Cloudbreak’s name says it all. The 72.5-metre motor yacht was named after a renowned Fiji surf spot that has some of the most challenging waves in the world. The owner is a surfing and heli-skiing enthusiast with an adventurous spirit. His dream? To own a global cruising yacht that could access remote parts of the world inaccessible to others.
Built in 2016 by Abeking & Rasmussen with interior design by Christian Liaigre and exterior styling by Espen Oeino, the ship reflects the owner’s desire for German quality French interiors and a masculine exterior design. Envisioned as a high-tech floating ‘chalet’ the yacht has five comfortable guest cabins, cabins for the heli-pilot deck master suite. The layout and fresh decor won a 2017 Show Boats Design Award for Best Interior & Design. It has a fireplace lounge for warming up after a ski or diving adventure and an expansive Winter Garden with lounge, bar and dining area that can be enclosed in glass, allowing guests to take in the often spectacular views no matter what the weather’s doing.
The challenge for the designers was to create a cosy interior without the use of too much dark timber. Instead, a soft colour palette and tinted brushed pine meets the youthful, sporty brief. A superyacht helideck for the owner’s Bell 429 Global Ranger enables easy access to the world’s best slopes and surf breaks, and a quick return at day’s end. The owner wanted to be able to land on the deck and head straight into a warm and comfortable lounge to watch the GoPro videos he and his guests had made during another action-packed day.
There’s a large collection of water toys, including rugged tenders that launch straight off the main deck for safety in rough waters. Extreme sports may be exciting, but the yacht also has plenty of capacity for fun on board. A sound system, complete with DJ station, and sophisticated laser lighting makes this yacht party ready. Keeping fit between adventures is important, of course, so there’s a high-tech gym, sauna and chilled plunge pool with easy access from guest cabins via the engine room.
Ubud’s rice paddies and peaceful forests may have given way to a Kuta-like sprawl of shops and eateries on the main road, but the Ubud of my memories comes back into focus when we drive through the gates of HOSHINOYA Bali to find a serene sanctuary set in a lush green valley. An ancient water canal runs through the resort, surrounding you with the soothing sounds of flowing water as you dine or recline with the valley at your feet. Three stunning canal-like pools stretch from one end of the three-hectare resort to the other. Echoing the river valleys of the region, water gardens in and around the 70-metre pools create natural oases woven seamlessly in and around the 30 villas.
Architect Rie Azuma and landscape designer Hiroki Hasegawa spent considerable time researching Balinese culture, and have managed to merge Balinese traditions and Japanese minimalism with finesse. Marble and teak come together in perfect harmony inside each refined villa. A backlit Balinese wood carving covers the entire wall behind the beds (two single mattresses on a timber platform – Japanese style). And while the bathroom is distinctly Japanese (the toilet is seriously high-tech), vast sliding doors open from the bedroom to reveal a private tropical garden courtyard with a daybed under its own thatched gazebo -all very Bali. Outdoor stairs lead from the courtyard down to a private poolside retreat complete with daybeds, towels, robes and a shower – and a phone to dial room service.
Sacred waters – The three-hour time difference means I sink into a blissful slumber minutes after returning from dinner (Indonesian chicken cooked in a banana leaf served tableside with an assortment of tasty condiments), but I’m awake and ready for the day to begin the next morning at 4am – and a pre-dawn dip is calling. The water is balmy, despite the cool of night, and as I drift up and down the peaceful canal gazing up at the starlit sky, I relish the unhurried solitude.
By 6am I’m relaxing on the villa’s outdoor daybed, the scent of incense-laden offerings already in the air and the haunting sound of prayers being chanted at nearby temples drifting my way. After a relaxing yoga session and divine Japanese breakfast I’m immersed in Ubud’s spiritual side on a day tour of World Heritage-listed temples and sights. A highlight is Tirta Empul, an ancient water temple built around a natural spring. Here, you can join locals as they bathe in the pristine holy waters. My guide encourages me to close my eyes and ask the gods for what I want more of in my life. A little more of this would be nice; it’s profoundly calming.
