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Stuart – Holland America Line Mexican Riviera Cruise

I just returned from a 7 night Mexican Riviera Cruise on Holland America from San Diego. And wow wow wow is all I can say.

Stuart Ingram

The 7 night itinerary has 3 days at sea and 3 days on land. Ports of call are Puerto Vallarta, Los Cabos/Cabo San Lucas/Mataclan. All very different and interesting places to see.

A great way to start or end your cruise is a stay at the US Grand Hotel San Diego staying on our Signature rate exclusive to Destination HQ.

There was a really good mix of guests onboard. Lots of USA families. HAL cater really well for kids with CLUB HAL and the kids all seemed to have a blast.

What is there to like about HAL?

  • great mid size ships (15 in the fleet) ranging from 800 to 2300 passengers
  • largest balcony cabins in their class
  • superb food
  • faultless service 
  • 6 different dining options to chose from and none ever seemed too busy 
  • HAL have aligned themselves with some really cool brands such as Americas Test Kitchen, BBC Earth, Billboard records. Makes for a really fun cruising experience.
  • The show each evening was a countdown of the Billboard record charts.

I have to say HAL does cruising so much better than many of their competitors – they have been doing it for 145 years and it shows. Service throughout was just faultless. Crew are all Indonesian or Philippino and deliver first class service at all times. I thoroughly recommend this cruise to anyone. I just loved every minute of it.

Stuart Ingram

Managing Director Destination HQ

Stuart was the winner of the NTIA award for Best Travel Agency Manager in Australia in 2017. Stuart has vast industry experience having worked in the airline, wholesale and retail travel agency sectors of the industry. Stuart loves to travel and to share his excitement and passion for travel with anyone he meets. Having travelled to Europe, Africa, Asia, South America, North America and throughout Australia/NZ, Stuart has a wealth of knowledge. His favourite destinations are London, Paris, San Francisco, New York City, Berlin, Tokyo, Hong Kong and the Maldives. He has also cruised with Oceania, Viking, Uniworld, Avalon, Seabourn, Silversea, Holland America, Windstar and Celebrity Cruises – just to name a few!

Contact Stuart to book your next holiday stuart@destinationhq.com.au

Kate – A Journey through Sri Lanka

Kate Traynor

I just got back from a wonderful 11 nights in Sri Lanka. This country really exceeded all of my expectations.

I loved it and can’t wait to return!!

I was a bit nervous on recommending Sri Lanka before,  but now I know it really is a country for everyone!

Its so untouched which blew me away.

Its clean! The people of Sri Lanka thrive on having nice homes and having jobs so very little homeless people. 95% are educated, and it felt very safe for travelling.

Sri Lankan Airlines 

  • Easy check in
  • 2-4-2 configuration
  • Bright blue interior, a bit old looking
  • Seats the seat pitch is a bit off so your neck sits forward. Uncomfortable if you were sitting the whole time, so good to get up and stretch during the flight.
  • Staff friendly and attentive
  • I had a row to myself at the back of the aircraft as it was an empty flight
  • New plane A330 started in October, so these things may improve
  • Drink service came about half an hour after take-off. 
  • They walked up the aisles to offer and then came back down and offered a second round to everyone which was good
  • Food service was efficient. 
  • The chicken vegetable curry was delish.

Negombo- little Rome

  • 35 minutes from Colombo
  • A lot of tourists leave Colombo straight away and stay in this area
  • Portugal Dutch and Italian background
  • Many churches around

Anuradhapura

  • Visited local fish, fruits and veg markets
  • The Home of the Ancient Kingdom- temples
  • TIP when you know you are going to be visiting temples
  • Wear thongs as you have to enter temples in bare foot
  • Take a light scarf and wear something that covers your knees

Ulagalla resort, Uga – Beautiful resort

  • 5 star luxury resort- private standing villas with private plunge pool
  • I would recommend a minimum of 3 nights stay here – from this area in Sri Lanka you can go and visit Sigiriya Rock.
  • Activities include bike riding, horseback riding, archery, safaris, spa treatments, Helipad on land
  • Restaurant with Aussie Sri Lankan chef – This hotel restaurant by far had the best Sri Lankan food I had all trip
  • Al la carte style breakfast which was also 10/10

Dambulla – We stayed at 2 different hotels in this area.

