Travel

Explore The Mystical Marquesas Islands At The Far Ends Of The Earth

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.

Marquesas-Islands

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.

Marquesas-Islands

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.

Ships And Models: Explore The Portuguese Beauty

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.

Portugal

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.”

Portugal

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.

Seabourn Odyssey: An Unforgettable Cruise Experience

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.

Seabourn-Odyssey

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.

Discover The Harsh Beauty & Wildlife Of Antarctica

The Russian research vessel upon which I am about to set sail is tiny compared with most of the ships that take tourists from the Argentinian town of Ushuaia down to the Antarctic Continent. It carries just 95 passengers rather than the thousands the bigger ships can accommodate, but being small can be an advantage. The Akademik Ioffe can enter narrow harbours and navigate shallow waters, facilitating visits to places those on bigger cruise liners will never get to see. I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve. And so the Ioffe’s horn blows, and we pull away from the snowy peaks of Southern Argentina and head northeast to the Falkland Islands, a place of heathery hills, rainy weather, fish ‘n’ chips… and penguins.

antarctica

We visit albatross colonies and rockhopper, Magellanic and gentoo penguin rookeries, and historical sites where British and Argentinean forces fought in the 1980s. But most memorable is a stroll around the islands’ capital, Stanley. This tiny ‘town’ looks and feels like it’s been lifted from Scotland and placed here in the Subantarctic. The locals will tell you they are distinctly Falklander, but anyone who has been to the United Kingdom will get pangs of deja vu.

Shackleton and battling seals – From the Falklands, it takes us two days of sailing through infamous swells to reach our next destination – the isolated and frigid Islands of South Georgia – but it isn’t a boring voyage. Not at all. Akademik Ioffe is staffed with glaciologists, ornithologists, marine biologists and historians, and lectures throughout the day teach me about the exploits of explorer Ernest Shackleton and all manner of relevant topics, from how glaciers and icebergs are formed to why elephant seals can dive to more than 2000 metres and hold their breath for over an hour. And speaking of elephant seals… I see my first colony of them as we hop aboard the Zodiacs and land at Fortune Bay on South Georgia.

On a narrow beach, backed by massive black snow-capped mountains and cerulean-blue glaciers, hundreds of these giant behemoths (some measuring up to six metres long and weighing in at 4000 kilograms) have hauled themselves ashore to fight, fidget and flatulate. When two male elephant seals take umbrage with each other (usually over beach real estate and lady seals) it’s like watching a pair of mighty slugs sumo wrestling. There is much wailing and belching and gnashing of teeth, and it all looks a bit hectic. But for the most part, elephant seals are pretty chilled, and it is safe enough for me to walk among them and take photos.

antarctica

Just as distracting are the hundreds of thousands of king penguins that also live on this coastline. They cluster in unbelievable numbers, and sing their tuneless songs while making a fuss over their brown and downy chicks. Like most animals in the Antarctic, they are unafraid of humans, making them easy to approach. We spend a few additional days exploring, and taking kayak and Zodiac cruises among playful seals and dolphins. But the most fascinating place on the island is a dilapidated and rusty ex-whaling station called Grytviken. It’s the only place on this 4000-square-kilometre island where people live, but the population is only around 20 souls. There is a historical museum here which celebrates, commemorates and castigates the whaling industry that, before it was phased out in the 1970s and 80s, nearly sent many species into the abyss of extinction.

Out of this world – We set sail south down to the Antarctic Peninsula, where huge monolithic mountains of the blackest hues reach for the heavens and glaciers as tall as skyscrapers and as blue as sapphires crack and groan under their own enormous weight. There are gargantuan icebergs drifting here and there, whales breaching, ice shelves, snow drifts and penguins and seals galore; and all of this under the 24-hour sunshine of the Antarctic summer skies. I’m in awe of this massive, untouched place.

antarctica

On the last day, we take the Zodiacs out one last time and explore the drifting ice fields of Orne Harbour, a beautiful calm bay where whales and icebergs play. We find numerous predatory leopard seals and ‘flocks’ of porpoising penguins ‘flying’ through the crystal-clear waters like jet fighters. And then the clouds roll in and the light becomes surreal. Everything turns the colour of blueberry ice-cream – the snow, the mountains, and even the clouds. The weather is about to change, we’re told, and it’s time to head back to the Ioffe. And indeed it does. Within minutes, the serenity and cobalt colours are replaced by driving sleet and snow and icy winds, and we are reminded of how inhospitable and wild the Antarctic can truly be.