Back at the resort, I’m keen to try out one of the seven birdcage-like gazebos perched in the trees. I settle into a daybed, press a button and order Champagne, which arrives with a skewer of tropical fruits – just the thing to whet my appetite for a degustation dinner of incredible Indo-Japanese fare. There’s another treat in store the next day. Deep in the forested valley lies the resort spa. Each treatment suite has its own Jacuzzi, strewn with flowers and just the thing to ease the last of your worries away after a massage, scrub and mud-wrap straight from heaven.
But when I reached the Acropolis, I kept walking’ past the stands selling archaeological schlock, past the spectators on Segways, into the park that surrounds Philopappou Hill. I took a seat on a rock ledge overlooking olive trees, where a few smart Athenians had strung hammocks to watch the sunset. Someone was playing abouzouki. Someone else was practicing the trumpet. Everywhere there were ruins. The yawning sun cast the whole park in a strange sepia glow.
I followed ancient stone pathways to the western edge, clambered down a dirt trail, and emerged in Petralona, a neighborhood that felt like it was in an entirely different city. It had bougainvillea, jasmine, cats, funky 1960s apartment buildings. Everyone was on their terraces, on the street. I had that pleasant sensation, unique to urban travel, when you find your neighborhood, relax your shoulders, and think, I could live here. I sat down at a sidewalk cafe and asked for an ouzo. “No, we drink raki,” the waiter said with a smile, “because we are from Crete.” An icy pitcher arrived. The sharp, anise-flavored liqueur went down smoothly with what I had ordered: sausage marinated in vinegar, tomatoes sprinkled with oregano, olives, cheese.
Soon it was dark. I was pleasantly drunk, wandering again. Every restaurant was flung open, the interiors empty, the tables and chairs spilled onto the street. You could not tell, based on the confusion of small plates arriving and departing, whether people were just starting dinner or almost finished. No one, as far as I could tell, had any intention of leaving.
I approached an old red building with film reels mounted on its facade; ZEFYROS, the sign said. I knew it was a cinema, but I didn’t realize until I was inside that it was open to the night sky. I took a seat at a patio table in the garden. The air was cool and vaguely botanical, the walls covered in vines. The film was black-and-white, Italian with Greek subtitles, and the only thing I understood was that I did not want it to end.
WHEN MARK TWAIN arrived in Athens, in 1867, his ship was quarantined, so he sneaked ashore after dark. Ashe recounted in his grouchy travelogue The Innocents Abroad, he bribed his way into the Parthenon, stole a “gallon of superb grapes” from a nearby vineyard, and then completely bypassed modern Athens while dismissing its inhabitants as “pirates,” “villains,” and “falsifiers of high repute.” On his boat the next day, having visited only moonlit ruins, Twain concluded, “We have seen all there is to see,” and set sail for the islands.
To this day, Twain’s attitude persists with too many travelers.
The rap on Athens is that it’s ugly, dirty, even dangerous, that you should just get in and get out. See the Acropolis, eat a gyro and hop a ferry to Santorini. The Greek capital may be many things—chaotic, complicated, enthralling—but a layover should not be one of them. This city demands attention.
It deserves it, too, especially right now. Years of economic catastrophe and political fecklessness have instilled in its residents an almost heroic fatalism. I recently spent a week in the city talking to everyone from soup-kitchen volunteers to anarchist waiters to local art- and fashion-world denizens. No one I met believes a real recovery is coming. But what’s inspiring is that Athenians are getting on with their lives anyway. They’ve stopped waiting—for the government to get its act together, for the EU to bail them out. They’re finding ways, small and large, to move forward.
This process, however painful, has unexpectedly dynamized Athens. A desperate creative energy has gripped its art world. Chronically underemployed young people are launching cooperative restaurants and cafes. And an audacious generation of entrepreneurs is investing in locally made luxury products. All of this creative bootstrapping has coincided with an unexpected surge in foreign tourism. A record 27 million people visited Greece in 2016. Suddenly, the city’s cafes are full, restaurants are opening and hotels are going up.
