Sunday, March 15, 2020

As the tides take us where they will … a voyage to remember!

There are times where knowing a princess is magical and then there are other times where confusion reigns. For four years now Margo and I have pulled together itineraries that combine business with a little downtime and it’s usually around this time of the year. Whether it was time spent in Sydney or simply sailing around islands, with birthday’s book-ending the period it seems more than appropriate to pursue time away from home and this year, having made the bookings a year in advance, we headed out to sea one more time. Our city on the seas on this occasion would be the Emerald Princess. Yes, she is a magical princess!

Margo would be celebrating a birthday in and around the Hawaiian Islands whereas I would be celebrating my birthday close-hauled by Moorea in French Polynesia. It would be a voyage that expanded on our previous voyage to Hawaii, this time sailing over the equator and deep into the South Pacific. If the ship looks familiar it is because the Emerald Princess is a sister ship to the now infamous Diamond Princess and being just another gem, some confusion did arise.

We boarded our vessel in San Pedro, just south of Los Angeles, at a cruise line terminal that is adjacent to the container terminals of Long Beach. For this trip, we had taken our daughter’s advice and reserved an inboard cabin; the darkness was to make it better to sleep, we were told, but never again! We tried it but no, it’s simply not for us! On all other voyages we have had a veranda suite but as we were headed towards the equator we reasoned that, being able to sleep in a fully blacked out environment, would have its advantages. But again, it was a lesson we have learnt and not one we will repeat any time soon.

Perhaps we should have paid a little more attention to the Emerald Princess as we boarded in San Pedro – there were many more questions being asked about where our travels had taken us of late and, recovering from a cold we had caught back in Windsor didn’t put is in anyone’s good books but then again, who knew! We were hearing about the Coronavirus causing concern in China but well, that was a long way away from where we were headed. Pulling away from the dock it was all smiles as we contemplated the voyage that lay ahead of us.

However, what did turn out rather ominously was that in shooting a selfie in the highest lounge on our vessel, the Emerald Princess, I captured the arrival of the Grand Princess in Honolulu. It would head back to California before continuing on to Mexico and ultimately back to Hawaii. As we now know, it was on its return to California that second time that it made headlines. It was not allowed to dock in San Francisco for several days as Coronavirus was detected among crew and passengers. It’s amazing how many inquiries we received from friends and family as to which Princess vessel we were on – Diamond? Grand? It’s all the same, sort of, isn’t it? Actually, it was pretty easy to explain and we just got on with it.

When it comes to the big cruise lines we like Princess not that this is an overwhelming endorsement of the line. It’s not the same as it once was, back when it was still an independent cruise line. Ever since Carnival became involved, the food has steadily declined – the dining room service is a total waste of time. High tea, too, is messed up – no clotted cream on the scones with jam, but whipped cream instead! Yuck … but we did give it more than one try! Fortunately of a morning the International CafĂ© is a good place to start and contrary to all other statements we may have made in the past, the buffets were not all that bad if you timed them just right.

As for the bars, you could find us there most nights at Crooners relaxing and sipping a martini. More often than not however, we spent the early evening at Vines where plates of sushi and sashimi came with wine orders and it was more than passable.

One change to the specialty restaurant options was the introduction of SHARE, by Aussie glamor chef, Curtis Stone. Three different six course menus were available and you could mix and match from any of them and they were very good – among the best meals we have had on any cruise ship of late, including Seabourn and Viking. And did I mention the wine list? You could get a And did I mention the wine list? You could get a Penfolds Grange if you happened to have a spare $950+ and there was Penfolds RWT available as well. We did skip the fancy wine this time, but it was pretty cool to see that they were dipping into the good stuff for us! As for the ambience it was wonderful as very few guests took advantage of this restaurant so we squeezed in four visits. As for the non-appearance of Curtis Stone himself well, Margo was shocked! 

When I started cruising with Princess, back in the early 1970s, when it was just P&O and was sailing out of Sydney’s Circular Quay, the full effect of the oil crises of the times had a major impact on itineraries. Destinations were being dropped as a vessels range was being calculated on the fly. Despite the uncertainties, together with my sister Judy we first sailed on the Himalaya and then a year later on the Oronsay - vessels that were built “especially for the Australasian service.” Yes, you might have guessed it – migrant ships to Australia and then cruise ships before they returned to Europe. And yes, no A/C at all while sailing the South Pacific at the height of summer.

I only mention this in passing as the last four cruises Margo and I have taken not one has completed the voyage as advertised. Whether it was the  approach of bad weather, the changing water depths or simply not being allowed to dock at a port, we have come rather blasĂ© about where we would likely end up and on this cruise, we were prohibited from visiting Samoa. There is nothing you can do as cruise lines look unfavorably on any talks about a mutiny!

Then again, all those years ago, we really didn’t care too much where the ship went – we were on the high seas finally. Let the tides take us where they will …

I found this photo of the Oronsay alongside Circular Quay where the buildings in the background – ESSO, IBM and Caltex - were the skyscrapers of the day. Given that this photo was taken in the early 1970s I would like to think that it was the day we boarded her looking forward as I did to a journey to New Zealand, Tonga and Fiji. And to think, I was a fresh lad doing computer programming for the commercial arm of P&O, Overseas Containers (Australia) Limited – OCAL.

While the Himalaya was sold for scrap immediately after we sailed on it (no further comments necessary) a similar fate awaited the Oronsay and it was just a year later, while sailing on the “glamorous” Lloyd Triestino Galileo Galilei (also built for the Australian immigration route) plodding through the old Panama Canal, that coming around a turn sailed the Oronsay with its final cruise pennants flying high!

