Our favourite cruises ever – and why we loved them
The Northern Isles
Vessel: Holland America Line’s Nieuw Statendam is a mid-size ship with 2106 passengers. It is the latest in Holland America Line’s stable.
Cruise:14-day Northern Isles cruise but it was Iceland that I really wanted to see as I had never been.
Life onboard: Renowned designer Adam D. Tihany and cruise industry architect Bjorn Storbraaten, worked their magic to create a stylish ship where music and art features.
The decks are named after famous composers – we are on Gershwin deck in a cosy cabin with balcony and a compact ensuite with Elemis toiletries.
Dining: Dining is an exciting journey with plenty of options ranging from the elegant open-seating dining rooms to specialty restaurants that incur a fee. They include the Pinnacle Grill for steak and seafood, authentic Italian cuisine is served in Canaletto, southeast Asian dishes at Tamarind and Nami Sushi, and a contemporary twist on French seafood classics in Rudi’s Sel de Mer.
Entertainment: The innovative Music Walk showcases a variety of live musical experiences and genres including the Rolling Stone Rock Room, Lincoln Centre Stage, Billboard Onboard and B B King’s Blues Club. The Music Walk takes you from live rock and pop bands to classical recitals and rhythm and blues.
Activities: There is everything from trivia to card games, basketball to bridge. There’s a great spa and you can learn the secrets of cocktail making.
Itinerary highlights: Ports include Newcastle upon Tyne and Edinburgh in the UK, Iceland’s Reykjavik, Isafjordur and Akureyri and Norway’s Alesund and Bergen.
Favourite thing: Splashing around in the warm geo-thermal waters of Reykjavik’s Blue Lagoon, watching the tumbling waters of the beautiful Gullfoss Golden Waterfall and admiring the landscape around the pretty city of Isafjordur.
Why I want to go back: Iceland is such a fascinating country – the lunar-like landscape of Reykjavik’s Peninsula and the birdlife of Vigur Island, home to puffins, eider ducks and arctic terns are drawcards.
Down the Rhône
Where? The Rhône and Saône rivers in Southern France
Vessel: MS Swiss Emerald carries 98 people.
Cruise: My nine-day cruise through Provence and Burgundy is part of The French Escapade, which also has two nights in Monte Carlo at the beginning of the tour and two nights in Paris at the end. I joined in Arles.
Life onboard: My cabin is surprisingly roomy with a beautiful queen-size bed, work desk, TV, a large bathroom with two vanities, a shower with a rain shower head and plenty of storage. The bset feature is the large glass doors – you can open them and just listen to the river as you mosey along. The boat moves mostly at night – going through the locks is fascinating – leaving the days free for exploration of the many fascinating destinations on the itinerary. Tauck tours are all-inclusive and the quality of the food and beverages onboard is outstanding
Dining: Compass Rose is the main restaurant and Arthur’s Bistro is perfect for lighter, more casual fare. The meals are sublime and it is just as well you do a lot of walking so you can walk off some of the calories. I still think about some of the desserts onboard. Delicious.
Activities: Tauck has three tour directors who become part of everyone’s family and, unlike other river cruise companies, accompany the tours on land to ensure everything goes smoothly. On every tour we have a special Tauck guide, who tell us everything about what we are seeing and the history of the towns we are in through these nifty Vox earpieces that we charge every day in our cabins. We can wander 50 metres behind and still hear every word they are saying. And they really know their stuff.
Itinerary highlights: All of it. In Arles, we followed in the footsteps of Vincent Van Gogh and explore Arles Arena that was built in 92 AD. In Avignon we explore the Palais des Papes (Pope’s Palace), join the chefs to browse the Les Halles market and enjoy a gala dinner in the 11th-century Duchy d’Uzès (Duke’s Castle). Van Gogh is front of mind again when we visit Saint Paul de Mausole, the institution that he stayed in for more than a year at St Rémy de Provence. We go wine tasting at Châteauneuf du Pape, where the best-known wines from the Côtes du Rhône are produced. In Vienne, a Roman city, we are moored next to a medieval tower in the centre of town and marvel at the Temple of Augustus and Livia – built in 20 AD.
