One of the best way to explore Scotland is through its national parks where mountains, tundra, forests, and wildlife can all be found. Tour operator Wilderness Scotland has recently added two new wilderness walking adventures as well as one new luxury walking experience.
Wilderness Scotland has been rated Europe’s No. 1 adventure travel company by National Geographic, and is Scotland’s only five-star accredited adventure tour operator, according to the company. It offers active and nature based travel throughout the British Isles. New tours include:
High Points of the Cairngorms National Park (Six nights)
Exploring Scotland’s largest mountain range, the Cairngorms, travels will hike up peaks as high as 4,000 feet. Along the way, guides will point out rare species like the ptarmigan, capercaillie, red squirrels and osprey. The all-inclusive trip is based out of a private wilderness lodge in Glen Feshie.
National Parks of the UK (Nine nights)
If exploring national parks is priority, clients will love this tour. Stopping at five National Parks in Scotland in England, travels will take part in some of the best hiking in the U.K. Guests will stay in country inns and hotels offering authentic local Scottish and English delicacies such as whisky in the Highlands, cream tea in Yorkshire, and Kendal Mint Cake in the Lakes.
North Highland Coast (Six nights)
Based from the exclusive luxury Kinloch lodge beneath the rocky slopes of Ben Loyal, travelers explore one of the quietest areas of the Highlands with an expert guide, surrounded by superb food and drink. Each day offers new landscapes to explore including mountains, beaches, islands of Sutherlands, and even ruined castes, abandoned villages, and an iron-age ‘broch.’
we are in Norway,” a passenger exclaims as our cruise ship glides between towering cliffs carved by glaciers during the Ice Age.
The breathtaking vision of fjords at New Zealand’s majestic Milford Sound is not the only surprise.
It’s the height of summer and the temperature is 4C, but it feels closer to freezing due to the bracing breeze. A European visitor is standing tanned and relaxed in khaki shorts, loafers with no socks and a short-sleeved shirt. His wife is wearing even less.
I’m not sure how they are able to speak without chattering teeth. I’m almost hypothermic, despite being cocooned in a ludicrously expensive jacket borrowed from my elder son, who said it was critical to him surviving a school camp at Mt Barney near the NSW-Queensland border.
The European iceman and his ice queen reach for a steaming beverage offered by a crew member. It’s real hot chocolate, seemingly reduced from the richest chocolate bar on the planet and forged into sugar lava.
We are experiencing a sensory overload aboard the boutique ship Azamara Journey during its maiden season to Australia and New Zealand.
All hands are on deck to see the Sound, which technically is not a sound – a wide inlet from the sea – but a deep, narrow waterway framed by soaring almost vertical cliffs.
As our impervious-to-cold northern hemisphere friend pointed out, this makes it a fjord.
The scene is so beautiful, Rudyard Kipling referred to Milford Sound as “the eighth wonder of the world” during his visit in 1891.
In the shadowy pre-dawn light, the water is like ink and the rocks lurch over us as giant, jagged silhouettes. After two days of ocean sailing across the Tasman Sea from Hobart, the first land we see is the starkest and most hulking of landscapes. We huddle at the bow on the 10th and highest deck, waiting for the sun to climb and illuminate the geological marvel.
The conditions – chill blasting aside – are superb. In the Land of the Long White Cloud, there isn’t a wisp in sight. And this is one of the wettest places on Earth, averaging 7m – that’s right, metres – of precipitation each year. Its record is 559mm in a day. The mariner’s nemesis, fog, is also common, but we’re clear as a bell. The weather gods have smiled upon us.
The sun’s rays pierce holes between peaks as we inch deeper into the wondrous waterway. The only sounds are a low humming of the engines.
This World Heritage-listed site, known as Te Wahipounamu (Maori for “the place of greenstone”), is part of Fiordland National Park. It winds for 15km inland from the Tasman and includes forests of red, silver and mountain beech, as well as conifers and ferns. You can see barren chasms where the harsh weather has created massive landslides. Passengers gasp at waterfalls, and cameras click to preserve the magic moments.
The mountains, the result of seismic upheaval more than five million years ago, soar to the heavens, with the highest, Mitre Peak, rearing to 1692m. It was named for its resemblance to the headgear worn by bishops. There’s also The Elephant, at 1517m, and Lion (1302m), which looks like a gargantuan Simba’s head.
Another treat is snow, in February, on the loftiest points. Further into the Sound there is a voluminous waterfall that Captain Johannes Tysse announces deserves closer inspection. “We will do a pirouette so everyone can see,” he says.
This is a prime example of the flexibility of the Azamara Journey – a mid-sized cruise ship with 690 passengers and about 400 crew – and the willingness of staff to deliver the most memorable of experiences.
We are doing much better than Captain Cook, who, on his first visit in 1770, thought the location looked too dangerous so he stayed well clear.
With the weather holding, our benevolent skipper alters the day’s itinerary. We will visit not one, not two, but five sounds. As well as Milford, we take in Thompson, Doubtful, Dusky and Breaksea.
The rare treat brings a halt to all interior pursuits. Even members of the experienced multinational crew rotate short breaks to witness the rare spectacle. “This is why we go cruising,” says a female American passenger. “It’s the best way to see the world.”
For Australian passengers, it provided Norway-esque delights much closer to home.
The writer was a guest of Azamara Club Cruises.
