Cruising a European 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

Discover Russia’s Far East

The far eastern part of Russia is a long way from the rest of civilisation but that certainly does not make it irrelevant. This sparsely populated natural wilderness north of China has beauty, ruggedness and a hardy feel. The landscape is dominated by mountains and volcanoes, tree pinned forests and vast open fields. It is spread over a large area – 17 million km2 – and has a modest population of 4 million out of a total Russian population of 146 million. All this makes it the perfect spot for nature lovers to visit.

This part of Russia, however, is not just a wilderness playground. It has cities and its own people, known as the Evens. Petropavlovsk is the capital for the area and locals proudly point out that it is a world away from Moscow. Situated on the Kamchatka Peninsula, unusually the city has no roads connecting it to the rest of the world. Its population is under 200,000 instead are serviced by an airport. Situated on the icy coast, the city is flanked by dramatic mountains and fierce-looking volcanoes.

Outside the city, the roughed edged countryside greets the explorer with open arms. Visitors can have an adventure in this untamed land all year round just as long as they have decent footwear!

Russia is not normally associated with beaches but Petropavlovask has isolated, beautiful beaches with the mountains in the background completing a fine picture-postcard scene. You are unlikely to take a dip though due to the temperature! Sitting high on a hill above the city is the golden-domed Trinity cathedral which offers great views of the city, mountains and bay.

Russia Far East

Moscow and St Petersburg are great destinations in their own right but this is Russia in its authentic form. Russia untamed, Russia bold, Russia wild. A place where all touristy gimmicks can be forgotten and where visitors can rediscover authenticity.

Dip your toe in Russia’s Far East aboard Silversea’s Silver Muse on Cruise Express’ 30-night holiday package departing in August 2021. 

www.cruiseexpress.com.au/cruise-list/alaska-russian-far-east/ or call 1300 766 537 to secure your place on this incredibly unique journey.

Nature’s Ultimate Playground

The Sub-Antarctic region holds incredibly unchartered abundance and diversity

While most of us are very familiar (and some even luckier to have been) to the Antarctic, the Sub-Antarctic is a little less familiar and far less touristed. Located in the southern hemisphere, immediately north of the Antarctic region, the Sub-Antarctic includes many islands in the very southern parts of the Indian Ocean, Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.

The Sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand and Australia are the ultimate in eco-tourism and have UNESCO World Heritage status, with some of the best-preserved and protected nature reserves in the world! These islands are so pristine and remote, and enjoy some of the most abundant and often endemic wildlife, with rare plants, birds and other animals. Fortunately, the isolation and harsh weather of the region are partially responsible for having kept tourists at bay and the New Zealand Government strictly controls shore visits.

Visitors are treated so sightings of fur, leopard and elephant seals, along with giant petrels, Auckland shags and Campbell Island teals, one of the rarest flightless birds in the world. 10 of the world’s 24 species of albatross breed in these islands, with five being endemic to the region. Campbell Island has six species, including the largest breeding population of southern royal albatrosses, the largest albatross in the world.

10 species of penguins inhabit the islands, two of them endemic (the Snares crested and erect-crested penguins), as well as king, royal and yellow-eyed penguins. Not uncommon are sightings of southern right, humpback and sperm whales, particularly around and in the harbours of Campbell Island.

The history of this region is fascinating and disturbing. Over the centuries, particularly in the 1800s, mankind wreaked havoc on the region, destroying much in its wake including a great deal of seal and whale slaughtering, even sea lions were hunted to extinction on the mainland (they are still critically endangered and confined mostly to the Sub-Antarctic).  

Not surprisingly, there were a significant amount of shipwrecks in the area in the 1800s. What seemed like a good idea at the time, was to provide provisions for survivors, so ‘castaway’ depots were created on land including Campbell Island. As technological advances in shipping meant the different trade routes by steam were embraced, these depots were abandoned. Unbelievably, these abandoned pigs, rabbits, goats, and rats annihilated vegetation, feral cats wiped out many native birds and sheep even developed self-dropping fleeces!

 

The introduction of invasive species including rats, rabbits, feral cats and farm animals was also catastrophic. While it is an ongoing issue for many of the islands, there is slow progress and in some areas, painstaking eradication programs have been successful, enabling many islands to flourish again.

Fortunately, a great deal of work has been done in preservation and conservation for many decades and for those preferring to travel to an uncrowded, immersive and unique destination, the Sub-Antarctic is the ultimate destination. 

To find out more about how you can visit this remarkable destination click here.

The Benefits of Booking your Holiday with an Agency

 

As online influence and purchasing have increased exponentially in the last few years, it seems that personal interaction with your reputable Travel Agency is falling by the wayside – but is it?

Agency or DIY?

When it comes to important decisions like our large purchases and big-ticket holidays, we still crave a human at the end of the line, or shock horror, even face to face!

Outlined below are a few reasons why we believe developing a long-term relationship with a travel agency is so important to achieving your best holiday, for the best price without any unsuspecting traps for holiday disasters.

Expertise – just when you need it

Like any professional, whether it be a lawyer or doctor, a Travel Specialist is just that, a specialist. Highly trained and in most cases with many years if not decades of experience, they are fully invested to get to know you, to listen well, know what questions to ask, and to offer advice on how to make your holiday the best it can possibly be.

They also have all the inside knowledge of visa and passport requirements, port details, embarkation and so much more.

Most agents can also help you with little insights and tips – like where to find the best pizza in New York or a great bar in Santorini!

