 2. Drinks packages – if you’re not on an all inclusive cruise, you may wish to consider buying a drinks package. Not all ships offer them, but it’s worth checking. Do work out though if they’re going to be good value for you – sometimes it’s worth it just for peace of mind! 3. While I’m still on the subject of food and drink – most ships have speciality dining restaurants. Apart from the luxury cruise lines, these will have a small supplement, and should be pre-booked as soon as possible in order to get the days/times you like. When you’re deciding when to go take into consideration what else you are planning on doing that day i.e. any shore excursions, going to the theatre in the evening etc 4. If you have children, go along to the kids’ club to check out the facilities, meet the team and register your kids. 5. Almost all cruises will have a spa intro party – which can be quite fun and there are prizes to be had! If you wish to book spa treatments, do this asap, especially if you’re having something for a special occasion e.g. birthday celebration. Many ships have a spa/thermal relaxation area, which you can purchase a pass for the day or the cruise duration – these do sell quickly due to the space limitations! Note that on port days there are quite often special promotions, so if you’re not going ashore and you’re flexible on what treatment you’d like you could get yourself a bargain by waiting! 6. On some of the larger cruise ships, there are various entertainment areas and shows, some of which need to be pre-booked e.g. Cirque du Soleil on MSC and the ice shows on Royal Caribbean 7. If you haven’t pre-booked your shore excursions, the shore excursion desk will be open for any queries and bookings. If you wish to do any trips that will be space limited e.g. helicopter trips, then I strongly recommend you prebook these, if nothing else! 8. On the larger ships there will be plenty of activities that may require booking, so pop your name down once you get on board (you can always change them if necessary subject to the T&Cs) e.g. North Star & iFly on Royal Caribbean 9. Once you’re allowed in your cabin, go and check it out. Ensure your beds are made up how you’d like, and everything is up to scratch. If you need anything, get in touch with your cabin steward – they’re wonderful and will bend over backwards to look after you. Note that you may not get your luggage for a few hours, so if you’d like to change or freshen up then make sure you put your washbag/clean clothes in your hand luggage. 10. And finally – go and explore! This is half the fun of a new ship – and of course there’s lots of places to stop along the way… cheeky Strawberry Daiquiri anyone? Don’t forget that there will be a mandatory safety drill before you set sail, which you must attend for your own safety! ENJOY YOUR CRUISE…
14 July 2017
Have you ever considered meandering along the waterways of southern France on a luxury barge, converted from an original working boat? No? Nor had I until I was invited to travel with Belmond on one of their “Afloat in France” barges on the River Saone. This is one of those rare products that unless you know of it already you wouldn’t know to ask for it – something truly special and once experienced a) never forgotten and b) desperate to be repeated! For all lovers of luxury, intimate travel, boutique high end accommodation or river cruising on a personal level, this is the ideal option. Belmond, synonymous with luxury train journeys such as the Venice-Simplon Orient Express and Northern Belle, as well as stunning hotels worldwide, has a fleet of barges converted to hold 4-12 guests in true luxury on several rivers in France. The majority of sailings are sold as full vessel charters, for which the itinerary and excursions can be personalised. However on the larger boats there are specific sailings which allow you to book individual cabins within a cruise. The boats are designed with a stylish and comfortable country house elegance, with a crew of 6 to attend to you in a relaxed and informal style. They comprise of a Captain, his 2nd in command, chef, 2 on-board hostesses and an onshore host/guide. The food is of an exceptional standard, all freshly prepared on board by the skilful chef, and paired with delicious regional wines chosen by the very knowledgeable wine hostess. All meals and drinks are included throughout, including champagne and quality wines. The cabins are larger than expected, with comfortable bedding, plenty of storage and good size shower rooms. On the roof of my particular boat, Napoleon, (all boats are individual and have slightly different facilities), there was a good size area with sun loungers, a hot tub and a dining area for al fresco lunches – perfect for making the most of the weather, viewing the beautiful scenery and watching the world go by. Despite the high standard of the product there is no pretension, with a casual relaxed atmosphere – no dressing for dinner unless you choose to do so! The crew are exceptionally personable and will join in on conversations, entertainment etc – but remaining professional at the same time. We joined the boat, under the command of mad Scot Captain John, at St Jean-de-Losne, having transferred from Paris by luxury people carrier. Guests may choose to travel by rail if they prefer, which I would recommend due to the journey length and comfort! We were welcomed with chilled champagne, which was very much appreciated and a sign of things to come. Once we’d settled in we set off for a little cruise up the river and back to start our luxury barge experience, watching the sunset with drinks and canapes. After dinner we were then treated to a sample of the type of entertainment that Belmond can arrange for its guests – a fantastic duo, supposedly cousins of the Gypsy Kings, whose guitar playing and singing were outstanding and had us up on our feet. Our 3 night fam trip gave us a great taste of some of the excursions that may be experienced. Belmond operate this in a personal way by having their own luxury minibus which the tour hostess/guide drives between each docking point and then taking the guests off to local points of interest and for various activities. Our particular hostess’ knowledge and local contacts were second to none, and we were sad to learn that she was moving on to start a new life with her partner (although the Captain reckons she’ll be back!!) We were treated to some excellent trips, the first of which was a walk through the medieval town of Beaune, with a visit to Hotel Dieu – a museum of the hospital for the poor, built on the orders of the then Chancellor of Burgundy (to win his place in heaven!) We were then taken on a tour of the cellars of the winemaker Joseph Drouhin, followed by a wine-tasting of some of their wines. I particularly liked the 1996 Clos des Mouches and the 2014 Chablis Premier Cru, and was very tempted to treat myself to a couple of bottles. Although I resisted at the time, I wish I hadn’t as prices were so much better value than when sold in the UK. On our 2nd day we had a walking tour of Tournus, including the superb 10th century abbey of St Philibert where we were able to explore the crypt, nave and famous Roman mosaics. We also had a fabulous private tour of the vineyard at Chateau Fuisse, taken around by the Chatelaine herself, which therefore included a bit of fascinating family history as well as the wine story. Again this was followed by a wine tasting within the chateau, and this time my favourite was a delicious 2015 Pouilly-Fuisse “Marie Antoinette” – but this time I just couldn’t resist buying a bottle! I was sad to end my short stay on the Napoleon – we were so well looked after and taken to the “real France”. Now I know of and have experienced “Afloat in France” I can’t wait to sell this fabulous “secret” product!