Costa Rica: Discover The Incredible Biodiversity Of A Nation Known For Ecotourism

It’s my first date in Costa Rica and Pm nervous as I contemplate a much-anticipated liaison. This beautiful country has topped the Happy Planet Index three times in a row and the Costa Rican joy of life is reflected in a much-favoured saying for all things good: pura vida. I’m hoping my date will be just as joyful. But will he like me? Will I measure up? Casual or chic? Long pants or shorts? What to wear is a dilemma, but the clock is ticking. A knock on the door and I’m soon heading to our rendezvous at chic boutique resort Hacienda Alta Gracia in the south of the country.

costa-rica

Seconds tick by as I turn the corner, and there he is: a four-year-old chestnut named Milonga after the traditional tango halls of South America. “He’s a gentle horse, just let him know who’s boss,” says our caballisca (horseman) who leads the way along a picturesque trail amid beautiful Poro trees bursting with vivid orange blossoms. Eagles soar over the lush forest and dainty hummingbirds flit from tree to tree.

Ecotourism pioneers – After two hours of riding, I welcome our picnic stop beside a stream strewn with smooth white rocks. Lunch is a traditional farmers’ lunch of chicken, rice and black beans wrapped in banana leaves and a sugarcane juice. I pray for a smooth ride home, but Milonga has different ideas and bounces me around at pace on the roughest track he can find. I’ve fallen under the spell of this tropical Central-American country, however, and the stunning scenery distracts me. Costa Ricans are justly proud of their conservation efforts, with more than 25 per cent of the country proclaimed as protected parks. A leader in eco-tourism, Costa Rica represents close to four per cent of the total biodiversity on Earth and operates on clean, green principles.

Adventure on the doorstep – Back at the palatial stables, home to 40 horses, I farewell Milonga and he trots off for a shower, shampoo and rub down – it’s a five-star life at this world-class equestrian centre. Pm equally spoilt, relieving my burning muscles in a Jacuzzi overlooking the spectacular Valle del General, a large green valley studded with flowering trees and great birdlife. The stunning mountain resort, part of the Auberge Resorts Collection, is set on 350 hectares with 50 standalone casitas with spacious bedrooms, bathrooms and living areas, terraces with panoramic views, luxury touches and bespoke decor. It’s definitely one for the bucket list.

costa-rica

Its location, close to the Cerro Chirripo National Park and Los Cusingos Bird Sanctuary, makes for excellent excursions including Whitewater rafting, ultra-light flights, ziplining and horse riding at a cost, along with complimentary forest hikes, meditation, tropical fruit tasting, garden walks and horse feeding. Its manicured gardens, thatched pavilions and hammocks invite guests to really take time out and smell the tropical flowers.

Dining is an adventure. Start with happy hour at La Cantina with a Rainforest Martini, then head to the terrace with its romantic fire pit to watch a glorious blood-red sunset streak the skies. Later, settle in at Ambar and watch the chefs at work in the open kitchen as they prepare fabulous dishes using produce from the sprawling San Isidro farmers’ market and the resort’s own sustainable farm, La Huerto. The ceviche, chargrilled lamb cutlets and vanilla tart with tropical fruit, banana bread and coconut ice-cream are standouts. At breakfast, try the typical Costa Rican dish, gallo pinto with scrambled eggs, homemade tortilla, sweet plantain and ‘tico’ cheese.

The Auberge Spa, the largest in Central America, offers pampering at its best, with treatments ranging from relaxing massages to coffee scrubs. Leave time to take a dip in the spa’s indoor pool, find a cosy corner to read a book or watch a film in the Casa Grande and, if you are lucky, catch a horse show at the indoor arena, El Picadero – it really is all about pura vida.