At the same time, Athens has experienced an eruption of high culture. In recent years, it has become a hot spot for avant-garde performance, like Katerina Evangelatou’s staging of Euripides’ Rhesus as a Sleep No More-style journey at Aristotle’s Lyceum. The prestigious German art festival Documenta began a three-month run here in April, its first-ever event outside its home country. And last fall, after more than a decade of management fiascoes, the National Museum of Contemporary Art opened in a once-derelict l950s-era brewery south of the Acropolis, showcasing leading Greek artists and international stars like Shirin Neshat and Bill Viola.
Even more ambitious is the €600 million Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, the new home of Greece’s national opera and library. Designed by Renzo Piano, this waterfront temple to the arts sits atop an artificial hill in the working- class neighborhood of Kallithea, overlooking a rambling park filled with aromatic herbs. The building at once references and defies Athens’s classical architecture: its scale is epic, but the columns and canopy roof are built out of a paper-thin concrete that makes it look like it’s about to float out to sea.
It’s midnight on a midsummer night, also known in some parts of the world as the summer solstice. And I’m floating in the infinity pool on the top deck of the new Viking Sky. The midnight sun is high in the sky, and it’s not going anywhere tonight. That’s because I’m cruising through the Arctic Circle in Norway. It’s brisk outside, but not in this heated pool with its panoramic views of deep blue fjords and snow-capped peaks. I’m on board for the launch of this dazzling new 930-passenger cruise ship. At the christening ceremony in Tromso, Viking uses a bottle of aquavit instead of champagne to smash against the hull, and a singer performs a pull-at-the-heartstrings rendition of ‘Let it Go’ from the Disney movie Frozen, whose setting was inspired by Norway.
Viking Sky fully embraces its Norwegian heritage, from the heart-shaped waffles at Mamsen’s – an onboard cafe named after Viking CEO and founder Torstein Hagen’s mother-to the garden under the grand staircase, which is filled with lichen and other plants from across the country. In true Nordic style, every creature comfort has been considered. All the staterooms have cashmere throws, mini-bars stocked with free champagne, and a pair of binoculars for watching the passing scenery. Even the starting-level cabins feel like suites: each one has a generously sized sitting area and a spacious verandah.
A culinary journey – For such a small ship, there are a surprising number of choices when it comes to food. At the Chef’s Table, the menu changes regularly, exploring different regions of the world, from Norway to China. My favourite is The Kitchen Table, an innovative concept where a small group of guests get to source the food with the chefs. In Bergen, we head to the fish market and find king crab from the Arctic and cured salmon. That night, we sample the bounty we sourced that morning. The only way it could be fresher? If we had caught the seafood ourselves.
Scandinavian discovery – In fact, Viking guests can catch their own king crab on a thrilling shore excursion in Honningsvag, one of Norway’s northernmost towns. Suited up in a weather-proof jumpsuit, I head out in a tender in search of these massive creatures that can weigh up to 10 kilograms. In the middle of the frigid Arctic, deep-sea fishermen pull up nets full of crabs, then cook them over an open fire. I eat king crab while sitting on a reindeer pelt in a Sami tent.
This is just one of the many immersive experiences that Viking offers throughout Norway. In Molde, I explore the Atlantic Road, one of the world’s most exciting drives. In the Lofoten Islands, I visit a beach so white you’d think you were in the Caribbean. In Geiranger, a tiny town famous for its fjords and waterfalls, I ride an e-bike 450 metres up a mountain. The best reward at the end of any journey? Coming back onto Viking Sky and taking a dip in the infinity pool. It doesn’t get more relaxing than that.
Every day of my Nile cruise started the exact same way. I made sure they did. The rays of Egypt’s Saharan sun streamed in through my east-facing floor-to-ceiling windows, flooding my stateroom with light. Each morning I looked out at the river and the array of life that it spawns: shepherds herding sheep, cattle grazing on its shores and low-lying islands, papyrus reeds flourishing in shallow waters. It could have been a portal to a time long gone. Breakfast could wait. If you’re thinking of visiting Egypt and want to be outrageously pampered, but also want to get your hands dirty exploring its pharaonic heritage, take heed if you’ve booked passage on Sanctuary Retreat’s five-star Sun Boar IV. This gleaming vessel, with its Art Deco flourishes and cabana-laden sun deck, doesn’t want to stop you from putting on your pith helmet and wandering off into the desert a la Howard Carter. But be warned. It’s very comfy here.
