The Herald Travel Awards 2012
TRAVEL Editor Mark Evans salutes the best in the market with his annual accolades.
It's one of the busiest times in the holiday industry - with the Irish Travel Agents Association awards on Thursday and the Holiday World Show opening in the RDS next weekend. As holiday-makers turn their thoughts to the summer break, here's our look at the most exciting travel innovations of the past 12 months.
BEST SHORT-HAUL AIRLINE: SAS
Airlines come and go but Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) have been a mainstay at Dublin Airport for more than 45 years, attracting holidaymakers from Scandinavia and beyond to Ireland.
It's also got great links to those Nordic countries -- with up to 13 flights a week to Copenhagen, five to Stockholm and four to Oslo. Europe's most punctual airline also gives you a full-frills service -- with a 23kg baggage allowance, online check-in (no credit-card fees) and seat selection.
BEST LONG-HAUL AIRLINE/BUSINESS: ETIHAD
Its airline lounge in Dublin's T2 is a joy - with waiter service, showers and WiFi - and the onboard experience is a world of pampering, too.
Its entertainment system is easy to navigate, with a host of blockbuster movies as well as games to shorten your journey. The exceptionally friendly chauffeur service to and from your airports and dedicated check-in area in Abu Dhabi take the stress out of any trip.
BEST LONG-HAUL AIRLINE/ECONOMY: EMIRATES
Travelling to Australia with just a short stop in Dubai isn't for the faint-hearted, but Emirates made it a lot easier with its exceptional service. Its ICE entertainment system has a massive choice of movies, games, TV shows and music, and the onboard nose and belly webcam (even in economy) are great fun when travelling over the cities of the world.
Dubai is a nice hub, too - all modcons, with cigarettes at around €14 for 200, if that's your thing.
BEST AIRPORT: DUBLIN T2
Okay, it cost a fortune but now that it's here just enjoy it. The spacious terminal is a world away from the cramped old days of one-terminal Dublin. Immigration has become a doddle (try saying that about Heathrow's T4) and often baggage gets to the carousel just before you do.
BEST HOTEL: LONGEVITY WELLNESS RESORT, PORTUGAL
Its location is breathtaking - high up in the mountains of Monchique overlooking the sun-drenched Algarve.
You're guaranteed pampering, with pools galore, a billiards room and gorgeous spacious rooms. It's also a health resort, so you can be guaranteed healthy living while you're there. And there's a range of local activities -- paintballing, hiking and climbing -- on offer.
BEST CITY HOTEL: BERKELEY COURT
It's the hottest venue for the Six Nations and with new management in situ, this Ballsbridge institution is becoming a key player again. Perfectly situated for the Aviva Stadium and local bars such as Slatterys and the Beggars Bush, the rooms are spacious and the service is spot on.
BEST WEEKEND HOTEL: LOUGH ERNE RESORT
It's one of the most luxurious destination hotels in the North, but prices and deals are reasonable.
Take it from me, you're guaranteed a warm welcome and excellent service. It's perfect for golf, but it's also a brilliant base for the stunning lakes and for Enniskillen, a little-known gem that's among the friendliest towns in Ireland.
BEST LUXURY HOTEL BRAND: KEMPINSKI
They're the ultimate in high-end lodgings -- and particularly strong in Germany and Central Europe. If glamour and service is your thing, it's the safest bet in the market. And if you do win the Lotto, the six-star Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi is part of its extensive portfolio.
BEST CRUISE LINE: ROYAL CARIBBEAN
Still the frontrunners in the industry, its ships are the perfect introduction to the world of travel. Ice-skating rinks, rock-climbing walls, surfing, abseiling - all can be found onboard depending on your ship choice. Oasis and Allure are its biggest offerings, mini towns with their own little districts, including a boardwalk, with carousel, and a beautiful Central Park area.
BEST FAMILY CRUISES: MSC
Cruising's one of the best-value sectors of travel - and MSC has cornered the market for those who want luxury at affordable prices.
