My Finland Experience ~ Chasing the Northern Lights! By Mihaela Jakic at Donna Barlow Travel Group


NOVEMBER       2017 – Contact   Phone +61 2 9888 5555

Sunday 19th November – I was due to depart at 1105 on a Cathay flight to Hong Kong. I was advised that as I was travelling to Helsinki on two separate tickets I was more than likely not going to have my luggage checked through all the way. However a very friendly gentleman at the Cathay check in desk was very helpful and made this possible to my surprise (all other passengers ex Melbourne and Brisbane were not able to do the same travelling with Qantas/Cathay.)

I had pre-selected seat 39A (economy) which was a bulkhead. I had plenty of legroom and was lucky enough to be having a free seat beside me. Unfortunately as the armrest is also the tray table this means the arm rest was immovable. As this seat is also close to families with bassinets, for some this could be bothersome.

Overall Cathay had amazing service and I was very pleased with the staff on board and on the ground. They also had a range of movies, TV series and CD albums for all genres.

We had approximately 6 hours layover in Hong Kong as this was our meeting point; the airport is quite large and offers a range of shops and restaurants/cafes/bars.

After wandering around for a little while we made our way to the Qantas business lounge. The lounge was very spacious with varies styles of seating areas. They had a selection of foods which was really enjoyable. The showers/bathrooms were quite large and equipped with all the necessities. The Qantas lounge shuts at 11pm, however were advised the Cathay is opened longer.

5_PhotoMonday 20th November – We flew with Finnair from Hong Kong to Helsinki (0045am) in business class on the brand new and absolutely stunning A350. I was seated in 9H, the first row in the section of business class. Absolutely love the fact that the seat configuration is 1-2-1, meaning everyone has an aisle seat.

Unfortunately due to the earlier hours that it was in Sydney I wasn’t able to experience the food/on-board shopping the aircraft had to offer. I can however say the fully flat beds were amazing and quite spacious. Each business class seat includes a retractable table which slides out in front of you for dining, a side table, storage options which includes a pocket for magazines and safety cards, a compartment with a lid, a little cubby below the footrest which I used to store my shoes, and two very nifty compartments, one to hang your headphones and another for water bottles.

Each seat also receive a Marimekko designed amenity kit, slippers, pillow and quilt, which soon I would find out was a very trendy Finnish design house known for its original prints and bright colours. We had also received inflight headphones which were the Bose noise cancelling headphones; I can’t even begin to explain how amazing these are (I have added them to my Christmas list.) I had them on before take-off and was fast asleep before we had even gotten off the ground. I slept right through.

We landed in Helsinki around 0530AM. From there we were transferred to our hotel.

Sokos Hotel Vaakuna – We stayed at the Sokos hotel Vaakuna, as Finland doesn’t have a star rating system I’ve rated the hotel myself a standard 3-4 stars. The hotel is in a fantastic location, in the centre of town. Across the road is the train station and a short walk down the road (5 minutes) is a large shopping centre or around the corner a Stockman centre (I like to compare this last one to Myers but 100x bigger.) The top floor has a large deck and restaurant. Unfortunately, being built in the 50’s the elevators are very small.

The room types include –

  • Single
  • Twin
  • Family (2 adults and 2 children)
  • Suites (they have their own private sauna)

A good thing to make note of is that the single rooms don’t have any tea/coffee facilities.


The hotel doesn’t have a gym, however for a fee the hotel can grant guest with access to the gym across the road. They have free Wi-Fi for all guests and in all rooms, they even have a shopping centre on the bottom floor with access through reception – the hotel offers a 10% discount on purchases by guests.



Helsinki is absolutely beautiful, people were friendly and the streets were stunning, decorated with Christmas lights and trees. We went on a walk tour around the city, through the main boulevard.

  • A tram ride around the whole city takes approximately 1 hour (without stops) and cost 3
  • There is a central market, every day of the summer located near the
  • Fazer is their local chocolate
  • City hall can be found by looking for the big blue building down near the
  • Finland was the first country to declare internet as a legal right. The have free Wi-Fi throughout the city; you don’t even need to be in a building!
  • The Finnish people recommend drinking the tap water

Following our tour we headed to a traditional Finnish restaurant Savotta where we all tried reindeer for the first time.  We then continued the Helsinki tour by couch visiting Senate Square, Sibelius park and one of their local Lutheran churches built underground making the inside walls stone and the roof peer through the hill above it.

The rest of the day was spent at leisure before heading the hotel restaurant for dinner. That evening I witnessed first snow fall.

Tuesday 21st November – Today we went of too Tallinn, Estonia by the new Megastar Tallink shuttle service, in other words one very big ferry.27_Photo

  • Passengers are required to check in 45 minutes prior to
  • 6 departures per day from Helsinki, with an additional 6 from Tallinn
  • Trips take approximate 2 hours
  • There is an additional overnight trip for those who require on board accommodation, this trip takes approximate 3.5 hours – departs 6:30pm arrives in Tallinn at 11:00pm, however passengers with rooms do not require disembarking till the next
  • All passengers receive free Wi-Fi
  • Business class passengers receive free premium Wi-Fi
  • Storage lockers are available on board
  • The ship has a Burger King on board
  • Duty free shopping on board28_Photo

Once we disembarked we started our Old Town Tallinn tour by couch to the top at Kohtuotsa Viewing platform and we continued by walking down to the bottom, the tour was approximately 3 hours, including our lunch stop at a traditional Estonian restaurant the Pepper Stack. During the tour we visited the Christmas Markets where we could enjoy some Christmas music; buy homemade knitted socks, beanies, scarfs and souvenirs. It was absolutely breathtaking when the snow began to fall around the large Christmas tree in the centre.This concluded our day in Tallinn and we headed back to the port where we embarked on the Tallink Silja Star for our trip back to Helsinki.30_Photo

Wednesday 22nd November – We headed to the airport nice and early for our flight from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, a small town where most shops, hotels, restaurants, night clubs, tourism offices, museums and sights are approximately 10 minutes far.  We had a few hours to spare in the Finnair Schengen lounge which is used for continental flights throughout Europe, near gate 20. It was a lovely lounge; however there wasn’t a wide selection of food for offer.


We flew on Finnair’s A330 used for Finland’s/Europe’s internal flights. They have a 3/3 configuration (business class is also 3/3 however the middle seat is free.) There is no on board entertainment, however the aircraft is incredible roomy, I could comfortably cross my legs without my knees touching the seat in front of me and stretch them out. Economy class receives a selection of coffee, tea, juice and water free of charge and meals are available for an additional cost. Business class has drinks and meals offered free of charge.

Santa Claus Hotel – A stunning 4 star hotel in the centre, close to pedestrian streets and local shopping centres and is located approximately 300 metres from the Lapland Safari’s office. The hotel has a large restaurant with a wide variety of breakfast foods and of course, what would a Finnish hotel be without a sauna, one for woman and one for men.  The room types include –

  • Standard room (can be interconnecting)
  • Superior rooms (2 adults and 2 children, has minimal options for interconnection)
  • Deluxe rooms located on the 6th floor – room has private sauna
  • Aurora Suite

Aurora Borealis Suite (possibility of interconnecting – holds 8 guests)


We walked to the Lapland Safari’s office prior to commencing our tour; the tour includes clothes and boots so we were fitted with our own suite, gloves, socks and boots. They assign an additional 30 minutes to get ready for their tours as the meeting point is always their office, this has its perks – the river view is absolutely stunning, especially if you catch it at sunrise/sunset.