Explore Hawaii To Find Out If The Legendary Aloha Spirit Lives On

The very mention of Hawaii has conjured up visions of a seductive island paradise for generations, with countless movies, songs and stories romanticising every aspect of its culture, landscape and people. Yet, as the USA’s 50th state – with every modern development and convenience one would expect – I wonder if Hawaii can still deliver on its famed spirit of adventure, romance and natural discovery in a world of the ‘the next big thing’. My 10-day trip starts on Maui and finishes on The Big Island. Armed with camera, board shorts and a convertible Jeep Wrangler, I set off to circumnavigate Maui from a little town called Paia. On Maui’s famed north shore and under the gaze of the dormant Haleakala volcano, Paia is arty and bohemian with a mix of bars, inns and surf, and a relaxed hippy-chic vibe. Dining in Paia is much like anywhere on the island with deference paid to local, organic and sustainable produce.

hawaii

Great ocean road – The road to Hana is arguably one of the world’s greatest ocean drives and we leave early to capture the morning light. Deep blue skies, emerald green vegetation and a cobalt ocean fill the senses as the road snakes east. There are beautiful coastlines around the world, yet Maui delivers it all with a climate that can only be described as perfect. Travelling in March, there is no tropical humidity with which to contend. The days are warm enough to spend a day at the beach, yet tempered with a gentle ocean breeze that gives way to comfortably cool nights.

Our next stop is Hookipa Beach. Surf culture runs deep on the island and ties in with the locals’ profound respect for nature. Here, surfers share the beach with a large resident group of green sea turtles, usually found sunning themselves in a corner of the bay. Known in Hawaii as Honu, these turtles are revered symbols of luck. Perhaps it is the time spent quietly on the beach in their presence that ensures good fortune for the rest of our trip. The final stop before Hana is Wai ‘anapanapa (which means ‘glistening water’) Black Sand Beach and State Park with a seabird colony, natural stone arches, the largest-known Hawaiian temple, ancient lava caves, blowholes and anchialine pools (inland, freshwater pools).

Hana may just be heaven and Travaasa Hana is our little piece of it for a few days. The sprawling estate, established in the 1940s, maintains a heritage feel with each of the guest rooms scattered around the estate with the sights, smells and sounds of the ocean flowing into the breezy rooms. There’s no need for air-conditioning in Travaasa Hana; the weather is simply divine and air-conditioning would criminally disconnect the guest rooms from the sublime environment.

hawaii

Natural beauty – The team at Travaasa Hana has arranged an aerial photo expedition in the only aircraft permitted to fly over the Haleakala crater: a power glider. With panoramic visuals through the perspex shell surrounding us, pilot Hans sets off under power until we reach 3650 metres. At that point, Hans kills the engine and we glide beautifully across the astounding crater and back to Hana with a sliding window perfectly positioned for both ventilation and the camera lens. The road from Hana to Wailea takes us around the south side of the island and the pace slows from top-down cruising to adventure driving. The terrain on the south side is more like the Scottish Highlands than a tropical paradise. Equally astounding yet vastly different, the drive is an all-day event – we stop at the must-see Ocean Vodka Organic Farm and Distillery and, shrouded in mist, the Up-Country Lavender Farm high up on the shoulder of the crater.

Home for our last few days on Maui is The Fairmont Kea Lani in Wailea, an all-suite beachside hotel with premium beach houses positioned on a manicured strip of Maui’s most affluent enclave. With hotel cars shuttling guests to nearby high-end boutiques, it feels like the Beverly Hills of Hawaii. Yet the area’s natural environment is an equally strong drawcard. Setting off before dawn after a Hawaiian call to the gods by my burly guide, I canoe out into a bay scattered with breaching humpback whales in all directions. As we stop paddling, a mother and calf directly approach our canoe with dorsal fins breaching the water and, after a brief emotional encounter, flip tails to the sky and dive away. Such is the magic of Maui!

