European Cruising Christmas

Christmas will be here again before you know it so now’s the time to plan your next festive escape

In that spirit, a ‘part-time’ Christmas scrooge from Australia rediscovers the joy of the season on a Yuletide Markets cruise with Riviera Travel from Hungary to Slovakia and Austria.

By Andrew Mevissen

Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas. But like the Olympics, I just think Christmas should be celebrated every four years. There’s so much rushing, stressing and preparing that the storybook magic of the season dwindles – for me anyway – and it all comes around so quickly each year.

But last Christmas this part-time Scrooge rediscovered the joy of the season when I boarded one of Riviera Travel’s Yuletide Markets cruises in Europe. How could I not be swept up in festive traditions and breathless anticipation when I’m in a riverside town’s medieval square festooned with twinkling lights and colourful decorations and brimming with jolly carollers and enchanting timber stalls selling cuckoo clocks, wooden toys, artisan gifts and every type of Christmas treat and trinket you could imagine. Ice skaters glide around glittering fir trees and the sweet scents of cinnamon, honey cookies, mulled wine and roasted chestnuts fill the frosty air.

It feels like I’ve been embedded in a Christmas card. In under 24 hours I’ve been transported from a sizzling Sydney summer in Australia to a winter wonderland in Europe, celebrating our happiest season of all.

‘Our festive cruise had begun’

Our six-day cruise in mid-December started in Budapest when we boarded Riviera Travel’s five-star river ship, MS Thomas Hardy, a modern, gleaming, elegant vessel more akin to a floating, boutique hotel. An impressive line of staff welcomed us onboard in the sparkling, marble-floored lobby. Complimentary bon voyage drinks were offered, our baggage was delivered to cabins in a flash and our festive cruise had begun.

Named after the famous British writer, MS Thomas Hardy is a beautiful and spacious ship boasting an ambience that is stylishly casual and charmingly mellow. There are rich hardwoods, gleaming brass, polished copper, expansive glass and intricate wrought iron all creating a harmonious atmosphere of understated elegance and all designed to make guests as relaxed as the flow of the Danube. With only 169 passengers onboard, the friendly and personable crew quickly remember your face and name and you get to know your fellow passengers quickly as well.

As soon as you board the ship you feel the yuletide spirit, thanks to colourful Christmas trees and decorations, traditional Christmas delicacies on the restaurant’s menus, nostalgic Christmas movies on your cabin TV and favourite carols performed by the lounge pianist. But the best part is we don’t need to cook, wash dishes or clean – a perfect Christmas celebration in my book!

Thomas Hardy

‘Joyfully mesmerising’

Our lovely stateroom sported a French balcony – a panoramic, floor-to-ceiling sliding glass door that, when opened, turns our suite into an alfresco sunroom. All cabins enjoy a river view and it was joyfully mesmerising to lie on our big, comfy bed and watch the gentle pastoral landscapes floating by, listening to the gentle, lapping water through our open glass door. Our stateroom offered a sitting area, ample space under the bed for luggage, flat screen TV with a bridge camera channel, individually controlled air-conditioning, phone, hairdryer, handy USB ports for phone charging, bathrobes/slippers and tea and coffee-making facilities including a small coffee pod machine – a nice and unusual touch. The marble bathroom boasted Crabtree & Evelyn toiletries. There’s an evening turn-down service too with chocolates on the pillows.

Flanked by panoramic windows, the tables in the main restaurant were beautifully laid out with crisp linen. A second, smaller bistro at the rear of the ship offered an alternative, casual dining venue overlooking the wake and back along the river. And unlike specialty restaurants on ocean ships, the bistro was complimentary. But like on all ships, there seems to be an unwritten rule in seafaring law that all passengers are never allowed to have more than a few hours between meals. That was certainly the case aboard Thomas Hardy where the tireless chefs were eager to please our palates around the clock. A highlight was a festive, eight-course degustation dinner – a delectable and veritable feast featuring seared prawns, rillette of duck, winter bisque, pan-fried halibut and rum balls.

