Sunday, January 20, 2019

Silversea's Silver Muse - once over lightly, alas

There was knife-twisting aspect to today's outing which, at best, added piquancy to the visit; at worst, gut-churning envy. It was the first visit to New Zealand of Silversea's newest ship, Silver Muse. Regular readers πŸ˜ƒ will recall that I have over the last ten years built a relationship with the line's PR people, which has enabled five actual cruises (plus one we actually paid for) - the most recent a Norwegian cruise last July into the Arctic Circle on Silver Spirit.
That last sentence could have been so different: it could, so easily, have read "the most recent a cruise from Singapore to Myanmar on Silver Muse". Because that was the invitation that popped into my inbox in mid-November (hence my email-checking addiction, multiple times daily) - not just revisiting two places I haven't been to since NINETEEN-EIGHTY, but cruising there on this fancy new ship that everyone's been fussing about all year. And I had to turn it down, because it clashed with an important family event. Sigh. [NB Family first, always, forever. But...]
So I accepted the invitation for lunch on board with a tiny degree of reluctance, knowing I would be made sad by seeing what I'd missed. And so it was, dear reader. It's a beautiful ship, one of Silversea's two biggest at 600 passengers, but still small and intimate, though at the same time remarkably spacious. I know that seems a contradiction - but the public areas are open, uncrowded, light and airy (I preferred Muse's warm browns and beiges to Silver Spirit's purple and silver), and there are so many of them, big and small, around the ship. There are eight restaurants, too.
After bubbles and a welcome in the theatre, we toured all over before sitting down to lunch at Indochine. Having recently been shown over Regent's Seven Seas Mariner, it was no surprise to see the big suites with all their elbow room, furniture and expansive verandas, but I think Muse's Owner's Suite has the edge - it is, after all, the first cruise ship bathroom I've ever seen that has a bidet. That's on top of all the marble, Bulgari, big-screen TVs, Bose, Illy, dining table, writing desk, multiple sitting areas, vast wardrobe with a challenging number of hangers... You know, the usual.
It was, most of all, just so nice to be back on a Silversea ship again. They do look after you so well, everything is done properly, the surroundings are so comfortable and attractive, and the staff are so friendly and welcoming. I know people who actually despise cruising, as an option - curled lips, raised eyebrows, derisory snorts, the lot. Poor, misguided souls. They have no idea what they're missing.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Fly DC3 to the '60s - and back again