Our first stop was the science museum; this was a good opportunity to learn about the Arctic Circle, local animals, history, the aurora borealis and the weather. They often have various pop up exhibitions throughout the year along with their two main ones. We headed just outside of Rovaniemi to an absolutely stunning Lappish restaurant called Poropirtti, a wooden cabin surrounded by trees and a lake. 36_Photo.JPG

37_PhotoAfter lunch we had a quick site inspection at the Arctic Treehouse, followed by a visit to the Husky farm where we could play with the husky and received a brief presentation from the business owner and drank a local hot berry drink by an open fire.

We then visited Santa’s village, perfect and highly recommended for families with children or even older people who are young at heart. You can even visit Santa himself free of charge; however a picture costs 20EUR for a digital print and 30EUR for hard copy, presented creativity in an envelope bag. There are many gift shops, restaurants, activities at the location and you can even cross the official Arctic Circle. For 8EUR you can organise an official letter from Santa to be sent anywhere in the world. 38_Photo

Once we crossed the Arctic Circle we made our way to the Reindeer farm not far from the village. We had the opportunity to feed the reindeers and sat through a presentation whilst enjoy their hot berry drink and cinnamon biscuits.39_PhotoTonight we had a traditional dinner at the Bears Den. On our way there we witnessed some of the Northern Lights in the sky. The restaurant was located in another wooden cabin in the forest. They offer accommodation which is perfect for group excursions staying for a night or two. They have 4 standard rooms, 1 suite and 1 cabin. Activities can be organised for guests.40_Photo

Thursday 23rd November – We headed to Saariselka (3 ½ hours from Rovaniemi) by couch – a medium sized bus with Wi-Fi, toilets, reclining chairs, heaters/air cons, lights adjustable for each seat, fold out tables and power points (one of the most equipped buses I have ever been on.)41_Photo

  • Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort
    • There are two ends of the arctic resort, east and west (west only 5 years old.) The east is approximately 10 minute drive from the west; however there is a track that cuts through which guest can use to walk
    • You can find Kelo Igloo’s in the west side of the resort, these are the upper class room, half lodge, half igloo which can accommodate a total of 6 passengers and has private
    • The reception, restaurant and bar are located in a large log cabin which allows people to leave luggage/coats in a coat
    • Bar with an igloo dome that allows you to sit and enjoy the Northern Lights (same )
    • Breakfast and lunch is buffet styled, however dinner is la
    • Nearest town approximately 15 minutes away   42_Photo

Room types

  • Glass igloos (small 2 person/large 4 person)
  • Kelo glass igloos (half log cabin/class igloo – 6 person)
  • Log chalets (10 person)
  • Snow igloos (seasonal)
  • Queen suites (private Jacuzzi)
  • Traditional house (2 person)
  • Gold digger’s chalets (4 person)
  • Honeymoon turf chamber (generally for newlyweds)
  • Range of activities which vary depending on the season
    • Husky safari
    • Reindeer sleigh rides
    • Snowmobiling
    • Horse riding
    • Aurora hunting
    • Ice fishing
    • Canoeing
    • Golf panning
    • Single room
    • Studio rooms (possibility of interconnecting rooms creating a penthouse max 11 guests)
    • Lakeside and forest view rooms
    • Single room
    • Studio rooms (possibility of interconnecting rooms creating a penthouse max 11 guests)
    • Lakeside and forest view rooms

The hotel also has a traditional sauna room and hot tub which can be pre booked for a fee of 350EUR for 3 hours and can hold 8 people. There is a small Kota that can be used by guest. Though there is a restaurant the hotel sometimes organises dinners in the larger Kota by a fire, which we were able to experience, they use this Kota for a special

Christmas and New Year’s celebration with special activities and surprised organised for hotel guest spending this festive period with them.

The hotel has a range of activities to offer onsite and offsite –

  • Aurora workshop
  • Cross country skiing
  • Snowshoeing
  • Husky farm/reindeer farm (offsite)
  • Taste of reindeer herder’s day (offsite & authentic)
  • Snow mobile safari
  • Canoeing and kayaking
  • Lemmenjoki day trip

43_PhotoThe accommodation and activities itself was absolutely amazing and an experience out of this world, though the staff was a little unorganised. Unfortunately there are a few concerns – rooms don’t have Wi-Fi or phones, for some this is a-part of the experience, however can become an issue if you want to contact reception or emergency services. If you have your own phone on international roaming you can use this to contact an emergency line, otherwise there is no other form of contact. As the reception/restaurant area is one of the few locations that have Wi-Fi it can become crowded at times.44_Photo

Friday 24th November – We started our day with breakfast at the hotel restaurant. They had a range of choices and food was nice. We set of on our husky safari which takes approximately 4 hours. We met at the reception and then made our way to the changing cabin (approximately 250 metres from reception) where we were provided with warm gear for the ride and a quick briefing on how to control the sleigh/dogs, before making our way to the husky base (an additional 150 meters). There were two people per sled and 6 huskies. Depending on the people using the sleigh one person drives and then you switch half way. The ride itself was AMAZING, absolutely magical and the 13km view through the white forest was breathtaking. Once we returned to the husky base we had the opportunity to play with the puppies and then had traditional soup and a hot drink in a tepee (known as a Kota) by a fire.45_Photo

That night we went aurora hunting on a sleigh by reindeer. This activity takes approximately 3 hours. We walked to the changing cabin, got geared up with warmer clothes and collected our blankets before walking to the reindeer stable. There were two people per sleigh with 1 reindeer, though all sleighs/reindeers are attached together. We headed through the wilderness and stopped halfway at a Kota and listened to some facts about reindeers whilst enjoying warm berry juice by a fire. After 15 minutes we headed back on path to the starting point. Unfortunately we didn’t see any northern lights as it was quite cloudy; however it was still a wonderful experience.46_Photo47_Photo

Saturday 25th November – We were transferred from Kaksluattanen resort to Inari (approximately 1 hour), transfer was provided by Kukkolan Tilausliikenne Oy which operate transfers throughout Northern Scandinavia and Russia. We had a 1 hour guided tour through the Siida Museum where we learnt some more about the weather in the Arctic Circle and some interesting information about their Sami culture before being transferred to Hotel Kultahovi where we had a quick tour and lunch with a stunning view of the Inari River.49_Photo.JPG48_Photo.JPG50_Photo

After lunch we made our way to Korpikartano hotel where we were to spend 2 nights. The trip took approximately 35 minutes. The hotel is very traditional and more about the experience and culture than the style and look of the hotel, a little like a camp lodge. The hotel is situated right besides Lake Menesjärvi, which was completely frozen and covered in snow, which we had many opportunities of walking on. The hotel had a main building with the restaurant, sitting area, reception, sauna and rooms and the second building which had rooms and a sauna. Wi-Fi throughout all buildings and rooms.51_PhotoRoom types 

  • Single room
  • Studio rooms (possibility of interconnecting rooms creating a penthouse max 11 guests)
  • Lakeside and forest view rooms
  • Socks
  • Shaving kit
  • Mouthwash
  • Hairbrush
  • Makeup remover wipes
  • Shared Sauna

Our guide Matias led us through an Aurora workshop so that we could be prepared with our cameras when capturing the Northern Lights. Tonight, unfortunately we were unlucky.52_Photo

Sunday 26th November – We started our day with a traditional buffet breakfast, before getting geared up for some snow fun activities.  I distinctively remember by time in Menesjärvi as the sun didn’t rise till about 10 to 10am and it set at approximately 13:30.