Azamara Journey will return to Australia for a second season in January. Fares start from $4399 a person twin share for the 14-night Tasmania and New Zealand voyage departing Sydney on February 8. This will include overnight stays in Hobart, Dunedin and Napier as well as scenic cruising through Milford Sound and calls to Akaroa, Picton and Tauranga before arriving in Auckland. Cruises also include a new 18-night Bali to Sydney voyage via the west coast of Australia departing January 21. This will offer maiden calls to Exmouth, Perth, Bunbury, Albany, Esperance, Kangaroo Island and Adelaide. A 14-night Sydney to Auckland trip, a 13-night Auckland to Sydney voyage and an 18-night Sydney to Singapore itinerary are also on offer
After more than a decade of rapid growth, the river cruise segment is showing its first signs of maturation. The pace of new ship introductions and passenger growth is slowing from the peaks experienced earlier in the decade, and the industry is diversifying to fuel its future growth.
“We all remember when demand outpaced capacity and you needed to book your customers 18 to 24 months in advance,” recalls John Lovell, president, Travel Leaders Network, Leisure Group & Hotels. Driven by aggressive advertising programs, river cruising became the fastest growing segment of the travel industry. Between 2004 and 2015, the compound annual growth for North American-sourced river cruise passengers was a staggering 14 percent, compared with three percent for the more developed ocean cruise business. In 2016, 1.4 million people sailed Europe’s rivers, with 40 percent coming from North America and 30 percent from Germany.
The aging baby boom generation’s affluence and desire for new experiences helped to fuel this growth. “The largest target market is baby boomers,” says Lori Sheller, vice president of cruise development at Tourico Holidays, a travel wholesaler. But with demand slowing, “we are slowly seeing changes in the river product to accommodate families and even Millennials,” Sheller says.
With over 150 new ships competing on the market, river cruise operators are now offering traditional travel industry promotions, like free or reduced airfare, gratuities, onboard credits and beverage packages. River cruise lines are also beginning to compete by installing more luxurious amenities. Viking River Cruises took a quantum leap in 2012 when it introduced its Longship design, which features suites, private verandahs and an outdoor dining area while also increasing capacity. Viking now has a fleet of 45 Longships sailing in Europe.
In order to attract new market demographics and appeal to changing travel patterns, the river cruise lines are also introducing new marketing programs. Viking, for example, launched a direct marketing program in China with three European vessels dedicated to the Chinese market.
AmaWaterways is introducing hiking and biking excursions, food and wine experiences, and multigenerational travel including programs with Disney and Backroads. Many of the ships are also offering wellness travel with onboard exercise facilities, pools and spas.
Several new competitors are entering the river cruise market, including Crystal Cruises, one of the leaders in luxury ocean cruising. Crystal is introducing four new deluxe vessels they are calling “river yachts,” with all-suite accommodations and butler service. Another ocean cruise line, Fred. Olsen Cruises, has announced plans for its first river cruise program in 2018.
The most closely-watched launch may be U by Uniworld, a new brand dedicated to the 21 to 44-age bracket. Uniworld is targeting Millennials by offering a more contemporary look onboard, longer port stays, and shore programs that incorporate local bars, restaurants and adventures.
The industry is also experiencing growth in other parts of the world, including China, and a resurgence on the Mississippi River and its tributaries with the American Queen Steamboat Company. High consumer satisfaction with river cruising is also driving the global expansion with travel agents reporting that customers who liked their European river trips are now looking to more exotic itineraries, like cruises on the Amazon and Mekong.
Despite its strong growth, river cruising is still not a “mainstream” product, according to many industry analysts. Given the new entrants to the market and the improved marketing programs, analysts forecast annual growth of five to six percent. “We’ve started to see a more normalized growth rate, but still very healthy growth,” concludes Lovell. “River cruising continues to rank as a top vacation option with our customers.”
When a plane ascends into the air or descends into its destination, the air pressure in the cabin changes rapidly with the altitude — and if you’re not properly prepared to acclimatize, it can wreak havoc on your eardrums.
As British pharmacist Angela Chalmers explained to Express: “A quick change in altitude affects the air pressure in the ear. This leads to a vacuum in the Eustachian tubes which makes the ears feel blocked and sound dull.”
“Try not to sleep during takeoff and descent as you will not be swallowing as frequently and this can lead to blocked ears,” she said.
According to MedlinePlus, a health information site by the US National Library of Medicine, if your ears stay blocked, it can create a number of health issues — such as dizziness, ear infections, eardrum damage, and at worst, nosebleeds and hearing loss.
Staying awake during takeoff and landing to pop your ears helps to “equalize” the air pressure on your ear drums.
“Swallowing or yawning opens the Eustachian tube and allows air to flow into or out of the middle ear. This helps equalise pressure on either side of the ear drum,” MedlinePlus states. “If the Eustachian tube is blocked, the air pressure in the middle ear is different than the pressure on the outside of the eardrum.”
Chewing gum, drinking water, sucking on a lolly or blowing your nose are other ways to prevent your ears from blocking the next time you fly.
With a population of only 123,300 in the city proper (and just over 200,000 in the Capital Region), Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavik, is hardly a cosmopolitan destination. What the world’s northernmost capital city lacks in size, however, it makes up for in its eccentric culture, unique sights and activities that are distinctly Icelandic.