MS Thomas Hardy

The River Journey

Our five-night journey aboard Thomas Hardy took us along the storied Danube River from the gilded palaces of Budapest to the romantic old town of Bratislava in Slovakia and the baroque splendour of Vienna. In each port there was a free excursion which typically included a guided coach and walking tour for half a day or so, leaving the rest of the day to explore on your own – including the stunning Christmas markets of each port. My wife and I were like excited little children, following mazes of cobblestoned streets leading to town squares soaked in sensory-filling Christmas magic. We sampled local delicacies and bought Christmas decorations back home for our grown-up children.

I thought Australia showcased Christmas pretty well in the decoration department but Europe wins the prize hands down, with spectacular displays everywhere – and I mean everywhere – especially in front of the Vienna Town Hall where one of Europe’s biggest Yuletide markets unfolds every season. After all, the traditions which we now love about Christmas originated in Europe so it was an eye-opening, bucket list experience for a Down Under summer worshipper like me to finally experience a winter Christmas.

Immersing in the local culture

But as wonderful as the Christmas celebrations were, my wife and I always like to steal away from the crowds and join locals in places that help us authentically experience the cultural fabric of a destination. In beautiful Budapest we immersed ourselves in the huge, steamy, outdoor thermal pools of the historic Szechenyi Baths, wandered the cavernous halls of the giant Central Market Hall, savoured hearty goulash soup in the glorious surrounds of the Central Café for lunch and stood in awe at the magnificent Parliament Building, brilliantly lit at night.

In picture-book-lovely Bratislava, we borrowed two of our ship’s complimentary bicycles and cycled along the river and through backstreets, stopping for hot chocolate. And in magnificent, wintry Vienna, we picked the cosiest, warmest café we could find to indulge in traditional apple strudel and Vienna coffee! In every place, we walked, wandered, watched and wrapped up during the short, cold days, returning always to the luxury and warmth of the Thomas Hardy at the end of the day. And how delightful, before leaving Vienna, for the passengers to be serenaded by an Austrian string quartet which came aboard the ship to perform a spine-tingling concert featuring composers who loved Vienna, such as Mozart, Bach and Strauss.

MS Thomas Hardy

Our favourite experience

But as appealing as advent markets and grand, historic cities were, our absolute best memory of our short river sojourn was soaking in the ship’s top-deck, open-air plunge pool, heated to toasty jacuzzi temperatures in winter. We were in there at dawn and at dusk and after dinner under the stars, coffee or wine in hand, soaking in the majestic splendours of Europe all around us. Just bliss! It was, indeed, beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Returning home to a hot summer in Australia, just three days before Christmas, I was now, finally, in the mood to celebrate the joy of the season!

To find out more about Riviera Travel’s Yuletide Market Cruises in Europe for December 2020, call us at Cruise Express on 1300 766 537 or visit www.cruiseexpress.com.au

The Kimberley – Your Guide on What to Expect, When and Why

With its grand yet unforgiving landscape, The Kimberley is often referred to as Australia’s last great wilderness frontier, boasting some of the largest intact natural areas left on the planet and certainly one of the most unspoiled destinations in the world.  

Formed billions of years ago, the 2,000km Kimberley coastline is famous for its awe-inspiring rugged beauty and stunning diversity. The abundance of wildlife and waterfalls, indigenous rock art, gorges, volcanic remnants, mangroves, rainforests and islands, and can often only be accessed by smaller ships and zodiacs.

The region’s remoteness and tropical climate can make exploring this part of the world difficult. Cruising, especially small expedition ships, will allow you to discover this vast and expansive coastline with ease, taking you to destinations that aren’t accessible by land.

With so much diversity we often get asked when is the best time to cruise The Kimberley and what will you see during the different seasons?  Generally, the optimal time is from April through to September. Although you can travel from October through to March, it is extremely hot and humid with substantial rainfall and thunderstorms, often flooding and closing main roads – so perhaps not such an appealing time for most!

Remember, that Mother Nature still determines everything, so please take this as a guide not as gospel!

Waterfalls – April to May

This coast is known for its iconic waterfalls,  including Mitchell, King George and Horizontal Falls and early in the dry season these falls are at full force. The falls are fed by the regions wet season so the earlier in the season you go the more vibrant and spectacular the falls are going to be. The region will also be very green during this time due to the rain. The weather during this period can still be a little grey with quite high humidity and there can be the occasional rainy day, so it is still a little bit of a gamble, particularly in April. However, seeing the falls at their fullest will surely make up for the changing weather.    

