"Guut moooooooorning! Zis is Hans!"
It's 8.30am – in Bavaria, I think - and Hans Beckert, our ever-smiling, patience-of-a-saint cruise director, is doing his best to hustle 150-odd passengers from boat to bus. Instructions rattle cheerfully from the intercom as the passengers of the Avalon Tranquility clatter off the gangplank and head into town for a day of exploring.
The Tranquility is one of a number of cruise ships plying the rivers of Europe, offering a stress-free way to criss-cross the continent. Routes range from a few days to over two weeks, but when it comes to the classic cruise through Europe it's hard to beat a week on the legendary Danube.
After an optional three-day visit to Prague, the cruise itself begins in the quaint German town of Nuremberg. The town is perhaps most famous for hosting the post-war trials of Nazi war criminals, but that sad chapter has been largely washed from the city, and the cobbled squares and lively village market makes it a wonderful place to spend a few hours. The town is also famous for the lebkuchen and festive finery for sale at the Christkindlmarkt, held each December.
Sailing out of Nuremberg, Lutheran church steeples rise above the terracotta roofs of villages dotted amidst a sea of cornfields. With locals waving from the riverbank and rolling hills of ploughed fields, the slow stream of scenery is mesmerising. A hypnotic procession of countryside where you're left wondering what ruined castle or quaint village lies in wait around the next bend.
Danube means 'deep river' in Celtic, but from the rooftop viewing deck of the Avalon Tranquility the river looks shallow and peaceful. No waves to splash over the deck, no rolling swell to make you seasick… the Danube is, on the upper reaches at least, the river mild.
One of the highlights of the journey downstream is the medieval town of Regensburg, which is famous for two things: alcohol and religion.
The town dates to AD 179, when the Roman fortress Castra Regina ('fortress by the river Regen') was founded during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Fought over and conquered throughout its history, the town's dramatic stone bridge over the Danube rattled to the hooves of the Crusaders, who gathered here on their way to the Holy Land in the 11th and 12th century.
Nowadays though it's a peaceful sort of place; a university town home to 20 000 students who no doubt enjoy the labours of the monks at the Weltenburg Abbey outside town. Tucked away amongst the cliffs of the Danube Gorge, Weltenburg's beer taps started flowing in the year 1050 making it the oldest monastic brewery in the world. So that's alcohol, what about religion?
The town was, until 2005 when he moved to Italy, home to one Joseph Alois Ratzinger. Ratzinger's house is now a popular stop on the tourist route, although nowadays he's better known as Pope Benedict XVI. Popes aside, the magnificent Gothic cathedral of St Peter is the highlight of a wonder through the old town.
The excursion to Weltenburg Abbey is just one of a number of historical sites to be seen along the Danube. Cruising has long been a favourite pastime of the older traveller, but if you like to get out and about each day and still have a comfortable cabin to return to each evening, then river cruising is ideal.
The itinerary changes each day, but most mornings will see you waking in a new town, setting off to explore after a generous buffet breakfast. In each town there is an included tour, along with a variety of optional excursions (at an extra cost). Passengers return to the ship for a buffet lunch and the ship sets sail sometime in the afternoon for the next port of call.
Dinners are smart-casual affairs, served in a single sitting, with local wines included. Although most of the cruising is done at night to allow time to explore the towns en route, a few sections are sailed during the day allowing passengers to enjoy the passing scenery
From Regensburg the Danube heads to the south-east, where it crosses the border into Austria and heads through the town of Passau. The town made its fortune from the trade in wine, wheat and salt, and the city's St. Stephen's Cathedral houses the world's largest church organ with over 17 000 pipes! However, it's also the spot where most cruisers hop on an optional excursion to Salzburg, the birthplace of Mozart where the Von Trapp's found the hills alive with the sound of music.
Whether you sing-along through the Austrian Lake District or drift downstream on-board, your next port-of-call is Linz; a take-it-or-leave-it city that's most famous as the industrial heartland of Austria. Enough said.
Setting sail from Linz at sunset, the new day brings you to the most spectacular part of the journey; the Wachau Valley. After a morning visit to the 18th century Melk Abbey your floating hotel pushes out into the current and motors slowly downstream through the heart of Austria's wine-producing region. With cliff-top castles and towering spires, the Wachau combines the beauty of Franschhoek with 1000 years of history.
With a glass of the Wachau's finest in hand, keep an eye out for the ruined castle above the village of Durnstein. In 1191 English King Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned in the Castle for offending the local Duke during the Crusades. King Richard had tried to sneak through the region dressed as a peasant, but was discovered and tossed into jail. His loyal minstrel Blondel tracked him down by wandering along the river singing a popular English ballad until the King joined in. It later cost England 23 000 kilograms of silver to secure his freedom!
"Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar"
As the Wachau vanishes behind a bend in the river, the cosmopolitan city of Vienna rises into view on the right bank. A stunning city of extravagant Baroque architecture, it seems each building is grander and more elaborate than the next. From St. Stephen's Cathedral in the centre of the Old Town to the magnificent Hofburg Palace you could easily spend a few days exploring the city and surrounds.
Vienna is also the city of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. His house at Berggasse 19 is now a museum and displays many of the original furnishings and his letters. Before you read too much into his empty cigar case, remember Freud's warning over interpreting phallic symbols: "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar".