Situated in the southwestern corner of the island-nation, Reykjavik is regarded as one of the cleanest, greenest and safest cities in the world. As Iceland’s cultural, economic and governmental epicenter, a trip to Reykjavik affords travelers the opportunity to experience the country’s natural beauty, rich history, (occasionally bizarre) culture, nightlife and cuisine.
When To Go
Given Iceland’s nigh-Arctic Circle location, timing is an important factor to consider when visiting Reykjavik. During the winter months, snow covers much of the city and the rest of the country as hiking trails become snowshoeing trails and lakes freeze over. Considering that 78 percent of Americans cite the Aurora Borealis as their primary draw to Iceland, travelers should know that November to March are the darkest months of the year in Iceland, and are therefore known as the Northern Lights season. During the summer months with plenty of daylight, Iceland’s many outdoor offerings like hiking, cycling, swimming and fishing take center stage.
Ion City Hotel
For those who prefer boutique-style accommodations, the 18-room Ion City Hotel recently opened just this past May. The property has a simple, ultra-modern design, with a palette of gray and white with wooden floors appropriate for its Arctic-maritime surroundings. A stay in the Panorama Suite comes with an indoor sauna, a private balcony, a dining table, a bar area and the option to request a bartender or chef for one evening. The hotel, its spa and accompanying restaurant are all centrally located on Laugarvegur itself.
This list would be incomplete without Iceland’s first ever luxury hotel. Opened in 1930, Hotel Borg is set in one of central Reykjavik’s landscaped squares, neighboring the Icelandic parliament and the Reykjavik cathedral. Over its long lifetime, the hotel has seen several refurbishments that have lent the property its Art-Deco aesthetic and modernist touch. The hotel pays homage to its history with vintage photographs of Reykjavik and antique furniture and artwork throughout the property. Its most recent renovation in 2015 brought the hotel 43 new rooms along with an upgraded spa, restaurant and fitness center.
Canopy by Hilton Reykjavik City Center
This 112-room hotel is located in the heart of Reykjavik on Hverfisgata Street, within walking distance of famous Reykjavik attractions like Laugavegur (a street known for its shopping, eateries and pubs), Harpa Concert Hall and Convention Center and Old Reykjavik Harbor. Canopy by Hilton, Reykjavik City Center draws its design from local architecture with blue and gray volcanic rock. On site is the Icelandic-favorite Omnom Chocolate, as well as a Geiri Smart restaurant which serves traditional Icelandic seafood dishes in an upscale fashion. There is also an opportunity to experience some local literature in the hotel’s poet’s corner.
The Retreat at Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon may be Iceland’s No. 1 tourist attraction. The lava fields, less than thirty minutes outside of Reykjavik, are home to the volcanic hot springs iconic to Iceland and the Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa. There, guests can bathe and swim in the crater’s warm volcanic waters, which are rich in minerals like silica and sulfur that can supposedly nourish the skin and mitigate skin conditions such as psoriasis.
Opening this February, the 62-room The Retreat at Blue Lagoon is built into the same lava flow that superheats the waters of the Blue Lagoon, which The Spa at the Retreat utilizes in its own treatments. Each room has balconies or terraces that overlook the volcanic landscape and the Lagoon’s turquoise waters. Some of The Retreats suites will have direct access to a private lagoon. The hotel is also an Icelandic food destination, with an ever-changing, high-end menu of curated Icelandic fare.
Where to Eat
Iceland’s cuisine may not be internationally revered on par with that of France, Italy or Spain. Reykjavik however is a burgeoning foodie hotspot that strikes an eclectic blend of haute international cuisine and rustic, boiled-lamb’s-head-traditional fare.
The Reykjavik Food Walk
The Reykjavik Food Walk, sponsored by Reykjavik’s Tourism Center, provides the most robust feel of Iceland’s culinary scene. The three-hour tour is the premier in Icelandic food culture, bringing guests on a tour of the city marked by stops at a number of restaurants and food stops. On the tour, guests will be able to taste free-roaming Icelandic lamb, taste Skyr—a kind of Icelandic yogurt that has been part of local cuisine for more than a thousand years—and even sample locally sourced whale meat, an old-school Icelandic staple. The tour will also bring guests to sample the best local cheeses, homemade ice cream and Reykjavik’s famous hotdog stand, learning about Icelandic culture and food traditions all the while.
The tour begins at the Harpa Concert Hall. The guide will take guests through downtown Reykjavik to some of the city’s most popular restaurants as well as some hole-in-the-wall local hangouts for both casual and fine dining eating experiences—to be taken advantage of later in the trip.
Beer and mead are inextricable from Iceland’s gastronomical history. Craft beer enthusiasts should consider a guided tour of the country’s oldest brewery, Olgerdin Brewery. There, guests will learn about Iceland’s history of alcohol production and be treated to a sample flight of Olgerdin’s most famous brews, like Egil’s Malt.
Things to Do
The Golden Circle
Those interested in traveling to Iceland likely already know about the Golden Circle, but it is requisite to mention before diving into specifics. Though the term has no roots in Icelandic history, the name refers to the 300 kilometer (190 mile) loop of road along which most of Iceland’s tours and excursions take place.
The three primary stops along the route are Thingvellir National Park, where Iceland’s first-ever settlement began in 874 A.D., the huge Gullfoss Waterfall and the geothermal zone in Haukadalur, where visitors can soak in thermal baths and the geysers Geysir and Strokkur (which erupts every 5 to 10 minutes) reside. With a rental car or a tour company, guests can begin their loop of the Golden Circle right from central Reykjavik. Guided horseback riding tours are also common throughout this area, as are helicopter tours.