Designed for Nile cruising, the 40-stateroom Sun Boat IV is sleek and streamlined, its hull looking more like a yacht than the bulky-looking, squared-off hulls of older boats permanently moored alongside ageing piers, the legacy of a tourism downturn that has persisted since the 2011 revolution. I was on a four-night cruise sailing upriver from Luxor to Aswan, although the same itinerary can be done in reverse in just three nights sailing downriver from Aswan to Luxor, helped by the river’s gentle current.
Expeditions into the past – What brings people to Egypt is its unparalleled archaeological heritage, and in true Sun Boat fashion, Sanctuary Retreats acquired the services of the man who must surely have been Upper Egypt’s most engaging Egyptologist to light the way. Mohamed Ezzat’s passion for history took him from secondary school in Qena in Upper Egypt all the way to Cairo’s Helwan University. Approachable and engaging, his enthusiasm, sense of humour and insights elevated each shore excursion – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – to the lofty status of ‘expedition’.
We saw the ‘best of the best’: the temples of Hathor, Luxor and Karnak, the valleys of the Kings and Queens and the tomb of Queen Hatshepsut.We visited Edfu, dedicated to the falcon god Horus, and Korn Ombo, both Greek temples built during the rule of the Ptolemies. Finishing in Aswan, we took a bus to its unfinished obelisk – at 1088 tonnes almost a third larger than any obelisk ever raised in ancient Egypt – and visited Philae Temple, cut into 40,000 pieces and moved to its new island location by UNESCO in the early 1960s after spending decades partially flooded because of the construction of the Old Aswan Dam in 1902.
A sunset cruise on our last night in a specially chartered felucca took us past the Old Cataract Hotel (now a Sofitel Legend property), the hotel where author Agatha Christie set part of her classic novel, Death on the Nile. I wondered if there’d ever been an era when Egypt didn’t fascinate. In 1838 the Scottish painter David Roberts came here and spent months drawing hundreds of sketches and watercolours, soon-to-be-famous windows into a once-great civilisation that would go on to wow Victorian England. His work included the barely visible Gateway to the Temple of Hathor and the columns of the Temple of Horus at Edfu, buried almost to their capitals. If archaeology doesn’t intervene, time, if there’s enough of it, can reclaim all things. Especially paintings.
Endless Treasures to uncover – A selfish pleasure gnawed away at me at the prospect of spending a few minutes alone in the tomb of King Tutankhamun. Queues here once stretched over a hundred metres, but those pre-2011 days are now long gone. So, as the last few in our group shuffled away, down I went. But I wasn’t alone. Conservationists from the Getty Conservation Institute, a US-based private research institute, were hard at work conserving the tomb’s vivid array of wall paintings. Despite its overall excellent condition, localised lifting of paint remains a problem, and still there were those persistent, disfiguring brown spots, noted by Howard Carter himself after he famously discovered the tomb in 1922 – spots that almost a hundred years on have continued to defy explanation.
After disembarking in Aswan four days later I returned to Luxor at a reasonable pace courtesy of Egyptian National Railways and walked to the Winter Palace Hotel to see its Grand Staircase. It was here, in 1922, that Howard Carter announced he had found the tomb of King Tutankhamun, the otherwise inconsequential pharaoh made famous only because his tomb had somehow managed to avoid being robbed. Wherever you go in Egypt you’re never far from an ongoing excavation. The Department of Ancient History at Sydney’s own Macquarie University has been involved for years on the Theban Tombs Project at Dra’ Abu el-Naga’, a 4000-year-old necropolis near Luxor. Hardly a week goes by without something making news. As I was leaving to fly home, a 2.7-tonne torso of an Egyptian pharaoh was pulled from the mud in a nondescript Cairo suburb.