A celebratory cigar is just the thing to indulge in for your last night on the river as the captain puts his foot down to sail overnight for Budapest. The beguiling mix of Gothic architecture and Communist legacy sets Budapest apart as the cosmopolitan capital of Eastern Europe, The liveliest city to emerge from Communism, the 'Paris of the East' boasts outstanding architecture and historic attractions, but part of the joy of the city is simply finding a pavement café on Andrássy Road and watching the world go by.
It's not unlike being back on board really. Whether you're in a pavement café or on the Tranquility's roof-top viewing deck, watching the ebb and flow of life pass you by is one of the best ways to get a feel for the historic cities of Europe.
» This article originally appeared in Diversions Magazine, October 2008.
- Avalon Waterways is represented in South Africa by Holiday Tours. For more information visit www.holidaytours.co.za or call 0861 102 137
- Find out more about the Avalon Tranquility at http://travel.avalonwaterways.com.au
- South African passport holders require a Schengen visa, as the tour passes through the Czech Republic, Germany, Austria and Hungary.
- British Airways flies daily from South Africa to London and on to Prague, the starting point for the cruise.
Atlantis... found at last!
In a city known for its over-the-top projects, the latest development from South African 'sun king' Sol Kerzner is setting a new standard for Dubai's love affair with 'bigger is better'. Officially known as 'Atlantis, The Palm', the $1.5-billion resort rises on the crest of Dubai's mammoth man-made island, The Palm Jumeirah.
Officially opened in September, the resort is themed around the mythical lost continent of Atlantis and offers a range of watery activities for upward of 3000 guests!
The resort offers a staggering 1539 rooms and suites within The Royal Towers, all offering views out over the Arabian Gulf or the Palm Jumeirah. Room rates start from $700 and soar to a staggering $25 000 for some suites!
For that price wealthy clients can enjoy The Bridge Suite joining the East and West Towers (which comes complete with a private elevator and 24-hour butler service) or the two Lost Chambers suites with views into the Ambassador Lagoon.
Accommodation aside, the highlight of the resort is without doubt Aquaventure; one of the world's largest water theme parks, where guests can enjoy over two kilometres of river rides through cascades, tidal waves and rapids. The near-vertical Ziggurat ride is the centrepiece of the park, offering a thrilling 27.5m near-vertical drop through a submerged tunnel into a shark-filled lagoon!
The 'Lost Chambers' aquarium is equally impressive, with 20 fresh and seawater exhibits surrounding the submerged 'City of Atlantis'. Moving through the sunken rooms guests can marvel at over 65 000 sea creatures, including sharks and Manta Rays. The Dolphin Bay education centre is also sure to prove popular, offering the opportunity to swim and interact with dolphins under the close eye of marine specialists.
For some simple R&R. the private beach also offers great views of The Palm Jumeirah along with a fully-equipped water-sports centre. Splashers, the children's play area with pools, games and kiddie-slides, will keep young ones happy while parents relax.
As night falls, guests can head for any one of the 17 restaurants, bars and lounges; including eateries from Japanese sushi mogul Nobu Matsuhisa and Michel Rostang of France.
"This product has proven to be very popular and demand is currently high, especially over peak periods, with the hotel already fully booked," says Alexis Bekker, National Sales Manager for World Leisure Holidays which has strong ties to the Kerzner Group.
"Peak period is normally from October through to March/April every year," says Bekker, and "should there be any big trade exhibitions in Dubai a surcharge is levied on accommodation."
The resort looks set to prove popular with the MICE market, with the Atlantis Conference Centre offering over 5600m² of floor space along with ample accommodation and dining options.
With opening hype ensuring demand is outstripping supply, it will be awhile before any discount packages come on the market, says Ms Bekker: "Special offers are released on short notice and normally consist of one or two free nights in low season."
Packages to Atlantis, The Palm will be available to all tour operators in South Africa, but World Leisure Holidays is already working on educating the local trade about this new product.
"We are in negotiation with airlines for seats in order to arrange educationals to resort," says Ms Bekker, due to the high occupancy of the hotel at this time of the year this is likely to take place in 2009."
» This article originally appeared in Travel Industry Review
It was almost a cliché. As we crested the rise of Calton Hill, one of the seven hills surrounding the city, the sound of bagpipes wafted up from the historic streets below. The Firth of Forth glistened to the north, Princes Street stretched out below us like a strip of shopper-friendly tartan and Arthur's Seat sat looming to our right. Bagpipes, Check. Grey Skies, Check. An ancient Castle, Check. Stunning architecture, great shopping and friendly locals, Check. Yup, I had well and truly arrived in Edinburgh.
Calton Hill is certainly the best place to begin any tour of the Scottish capital. The stiff walk will make your legs forget all about the long-haul flight, there are interesting monuments to explore and it’s the ideal place to get your bearings in Scotland’s city of spires.
Views aside, the highlight of Calton Hill, rising from the eastern end of Princes Street, is without doubt the magnificent Nelson's Monument. Built in 1807, the tower resembles an upturned telescope and commemorates Admiral Horatio Nelson's historic victory over the French at the Battle of Trafalgar two years earlier.