Matia’s lead us through the forest with our snow shoes and following this we went downhill to the lake on a toboggan where we then did some cross country skiing.

We headed to the Kota for lunch and then were all given the chance to make our own desert over an open fire. The staffs here at the Korpikartano were very friendly and welcoming, which made the trip all the more special.

That evening we headed out in the forest to try catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights, unfortunately it was quite over cast so we didn’t catch much – Mother Nature of course is the boss. Later on in the night close to midnight we headed out to the lake, there was an opening in the cloud and I was able to catch a stroke of the flickering green light, you could see a lot of activity behind the clouds, however we weren’t too lucky in capturing a photo. 53_Photo

Monday 27th November – After breakfast we went to Lemmenjoki to broaden our knowledge on the Sami culture. We started by feeding the reindeers with their herder. He then sung to us his Yoik (a unique and traditional song), he had written this Yoik himself and used it to herd his reindeer when in the forest, the longer he sung it, the more of his reindeer would come to him.54_Photo

He then lead us to family shop, a cottage where his mother shown us her hand made scarfs, felts and bags that were for sale. Along with the traditional Sami outfits she had made for her family members only.


We headed back to Inari where we had lunch at Inari hotel, though the hotel looked more like a pub from the outside; once we walked through the door it felt very warm and inviting. The restaurant had a beautiful view of Lake Inari and the food was divine, one of the nicest I have had whilst in Finland, I even tried one of their liquors made from their local berries Cloudberries, native to the Arctic.  We spent the remainder of our day in Inari at the souvenir shop before heading to Ivalo airport for our return flight to Helsinki and then home.

This time round I made sure I enjoyed the business class journey from Helsinki to Hong Kong to the max. Once we boarded we were greeted with arrival drinks, I had the Finnair signature drink Blue Sky, which I had heard about on numerous occasions.

The Marimekko designs and splashes throughout the cabin give of a nice vibe. The seats face towards the window and the screen swings out in front of you when you wish to watch, unfortunately if you move the  seats into a lay down position you can’t tilt the screen for a better viewing.

The amenity kid was stocked with an eye mask, earplugs toothbrush/toothpaste an L’Occitane lip palm and moisturising cream. There was also a little card which stated you could ask the cabin crew for any of the additional amenities –

We had received a breakfast card in our pocket where you could pre select your meal and advise whether you wanted to be woken up or not. Once we had taken off the cabin crew came around for us to pre order our dinner meal and asked for our breakfast cards and shortly after that we receive hot towels.

My favourite thing was the tail camera view, though I have seen a few camera views on aircrafts, none were like this. Followed by the interior LED mood lighting in the overhead cabin which at times changed to a blue/green colour made to mimic the northern lights.

A little while after cabin crew came around with a table cloth and our meals. I really enjoyed my meal and absolutely loved the mini salt shakers and salad dressing I had received with this. I had the beef stir fry with a side of rice, which was nice and soft (was hoping it wasn’t to dry), with this came a basic salad and a side of cheese. For desert I have vanilla ice-cream.

We had 1 hour complimentary Wi-Fi during the flight and thanks to the team at Finnair we all received a voucher of 36EUR to spend on the on-board shopping.59_PhotoThe country itself was absolutely amazing and the overall experience was out of this world thanks to – Karli Koutrouvelis – Finnair – Business Development Manager & Marina Amato – Bentours – Inside Sales Manager

If you would like to book a trip similar to this – Please contact Donna Barlow Travel +61 418 465 245 or +61 (02) 9888 5555


Viking Ocean Cruises (Viking Orion) Cruise Report ** Italian Sojourn – July 1st 2018 – Stateroom 6088**

Prepared by Brian & Donna Meads-Barlow                                    30th July 2018

It gave us great pleasure to be aboard Viking Orion during her first official cruise itinerary sailing Venice to Rome in July 2018, it was an amazing and new experience; I hope you enjoy the read.

Ports of call:

Venice (overnight) | Šibenik, Croatia | Bari (Puglia), Italy | Crotone, Italy | Messina (Sicily), Italy Naples, Italy | Civitavecchia (Rome)


Comfortable and intimate… thoughtfully created in a design to enrich your interaction with your destination in every way.


  • 930 guests
  • Length: 745 feet
  • Beam: 94.5 feet Class: Small ships Year built: 2018
  • On board currency: USD
  • Weather: Warm | Seas: Calm        Orion_


People often misinterpret the meaning of luxury in the cruise industry but if you were to board Orion for the first time, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking she’s a luxury cruise ship.

Viking Ocean Cruises beg to differ however, they don’t market their vessels as a luxury cruise product; they’d rather you be the judge …and judge it, we did!


Because of a late engagement in Sydney, we arrived day two of the cruise during Orion’s overnight stay. A swift transfer from Venice airport had us join the ship mid-afternoon, just as shore excursion passengers were returning to re-embark.

Once paperwork (boarding passes etc) were approved, we were on board in no time; our stateroom of course was fully prepared and our attendant eager to meet us.



  • Stateroom: 6088
  • Category: Penthouse Veranda PV1 Deck: 6
  • Forward – Starboard


Beautiful! That’s all! I’m a very practical person and as long as everything’s in its place; everything works and I never have to call Reception to report a malfunction, I’m happy J

OK, it’s a new ship, one wouldn’t expect issues? A lot of new ships do! …But not this one…

A PV1 stateroom is a Penthouse Veranda; marginally larger than a standard veranda (on an all veranda/balcony ship) we were situated on deck 6, overlooking balconies below. Well worth the upgrade in my opinion even if only for the extra space.

Our room attendant was very observant of my/our needs and whilst he was never in our face, he and his protégé took excellent care of our every day needs including restocking our daily bottled water supplies and minibar needs. The stateroom was made up each day beautifully and was complimented by a special turn-down each evening.

The bathroom consisted of a normal-sized shower – hooray! It was a treat to be able to move about without hitting against the Perspex cubicle. The design was important given the positive feedback Viking receives from its River Cruise clientele who share the same opinion – No poky bathrooms please! -Verdict? Quite close to the best I’ve ever seen on the seas.Orion4

The Buffet (World Café)

It’s arguably one of the best buffets I’ve encountered. World Café because the cuisine is international, served to you from a pantry-like setup …and it’s delicious.

(Casual) breakfast, lunch and dinner can be had here (lunch & dinner menus rotate daily); plenty of tables – no waiting – little or no queues at serveries. BONUS: Coffee is great!Orion5


…no washy-washy reminders on Orion, passengers were self-disciplined for better hygiene or perhaps it was more about the modern amenities on entry to each of the restaurants.

Discarded crockery/cutlery, napkins and the likes were quickly removed from tables; the table is wiped down and prepared for your next course.

As well, a very affective team of cleaners didn’t stop wiping handrails; vacuuming, cleaning windows and public bathrooms etc, even the deckchairs were wiped down between users.Orion6

Alternate Dining (FREE)

Each guest is guaranteed one alternate dining experience (booking), which is great as these restaurants are very popular.