The Amaya Resort

  • 4 star hotel on the lake
  • Beautiful open space with lots of greenery.
  • Large rooms – basic Sri Lankan style rooms but great for families
  • Big pool and good bar/restaurant area
  • Good buffet breakfast with lots of variety

Fresco Water Villas

  • This was the only 3 star hotel we stayed at in Sri Lanka and you can definitely tell the difference between a 3 star and a basic 4 star. 
  • I wouldn’t be comfortable putting my clients in a 3 star property in Sri Lanka. 
  • The staff were all really nice but the rooms were smelly, water pressure wasn’t great, insects in rooms etc. 
  • This hotel is often used for groups. When 2 x 50 seated buses arrived at 5pm there was no chance of getting on the Wi-Fi. T
  • The rooms are very close to the lobby, pool and restaurant so very noisy.

Sigiriya Rock – Highlight of my trip

Make sure this is done first thing, this is because of heat and crowds. You will need your passport on this day for valid identification. Surreal moment climbing the rock. Magical views and so much history. It’s so much more than a rock which I was unaware of.

Takes about 1.5 hours to do the whole climb and back again.

Village Tour

A fun tour that I would recommend. Consists of catamaran tour on the lake, meet the village people and do a cooking lesson- eat a local cuisine.

Santani Wellness Resort – Kandy area

  • This hotel is my everything.
  • I love the whole concept of this Wellness Resort.
  • Min 7 nights stay (there was a lady here who was on her 14th night when we arrived. She was practically floating she looked so relaxed and calm)
  • Meet a Doctor on arrival to chat about what you want to get out of your stay
  • Based on what you want to achieve- detox, caffeine, alcohol, weight loss etc
  • Chef & Doctor prepare a meal plan for you
  • Includes yoga and meditation twice a day, nature walks between 4-24km long, thermal pools, 3 course breakfast, 3 course lunch, 4 course dinner.
  • Amazing Day Spa. Treatments can be included based on your package.
  • Client view rooms from $650USD per night
  • 1.5 hours to Kandy
Welcome to Santani Wellness Resort

Kandy – Cool city to visit once

  • Busy loud city surrounded by the lake
  • Cute houses and guest houses
  • Famous for the Tooth Temple
  • I would recommend 2 nights max here
  • You can also base yourself and do the rock from Kandy

OZO Hotel- 4 star

  • Clean, Large hotel. Many groups stayed there
  • 5 min drive in a tuk tuk to town
  • Rooms overlooking lake
  • Pool, bar, gym
  • Bunnik and Gate 1 Travel Groups were all staying here

Driving

On our drive to Nuwara Eliya we stopped at a Tea Planation.  It had amazing views of the tea plantations but I would do research into what Tea Plantation you visit. Tea Bush is where we visited and was very basic. 

There are tea plantations throughout Sri Lanka where you can help the women in the factories with their tea making process etc.

Tea was so yum- spent $100 on tea to take home! Also on this drive, we stopped at a herbs and spice market. I would also recommend this. I bought so much Chilli!

Nuwara Eliya 

I would say 2 nights here, depending on what time you arrive. This is where you do the Horton Plains Trek. It’s a 1.5 hour drive, trek for 2 hours and 1.5 hour back. Meant to be one of the best view points in Sri Lanka. We didn’t get to do it but I will go back to do this.

Train from Nuwara Eliya to Ella -3 hours

This is a must do! Everyone needs to experience this in their itinerary.

It’s only 80c for this ride.  You can just rock up at the station and hope you get a seat. For people who want a seat this needs to be booked about 2 months prior. You are amongst the locals, windows open. One side view is of the tea plantation fields and the other side is a rain forest.

Yala National Park

Home of the Leopards. Best time for Safari is between March-July. Do not visit in other months as you will see nothing on Safari!! Word from our Safari Guide!

Chena Huts

I stayed at Chena Huts…seriously check this place out. This is part of the Uga properties.

  • Defiantly need min 2 nights here
  • You would do one morning and then maybe an evening safari.
  • This property is located on the beach
  • 15 individual huts with private pools
  • Huge space but only allows max 2 people. 
  • For a family, they will allow another bed if child is under 14.
  • This property starts at like $1600USD per night.

Cheaper option in Yala which I was recommended is the Cinnamon Wild property. This is a 4 star on the beach and has its own Crocodiles. Pricing is from $250USD

Galle

Galle is a really cool town. I would stay here for 2-3 nights. Inside the Galle Forte there a restaurants, cafes, homeware shops. The beach is okay here but it is quite rough with lots of rocks.