19 June 2015
1. Type: Firstly decide on whether you are looking for an inside, ocean view, balcony cabin or suite. Take into consideration the size of the cabin, whether you might be claustrophobic, prefer a view (can check the weather when you wake up, and see the world go by), would like your own balcony to sit out on and get fresh air, whether you require entertaining space, space for a large family, concierge/butler service etc. Also at this stage, if you need a wheelchair adapted or disabled cabin with additional facilities, look at the options available. 2. Location: Check to see the location of the cabin on the ship, whether it is forward, aft or midships, and whether on a lower or upper deck. Depending on the size and modernity of the ship this can make a difference. The most stable part of a ship is midships lower down towards the water-line – this really only comes into effect on smaller, older ships that don’t have modern stabilizers fitted, in rough weather. (If you don’t believe me – look at where all cruiselines position their Medical Centres – midships lower deck!) Other than that you may find it is more of a snob factor that people prefer to be higher up (as in the origins of cruising 1st class was at the top of the ships, with 3rd class at the bottom – think “Titanic”!) The other thing to factor in when choosing your cabin’s location is to ensure that if you have an ocean view or balcony whether you have a clear or obstructed view, and if you’re on the deck above the lifeboats whether these hang out over the side of the ship or within, as this may affect your view down to the sea below. 3. Surroundings: Check on the deckplan what is near to the cabin you are looking at, and whether these are pros/cons for your specific circumstances. Personally I avoid choosing a cabin near areas where there may be a lot of people walking past or open doors to what may be potentially noisy areas eg self-service laundry, medical centre etc. Also locate where the lifts and stairwells are. Some people prefer to be close to these, especially if they have impaired mobility, whereas others prefer to be further down the corridor to avoid the noise of the stairwell and people going past their cabin. 4. Decks: Check to see what is directly above and below the cabin. The most preferable option is to have other passenger cabins. Avoid the deck below the pool deck as a generalisation, as you may be woken early in the morning when the attendants are moving the deck furniture around; and if you are one to have an afternoon nap in your cabin, you may have the sound of people moving around on deck above your head. Also look out for where any late night entertainment may be occurring if you are an early-to-bedder eg theatre, nightclub, casino and bars. 5. Interconnecting: Check if the cabin is inter-connecting. This is great if you are a family or group of friends travelling together as the inter-connecting doors may be unlocked. However if you are not travelling with your neighbours, despite the door being locked so there is no fear of disturbance, you can quite often find that the insulation between the cabins isn’t as good and you can get more noise transference. Depending on the ship, you will sometimes find that the layout of the cabin is also different in inter-connecting cabins in order to allow for the extra door, and therefore you may not have a full sofa or as much storage space for example. 6. Additional berths: If you need a cabin to accommodate 3 or 4 people, ensure you choose a size of cabin that will be comfortable for all of you (especially if you are 4 large adults), with space to move around each other and especially when it comes to bathroom usage! Do check the following when choosing 3 or 4 berth cabins: are the 3rd/4th berths in the form of a sofabed or upper berths? If they are upper berths, check if the lower beds still have the option of being twin or double beds. For those who do not require additional berths, check to see if the cabin you are looking at has upper berths, and whether they lower from the ceiling (as most modern ships do), or they fold down from against the wall. If possible avoid a cabin with the extra beds against the wall, as it has been known for people to occasionally wake up in the night and knock themselves on the edge of the unused bed. 7. Bathrooms: Depending on the cruiseline, ship and cabin choice, bathrooms come from the basic to the luxurious – make sure you know what you’re getting! If a stand-alone shower is important to you (especially for mobility reasons), or you like a bath, you must check this. Some cabins may have both, or a shower over a bath. Deckplans and cabin descriptions won’t tell you, but take into consideration things like storage space in bathrooms (women need lots of it!), shower curtains/screen etc – all of which a cruise expert agent can tell you. Also note that some cruiselines have gone down the route of trying to redesign the bathroom (NCL) where the bathroom is opaque glass and you can see the other person’s outline in the bathroom – not for those not already well acquainted with their cabin buddy or the faint-hearted. 8. Storage space: Take this into account when you are looking at cabins. It becomes particularly important when there are more than 2 people in the cabin; on a longer length of cruise where you may take more clothing; expedition cruises where you need specific gear as well as your everyday wear; on more formal cruises where you need to take formalwear (ladies in particular like to have a different dress for each occasion). Without sounding sexist, it is well known that ladies do take more luggage than men – lets face it we have umpteen pairs of shoes, make up bags, hair equipment, handbags etc as well as the clothing, so if there are 2 or more ladies in the cabin make sure there is enough space. On the luxury cruiselines many of the staterooms come with walk-in wardrobes, which are ideal. Do bear in mind though that beds on the whole are high enough for suitcases to go underneath, so you can always use your suitcase as a storage space. 9. Additional extras: Many cruiselines now offer differing levels of service eg concierge class, aqua class, which may give you bonuses such us priority check-in, early boarding, extras in your cabin eg fruit/wine/flowers, upgraded toiletries and bedding, access to a private lounge, dedicated restaurant, access to the spa included, concierge service or private butler etc. It may be well-worth upgrading your cabin when you take into account the added value. 10. Personal preference: Finally you have to remember that everything comes down to personal preference – if you have cruised before you may have "your" cabin!
19 June 2015
Istanbul is the ultimate “East meets West” city, spanning both Europe and Asia. Many cruises start/end in Istanbul, and cruise lines have realised that this fascinating city deserves some time spent there, and therefore now include an overnight in port. However I would also recommend that you extend your stay pre- or post-cruise in order to make the most of this wonderful place, as there is so much to see and do, and to rush around would spoil the experience. Half the enjoyment of Istanbul is taking in the sights, sounds and smells, so take time to stop, people watch and just take it all in. There are several areas in central Istanbul where you can stay, but my personal favourite is in the historical Sultanahmet area, in which are most of the major tourist attractions and therefore in walking distance, as well as some great restaurants/bars. When I cruised from Istanbul with Oceania Cruises, I stayed at the boutique Hotel Nena for two nights, which has the most superb views from its rooftop restaurant over the city including the nearby Blue Mosque. The three main sights for visitors to Istanbul are all within the same historic area: Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. The Blue Mosque is the most beautiful building, both inside and outside. Ensure you know when prayer time is as during this time (5 times/day) the mosque is closed to visitors for approximately 90 minutes. To go inside the mosque you will be required to take off your shoes, and women will need to cover their head with a scarf – these are available for a small fee if you forget to take your own. As it is a place of worship no flash photography is permitted. My tip: Go early in the morning, as soon as it opens after sunrise prayers, to get there before the majority of the crowds and feel the full awe of the place. And then go back at the end of the day to marvel at the external beauty when it is floodlit. There are gardens with ponds and benches outside the Mosque, so a great place to wander round in the early evening and get the full view. Within a 10 minute walk from the Blue Mosque, at the other end of the gardens, is the Hagia Sophia (part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site). This is a fascinating structure that was an important monument for both Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Once a church, later a mosque, and now a museum, the Hagia Sophia has always been valuable, and is a stunning building still showing a combination of all the religions and styles of its past. In the same area is the Topkapi Palace, which is so vast, with many different areas to be explored, that you really should allow at least a full afternoon or if possible a day to make the most of it. It is the largest and oldest palace in the world to survive to our day, and is a traditional example of Turkish Palace structure, occupying 700,000 square metres, and consisting of 5km of walls and three courtyards. The craftsmanship shown throughout the buildings is amazing, and the collections now housed in what was previously the Treasury, the Armory and the Kitchens are stunning. Other places that are definitely worth a visit include the Grand Bazaar. Do bear in mind that this is huge, and can be a little like a labyrinth, so allow yourself time. Remember haggling is important – but don’t do so unless you are actually planning on buying the item! Another market worth visiting, even if only briefly for the ultimate photo, or to pick up some exotic souvenirs is the Spice Market. Nearby is also the Basilica Cistern, the largest underground cistern, of cathedral-like size with tall marble pillars, with walkways and interesting lighting, which make it a fascinating place to visit. The Cistern was one of the locations used in the James Bond film “From Russia with Love”. And finally, my other “must do” is a relaxing Bosphorus cruise, which is the best way of seeing the two sides of Istanbul, and seeing the large palaces and villas (some of which are now luxury hotels), as well as other beautiful buildings and scenery. Make sure you take a boat which has English commentary so that you can really understand the history and significance of what you are seeing. For those who are brave enough you should try a proper traditional Turkish bath or hamam (for those feint-hearted a hotel spa may offer a toned down version). It’s best to research these before you go along (take advice from your hotel), and ensure you know the etiquette of the hamam you are visiting as this can vary. Two of the most famous hamams are the Cagaloglu Hamam and Cemeberlitas, near the Grand Bazaar. Do go for the options including the traditional scrub and massage, as self-service just doesn’t give you the full effect. Despite what they may tell you in advance, hamams don’t like to take credit cards, therefore ensure you take enough cash with you – including enough to leave the expected tip! On the note of tipping – this is expected in Turkey, no matter how much us Brits dislike it, and not to do so would offend. So if possible obtain some small change before you travel, or break a larger note at your hotel front desk, so that you have something to hand when needed. There are many other things to see and do in Istanbul, including other mosques, museums and going outside the city, but these are my recommendations – and yes, I did manage to do all of them in two days, with early starts and long days and keeping on the go. If you’d like a more leisurely pace then allow a little longer!