We turn into the Saône River in Lyon, venturing out to Cluny and its famous Benedictine Abbey which was once the largest Christian building in the world. Right next door is the Haras National de Cluny, a historic thoroughbred breeding centre founded by Louis X1V in 1665. We watch a trainer working with her horse and I am spellbound.
I loved walking around the city of Chalon-sur-Saône, and meet a real Count at Château de Rully in the village of Mercurey. Count Raoul d’Aviau du Ternay tells us the keep (castle) has been in his family since the 12th century.
After cruising on the Saône overnight, we tie up in Tournus and hop on our coach (we have the same coach and drivers for the entire trip) for the drive to the 17th-century Château de Cormatin. The stone château complete with turrets has a moat, a long gravel drive where many a fine horse-drawn carriage has travelled, turrets, stables and an exquisite Baroque garden that was originally created in 1620 but dug up by 1815.
Lyon is our last stop and what a city it is. We ooh and aah at the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière, explore Vieux Lyon (the Old Town) with its cobblestone streets, traboules (secret passageways) and wonderful restaurants around every corner. History lives and breathes in this place with Celts, Romans, Christians, Barbarians and Ottomans all playing a part in its DNA.
Favourite thing: Watching the river. When in my cabin, I sit on my bed with the sliding glass doors open just watching the water. I see kayakers, farms, green fields, tree and often just the river. The water busily going on its merry way. Van Gogh would have loved it.
Why I want to go back: I would do a river cruise like this again in a heartbeat. The Tauck crew were fantastic – I am still Facebook friends with the maitre ‘d from that trip and with several of the passengers. As for what you see, it is the perfect mix of history, scenery and fascinating people and places.
Costa Rican sojourn
Where: Costa Rica
Vessel: Windstar’s Star Pride, powered yacht. This ship is undergoing a modern revamp as part of Windstar’s $250 MillionStar Plus Initiative including new public areas, two extra dining venues, a new spa, infinity pool, and fitness area. The ship also boasts all-new bathrooms in every suite and a new category of Star suites, featuring a new layout. Carrying only 312 guests, Star Pride still tucks into small ports.
Cruise: Costa Rica and Panama Canal.
Life onboard: There’s a carefree feel to this Windstar ship as soon as you step aboard. The top deck Yacht Club lounge with its own barista is a popular haunt for coffee lovers and there’s a library for quiet time. Our comfortable suite has a walk-in wardrobe, spacious ensuite and a Juliette verandah where you can catch the ocean breeze.
Dining: Dining is an adventure with breakfast and lunch served in the Veranda restaurant where freshly baked bread is hard to resist and homemade ice cream has a big following. At night it’s transformed into the romantic Candles restaurant with flickering lights, soft music and an excellent menu. Dinner is also served in the elegant downstairs restaurant AmphorA and is a grand affair with world-wide wine offerings and a menu featuring Lobster Thermidor. The weekly open deck barbecue is a feast with prawns piled high, the biggest paella pan I’ve seen, lobster, salads and barbecued meats plus delicious desserts.
Activities: As well as fabulous ports, there’s plenty to do onboard including yoga, Pilates, dance classes, lectures and cooking demonstrations.
You can take a dip in the Pacific or head out on kayaks, paddleboards and sailboats available from the water sports platform – and for pampering head to the WindSpa.
Itinerary highlights: Isla Parida, one of 50 islands in the Chiriqui Marine National Park
Favourite thing: Nothing prepares you for the first glimpse of the Panama Canal, the famous man-made waterway that links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans so ships can avoid the long and hazardous route around Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America.
Why I want to go back: It’s known as the happiest country in the world so why wouldn’t you. The islands are beautiful and the countryside rich and lush. As for that most special moment – it’s watching a blood-red sunset, a Costa Rican Delight in hand as the Windstar flag is raised to the stirring tune of Vangelis’ 1942- Conquest of Paradise – pure magic.