Orion7Orion8 …so popular in fact that we only dined once in the MDR, which was fantastic to say the least!Orion9


Bars were intimate, and again little or no queues. Waiters were quick to serve you typical international drink choices at your table where ever you were.

We took out a (Silver) drink package and it was well worth it. It meant we could drink any time of the day simply when we felt like it. And let me say, 35C temps – the Mojitos were well deserved!

That said, wine and beer (and soft drinks) are served complimentary with dinner!



As well as the ritzy looking apparel stores, Orion has your usual convenience-like shop that sells your bits’n’pieces type needs; chocolate & duty free items. Prices were a little exxy especially when compared with the prices on ports like Croatia and Italy. Nonetheless, the quality of clothing and jewellery is top class.Orion12Orion13

Orion is a small ship that’s big on amenities designed for those looking for relaxation alongside their exploration (Cruise Critic), and I couldn’t have said it any better.



Once again, there’s no fight for deck furniture although I did happen to see the usual reserved (by a towel or bag) sign but there were always plenty more available.Orion15

OK, so we’ve tagged a few pics! There’s really no better way to give you the feel than by showing you pictures but the crowd seen (or, lack of crowd seen around the ship) is indicative of daily outdoor life on board. That is, you’d never believe the ship was sailing at full capacity of 930 passengers unless you went looking for them.


…none!!! Sad if you like that sort of thing but I felt the space was better used for areas better enjoyed by guests.


The Persian Room is one of the best I’ve seen, and it’s FREE. Steam rooms, Ice rooms and a fantastic Jetted pool -but it can get busy. It’s very popular so choose visiting times wisely according to those that aren’t seen most popular.

Orion16   SPA Treatment prices are what you’d expect to pay on board any ship, perhaps a tad lower… remembering of course currency is USD.

We both had massages and rated them very good, in fact better than some we’ve had on many other cruises.



Laundry: Self-service launderettes including irons and ironing boards are located on Decks 3–6 and are free of charge, including detergent.

Internet: FREE WIFI throughout the cruise

Dietary requirements: In most cases, dietary requirements can be catered for. Guests requiring special diets (low salt, diabetic, gluten-free and low cholesterol) should alert us 90 days prior to departure and remind the Maître d’ when on board.

In-room Refrigerators: YES. Certain stateroom Categories include FREE Mini-Bar


The entire ship (including poolside, stateroom verandas and all public lounges and other areas) is NON SMOKING. With the exception of an outdoor, semi covered area that has been designated as a Smoking Area. It’s actually quite chic; has lounges and a communal table with around a dozen chairs… some say it’s the best place to meet up and gossip!


Viking Ocean Cruises has adopted the same principle that it offers on its River Cruises. That is, each guest receives a number of FREE shore excursions (City Highlight Tours, Walking Tours etc) and they’re well worth experiencing.

Given the number of unique/exclusive ports we visited, a morning guided walk was key to going back in the afternoon and exploring towns ourselves.

You’re able to participate in FREE shore tours, yet also participate in optional Book & Pay excursions that take port trips way beyond Old Towns -enjoying some of the best experiences you’ll ever encounter.

For example: We did the Conversano (Italy) Cooking Class. We weren’t sure what to expect but thought it’d be fun.

What did we learn? We learned that it’s good to relax amongst some very entertaining fellow cruisers but we finally learnt how to make pasta from scratch! …and yes, wine flowed continually throughout the educational.Orion17

We also took part in Messina & Its Treasures (Sicily), and a treasure it is. There’s no better way to explore Viking Ocean Cruises’ ports than to take-up their shore excursion offers – the guests we’d previously spoken to who previously decided to wing it, missed out on so much …to their admission.


Tipping is customary aboard Viking Ocean Cruises and Grats are not included unless otherwise described in a cruise offer.


In one word? Brilliant. I boarded with GREAT expectations and Viking Orion exceeded each. She’s new; she’s charming and like I said from the beginning: She’s NOT Luxury Cruising but she’s nine tenths…

We’ve rated OrionOrion18…a near record rating from us! Don’t take our word for it though, surf the internet… you be the judge!

For bookings on this fabulous cruise line – as well as inside info about the what’s to do/what’s not to do, please contact your favourite Personal Cruise Consultant at I Love Cruising.

We’re located across the nation. It’s not so much about making the booking with us; it’s more about the level of customer service that we promise along with some very special travel options including flights & accommodation.

I Love Cruising LOVES Viking Ocean Cruises – if you didn’t already pick that up ILC Logo

I Love Cruising – a member of the Donna Barlow Travel Group Pty Ltd.
ATAS Accreditation No. A10993 / AFTA Member 03799
Unit 1, 111 Wicks Road North Ryde NSW 2113 Australia. Phone: 1300 31 33 31 email:    email Brian Meads-Barlow:

INDULGE IN HOLLAND AMERICA ~ on-board NOORDAM ~ By Brian & Donna Meads-Barlow

Ship:                   Noordam (GRT 82,500, 1900 passengers/800’ish crew) (USD)

Itinerary:           12 nights, South Pacific (French Polynesia, Vanuatu, Fiji)

Stateroom:       Signature Suite #5001

Month:              March 2018

The makeup of passenger nationalities was interesting; naturally Australians dominated however Canadians/Americans ran a distant second whilst Dutch, English, New Zealanders, German, Serbian and South Americans also made up the manifest.

It was a great mix; average age group was approximately 50.  That said, it appeared the younger travellers (all nationalities) were most often seen around the bar & pool areas; a sociologically higher group than what could be described as usual.  There were a handful of children on board.

With so many public areas (bars, lounges, theatres, cafés etc) on board, space was never an issue.  The ship always appeared to be free-flowing although I did hear a murmur than it was far from full.


Having come from work, we embarked late – around 3.00pm.  We showed ID and headed up the escalators in the Overseas Passenger Terminal (Circular Quay) where around 20 of the 25 or so check-in desks were vacant.

Check-in staff were amazing, I’d guessed they were close to the end of a long shift.

We met Bronwyn (Senior Check-in Supervisor) who appeared to have had the system purring all day and before not too long, we were on our way to board.

Arrival photographers were packing down and we were greeted aboard by a number of smiling faces.  The all familiar BEEP as our cards were scanned by security meant “We’re here!” You know what I mean J


It was delightfully easy.  Everyone else had pretty much arrived; probably already eaten too.  We headed straight to our stateroom to drop off our handhelds and permissible 2 x bottles of wine.

Mid-ship elevators were still working hard so knowing our stateroom was forward, we walked the corridors to the forward elevators where an open door was waiting.

Both forward and aft elevators proved to be the most efficient on board the cruise rather than the central ones.


Our stateroom was a Signature Suite.  It was an accessible cabin which appeared to have a changed configuration.

The bathroom was set up as such.  Instead of two wash basins, it only had one allowing more room in the full size shower.  The bath was a standard size, no spa jets.

The stateroom was nicely prepared and appropriately appointed.  The television however was small and aged.  In fact the ship itself appeared a little tired however it is due for a nice refurb in 2019.

We had plenty of room to move around; great natural light and like I said a full walk-in shower – Heaven on a ship.