23 July 2015
In June I was part of a small group of Travel Counsellors to be hosted by Africa Collection on a wonderful educational trip to South Africa and Mauritius. We flew into Johannesburg with Virgin Atlantic, and transferred to our own privately chartered light aircraft for the 50 minute flight to Madikwe East airstrip. You can drive to Madikwe Game Reserve, but this takes 4.5 hours, so flying is the best option. Although little known to many first-time safari-goers, Madikwe is a great game drive destination, including the Big 5 - and is malaria-free. We stayed three nights in Madikwe, at three lodges in different areas of the reserve: Madikwe Hills Game Lodge, Tuningi Safari Lodge and Thakadu River Camp. All three are of a high standard, but give a different experience. Madikwe Hills is built onto a hillside, with huge rooms incorporating the rocks. All rooms have large verandahs with plunge pools, and overlook the waterholes. The main lodge houses the bar/sitting area and dining room, along with an outdoor eating area, pool, fire pit and views to the main waterhole. Tuningi has thatched lodges with outdoor showers to give an authentic (but luxury) feel - especially if you shower in the dark in the rain, which I did one morning! Tuningi has a wonderful boma under an ancient fig tree (from which the lodge takes its name), overlooking the waterhole. The lodge is designed to be family-friendly and has great family accommodation, as well as specific children's activities and babysitters. And then Thakadu River Camp gives a real authentic experience, in luxury "tents", listening to the animals at night; and cheeky monkeys stealing bananas from the breakfast buffet! Having been on many safaris and game drives over the years there's always been one animal that's eluded me - but not this time. Finally I got to see the elusive leopard, and it didn't disappoint - I sat in the vehicle with the most silly grin on my face. Having also seen the rare African wild dog the same morning, another one I'd been desperate to see, I was overjoyed. Over the three days we were very lucky to see all of the Big 5 (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino), along with many other species including the African wild dog, giraffe, zebra, and all sorts of antelope and bird life. After our time in Madikwe we drove down to Johannesburg, stopping off for lunch at the 5* De Hoek Country House Hotel in Magaliesburg. The hotel to me seemed to have two personalities - the traditional country house with old world charm, and a new annexe that is highly modern in concrete grey with a very corporate feel. And so to Johannesburg, where we stayed at the Protea Fire and Ice Hotel in Marble Arch - a great district to stay with a real café culture feel. The hotel is very modern and quirky where the staff will bend over backwards to look after you. "Black, white and bling" with a Hollywood glamour are the themes, and it is known for its Smoothie Bar. Johannesburg was a real surprise for me. Having transited through the airport several times previously, or having landed there and immediately driven out of the city, I have never visited Jo'burg properly before. And we all admitted that we had gone with pre-held misconceptions - probably the ones that everyone has ie that it would be unsafe, poor, dirty etc etc. However we were very pleasantly surprised. We had one full day in the city, and first of all we went to the Soweto Museum - a wonderful and moving place, in which I would happily have spent much longer to really read and understand the history of the country and the Apartheid system, along with Nelson Mandela's story. From there we did a cycling tour in Soweto with the fascinating guide Jazz. I think this is where we got our biggest shock - we'd expected the Soweto of several years ago as seen in photos ie as a poor township with shacks, dirt roads, litter and people living in poverty. Instead we saw a proper town, with a real positive energy and friendly people. Far from feeling unsafe, we felt welcomed. Seeing Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu's homes (if only from the outside) was very moving. From there we went to the 5* Four Seasons The Westcliff Hotel for a site inspection and lunch. This hotel sits in a prominent position overlooking Johannesburg Zoo, with great views. The rooms are very elegant and stylish, and the food was amazing (although the portion sizes were gigantic!) In the afternoon we then did a short walking tour of downtown Johannesburg with graffiti art expert Jo, who gave us just a sample of the sort of tours she does. We covered areas such as Nelson Mandela's original law practice opposite the Courts, as well as visiting some well known graffiti art works (for which Johannesburg is renowned in the art world). And then in the evening we went to Moyo African restaurant in Marble Arch for dinner, to experience African dining (including my favourite South African dish "bobotie") and entertainment in the form of Gumboot Dancing (originating in the mines of Johannesburg) and Zulu singing. I was very sad to end my time in South Africa, and would loved to have stayed longer... but it was time to go... and if you have to move on, then Mauritius isn't a bad place to go! See my Mauritius blog for the second part of this adventure.
23 July 2014
I travelled on my own on this holiday – Azamara is great for solo travellers due to the following reasons: Single supplements as low as 25% on selected cruises Small ships so more opportunity to get to know other guests and crew Officers and crew go out of their way to look after people on their own Special events for solo travellers e.g. hosted lunches and dinners. The lunch I attended was hosted by Alex and Alina – the professional ballroom dancers on-board – a lovely couple from Eastern Ukraine, and the dinner by Russ the Cruise Director. Cabin: I booked a grade 5 outside cabin on deck 4 – a great location on the ship with a good size picture window. This was my 3rd time on Azamara Quest and I always choose these cabins. As the cruise was 2 cruises back to back with the 2nd sailing full I had to change cabin after the first week – but this was all taken care of by the cabin stewards. I just had to put the contents of the drawers and loose items into my case, and they moved the case and all the contents of the wardrobe on the hangers to my new cabin. All it took was an hour – while I was having breakfast and a coffee on deck. Entertainment: As Azamara Cruises are small ships they do not have large theatres for full Broadway musicals. Instead they have a cabaret lounge, and Looking Glass lounge with a dance floor. The Azamara entertainment team are talented professional performers doing cabaret / revue style shows, as well as solo performances. There are also guest entertainers – the guest for my cruise was Mel Mellers, a wonderfully funny comic magician. On every cruise Azamara has a tradition of hosting a “White Night” – a great evening out on deck under the stars (subject to weather) while in port. This allows them to bring on board a local entertainment company – e.g. traditional singers/dancers. Everyone dresses in white, and a tremendous buffet feast is laid on, followed by dancing to live music, and then the DJ takes over until late. One of Azamara’s unique events is their “AzAmazing Evening” – every cruise has a dedicated evening ashore which is put on completely free of charge to the guests (for example last year our evening in St Petersburg was a trip to the ballet – the whole theatre had been taken over by Azamara, and we watched a full professional ballet – unbelievable). This year the first week was a Cretan music and dancing evening with drinks and snacks, set up on the harbourfront – and performed as if we were guests at a typical Greek wedding, and the second week’s evening was a performance by the reknowned Croatian cellist Ana Rucna at a beautiful outdoor venue in Hvar. Dining: Dining is very important on Azamara, with food of an exceptionally high standard. There are no set dining times or seating arrangements in the main restaurant, therefore guests can turn up when they please and either choose to dine alone (there are plenty of tables for 2) or with others. If you arrive at a busy time you may have to wait, but there is a bar at the entrance to the dining room, so no problem! There are 2 speciality restaurants – Aqualina (Mediterranean dining with emphasis on seafood) and Prime C (Steakhouse). My personal favourite is Prime C, and on this trip I ate in there twice. My favourite choices in there are: Beef carpaccio (starter), Wild mushroom veloute (soup), Filet Mignon with steak chips, onion rings, sautéed spinach and béarnaise sauce (main), and the most decadent rich Warm Chocolate Lava Cake with praline icecream for dessert. In addition to the main dining options there is also a pool grill, and Windows Cafe buffet restaurant (open for breakfast, lunch & dinner – with dinners being themed eg Asian night, seafood night etc). And finally there is the premium option of “Chef’s Table” – on each of my cruises there were 3 options for this: French, Italian & Californian. These are food & wine pairing evenings on a private table with a maximum of 14 guests, located in Prime C. There is a cover surcharge of $95pp for this, but it is well worth it for the standard of food and the quality/quantity of wines – as it was my birthday I treated myself to both the French and Californian options, which were out of this world. More inclusive: Azamara is “more inclusive” meaning that on board select spirits, cocktails, beers and wines are included in the price, as well as bottled water, soft drinks, speciality coffees, gratuities, free shuttle service in ports where needed and free self-service laundry (which I made the most of by doing a load of washing part the way through the cruise, and also the day before embarkation so I came home with clean clothes!) Having drinks included is a great bonus as it means you don’t have to watch your spending and can just enjoy a drink whenever you fancy it. Spa/gym: I must admit I didn’t make use of either of these, but the spa is lovely with a wide range of treatments from simple waxing, manicures, hair styling, all manner of massages to facial peels, botox and acupuncture. And the gym offers various classes, a bootcamp, private training sessions as well as the standard gym equipment (NB spa treatments and some gym classes have a charge). Feedback form midway: Azamara is the only cruiseline that I’ve experienced this. A few days into your cruise they leave a form in your cabin asking how your cruise is going, any feedback and if anything could be done to improve things – this is so much better than waiting until the end when they can’t do anything. And they do act on it immediately - in the 2nd week I’d put a note that the Eggs Benedict hadn’t been up to expectation and explained why - first thing the next morning I had Fabio, the executive chef, call me to discuss my suggestions and told me exactly what had happened and how they were going to rectify it – and asked me to let me know if I found an improvement. Very impressive. Officers/crew – having cruised on many cruise lines I have not come across any that have more of a “presence” and personal contact between the officers and senior crew and the guests – you will often find them around the ship talking with guests and always greeting you as a friend. Captain Jose was particularly noticeable and always chatting – and even leading walks in some of the ports of call (for example climbing the city walls up the cliffs of Kotor). Often he was to be found at the bottom of the gangway in ports of call as guests were disembarking wishing them a nice day, and on the last day of the cruise he was down there, along with the Cruise Director, saying goodbye to everyone (this is outstanding – and I overheard several guests commenting on it, leaving a lasting impression).
