Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Bigger better? Possibly

With thanks to Norwegian Jewel for lunch today
Six weeks is a long time on this blog. December 16 is when I was marvelling at my shameless selling out on my proud snobbery about big cruise ships, by accepting a free lunch (no such thing) on board the Explorer Dream, a Chinese-owned vessel that accommodates just under 1900 passengers. That's way beyond my personal tolerance of about 600, and I was fully prepared to sneer. And, in fact, I wasn't won over, but - important proviso, this - with most passengers presumably ashore enjoying Auckland's mid-city roadwork chaos, I appreciated the public spaces and could see how other people might be able to put up with the thronging at-sea population, in return for all the nice things that were on offer.
So what did I find myself doing today? Only selling out again, even bigger-time, by accepting ditto (ditto) on board the confusingly similar-looking Norwegian Jewel, which hosts an even larger complement of 2,376 passengers. At this rate, I'll be trundling mechanically onto the Ovation of the Seas in a month's time, mingling with its 4,905 captives guests. 
Because, again, I got sucked in. NCL (Norwegian Cruise Line) pride themselves on many things, the most salient here being that they invented the ship-within-a-ship concept that so impressed me when I encountered it for the first time on Explorer Dream. On Norwegian Jewel, it's called The Haven, and there are only 14 staterooms in this exclusive section of the ship. They accommodate from 3 to 8 people, depending - the biggest is the Garden Villa, which is bigger than some houses I've lived in, with three bedrooms, a dining room, and a huge sitting room complete with grand piano, plus a private deck with a hot tub (though you have to share that with the corresponding suite, tch). No actual garden though, pft.
At the other end of the scale are the interior cabins that we don't usually get shown on media tours because they are, honestly, dark and poky. But our guide stressed throughout  that, increasingly, multi-generational family groups are sailing together, and the grandkids don't complain about their box-like bedrooms because the ship has so many treats for them elsewhere that they just fall into bed and straight to sleep at the end of entertainingly busy days.
Entertaining for everyone, that is - an advantage these bigger ships have over Silversea (my default comparison) is the shows. The theatre is properly big and the stage ditto, so they can put on really impressive things like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Broadway shows, where you feel you're at a professional event, rather than an upscale school production (sorry, Voices of Silversea). 
There are 15 dining and drinking options on the ship and, though our lunch today was a bit ordinary, we heard plenty of enthusiasm from the guide about the standard and variety of food on offer. He guaranteed weight gain, which none of us recommended as an advertising theme (viewing the stern as I ferry'd away afterwards, I reckoned mine might end up looking similar). We also all jumped when he told us the name of the restaurant we would be eating at: Tsar's. Say it aloud.
The range of deals on board was a bit daunting for those of us accustomed to all-inclusive pricing - but, of course, that appeals to people who, say, don't drink. But the gratuity surcharge would always be painful, I reckon. Don't get me started on the curse that is tipping. Anyway, Norwegian Jewel: would I say yes? Um, probably - but only if I stayed in The Haven, and even then, probably only as a family group holiday, which I do agree would promise an appealing level of generational acceptability, and subsequent fun.

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Hilton, Hercules and home

With thanks to Viking for this trip
Woken very early by a loud noise from the room next door that sounded like workmen with a grinder (they're doing refurbishments at the moment) but, since it was only 5.20am must just have been some inconsiderate early riser with a hair dryer, I started yet another long, long day. After a quick flit around the hotel to try - unsuccessfully - to discover some proper luxury that might live up to the name, I checked out and joined the others for a jaunt along the coast.
We were driven to the Getty Villa and Museum where we were given a tour. Our guide, David, was good, an English OWM who was genial and informative, and gave us a thorough tour over the museum's large and mind-bogglingly valuable collection (a Manet painting was recently bought at auction for $65 million) of art works and especially Greek and Roman statues. So, lots of marble penes (proper plural) as well as some very trim glutes, abs and biceps. 
There were lovely mosaics as well, pottery, glass and precious metal pieces, and the symmetry of the neat gardens outside was very attractive against the Roman villa architecture. The whole thing is very well presented and appealing, and, amazingly, entrance is free.
We went then to Moonshadows at Malibu for lunch: a restaurant perched above the sea with lovely views along the coast, and a series of black-backed gulls visiting to stand outside and watch us eating through the window. The food was really good, the French champagne and rosé even better, there was lots of shop talk with the UK contingent who'd joined us, and altogether it was a very pleasant way to end this brief but busy trip (for which, by the way, I bought carbon offsets).
The rest of the day was tedious travel practicalities: slow drive to the airport, a wait at a hotel, then finding my paid-for selected window seat wasn't available because Air NZ had had to change the aircraft, again. But, after a long walk and an even longer wait at Tom Bradley Airport, in a distant, echoing, hanger-like wing, at least I got my expected Premium Economy place - unlike the American party ahead of me in the queue, who were told there was no more room in Business that they'd booked and they too would have to slum it in PE, which they'd never even heard of. After last night's short duration and a long day today ahead of the late evening flight, I slept well and arrived back in Auckland pleased, having felt unexpectedly chilly the whole time I was in LA, to be presented with warm sunny weather and a smooth trip home across the Waitemata.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Dogs, death and downunder disgrace