No sooner we’d dropped our belongings our steward appeared to welcome us aboard.  He asked if everything was to our satisfaction and having sat on the double/queen bed, we asked if he was able to fit a (or another) topper as the crack down the middle was clearly noticeable.  He had no problems with that and obliged immediately.


It was our 3rd cruise aboard Noordam but as you’d know, it’s always inviting to go for a walk once you’ve settled in.

We headed through the many lounges, passed by the shops and arrived (as most can identify with), the aft pool bar!

Sydney was steamy; a nice cold drink was more than welcome.


Ship’s muster was scheduled for 1650h.  Muster is compulsory for all passengers (excepting those in transit ie. stayed on for B2B cruises) – cards were scanned.

Life jackets are not required at ship’s muster.

The exercise took the normal 30 minutes or so.  Crew were tough in making sure passengers observed instructions, making sure too it wouldn’t take any more time than required.

The sometimes struggle to disperse after dismissal wasn’t evident.  Passengers strolled away quietly and there were little or no bottle necks at the stairs or elevators.


We headed up to the Lido Restaurant and although a little early for evening dining time, one side of the ship’s servery was opening up.

The food looked like a feast!  A magical array of selections superbly presented.

The evening was a typical baked dinner affair, roast everything!  Salads were fresh and in abundance as were alternate healthy meal choices. NB: Passengers were not able to self-serve food unless it was a garnishing item.  This did not slow the process down at all, in fact it was reassuring in that they were obviously doing all to reduce the risk of germs and norovirus.

Breakfast and lunch in the Lido was no different.  A great selection to be had, everything you’d expect on a Premium cruise ship.

Dedicated Italian & Asian dishes during lunch time were very popular, particularly Asian.  People queued relentlessly for Malay, Indian, Chinese & Indonesian curries and other delicacies.  It was such a shame Asian food was only available in the Lido during lunch and not dinner.  That said, the servery converted into a galley serving Canaletto (Italian) meals to a separated area of the restaurant at night.  A must try for everyone aboard HAL.

The Lido crew were fantastic.  Friendly to the end; couldn’t do enough for you.


Having checked out the choices in the Lido, we relinquished and decided to book the Pinnacle Grill for the first night.  Good choice too, instead of the usual $35 sup cost, we only paid $25 each; a special only available on the first cruise night.

It was delicious.  We both had the eye filet steak, cooked to perfection.  I considered the Presidents Cut ($59 on top of the $25/person) but it was massive… too much for me!

The restaurant’s setting is romantic.  Mood lighting, fresh flowers (which by the way also exists at very table in the Lido – Orchids!) and a lovely table setting.

null‘Was a little disappointed in our waiter but had a hunch we’d met him on Noordam before.  He wasn’t particularly attentive (and as we recollected – we could be wrong of course) but just put it down to a possible bad day for him somehow.

Despite that, I wouldn’t let it put you off trying Pinnacle Grill, even if only once.  Overall it was a very nice experience.


Night 2 we thought we should dine in the MDR and meet the people at our table.  It was a table set for 8, for 7 guests (one spare seat that was never removed)

Our fellow diners were a cheerful British group, ardent cruisers too.

They’d eaten in the MDR the night before and suggested it was ‘OK’.

You should note, most items on the menu are also available the same night at the Lido but of course dining a la carte does have a social aspect about it and we sure had a lot of laughs around the table.

We ordered from the menu and in a matter of short time our appetisers arrived.

6_Noordam Gourmet

Regrettably, the scallop dish I’d seen in the Lido wasn’t quite the same making of that that was presented to me.

As a second course I ordered a soup, it was awesome but again not very warm.

Looking toward the galley from which our meals were carried, we couldn’t have been furthest away.  Our table was literally 2nd to one further, probably half the reason our hot meals were cool.

Our main was also ‘iffy’ so one of the other guests raised it with the waiters (“That’s two nights now, our meals are cold and badly presented”).  The waiter appeared confused but took the feedback on board.  The restaurant manager dropped by and was also explained of the problem.

Night 3: totally different night!  Our two waiters interacted with us very differently and showed personalities of a far more professional service.  The food too was hotter, and better presented.  From there on in, the atmosphere in the MDR was a by far better one.

Our drink waiter had noticed we’d bring a bottle of Italian wine from Canaletto and it wasn’t long until he asked us why.  We told him we prefer Italian wine (especially the brand we were drinking) and that there wasn’t a suitable choice of Reds on the MDR wine menu.

He happily obliged and suggested he’ll have a bottle of our favourite wine waiting for us each night we plan to dine in the MDR.  Without ado, the other guests asked him to bring them one each of the same wine, each night, as well J

All in all, the MDR became a nice experience.  My honest opinion however is the menu could be a little more exciting.


At a $15/person surcharge it’s worth every cent.  Best Noordam dining experience in my opinion.

It was also near cold, I ate it nonetheless.

…and I have to say, the flavours were still delicious.

No other complaint…

7_Canaletto Menu

The Canaletto experience is outstanding and we actually began alternating between it and the MDR.

Food was authentic, service was excellent.

Dishes are walked a small number of steps between the galley and restaurant, they arrive hot and fresh.

Bright personalities, the crew smiled all the time – a credit to the restaurant manager and chefs.

A must-do!


Mexican – poolside was very popular from around 11am to 4pm as was the Terrace Grill for hamburgers, hot dogs and fries.  Fresh and certainly fills the spot.  A great excuse kicking the salads for a day and splurging J

Pizza was available in the Lido where the buffet is for a good part of the day & night, with freshly cooked pasta available made by the chef in front of you and you choose your own Ingredients.  Pizza toppings included Margarita, loaded pepperoni and two vegetarian options.  Both were superb but easy self-serve was more than tempting.

Ice cream parlours in the Lido also attracted the swarms; daily flavours included vanilla, strawberry and chocolate.  A four surprise rotated daily.  The pecan was excellent.

Ice tea, American lemonade, still water & ice were on tap all day every day.

Desserts in all restaurants were adequate ‘though they couldn’t seem to get the crème brulee right.  No sugar/no added sugar and flourless desserts were well catered for.  It was just a matter of ‘how much or how little should you eat?’

Expeditions Café was a great place to hang and enjoy your beverage.  Cappuccino was a mere US$2.95 and was worth it.  Pastries are free with the beverage of your choice.


Hygiene was an all-time priority aboard.  Hand dispensers were statically placed around the ship and like I said, for the most food was plated by crew.

Public areas were continually cleaned and fumigated, no stone left unturned.  Tables were always cleared immediately and wiped down; empty drink glasses also immediately collected by competent bar staff that were always keen to take you next order.

Our stateroom was cleaned adequately and always made fresh albeit to seemed to be at the end of the line sometimes waiting until well after lunch time for a make-up.

The ship shined.


The shops (duty free) were typical of what you’d expect on a cruise ship.  Clothing apparel, jewellery, perfumes etc, cigarettes and alcohol.

Noordam Shopping

Some would say same, same.  Specials/Sales were the main attraction, set up either in the gallery area or poolside.  Hats, handbags, woollen wraps, T shirts, shorts – selling out as Noordam prepares it’s relocation to Alaska.

Shop staff were polite and helpful.


Some had said the cruise lacked daily activities, one in particular, a duet type performance poolside.  I can’t say for sure this didn’t occur but I’d have to agree I didn’t see this and agree something was lacking on sea days.