The Big Island – A short flight from Maui is the Island of Hawaii, known to locals as the Big Island. It’s similar to Maui in that it is packed with natural beauty and heritage, yet has a completely different feel. Driving out from Kona, the landscape is like tundra overlaid with enormous lava flows, so young (in geological terms) that large swathes remain devoid of vegetation. About an hour’s drive south of colourful Kona is Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, or ‘the place of refuge’. Hawaiians who broke ancient laws could avoid certain death by fleeing here. Defeated warriors and non-combatants could also find refuge here during times of battle.

hawaii

Driving back up the west coast, our next residence appears like an oasis through the lava field: the historic Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. At the time of its construction in the 1960s by Laurance S. Rockefeller, it was the most expensive hotel ever built. Designed to allow the ocean breezes to flow through the hotel with the suites enjoying stunning sunset view, it’s set in a pristine golf course with greens butting up against the jagged lava ocean edge. At night, the bay is partially illuminated and this attracts masses of phytoplankton which, in turn, attracts manta rays up to four metres wide. Under the guidance of marine biologist James Wing, we swim up to these magnificent creatures as they barrel roll in a feeding frenzy. It’s enough to make us whoop with excitement.

The penultimate Big Island experience is the spectacle of the active lava fields. We strap on our cameras and board a doorless helicopter for the high-octane experience, and marvel at the enormous swathe of land engulfed by lava as it flows to the ocean. The super-heated air from the 1000-degree-Celsius lava field fills the helicopter as we fly at low altitude to capture that perfect shot. Later, a visit to Volcanoes National Park allows us to see the active crater from the ground. With venting hot steam warming us, we stand in the high-altitude cold night air watching the bubbling lava and its glow against the starlit sky – a spectacular way to end an exploration of the real Hawaii.

Milaidhoo Island

Romance, Raw Beauty and Sense of Place – Milaidhoo Island

In the heart OF the UNESCO World Biosphere Baa Atoll, Milaidhoo Island Maldives is not just another five-star resort, Their philosophy of reinvented luxury starts from the very beginning: the boutique resort thinks of its guests as storywriters, crafting their dream holiday.

The aim is to create a place where guests feel like they belong. Service from everyone including your island host, who is on hand to ensure every detail of the stay is perfect, is tip top but always friendly, in line with the resort’s “barefoot informality” ethos. Above all, Milaidhoo offers a taste of the true Maldives, opening doors to Maldivian culture and unique experiences.

Milaidhoo Island-1

Opened in November 2016, Milaidhoo has its own corat reef, which completely circles the island and is noted as an outstanding snorkelling and diving site.

A member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, Milaidhoo has just 50 thatched-roof villas, designed by a local architect and made by master craftsmen. Spacious and bright, each has a private freshwater pool on the sundeck and opens up 180 degrees to allow the natural beauty of the island into the villa. The room rate includes wi-fi, laundry, movies-on-demand, snorkelling equipment and in-villa treats such as a bottle of champagne and fruit basket on arrival, and evening turn-down with gourmet snacks. Toiletries are full-sized from the ultra-luxurious Acqua Di Parma.

Milaidhoo serenity spa

Serenity Spa

The over-water Serenity Spa is all natural and organic, using the power of plants from famous British brand Elemis and innovative African brand Thera Naka. Sports include yoga, sailing, catamarans, kayaks, a 24-hour gym, yacht trips, dolphin cruises, whale shark spotting, manta ray watching, conservation activities with the resident marine biologist, diving, snorkelling, and an open-air infinity pool. Guests don’t just go fishing, but go out on a local boat with Maldivian fishermen and help bring in the days catch.

Food lovers will enjoy the Milaidhoo Gourmet dine-around meat plan offering daily breakfast, lunch and dinner plus all drinks including premium alcohol and wine. In the three wonderful restaurants, no shoes are required. Ever. The signature restaurant, Ba’theli, is on three replica wooden boats, and its menu is inspired by the spice trade routes when, 5,000 years ago, local-made cargo boats sailed the archipelago spreading knowledge about different lands, their customs and cuisine. Dine on the ‘deck’ underneath starry skies or in the ‘cabin’ of the boat and watch sea- life below through glass floors.