From the top of the tower it's easy to see the layout of modern Edinburgh; with Princes Street and the Royal Mile running parallel to the west, separated by the peaceful Princes Street Gardens. Princes Street is Edinburgh's answer to London's buzzing Oxford Circus, with brand name boutiques and department stores beckoning shoppers to part with their pounds.
It's not all about the shopping though. One of the highlights of Princes Street is the towering Walter Scott Monument; a Gothic spire in memory of one of the country’s most famous writers, the author of Scottish classics 'Ivanhoe' and 'Rob Roy'. The four pillars and central tower of the monument may look unassailable, but for a few coins and a bit of puffing you can ascend the 287 steps to the summit for fantastic views over Edinburgh and beyond. You’ll also get to look down on the statue of David Livingstone, another of the city's famous sons.
Falling away below Princes Street, and lying at the foot of Castle Hill, is the pleasant Princes Street Gardens; a great place to get some air and stretch your legs, or grab a sandwich and watch the world go by. During the festive season the Gardens host a traditional German Christmas Market, the Edinburgh Wheel and a large outdoor ice rink.
… Witch trials were a simple affair...
It wasn’t always such a cheerful spot though. In days gone by, the gardens were covered by the dark waters of Loch Nor' (the north Loch); a putrid pool of water, faeces and rubbish tumbling down from the residents of the Old Town on the hills above. Apart from playing the unusual dual role of both sewer and well, Loch Nor was also a popular spot for witch trials.
The trial was a simple affair. If you were accused of being a witch you’d be thrown into the Loch, hands and feet bound. If you sank like a stone you were declared innocent and would receive a Christian burial. Float to the surface and you were, without doubt, a witch and would be strangled or burnt at the stake. Charming.
From the gardens, tackle the stiff walk up The Mound to the famous Royal Mile, the heart of historic Edinburgh. For all its fame as one of the world's great walkways, it's a curious mix of history and modern high street, where cobbled lanes and centuries-old churches sit cheek by jowl with tacky shops selling tourist tat.
As you wander down the Royal Mile, keep your eyes open for small alleys and hidden closes.
Covenant Close inspires visions of meetings in the shadows and oaths to the cause, but one can only wonder how Fleshmarket Close got its name. Whatever its origins, it's an apt name for the strip of trendy student hangouts that line the road today.
From Fleshmarket it's a choice of down the hill to Holyrood House, or up to Edinburgh Castle… and you simply can’t come to Edinburgh and not visit the Castle!
Looming over the city from its rocky seat atop an extinct volcano, the Castle is as dear to the city as Big Ben is to London. But perhaps don't mention the English in these parts… the Scots have a long and chequered history with their southern neighbours and the Castle has seen its fair share of battles between Scots and English. There has been a fortress here for over 1000 years, and it still offers fantastic views of the surrounding countryside. Visitors can also see the Scottish Crown Jewels and Scottish National War Memorial.
From the castle it’s an easy stroll down the Royal Mile to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, home to Queen Elizabeth II when she’s in town. When she’s not, visitors can tramp around the historic palace for a good look at how the other half lived.
On your way down the Royal Mile stop in at St. Giles Cathedral, whose eye-catching arches can be seen from across Edinburgh. The soaring stonework, intricate stained-glass windows and tributes to Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns – two of the city's most famous sons – make it well worth a visit.
'Haggis samoosas are back!'
The Royal Mile is also your best bet for a taste of Scotland. Jackson's (209 High Street; 0131 225 1793) is where you'll find tender Scottish lamb, Haggis (with neeps and tatties, of course), salmon as well as roe deer and local scallops. The Wee Windaes (144 High St; 0131 225 5144) across the Mile is also worth a look-in for similar fare. If you just want a quick snack keep an eye out for the shop with the curious cross-cultural sign in the window: 'Haggis samoosas are back!'
The Royal Mile ends on the doorstep of Holyroodhouse; a favourite palace of Queen Victoria - who loved all things Scottish, including its men - and the Queen Mum, and history buffs will enjoy the time-warp walk through the royal history of Scotland.
The highlight of the Palace is the bed chamber of Mary Queen of Scots. Or, more specifically, the bloodstained floorboards where her adviser David Rizzio was murdered before her very eyes in 1566. This act of jealousy by Mary's husband, Lord Darnley, sparked a chain of events that would lead to her imprisonment in the Tower of London, and subsequent execution in 1587 on trumped up charges of treason.
Before you leave, be sure to take a walk through the brooding remains of Holyrood Abbey, the oldest part of the Palace. Originally a monastery founded in 1128, the looming ruins exposed to the frigid Scottish weather are what inspired Felix Mendelssohn's 'Scottish Symphony'.
… everything has a story in Edinburgh…
Feeling parched from all that walking?
It would be easy to pop into the 'Deacon Brodie' pub on the Royal Mile without giving a second thought to the name, but everything has a story in Edinburgh. Deacon Brodie may sound like an upstanding member of the community to name your pub after, but in fact he was a real-life criminal to rival the famous Jekyll and Hyde of Robert Louis Stevenson. A pious deacon by day, he was a gambler and thief by night, and fittingly met his end on the nearby gallows on 1 October 1788.
Another great place for a pint of the local brew is the Grassmarket in the shadow of the Castle.
