August 14, 2017

Cruise with Silja Line between Helsinki and Stockholm

Sleek and sparkling white, the twin ferries of the Silja Line are more like cruise ships than passenger/car ferries plying the pristine waters between Helsinki and Stockholm and vice versa.

John Newton stepped aboard Silja Serenade and spent two nights sailing between the Finnish and Swedish capitals, including a six-hour whirlwind tour of Stockholm before re-joining to the ship for the return voyage.

Silja Serenade and Silja Symphony are the only vessels sailing the Baltic Sea with a ship length (142 metres), glass-roofed promenade in the heart of the ship, lined by smart shops and restaurants.

The 58,300-tonne sister ships were built 27 years ago, but you'd never guess their age as they look as elegant on the outside and they do on the inside. Each can carry more than 2800 passengers and have almost 1000 cabins – from standard to renewed deluxe and suites – with half the 40 cabins in Commodore class having balconies.

For an added touch of class, the Commodore lounge has men's and women's saunas.

According to Silja Line, which this year is celebrating its 60th year of operation, the new direction of its business lounges offer passengers the opportunity to work on board and use modern communication equipment. Each ship also features 24 conference rooms.

While their mind-boggling promenade is the eye-catcher, the on-board seven restaurants – some featuring mouth-watering Scandinavian seafood, especially in the award-winning Happy Lobster - plus world-class entertainment, giant spa and huge duty free shopping outlets, put them in a class of their own when it comes to ferry travel.

But it's not only the on-board facilities on the two Silja ferries that attract thousands of locals and tourists alike to both the Finnish and Swedish capitals. The ferries' weave their way around one the world's most spectacular archipelago's – the 6500 Aland islands - taking in breathtaking scenery on the 16-hour, 490-kilometre sailing between Helsinki and Stockholm.

The stunning island views from high on deck showcase the stylish getaway homes of many Swedes – and Finns - who spend their spare time away from their city jobs enjoying their national pastime - on the water.

Silja Serenade and Silja Symphony sail every day to and from Helsinki and Stockholm – even in icy waters during winter - that's when you'll sail through endless ice fields with jaw-dropping sculptures in the  pack ice,"The vessels are equipped with a strong ice class, which means we can sail all year round and are not hampered by ice," the company says.

Silj Line is a Finnish brand operated by the Estonian company – AS Tallink Grupp - which has a fleet of nine cruise ferries and four fast ro-pax vessels, including the new generation LNG-powered - Megastar. With seating for 2800 passengers, the Finnish-built 212-metre long vessel takes just two hours from Helsinki to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Megastar has the largest shopping mall on the Baltic Sea, with an area of 2800 square metres on two floors.

As well as the Helsinki-Stockholm and Helsinki-Tallinn ferries, the group also run ferries between Turku (Finland) and Stockholm and Stockholm-Riga and Stockholm-Tallinn.

For more details of prices and departure times, go to

Scandinavia's largest city, Stockholm - with its 750-year history and rich cultural life - is built on 14 islands connected by 57 bridges. Don't miss the Abba and Vasa museums.

Originally a fishing town, Helsinki's city centre is dominated by majestic cathedrals

Written by John Newton

Feature supplied:

Images: as Supplied

1.         Symphony

2.         Serenade

3.         Commodore Suite

4.         Junior Suite

5.         Happy Lobster Seafood Platter

6.         Atlantis Palace

August 08, 2017

Play and Stay in Uber Cool Brisbane

Delve into a serious calendar of internationally acclaimed arts, cultural and sporting events, discover some of the best eateries in the country and, says Helen Flanagan, check out two new hotels way beyond the pale.

Let's start bang in the middle of Brisbane where the buzz of creative things to do, is perpetually loud.

Take a dip in the eighth great man-made wonder of the world, Streets Beach at South Bank or just lay a towel on the sand in the sun; browse through art galleries known for hosting collections from the likes of Warhol to Lynch; catch the red CityHopper along the river; sing your heart out (softly) at shows such as Kinky Boots and Bodyguard at the Lyric Theatre; unbuckle your belts after eating your way around flash and fun cafes also food festivals; feel the crowd roar at an international rugby showdown; and for an exhilarating adventure, the Story Bridge Adventure Climb is a must, and one of only three such experiences in the world. It's a 2-hour unique journey up over the bridge's superstructure to the 80m summit with magnificent uninterrupted 360° views of Brisbane city, the river, mountain ranges and Moreton Bay Islands.

The Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art are like yin and yang – two distinct galleries equalling a perfect whole. So who is your favourite Marvel character? Regardless of whether you're #TeamCap or #TeamIronMan in the latest Avengers outing, there are so many elements of Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe you'll be geeking out for days. The exhibition at GOMA features more than 500 artworks, over 60 original costumes, 150-plus props and set pieces from the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok. You could say it's mighty.

Restaurants and bars? From top-draw Aria, Blackbird, Esquire, Stokehouse, GOMA Restaurant, Sake and Cha Cha Char to budget Asian and a motza trendy burger joints, there's something for everyone, even followers of Paleo. Capri by Fraser's Asana by Pete Evans, uses locally-sourced produce in its contemporary paleo-influenced menu. Not sure if the cocktails fit the brief but sure do the trick. The adjoining café using 'coffee scientists', The Sensory Lab is a favourite for business folk and Capri by Fraser guests.

Also impressive are the numerous distinctive design features, especially the historical nod to Folio Books in the lobby, and Australiana artwork in the over-generous designer suites. And who was the smarty-pants who thought of a DIY espresso martini, using the in-room Nespresso machine and nip of Frangelico?