We had the usual computer/device workshops, Bingo, Trivia, Digital workshops, Matinee movies, spa seminars etc but just seemed a little bland.  The Test kitchen however was excellent.

Noordam Digital WorkshopI attended the 2nd one having enjoyed the first, (was always a packed house), it was great to see how they test recipes and give tips as to how you can create these meals at home.


Noordam is renowned for her ability to put on a good show, and they did.

Cabaret, Broadway, comedy and the list goes on, all performed with outstanding results.

BB Kings, the ever popular on board Blues show is always a winner and this crew didn’t disappoint.  The great thing about it too is that the performers aren’t shy in having a chat with you, pre or post show.

The piano bar featuring Anna was another good stop-by.  All the songs from the 80’s and 90’s, along with a good number of more contemporary sets were enjoyed.


Ship security was discrete, but officers were often around.  They’d do their usual patrols but never once stand around.  They’re of course there at port disembarkation/embarkation; friendly and helpful.

Brought-on alcohol was earmarked and passengers were directed to a receiving desk where it was commandeered and then delivered to your stateroom on the last sea day along with any alcohol purchased on board.


The tenders still appeared new since replacement a year or two ago.  They’re modern, more comfortable than some however practical in both the cases of an emergency and port ferries.

Tenders are not suitable for some physically challenged person and wheel chairs may not be brought aboard.

The tender processes we underwent in Lifou, Dravuni Island and Mare were smooth.  On a ticket system, passengers were called to board in order.  Tenders generally ran ahead of schedule and open tenders (no ticket required) were called around 11am each day.

Noordam dravuni


Along with the tender ports above we visited Lautoka, Noumea & Vila.  These are typical South Pacific ports and you can usually find something new to do in most.

If you’re a cruiser that’s done it all, consider La Meridian Hotel for a BBQ seafood luncheon and use the pool and beach facilities while you’re there.  You catch the hop on-hop off bus there and back, very easy to get to.

In Vila we recommend a day (and lunch) at Erakor Island.  Erakor is a 4.5* island resort well worth spending a day at.  Get a taxi from the port (cost around $10/person) and have the driver come back at your nominated time to collect you.  TIP: pay the fare after the return journey.


Noordam is one for the person who likes to relax and sea days allow just that.

If you really, really want peace and tranquillity, try the cabanas in the retreat (at a cost).  Indulge and be pampered, read a book or just laze about.


As I’ve pointed out, crew were outstanding.  Everyone went out their way to at least say hello.  Others went beyond the call of duty; there wasn’t much they’d not do for you to ensure a happy cruise experience.

Overall, we rated our own experience

Noordam Rating

a great result for Holland America’s Noordam!

For more information about any of HAL’s ships, their itineraries and fares, please contact Cruisescene on 1800 678 555 or email

Now we want to cruise this ship in Alaska!!!


TAUCK EUROPEAN RIVER CRUISING ~ A delight, to say the least ~ By Brian & Donna Meads-Barlow


2_Map Rhine

Amsterdam to Basal & scenic Switzerland – August 2017

What an incredible and fully inclusive journey.  This concept of cruising is very different from that of ocean cruising, and for those wondering just how different, we hope our report will explain!

Let us kick off to say there are no waves!

Let us continue to say ‘There are NO hidden costs either’

Perfect kind of sums it up.

Rather than just arrive in Amsterdam to join our River Cruise, Tauck offers one night stay – aboard – pre cruise so we just had to get the feel of the city.  Like, who wouldn’t?  The city is vibrant; it’s a city with international culinary delights and one that buzzes all night.

Just being in Amsterdam was a highlight before we set off on our 10 day legendary Rhine River cruise PLUS Switzerland experience.


Let’s make one thing for sure before we give an account of our Rhine River Cruise, we chose Tauck (rather Tauck chose us) because we it was of combined-interest that we experience the very best cruise operator in the region.  Best, as in – No. 1; we were aware of their very fine reputation.  And seemingly that’s the score; particularly that we (Cruisescene) have booked many guests aboard Tauck where each customer has returned and provided the most positive feedback.


Our Tauck arranged transfer to the vessel was at the airport waiting for us.  A Mercedes Benz sedan; a friendly driver with all the info you’d want to know about Tauck and Amsterdam.

Our luggage, on arrival, was swiftly moved to our stateroom and even though we boarded early, around 9am, it’s nice to know that Tauck has arrival information for their guests and staterooms are prepared accordingly.



It was huge, comparable to a medium sized bedroom in a city apartment.  When I say huge, it was larger than expected, much larger than a standard-type cabin aboard an ocean liner.

Hanging and draw space was adequate, certainly for any cruise up to around 14 or so days.

The bathroom was galley-type: long and narrow but the shower was full size, in fact larger than some at home (was so nice to shower and not feel like you’re in a capsule)

The stateroom had all the mods & cons; flat screen TV, radio, alarm clocks and did I mention space?  It had a table and chairs and small sofa.  And truly, that’s all you need!


Amsterdam is called the Venice of the North, its network of canals winding through a romantic historic centre of cobbled streets, gardens, shops, cafes, and wonderfully preserved Dutch Renaissance architecture.

We boarded a canal boat in the morning for a tour of the city from the inside (the best way to see it) along 17th century waterways lined with trees, gabled merchant houses, and vibrant urban life. Our tour included a visit to the Rjiksmuseum, a national museum of art and history, home to masterpieces of the Dutch Golden Age, including Rembrandt’s Night Watch and Vermeer’s The Milkmaid.

After lunch aboard the riverboat, we had time to explore the city on our own; Amsterdam’s urban landscape is intimate, laid-back, and made for exploring, brimming with shops, art museums, coffeehouses, and eclectic architecture.

Evening dining was aboard Tack Grace as we set off toward the Rhine River.


On this 10-day trip including a 7-night river cruise Amsterdam is the starting point, as you follow the romantic Rhine on its winding journey from the Netherlands to the Swiss Alps.

Amsterdam – Köln (Cologne) – Rudesheim – Stuttgart – Colmar – Basal (and Switzerland)

Along the way, we experienced a Tauck Exclusive evening of dinner and music at Schloss Ehreshoven, a visit to the windmills of Kinderdyke, and much more.


Day one, having set off from Amsterdam, we arrived the windmills of Kinderdyke.  This tour included a farm visit and we were divided into three groups; 2 coaches to the windmills and one; to the farm.  Later in the day the two groups were scheduled to swap attractions.  We were part of the two-coach group, attending the windmills first… until the skies opened up.

I have never seen rain like it!  Lightning struck and thunder roared.  Luckily, we still got to see the working windmills but we made a decision to skip the farm given most of the Netherlands is well below sea level.  But it was our choice, half of the guests continued the farm and battled the weather albeit the sun was shining an hour after?

Once we boarded our river boat; thawed out and showered etc, the night ended after a beautiful meal as the vessel continued her journey from the canal toward the Rhine River.

NOTE: The first couple of days or so is just a canal.  As picturesque as it is, the Rhine River is still two or so days ahead with our first stop being Cologne.  Cologne was the first magical port on the Rhine River, a beautiful city and one alone that’s make the whole river cruise worthwhile!


QATAR – Dynamic~Desert~Distinguished!