Unlike the nearby gallows that gave it its name, 'The Last Drop' is still standing and serves a mean pint of locally-brewed Belhaven Best or Deuchars Pale Ale. Although the last person met their end at the gallows in 1864, the pub is still a great place for a drink before you leave. Unlike the poor souls who left the city for good at the end of a rope in the square outside, chances are that the charms of Edinburgh will draw you back to the city of seven hills someday.
Getting there: British Airways flies daily from Cape Town and Johannesburg to Edinburgh, via London. Visit www.ba.com or contact your travel agent.
Accommodation: Edinburgh is, like London, an expensive city to sleep in and you'll be limited only by your budget when it comes to finding a hotel. There are excellent backpackers and even better hotels on offer, or you could stay in a castle on the outskirts of town. The mid-range Mount Royal Ramada Jarvis Hotel is slap-bang in the middle of Princes Street and offers wonderful Castle views from most rooms. Visit www.ramadajarvis.co.uk.
Visa: South Africans do not currently require a visa for the United Kingdom, although your passport must be valid for six months after your date of departure.
More info: Go to www.edinburgh.org or www.visitscotland.com for help in planning your trip.
» This article originally appeared in The Saturday Star Travel 2008.
Sizzling city - Hong Kong
I’m not a city person. Give me soaring snow-capped peaks rather than cityscapes any day of the week. But Hong Kong… aah, that’s a different story altogether. This is not just any city. It’s the most exciting city on the planet.
Sure, some might argue that New York deserves that moniker, but where else can you worship a Buddha before a dim sum breakfast, deal in global equities mid-morning before grabbing McDonalds for lunch, enjoy an English high-tea at one of the world’s finest hotels and then feast on 100-year-old eggs, bird’s nest soup and fried goose tongue for dinner? You want a taste of East meets West? You can’t beat Hong Kong.
Just one problem though… it’s not cheap. If you’ve got cash to burn then China’s ‘fragrant harbour’ is your own private playground, but on a budget you need to get a little clever about how you spend your dollars. Here’s where to start…
No man is an island
Although Hong Kong is made up of dozens of islands, the best place to start is on the mainland on the Kowloon peninsula. This is the throbbing heart of Hong Kong where you’ll find the famous Nathan Road, a wide range of accommodation (whatever you do, avoid the infamous Chungking Mansions if you can) and great shopping. It’s not as glitzy as Hong Kong Island (more on that later), but you couldn’t ask for a better taste of nitty gritty Hong Kong.
Most tourists head for Tsim Sha Tsui at the southern end of Nathan Road. To get your bearings, take a stroll along the Avenue of Stars - Hong Kong’s answer to Hollywood Boulevard - for a gander over the famous Victoria Harbour and to pose with the statue of local hero Bruce Lee. Karate poses are optional.
Tsim Sha Tsui is also where you’ll find some of the best hotels in Hong Kong. The Peninsula is Hong Kong’s Mount Nelson, and offers unmatchable five-star luxury… at a price of course. If nothing else, find an excuse to head to the top-floor Felix bar for the ultimate men’s loo with a view. If it’s views you’re after, the Sheraton Hong Kong across Nathan Road is the place to be. Their Sky Lounge offers one of the best views in town of the nightly (at 8pm) 'Sound and Light Spectacular', the largest permanent laser and light show on earth. www.starwoodhotels.com/sheraton/hongkong & http://hongkong.peninsula.com
Hit the steamy streets
Drag yourself away from the air-conditioning though and let the steamy sounds and smells of Nathan Road envelope you as you dodge tourists, touts and traders for a stroll north towards the famous Temple Street market.
It’s a vibrant area of stalls, restaurants and street performers where the cries of “Hello Missy Sir! Handbag, copy watch?” makes it pretty clear that this is where you come to shop on a budget. As with markets everywhere, sharp bargaining skills and feigning disinterest in that fake-Fendi will help you knock at least 30 percent off the price.
For reliable electronics, avoid the bright lights of Nathan Road and shop with the locals at the Mong Kok computer centre in Tung Choi Street. More into window shopping? Make sure you take a turn through the fascinating Goldfish, Flower and Yuen Po Bird market. For something a little more spiritual, grab a taxi and head for the stunning Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple. Surrounded by high-rise apartments, the scene of chic city-slickers carrying whole roast pigs to offer is quite a sight. The temple is also famous for its fortune tellers, who will explain your future in an ever-so-slightly mysterious parable.
What should definitely be in your future is to head south of Victoria Harbour to Hong Kong Island.
The clean, fast and efficient Mass Transit Railway (buy a pre-paid Oyster card when you arrive for easy access) will zip you from Kowloon across to the Island in just a few minutes, but why rail, when you can sail?
Do pay the ferryman
OK, so the Star Ferry doesn’t really sail, but for great views of Victoria Harbour it’s a few dollars well spent. Step off the Star Ferry and you can almost feel the money oozing out of the high-rise towers on Hong Kong Island. The suburbs of Central and Wan Chai are the financial hub of Hong Kong - home to the likes of HSBC and Bank of America - so it’s the place to come if you want to hang with expat bankers and Hong Kong’s nouveau riche. Despite the tacky Irish pubs aimed at expat bankers, the area is also home to some of the city’s top restaurants. www.mtr.com.hk & www.starferry.com.hk
You’ll need to book a few days in advance to get a table at Yung Kee (32-40 Wellington Street, Central), which offers authentic Cantonese cuisine. Roast goose with plum sauce has been their signature dish since opening 65 years ago, attracting everyone from government high-fliers to local gourmands. Save up your dollars and have at least one meal here.
