Category Archives: Luxury Travel

Shipboard Gingerbread house

Cruising with Santa on the Holland America Cruiseline

Special to Vagobond with 4 original photos © Susan McKee

New Zealand Santa ClausSanta Claus just doesn’t look quite right standing next to palm trees and bougainvillea wearing his red suit trimmed in white fur in 80 degree temperatures. But, the earth’s rotation being what it is, summer begins in the southern hemisphere just as radio stations in the northern are playing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Dashing Through the Snow”.

It’s all rather routine to Australians and New Zealanders, of course, but Christmastime Down Under provides a bit of cognitive dissonance to those of us from North America. We’re more used to wearing parkas and boots than shorts and flip-flops as we browse shop windows during the holidays.

Fleeing winter does have a certain appeal, however, so I took advantage of an invitation from Holland America Line to join one of their Australian cruises from Sydney, Australia, and around New Zealand earlier this month.

Cruise Ship ChristmasAbout halfway through the voyage it occurred to me that I could avoid cold weather perpetually by arranging to spend half the year in Oz. Like those legendary surfers pursing the perfect wave around the globe, I could find “Endless Summer” by dividing my time between North America and New Zealand.

While my friends back home were battling sub-freezing temperatures as fall segued into winter, I witnessed spring bursting forth into summer while holiday tunes played in the background.

“Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” blared from loudspeakers as rollerbladers zipped past shoppers on the sidewalk in Napier. “Good King Wenceslas” contemplates snow that’s “deep and crisp and even” as shellers in Akaroa scan the beach for that perfect specimen.

At every port – and there were seven along our route – traditional symbols of the holiday decorated houses and shops. The major department stores in Wellington and Auckland had the usual animated windows with artificial snow, icicle-trimmed houses and all the other traditional markers of the holidays.

Christmas tree in New ZealandEverywhere, there were the usual Christmas trees – the pine varieties (albeit mostly fake) trimmed with ornaments, lights and tinsel. Snowmen complete with black top hats were crafted from metal, adorned with lights and set to guard downtown intersections.

Peppermint candy canes, Christmas cookies, and imported holiday specialties such as Stollen cakes imported from Germany and panettone from Italy filled store shelves – it all seems just like home, until you run into the native New Zealand Christmas trees.

These don’t look at all like their Victorian pine and fir namesakes. Known formally as P?hutukawa, the Kiwi Christmas tree is a type of myrtle often planted along coastal roadways and sidewalks of the North Island as a landscape ornamental – bushy dark green and (usually) stubby evergreen trees that, conveniently, burst forth with crimson blooms in the days leading up to December 25.

My ship, the ms Volendam, was festively decorated for the season, with lavish swags of greenery, red ribbons and glittery ornaments everywhere. The culinary staff explored their artistic side by using gingerbread, icing, gumdrops and other candy bits to create fanciful (but, alas, inedible) mansions and castles. (These are much grander than the usual gingerbread houses because they start with plywood bases rather than cookie slabs.)

Confections abounded on this cruise. Not only were the desserts varied each meal, but there was an ice cream bar offering sundaes and cones open every afternoon. On one evening during the cruise, the culinary staff whipped up a dessert extravaganza with massive ice carvings, chocolate sculptures and all sorts of fanciful sweets served buffet-style at the unusual hour of 10:30 p.m.

I’d not been on a cruise like this one before, so I didn’t know what to expect. What I found was a range of dining opportunities. There was the usual: a cafeteria-style buffet with everything from sushi and salads to prime rib and sandwiches. But there was also a white-tablecloth restaurant with flowers and candles and a menu that varied each day, a small bistro featuring Italian delights — and the Pinnacle. As its name suggests, this was the fine-dining option (with a small surcharge – the other locations were included in the cruise price). Here’s where I found lobster macaroni and cheese, lamb grilled on a skewer, baked Alaska and chocolate truffles served with after-dinner coffee.

Kids (and grownups) celebrating birthdays during the cruise are serenaded at dinner by the mostly Indonesian dining room crew with a traditional Southeast Asian song
(thereby avoiding all the “Happy Birthday” copyright issues).