With thanks to Viking for this trip
Today was mostly free of commitments, so I Ubered away along Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards this morning to do an Airbnb Experience I had organised before leaving home. As a contrast to all that wealth and luxury I was being driven through, it was about spending a couple of hours walking shelter dogs up Runyon Canyon. We met up just inside the park: despite her four dogs on leads, Candy the guide wasn't immediately identifiable simply because there were so many people just like her. The Canyon is very popular because it's the only place for miles in the city where dogs are allowed off-leash - it's owned by a public trust, and the local residents defend it fiercely against regular proposals to develop what is prime real estate.
I was introduced to my charge, Joey, a cute little Italian greyhound cross. Others in the group took control of Honey, an eager Jack Russell cross, and Eddie, a chihuahua cross; Candy had also brought her Labrador, Lulu. Despite her name, and having lived here for 30 years, Candy was clearly English, and I got close to pinning her down, thanks to her saying "lorra" instead of "lot of" - it sounded Liverpudlian to me, but she's from Birmingham. 
She is a member of Free Animal Doctor, a non-profit set up to help people pay for veterinary care for their pets, but soon roped in to help shelters with the same thing, and also to organise these walks to give nervous, shy rescue dogs a way to become confident with people, and increase their chances of being adopted. So, it's a feel-good experience every way you look at it.
We set off up the canyon's fire road, a steady climb, overtaken all the way by Lycra'd fitness freaks and other dog walkers. Honey was desperate to get - literally - stuck into the gopher holes that were all around and, after we got to the top and had our photos taken against the distant Hollywood sign, they were all finally allowed free to dart about and have some fun. We were having fun too, chatting, enjoying the outdoors, watching all the dogs and people, getting some long, if smoggy, views over the city, and hearing about the celebs who are sometimes spotted, despite their sunglasses and hoodies: Justin Bieber is a regular, apparently, and a bare-chested Matthew McConaughey has been seen.
Afterwards, finding I was only two blocks from Hollywood Boulevard, I headed along to the Walk of Fame and was surprised to discover how apparently unexclusive it is. I mean, there are so many! And plenty still with no names yet. But it was a small thrill to wander along and spot so many famous names - although it's an odd concept, and watching locals and even other tourists trampling right over them without even a glance at the names, I did wonder how much of an honour it was. Trump's star, by the way, looked distinctly scuffed and grubby.
Apart from odd places like the Chinese Theatre (which I didn't realise has the famous handprints, so I missed that), Madame Tussaud's and so on, it was a fairly tacky stretch of road well focused on tourists like me, but it did get me to another good story source: the Museum of Death. This is a series of rooms crammed full of macabre stuff to do with every aspect of death - naturally, this being Hollywood, the more sensational the better. So there was a lorra serial murder stuff - stories, photos, drawings they'd done in prison and on death row - and an electric chair, video of a guillotining, coffins, spivs. Manson featured strongly, and the Heaven's Gate cult, and there are a lorra, lorra very gory crime scene photos from all sorts of bloody crimes.