23 July 2014
For my personal holiday this summer I did a back to back cruise 14 night cruise on Azamara Quest. Itinerary: Athens – Chania, Crete – Day at sea – Kotor, Montenegro – Dubrovnik, Croatia – Korcula, Croatia – Venice (2 days) – Zadar, Croatia - Split, Croatia (overnight in port) – Hvar, Croatia (overnight in port) – Kotor, Montenegro – Dubrovnik, Croatia – Venice (overnight in port) Ports of call: I joined the ship in Piraeus (the port for Athens) – a pretty uninspiring place in itself, but the main port for the many ferries and cruise ships. I overnighted in a hotel here before the cruise, which is fine for just 1 night but for any longer I'd suggest staying in Athens itself. Chania, Crete – I did one of the ship’s excursions here, called “Chania Villages – the Real Crete”. The guide on our tour was exceptional (one of the best I’ve ever experienced) – excellent English, good knowledge and humour and great story-telling ability reciting Greek myths and legends etc. We were taken to the villages of Vamos (up in the mountains) and Georgioupolis (on the coast) to see the differences between them. Vamos is a traditional village, with life carrying on the same way it has done for centuries, and mainly unaffected by tourism, whereas Georgioupolis is a popular seaside resort for visitors, but still retains some of the charm of a traditional fishing village. Kotor, Montenegro – being a small ship Azamara Quest is able to dock right on the small harbour wall, whereas other larger ships had to anchor out in the bay, which is a huge bonus as you can walk on and off the ship into the old town within minutes. The queues for waiting for the tenders for the anchored ships were horrendous, so I was glad not to be on them! Was up early in the morning as we entered “Boka Kotorska” (Kotor Bay) which is a stunning fjord – well worth the early rise for the beautiful scenery and photos! In the morning I took my guide notes (Azamara produce excellent port notes for each port of call on the cruise so if you wish to it’s very easy to wander around without a guide) and walked around the old town – a small but stunning ancient town (one to rival Dubrovnik!) with Cathedral of Saint Tryphon (dating from the mid 1100s), various churches and palaces, and stunning ramparts/city walls that stretch up the cliffs behind the town. Then in the afternoon I went on a private tour with a local driver/guide that I'd pre-booked, who hired us a water taxi to go over to the small manmade island of Our Church of the Lady of the Rocks, and from there drove on to Budva for a walk around the old town and on to see Sveti Stefan (now a private hotel). Korcula – we were anchored off here, and I was one of the first to go ashore, in order to explore the town before it stirred and the tourists descended to get in the way of my photos! The Old Town (dating from the Middle Ages) is small and laid in a herring-bone fashion to allow for sea breezes to keep it cool. Marco Polo was supposedly born here (although Venetians claim the same!) Venice – this is where my travel agent’s hat came back on (we never really go on holiday!) and I spent the whole of my first day doing hotel inspections to the Hotel Danieli (stunning hotel on the lagoon front only 5 minutes from St Mark’s Square), Gritti Palace (another beautiful hotel on the Grand Canal), Bauer Hotel, Bauer Il Palazzo, Bauer Palladio and Belmond Cipriani (a resort hotel on Giudecca island, a 5 minute private boat ride from St Marks Square). Doing this will help when suggesting hotels to clients for either long weekends or pre/post cruise stays. The 2nd day I then went back to being a tourist and walked round a lot of Dosoduro island (including visiting the Basilica of Santa Maria), having “done” St Mark’s Square and major tourist sights on a previous visit. Zadar – one of my favourite places, unexpectedly! Firstly, we were docked right alongside the Sea Organ – a uniquely designed instrument that uses the wave action of the sea to compress air into nearly 3 dozen pipes that have been laid under stone steps down to the sea’s edge. As soon as I got off, before the crowds, I just sat on the steps and listened to the music – mesmerizing (later it seemed to be the popular area for visitors and locals alike to congregate, and swim in the sea next to the organ). I then wandered off with my trusty guide book to explore this fascinating town – with Roman Forum, ancient Cathedrals & Churches, Palaces, park etc Split – this city really comes alive at night, and being summer holidays was buzzing! During the day I did the ship's excursion “Highlights of Split Riviera” where we firstly did a walking tour through Split (including Diocletian’s Palace) and shown how new Split has been incorporated inside the old town and palace, before going on to Trogir where we had a walking tour through the old town before a bit of free time to explore a bit more, sample the local beer before meandering back. From there we went on to “Pantan” Old Mill where we were treated to local specialties – snacks of smoked ham, cheese, bread, olives and wine. Hvar – this town has become one of the “in” places for the young, rich and trendy brigade, with the nightlife seemingly more important than the daytime – certainly during the summer holidays! Hvar is an island and is stunningly beautiful, especially in June when the lavender is in full bloom. The centre of the town, the Piazza, is believed to be the largest in Dalmatia, and is where the majority of the old buildings are located and is the main orientation point, with the Cathedral, Palace, Arsenal, Loggia all on its edges. Kotor – back to Kotor for a 2nd time – and this time I explored inland by taking the ship’s tour of “Origins of Montenegro”, visiting the villages of Cetinje (the old Royal Capital) and Njegusi. The scenery on this tour was absolutely stunning – with some interesting contretemps between buses and cars on the single track mountain passes with hairpin turns. These “negotiations” added to the fun for some (but not all) of us! Dubrovnik – the weather didn’t hold out for us here, but being Scottish I wasn’t going to let a bit of light drizzle hold me back. It also meant that whenever there was a shower everyone scarpered off the streets, and meant I got better photos! Having been before and seen inside all the museums etc I explored angles for getting external pics. I had considered walking the city walls, but with the heat, humidity and rain showers making the stones slippery I decided against it! An absolutely stunning itinerary and one that I would definitely recommend, especially for the scenery and ancient cities.