Peak Season – June to July

This is definitely the most popular time of year to visit The Kimberley. Primarily because it is cooler, the weather is dry, the skies are blue and generally speaking the temperatures are comfortable. The falls will still be flowing although they will most likely not be at their fullest.

The roads are pretty much in good condition by now and the waterfall swimming pools are full and clean. Remember that the nights in certain areas like the Bungle Bungles can be cool.

Whales – August to September

By August most waterfalls have dried up to a trickle, and most rockpools, although starting to get low, are still clear and great for swimming. This late in the season it is unlikely that Mitchell Falls and King George Falls will still be flowing.  

However, this is the season for wildlife encounters. Being a world-class whale watching region, The Kimberley is home to the world’s largest population of Humpback whales. Up to 30,000 Humpback whales swim from the Antarctic feeding grounds to the warm waters of The Kimberley to breed and give birth.

In addition to Humpback, Southern Right and Blue whales make their way along the coast, sometimes coming close to shore with their calves. The best time to observe these gentle giants tail-slapping and breaching is around noon, when the sun is directly overhead, although it can happen at any time!

An expedition cruise during these months brings you up close a personal with these majestic mammals, watch on as they often put on playful displays around the ship.

But wait – there’s more…

This spectacularly vast region is also one of the last remaining healthy refuges for many threatened and endangered marine species, including six of the seven species of marine turtles, dugong, and countless varieties of sharks, dolphins and fish.

The coastal areas of The Kimberley also offer sanctuary for many species of native mammals and marsupials, reptiles, amphibians, insects and other invertebrates, some that no longer exist in other parts of Australia. It is also home to many species of birds, rare plants, freshwater crocodiles and fish, including catfish and barramundi.

Cruise Express offers luxury expedition cruises to this region with Ponant. These do sell out quickly so enquire today to secure the sailing date and cabin you want. For details on our 2020 options see here.

 

 

Why Mums LOVE a cruise holiday!

Ship Shape…Escape!

If the idea of a holiday that includes NO shopping, cooking, cleaning, sitting in traffic or scooting around to after-school activities sounds appealing then read on Mums (and Dads)!

For most of us, family getaways over the years have involved packing up the car for that trip up or down the coast, a few nights here and there, trips to the airport, stopovers and jetlag… what part of that is a ‘holiday’?

Instead imagine starting your well-deserved break only a few minutes down the road while still being able to travel to new destinations, enjoy delicious meals (that you didn’t make), have someone else make your bed and even clean the bathroom – every day!  Yes, we are talking about a cruise holiday. Here are some points for you to consider when thinking about organising a local cruise:

Family Cruise

Close to home: Once those bags are checked in at the Overseas Passenger Terminal at Circular Quay (or White Bay depending on which ship you are cruising on) you are officially ‘on holiday’. It’s that simple – all a little too exciting!

All inclusive: Experience twice daily cabin service, almost all day dining, 24/7 room service, entertainment around the ship day and night including live shows, a gymnasium, and many child-friendly activities – it’s all included. PLUS revel in spa treatments, high-end dining and local touring (at additional cost).

Kids Club: No surprises here! Kids Club is divided into age groups (from 3 years old) with age-appropriate activities, facilities and evening events. Some cruise lines such as Norwegian Cruise Line, Cunard, Disney Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International offer baby ‘club’ (usually from 6 months) and evening babysitting services – usually for a nominal fee.

 

Fun for the kids (meaning life is easier for you): At the end of the day, you want the entire family to have a wonderful holiday. Many of the ships cruising to and from Sydney have water slides, rock climbing walls, wave-surfing pools and zip lines which are huge hits with older kids. On these child-friendly cruises, there will be lots of kids onboard so your troops can make friends easily. A word of warning, if you actually want to spend lots of time with your children then cruising may not be for you!

Holiday festivities: Yes there are more children onboard in school holidays (although you’d be surprised how many cruise outside these times) but if you are able to sail during peak holidays such as Christmas and Easter, the experience onboard is out of this world. For example, during the festive season ships are decked out with all the trimmings and you might spot the odd roaming group of carollers! Or perhaps you might take part in a ship-wide Egg Hunt during an Easter cruise. Remember the onboard staff are also celebrating and are far from home, family and friends so be extra nice to them.

