Thursday, 18 July 2013

Cruisin' - the pros and cons

About halfway through, and again last night I asked each of us to nominate the best three things and the worst three things about their cruise. This is mainly mine, with supplements from the guys.


  • No chores, and no feeling guilty about it. I don’t have do plan, buy ingredients or prepare meals; I don’t have to do laundry (other than a couple of small loads); I don’t have to feel guilty about my untidy desk, or the work stuff nagging at me; I don’t need to drag myself to training or for a swim (I almost always enjoy it, but the inertia is high).
  •  Time – time to read a whole novel, time to take siestas, time to sit and watch the world go by, time to get involved with stuff, or write
  • There’s plenty of stuff to do and people to talk to if you want to, but absolutely no obligation to do so.
  • The food has been pretty good (even the buffet, which is perfectly adequate). Last night, we ate at ‘Salt Grill’, their celebrity chef onboard restaurant. Ky chose particularly well, although we all enjoyed our meals. Given the fish was all brought on board before we left Sydney nearly a week ago, I chose to forgo the sashimi and fish mains (unless they brought live fish aboard, they couldn’t be all that fresh), and the surcharge was only $40/$20 adult/child (even though the kids had a full sized adult meal).
  • The staff have been almost uniformly fantastic. The waiters we had at our regular table in the white cloth restaurant were five star world class, and everyone else has been friendly and competent and efficient. I understand that most of them are paid pretty shit wages by Australian standards, but for many of them, that’s better than what they’d get at home (the Phillipines, various Pacific Islands, a few Indians).

  • The Hotel California effect – you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. For a big ship, it ends up being a bit claustrophobic.
  • The rooms are hermetically sealed, and despite the aircon, the rooms get very stuffy overnight. We have a balcony, but it’s tricky to prop the door partway open to get some fresh cool air in. Heaven help those without that luxury
  • The beds are pretty awful, and the pillows worse. The sofa bed would have to be one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve tried sleeping on – a thin mattress on a soggy trampoline style support, with a solid bar running across the bed exactly where your hips go. The proper beds (we switched with the kids halfway through) are okay, but the pillows are still soggy bits of chopped up foam. I think that’s another reason we’ve needed so many siestas – we’re not getting the rest we need at night.
  • We’ve all missed the internet, and keeping up with our online friends and interests, but we’ve all coped pretty well.
  • Although there are exercise options, they haven’t been terribly enticing. JD and I are both feeling a bit blah from lack of exercise.

Nevertheless, we’ve all enjoyed it, and would consider doing another in a few years’ time. The chill out time has been great for Justin (he really needed it) - he’s nearly finished his third book this week. Jos also has finished two novels, and enjoyed the sitting around. Ky has loved making new friends – whether they actually maintain contact is to be seen, but he, Alice and Hayley have been thick as thieves for the past five days. And me, it’s been great just sitting and watching the world go by. I’ve eaten way way too much, and JD and I will both get back on the eat less, move more wagon when we get back (I reckon I’ve got about 30 pounds/13.5kg to shed to fit my clothes properly), and get my fitness back up (first target: state selections are less than three weeks after we get back).