11 September 2013
Stockholm: This was our embarkation port, and we overnighted here before sailing the next afternoon. This is something Azamara is good at - allowing a couple of days in some ports, and sailing late at night to allow you to go ashore in the evening if you wish. Having been to Stockholm a couple of times before, I took the hop-on hop-off bus round the city. It is a great way to see everything in a short space of time. Helsinki: Being a small ship and a premium brand Azamara strives to obtain the best for its guests. Therefore we docked right in the centre of the city, next to the market and opposite the Uspensky Cathedral. I set off on foot with my trusty guide books, and ticked off everything I wanted to see. This included both cathedrals and the market, where the fresh fruit and veg looked so delicious it was a shame I’d eaten so much on-board! However, I did see a lot of the crew buying bags full of cherries and strawberries. St Petersburg: This was the highlight of the trip for me. Because of visa regulations you have to purchase the shore excursions to be included on the ship's visa. The alternative is applying for one in advance but this can be a long and tedious process. So I had 2 full days of 4 guided tours. I was exhausted at the end and had the most beautifully swollen feet to show for it. I visited some of the iconic parts of the city, e.g. Catherine's Palace, Peterhof Palace, St Isaac's Cathedral, Church on Spilled Blood, St Nicholas Church, Yusopov Palace and I also took a river cruise. I didn't visit the Hermitage as I had been many years ago, and having a bad back the thought of standing in queues wasn’t appealing! And again we docked right in the city centre at Lt Schmidt Embankment. This was beside a Russian submarine (now a museum), next to a beautiful church (that was used as an ice skating rink during some of St Petersburg darker times) and with a view of St Isaac's Cathedral. We couldn’t have been in a better spot. The majority of cruise ships have to dock outside the city in the main port, and with congestion being a real problem, I was grateful not to have any of this to contend with. In the evening of the first day Azamara laid on their ‘AzAmazing Evening’ which was a complimentary excursion. It was, quite simply, out of this world - a night at the ballet. Seeing everyone disembark the ship in their finery was quite a sight. We all got onto coaches and were taken to the Mikailovsky Theatre for a private performance by professional dancers. On arrival there was a red carpet, long horn band and ballerinas greeted us with programmes for the evening. The ballet was spectacular and the whole evening was so well organised. The ship's band played jazz on the quayside on our return while we were waiting to clear security! Tallinn: We arrived on my birthday. It was another full day of walking with my guide book and camera. Tallinn is such a picturesque, historic town, and it is definitely best to explore on foot. Today really showed the Azamara difference when it came to port shuttle buses as we had no problems with getting on the frequent buses put on by Azamara, in contrast to the Queen Elizabeth next to us whose guests were having to queue for ages! I returned to the ship to find my cabin beautifully decorated by my cabin stewards and a birthday card! Kiel: Our itinerary was well-planned for being in Kiel for the end of Kiel Week - the biggest sailing regatta in Europe, and with many tall ships docked around us it looked magnificent. The highlight in the evening was the firework display off the bow of the ship, during which we were all fortified with hot chocolate and/or rum as well as blankets as the weather had taken a turn! Warnemunde and Travemunde: These 2 ports of call in Germany allowed me to explore the area of Schleswig Holstein, with its lakes and castles as well as the historic cities of Lubeck and Schwerin. As part of the tour we had private access to Schwerin Castle, which was a bonus. The whole itinerary was very well planned, and the tours were excellent. I would definitely recommend.
13 April 2014
Each year I try to get away over my birthday - last year was Prague, and this year I did a Baltic cruise on-board one of my favourite cruise ships, the Azamara Quest. The itinerary started in Stockholm and ended in Copenhagen. It included calls at Helsinki, St Petersburg, Tallinn, Kiel, Warnemunde and Travemunde. The Azamara Quest is a premium ship which is small, with a relaxed style, refined feel and friendly atmosphere. I chose a cabin with a picture window, as I personally like to watch as the ship dock. It’s a great way to see the port and to get an idea of what the weather is doing! The cabins are well appointed, with comfortable beds, lots of storage, and I definitely felt like I was coming home each day when I returned. The food on-board is the best I've had at sea - whether I ate in the buffet (Windows Café), pool grill, the main restaurant (Discoveries) or the specialty restaurants (Prime C and Aqualina). Dining included themed evenings in Windows Café, a different menu every day in the main restaurant and the choice of dining in the specialty restaurants (where a cover surcharge applies). My personal favourite, and where I had my birthday dinner, was Prime C. My birthday feast was truly decadent, with my selection being beef Carpaccio to start, followed by lobster bisque, Caesar salad, filet mignon with peppercorn sauce served with steak fries and creamed spinach and finally a to-die-for warm chocolate lava cake. The service throughout the ship is impeccable. The crew are so friendly and personable that you really do feel you've made friends. I found it quite astonishing that on embarkation day many of the crew remembered me from my previous cruise four months previously - and some even remembered my name. The waiter on ‘eggs’ duty at the Windows Cafe also remembered my special request for Eggs Benedict from the previous cruise! Earlier this year Azamara became ‘more inclusive’, with added value included in the cruise price. As well as full board, most drinks are now included, along with gratuities, free port shuttle buses and one complimentary ‘AzAmazing Evening' per cruise. For more details on this just read my blog which focuses on the itinerary. The entertainment is low-key, but good quality - you won't find big Broadway style spectacles on a ship of this size, but every evening there is entertainment in the main theatre, either by the ships singers, dancers and band or by a guest performer. Some of the lounges also feature a pianist or harpist - or the DJ in the nightclub, so there's always something going on to appeal to everyone. The shore excursions are well-priced and of an excellent standard, with wonderful guides and well thought out itineraries (and if you pre-book them online you get a bit of a discount!) The clientele on board are mainly American, but with a large contingent of Brits and Canadians, and then small numbers of varying nationalities - this cruise saw quite a few Australians on board. Overall I've fallen in love with this ship and its crew, and can't wait until my next cruise on my ‘second home’. To read more details about my cruise in my blog that focusses on the itinerary.
20 December 2012
II decided I needed a break at the end of the year, and chose Morocco as somewhere close to home that I wanted to explore. Morocco has culture, scenery and clear distinctions between the old town medina in Marrakech, the new Palmeraie area, and the beautiful mountains. I knew of several places I wanted to see, and ended up staying in three places over four nights - hardly a relaxing holiday! The first two nights were spent at the Angsana Riads Riad Blanc, situated 10 minutes’ walk from the main square, Jemma Al Fna in the old town of Marrakech. The riad was in a great location for exploring the city, and yet giving the perfect oasis. As riads are old houses within the city walls, there is only so much that can be done to adapt them to a demanding visitor, however they are traditional, interesting, individual and more than adequate. Don't expect 5* luxury with all the mod cons as you may be disappointed, however riads are a great way of experiencing Moroccan living, close to the action. For those who may never have experienced the madness of an Arabic souk or an African market, the old medina can appear daunting. There is no such thing as a map of the rabbit warren, however "all roads lead to Rome" or in this case, most roads will lead to Jemma Al-Fna. When it comes to the persistent shopkeepers or Henna women, be friendly but firm and you should get by just fine. Do remember, ladies that this is a Muslim country and in the old town it is sensible not to reveal too much if you don't want too much attention. Haggling is a must - and is expected. Morocco is well known for its spices, leather goods and ironwork (especially the Moroccan lanterns), and good quality items can be purchased for reasonable prices. Different areas of the town specialise in different items, although the main tourist souvenirs can be found everywhere. If you require assistance in getting around, finding the best places and showing you the best of Marrakech, a local guide can be booked - just make sure you get one of the registered ones, and don't allow yourself to be "picked up" by someone offering to help - who will then demand payment after you thought you'd made a friend! For one night I had the privilege of being one of the first to try a new hotel, opening fully in January. It is in the resort area on the outskirts of Marrakech, the Palmeraie area, the Taj Marrakech. This 5* hotel is the height of luxury, set in an excluded area, with rooms in buildings within the gardens. The bedrooms are enormous and decadently furnished, with the most comfortable beds you don't want to get out of. The grounds are beautiful with a huge swimming pool in the centre. The food and service in the restaurants is outstanding. Following this I headed up to the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, to a property that I've long dreamed about going to - Richard Branson's Moroccan retreat - Kasbah Tamadot. This turned out to be everything I thought it would be - stunning. Greeted on arrival with champagne or traditional mint tea, the view was to die for - bright blue skies, beautiful architecture, well-kept grounds and inviting pool area - all with the snow-capped mountains in the background. This is a small hotel that treats all its guests personally, and has an ethical ethos, employing local people and selling local crafts (including some great pashminas - of which I bought several as Christmas presents!) Each bedroom is individually decorated, and for something exclusive and quirky you can stay in one of the Berber tents located in the gardens (think along the lines of a luxury African safari tent, rather than something you have to pitch yourself). Although this was the most expensive place I stayed at, it was definitely excellent value, and now near the top of my list of places to go back to for more than one night - definitely worth saving up for. I really recommend a trip to Marrakech - either a long weekend or a week, and I would suggest a twin-centre with two or three nights in Marrakech itself, followed by a few nights in the Atlas Mountains. If you want somewhere to just relax, then the Palmeraie area is best, with easy access to the town.