But lazy days, doing little other than catching a few rays while reading the book, continues to appeal to us even today and there were plenty of opportunities to indulge ourselves in this pastime.

Mixing business with a little downtime is something we now have down pat. By sailing into the Pacific and visiting the islands we set ourselves up for an early morning rise. Coffee and almond croissants at 4:30 am, Emerald Princess time, meant that I had access to the internet almost entirely to myself. This gave me ample opportunity to write my articles commentaries and blog posts and to express opinions on various social media sites. It allowed me to respond to email even as it allowed me to take calls and, on more than one occasion, participate in conference calls spanning the planet. By 9:30am ship time, I was essentially done for the day even as I did return to email late in the day for one final round of correspondence. 

One of the true blessings of being at sea is that the amount of input you normally are subject to on land declines rapidly. There’s plenty of time to read, think about things and, in general, let ideas take hold. Between Margo and me there is a steady demand for us to create new stories every day so being able to throttle down the interruptions we found it just as relaxing to pursue this work / downtime combination in this manner. The bars may not be as good as the one we now have in our Windsor home and none of the restaurants could quite match Margo’s culinary skills but then it is easy to find a nook where quietness reigned!

For us and with our sole intention of finding time to pursue little more than peace and quiet, our ship is truly our destination and the time at sea our sanctuary. We rarely go ashore these days and indeed on this trip it was a matter of an hour ashore at Kona and about the same time walking along the dock in Papeete. We have visited in the past years nearly all of the ports making up the itinerary, more than once, so this time, it was about simply sighting places that were new.

For me it was Moorea and Bora Bora - Moorea was the real gem, Bora Bora less so. As big a ship as the Emerald Princes was, it did find a way to anchor close to shore and the sights were spectacular. Again, Moorea topped the list! Anchored all day as it was, it was the ebb and flow of the tides that swung as ever so gently around whereby giving us a different view of the island without necessitating us getting off our chair. Ahhhh – wonderful! 

As you can imagine, each time we did weighed anchor and then departed a port, we were entertained with such a changing panorama that it made staying onboard totally worth it. The light would come from different directions and what was in brilliant sunshine in the morning would now be in shadow late afternoon. Sunsets became every bit as enticing as had been the sunrises. The most intriguing aspect of sailing either side of the equator, particularly when all around you is the relatively flat Pacific Ocean, is the complete lack of twilight – the sun sinks beneath the horizon and, as if a switch is thrown, darkness descends almost immediately.

This is a region of the planet where we were never alone.  While other guests were intent to head for the gangways to go exploring the islands, staying aboard came with surprises. On more than one occasion we saw flying fish taking flight as our ship bore down on them. There were dolphin sightings and on more than one occasion, miles from shore, a solitary albatross was seen skimming the waves. For Margo and me, the seas were never anything but a gentle rise and fall but for almost everyone else, sailing the South Pacific means passing through deep swells that made some passengers a little uneasy with the movement of the ship.

Perhaps though the best sight of all occurred while anchored off Lahaina on the island of Maui! There were a lot of humpback whales making their way through the channel that lies between the islands of Molokai and Lanai, to the west of Maui. It was while watching these whales surfacing and breaching that we sighted one such calf pulling right alongside the ship and where, from the out of the deep, it’s ever watchful mother just glided up from the deep; yes, it all happened as we stood by the ships railing.

Flying fish, dolphins and whales weren’t the only sights to be seen in the islands. When it came time to drop anchor there was more than one occasion where it was other ships that caught my eye. Shortly after we arrived in Bora Bora, a modern day “tramp steamer” pulled in behind us and dropped anchor. I had seen pictures of this vessel in magazines but to see it was altogether something very different – a distinct and somewhat unique interpretation of vessels that formerly plied the South Pacific a century or more earlier. My father sailed from Sydney to Fiji on one such vessel - the specifics remaining sketchy to this day – all I ever saw was one black and white photo taken by my father in the mid-1930s.

This ship, the Aranui 5 represented the perfect idealization of all that sailing among the islands entails. Of course, we googled it to see what it was like inside and from the photos we saw, it would be interesting to entertain the idea of joining the ship for one of its voyages. Has anyone reading this post ever been aboard? Up alongside the Emerald Princess it didn’t look all that bigger than the tenders that shuttled us back and forth to the shore and yet, as we watched it unload just one pallet of cargo, we couldn’t ignore it’s primary role of getting the necessities of life to where they were most needed. 

Whereas this ship was idyllic to us, pulling alongside us in Paleete was one very big luxury cruiser. Yes, it was none other than James Packer’s new flagship, the 354-feet Benetti built, IJE. Got $60,000 base per day and you can evidently make a booking. As it was, it dominated the wharf to where it was difficult to see much of anything else. And yet, Margo and I could daydream – would we like to have a toy as big as this? Of course we would if the situation ever arises but then, realistically and as we often hear, that ship has definitely sailed!

And yet, we did enjoy a really big window on the world!

It was those same tides that brought us back to San Pedro a short time later. Cruising the South Pacific has been more than a passing pleasure for me for almost a half century. However, watching Margo take as much delight in the long days as sea that were involved as I have enjoyed numerous times before was equally as pleasing. We missed a couple of ports even as we missed catching coronavirus, but we didn’t miss a beat when it came to mixing business with opportunities for downtime. Call is bizcations, but this has been how we have mixed the two worlds together for some time now. With so much uncertainty ahead and with itinerary changes happening almost overnight, one thing is for sure – there will be many more voyages ahead. And to that, we raise just one more toast!