You can either choose to stay in the Fort or outside. Staying inside the Fort I can imagine the properties being tiny. We stayed at a property called at the Amari which was about 5 minutes from town.

Beach front resort, 3 large pools. Rooms facing the beach. Large Balconies

Tips for Sri Lanka

  • Always have small cash on you- tipping is essential
  • Snacks for long car rides – some days we drove for 5.5 hours
  • Keep light pair pants in carryon luggage for visiting temples
  • Make sure you know that some guides will want to them to a Sari Shop, Gem Stone Factories etc along their way in the car. Just need to be firm with guide and say NO.
  • Sri Lanka requires a visa, online easy process 35USD

Kate Traynor

I started my career in travel in 2013, after studying Events and Tourism at University. I enjoy all aspects of the travel industry; from the amazing travel experiences and the beautiful people you meet along the way to the holidays you book and plan for your clients. I have travelled to Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, USA & Europe. My favourites would have to be Mexico and the Caribbean as I am such a beach lover, and would follow Summer around the world if I could. I also went on an African safari this year and it was incredible!

kate@destinationhq.com.au

Melissa – Sri Lanka Luxury, a Destination HQ small group journey

I escorted a Destination HQ small group journey in Sri Lanka.  We stayed in some of the most luxurious properties in Sri Lanka, and got to experience the beauty of this up and coming travel destination.

Melissa George

SRI LANKAN AIRLINES

Really impressed with this direct service between Melbourne and Colombo. Check in was relatively fast and efficient. They do offer a “bid for upgrade” function online, up to 36 hours before departure. Minimum bid on this sector was $750USD. Business class upgrade at check in was $850.00. Great to keep in mind!

The aircraft was clean and modern. Two hot meal services were served on the flight. I was impressed with the standard of the food. Throughout the flight water and other drinks were offered frequently.  In-flight entertainment was a touch screen and a great selection of new and old movies/tv shows were available.

Actual seat in economy was a bit uncomfortable due to a head rest that juts-out.

On arrival in Colombo we had the VIP express arrival booked. We still needed to line up at passport control, which took a long time (around 45 mins) but after this we were whisked away to a holding lounge, where we were presented with drinks and more food whilst they collected our baggage. We were then led out a back entrance straight to our van so skipped the whole arrivals chaos! 

Our Local operator was excellent throughout. Given that Sri Lanka loses 3000 people a year or road accidents, you need to ensure you have a safe driver – as well as a personable and knowledgeable tour guide..

GATEWAY COLOMBO AIRPORT

Only a 10 minute drive to the airport (Colombo city is 45 mins to an hour away) Really convenient for Melbourne passengers arriving in late. Nice hotel, modern, but nothing spectacular. Breakfast was nice, buffet style with an eggs station too.

ULAGALLA

Amazing, expansive resort central to Dambulla, Sigiriya and Anaradapura.

Gorgeous little bungalows (all with private plunge pools) scattered over hectares. There are golf carts available to get you around the resort, or you can use the bicycles provided. 

It is quite isolated, so guests need to eat within the resort. Food was outstanding! A great variety of Sri Lankan and Western dishes. They also offer activities like horse riding, kayaking etc.

We did the cooking class which was one of the highlights of the trip. We were given aprons to take home, a certificate and recipe book – all really nice touches 🙂 highly recommend this property!

THE KANDY HOUSE

This boutique property, which is 8km out of Kandy City, is a refurbished colonial homestead with only 8 rooms. Each room is named after a butterfly and no two rooms are the same.

Although the rooms are gorgeous, this hotel won’t suit everyone. I stayed in the BLACK RAJA suite, one of the largest, but it had a Tub sitting in the middle of the floor (not great in the middle of the night!) and there was no privacy at all in the bathroom.

The grounds of the hotel are beautiful. And the food was excellent.

TRAIN TRAVEL KANDY-HATTON 

Basic train but wonderful scenery through all the tea plantations. It’s about a 2.5 hour journey.

Be warned when booking this that reservations are very difficult to confirm (we only got tickets 3 days prior to departure despite it being booked months in advance) well worth the effort though!

CEYLON TEA TRAILS – NORWOOD BUNGALOW

Highlight of the trip. This place is truly heaven on earth!