Cruisin' - Things to bring

I did some research the night before we packed and picked up some handy hints for things to bring. They included: 
  • Over the door hooks, for extra hanging space (I had a set of four I’d picked up from Aldi a couple of weeks ago)
  • Extra coathangers, critical if you don’t bring extra hooks
  • Plastic bags for storing wet clothes/shoes/etc
  • Additional carry bag for bringing home purchases (important if you’re the type to buy lots of souvenirs)
  • Febreze for freshening up worn clothes if they’re not dirty enough to require washing
  • Crease release (Coles has travel sized bottles) to reduce ironing
  • Sunscreen, hats, sunglasses – although the ozone layer is thicker nearer the equator, the pollution is far less. And you’re spending time laying around in the sun because you can.
  •  Imodium/Gastro-Stop, analgesics, bandaids, anti-histamines etc, because a trip to the on-board shop (let alone on-board doc) is expensive
  • A selection of dressy cardigans etc – it gets cool at night, and that’s when the dress code tends to apply.
  • A day bag each, for port calls. We had these anyway (our ‘handbags’ on the plane), but a larger one capable of holding four towels plus gumf would have been useful.
  • Bottled water. We don’t drink bottled water as a rule, but some of the ports may not have potable water. I had meant to bring an empty water bottle or two, but forgot.
  • A power board – the room has only two accessible points, and we have around nearly a dozen devices potentially needing charging at the same time. A four point power board, plus double USB chargers help stop squabbles.
  • A champagne stopper – if you choose to buy a whole bottle, you don’t have to worry about leftovers going flat. (This has had a bit of use.)
Things I really should have brought but no-one mentioned it:
  • A lanyard for each person – your room key/charge card/identity pass needs to be with you at all times, even when you haven’t got pockets. And they’re $8 each on-board.
  • Power point adaptors – the rooms have Australian-compatible power points, but outside the rooms they’re either UK or US style. If you’re battery runs out, you’re confined to your room if you want to keep typing/reading/using electronic devices.
  • More than one book. JD and I both finished our fluffy holiday reading by day 3 (newest Janet Evanovich for me, World War Z for JD, Zombie Survival Guide for Jos). JD and Jos have since switched books; I’m stalling starting my next (Running with Scissors).
  •  Reef shoes/crocs/similar – slip on shoes/sandals are very useful on board, and even more so when at port – you can walk on sand and in the water (coral, sea urchins, sea snakes and other prickly things abound)
  • Although you give the kids a packing list, and they are generally pretty good about packing what’s on the list, it might be worth checking they’ve actually packed what’s on the list (see also: hats, sunglasses, sandals).
  • Consider changing currency in Australia – the onboard rates are appalling (20% arbitrage), and they charge a hefty commission. And if you do, change only a little – both places we stopped at took Australian currency, and often at a better rate than the ship offered.
Other things of note:
  • If possible, book a port-side room rather than starboard. Port side you get to see the port when at dock (kinda makes sense), but also it’s the non-smoking side of the ship. While I can sit on my smoke-free balcony, it’s directly below the smoking section of the main top deck.
  •  On this ship there’s no choice for the four-berth balcony rooms, but if you can, don’t pick a room immediately below the dancefloor, especially if you’re an early-to-bed type person. I nearly broke out the earplugs the other night.
  •  It’s not so much a floating shopping mall, but a floating hotel/resort (dur), and a bit Hotel California – they encourage you to check out any time you like, but you can never leave (except port days, and only then for a few hours). For more adventurous travellers, it’s a bit restrictive.
  • That said, we all enjoyed it – you really can do nothing but sit around, eat, drink, sleep, read utterly guilt-free. If you want to do more, there are plenty of activities with varying levels of kitsch/cheese. If you’re an extrovert, there are plenty of new people to talk to.
If we were to do another one (in a few years time), I think we’d fly somewhere interesting and stay for a week, and then take a cruise back home. That way you get the exploring, challenging, exciting, new cultures stuff, and then get the week-long chill-out holiday to recover from the adventurous holiday. Best of both worlds!

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Cruisin' - Day 4 - Noumea

The original schedule had us going to Isle of Pines first, then Noumea, but on the morning of the second day, we were advised that the order had been changed ‘for operational reasons’. Our shore tours were to be switched around, and everything else was to progress as usual.

We awoke to overcast skies, but warm and somewhat humid temperatures
And a tug boat, if required.

We had booked the ‘Dumbea River Kayaking’ tour, to include two hours of kayaking, plus a swim. Our departure was at 9am, and we were required to meet at 8:50am. We were actually off the boat nearly 45mins early, so we went for a walk around the block to kill some time.
Hard to get lost, what with the ship dominating the horizon.
When we got back, around 20 minutes later, we were informed that it had rained solidly for the past two days and that the river was pretty swollen and fast-running. They were cancelling the morning kayaking tour, and asked if we were happy to switch to the afternoon tour, if it was available. Of course, we replied. Ten minutes later, they advised that the afternoon tour was 50/50 at best to go ahead, so they were cancelling it. We could join up with another of the tours if there was space.

We asked if there were any seats left in the ‘Noumea in a Nutshell’ tour, departing at 9am, and indeed there were enough seats for us on the bus due to depart first. A ticket was quickly written out for us, and off we went. We even got the back row on the bus – normally you have to be first on, not last, to get those seats!
With a brief introduction from our tour guide Michel, a local of Polynesian extraction, we set off towards the Church de L’Immaculee Conception, one of the older churches in Noumea.
Mary, not a cross, tops this church.
Recently refurbished, it has a convent and a monastery attached – Michel’s school teachers were nuns from the convent. It was founded by missionaries who prayed to Mary when caught in a storm, who vowed to build a church in her honour should they be saved. Inside were stained glass windows, some old, some new, and statues of the local saints, including Sainte Therese. She had to travel to Rome to be granted permission to become a nun so young, but ended up dying young. Nevertheless, many miracles have been attributed to her and to Mary. Pilgrims gather each August 15 to mark Assumption Day.