For something a little more low-key, Shui Hu Ju (68 Peel Street, Central) is a cosy little place at the top of the steep streets of Central. It’s so tucked away that you won’t find many tourists here… there isn’t even a sign outside, so just look out for the Chinese entrance with two red lanterns outside. Feeling brave? Order the explosive Deep Fried Chicken with Sichuan Chilis. Watch out for the home-made litchi wine though, or you could find it a struggle to make your way down the steep streets to the glitzy Lan Kwai Fong nightclub district. http://www.yungkee.com.hk & http://www.aqua.com.hk
After dinner, a visit to the top of Victoria Peak (think Rio’s Sugarloaf in Asia) is obligatory. The Peak Tram’s slow climb up the steep Peak is thrilling enough, but on top you’ll be rewarded (provided that the weather is clear) with one of the most breathtaking cityscapes on the planet. www.thepeak.com.hk
Not a city-slicker?
Surprisingly, a visit to Hong Kong doesn’t have to be all about the city. If you feel the need for some greenery, grab a taxi (or a bus, but taxis aren’t too expensive) and head to the small resort town of Stanley in the south of Hong Kong Island. There’s a great market here for clothes and souvenirs, and the whole place has the feel of a seaside holiday town far from the madding crowds. Fancy a swim? Stop off at the stunning Repulse Bay along the way, but make sure you stick to the areas protected by bathing nets - the South China Sea is filled with sharks who wouldn’t mind a nibble.
Neighbouring Lantau Island is also worth exploring for a day. Apart from Disneyland Hong Kong, the main attraction is the world's largest outdoor seated Buddha, towering 26-metres above the hillside. It's a 268-step climb from the peaceful temples below, but well worth the effort to see this Hong Kong icon up close. For more great views, avoid the 54 minute bus ride from the MTR to Pol Linm and take the Ngong Ping 360 cableway instead. Pricey, but worth it. www.np360.com.hk
This article originally appeared in the Out There Travel Guide.
"I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky. And all I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by."
The tall ships John Masefield had in mind when he penned those words were probably a little different from the luxurious cruise ships that nowadays ply the oceans, but the sentiment is still the same. The sea has long held a fascination for travellers, but unless you're a weathered salty sea dog chances are you're looking for a more comfortable way to sail the seven seas. Richard Holmes looks at some of your best options to rule the waves across the globe.
Bigger is better
Gone are the days when cruisers were on first-name basis with the Captain, and could do a leisurely circuit of the deck in under five minutes. Cruise ship architects are firm believers in 'bigger is better', and the past few years have seen some floating giants take to the water.
The latest addition to the small family of super-cruisers is 'Independence of the Seas', which welcomed its first passengers aboard in April. Carrying 4375 passengers and 1360 crew, the ship is more floating village than cruise liner. "I am the mayor of a small town," says Teo Strazicic, the ship's Croatian captain.
Independence of the Seas sails under the Royal Caribbean flag, the same company which owns the second and third largest cruise ships in the world; the 'Freedom of the Seas' and the 'Liberty of the Seas'.
The main attraction a holiday on-board of these super-cruisers is the wide range of activities they have available, which include the FlowRider® surfing simulator, ice-rink, mini-golf, gym, art gallery and casino. There's even a chapel for those who decide to take the plunge at sea!
These giant ships offer dozens of choices when it comes to shopping and dining. The 'Royal Promenade' - billed as " Main Street U.S.A., right in the middle of the ocean" – will leave your credit card in need of a life preserver, while your waistband will also be begging for mercy after sessions at on-board restaurants ranging from an Italian pizzeria and English pub to the Johnny Rockets '50s-style restaurant.
As if those weren't large enough, Royal Caribbean has plans for a new 'Genesis' class of ship, set to launch in 2009 and 2010. Carrying 5400 passengers, the ships will be so large they'll be separated into neighbourhoods clustered around a 'Central Park' the size of a football field.
Big ships don't come more beautiful than the Cunard Line's Queen Mary 2 though; she's billed as "the most magnificent ocean liner ever built", and following in the wake of the famous QE2 it would have to be! You won't find wave-riders or mini-golf here… rather get set to enjoy lectures by world-famous academics, star-gazing in the planetarium, a tasting of fine wines, or perhaps a massage in the state-of-the-art spa and gym.
When the sun goes down there's no tacky after-dinner cabaret show on your trans-Atlantic crossing (the QM2's specialty). Beaded gowns and black tie are called for as you sweep across the largest ballroom at sea in the Queens Room, or soak up live jazz in the Commodore Club. Fancy a flutter? Spin over to the casino with its tuxedoed croupiers and live out your James Bond fantasies. The QM2 is high-style on the high seas, so don't forget to dress for dinner!
Offering almost every activity under the sun these super-ships of the world cater for every whim and there's almost no reason to set foot on land during your cruise. This is just as well, as due to their size these ships are unable to dock at many smaller ports, so if shore excursions are important then you may want to consider a cruise on something smaller.