For literary buffs, along the Golden Circle are a number of locations alluded to throughout Icelandic’s epic sagas and Viking folklore. There are a variety of tours available that take guests along routes dedicated to literary sites. Reykjavik unfurls into West Iceland, where the events of Egil’s Saga—regarded as the cornerstone of Icelandic literature—take place. One such site is Borg a Myrum, where Egil’s nursemaid heroically saves Egil’s life when his father, Skallagrim, tries to kill him in a berserker rage. A sculpture marks the spot where she lept into the sea trying to outrun Skallagrim; the town celebrates her with an annual festival in late June.
The city of Reykjavik is dominated by the 244-foot high Hallgrimskirka, the tallest church in Iceland and a national landmark. The church has a unique architecture evocative of the crags, mountains and glaciers of Iceland’s landscape. Tours of the church take guests to the very top of the landmark, which provides a 360-degree view of Reykjavik’s pastel-colored homes.
Harpa Concert Hall
Another striking building in the city proper, the Harpa Concert Hall’s distinctive colored glass façade is inspired by the basalt landscape of Iceland. Here, guests can look at fine art and experience some of Iceland’s music, including the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and The Icelandic Opera, both of which draw from traditional Icelandic composers and source material
Icelandic Phallological Museum
No attraction quite captures the slightly offbeat, eccentric vibe of Reykjavik and the nation of Iceland better than the Icelandic Phallological Museum. Located on the Laugavegur, the museum houses the world’s largest display of penises, penile parts and phallic cultural objects. The collection of 280 specimens from 93 species of animals includes penises taken from whales, seals, other land mammals, and allegedly—Icelandic elves and trolls. While perhaps a bit strange, the museum aims to enable individuals to undertake serious study into the field of phallology in an organized, scientific manner.
If that is too weird, the centuries-old National Museum of Iceland, also in Reykjavik, provides perhaps the most comprehensive display of Icelandic art, history and artifacts in the world.
Though the city is small, Reykjavik’s nightlife is locally said to rival that of London and New York in enthusiasm. Bars and clubs do not have cover charges, the queues are small and no establishment has a dress code. The popular nightlife establishments will also stay open as late as 5:00 a.m. on the weekends.
Frozen glaciers and volcanic lava fields collide throughout Iceland—a land of ice and fire. Though Reykjavik may be the country’s only true metropolis, there are a number of national parks, recreational areas and natural wonders not far from the city.
Popular with walkers and cyclists alike, Ellidaardalur Valley is located within Reykjavik’s city limits and has a number of lush nature trails. During the summer, fishing licenses are available to fish in the valley’s river, notable for its high populations of Arctic char, salmon and brown trout.
Krysuvik Geothermal Area
Guests can walk the long boardwalk through the bubbling and hissing solfatara (sulphurous) fields of Krysuvik, just a short drive from Reykjavik. The steaming hilltop has a wealth of information on Iceland’s unique geology, explaining the brightly colored crater lakes, volcanic geysers and caves and various crystal deposits located throughout the area. At the end of the boardwalk are the Krysuvikurberg Cliffs, famous for the thousands of seabirds—gulls, puffins, razorbills and more—that nest there, as well as the whales and aquatic creatures that can be seen from the cliffs.
One cannot travel through Reykjavik without seeing the 3,000-foot mountain that dominates the city skyline; that is Mount Esja, a year-round hiking and camping destination. The mountain is latticed by a number of well-worn and popular hiking trails that range from easy to challenging. About 650 feet from the top, a massive boulder known as “Steinn” marks the last spot to turn around before the challenging trail which crests the mountain. The mountain is just east of Reykjavik, and easily accessible by bus.
The colorful illuminations known as the Northern Lights are a cosmic phenomenon where the gases of the upper atmosphere are bombarded by electronically charged particles from the sun, forming “auroral belts” around the Earth’s magnetic poles. As previously mentioned, the prime Northern Lights season takes place from November to March, the darkest months of the year.
There are numerous Northern Lights-oriented tours that guests can access from Reykjavik, including boat tours, snowmobile trips across glaciers and coach trips. Guests can also visit Aurora Reykjavik, an information and exhibition center dedicated to the Aurora Borealis.Travelers should know that Mother Nature does not always cooperate; cloud cover, moonlight, urban night pollution and day-to-day auroral activity can all affect one’s viewing of the Northern Lights.
Tribune Content Agency and Eileen Ogintz, Taking The Kids, September 7, 2017
Take their three kids on a river cruise in Europe?
“I don’t want to be on vacation with a bunch of old people!” Josh Blumental told his wife, Amy Wolfe.
But she persisted — the Salt Lake City mom had friends who had raved about their experience — and in the end, Blumental was glad she had.
The couple and their three kids aged 15, 13 and 9, were all enjoying themselves on AmaWaterways‘ AmaStella cruise ship as it sailed up the Danube from Budapest to Vilshofen, Germany. They relaxed onboard playing board games and cards, and along the way stopped to ride bikes along the Danube. (Book by Sept, 30 and get AmaWaterways up to $1,500 off per stateroom for select Christmas Markets departures to explore Salzburg and Budapest.)
And rather than being surrounded by elderly seniors, the family, like other passengers, was enjoying the chance to meet and spend time with people from all over the world.
“It’s a real melting pot,” said Nilesh Meswani, from India. “Great fun,” said his wife, Sita Meswani.