Great prices and value

With so many offers out there, it can be really confusing to know if you are getting the best deal and value for money. Remember that your Travel Specialist has access to exactly the same deals cruise lines directly offer, and in some cases are able to offer even lower pricing, intervening with suppliers on your behalf.

It pays to ask – depending on allocations and offerings for different ships and destinations, Cruise Express can be as much as 10 percent lower in price than the actual cruise line!

What you see online is not necessarily the best price, and prices do fluctuate frequently. We recommend that you simply always ask the question.

They get to know your personal needs and preferences

They aren’t just selling you a product, it’s also a service, and you can’t have one successfully without the other. Once a relationship has developed, your Travel Specialist will know so much more about you and will do everything they can to meet your needs within your budget.

Many clients return year after year knowing they will be taken care of so that their holidays are stress-free.

Although on occasion you may pay a slight amount more for agency expertise, the time and money you spend with them will be returned to you many times over in the form of perks, upgrades, convenience, great service and someone to call if things go wrong on your holidays.

Added peace of mind

Price isn’t everything and sometimes what you need is really good after sales support. If something goes wrong you have the peace of mind knowing you can call 24/7 and speak to someone.

Remember, if you buy online, you aren’t dealing with a faceless online booking agency or a website provider making it hard to contact anyone.

Escorted tours offer experiences like no other

Escorted tours are another travel agency specialty. Enjoy having a highly experienced tour leader who knows the ins and outs of your destination, insider tips on where to go, special access to places, special contacts with inside local knowledge, and touches that are not available to other travellers.

While most of us would like to spend much more of our lives travelling, for many it isn’t really an option, so when we do embark on these inspiring journeys, it’s important to do it to the best of your capability, utilising the best of the best available to you.

We recommend chatting with friends and family about their positive travel experiences and the travel agency they use and have developed a rapport with.

Call, email or drop in – and trust your instincts. And, of course, we are always here to help!

Click here for an ultimate holiday experience or call us 1300 766 537

 

Benefits of Cruising with Friends

As the old saying goes, we can’t choose our family but we can choose our friends – and let’s face it, everything’s better with friends – they get us (and forgive us)!

On a cruise holiday, your friends are there to share when you order everything on the main menu, they are on your team for trivia, your dance and silent disco partners, as well as backup singers for karaoke.

Cruising with friends is not just the basis for a wonderful time, they keep us in a holiday mindset and together, you’ll create memories to talk about for decades to come.

The Best of Everything

The best thing about cruising is that it offers something for everyone, and you don’t have to do everything together all the time. On your days at sea, or in port you could go in different directions, and still meet up for a cocktail and dinner in the evening, and then explore the shows and nightlife.

Less Organising

Depending on the type of cruise, duration and number of friends you are travelling with, a cruise holiday overall requires less organising, so no-one has to be the coordinator!

Although specialty dining, dining times, and shore or self-tours are something you may want to consider planning before you go so as to avoid any issues onboard, particularly if you are with a large group, numbers may be tricky to book for at the last minute. Your trusty cruise specialist travel agent (i.e. us!) can help with this.

You have a Security Blanket if Cruising Makes you Nervous

Having a friend to help keep you calm or make you laugh when the waves are rocking the boat a little too much is priceless.

If you are away on a longer trip, having a friend or two can help feelings of being homesick. Not only do they get you, but they’ll also get your ‘Aussieness’, and most importantly, understand why you miss Vegemite!

Your Kids have BYO Friends

If you are traveling with other families, the kids usually know each other and are hopefully on good terms. Depending on the age of the children and your need for a little time-out, there can often be no need for kids clubs when they have friends from home to hang out with.

Ring in the Holiday Festivities

A cruise with friends can be so much more than a relaxing (or partying) trip to the islands. Festivities from across many cultures and continents are celebrated onboard most cruise lines, including Valentine’s Day, Sunday Super Bowl, Dr Suess’ Birthday, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and even Cinco de Mayo.

Don’t forget your fancy dress outfit if you are really planning on getting into it!

Love of Themed Cruising

Increasingly popular are an almost countless number of ‘themed’ cruises being offered on the high seas. If you have friends who have the same interest as you, this may be a great option for you to consider.

Themed cruise holidays range from food and wine appreciation to rock, operatic and country music cruises, holistic/wellness, yoga, astronomy, political, religious, LGBT, golf, history, gardening, poker, crochet, fashion, fitness, and sci-fi themed (to name a few). There are even nude cruises!

Plan Well to Avoid Pitfalls

While travelling with friends (or family) with no one having to cook, clean or think too much, can seem like a great idea, we do recommend a few things so that this isn’t the first or last one you have together. Before you go, please consider:

  • Differences – interests, budgets, travel style, ability and fitness/energy levels.
  • Be True to You – don’t feel you have to do what everyone in your group is doing, it is your holiday so if you want to sleep, dance, be lazy, hit the gym – just do it! Perhaps discuss this up front.
  • Appointing a Leader – it’s great to appoint someone who is happy to wear the co-ordinator hat, research pricing for the cruise and shore tours and basically communicate it all to the group. Use What’s App!
  • Planning Ahead – we mentioned this earlier if it is a large group you will have a hard time getting the ship or cabin you may want, dinner reservations, shore tours etc.
  • Staying an Extra Night – if you are traveling from interstate or overseas, don’t book your flight to or from the ship on the same day as embarkation/disembarkation, anything can and does happen with travel and you may literally miss the boat!