Something, perhaps, like a river cruiser. From the high seas to the river mild, canal-boating has become a popular holiday option in Europe, with travellers donning the captain's hat and steering their own way from point A to B. Sleeping a few couples at most, canal-boats are a great way to enjoy a low-key family holiday at your own pace. But what if you want to enjoy the river without the responsibility?
Larger river cruisers – carrying around 150 passengers – ply the major rivers of Europe, and are a fantastic way to explore some of the continent's historic capitals. Much of Europe's trade and commerce was built on the waterways, and many cities have their hub around the waterfront, making exploring each city as simple as stepping off the gangplank.
This is especially true for the Danube, Western Europe's largest river which rises in Germany and flows 2850-kilometres through nine countries on its journey to the Black Sea. Companies such as Avalon Waterways offer a range of tours on rivers across the continent, but 'The Legendary Danube' cruise is certainly one not to be missed.
The cruise begins in the German city of Nuremberg, which was completely restored after WWII and boasts fabulous gothic churches and elegant patrician houses, before beginning its slow journey to the south-east. Through the countryside of Germany, the Danube makes its way inevitably towards the sea, passing the idyllic Austrian towns of Linz and Vienna. Skirting the bottom of Slovakia before diving south, the Danube delivers you to the intoxicating capital of Eastern Europe; Budapest, where seven bridges cross the mighty river to connect ancient Buda on the right bank with Pest on the left.
River cruises, such as 'The Legendary Danube', are perfect for more active cruisers who enjoy being able to settle into their comfortable stateroom for the duration of their holiday, but also want to get out and explore during the day. The energetic can hop off the ship every day to explore the latest stop, and with some of Europe's most exciting cities on the waterfront there's no shortage of stimulating destinations. If you've had enough of padding the cobbled side-streets you can simply sit back and enjoy the passing scenery… and there's certainly more to see than on an ocean cruise!
River cruisers won't have the range of facilities, shopping and dining options of large ocean liners, but still have more than their fair share of home comforts. Ships such as Avalon's modern 'Tranquility' offer Wi-Fi internet access, flat-screen satellite TV, a hair salon and a fitness centre. With river-cruising the emphasis is on enjoying the scenery and stop-overs, not just entertainment on the high-seas. While ocean cruising is all about the journey, on the river mild the destinations share the limelight with the luxurious life on-board. Think of it as a hotel on the move, rather than a theme park with propellers.
Cruising is usually seen as a bit of a soft-option when it comes to travelling…. entertaining and relaxing, yes, but a far cry from the swashbuckling adventurers that used to ply the high seas. Thankfully, some cruises offer more than a casino to set your heart a-flutter.
One of the wonderful things about cruise ships (when properly equipped) is that they can access areas cut off from travellers restricted to planes, trains and automobiles. And the main attraction when it comes to cruising off the beaten track is the ability to explore the ends of the earth; both north and south of the equator.
Cruises to Antarctica are top of any aquatic adventurer's to-do list, although cruises are restricted to the summer season from November to March. Many of the ships in use are converted Russian research ice-breakers, so don't be surprised if you find yourself boarding the Akademik Sergey Vavilov!
Most cruises to Antarctica depart from Ushuaia in Argentina, the southernmost town in the world and itself a great destination to spend a few days exploring. From Ushuaia you'll cross the dreaded Drake Passage (pack the seasick tablets!) as you head south towards the Antarctic Peninsula. Most ships offer Zodiac trips ashore so you can explore the Peninsula, while cruises including helicopter trips, kayaking, camping and even scuba diving are all on offer depending on your budget. Trips further afield to the preserved huts of famous Antarctic explorers, the Ross Ice Shelf as well as the islands of South Georgia and the Falklands are also popular.
At the other end of the globe are the treacherous waters of the Arctic Ocean, home to the fabled Northwest Passage which claimed hundreds of sailors searching for a sea route to Asia. Cruises range from sightseeing circuits around Greenland and Iceland to four-week adventures across the top of Russia and even a nuclear-powered journey to the North Pole!
While the Antarctic may lay claim to breathtaking vistas and giant icebergs the Arctic has more to offer in the way of wildlife; with narwhals, walruses, whales and polar bears to keep you company. Journeys to the far north are also popular for marvelling at the breathtaking Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. These are best viewed in the Northern Hemisphere winter though, and the all-day darkness could put a dampener on your other sight-seeing.
If you decide to brave the darkness, the Hurtigruten Line offers one of the most interesting ways to enjoy the Aurora while exploring the dramatic coastline of Norway. With daily departures from Bergen en route to Kirkenes across the Arctic Circle, the ships call at 34 ports never visited by commercial cruise liners. Delivering freight, post and passengers to remote communities, some of which are home to just a few hundred people, this is a wonderful way to combine the comfort and adventure of cruising with a taste of the local culture.
The Alaska Marine Highway Ferry System offers a similar service for budget travellers on the United States' Pacific coastline, but there are also a host of commercial cruise ships offering a more comfortable ride past the glaciers, forests and waterfall of the wildest state in America.
After all that snow, ice and darkness you're probably about ready for some sun, sea and sand! Head then, to the eastern Mediterranean, where small ship cruising in the sun awaits.