Qatar Airways to DOHA, Educational Report by Ana Garcia ~ Donna Barlow Travel Group  CONTACT  Phone +61 2 9888 5555     Issued: February 2018

QR12 FEBRUARY 2018:  I had the privilege of joining Qatar Airways Educational trip to Doha last February 12 – 16, 2018. We departed at around 3:55PM in Sydney aboard QR907 (Boeing 777-300ER) in Economy class and arrived at Hamad International Airport, Doha at 11:30PM (approximately 15 hrs and 35 minutes travel time). The check-in process at Sydney Airport is fairly quick. The ground agents as well as the cabin crew were wonderful! Before deplaning, we got the chance for a quick inspection of the business class cabin too.


3_QRTHE HOTEL: Mondrian Doha | West Bay Lagoon, Doha, Qatar | Tel: +974 4045 555

  • 211 Bedrooms and 59 suites over 24 floors
  • 2000 square meter ballroom and with its own 24K gold elevator
  • Restaurants, Bar and Spa inside Mondrian

Since we’re a big group (40 total!); there were some delays at the immigration as well as our transit from the airport to the hotel. We finished check-in at around 2:30AM. The hotel location was a bit far from the city center (maybe 20-30minute drive) but it is still surrounded by shops and restaurants. The newly built Lagoona Mall is the closest.4_QR5_QR6_QR6_QR-

13 FEBRUARY 2018: This was the City Tour Day! Everyone’s excited to see what Doha can offer. First, we went to “The Pearl”. It’s similar to “The Palm in Dubai” but maybe a bit smaller. The name “The Pearl” was chosen because the island is being built on one of Qatar’s previous major pearl diving sites. Qatar was one of the major pearl traders of Asia before the Japanese introduced cheaper more affordable pearls just before Qatar’s oil bloom.

Then we went to the “KATARA” (Cultural Village). One of the highlights is the Katara Amphitheater. It’s a crafted balance between the classical Greek theatre concept and Islamic features. Completed in the year 2008 (3275 sqm) but officially opened on December 11, 2011 with a spectacular concert by legendary Vangelis and featuring world-renowned stars like Angela Gheorghiou, Roberto Alagna and Jeremy Irons.8_QR8_QR-9_QR9-QR-


Above: MIA – Feature over 14 centuries of Islamic Art  & Inside the Museum of Islamic Art

Our last stop was the “SOUQ WAQIF” (The standing Market) – Perceived to be the only lasting area in Doha that retains an authentic feel in reference to its commerce, architecture and culture. Dates back at least a hundred years and was renovated in 2006 to conserve its traditional Qatari architectural style.             11_QR11_QR-

We head back to the hotel around 6:30PM to get ready for dinner hosted by Grand Hyatt Hotel and Villas (Box 24010, Doha, Qatar) just opposite of Mondrian Hotel.

  • 249 guestrooms and suites, 91 villas (all with terraces and balconies)
  • Located on the Shoreline of West bay Lagoon District.
  • Bars and Restaurants (from Authentic Thai, US West Coast, Italian and more)

I was not able to take photos but I guarantee that the hotel is magnificent! I enjoyed our dinner very much. It was a full-course dinner of Turkish/Arabic cuisine.12_QR

14 FEBRUARY 2018:

Desert Safari Day!!! We’re all expecting a four-wheel drive but instead they’ve assigned 2 monster buses to accommodate all 40 of us. It might not be as thrilling as the 4×4 but we still had so much fun! We had our buffet lunch at the Regency Sealine Camp. It was a combination of Arabic and Western cuisine.

  • Sealine Camp – 1 hour away from the City of Doha
  • A luxury desert camp and Beach resort (where desert meets the sea!J)
  • Offers range of activities (dune bashing with 4×4, quad biking and camel riding)
  • Fully Air conditioned Room equipped with 5 star amenities.13_QR14_QR14_QR-After lunch break, we went to the camel riding site (a short drive from the Sealine Camp). I think it’s around $5 – $10 per camel ride. The guides were very friendly and the camels were all well-groomed. You can also take as many photos as you want for free!

    Prior to our Desert Safari trip, we had a quick inspection of the Mondrian loft Suite, the Black Orchid (Club), the Hudson Tavern, the Morimoto Restaurant by Chef Masaharu Morimoto, the Walima Restaurant (Qatari and Middle-Eastern cuisine) and the pool area. We were also told that last January 26, Mondrian Hosted yet one of their biggest Night Party with Paris Hilton at the Black Orchid. Our dinner for this night was hosted by Mondrian at the CUT restaurant by Wolfgang Puck.16_QR17_QR15 FEBRUARY 2018: The entire morning was for our leisure while waiting for our pick-up from the hotel to the Airport. Since our transfer was not until 4:30PM. We went to visit one of Doha’s favorite Malls – The Doha Festival city. After strolling around and checking out bargains, I can say that prices were comparable to what we have here in Australia and same as with food but if you’re into pearls and gold, then it’s a lot cheaper in Doha!

    Our flight was scheduled at 8:15PM (QR908 | Airbus A380-800 Jet). Everyone’s hoping to get upgraded to business class but I think only 2 got confirmed from our group as the flight was full. It was still a great flight for me. A380’s economy seats were wider and relaxing. We arrived back to Sydney at around 6:45PM on 16 February (approximately 14 hrs and 30 minutes travel time).18_QR

    I am very grateful to Qatar Airways and Donna Barlow Corporate Travel for this amazing experience. Thank you so much for extending the invitation to me. I truly had a wonderful time! Ana Garcia.jpg


    1/111 Wicks Road; North Ryde NSW 2113 Ph +61 2 98885555 Toll-Free 1800 678 555

Windstar Croatia August 2017 By Donna & Brian Meads-Barlow at CRUISESCENE

Some Cruise experiences I get excited about and then along comes a spectacular Cruise experience that stands out like something REALLY Special.  This time I share our Windstar Experience!  And, when I say REALLY special – Windstar is just exactly that!  Before I go on, I want to be clear about my definition of SPECIAL – it’s different, extraordinary, casual luxury and from the moment you board a Windstar cruise – you can’t help but feel the difference!

So we boarded Windstar in the Port of Venice in late July 2017.  Check-in and boarding at 1pm and that is exactly as it happened.  We arrived at Basillio San Marco Port by Valporetta booked with my local contact Andrew who I have been using for many years for our Cruisescene clients and for our own family.

Check-in was quick with a presentation of cruise dox and passports and before we knew it we were on our way down the pathway to board Windstar.  As we looked up we were mesmerised by this sensational 4 mast yacht with a staircase of around 20 steps that led us to meet Captain Belinda and Hotel Director Henri who welcomed Brian and I and in fact ALL the guests as we boarded this sensational 300 foot beautiful yacht.  A quick security photo as we boarded and staff guided us into the Lounge where we were presented with a welcome glass of champagne and given a number of papers for completion registering our credit card, indemnity signoff for the water sports and a recap of our departure transfer requirements.  The whole procedure took around 15 minutes, all very casual and well organised.  Once we completed our paperwork, we proceeded to one of a number of cruise staffs who eagerly waited to completed our check-in process and handed us over to another staff member who explained the Spa options and drink packages available (US$42 pp p day wine only) or the Captains choice US$52 pp p day which included all drinks from the bar by glass up to the value of US$12 per drink – which pretty much included a fabulous variety of wines – not just your standard house-wine.   We opted for the Captains Choice package happy to know that whatever we drank on-board would not blow out more than US$420 each for our 8 night cruise – I consider this excellent value!   Another great inclusion of Windstar is that ALL non-alcoholic beverages are inclusive in your fare – so if you are not a lover of wine, beer or spirits – rest assured you can still enjoy unlimited mocktails and soft-drinks at no additional cost.  The same goes for the coffee lovers – all your coffee and teas are also included in your Windstar fare.   I should also mention here that there is also an optional unlimited Laundry package that you can purchase on-board at around US$112 for the 8 night cruise and Internet packages are also available on-board (unlimited for around US$240 which I consider expensive) – however I recommend you connect to the Wi-Fi in ports which is mostly free and recommend you refrain from using Wi-Fi when you are on-board.