Egypt’s treasures are innumerable. Crates still sit unopened on the floor of the old Egyptian Museum in Cairo, waiting for the new Grand Egyptian Museum on the Giza Plateau to open in 2018. An astonishing edifice, it covers 50 hectares and, when completed, will be far and away the world’s largest archaeological museum. But its staff will only be stewards. Egypt’s heritage has never been its own. Its treasures have always belonged to us all.
If my fairy godmother could grant me just one wish with a wave of her wand, it would be to transform my skiing in a flash. In just 48 hours at the luxurious Astra Lodge, Falls Creek, my wish was granted. Named Australia’s Best Ski Boutique Hotel at the 2016 World Ski Awards in Kitzbuhel, the ski-in, ski-out lodge casts its own spell. In three years of staggered renovations, owners Seumas Dawes and Rosy Seaton have created a magical mountain retreat. It has a European alpine feel complete with roaring fire, leather, timber, stone and stylish soft furnishings. A discreet stag motif canters across cushions and hide rugs are scattered on the floor.
Poetry in motion – Installed next to the new state-of-the-art ski and boot room is the workshop of Adalbert Leibetseder, a legend in the industry. His Skimetric academy and bespoke equipment work miracles, and in Australia he works exclusively at Astra Lodge. His client list includes the world’s fastest ski racers (who between them have almost 60 world and Olympic medals), the theory being that, no matter how good a skier you are, if your equipment doesn’t work in harmony with your physiology then your skiing will suffer.
Adalbert’s alchemy is created by a unique combination of circumstances: a father who was a shoemaker, a lifetime spent on skis, and experience developing high-end ski equipment. Add to this advice from a panel of medical experts and a perfectionist’s eye for detail and you have the formula that helps Adalbert turn leaden skiers into gold.
To transform my boots Bert takes measurements to build a 3D picture of my foot. The machines are so intricate and the series of tests and measurements so precise that I feel I’m about to be sent on a mission to Mars instead of down a blue run. Nobody has ever cared as much about my turned-in knee or the position of my big toe. As it happens, the end result is indeed out of this world. First I go out skiing with Bert so he can video my turns. It is early in the season and there is only one run open, but that’s all we need. As you’d expect from a former instructor and champion ski racer Adalbert is poetry in motion on skis. As for me? Well, suffice it to say I’m not.
Bert doesn’t judge; he merely records. He’s going to change it all anyway. After a few adjustments back at Astra Lodge I’m ready to try on my made-over boots. Already the results are astounding; my knock knees are gone, my legs perfectly aligned; even just standing in the workshop I look like more of a skier. Bert is such a perfectionist that he even designs the socks to go with the boots, lest a wrinkle in the wrong place or cold toes interfere with performance – and they are in fact the best socks I’ve ever worn.
The best of everything – Relaxing in the hotel’s heated magnesium mineral pool later that evening I reflect on the fact that Bert and the hotel owners have a lot in common: they too have thought of everything. From the snowdrift-soft pillows on my bed to the organic bath amenities, everything is top quality. Financier Dawes is used to the best and clearly thinks his guests deserve it too. The Italian restaurant is the best in Falls Creek and the newly opened premium wine cellar is stocked with some of Dawes’ own favourite ‘ski wines’ from Italy and the subalpine Tyrol, not to mention a bottle or two of Grange Hermitage. There’s also a library where you can curl up with a good book and a mountain view, as well as a spa with massage rooms, wet and dry saunas, nail bar and hairdressing service.
It’s the Belle Epoque beauty of Lake Geneva with the legendary luxury hotels to match. Montreux and its Riviera, stretching from Lutry in the southwest to Villeneuve in the northeast, have long been destinations favoured by discerning travellers, with active summer visitors increasingly choosing to explore beyond the city. Lovers of fine wine should make for the vineyard terraces of Lavaux, a 20-minute drive from the city’s grandest hotel, Fairmont Le Montreux Palace. Lavaux is a UNESCO World Heritage Site covering 830 hectares and four different Appellations d’Origine Controlees. Meander among some of the 250 winemakers (and their cellar doors) on the 10.4-kilometre-long self-guided walk or take a private tour, such as a five-hour discovery with Swiss Riviera Wine Tours. Whichever option you select, Lavaux is a region to be savoured, dotted with traditional winemaking hamlets and panoramas stretching to the lake below.