“You feel like you are traveling with family by the second or third day,” added Preeti Khemlani, one of their traveling companions from Oregon. “And you don’t have to wait in line, like on a big cruise.”
“More relaxing than a regular cruise because there aren’t so many people,” added her husband, Ashok Khemlani.
The all-inclusive nature of these trips also seems to de-stress the experience — just choose which shore excursion you like, borrow a bike, enjoy complimentary wine and beer and more on some ships.
AmaWaterways, for one, has made an effort to attract younger cruisers with a fleet of complimentary bikes onboard its European trips, as well as new escorted bike tours, hikes and other excursions designed for “gentle walkers” and others that might cover more ground on foot. There are also cabins that sleep three to encourage family travelers.
“I’ve signed up for every active one they have offered,” Peter Laws, from southern England, told me on a bike ride around Linz. The beauty of such a trip, he said, was that his wife could enjoy less vigorous excursions.
“We’ve seen steadily increasing demand from passengers for more active excursions,” said Kristin Karst, AmaWaterways’ executive vice president and co-owner. In fact, on our trip, some of the bike tours attracted 15 people or more. Karst noted that the company has now begun introducing a Wellness Program with as many as six classes daily.
“Perhaps the biggest foray into the younger river cruise market is U by Uniworld, a less expensive line aimed at travelers between 21 and 45 that’s launching next year. The ships will have all the features that appeal to that demographic, including nighttime trips to local trendy restaurants and bars; craft cocktails, DJs and a “silent disco” onboard,” said Chris Gray Faust, Senior Editor at CruiseCritic.com.
River cruising has become increasingly popular. According to the Cruise Line International Association, there are now 184 river ships with 13 new ones rolling out this year and 18 more ordered. Another 26 new ships have been ordered for 2018. It shouldn’t be a surprise that families are looking for a new way to travel and that river cruise companies are responding with more family sailings.
Next year, Adventures by Disney will have 10 Rhine sailings and six Danube sailings aboard AmaWaterways ships and Backroads will have six for active families, three for those with younger kids and three for those with older teens and twenty-somethings. Backroads limits its group to 30 among the 150 or so passengers, offering separate biking routes and walking tours; Adventures by Disney charters the entire ship, offering special family activities and excursions (think zip-lining above the Black Forest, visiting a local apricot farm or touring a medieval castle with Disney Adventure Guides, who sweat all the details.
Tauck Bridges continues to add family river cruises, including this year on the Seine, as well as the Rhine, Rhone and Danube with immersive experiences all generations would enjoy — cooking classes, storytelling, learning medieval games at a palace, trying WWII radios on a visit to Normandy beaches. There will be 14 cruises next year.
And Uniworld River Cruises also has designated generations sailings for families (kids 4 to 17 are half off) on the Danube and Rhine, next year in northern Italy and France. We joined Uniworld on one of their first generations sailings — to explore Christmas Markets — and the families onboard were impressed by the special activities (make German pretzels! A talent show!), the extra staff to oversee the kids’ activities and designated family shore expeditions. (Visit a toy museum in Nuremberg! See if your family can win the GPS scavenger hunt! Shorter walking tours! Here is what I wrote about our experience.
“The best gift I can give my grandchildren is memories,” said Patti Kelly, an avid cruiser from Colorado. She and her son’s family, from Northern California, gave that Uniworld family cruise a decided thumbs up, especially the opportunities for them to make friends with kids who live half a world away.
And with concerns about terrorism in major cities, river cruises tend to stop in smaller places. There’s no packing and unpacking, meals and activities are included. Be forewarned, however, that if you have kids, teens or twenty-somethings with you, they may not find many people their age, if it isn’t a designated family sailing or one designed for older kids, as Backroads offers. (Read my trip diaries about our river cruise adventure at www.takingthekids.com.) This can be a good trip to invite another family with a similar traveling style or extended family!
These trips don’t necessarily come cheap — some of the family trips can be close to $6,000 a person while simply booking a river cruise on a comparable ship can be had for a third of that price, with the right deal. According to CruiseCritic.com, a typical river cruise costs about $500 to $700 per person per day.
Sometimes airfare is included. (For example, book a 2018 Uniworld Europe cruise by the end of September and air will be included.) Sometimes for a grandparent traveling with the family, a single supplement will be waived. Use Cruise Critic’s Find A Cruise tool to compare costs across itineraries, seasons, lines, etc. – just choose river cruises under “Cruise Style,” and whatever other variables you’re looking for: https://www.cruisecritic.com/cruiseto/.
Meanwhile, I didn’t meet anyone aboard the AmaStella who wasn’t happy — even Josh Blumental, who acknowledged that he’s the kind of traveler “who likes to go without an itinerary and wing it.” “But,” he added, looking at his family, “it’s impossible to wing it with kids.”
bang-for-your-buck hotels For romance and history, you can’t do better than Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. The decor is understated, with Balinese and Thai influences, but still true to its Hawaiian roots. It’s filled by great artworks from Laurence Rockefeller’s prize collection (the famous philanthropist opened the hotel in the 1960s). But you may not be able to focus on the paintings for very long: The hotel is on one of the island’s best beaches, where between November and May you’ll see an endless parade of whales and manta rays right off the shore. Best of all, the Deluxe Ocean View rooms are less expensive then the entry-level at some of the island’s other luxury hotels—and come with a fantastic buffet breakfast to boot. Our guests also receive extra special treatment at the Mauna Kea.