12 November 2012
Many people visit the east coast of Canada as part of a multi-centre holiday and, quite often, will visit the Niagara Falls region as a daytrip from Toronto. On my trip we went purely to Ontario and we stayed in Niagara, Toronto and Ottawa. Having flown into Toronto we transferred to Niagara, and checked into the Sheraton on the Falls hotel into a Falls view room – it’s definitely worth upgrading as the views and sound of the falls are magnificent. There is so much to do in and around Niagara that it is definitely worth staying in the area - the Skylon Tower gives you 360 degree views over the area, across to Buffalo, USA and even as far as Toronto on a clear day. The IMAX cinema and museum across from the tower gives you a good insight into how the falls were formed, the myths and legends that abound, and some of the daredevils who have gone over the edge (with varying degrees of success!) The Maid of the Mist boat trip has to be one of the most popular things to do, and really does give you a wonderful perspective of the falls. One of the other "must-dos" is the ‘Journey Behind the Falls’ which involves walking along tunnels behind the Canadian Falls to a couple of ‘lookouts’- one onto the back view of the curtain of water coming over the rim, and the other a vantage point to the side of the falls. On a clear day it’s also well-worth doing the helicopter flight over the falls to get a birds-eye view of the area and to get some amazing photos. One of the things that many people aren't aware of is that Canada has a thriving wine industry, including the Ice Wine for which it is famous. Many of the Ice Wine vineyards are in the Niagara region due to its climate. Vineyards, such as Inniskillin, can be visited for wine-tastings, tours and purchases! Toronto is a great city which is easy to get around on foot. The CN Tower stands tall over the whole city, and the locals are very proud to tell you that it's still the tallest tower in the western hemisphere! As well as the glass floor (which I managed to lay on!) and the ‘Edge Walk’ (which there was no way I was going to attempt!), the tower has a revolving restaurant "360" which not only has great views but is a real culinary delight. It’s definitely worth having lunch or dinner there. If you're a bit of a foodie then the St Lawrence Market is one to explore with delicatessens, fishmongers, butchers, greengrocers and a specialist mustard company. The waterfront area of the city is a great place to get away from the hustle and bustle of any city centre, with views over Lake Ontario and close to the railway station. To the edge of the city is the historic Distillery District, which is a renovated area housing little boutiques, coffee shops, chocolatiers and micro-breweries. It can be explored by Segway, which can be hired on site as part of a guided tour. We travelled between Toronto and Ottawa by VIA Rail, which I can thoroughly recommend. You could even treat yourself by upgrading to VIA One. The service was excellent, with drinks and hot meals served at your very comfortable seat. Not many people are aware that Ottawa is the capital of Canada, and it is a city that tends to get overlooked on visitors' itineraries. I was pleasantly surprised by what it has to offer. As well as the parliament buildings and historic areas, the museums and galleries are excellent. My favourites were the Bytown Museum, a small museum which, with the aid of an audio guide, shows the beginnings of Ottawa, and the Museum of Civilization (which is actually over the river in Quebec!) The Rideau Canal runs through the city which, during summer, attracts people to its banks and boats to the water. In the winter it becomes a five mile ice-skating rink (and people genuinely skate to work along it!). Two of my favourite places were the Cats of Parliament Hill (which have their own Facebook page) and the Byward Market, where you can do a culinary walking tour, which is fabulous! Whether as a long weekend or part of a longer itinerary, Ontario is definitely worth visiting.
08 November 2012
It was recently my friend’s birthday and, as she had never been to Paris, she decided that she just had to visit the French capital before she hit the big 40! We decided to go for two nights and make it a long weekend. The Eurostar train service makes these sorts of trips very easy and manageable, with comfortable trains running frequently. We stayed at the lovely boutique hotel, Hotel Littre, located south of the river near Montparnasse. We'd opted for a superior room, and really appreciated the extra space it gave us, with a small hallway, large bedroom with sitting area and large bathroom - well worth the extra we paid. The location turned out to be superb, with access to the metro close by (with many lines going through our nearest station), as well as regular buses and the Hop-on Hop-off bus going past the top of the street. There are many bars and restaurants, many of which stay open well into the wee small hours, enabling us to toast in the birthday with a bottle of bubbly, sitting al fresco (albeit under an outdoor heater lamp!) and watching the world go by. The first evening we went to the Moulin Rouge, which we felt was one of those "must do once in your life" experiences, and turned out to be very entertaining. The male dancers were as "camp as Christmas" (as my friend put it) and had us in stitches. I hadn't realised that there are other acts in the show apart from the singers/dancers, but in fact some of these turned out to be the highlights - as well as the famous Can-Can of course. Although we didn't opt to have dinner with the show, the food looked to be of a good standard and was certainly very efficiently served. If you do have dinner, you get the better seats in the middle of the floor, whereas we were round the edges. It was still a good view though. The next day we started using our Hop-on Hop-off Bus tickets, which in hindsight we probably wouldn't have got had we known that there were 3 lines, each of them taking quite a long time to complete, and only crossing over in a couple of places. It’s fine if you have several days in Paris and want to take up a whole day or two just doing these routes. In the end we bought a carnet of tickets for the Metro and ended up using this method of transport the most in order to get to the places we really wanted to see such as Sacre Coeur and Eiffel Tower. We had booked to go on the Bateaux Parisiens for lunch. Unfortunately the weather was particularly unkind, and most of the day was spent huddled in raincoats and under umbrellas. Even a travel agent can't foresee all events though - and we got caught up in the 20k run, which left us stranded on one side of the road that the runners were pouring down, when we had to get to the boat on the other side. Thank goodness we'd allowed plenty of time. There were several options you could book and we'd gone for the Premier Service, which gave us a glass of champagne on arrival, wine with the a la carte meal and a table for two at the front of the glass covered boat. It was a lovely lunch, and a great way to celebrate a special occasion. On our final day, before the return train in the evening, we headed up to the Sacre Coeur and went exploring around Montmartre. We wandered through the side streets with guide book and map in hand, but mainly took in the artisan feel of the place. Really two nights and three days is not enough to "do" Paris - we felt we'd only scratched the surface, and there was so much more to see and do that remained untouched. I definitely need to return to explore more of what Paris has to offer.
04 October 2012
I have just returned from 2 1/2 days at the Dusit Thani (yes I know - far too short!), and had the most amazing time. I am lucky enough to have experienced many luxury hotels both in the Maldives and around the world, and fell in love with this place. Recently opened, in February 2012, the Dusit Thani, situated in the Baa Atoll, is a perfect blend of Thai and Maldivian hospitality. It's a wonderful place to go and escape the world and leave all your cares behind. The resort is what I call "relaxed luxury" and gives you the feeling of having your own bit of paradise. The resort is working hard at being eco-friendly, and are happy to show you "behind the scenes" such as the de-salination plant, bottling room, laundry, workshops, and staff quarters. Great care has been taken to ensure that buildings fit into the natural landscape of the island, and it's wonderful to walk or ride your bike along the sand paths (or take a golf buggy) through the palm and banyan trees. The individual villas are beautifully decorated, with extremely comfortable beds, and all mod-cons (including free wi-fi for those that just can't leave the outside world behind!) I stayed in a beach villa which had a super partially-outdoor bathroom, and a view from the bed through the foliage to the beach and sea - there's nothing better to start the day than to get up, open your decking doors, and walk onto "your" bit of beach. The staff are out of this world and really make the place - helpful and friendly and will do anything for you. The bars and restaurants are top quality, with excellent food and service. The signature Thai restaurant, Benjarong, offers delicious, authentic Thai cuisine in a beautiful setting overlooking the sea and the perfect spot for watching the sun set. And then there's the marine life! Situated on its own amazing house reef, which can be accessed off the beach, and with other reefs nearby I have never seen such wonderful corals, diversity and quantity of fish, turtles etc - and I achieved one of my bucket list - swimming with manta rays! The resort has it's own Marine Biologist, Lauren Arthur, who is passionate about her work - "don't stand on the reef"! And then there's the spa - a beautiful area situated on stilts among the trees - where you're looked after by Thai therapists, given a drink on arrival, a choice of treatments and essential oils. My 1 hour Swedish massage with "Glee" oil by a lovely Thai girl was just perfect - very relaxing and just the right amount of pressure. My final words are - don't forget the sunscreen (as the sun is very strong even through any cloud cover, and intensified when you're in the water), take an old T-shirt/pair of shorts to go snorkelling in so the sun doesn't get to your exposed bits, and finally apply insect repellant in the evenings as the foliage does conceal a few bitey friends! I speak as one who learnt the hard way! I didn't want to leave, and I'm saving to go back.