Time to amp it up or just mix it up with the locals. Fortitude Valley is a contradiction in itself. It's raw, yet sophisticated; it's where elegance and style meet grunge and offbeat; and heritage-listed properties stand proudly alongside contemporary statements. The Valley, as it is affectionately known, was Australia's first dedicated entertainment district and continues to be a hive of activity. Live music thrives and international DJs are drawn to late-closing clubs.

The impressive Chinatown Mall is a hub of exotic Chinese supermarkets and eateries; around Brunswick and James Streets are a plethora of dining options from hatted restaurants such as Tartufo and Gerard's Bistro, chic bars Alfred & Constance, Harveys, Bar & Bistro and Cru Bar, and groovy cafes, to famous James Street Markets and Jocelyn's Provisions, an amazing patisserie, cake palace and the most more-ish parmesan biscuits ever.

Don't miss numerous elegant on-trend furniture designers and homewares' retailers, also the Emporium complex which channels a European village feel, has a classy hotel and head-turning boutiques such as Nat-Sui, with its audacious and totally sophisticated shoes. Fashionistas will also love James Street where exclusive, international and cutting edge local labels such as Camilla and Sass & Bide, are de rigeur.

Keeping it sassy is the new kid on the block, the repurposed warehouse development of  Sage Hotel James Street, next door to the revamped historic Queens Arms Hotel and James Street Cafe and Cellar, off the gallery-like hotel lobby. The light installation by designer Karim Rashid and artworks throughout are inspired by Binikinba-Ba, the aboriginal name for 'place of the land tortoises; and each designer guest room embraces the best of nearby suppliers such as pops of Dinosaur Designs and textiles from Mokum.

The Queensland capital is ever-changing. Always exciting, rather avant-garde and certainly world-class.

Capri by Fraser's Asana by Pete Evans uses locally-sourced produce in its contemporary paleo-influenced menu. Not sure if the cocktails fit the brief but sure do the trick.

Fast Facts:

Images: Helen and supplied

a. Street's Beach
b. © 2017 MARVEL
c. Capri
d. Paleo dessert
e. DIY Nespresso martini
f. Sage Hotel James Street
g. Story Bridge

August 01, 2017

Cruising to St Petersburg with Princess Anastasia

High Russian visa costs can be avoided by Australian tourists travelling on cruise ships, such as a grand old lady of the seas, from Helsinki to St Petersburg. John Newton took advantage of the no visa fee on a four day/three night sojourn from the Finnish capital across the Gulf of Finland to the stunning, historic Russian city.

The passenger/car ferry – MS Princess Anastasia – has been around for a long time, 31 years, in fact, since she was launched under the name Olympia, and operated between Stockholm and Helsinki for Viking Line.

The 2400-passenger ferry later operated as the Pride of Bilbao after being chartered to P&O European ferries, but after operating between Portsmouth and Bilbao between 2007-2010, the company closed the route.  She was sold to St Peter Line and made her first voyage from St Petersburg to Stockholm in September 2010.

British company – Select-A-Cruise – currently operate visa-free Helsinki-St Petersburg cruises, which feature two days in the Russian city after overnight voyages from and to Helsinki.

This year – until mid-December - there are two visa free options of four or six days, with one or three nights in a four or five-star St Petersburg hotel.

In addition, Select-A-Cruise will run a lower cost six-day tour on selected dates staying at a three-star hotel.

However, the schedule will be different in 2008 – starting March 28 – when it will offer a five-day/four night visa free tour, with two overnight stays on  Princess Anastasia and two nights in a St Petersburg hotel.

My four-day cruise/St Petersburg tour started with an overnight ferry journey from Helsinki and ended on day four, arriving back on Princess Anastasia in the Finnish capital.

From 360 euros per person – depending on the cabin category and hotel choice - the price includes the round trip ferry voyage, transfers to/from your St Petersburg hotel, one night in a four-star hotel, one full day of sightseeing with an English speaking guide and daily breakfast.

Included in the one day city tour are visits to Peter Paul Fortress and the incredible Hermitage museum (Winter Palace).

However, a pre-bookable optional full sightseeing day is available at an extra cost, with highlights including three breathtaking palaces, unrivalled art collections and, the last resting place of the Romanov's. The tour ends with a transfer to the ferry terminal for the cruise back to Helsinki.

St Petersburg was the cradle of the October Revolution, named Leningrad after the death of Lenin in 1924 and re-named St Petersburg after a citizen's vote in 1991.

Russia's cultural treasure trove is like an enormous museum – there are 500 palaces alone in St Petersburg - and you could spend many weeks in the city and not see all of it.

The former capital of Russia (from the early 1700s to 1918), St Petersburg has earned the name 'Venice of the North' because of the canals meandering around one of the world's most beautiful cities.

Onboard Princess Anastasia there are 834 cabins of different classes and price categories. The ferry, which can accommodate 840 cars, offers a wide range of entertainment featuring bars and restaurants, duty free shop, night club, spa, gym, cinema, beauty salon, casino and playroom for children.

For more details on the visa free cruises between Helsinki and St Petersburg, go to:

Travel Tips:

For Australians, the fee for a single Russian tourist visa is A$135 (processed within 10 business days, or A$270 for an expedited visa (processed in two business days).

Foreign tourists are not permitted to Russia independently without being hosted by an authorised Russian travel agency or hotel during the whole period of their stay. However, exceptions to this rule are cruisers who do not require a visa if the conditions below are met:

The overall period of their stay in Russia is for no more than three days (72 hours).
They stay overnight aboard their cruise ship, and
They go ashore only as a part of a group of passengers on an excursion organised by the cruise company.

Words and images: John Newton

Feature supplied by:


1. MS Princess Anastasia

2. Giant tapestries abound (Hermitage)

3. Hermitage Museum

4. St Isaac's Cathedral

5. Venice of the North

6. Hermitage Museum

7. Church on the Spilled Blood

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