Islands in the Indian Ocean
Vessel: We are on Seaing Double – a Sunsail 444 Robinson and Caine catamaran.
Cruise: We are on a seven-day round trip itinerary out of Eden Marina on the main island of Mahé visiting five islands – Praslin, Curieuse, Felicite, La Digue and Sainte Anne.
Life on board: There are three couples onboard and we each get our own double cabin. There is even a spare cabin for extra storage or if there is a snorer to be banished. The vessel has multiple areas in which to recline, socialise or relax with a good book, and the galley kitchen has ample room in which to cook should you wish to. We swim in the crystal clear water when we wake, cruise to our next location, explore, turn to the boat for wine, cheese and dips before dinner, which we either cook onboard or go ashore to sample a local restaurant.
Dining: We organised provisions prior to the trip and the fresh produce from Seychelles ensured a bounty of fresh seasonal fruit, vegetables and locally caught fish.
Itinerary highlights: There are too many highlights in this veritable Eden, starting off with Beau Vallon, the first of many eye poppingly beautiful beaches. Think tree-lined, white sand, plenty of sea life including turtles and well-placed restaurants and bars along the beach. Next is the spectacular Anse Lazio and the World Heritage-listed Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve on the island of Praslin. This place has six palms that you will not find anywhere else in the world, including the Coco de Mer, which has nuts that can weigh up to 30 kgs. They are an unusual shape – google it – and they are the country’s passport stamp.
On Curieuse Island we visit a sanctuary to see endangered Aldabra giant tortoises. They can live for 200 years. And on Félicité Island we book in for lunch at the oh so luxe Six Senses Zil Pasyon. What a magnificent property! La Digue is last but not least and we absolutely love hiring bikes and riding around the island to the Source D’Argent beach. Wow. Just wow. Think of the most beautiful tropical beach you have ever seen then decorate it around the edges with large granite boulders. It is one of nature’s masterpieces.
Favourite thing: We discovered a rustic juice bar under the trees at Source D’Argent with a smiling Rasta man insistent on giving me local fruits to try. Then he makes me the best fruit juice I have ever had and I sit on a branch in the shade looking out at the azure water. Unforgettable.
Where: Scotland’s Canals and waterways.
Vessel: Spirit of Scotland, an elegant, restored hotel barge that caters for 12.
Built in 2001 it cruised the French canals in another life while a recent luxe revamp has given it a Scottish flavour complete with tartan carpet, Scottish named cabins and a selection of the best Scottish whisky.
Cruise: Six-night cruise along the historic 97km Caledonian Canal that connects the Scottish east coast at Inverness with the west coast at Corpach near Fort William. There are 29 locks, four aqueducts and 10 bridges in the canal.
Life onboard: It doesn’t take long to settle into a cosseted life – our days are filled watching exacting lock manoeuvres, stunning scenery, walks and bike rides along the tow lines.
Dining: Our day starts with a hearty breakfast with healthy and indulgent options such as home-made croissants, pancakes, bacon and eggs and blood sausage for any takers.
Lunch is two or three courses – think truffle and mushroom wild rice risotto and Scottish strawberries and Pimms jelly for dessert or crispy fish cakes with Jerusalem artichoke and potato salad with summer berry pavlova.
Dinner is always a feast with canapes served bar side and starters such as gin and beetroot cured salmon, followed by Scottish black face lamb and pea and wild garlic gnocchi with a sweet finale of strawberry and clotted cream cheese cake.
Activities: You can cycle along the tow line, soak in the jacuzzi or catch up on Scottish history with books from the library.
Entertainment: There are guest speakers chatting about Scottish, history and customs.
We listen to the haunting tune of a lone piper on the bridge at Laggan Locks, toe-tap along with a young duo playing spirited Scottish folk music and watch an impressive falconry display.