Milaidhoo-gourmet-restaurant

Milaidhoo Gourmet Restaurant

Milaidhoo is tailor-made for couples, with no children under the age of nine allowed on the island. The Perfect Honeymoon package includes romantic dinners, spa treatments and even a star in the night sky named after them-certainly not your average holiday souvenir.

Discover Wind Star: A Classic Small Ship

“You’ve never tasted nutmeg until you’ve tasted nutmeg from Grenada,” Budhi Thakur tells me as he picks up a handful of fresh seeds in the spice market of Grenada, a Caribbean getaway also known as the Spice Island. Not only are the seeds intoxicatingly fragrant, they’re wrapped in a red casing that that looks like hand-carved filigree, so beautiful you could imagine them used as beads on a necklace. In fact, the locals here do just that, stringing nutmeg onto necklaces along with other spices that are grown on this verdant island – cinnamon, turmeric, allspice and cloves.

Today, my daughter Lucy and I are exploring the legendary spice market with Thakur, the executive chef on Wind Star, a 148-passenger sailing yacht that’s part of the cruise line of the same name. Thakur offers to let us come along with him as he shops for ingredients such as mango, vanilla and star anise to use on his menus. We also visit the fish market, where he buys mahi mahi straight off the boat. And that’s the beauty of sailing on a small ship like this. Unlike many lines, which have to buy all their provisions in bulk, the size of ships in the Windstar fleet allows their chefs to create market-to-table dishes throughout the course of the journey and bring guests along for the experience.

windstar

Wind Star’s small size (just 110 metres long) and shallow hull also allow her to get into tiny ports that are difficult for larger cruise ships to access. On the ‘Jewels of the Windward Islands’ itinerary, we start in Barbados, then make our way through St Lucia, Grenada and the Grenadines. These tiny islands are little gems that are strung along the easternmost Caribbean like beads on a very glamorous necklace.

Up close and personal – Wind Scar is known as a romantic ship for couples, but the warm and welcoming staff makes anyone feel at home, including my four-year-old daughter. One night, we meet a 30-something woman who is between jobs and travelling solo. Another night, we meet a big family from Vancouver doing a multi-generational trip with two boys near Lucy’s age. We also meet friendly couples from around the world. By the end of the cruise, everyone is hanging out by the pool and at the beach and dining together at night. With just 74 staterooms, you quickly get to know your fellow passengers. I’ve been on plenty of big cruise ships, and I’ve never seen the kind of bonding that happens on Wind Star.

Another highlight is the accessibility you get to the top brass. Wind Scar has an open-door policy on the bridge, which is a rarity in the cruise world. So whenever you want, you can stroll over to the ship’s command centre and visit with the crew and Captain Belinda Bennett, who is a superstar in cruising; she’s the first black female captain of a commercial cruise ship.

Back to the basics – As cruise ships around the world continue to grow in size and spectacle, one-upping each other with flashy amenities – ice-skating rinks, bumper cars, ziplines, water parks – Windstar is taking the opposite approach with its fleet of yachts. These ships embrace the classic romance of sailing the high seas. Wind Scar is a four-masted sailboat with gleaming teak everywhere. You half expect to see Jackie Kennedy Onassis to come strolling around the corner.

windstar

There are just three restaurants: the airy Verandah on the top deck, which serves breakfast and lunch; the main dining room, where there’s no assigned seating, no dining times, and no reservations necessary (another rarity in the cruise world); and Candles. Well, technically Candles isn’t even a restaurant: it’s an a I fresco dining experience where the pool area is transformed every night into one of the loveliest dining venues you’ve ever seen with just a handful of tables set under the stars.

The staterooms also feel like something out of another era, in the best way possible, with their teak accents and old-fashioned porthole windows that latch shut. But there are also modern amenities, such as plush beds with high-thread-count sheets, bathrooms with powerful showerheads, and flat-screen TVs, should you want to stay in your room and order room service (included in the rate).