Wine on the water – Guests of the elegant Grand Hotel du Lac in nearby Vevey can even take the hotel’s electric Renault Twizy out for a day of exploration, accompanied by a gourmet picnic basket prepared by Michelin-starred chef Thomas Neeser. For a more glamorous (and high- powered) adventure, the hotel also offers the Riva Experience aboard a 1966 Super Florida out on the lake. Hotel des Trois Couronnes has been a favourite of sophisticated travellers to Vevey since the 19th century and is home of Michelin-starred chef Lionel Rodriguez.
Guests can take a more unusual gourmet expedition with the ‘Fish For Our Dinner’ experience. Hotel angler Patrice will show you his favourite fishing spots on Lake Geneva and share the best seafood found in its waters. The most famous attraction on the lake itself, however, is the 900-year-old Chateau de Chillon, with waters lapping at its stone foundations. It’s been a site of bloody politics, a 16th-century prison and inspiration for literary giants; Lord Byron and Henry James both immortalised the chateau in their works. Now, Switzerland’s most visited castle plays host to wine-lovers from around the world. Tasting the chateau’s own Grand Cru, stored in 40 oak barrels in its underground cellar, is the perfect way to finish a guided tour. The Verree Vaudoise, as it’s known, is held in the specially redesigned Castellan’s Hall, lending a particularly stately air to this sophisticated wine tasting adventure.
Cheese and chocolate – The Montreux Riviera is also the perfect place to experience Switzerland’s stunning scenery at the foot of the Alps. Hiking and mountain climbing are accessible from the lakeside towns via funiculars and trains, with Rochers-de-Naye one of the best destinations for nature-lovers. Climb to 1600 metres above sea level aboard the rack railway train and soak up the views stretching over the lake and to the Alps, where the cragged peak of the Dents du Midi (‘Teeth of Noon’) pierce the sky. You’ll find chocolate-box Switzerland in Gruyere, a region of rolling hills and wooden chalet villages about half-an-hour’s drive from the lake.
This region is renowned for cheese, particularly the namesake Gruyeres, which you can sample during a two-hour self-guided dairy hike between Pringy and Moleson-Village. It winds below the mountaintop hamlet, guarded by the 13th-century Chateau de Gruyeres, from dairy to dairy. Cheesemakers, such as the Murith family of La Ferme du Bourgoz B&B, share their craft with visitors in tranquil pastures where cows graze in the sun. The region’s most spectacular views are found at the summit of Teysachaux, the reward for a 9.5-kilometre hike between Le Moleson and Les Paccots. Follow the idyllic descent through woodlands and flourishing meadows, then treat yourself to a multi-course dinner at La Pinte des Mossettes, one of Switzerland’s newest Michelin-starred restaurants. French chef Romain Paillereau contrasts the rustic surrounds of his traditional chalet with refined dishes inspired by international flavours.
For more adventures around Montreux, take the Golden Pass train to air ballooning hot-spot Chateau D’CEx, or take the Chocolate Train to Broc via Gruyeres. Broc is where you’ll find Maison Cailler-Nestle, the home of Switzerland’s oldest chocolate brand. Take a tour of the elegant headquarters or settle in with a creative chocolate-making class in the Atelier du Chocolat. At every turn, the Montreux region and beyond balances modernity and five-star refinement with handcrafted tradition and rustic appeal. For all its grand hotels and exquisite cuisine, however, it is rediscovering nature that is the greatest luxury in Switzerland.