31 July 2012
For my birthday I decided to visit Prague for 5 days - somewhere I'd always wanted to go. Travelling anywhere alone can be a little bit daunting but I had no trouble at all, and felt safe and welcome wherever I went. I chose a boutique hotel, the Archibald at Charles Bridge, having done hours of research, and am so glad that I did as it was the perfect choice in the perfect location. The hotel is situated on Kampa Island, just steps down from the famous Charles Bridge, on the Old Town side of the river, and has views over the square on one side and the river on the other. All the rooms are spotlessly clean and well-decorated, however I would recommend booking a deluxe room (with air-conditioning) in the height of summer as it can get stifling hot and humid. Being so well located I was able to walk everywhere. The first day I spent around the Little/Lesser Quarter (Mala Strana) and Castle area (Hradcany). There are some beautiful churches in this area, including the Church of St Nicholas in the Square, where Mozart once played the organ. One of the things I found lovely about the old buildings, especially on Nerudova street, is their signs above the doors that denoted the owners, before numbers were given eg "At the Three Little Fiddles" used to be the home of a family of violin makers c.1700. There are also some beautiful doorways with ornate carvings that belonged to palaces, mostly foreign embassies nowadays - such as the 2 eagles over the Thun-Hohenstein Palace. Prague Castle is a fascinating complex of courtyards, towers, palaces, lanes and the imposing St Vitus' Cathedral. Many of the palaces now house museums/art collections. The Cathedral is stunning and houses the gold and jewel-encrusted Chapel of St Wenceslas where Wenceslas (of our Christmas carol fame, although he was never king!) was supposed to have been murdered by his brother. The Golden Lane is a fascinating street of tiny houses that housed artisans. Try and catch the changing of the guard at noon - the best place to stand is inside the 1st courtyard! In the main square outside the castle are some palaces with beautiful and eye-catching exteriors. Next day was the Old Town (Stare Mesto) and the Jewish Quarter (Josefov). The Old Town is a great place to wander around, and disappear down side-streets as there's something to look at everywhere (and also to escape the crowds!) The Municipal House is well worth a visit - and have a break in the beautiful Art Deco tearoom. Also hunt down the "House at the Two Golden Bears" which has an ornate Renaissance portal. Make sure you're standing in front of the Old Town Hall on the hour so you can watch the Astronomical Clock in action! Try and avoid going to the Jewish Quarter on a Saturday (which I did!) so that you can visit the synagogues and cemetery. As well as the Jewish buildings there is also some beautiful Art Nouveau and Cubist architecture. On the Sunday I headed out of the city (very easy by train) to Karlstein Castle - don't believe the guidebooks that say it's a 40 minute walk from the train station to the castle - 1 hour minimum! However it was worth it for the dramatic views of a Gothic Castle (I recommend pre-booking the tours as there are limited numbers allowed on tour 2) My last day was spent in the New Town, including Wenceslas Square and Charles Square. One of the highlights was a trip to "U Fleku" - a traditional beer hall that brews it's own strong dark beer. Sitting in their beer garden, drinking a pint and sampling their beer cheese on fried bread - bliss! And for a special treat, dinner that evening was at Kampa Park, along the edge of the river - well worth every penny! Prague is a photographers delight, and I spent a lot of my time walking a few steps, stopping, and taking another photo (thank goodness for digital!) I found my trusty guidebooks were perfect at directing me to great places, without the need for taking a tour. My favourite book was the DK Eyewitness Guide - however the Insight guides are great for background reading and planning. Being such a historic and picturesque city it appeals to culture-vultures and romantic couples as well as the stag/hen party lot looking for a good time at non-Euro prices!
18 May 2009
Recently I was lucky enough to be invited to go on an educational trip to the Maldives. With the Maldives being a popular destination for honeymoons, anniversaries and luxury exotic holidays, it was a wonderful opportunity to see some of the islands for myself, and see what the different hotels have to offer. We visited a total of 8 properties, and did in-depth "site inspections" of each one, to give us a real insight into them. It was extremely useful to see these as although they are all 5* properties, each one of them is different in style, location, size, facilities, and the clients that they are aimed at. We also experienced all forms of transfers, including domestic flights (from Male to Hanimaadhoo), speedboats, luxury yacht cruisers and seaplanes - all of which are amazing and should be viewed as part of the holiday experience. Seaplanes, although more expensive than speedboats, are a fantastic way of seeing the Maldives and its atolls, islands and colours. We flew into Male with Emirates Airlines (via Dubai), landing in the early hours of the morning. Having not visited the Maldives before I hadn't realised how easy transfers were, and how slick the operations are between the airport and the hotels. All the hoteliers have stands at the airports and have staff waiting to meet their guests off their flights and take them to the appropriate place for their transfers - whether it is to the speedboat harbour just outside the arrivals area, or to run you round to the other side of the terminal for the seaplane dock. (NB Seaplanes only operate in daylight hours, however speedboat transfers operate at any time). Although we were visiting at the start of what is deemed to be the rainy season, we had a full week of beautiful sunny days and high temperatures (the only rain occurring as a wonderful tropical storm in the early hours of our last night - and this cleared up before sunrise). Speaking to the hoteliers, they were all saying the same thing, that like many places worldwide, there now seems to be no distinct dry and rainy seasons, and that the Maldives really is a year-round destination. I'll try to summarise my thoughts on each hotel: Four Seasons Kuda Hura on North Male atoll - only a 25 minute speedboat transfers, making it an ideal location especially if arriving in the early hours of the morning - possibly making this the 1st of a twin-centre holiday. Tranquil, elegant, garden/beach setting. Unique point: spa situated on its own island, which is accessed by a small dhoni (traditional boat) Cocoa Island on South Male atoll - a small island, with rustic-style accommodation and aimed at those people seeking peace and quiet, and a holistic/spiritual holiday. Unique point: all accommodation is situated over the water, including some shaped in the form of a large dhoni. The Beach House at Manafaru on Haa Alifu atoll - the most northerly of all the island resorts, offering a real feel of being in the tropics and in amongst nature, but with very contemporary accommodation and dining. The waters around the north are supposed to be some of the best for marine-life. Unique point: excellent facilities including an "Amazon" swimming pool. Island Hideaway Dhonakulhi on Haa Alifu atoll - in the north of the Maldives, the shallow waters around the island offer the most amazing snorkelling opportunities. Unique point: everyone has a bicycle to get around. Baros Maldives on North Male atoll - exclusive feel with no children under 8 accepted. Recommendation: try the degustation menu at The Lighthouse - where every dish has been paired with an exceptional wine. Kanuhura on Lhaviyani atoll - very friendly, welcoming feel for all age groups (kids are particularly well catered for). Wide range of facilities and restaurants, and one of the best watersports centres we saw. Recommendation: have dinner at the Veli Cafe - and look out for the resident heron. One & Only Reethi Rah on North Male atoll - large island with many beaches and facilities. Accommodation is out of this world in stunning Asian inspired villas. Unique point: has one of the top spas in the world. Huvafen Fushi on North Male atoll - a wonderful natural island. Unique point: have a treatment at the world's only underwater spa, with amazing views of the coral reefs outside the windows. To summarise: a wonderful group of islands, which are well-worth twin-centring to give contrast.