Norwood is one of the largest properties with 6 bedrooms. I had the master suite “Hazel” and it was incredible! This property is all inclusive and has its own Butler, chef etc 

Each day the chef comes out to discuss possible menus for the day. The food was top notch with lots of breakfast selections, 3 course lunch and dinner and an afternoon tea option too.

There are lots of walks available around the area, as well as mountain biking, kayaking etc for those who like to be active. We did a tour of the tea factory and learnt about the process of tea making, which was very interesting.

We also did a beautiful walk through a local village and up through the plantations themselves – another highlight 🙂

GALLE FORT

Historically significant walled fort on the South Coast of Sri Lanka. Has a very “hipster” vibe inside with plenty of trendy eateries and some shopping.

Enjoyed our time here at Taru Villa’s. I loved the walking tour around the fort, which was both educational and hilarious, with Shanjei. Definitely book this for your if you have a chance!

I also loved meeting a Red Hill boy who has set up a boutique guest house and coffee bar, also within the fort. Really great drip coffee (Vietnamese style) and iced tea during the day and cocktails and live music of an evening. It’s called THE PRINCE OF GALLE – they don’t have a website but you can check out some info here

Definitely worth a visit if you  are in the area!

The accommodation was a private villa inside the fort itself. Wasn’t my favourite property on the itinerary but still lovely, all the same.

COLOMBO

We were lucky enough to stay at Uga Escapes here – a beautiful boutique property that offered sanctuary from the busy city!

Only 11 suites (all very large in size with a lovely bathroom) – amazing, personal service and food to die for. Really nice pool, too – and one of the few properties I stayed at with a gym!

One of the best meals of the trip was at their in-house restaurant – worth booking even if you aren’t staying here.

Other places we can recommend for dining:

httpss://www.paradiseroad.lk/gallery_cafe/

httpss://www.facebook.com/bailliestreet.merchants/

https://parkstreetmews.com/

About Melissa 

I began my career in the travel industry in 2005. In my time I have travelled to nearly every continent: Asia including Bali, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong and China; USA & Canada; South Pacific including Tahiti, Fiji, New Zealand and Vanuatu; Africa including South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana and Europe. My favourite destinations are New York City or Cape Town; both vibrant, chic, modern cities with lots to do and yummy food to eat! I also specialise in family travel, recently returning from my own multi-generation holiday at Club Med Kani, Maldives!

melissa@destinationhq.com.au

 

httpss://www.facebook.com/DestinationHQ/videos/293220754659081/

Vanessa – Luxury Cruising with Ponant

Vanessa Whittaker

I travelled to Bergen, Norway to board Ponant’s brand new vessel MS Le Champlain.  It is the newest vessel for Ponant and is a small luxury ship up to 184 passengers.

I absolutely loved the ship! It was not over the top, just the right amount of relaxed luxury, with a Scandinavian feel.

The food was excellent, French influenced, but plenty of choice if you preferred something else.

“As the only French cruise company, Ponant is an ambassador of the ‘French Touch’ around the world. With French crew, discreet service, refined cuisine and partners with excellent track records, we do our utmost to maintain our unique cruising philosophy.” – Ponant

The facilities were first class, heated outdoor pool, gorgeous sauna, fitness centre, yacht spa.

“Le Champlain has many common areas that are designed and equipped to meet all of your needs while preserving the intimacy of each passenger.” – Ponant

They have the first submarine lounge in the world – the Blue Eye which is fabulous and a unique feature. The Blue Eye lounge has 2 giant windows for viewing marine life. Sounds of marine animals will come through into the lounge as well! How cool….

The highlights for me were the destinations themselves and the scenery along the way which was absolutely breathtaking. I had so many WOW moments. Geiranger and the Briksdal Glacier were absolutely incredible.

About Vanessa

I started my career in travel in 2001. Some of my favourites places visited are Vietnam, Cambodia, Fiji , Bali, and the Greek Islands. I spent my honeymoon travelling through Vietnam and loved Hoi An a charming little town with a relaxed atmosphere and fabulous food. With two young children we enjoy family holidays in particular Bali and Fiji for the great weather, family friendly resorts and convenience of being not too far away!

E-Mail:  vanessa@destinationhq.com.au

httpss://www.facebook.com/DestinationHQ/videos/184585122417760/

Holly: Culinary Tour Of California

This year I was lucky enough to join a culinary tour of California, which proceeded to unveil many hidden treasures in and around Los Angeles.