Turkey is famous for its ragged coastline of rugged peninsulas and calm bays watched over by towns dating back thousands of years. The best way to experience this craggy coastline is on a Turkish gulet; a traditional wooden sailing ship usually sleeping 12 – 16 passengers in six to eight cabins. A major advantage of guletting is that you can either charter an entire boat (if you have a large group of friends or family), or simply rent a cabin on one of the scheduled cruises. There are also a wide range of cruises on offer, from historical voyages exploring ancient civilisations of the Aegean to simply relaxing sails in the sun where snorkelling and swimming are all that's expected of you. Although most gulets aren't overly luxurious, the small crew do all the work on-board and will ensure you're well looked after.
If the romance of sail is what you're after, but you'd like a little luxury too, then the West Indies are the place for you. Windjammer Barefoot Cruises were the original cruise operator offering holidays under sail, and have four ships based in the exotic Caribbean.
As the name suggests, Windjammer Barefoot Cruises are relaxed affairs, and you're encouraged to feel the sun-weathered teak beneath your toes while your ship sails the warm waters of the West Indies. On-shore excursions range from the active to the cultural, so whether you're a type-A adrenalin junkie or just looking to soak up the Creole culture there'll be a cruise for you.
If you want the sail with a little more sass, Star Clippers offers five-star tall ship cruising. The ships may sail like the hard-working clippers of the 20th century, but on-board you are certainly not expected to haul in the main sheet. The fleet consists of three impressive clippers, but the imposing Royal Clipper is the pride and joy. The only five-masted sailing ship built in the last 100 years, the Royal Clipper is driven along by 42 sails but boasts state-of-the-art navigation systems and five-star luxury, complete with three swimming pools, glass atrium and health spa with underwater portholes. Adventurous guests can even climb the mast to the 'crow's nest' for a bird's-eye-view!
If you've got children in tow, cruising is perhaps the ultimate family getaway. The fare is (usually) all-inclusive so you know exactly what it's going to cost you and there's lots to keep energetic kids busy allowing parents to relax and have some time-out. With so many exciting activities onboard, "Are we there yet?" should be a thing of the past.
Apart from the usual range of activities on-board, larger cruise operators such as Royal Caribbean also recognise that kids need to be kept busy (and away from the parents!) on-board, and offer specialised kids programs while at sea. Adventure Ocean is a complimentary program of fun and educational activities open to guests aged 3-17, while Fisher Price Playgroups caters for infants up to three-years of age.
Carnival Cruise Lines, who offer journeys everywhere from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean, have an even wider range of programs, with Camp Carnival (ages 2-11), Circle "C" (12-14) and Club O2 (15-17) offering everything from 'A-B-Seas' story-time for toddlers to teens-only shore excursions.
Both of the above cruise operators offer a good mix of entertainment for children and adults alike, but if it's a 'just-for-kids' cruise you're after then a trip on the Disney Cruise Line is hard to beat. Cruising exclusively in the Caribbean, these ships are a non-stop adventure for cruisers under the age of 17, offering everything from science labs and movie theatres to ship-simulators where kids can play captain. And for the parents, I hear you ask? There's the usual variety of pools, sports and even a health spa for you to enjoy while your kids are busy.
Local is lekker
Cruising in local waters – where seas can be rough, and there are often long distance between ports – has taken awhile to become popular, but Starlight Cruises are certainly giving local cruisers lots to get excited about.
From October 2009 Starlight Cruises will have two ships sailing in South African waters; the MSC Rhapsody and MSC Melody. Both vessels have long been favourites with the local market, and offer a good mix of on-board entertainment and exciting destinations.
Most of the cruises on offer leave from Durban and head north to explore the warm waters of Mozambique. Packages range from a three-day jaunt to Ponta de Ouro to longer journeys exploring Bazaruto and the coastline around Inhambane. The wonderful Barra Lodge is a popular stop-over on the New Year cruise for their (in)famous beach party!
Trips further afield to Madagascar, Mauritius and the Seychelles are also on offer, as is the opportunity to join the ship in October for a 21-day voyage from its summer berth in Italy to Durban, or back to the Med in March 2009. Capetonians haven't been left out either, and cruises from the Mother City to Luderitz, Mossel Bay, Walvis Bay and Durban are on offer for the first time in ages. Fares for the above journeys start from as little as R2940 for three nights at sea, rising to R18700 for three weeks from Durban to Italy.
For a cruise back in time, the 14-day voyage from Cape Town to the island of St. Helena is an adventure and a holiday rolled into one. The only ship still to hold the title of Royal Mail Ship, the RMS St. Helena is a working ship that delivers both tourists and supplies to the island 1500-miles north-west of Cape Town. The 'St. Helena' may not have the theatre, casino or mini-golf, but you'll still be more than comfortable tanning by the pool or relaxing with travellers and returning 'Saints' in the lounges. Carrying just 128 passengers the RMS harks back to the old days of ocean liners, when officers dined with passengers and shuffleboard at noon was a non-negotiable.
So whether it's old-school on the mail-ship or razzle-dazzle on the world's giant cruise liners there is something for everyone sailing the seven seas. All you need to do is jump on board. Bon Voyage!
This article originally appeared in travelideas magazine.