From the choir stalls
From there, we went to the lookout at Ouen Toro and watched paragliders riding the thermals (and going quietly green with envy). There’s an excellent view over the bays back towards Centre Ville (Town Centre), and a WWII memorial. The day before, the lookout had been shrouded in fog, so we were very lucky with the weather.

Next stop was Anse Vata, where we had morning tea (tea, coffee, some ghastly sweet apple something) and time to browse the overpriced tourist shops. (We did get a couple of t-shirts for the boys, and some postcards and stamps.)

Back on the bus, our final stop was FOL (I’ve no idea what it stands for, EDIT: Google says:  La Fédération des Oeuvres Laïques de Nouvelle-Calédonie), a lookout above the town. The FOL was the town’s main theatre until the roof was badly damaged by rain(?) in 2011. Political wrangling means that the building remains closed and is being further damaged by rain. Our bus driver, Thierry, did an outstanding job negotiating the bus past the nearly full carpark, and executing a nine-point turn to get us back facing the way we came in. (He got a well-deserved round of applause.) By then my camera’s battery decided it had had enough, so these pics are from my phone.

On the left, St Joseph's, with its back to us, and the harbour in the background.
Yup, that's our boat mid-shot. Big, innit?
The walls of the FOL are covered with commissioned and uncommissioned grafitti.

Other things we learned about Noumea:

Much of the town is built on reclaimed land, and the harbour was similarly hand built by convicts. As were the two main churches - St Joseph’s Cathedral, the main Catholic church, and the adjacent Protestant church. These are the two main religions of the locals, the missionaries having been very effective. Like in Vanuatu, many of the Melanesian women wear “Mother Hubbard” type dresses, the rather shapeless, matronly dresses favoured by the missionaries.

New Caledonia was a French penal colony around the same time Australia was an English one. Napoleon’s Josephine was concerned about the highly skewed ratio of men to women in the colony, so arranged for an orphanage for girls to be established here.

When the Americans arrived during WWII, using New Caledonia as both a base and for R&R, they more than doubled the population of Noumea overnight (from 16,000 to 33,000). There was a further increase in the population soon over the next couple of years as the GIs got friendly with the local women.

Noumea presently has around 100,000 people, or 40% of the country’s population. And almost everyone has a car. The streets in Centre Ville are a maze of one way streets with a few traffic lights, and plenty of pedestrian crossings which are generally respected by drivers if you’re brave enough to step out on one. Despite what I’d read, many of the shops remain open through the siesta (12-2pm).

The civil war was around 1984 which explains why our potential 4th form French class field trip was scotched (I was in Form 4, or Year 9, in Christchurch in 1984). New Caledonia is about three-quarters of the way through a twenty-year-long transfer of power, culminating in a referendum in 2018. Michel said that it is very uncertain which way the referendum for independence will go, as people change their mind daily.
The city has pretty good infrastructure, and is much more developed than Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu. This could be because it is still part of France, unlike Vanuatu which was granted independence in 1980. It’s also likely because of its extensive nickel mines that have brought wealth and industry.

The heavy rain of the past two days has closed roads to the south, and had turned one of the main city streets into a river-cum-waterfall. Apparently Noumea, on the southern peninsula of the main island, Grand Terre, doesn’t get a huge amount of rain generally, and is unusually verdant at the moment.

We returned to the boat for lunch (the boys were flagging), and then I went back into town to find a postbox to mail the postcards we’d scrawled while on the bus, and to go for a bit of a wander. It turned out the kitschy tourist market at the ship terminal was about a third the price of the Anse Vata strip. I considered getting a Hawaiian shirt for JD, but they were all made in Thailand, and much of the other fabric goods (sarongs, bags, etc) were made in India or similar. There was some locally made jewellery, so from them I got a malachite necklace (to go with my malachite earrings I got in New York), and a shell sarong-tying majigger carved from shell.
Au revoir, Noumea.

We have cancelled our dinner booking for tonight (we’ll eat at the buffet) so we can see the ‘Aerial Acrobatic Show’, where the performers will be suspended in various ways from the arch over the aft pool. (Ky and I saw them rehearsing at lunchtime, and are very keen to see the show.)