Intergenerational: Cruising is a great holiday option for three generations of the one family as you can be as independent or together as you like. There are so many activities onboard that everyone will have something to do from bingo to enjoying cocktails at a fancy bar to simulated skydiving.

Family

Room tips: If your children are small, sharing a four-person cabin with bunks is ideal but if they are older, you’ll be falling over each other. Many ships offer interconnecting cabins or you can opt for neighbouring cabins – next to each other – or an Oceanview or Balcony cabin and an Inside cabin directly opposite the hallway to save money.

Balcony safety: Some parents may worry about little ones falling off balconies – it’s actually not possible to ‘fall’ as they are high. It is hard to even access the balcony for littlies as your balcony door is so heavy. However, if your little monkeys are young (and love climbing), we still suggest a balcony cabin requires adult supervision at all times. An interior room with a virtual balcony or oceanview cabin with a window or porthole will be just as exciting for the kids and you won’t need to keep an eye on them as much.

 

  • family cruise

While cruises are available year-round to and from Sydney, during our warmer months (Nov-Apr) more ships visit our shores giving even more options. We can help you choose which ship is best for your family and then secure the best cabin/s available.

There’s nothing to lose and a whole lot of R&R to gain – contact us so we can organise your cruise, anywhere, anytime!

 

The Truth About River Cruising

There’s more to it than meets the eye!

Those who have never been on a river cruise may have preset views of what it entails. We are here to bust some myths so it becomes a holiday considered by everyone!

River cruising is for older people only

You probably already know this but cruising (in all its forms) is booming globally. Things are changing too, especially when it comes to river cruising. The average age for cruising is falling and cruise lines are providing more choices and activities including long-walking shore tours, hiking, kayaking, cycling, yoga and gym sessions. River cruising really has a place for everyone – the young and the old, singles, couples or families. There are even river cruise lines that specialise in family travel or travel for the under 45’s. For those content with the non-active kind of holiday, you can still do as little or as much as you like on a river cruise. It’s really all about options.

River cruises are prohibitively expensive

With any holiday (as with pretty much most things in life), some are expensive and some are not. There are so many river cruise companies with some offering budget and others luxurious options. You just need to ask our team of Cruise Travel Specialists to find out the range of holidays available and what’s included. Those on a budget can find great deals that might surprise and many of the more traditionally ‘expensive’ luxury cruises also offer great value packages so don’t dismiss them.

If you compare cruising with a ‘non-cruising’ holiday, we urge you to factor in the actual costs and time taken to arrange flights, transfers, car hire, accommodation, meals, drinks, tours etc. If you really do the maths, you’ll find that river cruises are actually great value, particularly as many include gratuities, entertainment, shore tours, airport transfers, sometimes flights and even drink packages!

It’s predictable

If you only think of the Rhine or the Danube when it comes to river cruising – we are here to let you know that there are many, many more options!

River cruising is possible throughout most of the world but if we’re staying in Europe, we suggest considering checking out river cruising in Spain, Hungary, Ukraine, Portugal or the many rivers throughout Russia.

Further afield you could consider these too – the Mississippi, the Nile, the Mekong, the Amazon, the Chobe, the Irrawaddy, the Yangtze and the Ganges – so exciting just thinking about the possibilities!

Similarly to larger ocean cruise ships, no two river ships are the same, no destinations or experience is the same, no history, entertainment, food, culture, flora and fauna… the list goes on. River cruising is so diverse.

Ho-Hum boring

The reality of river cruising is that you can do as much or as little as you like. Many passengers find they have more to do than imagined, including onboard immersion and educational seminars. What you won’t be doing is the grocery shopping, meal planning, cooking and cleaning!

While you can certainly stay onboard while docked, many of the river ports you’ll visit will have sights and activities including markets and shopping, museums and monuments, castles and cathedrals, as well as great dining options and watering holes at your ‘boat step’.

Depending on the destination you can immerse yourself in the culture, history and nature on a shore tour – one is sure to tickle your fancy!

River Cruise

River cruising isn’t for families

This may have traditionally been a reality, but the industry has transformed with some river cruise lines offering multi-generational holidays, especially during school holiday peak periods. Catering to all generations, many now have interconnecting cabins and appropriate onboard activities and shore excursions.