If you prefer pools to the beach, you’re better off at the Four Seasons Hualalai: It has seven pools, including one stocked with more than 4,000 tropical fish, a sea-side infinity pool, a lap pool, and a shaded kids’ pool.
For families, the Fairmont Orchid is a wonderful choice and a fantastic value. The hotel has many connecting rooms and large suites, with separate master bedrooms, that can comfortably accommodate five people, as well as a Gold floor, which offers food all day long with full breakfast, snacks, and quite a nice spread in the evening.
The hotel also has a children’s program, a huge pool, and plenty of space for little ones to run around. But what kids seem to most love about this hotel are the resident sea turtles; they live in the lagoon right near the beach. And for grown-ups, the Fairmont Orchid has one of the best spas on the island. We often arrange surprises for our guests who stay here, such as special room amenities, complimentary use of the pool cabanas, or gifts as mementos of their stay.
The Fairmont Orchid. Photo: Fairmont.
Restaurant the locals love The Village Burger, a small hamburger joint in the Parker Ranch Shopping Center, cooks up made-to-order burgers and french fries so outstanding that you’ll want to go back again and again.
Must-have dishes Well, this is Kona, so you have to try the coffee, and it’s Hawaii, so you have to try shaved ice. But as for a must-taste dish, you can’t leave the state without trying poke—a raw fish salad, usually made with ahi or yellow tail. Nearly every eatery has its own version. Da Poke Shack in Kailua-Kona is a good place to dive in—they make eight varieties, including one with avocado aioli and another with spicy garlic sesame oil.
Meal worth the splurge Peter Merriman established Pacific Rim cuisine on the Big Island some two decades ago and spearheaded the locavore movement there as well. He’s still considered one of the five best chefs in Hawaii, and dinners at his flagship restaurant, Merriman’s, are amazing—and rival luxury-hotel restaurant prices. Still, this is an experience. The restaurant, in the town of Waimea, occupies a nondescript building that looks more like a modest home than a fancy eatery. But inside, the kitchen prepares a wonderful lamb dish, seafood entrées that change depending on the catch of the day, and, one of the house specialties, freshly caught monchong crusted with macadamia nuts and served with Japanese vegetables. Everything is fresh and grown on the island.
A good alternative to dinner is lunch. It’s a little less expensive and equally as creative. Try the Ahi Poke Bowl made there with garlic and macadamia-nut rice.
Brown’s Beach House at the Fairmont Orchid is another outstanding restaurant in a romantic setting right on the beach—go around sunset, when there’s a guitar player to entertain you during dinner. The menu is varied, very creative, and changes nightly, though the attention to presentation and excellent service never vary.
What to See and Do
Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson
Don’t miss Waipi’o Valley, a lush valley with a spectacular beach (Waipi’o means “curved water” in the Hawaiian language). It’s a holy and mystical place full of ancient Hawaiian lore and can be difficult to access: A 4WD vehicle is necessary for the very steep road down into the valley, and the switchback hiking trail is difficult. For a less rigorous adventure, nearby Pololū Valley has a beautiful hike to a black-sand beach; follow up with lunch in Hawi at Bamboo Restaurant or Sushi Rock.
A helicopter tour of the Volcanoes National Park area. Try either Blue Hawaiian or Paradise Helicopter—both have excellent pilots who won’t just fly you over the stunning craters but will give you a great geology lesson while you’re up there, explaining exactly how the youngest of the Hawaiian Islands is still constantly forming. But don’t just see the volcanoes from above. Spend some time first on foot in the park itself, and then hop on the chopper in Hilo.
The drive on Saddle Road, up to the observatories near the top of 4,200-foot-high Mauna Kea, passes a landscape so barren and otherworldly that you’ll feel like you’re driving on the surface of the moon, seeing the same sights as Neil Armstrong did.
Waipio Valley lookout, Big Island, Hawaii. Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson
Don’t bother Hilo may be the island’s capital, but it’s still a small town, and you don’t need more than a day or two there. A few places worth visiting in Hilo are the Imiloa Astronomy Center (a great planetarium); the Lyman Museum, which contains an exceptionally beautiful rock and mineral collection; and the Suisan Fish Market, where fishermen bring their catch starting at 6 a.m. for the daily auction. The Pacific Tsunami Museum is also worth a stop; it documents the disastrous tsunami that hit the island in 1960. Foodwise, the pickings are slim in Hilo, but Café Pesto is a good neighborhood Italian spot (which isn’t that easy to find in Hawaii), and if you happen to be in town on Wednesday or Sunday be sure to stop by the farmers’ market to check out all the exotic flowers and fruits.
Hidden gem The seahorse farm located just past the Kona Airport is a must for children and grown-ups alike. It’s a high-tech organic aqua farm with fantastic tours Monday through Friday that explain all about these ancient and unusual creatures, as well as the science behind running the farm and a little insight into the world of ocean conservation. Ticket prices are steep—$28 for kids and $38 for adults—but it’s well worth it.
A black-sand beach on the Big Island. Photo courtesy Susan Tanzman.
Best beaches The half-mile white-sand Hapuna Beach—the one often seen in advertisements and television shows touting an island paradise—is one of the island’s most beautiful and easily accessible beaches.
For another perfect white-sand strand—but this one without the crowds—try Makalawena Beach near Kekaha Kai Sate Park, in Kona. You’ll have to maneuver an unpaved road for a short distance and walk a bit from the parking area, but that is part of the charm.