Cruisin' - Day 3 - at sea

It was another gently rocking night on the decidedly uncomfortable sofa bed. But the blockout curtains did their job, and it was around 8:30am that I opened them to a delightful sight: blue cloudless skies, deep blue sea with a modest swell. I pointed out to the others that not only would we have to be up at this time tomorrow, we’d have to be dressed, fed, and ready to disembark by 8:30am, as we have an excursion departing at 8:50am dockside.
The view from our bed

But that wasn’t today. Today, we rose eventually, breakfasted generously, and then found a few deckchairs to enjoy the sunshine. The pool near the back was still sloshing about like a huge washing machine on overdrive, and was sending up massive blowhole sprays – it had lost about a third of its water in the past 36 hours. The boys had played chicken with the waves and lost, both soaked to the skin when we saw them a little later.

And this was on a good day!

They did take the net off the ‘adults only’ pool, and declared it open for everyone. Ky was one of the first half dozen people in the pool, even though it was utterly freezing. Jos was in a little later, and also unimpressed with the temperature. It didn’t seem to slow them down much and Ky made some friends that he hung around with for much of the rest of the day.
Not actually all that warm
How to scooch under a waterfall (that's Alice)
How not to scooch under a waterfall (that's Ky)
Still not all that warm

We got sunscreen on eventually, but not before JD’s shins and face had developed a rather pinkish hue. By mid-afternoon the sitting around and sun got the better of us (and it had cooled down a little) and we retired to our room for a siesta. (Except that the sofa bed had been folded up, so there were only two beds plus the sofa, so I missed out.) So I sat on the balcony and read my book and sipped my wine (and did a load of laundry, and changed some currency, and clarified what we needed for our tour tomorrow).
There are worse places to endure a sunset

We dined again at the white cloth restaurant, but at a different table. Our waiters were significantly below the excellent standard of the previous night (slow to attend/take orders; delivered our meals to the adjacent table, twice; never refilled glasses). It was a considerably busier night, and a lot of meals were brought down prepared – we saw waiters carrying stacks of plates with food covers, and our meals had a slightly congealed look to them.

With the early start tomorrow, we had lights out by 10pm, and an alarm set for the utterly unreasonable hour of 7am.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Cruisin' - Day 2 - at sea

We were warned last night that we were due to hit some rougher weather, and indeed we did. From around midnight onwards, and due to last until tomorrow morning sometime, we’ve been bouncing around a bit. There have been a few thunks and judders when the up-and-down of the boat got out of synch with larger waves, but mostly it’s just been a gentle rocking (in all directions). The recent captain’s update advised that the wind is at 30 to 40 knots, and the swell is around 5m. He also said they have the stabilisers fully engaged, to smooth out the worst of it. And it’s going to get worse (as we get closer to the low pressure system centre), before it gets better. I’ve seen a few green people about, but we’re all doing okay (thank goodness).
The swimming pools, on the top main deck, immediately above ours, are sloshing around like wave pools. I tried to get a few pics of it, but couldn’t really capture it. Like a micro-tsunami, the water would draw back, the level dropping nearly a metre, before sloshing back the other way, crashing up against the wall of the pool, sending water and spray everywhere. Meanwhile, the horizon was lurching up and down, as the ship bucks on the sea. (This was the only time I’ve felt queasy, and so did JD and the boys.)
A bit cold, grey, and sloshy
I heard a fair bit of banging and crashing above us in the very small hours of the morning, presumably the staff quickly packing up the deck chairs, and tables-and-chairs on the deck, and fastening nets over the pools as the weather hit. There were a few hardy souls at the tables and chairs when we went for a wander after breakfast, but I would imagine most of them have gone back in as the weather worsens. I managed to spend a pleasant(ish) hour or so sitting on the balcony reading this morning. The air temp is mild, despite the wind (we’re on the windward side), but the rain started falling, driving me back inside.

We had highlighted a few things on the activities list for today, but have scotched most of them. Learning ballroom dancing is tricky enough, but when the floor keeps moving unexpectedly, it would be damn near impossible. The golf putting class and deck boules would be similarly difficult. The wine tasting at 11am was a bit early even for my alcohol tolerance. And the ‘Burn Fat Faster’, ‘GoSmile Teeth Whitening’ and ‘Secrets to Wrinkle Remedies’ seminars had surprisingly little appeal.

Like most people aboard today, we spent much of the time in our rooms, including having an afternoon nap as a way to deal with the fairly rough movement of the ship. I spent a bit of time writing up a few posts, including this one, and a bit of reading and dozing.