I’m alone in an ancient world on one of the most isolated scraps of land on earth. All I can hear, as I follow a narrow mud path through densely thicketed jungle, is the steady dripping of water on leaves from an overnight rain squall, and my own heartbeat. Every other noise – birds, wildlife, insects – is muffled by the thick foliage all around. Suddenly, there’s a deafening blast of sound. I stop dead in my tracks. I can feel my skin prickle. There’s a moment of profound silence, followed by a high-pitched wailing. I start walking again, rather more briskly this time. As I round a bend in the track, all becomes clear. I’m face-to-face with a bare-chested, heavily tattooed warrior in a necklace of bones and a woven grass skirt, holding a massive conch shell. A beautiful young woman stands next to him, similarly dressed in grass, singing in an eerie, otherworldly voice.
Happily, these locals are friendly, and this is their traditional welcome to one of the most sacred sites on the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia: an ancient stone platform with amazing rock art beneath a 400-year-old banyan tree. We’re on Nuku Hiva, one of the six inhabited islands of the Marquesas, among the most remote land masses on the globe, sitting in the South Pacific 1400 kilometres northeast of Tahiti and 4800 kilometres west of Mexico. There’s a shout and below us other men, similarly attired, and with their faces painted in myriad complex designs, start dancing a Marquesan haka to a hypnotic drumbeat and the background crooning of women. As the music washes over us and the men leap and gyrate, it’s impossible not to become enchanted by this glimpse into a world as foreign to a 21st-century traveller as it would have been to the first Spanish explorers who arrived in 1595.
The stuff of legend – The Marquesas have long been the stuff of legend, principally because of their isolation, sheer inaccessibility and tales of their fierce, cannibalistic inhabitants. Yet while the islands are still far off the beaten track, with rugged mountains crashing down onto white beaches, the populace couldn’t be friendlier – or more eager to introduce visitors to their vibrant culture. Painter Paul Gauguin loved it here and is buried on the island, close to ‘60s singer, songwriter and actor Jacques Brel. Kon-Tiki explorer Thor Heyerdahl also chose these islands for his biggest adventure, while Moby-Dickauthor Herman Melville lived here, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote In the South Seas about his visit and Brokeback Mountain screenwriter Larry McMurtry penned Paradise, a memoir about his voyage on a freighter to the islands.
Life on board a luxury freighter – Tellingly, a freighter is still the best way to reach the Marquesas, but these days it’s much more comfortable. The new ship Aranui 5 is half-freighter, half-cruise ship, delivering vital supplies to the locals at the same time as transporting a maximum of 240 guests to an area of the world that’s simply fascinating. The 14-day round-trip voyage, with its crew of muscular, traditionally tattooed Marquesans, is just as exciting as the destination. Each cabin is smart and spacious, with flat-screen TVs, a huge amount of storage and generous outdoor balconies.
All meals are served in the dining room, from the buffet breakfasts to the three-course French bistro-style lunches and dinners, all served with French wine. The accent is Polynesian: poisson cru (raw fish) is one of the house specialties, and one evening is taken up by a grand Polynesian dinner. There are two main bars on the ship and a pool that gets very little use. And no wonder – there are so many opportunities to swim off the Marquesas’ glorious beaches, there’s little need for an onboard dip.
Portugal’s sun-drenched Douro Valley is one of the most in-demand river cruising destinations in Europe. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed terraced vineyards that are carved into the hillsides form one of the oldest winemaking regions in the world, producing exquisite ports, as well as unfortified red and white wines. To cruise the river between Porto and Vega Terron, just over the Spanish side of the border, is to cruise through a region that is seemingly untouched by the vagaries of modern life.
While traditional ways prevail on land, it is a different approach on the water, demonstrated by the two newest ships to arrive on the river. Douro Serenity and Douro Elegance are representative of the future. Their design has more in common with sleek superyachts than it does with the river ships of old, favouring an edgy steel-grey colour scheme. The two newest members of the Douro Azul fleet made their debut with flair in March. Portuguese society feted the double arrival with a firework-studded gala on the golden river, with two dazzling godmothers to christen the two new five-star hotel ships. Douro Elegance was welcomed by British singer-songwriter Joss Stone, while Douro Serenity made her debut with Sara Sampaio.