Best for snorkeling
Kealakekua Bay (also known as Kay Bay), on the western edge of the island, is a spectacular marine sanctuary; since the snorkeling site can only be reached by boat, the coral is pristine, and there are plenty of colorful fish.
Step aside Berlin. There is another capital vying to steal your crown of cool. With Ukraine being one step closer to becoming part of the EU, now has never been a better time to explore Kiev’s architectural splendour and bohemian scene on a vodka shot budget.
There is a new kind of revolution taking to the streets of Kiev. Street art is winning locals over with its splashes of colour among its diverse traditional architectural styles. Many homegrown and internationally acclaimed street artists are transforming the city’s blank canvases with vibrant large murals from the centre to far-reaching suburbia. Helping to guide the city’s lively renewal from a history filled with constant invasions and rich Orthodox traditions is the art initiative ‘ArtUnitedUs’. The initiative is the biggest urban street art project in the world with over 200 walls across Kiev to be given a brightly hued makeover with the theme of world peace.
Forget crowded spaces, follow the rabbit hole down to this hidden park located in the city centre on Old Kiev Hill and you will find yourself in an urban wonderland. Landscape Alley is a playful utopia for the young at heart with its eye-grabbing colourful mosaics, artful park benches and offbeat statues taking on worldly attractions (think ‘Manneken Pis’ of Brussels).
Not just for the adults, it appeals to the kiddies too with its famous playground an ode to the outlandish characters of Alice in Wonderland. The park is popular with residents for its relaxed atmosphere, musically talented street buskers but most of all, its perfect picture book views of historic Kiev and the Dnieper River.
CHIC (AND CHEAP) NIGHTS OUT
The cool and the hip late night hang outs did not just descend on Berlin. Kiev is home to many hidden treasures including Spotykach, a Retro-Soviet cellar themed bar dishing up traditional recipes with a modern twist (coloured dumplings anyone?) coupled with a long Christmas-que list of vodka-based liqueurs and cocktails.
The sky is also the limit for a top night out with the rooftop Barbara Bar wanting to make any hipster drool with its kitsch decor and beverage concoctions to cater for those who like to think (and drink) outside the box.
EATS AT STREET EATS PRICES
Save on the hryvnias by having an authentic local experience by visiting Puzata Hata, a chain of cafeteria-style restaurants. Don’t let the nature of the restaurant fool you as each outlet has a unique countryside-inspired interior that really makes you feel like you are in a traditional Ukrainian home setting. Fill up your tray (and your stomach) from entree to desserts with much loved classic Ukrainian and Russian dishes. For loose change, you will most likely be tempted for seconds.
The architecture may be one for the ages but its culture is forward thinking. Located in the ever-so popular Podil district, Closer Club is more than just one of Europe’s best spots for house and techno. Feel a part of the underground in this old factory-cum contemporary mixed space venue that hosts live gigs, art exhibitions, lectures as well as festivals and parties.
Kiev proves you do not need to be a city located along the coast with Trukhaniv Island acting as a cool escape. Take a Sunday stroll over Parkovy Bridge (aka Pedestrian Bridge) to have an urban dip, relaxed sip or get active by going around the island by bike or with water-based sports.
Luxury cruise lovers are setting their sights on Asia to get more bang for their holiday buck.
Annabel Tidmarsh, first and business travel expert from Flight Centre in Brisbane, has seen a huge rise in interest for Mekong River cruises in the past couple of years.
“I think the Australian traveller these days is more interested in getting off the beaten track, whereas when I started in the industry almost six years ago, people were interested in heading over to Europe or America and hitting those bucket-list locations. Now they’ve been there done that and want to experience something different.
“It’s a really luxury way to travel through Asian countries that are sometimes seen as an adventure destination, but the Mekong cruises make it more of a five-star destination.
“I think the biggest tip would be making sure you picking the cruise line or touring company that’s perfect to fit your style. G Adventures do a great three-star option for the younger adventure style traveller … (but) if you’re used to having five-star everything, and everything included, that’s when you definitely want to go for a Scenic or an APT.”
We found three Mekong River cruises for all budgets.
MEKONG RIVER ENCOMPASSED
$2599 A PERSON (10 DAYS)
Travelling at a languid pace allows opportunity for reflection. It’s in these slowed-down moments along the Mekong, where you’ll cruise for eight days from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Siem Reap in Cambodia, that the opening of eyes, minds and hearts begins.
But it’s during a traditional Khmer meal at the New Hope Vocational Training Restaurant in Siem Reap that you’ll realise you’ll be taking home more than just Instagram moments from this journey. A social enterprise developed and supported by G Adventures, this restaurant provides skill-building opportunities to locals and funds the free community school and health centre.
Of course, you’ll also enjoy many other enriching experiences this pocket of South-East Asia has to offer, like crawling through the Cu Chi tunnels, cyclo riding through Phnom Penh and visiting the floating village of Chnok Tru.
Kick off with a Luke Nguyen Welcome Dinner on board as you board in either Siem Reap or Ho Chi Minh City and prepare to be immersed in the local villages that hug the waterway.
Throughout your week aboard the RV AmaLotus, you’ll have the opportunity to take an authentic ox cart ride in Kampong Tralach, visit the holy Cao Dai Great Temple in the village of Long Hoa and appreciate what goes into delicate rice paper in Cai Be.