Then there’s local bon-vivant, Ian, who hops on board to regale us with tales of his heritage including a recital of Robert Burns Address to the Haggis. He also manages in a flash to clear up any doubt of what a Scotsman wears under his kilt
From Muirtown Inverness, we cruise through the heart of the Scottish Highlands and finish at Banavie, a small village near Fort William where you can spot Ben Nevis, the loftiest mountain in the British Isles, on a fine day.
At Glen Ord Distillery, founded in 1838 by the Mackenzies of Ord, we learn about Scotland’s best-known export – whisky.
Cawdor Castle loosely linked to Shakespeare’s play Macbeth has a dramatic medieval tower, stunning gardens, tapestries, paintings and furnishings.
Windswept Culloden Moor, where on April 16 1746, in less than an hour, around 1500 men were slain.
Other highlights include a waterside view of the striking ruins of Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness and a visit to Scotland’s most photographed castle, Eilean Donan that overlooks three sea lochs.
Favourite thing: Gliding through inky blue waters girdled by rolling hills and steep mountains dotted with lilac-coloured heather and an odd castle or two.
Why I need to go back: I would love to see more of that Scottish countryside with its tumbling waterfalls and craggy mountains and the mist that rolls in.
Where? Milford Sound, South Island, New Zealand
Vessel: The Fiordland Jewel is a 24-metre, three-deck catamaran and can carry 20 passengers in nine cabins.
Cruise: An overnight cruise on Milford Sound. It will operate again from December 2021. There is also a six-night cruise in Fiordland National Park and Te Wahipounamu World Heritage site. The cruise takes in Breaksea Sound, Dusky Sound and Doubtful Sound, as well as Chalky and Preservation Inlets.
Life on board: I am in the Governor’s Suite, the only room on the top deck, with a huge bed, large windows on two sides and an ensuite. I could have happily stayed in there but the lounge and outside decks are beckoning. It is so enjoyable just learning about the Sound, the sea creatures that live in it and the many waterfalls along its cliffs.
Dining: The three-course seafood dinner and breakfast were delectable.
Activities: We go kayaking past the soldier-straight cliffs, watch two seals frolic and just drink in the tranquillity of this spiritually moving place. There is also a rooftop spa.
Entertainment: Who needs entertainment when you have Mother Nature all around? There is an informative video presentation about the Sound and other journeys the ship offers.
Itinerary highlights: The highlight was actually getting to the ship. It starts with me being picked up in Queenstown and driven alongside Lake Wakatipu to the impossibly beautiful hamlet of Glenorchy. Here I climb into a helicopter through Heli Glenorchy. I feel like Victoria Beckham or a popular Royal as we take off and fly over the snow-topped Southern Alps towards magical Milford Sound. My jaw hangs open – very un-Victoria Beckham-like – as the pilot spots our target and starts descending. We actually land on the boat.
We spend the afternoon cruising Milford Sound, taking in the sights and nosing under waterfalls. We anchor in Deepwater Basin, enjoying pre-dinner drinks in the lounge as well as a three-course seafood dinner. Afterwards, several passengers head up to the chilly deck to chat and drink champagne in the hot tub but I am too immersed in the incredible starscape overhead.
Favourite thing: Waking up to the sheer majesty of the surroundings. Morning mist over mirror-smooth water that reflects the mountains beyond. Oh, and the return helicopter flight included landing on a glacier.
Wonders of Japan
Vessel: Ponant’s Le Soleal, a chic ship that is polished to the nines and offers every comfort. It accommodates 264 guests.
Cruise: Abercrombie and Kent’s 14-day Wonders of Japan cruise
Life on board
Le Soleal is oh so chic with an understated decor and eclectic art.
From afternoon tea in the Grand Salon to drinks in the Observatory Bar, it’s a great way to travel. My cabin is spacious with a verandah that’s perfect for sea gazing. The bed is so comfy it’s hard to leave and there’s plenty of wardrobe space and a compact ensuite.