This is such a wonderful way for children to experience travel, but keep in mind at the end of the day, the size of river cruise ships. It’s still not for those children who have excessive energy needing vast spaces to climb and run!

Good news though is that if holidaying with children isn’t your ‘cuppa tea’ – there are still a lot of journeys to choose from (and don’t go in school holidays), just ask one of our cruise travel specialists!

You’re always on tour

If you think river cruising is all about large tourist groups being guided around crowded markets, museums and cathedrals sends shivers down your spine, then we have good news!  While that can be the case, it isn’t necessarily the norm. Onshore tours are always optional, they don’t run all day for the most part, and small group guided walks are often an alternative.

Remember you never HAVE to join an organised tour, it’s free choice. When river ships are docked, often for the day, you can join part of the tour or explore the town and surrounds by yourself – just don’t miss your transfer and/or ships departure as they won’t wait for you!

So now is the time to investigate river cruising! We’re here to help you with any query or booking. Just call 1300 766 537 or check out our latest river cruise delights!

Hook up with Moira!

Are you a ‘happy hooker’?

Below is a blog written by Moira, our crochet cruise host, for those who are lovers of cruising and crochet (French for ‘hook’). You may not realise what a sensational combo these activities make! We have now made it a reality – all aboard the Cruise Express Crochet Cruise!

Cruising

I believe everyone deserves to cruise at least once in their life and when they do, they are bound to get ‘hooked’, resulting in a lifelong love affair of the cruise experience. So this is how it was for me! I can’t tell you which cruise line or ship I love the most as all cruise lines have something unique to offer, though I am quite partial to a wrap-around, teak promenade deck.

With more than 35 cruises under my belt, I once took some cross-stitch with me and it was then that I realised this was my favourite kind of holiday – guilt-free craft time as I was sailing to sunny destinations – bliss!

Crochet

Crochet is a wonderfully fulfilling and forgiving craft and, with its global resurgence in the last couple of years, has certainly evolved from the daggy granny squares associated with crochet to what is now known as ‘the yoga of craft’, with practical artworks created.

Youtube was my reintroduction to crochet, with many wonderful tutorials there to help guide me. I go into my own little world of mindfulness the moment I have a crochet hook in my hands. Even so, as my WIPs (“work in progress”) became beautiful creations and I enjoyed the zen of something growing in my hands, I craved community, a ‘hook and natter’ so to speak. And that’s where crochet cruising comes into its element.  

Reflecting on our first two  Cruise Express crochet cruises last year,  I am left smiling. To craft solo is lovely, to be in a room with a sea view and brimming with fellow crafters is just splendid.

Crochet Cruising with Cruise Express in October 2019

The cruise package is unique with ALL workshops available to ALL crocheters. Everything is supplied and some coveted hooker tools are included as part of the package.

All our crocheters (hookers) have to do is pack a bag, bring a friend or hubby and come aboard – EVERYTHING plus more is supplied.

Hookers are a hoot of course! Always generous with their time and knowledge, kind and with a delicious, self-deprecating sense of humour.

 A Day at Sea

On our recent crochet cruises, the daily rhythm was quickly established with a morning welcome from with myself, morning workshops and afternoon workshops run by our crochet teachers (including Emily Littlefair of The Loopy Stitch) and lots of social, hooking time.

Our room was set up for both workshops, retail therapy and social hooking and was utilised for about 14 hours a day – stormy day shawls, crossover vests and broom stitch bags were created as new friendships were forged.

It was not all hooking though. We enjoyed spa centre massages, hairdressing appointments, shopping, dining, hot tubbing, swimming, strolling, world-class shows, cocktail hour and shore tours, to name a few activities.

Crochet Cruise

A Day in Port

Shore tours were quickly followed by social hookups as, like homing pigeons, our hookers found their way back to our workshop room at the top of the ship. Much laughter, conversation and show and tell was then followed by a good time before pre-dinner cocktails, dinner and of course a show.

Ahhhhh the life of a cruiser!! Cruising and crochet are a match made in heaven!

I look forward to hookin’ the high seas with you soon – click here to enquire about securing your cabin today on our October 2019 cruise or call a cruise crocheting specialist on 1300 766 537.

Moira Mevissen

Cruise Express Crochet Cruise Host