There's a mass of stuff in there, a lot of it too closely-written for me, but also video and skulls, taxidermy, an autopsy table, embalming information, and a reconstruction of JFK's head showing the damage done by the bullet that killed him. They're very strict about no photos, so I have none to include here - probably a good thing, for your peace of mind. "I didn't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't that," said a girl leaving just ahead of me, looking a bit dazed.
Tonight was the big event we'd all come so far for, from the UK too, and all over the US: Torstein Hagen, the Viking founder and chairman, announcing to everyone the building of two new expedition ships to explore both the Arctic and Antarctic, as well as the Great Lakes. Viking is hugely successful - their boats dominate the river cruise world, and they swept very rapidly to the top of the polls when they started ocean cruising. They do more laid-back luxury than fussy Silversea, with a very attractive Scandinavian overlay, and the expedition ships will be more of the same - plus interesting (included) things like submarines, and internal ramps for getting into the RIBs and zodiacs and so on. He did a great job of selling it - the reception was very enthusiastic, and we're all now eager to have a go ourselves.
The event, after a reception in a marquee with an over-the-top (but nonetheless much appreciated) seafood buffet, took place in the International Ballroom where the Golden Globes are held, so it was fun to imagine who might have sat at our table and maybe won a prize. Our dinner was very delicious, and it was just a tragedy that, when the dessert station was afterwards revealed when a huge screen was dramatically whipped away, I had only a very short time to taste just a few of an amazing range of elegant little treats before the media Q&A. One of our NZ/Australian contingent was brash enough to ask how much it costs to build ships like the Viking Octantis and Polaris but, just like with the Hilton driver yesterday, the question was brushed aside. We downunder types clearly have no class.
And then, like a proper journalist, I went back to my room to file a story about it all for Stuff back home (which they then took three days to publish) and didn't turn the light out till 1.30am, lying in the dark for ages afterwards with a full stomach and a buzzing brain.

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Tuesdaaaaaaaaaaaaaay

With thanks to Viking for this trip
Flying east is a lose/win scenario. The worst bit is that it makes for a long, long, LONG day - but, in compensation (and maybe as a direct result) the jet lag is much more manageable. So, I flew today from Auckland to LA with Air New Zealand in a strange, green-liveried plane that they had leased from Taiwanese Eva Air because of Dreamliner engine problems. The Premium Economy was still pretty comfortable so I had no complaints, though someone else on this junket had deliberately arranged her route to LA from Sydney via Auckland to enjoy Air NZ's comforts, and was disappointed.

Anyway, perhaps blessed by good karma because I found someone's NZ passport on the floor by the check-in kiosks and of course handed it in straight away (imagine the panic!), I had an easy journey and arrived at LAX fully braced for the ordeal of US immigration. Their bossy paranoia crosses borders: even before take-off, we were instructed not to gather in a group anywhere on the plane, even near the toilets. And then of course there's the sheer absurdity of the questions on the arrival form. I mean, that one about intending to overthrow the US government by force is laughable, right? And "planning to engage in terrorist activities"? Crazy. Also, on no account attempt to correct an error on the card: you must start again, sigh.
It's three years since I've been to the States, and in that time the kiosks have arrived, so ideally that limits actual contact with grim officials in uniform - except that my bit of paper came out with a big X on it, and I had to talk to a real person after all, and be sternly instructed to do the whole photo and fingerprints thing (again). But finally I was through, met up with my fellow travel writers, located our driver, and we were whisked off on this sunny - still Tuesday - morning along motorways and past those iconic tall, tall palms to West Hollywood and our hotel, the Beverly Hilton.
I knew they had very recently hosted the Golden Globes there, and of course the name is famous - but really, the hotel was a bit of a disappointment to all of us. It's very nice, of course, lots of glass and marble, spacious and elegant, but not at all exceptional. Even the entrance is tucked away off a side alley, past the car park. And my room is very standard, the only notable features being l'Occitane toiletries and the fact that the sheets are untucked along the sides, which is a small but very welcome touch, meaning no battle getting into bed when the time finally arrives for that.
They do have a complimentary car service, though - anywhere within a mile, so I lit out straight away for the Century City mall, yet another of the amazingly successful Westfield empire which seems to be taking over the retail world. It's huge and classy, with lovely open areas, and it's full of fancy shops as well as flagship stores Macy's and Bloomingdales. It was nice to see RM Williams there for the Oz connection; and also Rodd and Gunn from lil old Newzild. Mainly it was all wasted on me, though, not being a shopper despite being in real need of an outfit for a big family wedding that's looming - I was more taken by all the dogs everywhere, in the shops on leads and inside shoulder bags. That is a novelty.
Happening across the hotel driver again, I got him to take me to Rodeo Drive, on the other side of the hotel, and en route embarrassed him mightily by asking what I should be tipping him. Even though I was supported in the query by the Australian guest sharing the car with me, he couldn't bring himself to give me an answer. It really is an uncomfortable thing, for everyone. Why can't American businesses pay their workers a decent wage and be done with it?
I had it in mind to do a 'Pretty Woman' in Rodeo Drive for a little story, so it was disappointing that in every shop I went into, even the super-posh ones like Prada, Chanel and Ferragamo, I was given a friendly greeting with offers of assistance if required. Not that I would have dreamed of buying any of that stuff. Apart from anything else, those clothes just look so uncomfortable. How do people wear them all day without squirming and scratching? They're more like art works than anything - with comparable prices, of course. One woman I met was delighted to have discovered (for Instagram purposes) a diamond and emerald necklace in a shop window that was priced at $75,000. It's another world, truly - beautiful, elegant, gorgeous to look at, but quite alien.
Our group of six writers plus two Viking PRs - we're here for a big reveal of the cruise line's entry into exploration ships tomorrow, by the way - went to Catch for dinner tonight. It's a trendy rooftop seafood restaurant where we hoped to spot a famous face or two, but were a bit too early in the evening, our waiter told us regretfully. Never mind, we had a jolly and delicious dinner of shared plates with plenty of lovely rosé courtesy of our leader who, I'm pleased to say, is a wine snob with, apparently, a generous budget for this famil.
And then, at last, it was bed time. Longest Tuesday ever.