Kids go free - even big ones up to the age of 18 - and all-inclusive drinks and dining packages mean you won't get a hefty bill at the end of your voyage. MSC is launching a new ship, Divina, with sailings around the Eastern Mediterranean from May 26 out of Venice.
BEST LUXURY CRUISE LINE: CELEBRITY
A sister line to Royal Caribbean, it's got many of Royal's key selling points -- friendly staff, great nightlife and beautiful bar and pool areas. But if you want that extra touch of sophistication for a family occasion, look no further. Oh, and the lawn club -- with its real grass greens -- is a nice touch for an al fresco stroll on sea days.
BEST FERRY LINE: BRITANNY FERRIES
You're in France the minute you step on the Pont Aven en route from Cork to Roscoff. A la carte French dining, a patisserie and live cabaret all go to make the short overnight sailings seem even faster. And you're assured a decent sleep before your drive with its premium Commodore cabins which are similar in design and comfort to a cruise-cabin experience.
BEST LUXURY BRAND: INSIGHT VACATIONS
Bhutan. Sri Lanka. India. For a taste of the exotic hosted by local experts, this touring company offers the ultimate in once-in-a-lifetime trips. What's better, the hassle of booking hotels and transportation independently in far-flung destinations is taken care of. You're looked after by on-the-ground experts and its touring buses with business-class legroom and small group sizes ensure you'll immerse yourself in the local culture in style.
You can also make your euro stretch further by checking out its deals on everywhere from Britain and Ireland to mainland Europe, the Americas and beyond.
BEST SKI COMPANY: TOPFLIGHT
The multi award-winning Irish company has brought the thrills of the piste to countless Irish holidaymakers and put ski resorts on the map.
It also has tempting Italian, European and long-haul holiday choices.
BEST HOLIDAY HOMES: TRIDENT
It's the perfect choice for staycation families - with luxurious and affordable properties nationwide, from short hops from Dublin to the rugged coastlines of the West.
Great deals are available, too, on the Trident Holiday Homes website (tridentholidayhomes.ie).
BEST WEEKEND DESTINATION: NEWCASTLE/GATESHEAD
It's no secret that England's city twins have some of the best nightlife in the UK. But the area's stepping up its game on a cultural level. Try the new Jurys Inn (beside the Millennium Bridge) and enjoy art in the neighbouring Baltic Centre, concerts in the Sage and trendy new clubs along the 'Diamond Strip' of Collingwood Street.
BEST LONG-HAUL HOLIDAY: ABU DHABI/DUBAI
With Emirates joining Etihad in the Irish market, competition is fierce and fares are keen. It's a shame that many people use these airports merely as long-haul hubs, as both cities have plenty to offer.
Dubai is the brasher of the two, with the world's tallest skyscraper (the Burj Khalifa) and hotels including the sail-like Burj Al Arab, one of the most iconic in the world.
Neighbouring Abu Dhabi is more chilled -- but you've got to check out the world's fastest rollercoaster (at Ferrari World) or stay in one of its many just-opened five-star hotels including the St Regis Saadiyat, Jumeirah at Emirates Towers and Hyatt Capital Gate.
BEST TOUR OPERATOR: SUNWAY
A mainstay in the sun-package-holiday market, Sunway has stretched its horizons in recent years, offering a range of holidays to North America and far-flung countries, as well as dreamy destinations for honeymoons.
BEST LONG-HAUL TOUR OPERATOR: CRUISE HOLIDAYS
Part of the renowned Tour America organisation, cruiseholidays.ie offers a staggering range of cruise options - everything from the luxury of Cunard's Queen Mary to the casual cool of NCL.
There are plenty of bargains and expert advice, particularly for first-time cruisers.
TRAVEL INNOVATOR OF THE YEAR: CLEM WALSHE
A mainstay of the travel industry for many years as marketing manager of Budget Travel, Clem Walshe is now the Irish face of lowcostholidays.ie, the leading one-stop online travel solution for Irish holidaymakers.
The site offers competitive flight seat rates with all the major airlines and tour operators coupled with a massive overseas ground handling network of 300,000 properties and private transfers from more than 450 airports in 70 countries across the globe.