Ship to shore – The shore excursions Wind Scar offers are as authentic and memorable as being on the ship herself, making sure passengers get the chance to have meaningful experiences everywhere they go and connect with the island culture. On Mayreau in the Grenadines, we have a beach barbecue, complete with a local steel-drum band; between courses, we explore the little island, which is home to just 271 residents and has one of the prettiest stone churches in the Caribbean, with views out to the other islands of the Grenadines. In St Lucia, we venture into the rainforest with a naturalist who takes us on an aerial ride over the treetops, giving us a glimpse of rare birds and plants.

Wind-Star

One of my favourite stops is Bequia, a speck of an island that measures just 18 square kilometres and is known for artisans who build classic wooden boats (both fishing vessels and model ships). I’ve heard about this island for years, but have avoided going because it’s so hard to get to. Not on Wind Scar. The ship moors offshore and sends guests in on tenders. You arrive right in the centre of the colourful main town. Head off in one direction, and within a few minutes you’re on Princess Margaret Beach, one of the whitest beaches in the Caribbean. Off in the other direction is Mac’s, a little open-air restaurant known for its lobster pizza. Captain Belinda tells us it’s one of her favourite places in the world. Just like sailing on Wind Scar, having lobster pizza by the sea is a taste of paradise I will never forget.

Top 15 Cruise Experiences

NORTHWEST PASSAGE, Crystal Cruises

32 days, Seward, AK to New York, NY

The frozen far north is typified by the mythical Northwest Passage, the navigable route through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Last year, the 1070- passenger Crystal Serenity became the first luxury cruise liner to make the crossing. She is set to reprise her triumph for a second transit this August, complemented by new onshore Crystal Wilderness Adventures and Boutique Adventures, such as adrenaline-charged Arctic scuba diving.

NORTHWEST PASSAGE, Crystal Cruises

NORTHWEST PASSAGE, Crystal Cruises

ANTARCTICA, Aurora Expeditions

For active travellers, Antarctica can offer a hands-on experience like no other. Skiing, mountain climbing, sea kayaking, camping, photography, polar snorkelling and scuba diving, not to mention expert-led Zodiac expeditions, are all options for the 100 passengers aboard Aurora Expeditions’ as-yet-unnamed new ship, set to make her debut in the 2019/20 Antarctic season.

NEW ZEALAND, Ponant

17 days, Dunedin to Wellington, NZ

The subantarctic islands may only be a day’s sail from New Zealand, but their otherworldly avian populations make Ponant’s January 2018 expedition a bucket-list journey. Black-sand beaches home to seal colonies and penguins contrast with the majestic fjords of New Zealand, with naturalist-guided Zodiac excursions to bring the landscape to life.

MEDITERRANEAN, Regent Seven Seas Cruises

Guests on Seven Seas Voyager northern summer Mediterranean cruises will be the first to experience the new Seven Seas Wellness programme, focusing on soul-enriching excursions – such as tai chi in the gardens of Marseille’s Pharo Palace, or swimming in hydrothermal waters in Sorrento – complemented by healthy eating options and a choice of five included 50-minute Canyon Ranch spa treatments. Keep an eye out for the programme on other Regent Seven Seas Cruises itineraries in the future.

MEDITERRANEAN, Regent Seven Seas Cruises

MEDITERRANEAN, Regent Seven Seas Cruises

RUSSIAN FAR EAST, Silversea Expeditions

12 days, Otaru, Japan, to Petropavlovsk (Kamchatsky), Russia

Arctic foxes, colonies of seals, bears… the Russian Far East needs to be seen to be believed. Silver Explorer will visit the Kuril Islands and Kamchatka Peninsula on three itineraries in 2018, including a July expedition cruise that offers an in-depth exploration of this remote region.

GALAPAGOS, Silversea Expeditions

7 nights, Baltra, Galapagos, Ecuador to San Cristobal, Ecuador

Follow in the wake of Charles Darwin as you encounter the wildlife of the Galapagos Islands aboard Silversea’s 100-passenger adventure cruise. Two new seven-night itineraries for 2017 will get you even closer to the natural wonders of Ecuador.