Tonight is one of the two formal nights, so I’ll need to iron the boys shirts (to be worn with their school trousers, being the only formal-ish pants they have); JD will don his suit and I my emerald-green cocktail frock, both of us hoping that we still fit them (comfortably might be asking too much, but I hope we’re both decent). We’ve booked at the posher of the two main restaurants (which I’m guessing is a la carte) for dinner tonight, given we’re required to make the effort to dress up.

UPDATE: By 3pm, we had blue skies and deep blue sea. But there was still a fair bit of wind and swell, so the boat was still rocking about, but not as bad as at lunchtime when even the staff were having trouble keeping their feet.

FURTHER UPDATE: We had a very pleasant dinner, helped by two exceptionally capable staff (shout out to Daryl and Alcris), who after waiting on us as well as I’ve seen anywhere, then entertained us with napkin folding and toothpick re-arranging tricks. And the advantage of white cloth restaurants is that I don’t tend to massively overeat, as I do when presented with a buffet. On the other hand, we chose to order a bottle of wine each (we didn’t finish them that night), so what I save from over-eating, I make up for in over-drinking. Eh, it’s not like I’m driving anywhere, and even if I were to get drunk, you couldn’t tell whether my wobbling gait was due to the grog or the ship. (In fact, the only night I’ve been drunk at all was on the first night, after four long island iced teas in about two hours. Even JD was tipsy on that.)

Cruisin' - Day 1 - Sydney (embark)

So we got to the terminal a little later than our scheduled embarkation time of 2pm, but well before the absolute deadline of 4pm (an hour before scheduled departure). We dropped our bags, met Momeeta, our diminutive cabin steward, and headed up to the top deck.

Just as the boat left the dock
And we're away!

Time for another round. With three shots of assorted white spirits per glass,
Long Island Iced Teas proved very effective in, ah, relaxing JD and me.

Not a bad way to start a holiday.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Australian National Maritime Museum

As expected, our part of town was a little more awake than yesterday (Sunday). JD turned his nose up at most of the suit-inhabited, ground-floor-of-office-buildings cafes and coffee spots, so it wasn’t until we got back across to Darling Harbour that we found somewhere suitable. We ended up in Pancake On the Rocks (almost certainly part of the Pancake Parlour group) as options were still limited, and the boys were getting antsy (it was after 10:30am).

We then considered the options for the next few hours, until it was time to return to the hotel to collect our luggage, and then on to the cruise terminal. The guys were interested in touring the boats with the Maritime Museum, but I was a little wary given the price ($65/family) and our limited time. We then considered the Aquarium, but for the four of us, we’d be up for $120. Suddenly, the boat tours were looking far more attractive.

And they were interesting.
White ensign, flying on HMAS Vampire

First up, we went through the submarine, HMAS Onslow.
Entering the torpedo launching room

Built in the mid-sixties, it was decommissioned in the mid-nineties. The recommended life span is around 30 years or so, due to the metal fatigue from the stresses imposed by the water pressures of diving and surfacing. Unlike US and UK subs, there’s no hot-bunking here – each sailor has his own bunk. They’re six foot long, not more than two foot wide, and there’s less than two foot of clearance.

I bitch about my kitchen, but it’s a touch more spacious than the sub’s one, which has to feed the sixty-odd souls on board three times a day.

That's it. That's the whole of the kitchen.
The bathrooms are a touch crowded too, but then you’re lucky to get a one minute shower once a week anyway. And if you’re out for ten weeks (the upper limit), it would get pretty whiffy by the end of all that. It would take a very special person to be able to endure all that – I think you’d have to be certifiably mad to volunteer, but you’d have to pass their exceptionally rigorous psychological testing to be considered.
Through the periscope (much easier with the naked eye than a point-and-shoot camera)

Friday, 5 July 2013

Cruise: Sydney - New Caledonia - Sydney (intro)

I was hoping to post some updates, but the satellite internet is both very slow and very expensive. So you'll have to wait until I get home. (I'm only now because they're offering a 50% off promo, so it's 37.5c/(very slow) min, rather than the usual 75c/min.

We have had mixed weather. The first day was pretty rough (even the crew were having trouble keeping their feet), but today was just gorgeous - sunny and laying on a white sand beach next to turquoise waters on Isle of Pines.

Here's us just after a posed photo, at the Baie de St Joseph on Isle of Pines. (That's Rika, our tour guide, with us in the shot.) I'm looking forward to telling you more about it in a few days. I've got lots of wonderful photos, and a few titbits of information, so you can claim it as a self-education expense.

St Joseph's Bay, Isle of Pines, New Caledonia