Sunday, 5 January 2020

KI KO'd

I've been back from Australia for two days, but there's no escaping the fires there. Oz is a three-hour, two thousand kilometre flight away, but Auckland right now is bathed in an eerie orange light, the clouds stained yellow, the sea a weird brown colour, and automatic streetlights were coming on mid-afternoon on a summer's day. The smoke, which I can smell, has blown across the Tasman and everyone is looking at the sky with dismay, and deep sympathy for our neighbours. 
All the news from Australia is shocking, the numbers mind-blowing (the burnt-out areas equal the area of Belgium - or did, because that's old and outdated news now), the images horrific, the stories heart-breaking. For me, today's most dreadful reports - so far - are from Kangaroo Island, off the south coast of South Australia, where more than a third of the entire island has been burnt. I was there in 2008, and had a lovely time, enjoying the unique and teeming wildlife, the spectacular rocks, lovely beaches, special honey, and proud residents. 
I was especially envious of those who, unlike me, were able to stay at the then brand-new Southern Ocean Lodge, tucked low on the skyline above the sea, full of big windows and luxurious accommodation. I hoped that one day, I might get back there to experience it. Not now.

Thursday, 2 January 2020

Silver Muse cruise, Day Ten - End of days? End of cruise, anyway

With thanks to Silversea for this cruise
Yesterday was a glorious clear, sunny, blue-sky day, a perfect start to the new year/decade. Today? Apocalyptic. I opened the curtains to thick yellow smoke outside that quickly got even thicker, almost blotting out the already dim and orange sun. It, and its smell, soon infiltrated the ship, making the Arts Café look like a coffee bar back in the smoky seventies, the corridor outside full of haze. The captain had to make a special announcement that it was all from outside, there was nothing to be done, and nothing to be concerned about engine-wise. Certainly, there was no avoiding it, inside or out.
We are glad we decided not to hang around in Sydney when we arrive there tomorrow morning, and have arranged to fly straight home. The locals have had occasional breaks from these conditions, thanks to varying winds, but they've been living with this bush fire smoke for several months now. Even returning to New Zealand will not be the escape we'd like, though: the wind has carried the smoke across the Tasman to cover the whole of the South Island, and even up in Auckland people are able to look at the blood-red sun directly, and outdoor security lights are turning themselves on.
The pool deck was closed for most of the day, and back in the cabin suite our suitcases had, in a too-obvious hint, been put onto stands, so we wandered off to have a last buffet lunch at La Terrazza. Then we attended an interesting lecture (not by the boring Major-General OWM) about women convicts in Tasmania - none of them transported for being prostitutes, by the way, but many driven to it on the transport ships, and in Van Diemen's Land, for an income; and consequently blamed, by men, for the depravity, of men, that their presence caused. But at least one of them did so well that her face is on Australia's $20 note. Wonder how well the others might have done, given half a chance?
Our quiet afternoon was interrupted by the captain announcing that the change of course we might have noticed (er, no) had been caused by an emergency services request to go to the aid of those people on the beach in East Gippsland, at Mallacoota, and help with the evacuation; but then we were stood down because they weren't ready for us. Bit of a shame, really - that would have been interesting, and it would have been good to have helped. I (and everyone else on board) had already received an emergency text about information meetings in Mallacoota. Poor things - my eyes have been stinging a bit even out here at sea. Must be horrendous, right amongst it all.
After hours of being in a sort of vacuum, with nothing to see outside, not even the sea - it was as though the world had been erased - the smoke began to clear later in the afternoon, as we headed to the Dolce Vita lounge for our final Team Trivia game. There was a jolly atmosphere, lots of joking and friendliness, but not a lot of actual success as our team scored only 16/20 and the winners had a clean sweep. Questions included the capital of Armenia; where is the Sandy Desert; what is hypnophobia; what's the diameter, in inches, of a basketball hoop; what is Cd on the periodic table; and what body part was Alfred Hitchcock missing?