ACTIVE DANUBE, Avalon Waterways

9 days, Budapest, Hungary to Linz, Austria

The new Active Discovery on the Danube is inviting travellers to explore their destination while biking, hiking and canoeing. There is also the option to delve into an ice cave, sling arrows in an archery class, and taste wine in the Wachau Valley.

ACTIVE DANUBE, Avalon Waterways

ACTIVE DANUBE, Avalon Waterways

CROATIA, Katarina Line

7 nights, Split roundtrip

Flopping between the sun-soaked islands of the Croatian Adriatic is best done aboard an intimate yacht rather than a cruise liner. Katarina Line is revamping its deluxe cruise options this year, with the new 18-cabin MV Avanguard set to debut later in 2017, offering the best in new technology, comfort and the yacht lifestyle.

MIDDLE EAST, Crystal Cruises

18 days, Rome to Dubai

Crystal’s annual ‘President’s Cruise’ with CEO Edie Rodriguez is heading to the Middle East in November for the first time since 2012. Crystal Symphony will call at Cyprus, Israel, Jordan and Oman, plus traverse the Suez Canal during the journey. The highlight will be an excursion into Wadi Rum and a Bedouin feast under the stars.

NORTH POLE, Poseidon Expeditions

13 days, Murmansk, Russia roundtrip

There’s only one ship that can take you to 90° North: 50 Years of Victory. This powerful nuclear-powered icebreaker offers an expedition experience worthy of scientific exploration, topped off with a helicopter aerial tour and encounters with the wildlife of Franz Josef Land.

WINE VOYAGE, Sea Dream Yacht Club

7 days, Nice, France, to Civitavecchia (Rome), Italy

Indulge your passion for fine wine with one of Sea Dream Yacht Club’s specialty Wine Voyages. There will be nine such journeys in 2018, including two in the Caribbean. Oenophile adventures in the Mediterranean feature truffle hunting in Italian forests and the opportunity to meet Clovis Taittinger, export director and scion of one of the last of the family-owned Champagne houses. The first Mediterrean wine voyage of 2018 departs on 12 May.

NORTHEAST PASSAGE, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises

27 days, Tromso, Norway to Nome, AK

The Northeast Passage sea route stretches across the Russian Arctic from Europe to Asia, offering a fascinating itinerary for those entranced with the north. Hapag-Lloyd’s MS Bremen will navigate the passage for only the second time since 2015 in August 2018, cruising from Norway to Alaska. Hapag-Lloyd ships are the only non-Russian passenger ships allowed on the intrepid route.

NORTHEAST PASSAGE, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises

AMERICAN SOUTH, American Queen Steamboat Company

 9 days, New Orleans, LA, to Memphis, TN

American Duchess, introduced June 2017, is the first all-suite vessel of her kind on America’s rivers, carrying 166 guests in a stunning Southern voyage.

NORWAY, Seabourn

30 days, Copenhagen, Denmark, to Dover (London), UK

Seabourn Ovation’s first European season will include a 30-day itinerary discovering the stunning Norwegian fjords. Five days are dedicated to scenic cruising to soak up the landscape.

BIG FIVE, Zambezi Queen Collection

4-night combination on Zambezi Queen and Ichingo Chobe River Lodge

The Chobe River between Namibia and Botswana is dense with wildlife, including Africa’s coveted Big Five. See them on board the elegant 14-suite houseboat, Zambezi Queen, as well as from on land.

Luxury Cruise Awards 2017

luxury-cruise-awards-1The cruise industry is growing at an unprecedented rate in Australia (21 per cent in the past year alone), as travellers of an ever-widening age range explore the incredible itineraries – and ships – on offer across the globe. Last year, one in 19 Australians (1.28 million of us) went on a cruise, the highest per-capita rate in the world. The panel of 10 top cruise specialists and travel advisors have nominated the most impressive luxury cruise lines, big, small, yachting and expedition. The judges ranked their selections for each sub-category, which we then converted to points to determine the overall winners.

JUDGES


 

ALISON DI PAOLO
Claremont Cruise & Travel Centre

This year is Alison’s 41st year in our exciting industry, and she has been with Claremont Cruise & Travel for 11 years. Her specialty is luxury travel and cruising.