We started by flying with United Airlines, sampling their new Dream Liner and Economy Plus Seating – there is no need to fly economy again when the extra seat and leg room was such a minimal additional cost.

Downtown Los Angeles proved to be a real treasure, contemporary, clean, safe and very easy to navigate.  An absolute must is to dine at the Commissary, showing off the massive shift in LA toward the “farm to fork” style dining.  Then of course we only had to take the lift up to our rooms at The Line Hotel.  Waking up and looking out on the Hollywood sign was very cool experience, and the rooms were very funky.  The Line also had great coffee and cold pressed juices – who would have thought!

Many of us have walked the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame, but have you dined where the famous did nearly 100 years ago?  The incredibly stylish Musso and Frank Grill, with its red leather booths and mahogany bar was a regular to the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Munro, serving up the best steak (and martini’s) in town.

Disneyland is an obvious choice for many travellers, but did you know you could experience fine dining in a theme park!  The beautiful, peaceful Carthay Circle was inspired by the theatre  where Walk Disney showcased Snow White.   The contemporary menu was amazing, and away from the crowds where you can enjoy the nightly parade go by, before of course joining in on the World Of Colour.

Enough action was had by now, so off to the pristine Temecula Valley we went.  Not only home to world class wineries and 6 top golf courses, it also boasts title of USA’s best Casino – Pachanga!!

We met the charming Bill Wilson whilst lunching at Wilsons Creek Winery, this place was beautiful and the food and wine were to die for – I particularly enjoyed the famous “Yes Dear” Chardonnay!

Temecula Valley was a real highlight, if you can spare a couple of days whilst transiting or visiting LA please try to fit this in.  Our accommodation at Temecula Creek Inn was outstanding, and the whole area was very picturesque and relaxing.  We noticed again that shift to “farm to fork” dining, with a major focus on home grown and sustainably raised meats in the award winning Cork Fire Kitchen.

Only an hour away from Temecula, we headed back to the coast, to San Diego – another wonderful surprise.  We explored farmers markets, the USS Midway, drove our own speedboats across the vast San Diego Harbour.  La Jolla proved to be another hidden treasure, we dined at Georgias Roof Top, overlooking the spectacular Pacific Ocean – it was truly breathtaking!

Our journey was coming to an end, but not before visiting Coronado, a small island off San Diego – I urge you all to google search The Del Coronado – words cannot describe how amazing this 18th century luxurious resort is.  Perched on one of the worlds’ most beautiful beaches, this resort was pure luxury, offering fine dining, private beach front cottages, and many activities including an ice skating rink set up in front of the beach to operate during their winter months.

My journey has certainly changed my perspective of visiting LA – there is just so much more to do than Santa Monica Pier and Anaheim, I urge you all to find a few extra days and see more of what Southern California has to offer.

 HOLLY.Commissary Restaurant at The Line Hotel                                                        The Commissary Restaurant at The Line Hotel

Jess: Avalon Waterways River Cruising

AVALON WATERWAYS are extremely well organised with their arrival process, day tours and departure. Each time you head off you are put into smaller groups and given water bottles to take away with you. You are given headsets which makes it much easier to hear and you don’t miss out on what the guides are saying. Avalon has 1 or 2 included tours each day plus additional tours to purchase if you are interested – for example to go out to Versailles. Each day is pretty busy which surprised me as I thought would be more leisurely paced.

The food was really good, with four courses each night for dinner and alcohol served with dinner too. They kept glasses topped up well throughout dinner.

They have a main dining room for breakfast, lunch and dinner and also a bistro option for dinner which offers a degustation option, max 20 guests so it’s a good idea to book when you get on the ship as this wasn’t on every night.

They do have a lift on board to accommodate those guests who need assistance.

They also cater very well for guests with food allergies and intolerance’s. We had a girl in our group who had food allergies and they were very accommodating, discussing food options for her every night and bringing gluten free bread in the morning.

I stayed in a category A stateroom and loved it as it offers a unique room configuration where the beds face looking out to the window which means you can lie in bed and get a great view! Beds were AMAZING!!

AVALON is a great product for those clients who are after a beautiful river cruise ship but don’t want to pay for the all-inclusive product (ie unlimited drinks and choices of shore excursions).  I would have noproblem recommending AVALON WATERWAYS to our clients wishing to cruise!jess avalon