Close your eyes, open your heart and receive a blessing in the Oudong Temple — the town was the royal capital of Cambodia from 1618 until 1866 — and slip into the melting pot of cultures in Phnom Penh.
In Sa Dec, don’t miss the chance to learn the story behind French author, Marguerite Duras’s best-selling novel, The Lover.
Meandering along the Mekong from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap, you’ll be transported from the French colonial splendour of Saigon, to Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields and stop at small silversmithing villages, shiny pagodas and ancient hilltop monasteries along this aquatic artery.
On top of included sightseeing options, five “Enrich” experiences are peppered throughout the itinerary that will see you receiving a blessing from a monk and learning how to pray in a Buddhist pagoda, enjoying a Cambodian circus performance, and witnessing sunrise over Angkor Wat.
After you disembark from your luxury ship, stay on in Siem Reap to discover the temples, ancient hydraulic systems and communication routes of Angkor. The tour culminates in a gala dinner at an Angkor temple with Apsara dancers as the sun sets on your final evening in Cambodia.
Hotels are expensive. Like break-the-bank expensive. Even staying on the cheap — in a small town no one’s ever heard of or at a resort during the rain-miserable off-season — it can be hard to get your money’s worth. There’s a reason Ross Geller felt justified stealing the salt from the salt shakers. “You have to find the line between stealing and taking what the hotel owes you,” he memorably told Chandler. Words to call the front desk by.
But there are ways to ensure that you are getting the most of your hotel stay and scoring free upgrades. The rule is a good one in so many parts of life: When you want something, ask for it. Most hotels want to get to know your needs and wants instead of blindly offering recommendations, so always be thorough and clear with what you’re looking for. Several hotel GMs we spoke with said they empower their staff to help guests have a great experience, whether it’s surprising you with a cool local treat in your room or helping you get to the airport for free.
Here are some of the things hotels often offer complimentary that you may not realize you can request. Don’t be a jerk, naturally, but do feel free to hunt for these amenities. Just be sure to do it with a smile.
Your hotel room will likely always have the requisite shampoo, soap and inexplicable shower cap. Other toiletries live behind the front desk. For example, Kimpton Hotels have the “Forgot It? We’ve Got It” program, where each hotel has a list of things you can have brought to your room to use or borrow, including lip balm, hair straighteners, and tweezers. Similarly, W Hotels can get you almost anything with their Whatever/Whenever service and Four Seasons Hotels list available toiletries in their app, where you can request them directly.
Jennifer J. Harrison, the director of sales and marketing for the Cambria Hotel LAX, recommends always checking if your hotel uses an app or automated service for those amenity requests. The Cambria, for example, uses Ivy, an automatic texting service that allows you to ask for a sewing kit or some ear plugs without ever talking to anyone. “We can sign you up at check-in,” Harrison says. “You text, we come running.”
Most hotels will provide phone chargers and international power adapters if you ask. Some now include iPads, MacBooks, GoPros, and headphones. The Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC allows guests to borrow complimentary selfie sticks from the front desk when heading out to sight-see. Hotels often have a list of what’s available to borrow on their website, but it never hurts to simply ask, especially when it comes to phone chargers.
Long-distance phone calls
When traveling internationally, check that your hotel has free long-distance calling. Many hotels have now partnered with Skype to offer complementary calls or will allow guests one hour of free calling per day. That information is typically listed in the in-room guide, but talk to the concierge if you’re concerned about hidden charges.
It’s an unwritten rule that hotels always have umbrellas to hand out to guests when it’s raining. Often, especially in fancier properties, the umbrellas are kept in stands next to all the doors for your use, as well as in your hotel room closet. But if you don’t see any, ask. There’s no reason to get soggy when you can just borrow a hotel umbrella.
It is never advertised and no hotel employee will bring it up, but almost every decent hotel has free condoms available upon request. If you’re caught without, don’t be afraid to call the front desk and ask them to send a few condoms to your room. The first time you do it may feel awkward, but in a pinch it’s a life-saver, in more ways than one.
Many hotels have free shuttle or transportation services — they just may not advertise it. If the property is in an oceanside town, there’s a good chance the hotel has a complementary way to get you to the beach. The same holds true at a ski resort when it comes to getting to the base of the mountain. But the most overlooked hotel freebie, according to travel expert J.Q. Louise, is the hotel car.
“So many hotels these days have a ‘house car,’ typically a luxury vehicle and driver that will take you around town free of charge,” Louise says. “Take advantage of this by asking about it when you check in or when you pass by the concierge. Just say, ‘Is there someone that could take us to X restaurant?’ And if they say no, ask if they offer any kind of complimentary shuttle service.”
Wine, beer, and booze
If there’s one amenity you should always indulge in it’s the daily hotel happy hour. Check online or ask at the front desk to see if your hotel of choice offers a complimentary afternoon wine hour or a local beer tasting, then make sure you’re around when it happens. Hotel employees will gladly fill your glass as many times as you want during that hour, and there are often snacks, small bites, or sweet treats offered alongside the spirits. It’s a great way to score some free drinks before dinner.
If the hotel doesn’t have a free happy hour, create your own. “A simple service that I think so many people forget about is a bucket of ice and wine glasses,” Louise notes. “Why not start the night off with that bottle of wine you picked up at that vineyard you visited earlier that day? Call room service for a bucket of ice and some glasses — these will always be complimentary.”