Christmas in July celebrations often prompt thoughts of Christmas in Europe. River cruises that take in colourful markets in medieval squares, carol-singing, festive treats and mulled wine, ice rinks and snowy landscapes attract more winter cruisers every year. Although many festive market cruises are already fully booked there are still some spots left in November and December this year.
All the cruise lines we spoke to said it is best to book at least a year ahead, to lock in your preferred itinerary, date and cabin. Here's a selection of 2018 cruises you can book now, bearing in mind spaces are limited and lines may have other options still available.
APT's 15-day Magnificent Europe cruises (Budapest to Amsterdam, November 24 to December 8, and vice versa, December 8 to 22), plus land journeys in Germany that can be combined with cruises. See aptouring.com.au
Avalon's five-day Christmastime in Alsace and Germany cruise (Basel to Weisbaden, departing November 28); and two 13-day Blue Danube Discovery itineraries (Budapest to Prague, departing November 28 and December 12). See avalonwaterways.com.au
Crystal's eight-day Christmas Markets on the Danube (Nuremberg to Vienna and vice versa, departing December 2, 9 and 16); eight-day Christmas Markets on the Rhine (Basel to Cologne and vice versa, departing November 25 and December 2 and 9). See crystalcruises.com/river
Riviera Travel has availability on 11 departures of its four-night Christmas market cruises from December 3 to 18, round-trip from Cologne; see cruisetraveller.com.au
Scenic's eight-day Amsterdam to Zurich (departing December 8); 15-day Budapest to Amsterdam (departing November 21); and 21-day Prague to Paris (departing November 17). See scenic.com.au
Uniworld's eight-day Parisian Royal Holiday, round-trip from Paris on SS Joie de Vivre (departing December 6, 13 and 20); eight-day Classic Christmas Markets, from Nuremberg to Frankfurt and vice versa (departing December 1, 8 and 15). See uniworld.com
Viking's eight-day Danube Waltz, from Budapest to Passau and vice versa (departing December 7, 12,14 and 19); and 10-day Portugal's River of Gold, from Lisbon to Porto (departing December 7, 11, 14 and 18). See vikingrivercruises.com.au
If you're planning a winter river cruise for 2019, several lines still have special deals open for bookings for another few weeks. Avalon's fly free and solo offers are valid until July 31; APT has a range of deals valid until November 30; Scenic is offering free flights on all its river cruises of 11 days and more until August 31; Viking is offering free and $995 return flights on select cruises until July 31.
THE PORT Seattle, US
WHO GOES THERE Carnival, Celebrity, HAL, NCL, Oceania, Princess, Royal Caribbean, UnCruise Adventures.
WHY WE LOVE IT Washington State's biggest city is set on Puget Sound, surrounded by snowcapped mountains and evergreen forests – hence the nickname Emerald City. As well as being home to giant tech companies such as Microsoft and Amazon, it has a thriving music, arts and foodie scene. Seattle is a key departure port for Alaska cruises and UnCruise Adventures is based there.
TAKE A TOUR OR GO IT ALONE? Oceania and NCL ships dock at the Bell Street Pier Cruise Terminal at Pier 66, which is within walking distance of the main attractions – Pike Place Market, Seattle Aquarium, Seattle Great Wheel and the Space Needle. Other lines dock at Smith Cove Cruise Terminal at Pier 91, about three kilometres from Seattle's downtown area. Out-of-town tours include seaplane flights to the San Juan Islands; wine-tasting and craft brewery tours in Woodinville, about 35 kilometres from the city centre; The Future of Flight Aviation Center & Boeing Tour in Mukilteo, 40 kilometres north of Seattle; and spectacular Snoqualmie Falls, as featured in the cult TV show Twin Peaks, 46 kilometres northeast of Seattle.
MUST SEE Pike Place Market, the oldest farmer's market in the US and a great place to buy contemporary arts and crafts; Experience Music Project museum; Chihuly Garden and Glass, an amazing collection of Dale Chihuly's glassworks; the private non-profit Museum of Flight, which includes flight simulators among many interactive exhibitions.
MUST EAT Seafood, particularly salmon, Dungeness crab and Pike Place Chowder; Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese food; cream-cheese hot dogs.
NEED TO KNOW If you're heading to Alaska from Seattle, make sure you have a Canada visa or qualify under the Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA) to fly to or transit through Canada.
Two robot bartenders on Symphony of the Seas, the world's biggest cruise ship, serve 1000 drinks a day in the Bionic Bar.
Le Laperouse sets sail
Ponant's newest luxury expedition ship, Le Laperouse, will be christened on July 10 in Reykjavik, Iceland. Named after a famous French explorer, the 184-passenger ship will spend its inaugural season sailing in Iceland and Norway before heading to the Med until November. After that, Le Laperouse will make its way to Australia, where Sarina Bratton, chair of Ponant Asia Pacific, will host an 11-night cruise from Cairns to Sydney from January 28 to February 8, 2019. Degustation dinners by renowned, Sydney-based chef Guillaume Brahimi will be a highlight of the food and wine-themed itinerary. Brahimi will also present a masterclass for guests. Le Laperouse is the first of Ponant's six new Explorer class vessels launching between now and late 2020; the second, Le Champlain, arrives in October. See au.ponant.com
Entertainment mega-mogul Oprah Winfrey will take on the role of godmother to Holland America Line's latest ship, Nieuw Statendam, which is due to make its maiden voyage from Rome in December this year. Although no date has been set for the official dedication and private ceremony, Oprah will be hosting a "Girls' Getaway" cruise aboard Nieuw Statendam, a three-day round-trip jaunt departing Fort Lauderdale on January 30, 2019. Passengers can attend one of three "Conversations with Oprah" as well as special events such as style workshops, a Reading Room discussion and "Just Breathe" meditation sessions held on and off the ship, hosted by members of O, The Oprah Magazine's editorial staff and special guests. Nieuw Statendam is a nearly identical sister to 2016's Koningsdam and the second of three in the line's Pinnacle class. See hollandamerica.com