In fact, there never was a dull moment on board. There was internet access via satellite, game tables for chess and checkers (not to mention a whole cabinet of board games), jig-saw puzzles, jewelry shops, a casino (this was the only indoor smoking area onboard), daily trivia and bingo games, a library, DVDs for the television in the cabins), presentations on everything from “eating right” to the aboriginal culture of Australia, two swimming pools, a hot tub, ping-pong table, spa, art auctions, gym, yoga classes, Tai Chi, religious services and AA meetings.

My personal favorites were the frequent demonstrations in the Culinary Center. Ever heard of Lamingtons? I thought not! This Aussie specialty is a sinfully rich dessert that starts with an egg-and-butter cake dipped in chocolate and layered with icing, whipped cream embellishments such as coconut, banana and honey. I even learned how to create marzipan roses and fold towels into fanciful animals during the demos.

The lure of the cruise for me, however, was the chance to explore both the north and the south islands of New Zealand. Port stops began at Oban on Stewart Island (off the country’s extreme southern tip) and continued at Port Chalmers, Akaroa, Wellington, Napier, Tauranga and Auckland.

Rain interrupted my visit to Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, obscuring the signature skyline with fog. By the time I got back on board, I was soaked through.

Unfortunately, the last scheduled stop, Bay of Isles, had to be scrubbed because of high seas. A storm to the north of us meant that we’d need the extra time to steam around the high winds and waves on our way back to Sydney. Total distance round trip? 3290 nautical miles.

(Full disclosure: I was the guest of Holland America Line aboard the ms Volendam earlier this month on its 14-day New Zealand & Australia cruise.)

Petit Palace Cliper Gran Via

5 Quirky Boutique Hotels in Madrid

Looking for a Madrid hotel? Here are five of the best upscale and boutique places to stay in the Spanish capital…

Osuna Hotel

quirky luxury in SpainFound in the Palomas neighbourhood, close to Juan Carlos I Trade Fair Ground (IFEMA) and Barajas Airport, Osuna Hotel might seem best-suited to business travellers on first appearances – but it also has a lot to offer those in Madrid on leisure. The city centre is ten minutes away by taxi, and the hotel itself has a whole host of fancy facilities. One large, secluded pool lets you take your morning dip, while the poolside restaurant El Mirador serves up Mediterranean fusion cuisine. All rooms have internet access, air conditioning and smart modern décor.

 

 

 

THC Bergantin Hostel

Quirky boutique madridFound just a block from Madrid’s main square the Puerto del Sol, THC Bergantin Hostel is perfect for first-timers to the city as it puts you within walking distance of all the main sites. The beautiful Royal Palace, Real Theatre and Almudena Cathedral are all easily reachable on foot from your front door, as well as party areas like Huertas where you can get plates of tapa alongside every drink. The hotel itself has just 15 tastefully-decorated spacious rooms, so it’s great for a more intimate and romantic break away. Perks include Wi-Fi access, air conditioning and free city tours arranged by helpful staff.

 

 

Petit Palace Cliper Gran Via

Next to Madrid’s famous main shopping-and-sightseeing thoroughfare the Gran Via, Petit Palace Cliper Gran Via puts you in the centre of the action. Other must-see places nearby include the gorgeous Parque del Retiro and Madrid’s ‘golden triangle’ of museums, the Prado, Reina Sophia and Thyssen. The Reina Sophia holds Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica. At the hotel itself, you’re treated to the ultimate in style and comfort for relatively low rates – rooms have plasma TVs, airy balconies and hydro-massage showers in bathrooms. There is free Wi-Fi throughout the building, and a full breakfast is served daily. You can also rent bikes from reception.

 

 

High Tech Madrid Aeropuerto

boutique hotels madridIf you’ve got an early flight to catch, you’re travelling on business or you just like the fuss-free convenience of staying near the airport, High Tech Madrid Aeropuerto has everything you need and style in spades. There is a free shuttle bus to and from the airport, so you don’t have to worry about catching a train or shelling out for a taxi. The hotel owns a large outdoor pool for taking advantage of the city’s famous sunny days. Inside, your room is kitted out with the latest fancy technology, including a flat screen TV, hydro-massage shower and free Wi-Fi access. You can also sweat out your cares in the sauna, or treat yourself to local delicacies like Iberico ham at the restaurant. Popular business and conference areas Fuencarral, Chamartin and the Paseo de la Castellana are on your doorstep.