18 December 2008
The launch of a cruiseship is always a special occasion, but this time was the first one I'd attended in the US. Firstly I was very surprised just how close Port Everglades cruise terminal is to both Fort Lauderdale airport and good hotels in the area for pre and post cruise stays. Even flying in and out of Miami airport, as we did, was an easy 40 minute taxi journey. Solstice is the newest ship in Celebrity's 5* fleet, and definitely lives up to their reputation for elegant and stylish ships with 1st class service. Solstice is the first of a new class of ship, and will be sailing in the Caribbean for winter 2008/9 before moving to the Med for summer 2009. Her 2 sister ships will be Equinox (Med summer 2009) and Eclipse (launching in 2010 and sailing to the Med from Southampton). Although these ships are the biggest yet for Celebrity, Solstice has lost none of the attention to detail and intimate feel of the other ships. I really was blown away at just how romantic this ship is - the use of gauze curtains in bar areas; sunbeds for 2 on the pool deck, cozy hide-away chairs for 2 and large hammocks in the solarium area all added to this effect. The cabins on Solstice are extremely comfortable, and have been re-designed by women! Bathrooms are now larger than in most cabins at sea, with more storage space, larger shower with screen rather than a stick-to-you shower curtain.. even down to little details such as a foot rest in the shower for shaving your legs! A new class of cabin has also been developed, the AquaClass stateroom, which has unlimited access to the AquaSpa relation room, Persian Garden aromatherapy and steam room and its own exclusive speciality restaurant, Blu - all designed for people looking for the ultimate Spa getaway. The facilities are outstanding, with innovative features such as The Lawn Club - a large area on the top deck of REAL grass. Taking your shoes off and feeling real grass under your feet on a cruise ship was a most surreal experience. This lovely area is used for lawn games such as quoits and croquet. Next door to this is another "first at sea" - the Hot Glass Show. This show is produced in conjunction with the Corning Museum of Glass, and is a wonder to watch. Experts demonstrate the art of glass-making, coming up with beautiful items before your eyes. (I just wonder how the glassblowers are going to survive in the height of summer standing beside the hot furnaces!) As expected, the dining onboard is outstanding. With 10 dining venues in addition to the dramatic dual level Grand Epernay dining room (complete with wine tower), there is something for all tastes on board. Although we ate in the main dining room on both nights, we were lucky enough to enjoy tastings at each of the main speciality restaurants - Silk Harvest (exotic Asian), Tuscan Grille (steakhouse), Murano (continental) and Blu (healthy). Cafe al Bacio is a great coffee shop with gorgeous cakes and biscuits, and its own gelataria. The bars on board have different themes and specialities, with our group's favourite being the Martini Bar & Crush. For wine connoisseurs, Cellar Masters, is the place to be, with a wide selection of wines from around the world, set within a Gentlemen's Club atmosphere. The nightclub, Quasar, goes to the other extreme and looks like something from out of space, with globe-like seats hanging from the ceiling and a DJ booth that looks like a newly landed spaceship. The entertainment on board is excellent - from professional shows in the theatre to pianists in bars to a capella quartets. My favourite show by far was the modern circus style performance - along the lines of Cirque du Soleil. It was wonderful also to come out of the theatre and wander through the atrium to discover a jazz band playing with people jiving in the open space. The ship itself is stunning - although it is large you really don't feel it, and the space ration is excellent so that you don't realise how many other people are sharing YOUR ship! I honestly can't wait to cruise on her properly (ie for more than 2 nights!) and enjoy all she has to offer. "I'll be back!"
16 December 2008
As one of the Australian Tourist Board's Premier agent I aim to visit Australia every year, and try to see and do things that I haven't covered before. My sister and her family live in Perth, and therefore Perth is normally always included in my trips, and this year was no exception. This October I took my dad with me (mum had been over for 2 months earlier in the year for the birth of her 3rd grandchild!), and we flew to Sydney with Etihad before connecting onto Qantas through to Perth. I hadn't flown with Etihad Airways before, and was very pleasantly surprised - I'd go so far as to say they're probably the best economy service I've experienced in recent years. The first couple of days we spent in Perth at the Novotel Langley hotel (my sister having only just moved back into her house the day before we arrived following major renovations!). This hotel is in a good central location, near to the Swan River and downtown area. Bedrooms were comfortable and spacious (they needed to be with the amount of luggage we had!!), and breakfast was of a good standard and variety - including Asian options. After the stay in Perth we joined APT's "Western Wildflower Wilderness" coach tour. October is spring-time in Australia, and Western Australia (WA) is renowned for its spring wild flowers. Not being much of a gardener myself, I did wonder whether dad's choice of tour was really going to be that interesting for me, but I was glad to be proved wrong! Yes, there was the general wildflower theme and we made a point of stopping to see the various shrubs, trees, plants etc - in fact, it was me that ended up running around taking lots of photos of all the wild and wacky-looking as well as the beautiful flowers. I may not be able to get any to grow for me (green fingers is something I lack!), but I am able to appreciate them. But the tour manager and driver were also full of usual information, stories and anecdotes about Australia in general, history, the places we were going through. So as we passed alongside "The Pipeline" we were told the story of how it came into being to get water to the Goldfields - we were also shown a wonderful DVD called "Constructing Australia" which brought this to life. (Being a retired Civil Engineer this was probably dad's highlight!!) The tour started in Perth and went through to Hyden on day 1 - the town closest to Wave Rock. I've always wanted to see Wave Rock, but had heard through the rumour mill that it wasn't worth the effort of getting there - well, I'd like to set the record straight - IT IS! From there it was on to Kalgoorlie, via Coolgardie. Coolgardie was the centre of WA's original gold rush, and it was fascinating to look round its museum to see just how hard life was for people then. One of the interesting things to note there is the width of the streets - these had to be wide enough to turn around a camel train - yes, you read right! Camels were the best form of transportation then, especially as they really were in the outback with very little access to water. Kalgoorlie is still the largest producer of gold in Australia - though now done in Super Pits rather than mines. One of the great side-trips we did was to go down one of the disused mines that is now open as a museum, and be guided underground by one of the former miners. Then on to Esperance and Albany on the south-west coast, including information on the numbers of Australians who went to WW2 from there - and viewing a wonderful memorial to them. Valley of the Giants on the way up to Margaret River was another place I'd been looking forward to going - although I'm afraid of heights. I managed to make my way round the Treetop Walk with my heart in my mouth. Dad and I then left the tour there as we had a train to catch - and made our own way back to Perth. Some people may be wary of taking a coach tour, but in fact it's a wonderful way of getting around - somebody else does the driving and you are fully escorted by very knowledgeable, helpful and friendly tour guides and drivers.
16 December 2008
HURTIGRUTEN'S MS TROLLFJORD TROMSO - KIRKENES This year saw a chance to tick off another thing on my list of things to see/do in my lifetime - seeing the Northern Lights! You may have seen the TV programme earlier this year with Joanna Lumley fulfilling her dream of seeing them, and being awestruck at the sight - well, it happened to me too. There is never any guarantee of seeing the Northern Lights, so to see them on 2 nights in a row was wonderful. The best way of having a chance of seeing them properly is to go somewhere remote with no light pollution to spoil the view - and what better way than by going on a boat onto the open sea? I flew to Tromso, via Oslo, with SAS, and spent 1 night at the Radisson hotel on the harbourside in Tromso. That evening we had the most wonderful experience - husky dog sledging under the Northern Lights. Above the Arctic Circle in winter it gets VERY cold, and we went well wrapped up with lots of layers, and on top of these we were given snow suits with hoods and thick gloves. The feeling of being pulled along in a winter wonderland by several panting dogs in front of you, snow falling around you, and coloured lights dancing above you, is absolutely magical. On returning to the centre we were then taken to a Sami tent, known as a lavvu, which looks similar to a Native American teepee. The Samis are the indigenous people of northern Norway, and over a typical Sami dinner of reindeer stew, we were told more about the culture and the ways of the Sami people. In the morning we were taken on a guided walking tour of Tromso by Audrey - completely nutty as a fruit cake, but brought to life the history of the town and regaled us with tales of her past. (She also knew EVERYONE in the town - stopping for a chat with everyone we passed by!) One trip that we did from Honningsvag was the North Cape excursion - a coach tour through some of the most beautiful scenery to Europe's northernmost point. As well as the obligatory photo beside the North Cape monument, we viewed the exhibition at the visitors centre, sent post cards from the most northerly letter box and posed with trolls! Hurtigruten, previously known as Norwegian Coastal Voyages, operate a fleet of 14 ships, 11 of which operate along the coast of Norway at any one time. As well as taking "cruise" passengers, they are mainly working ships, providing an essential link between the tiny communities along the coast. This makes the trip fascinating as you stop several times throughout the day and night to allow people and/or cargo on and off - so if you are so inclined you can go ashore for 10 minutes in the middle of the night! Passengers can do either the full coastal journey, or do particular "cruises" which are sectors, including the one that we did. Cabins on board are basic but warm, comfortable and clean - let's face it, you're not here to stay inside! On the whole, the cruises are done on a half board basis, and the food was much better than I anticipated - very wide choice of tasty dishes. The crew are wonderful, and all speak English. And everyone is well aware that the tourists on board are there for the scenery, wildlife and Northern Lights - so when the lights appear an announcement is made (even in the middle of dinner!) and there is a stampede onto the decks. Only the hardy, determined and very well layered stay for very long - but for those that can the sight is spectacular. This truly was an experience of a lifetime and I can highly recommend it.
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