As a Victoria’s Secret Angel and the most famous Portuguese supermodel on the international catwalk, Sara was a natural fit to represent Douro Serenity. Both are modern beauties that showcase the best of Portugal, while holding its traditions close. Sara returned to her hometown for the event with her boyfriend, English tech millionaire Oliver Ripley. “She was born in Porto, [now] she is a global fashion personality, and the godmothers are chosen for their international recognition,” says Mario Ferreira, president of the company. “In fact, that’s why four years ago, I invited Sharon Stone and Andie MacDowell to be godmothers of the Amavida and Queen Isabel ships.”
Ferreira, who founded Douro Azul 25 years ago, shared his vision for the company with the crowd of 200, announcing his goal to “reach new regions of the globe”. The two new ships represented an investment of €26 million (AU$39 million), with Ferreira emphasising that they were “built in Portugal and by Portuguese”. Douro Azul is now the leading cruise line on the river, and was named Europe’s Leading River Cruise Company at the 2016 World Travel Awards. With the arrival of Douro Serenity and Douro Elegance, there are now nine hotel ships in the fleet. The two new sisters each accommodate up to 126 guests across three decks, offering attentive service with a ratio of three crew members per passenger.
Throughout their voyage, passengers can soak up the panoramas of the river and the vineyards from the Bar Lounge, do a lap or two in the top-deck outdoor swimming pool, or indulge in a rejuvenating treatment at the spa on the main deck. Cuisine is also at the heart of the Douro Azul experience, with the main restaurant serving up extensive buffet breakfasts, lunches and sumptuous four-course dinners showcasing international, Mediterranean or Portuguese specialities.
Although I’m a seasoned traveller, I have a confession to make: I had never been on a cruise. Partly because my parents liked to stay in hotels, but mainly because the idea of visiting a destination and being deposited in a touristy port has never appealed to me. I was that person who winced whenever someone asked if I’d ever been on a cruise. I had visions of being herded onto the ship in droves in a hurried, uncomfortable manner, staying in cramped quarters, eating from unappealing buffets, and being exposed to new levels of kitsch.
So, when I was invited to be part of an exclusive itinerary through the Greek Isles and Dalmatian Coast on the small luxury ship Seabourn Odyssey, I was willing to open my mind and find out exactly why cruising holds such appeal. My mother and I boarded in Athens, and were immediately impressed by the lack of crowds and the ship’s chic interior design. Seabourn Odyssey accommodates 458 guests in 229 luxury suites (and a crew of 330) – not too big, not too small.
After a quick lunch on deck, our Veranda Suite was ready. The 28-square-metre cabin was like a luxury hotel room: king-sized bed with Egyptian cotton linens, living area with desk and sofa, flat-screen TV, walk-in wardrobe, and bathroom with a shower and full-sized bathtub. Our personal suite stewardess presented us with a choice of bath amenities: Hermes, Molton Brown and L’Occitane. Throughout our stay, our stewardess would learn our preferences, including Mum’s penchant for gourmet nuts and my favourite fruits, which were replenished each day.
Understanding the appeal – What I enjoyed most about the cruise was that we go could at our own pace. We enjoyed pre-scheduled tours at each port, including a tour of a Greek olive oil farm. We could choose nightly which restaurants we wanted to dine in, from celebrity chef Thomas Keller’s The Grill to the more formal Restaurant, and even the 24-hour room service. No massive midnight buffets; just lovely dining experiences night after night. The spa was spectacular and one you’d see in a five-star hotel. The nightly entertainment was fun, from comedy shows to musical performances, and there was even a small casino.
Many of the people we met on the ship were seasoned travellers who repeatedly booked Seabourn because of its consistency in service and diverse choice of itineraries. By the time we reached Venice, having visited many charming towns in Greece and Croatia on the way, we understood the appeal of small luxury cruising. It’s highly attractive for people who don’t have much time but want to see a lot of interesting places, only unpacking once. We found ourselves feeling sad to say goodbye to our favourite crew members, but are planning another Seabourn adventure soon, possibly to Alaska. While the destination may be new, we know that Seabourn Odyssey is sure to feel like a home away from home.