OK, so we are now all checked in and a happy smiling crew member eagerly awaits to escort us to our cabin. #202 – located at the very rear next to the gym and the Marina entry on the first level of cabins which is below the main-deck where the lounge, reception, shop, library and evening dining restaurant “Amphora” is on.  Our cabin attendant Anto advises Brian and I that we are lucky as #202 is a special cabin with more room than most cabins.  I wonder to myself what the noise and movement might be like at the very back of the ship… as it turns out – we loved our cabin and I would definitely recommend this cabin to anyone looking to cruise on Wind Star!

All the cabins are essentially the same on-board with the exception of the Suite – which is cabin #107 – down a deck again and midship – this is definitely a larger cabin but really very much the same as the other cabins.IMG_7662.jpg

I noticed immediately the space in the cabin and commented to Brian how fabulous the layout of the cabin was with plenty of space, loads of cupboard space, a full set of drawers and large closet with hanging space and plenty of coat-hangers.  A table that opened out for 4 to dine in cabin if desired, more cupboard space under the seat and in overhead lockers.  Little things that really make a difference like the phone beside the bed at easy reach, special lighting if you want to read and storage next to the bed for books and cosmetics.  Fresh water is replaced twice a day with beautiful crystal glasses that sit in a holder so they don’t move; The bathroom is well laid out with a large shower, central vanity area and toilet – open plan, yet spacious.  Loccatani shampoo, conditioner, soap, bath-gel and moisturiser which is replaced daily or whenever you need.  Cabins also have a fully stocked minibar, hairdryer, bathrobes and a full Bose sound system with dock and DVD connection to a large flat-screen TV.  I say it’s the little things that make a huge difference.  I have to say I was really impressed by the layout of the Windstar cabins – lots of thought has cleverly gone into the design of these cabins.


Candles is an on-deck outdoor dining experience not to be missed!  Every cabin has the opportunity to book Candles at least once whist on-board.  If you are in the suite, you can choose to dine at Candles whenever you want with no pre-booking requirement – you just have a guaranteed table anytime you like.  All other cabins are required to book in advance.  Brian and I were lucky because we managed to dine at Candles on 3 nights out of our 8 night cruise.

24/7 room service dining at no additional cost is also available with a fairly extensive menu.  Windstar crew aim to please so if there is anything special you want, they will certainly do their best to accommodate your desired taste-buds.  Another great dining option is if you miss out on Candles and you really want to dine outdoors, you can always request room service to be delivered up on the top deck 5 which is beautiful and overlooks the Candles restaurant.

The Main dining for evening is called Amphora – a lovely spacious dining room with a great selection.  You can choose to dine anytime you like between 7 and 9pm.  Again the menu is flexible so if there is something you really want for dinner, the crew will do their best to accommodate you.

Breakfast and lunch is on deck 3 at the Veranda in-door and out-door restaurant.  If it’s too hot you can always choose to dine inside in the cool air-conditioning or outside on the Veranda which always has spectacular views of the port you are in.  Again the selection of gourmet delights is fabulous and fresh produce and a chef is on-hand to create wonderful mouth-watering dishes.  Veranda has both a buffet and ala-carte dining menu – so plentiful, fresh and totally yummy!

And if you prefer to dine for breaky around the pool, there is a continental breakfast station open from 6am to 11am.  If you miss lunch then you can be sure to grab a sandwich, fruit and other delights out on the deck from 3pm.

At around 5:30pm each night the crew bring around pre-dinner hors deauvres – another spoil exclusive to Windstar.

Windstar host a fabulous on-deck barbeque night which is plentiful with every delicious treat from caviar to lobster, a massive paella, barbequed meats, amazing salads, I always say “it’s the little luxuries that makes all the difference”!

Sail away – Windstar have a “signature” sail away experience.  I am not going to say more than that so as not to spoil the experience.  I will however say it is extraordinary and memorable and something to truly look forward too!

Entertainment – each night at around 6:45pm in the lounge the Voyage Director who is a wonderfully entertaining Ukraine born named “Pavlo” gives a comprehensive port talk accompanied by a visual presentation and runs through the Geographic’s, history and various options for upcoming shore excursions.  Brian and I did not book on any of the Windstar run shore excursions as I considered them quite expensive.  Additionally, in each of the Croatian ports there was always plenty to do locally.   Each evening in the lounge from 8pm on, there is a live singer and DJ with dancing.  There is also a small Casino on-board and for those who like to gamble, they also have some tournaments.  Mid ship on the main deck there is also a very good library with plenty of destination books and a full menu selection of DVD’s available on loan that you can pick up at the reception.  If you are into board-games there are plenty of games from Scrabble to cards, monopoly and others available on loan from the library.  Windstar host an on-location “exclusive experience” which is included in every Windstar cruise.  Our included experience was in Dubrovnik where they took us to an amazing lookout at the top of the hill at sunset with cocktails, tasting of local Croatian delicacies and a folklore concert of dancing and singing.

One of the great things about Windstar is the LONG days in port.  This is reflective in the price and you have to really consider this when you purchase a cruise – the longer you are in port the more time you have to explore and cruises that are much cheaper don’t spend as long in port.  To give you an idea – we arrived in Dubrovnik at 8am and cruised out of Dubrovnik at 11:30pm.  Such a wonderful experience to have the opportunity to visit a city by day and by night and still have plenty of time to relax in the heat of the day around the pool or out in the open-ocean Windstar Marina.

Marina – in most ports Windstar drop down the back of the yacht and out comes a fabulous selection of water toys including kayaks, longboards and a tender speed boat for water-skiing when the weather is right.  The water skiing doesn’t happen daily, however the open marina happens in most ports and it’s a wonderful experience to swim in the open waters.  All included in your Windstar experience!

Transport guide for Venice

My colleague Andrew runs a Very efficient and probably the most cost effective transfer operation if you are visiting Venice – Be sure to book with Cruisescene to enjoy Andrew’s services.

San Lucia Train station to the Island (San Marco) EUR60 is a bargain and around EUR70 is still a great price

San Marco or the Island to the Cruise Port is best by private Valporetta, takes about 20 minutes and costs around EUR90 one way

If you are arriving in Venice by train and going directly to the port – you are best to arrive or depart from Venice Mestre station (20 mins from the port) road transfer at around EUR45.  Mestre is a good place to overnight prior to a cruise if you are not wanting to go into the island of Venice and just want to overnight before or after a cruise from Venice

If you are arriving at San Lucia Train Station going to the port or leaving from San Lucia Train – expect to pay EUR120 on a Valporetta boat transfer – hence my reason for recommending Mestre as the better connection in or out of the Venice Port.

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