 

 

THC Latina Hostel

madrid hostels and hotelsFound in the stylish La Latina neighbourhood, about half an hour’s walk south of Madrid’s main square the Puerta del Sol, THC Latina Hostel offers stylish and affordable rooms that feel like a home away from home. With luxuries like LCD TVs, parquet floors, modern décor, pretty balconies and free Wi-Fi, you’re sure to be comfy here. Outside, the neighbourhood is calm and safe, and you’re only a short walk from the bustle of local bars and restaurants that Madrid’s tourists haven’t claimed for their own yet. You can rent bikes from the front desk ,and La Latina Metro station is four minutes’ walk from the hotel – from here you can whiz to the centre of town in ten minutes flat.

The Glorious Caravan Lifestyle

It’s that time of the year when people are thinking of heading back to school and work from their summer holidays, but there’s still plenty of time for the last hurrah of summer, so don’t give up the caravan lifestyle yet! If you’re in the US, you may be on your way back from  Burning Man – the festival is all through now  and if you haven’t been to Nevada’s third largest city (that only exists for two weeks of every year) you can make it next year if you get your motor home or caravan in shape now.

Burning Man Caravan

First of all, let’s make sure we have some definition. A motor home is a house with an engine, in the states we call them RVs. A caravan, on the other hand, is a house on wheels that you tow behind a truck – commonly called a 5th wheel, camper, or (in the UK especially) a caravan. Back in the old days a caravan was made up of a fleet of camels or a huge merchant group, but that’s not what we’re talking about here at all. We’re talking about RVs and campers and mobile homes and fifth wheels. If you’re RVing in the UK, one thing you don’t want to forget is to make sure that your caravan is insuredIf you’re caravaning in the USA, check out AAA (The American Automobile Club) – they offer roadside assistance and RV insurance.

In addition to insurance, there are a few other things you won’t want to forget before you head out on the road for that momentous trip before life takes off again. Roadside assistance isn’t going to help you a whit if you don’t have a cellphone that gives you coverage wherever you are going. International sim cards are cheap and easy, but you’ll want to make sure that you have an unlocked GSM phone or you may get a terrible surprise. Also, if you’re heading to Cornwall in the UK or Napa in California – don’t forget that you need to have a safe place to park before you start drinking the tipple or sampling the wines – while you can still boondock in many places, local rules and regulations are making it harder and harder to just roll up somewhere, park, and camp – make sure that you know where you will spend the night. You don’t want to get caught in a situation where you’ve had a few too many and then you have to move the rig! On that note, it may be wise to keep a designated driver.

Burning Man

Make sure you know where the spare tire is and how to change it! A few years ago we got TWO flats on the way from Burning Man and since it was a Sunday in small town Nevada – there was nowhere to go. Lucky for us, we did find a Walmart and they were able to repair our flat tires. That’s where roadside assistance would have really come in handy.  By the way, you can usually boondock in Walmart parking lots, which is why you see so many RVs and Caravans in them.

A couple additional notes before you head out on your way. Seatbelt laws apply to RVs too, so when the vehicle is moving, passengers should be seated and belted in. For caravans, there should not be any passengers in the trailer while you are under way, so while the glorious road life of a caravan gypsy is exciting – legally you can’t be moving around while the vehicle is moving around. This can be a costly mistake if the police catch you!

When cooking in your mobile home, make sure that you have plenty of ventilation and have a fire extinguisher handy. Have you ever seen those burned out shells of caravans on the side of the motor ways? Guess how those fires happened? Usually from someone cooking and not having an extinguisher.

While it may seem like a good idea to climb up on the roof and sunbathe, the truth is that you can damage your RV or caravan severely by walking around on the roof. Take care not to fall through and make an extra skylight! Most of all though – have fun. Living in a caravan can be one of the most enjoyable ways to take a holiday – whether you are heading to the last of the summer festivals, out to the playa, down to the sunny Costa Brava or the French Riviera, or over to the chilly Irish coast – drive careful, park where you can wake up and enjoy the beauty of nature, and don’t forget to have friends over for martinis!

Happy Camping!

Burning Man Photos Courtesy of Robert Scales via Creative Commons License