Along with Sydney’s Harbour Bridge and San Francisco’s Golden Gate, the Scottish Kingdom of Fife can also boast one of the most iconic bridges on earth. No, I’m not referring to the magnificent rail bridge connecting Edinburgh with Fife over the Firth of Forth, although that bridge has also caused grown men heartache and captured the imagination of millions.
The bridge I’m referring to, as any golfer worth his handicap will know, is of course the Swilcan Bridge on the 18th hole of the St. Andrew’s Old Course. A popular stop for golfers playing their way up the final hole towards the clubhouse of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, the small stone bridge, which some say dates back to the 12th century, has become the most famous spot on the world’s most famous golf course.
Although St. Andrew’s was not the site of the first ever game of golf (that honour belongs to the Leith Links near Edinburgh) the town has been the spiritual home of the game since 1457, when King James II banned swinging a four-iron because it interfered with archery practice and was seen as a threat to the defence of Scotland! Kings come and go though, and in 1754 the first golf club was formed to play on the site of the famous Links beside the North Sea. In 1834 King William IV named the club the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrew’s, and a legend was born. Since 1897 the club has also been responsible for setting and amending the rules for golf played anywhere in the world… except for the USA, Canada and Mexico. Typical.
While the public are able to play on any of the three courses run by the St. Andrew’s Links Trust, who run and administer the various courses of St. Andrew’s, the R&A is a private member’s club. Beware the foolhardy visitor who dares to sit on the members’ benches overlooking the 18th green!
With hundreds of golfers eager to play a round on the famous Old Course, it’s no surprise that tee-off times for visitors are as rare as a windless day in St. Andrew’s. A limited number slots for two, three and four-balls are made available for visitors each month, and the only way to get your hands on a much sought-after tee-off time is to enter the daily lottery. Names are drawn at 2pm each day for the following day’s tee-off times, so if you want to play you literally have to arrive, sign up and hold thumbs. There is also a handicap requirement of 24 for men and 36 for ladies, and players have to present a valid certificate or card. Even if you don’t get a round on the iconic Old Course, the New and Jubilee Courses run right next to the Old Course and are definitely worth a round. And if the weather closes in, the British Golf Museum next to the R&A clubhouse should keep you entertained for a few hours.
Although hardened golfers may scoff, there is more to St. Andrew’s than just golf, so golf widows (or widowers!) needn’t worry about spending days languishing in the clubhouse while you battle the elements, and that annoying slice, to hold par.
The town traces its history back to the 4th century, when the Greek monk Regulus (meaning ‘Rule’) brought the relics of St. Andrew to this windy corner of Scotland to keep them away from the Ottoman Empire. The ruins of the magnificent cathedral built to house the precious relics is one of the town’s most popular attractions, and with a bit of imagination it’s easy to picture the soaring Gothic spires surrounded by thousands of pilgrims arriving to pay homage. An impressive sight indeed!
St. Rule’s tower, built over 800 years ago, still stands in the cathedral grounds and can be climbed for a bird’s eye view of the town. Away in the distance you can easily see the outline of the three courses at St. Andrew’s as well as the wind-blown West Sands; the beach where the famous scene from ‘Chariots of Fire’ was filmed.
The 16th century St. Andrew’s Castle is not far away if you’re still hungry for more history, but make sure you leave time to wander around the town centre. As with all university towns it’s a lively setting filled with quaint shops, quiet university cloisters, ancient wynds (alleys) and wonderful places to eat.
Most of the university grounds are open to the public, so visitors are welcome to wander through college courtyards and soak up the student atmosphere. And the history – St. Andrews University was started in 1410, and is the oldest university in Scotland. Of the various colleges, St. Mary’s is well worth a visit - started back in 1539, the central courtyard is home to a thorn tree said to have been planted by Mary Queen of Scots in 1563.
Feeling hungry? You’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to places to eat, from small sandwich shops to cosy pubs and upmarket eateries. Most visitors will also be happy to hear that there is not a single McDonald’s or Burger King in town! For a bite on the run, your best bet is to head for the mouth-watering Butler & Co. Deli in Church Street. Voted Britain’s Best Deli in 2006, you can look forward to healthy wraps with amusing and appetising names like Italian Stallion (salami and rocket), Billy Goat Gruff (with feta) and Mangoes Into A Bar.
With gourmet wrap in hand, wander back through the wynds towards The Scores overlooking the famous links. The Scores may sound like a commercial nod to the 18 holes below you, but is in fact a Norse word for cliff top.
The cliffs certainly make a good vantage point for following the sporting action, but in days gone by were used for something far more sinister. Women accused of witchcraft were tossed into the sea from here, hands and feet bound together. If they sunk to the bottom they were deemed innocent, the family received an apology and the ‘witch’ got a Christian burial. If the ‘witch’ floated they were, without doubt, a witch and were strangled before being burnt at the stake. Charming.
The last witch was burnt way back in 1667, and since then this quiet university town seems to have mellowed out a little. Apart from Prince William’s studies causing a flurry and the five-yearly circus when the Open Championship rolls into town, it’s a sedate spot beside the North Sea. The home of golf it may be but there’s certainly more to St. Andrew’s than 18 windswept holes and a small stone bridge.
For more information, visit http://www.standrews.org.uk or http://www.explore-st-andrews.com. www.visitbritain.co.za should be your first stop for planning a trip to England and Scotland.
This article originally appeared in Diversions Magazine.