We cashed in our precious prize points - the most expensive item, for 160 points, was a Silversea umbrella, the least, at 10, a pen; I claimed a (second) fridge memo holder for our hard-won 30 - and finally gave in to the necessity of packing. Which at least took a lot less time than it had back home.
Dinner was back in Atlantide - meltingly tender filet mignon again, which I wasn't able to finish, and will remember with sadness and regret for some time to come - and the table was shared with a UK/Oz/NZ trio, with whom we had a lively conversation that included jury service, rain in England v the Waikato, Team Trivia cheating, returning home to doing our own chores, and polo. One of them had ash stains on his shirt, which were clearly going to be a souvenir.
And that was that, for the last day. Labelled suitcases outside the door at bedtime, the cabin suite looking impersonal again, and tomorrow just the tedium of travel to look forward to with an eventual arrival home at probably 9pm. It's been fun, weather and bush fires notwithstanding. Thanks, Silversea.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Silver Muse cruise, Day Nine - New year beginning, cruise ending

With thanks to Silversea for this cruise
We set off at a leisurely pace this morning, everything considerately later than usual, for those who were up late last night (not us, obviously). It took ages to cross Melbourne's vast harbour to the heads that protect it, where we were escorted by the pilot boat through the 2km-wide, churned up gap with a lighthouse and spectators on one side. Then we were back in Bass Strait, heading for the Tasman again to sail, eventually, northwards to Sydney. For quite a distance, we had coastline to watch, which was a novelty.
Everyone was very chilled-out - if you can call people that who are basking in hot sunshine - and the pool deck was the most crowded bit of the ship, although there were always spare loungers and chairs for latecomers (despite a German family I've been observing doing the cliché German thing of using their towels to claim loungers for the entire day, including in their absences).

I was pleased to hear that the big net of balloons that hung over one end of the pool deck, that was still in place when we went to bed after midnight last night, was not opened to let them disperse into the air and sea, and no doubt kill many sea creatures. "The fun police," someone harrumphed, but I was pleased, and just surprised that in these environmentally enlightened (some irony there) times, anyone had ever thought that was a good idea at all. [Side note: I read today that it's estimated that half a billion animals have died in Australia's bush fires so far. Heartbreaking.] [Update: Apparently there was never any intention to release the balloons: the net was just how they were displayed.]
There was lunch, there was downtime, there was sitting on the veranda in the sunshine with the sea sloshing peacefully below, and then there was Trivial Pursuit. Reader, we came first! With 19.5/20! Questions included: what is As on the periodic table; who played Galadriel in LOTR; what country does Denmark border; what port sees the most cruise passengers; what's the longest running show in the West End; and how many millimetres are there in a kilometre?
Although there is still all of tomorrow left on the cruise, the relentless winding-up has begun: the comments form delivered, the disembarkation instructions, luggage labels. As always, it feels too soon. The most emphatic part of this process was the ceremonial crew parade of 400 staff over the stage for the farewell tonight, with standing ovations and cheering. (It followed the Voices of Silversea doing Queen hits, which left me full of genuine admiration for Rami Malek. Say no more.)
We ate this evening at Spaccanapoli, which is a pizzeria overlooking the pool deck, with a perfect view of the lowering sun tonight heading for a smoke-tinged sepia sunset. It was really warm up there - bare legs and arms temperature. And the pizza was good too.

At the Arts Café we had coffee on the rear deck as the sun finally slid into the sea, and we rounded the Wilson Promontory to turn northwards. It was a quiet evening as I prowled around the ship afterwards: not many people in the public areas at all. Probably bracing themselves in their cabins suites for the last day of the cruise tomorrow. And meanwhile, the staff were taking down the Christmas decorations. Holidays over, no question.

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