French-inspired menus feature with hearty buffet breakfasts served in L’Eclipse on Deck 2 and Le Pytheas on Deck 6. Lunch is enjoyed on deck with lots of choice and poolside specialities featuring multi-cultural dishes is popular. Dinner can be a casual buffet affair or a more formal occasion with five courses in the dining room.
Each day we head out on pre-selected tailored excursions to some of Japan’s biggest attractions and hidden secrets with experiences ranging from traditional tea making ceremonies see how gold leaf is applied and pottery production.
There’s plenty of time to enjoy all that Le Soreal offers. Its onboard entertainment ranges from movies to performances by Le Soleal dancers with a high energy show, Metropolitain in the theatre and a Tribute to Frank Sinatra. Musical performances by dynamic Japanese groups and a dramatic Kabuki show focus on aspects of Japanese culture. There are also dockside performances ranging from enthusiastic taiko drummers to young dancers.
Its calm water cruising on the Seto Inland Sea and Sea of Japan as we visit Takamatsu, Hiroshima, Karatsu, Matsue, Kanazawa, Sado-ga-shima, and Noshiro-Aomori as well as wilderness areas and far-flung ports. We also cruise to South Korea for a day and visit the ancient capital of Gyeongju to see the beautiful Buddhist Bulguksa Temple with its many coloured lanterns and the excavated tombs at Tumuli Park.
Visiting the amazing art islands including Naoshima Island is a highlight. It is home to Yayoi Kusama, a bright yellow pumpkin sculpture covered in black polka dots perched on the beach. Naoshima is one of 12 art focussed islands that participate in the eclectic Setouchi Art Triennale that has a huge following. Highlights include the Chichu Art Museum, Benesse House Museum and the Benesse Art House Project, a collection of abandoned houses and shops that have been converted to art studios and galleries.
Why I want to go back?
I loved the Japanese food, culture and art – also Ponant’s attention to detail and fabulous dining.
Details: au.ponant.com; abercrombiekent.com.au
A Nordic temptation
Vessel: Viking Sun, which carries 930 guests.
Cruise: I hop on for a short three nights from Geelong to Adelaide, but wish I was on for the rest of the world cruise.
Life onboard: I am in a Deluxe Verandah Stateroom. It has a king-size bed, roomy bathroom with a glass-walled shower, a decent flat-screen TV, a mini-bar, a desk, and a sitting area. From here I can watch TV, read or just look at the sea. I also have a balcony. The TV doubles as an information desk. The ship has many captivating spaces in which to relax. It feels much more like a boutique hotel than a cruise ship. As soon as you step into The Living Room (lobby), you feel at home. Chic, elegant and not too extravagant, the finishes are exceptional. In fact the finishes everywhere on the ship are exceptional. There are touches of Norway’s Viking heritage in nooks and crannies all around the ship. I love the replicas of the famous Bayeaux Tapestry up the staircase.
Dining: There are plenty of choices when it comes to dining. I have dinner at The Restaurant one night, and at Manfredi’s Italian Restaurant the next. You need to book ahead for both. I didn’t get a chance to try the Chef’s Table or The Kitchen Table – you need to book ahead for those as well. The World Café wraps around the aft section of deck seven with floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Aquavit Terrace – adjoining World Cafe – is a wonderful place to have a drink – it overlooks the spa and pool just outside. My favourite spots are the Wintergarden, which has high teas in a stunning environment and the Explorer’s Lounge. It has two levels and is located on the bow.
Entertainment: There is something for everyone. Do laps of the running (or walking) track, learn to knit, learn how to set up a blog. Learn to play bridge. Do Qi Gung at sunrise. There is a crazy good spa on board. It has a Nordic snow grotto, hot and cold plunge pools, and an array of treatment rooms. There is a large and very well attended gym.
Itinerary highlights: If only I had been on the world cruise. Oh the places I would have seen! But I was content exploring this stunning ship. I would absolutely cruise on a Viking ship again.
Favourite thing: High tea in the Wintergarden. It is such a calming, pretty space.