JUSTINE SEALEY
Ramsgate Travel Service

Justine has been with Ramsgate Travel Service for the past 24 years, and has an in-depth knowledge of the cruise industry. Riverboats are her specialty.

ANTHONY GOLDMAN
Goldman Travel Group

As a third-generation travel professional, travel has always been in Anthony’s blood. The Goldmans are at the forefront of travel advisory in Australia.

MELINDA GREGOR
Gregor & Lewis

Melinda has been in the travel Industry for over 30 years. Gregor & Lewis is an award-winning luxury boutique travel agency specialising in luxury cruising, www. greg or lewis .com.au

CLAUDIA ROSSI HUDSON
Mary Rossi Travel

Claudia has loved cruising since the ‘60s. After 40-pi us years in the family travel business, she has introduced cruising to thousands of delighted passengers.

PENNY SPENCER
Spencer Group of Companies

Named in SmartCompany’s 2017 list of Australia’s Top 30 female entrepreneurs, Penny leads a portfolio of companies specialising in corporate and leisure travel.

JASON KROUPA
House of Travel

While Jason’s team is based in the small New Zealand town of Motueka, their specialist knowledge of luxury cruising makes them leaders in their field.

PHILIP HOFFMANN
Phil Hoffmann Travel

Philip was awarded an Order of Australia in 2012 for his contribution to the travel and tourism industries. He employs 220 South Australians in 10 branches.

JO GOSTIN
FBI Travel

Jo owned and operated her own agency until 2001 when she merged with FBI Travel. Her extensive expertise as a travel advisor lies in the cruising market.

PHILIP SMETHURST
Bicton Travel Premium

Philip creates bespoke travel experiences for luxury travellers. Bicton Travel has been named Australia’s leading Cruise Travel Agency six times in the CLIA Awards.

LARGE SHIPS CATEGORY
(351-2500+ passengers)


BEST CABINS

Crystal Cruises
Oceania Cruises (Marina, Riviera)
Viking Ocean Cruises
Cunard
MSC (Yacht Ciub)

BEST SERVICE

Crystal Cruises
Oceania Cruises
Viking Ocean Cruises
Cunard
MSC

BEST CUISINE/DINING EXPERIENCE

Oceania Cruises
Crystal Cruises
Viking Ocean Cruises
Cunard
MSC

BEST SHORE EXCURSIONS

Oceania Cruises
Crystal Cruises
Viking Ocean Cruises
Cunard
MSC

BEST DECOR/AMBIENCE

Crystal Cruises
Oceania Cruises
Viking Ocean Cruises
Cunard
MSC

BEST ENTERTAINMENT

Oceania Cruises
Crystal Cruises
Cunard
Viking Ocean Cruises
MSC

BEST WELLNESS PROGRAMMES

Crystal Cruises
Oceania Cruises
Viking Ocean Cruises
Cunard
MSC

BEST EMBARKATION PROCESS

Crystal Cruises
Oceania Cruises
Viking Ocean Cruises
Cunard
MSC

BEST VALUE

Oceania Cruises
Viking Ocean Cruises
MSC
Crystal Cruises
Cunard

BEST ITINERARIES

Viking Ocean Cruises
Oceania Cruises
Crystal Cruises
Cunard
MSC

WINNERS


 

#1 Oceania Cruises (Marina, Riviera)

oceania-marina

Oceania Marina Cruise

Our judges loved the emphasis Oceania places on cuisine, particularly aboard the 1250-passenger Marina and Riviera. Its tagline ‘Finest Cuisine at Sea’ is well deserved. Elegance without pretence is this cruise line’s manifesto.

#2 Crystal Cruises

The luxurious Crystal fleet is known for its impeccable service, world-class dining and entertainment, and an engaging enrichment programme. The ships have the highest per-guest space ratios of any ships in their class.

#3 Viking Ocean Cruises

Viking ships transport up to 930 passengers to ports around the world. Staterooms are spacious and well-appointed, and all have a verandah. The Swiss-trained crew members offer personal and genuinely friendly service.

#4 Cunard

#5 MSC (Yacht Club)