Thank you to FlyDC3 for hosting me.
It's pretty hard to avoid the 'trip back in time' clichΓ© today. Regular readers πŸ˜ƒ of a certain vintage will recognise the plane: a DC3 complete with Pratt and Whitney turbo-props. This one began flying in October 1944 and is still going strong - unlike others of my acquaintance who share the same birthday (and no, I don't mean me. Hmph). That control tower is of a similar age, so they look good together. This is Ardmore Airfield, in Auckland's south-east, which is actually the busiest domestic airport in the country, thanks mostly to the seven air schools on the site. But Betsy here does her best to keep the runway dusted, too.
She was built in Oklahoma just too late for anything dangerous, WW2-wise, did a bit of service around the edges of the Korean War, working in Japan and the Philippines, and then went on to civilian duty there and in New Guinea, finally ending up in tropical Australia. After a stint in a museum, she was brought to NZ by enthusiasts and now is in the care of FlyDC3, who have a team of ex- and current pilots and flight crew, military and commercial, who think nothing of giving up their precious free time to take her up on flights that generate just enough money to cover her expenses.
That's what I did today, tagging along on one of her summer days out to Whitianga - on a perfect sunny, clear January day, with a complement of just nine passengers, so we each had a window seat. Rectangular window, see? Rather low, so you have to duck down to look out - but, since we mostly flew at about 1500 feet, it was well worth the minor discomfort to be able to see so well what we were flying over. 
That was Auckland city, the islands of the Gulf including Waiheke, the Coromandel peninsula, and the coast and farmland beyond, finally swooping down over Whitianga's picturesque cliff, river mouth and beach. 
It's quite a while since I was here last, and the town's been quietly booming: there are grand houses built alongside the airfield there with their own planes parked outside - and, nearby, an astonishing waterway development with a curved canal, artificial island, retirement village and lots more even grander houses with big shiny boats moored at jetties at the bottom of each garden. Extraordinary. We were swept along a fancy new road past big-box stores and I wondered if I'd even recognise the town now - but I'm glad to report it's just as appealing as ever, with lots of art galleries and coffee shops in the main street, a well-used marina, a very busy ferry bustling back and forth across the river, and, it being summer holidays, heaps of kids hurling themselves off a wharf they shared with a bunch of families busily fishing.
The Mercury Bay Museum has masses of stuff to poke through. I especially enjoyed, having been put by Betsy into a nostalgic frame of mind, the recreated 1960s classroom, with cursive writing practice on the blackboard, pounds, shilling and pence sums (I can still do it!) and a list of monitors' names (milk, inkwells, board cleaning...) - all so familiar. There was also a mock-up of a classic murder house [dental clinic] with a boy realistically writhing in the chair.
There was a 1960s bach [holiday house] setup, too, where I found a horrifying copy of a 1964 Jackie magazine (I remember it) - featuring youthful, and very neat-looking, Rolling Stones, but also some ghastly advice dispensed by Cathy and Claire in their column. Augh!
After a nice lunch at Stoked beside the beach, and some more wandering round the shops, including a proper emporium that stocked everything, and just went on and on, we were taken back to the airfield. We boarded Betsy again - she had been working hard doing three scenic flights while we relaxed - and Jolon and Yongxi flew us back to Ardmore, the engines roaring just outside the windows while we luxuriated in the roomy interior (leg room! no overhead lockers!). It was a lovely day out, we were looked after so well by the crew, who clearly adore Betsy and see it as a privilege to be able to do some "real flying". Recommended.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Connecting, again

Whittaker's Music Museum is quite the local treasure here on Waiheke, and about three times now I've enjoyed Lloyd and Joan's weekly shows demonstrating all their instruments. I've also been to some of the recitals they arrange, and yesterday was the second visit of the orthographically challenging Zbigniew and his wife, daughter and son, playing violins and the Bechstein concert grand piano (once beloved of Paderewski, also Polish). Although he has a slight, and no doubt personally regrettable, resemblance to Donald Trump, Zbigniew is cheerful, enthusiastic and musically highly talented. His effortless technique on the violin was remarkable, and a real pleasure to watch and listen to as he worked through the programme.
It was when they were playing a Romanian gypsy-esque number by Mareczek that a vague memory drifted into my head, of another concert, in another place. I had to look it up when I got home, and it turned out that it was in Prague, in 2012, on an Insight Vacations coach tour through Eastern Europe. It was a really good trip, from Budapest to Vienna, pretty heavy on the grim history, naturally (especially Poland, so how Zgibniew managed to stay so chirpy I can't imagine - or maybe that was the result of escaping the Polish winter for a Waiheke summer); but there was fun, too.
Still, on an itinerary like that one there's a lot to see, especially if you're a dutiful tourist like me, so I was pretty tired by the end of our day in beautiful, ancient Prague. There'd been a morning walking tour full of dramatic history and fine buildings, but after two pages of scrawled and now indecipherable abbreviations (when will I ever learn?) my notebook records "Suffering from arch/hist fatigue now - far fewer photos - be glad to get home to no arch merit". But I gamely persevered, continuing after the tour to prowl through the city's confusing muddle of narrow pedestrian lanes, poking into churches, crossing and re-crossing the Charles Bridge, dodging clanking trams and stepping awkwardly around motionless, kneeling beggars.
Regular readers πŸ˜ƒ will recall that on this trip I was suffering from a recently-dislocated shoulder, so that wasn't helping either, and once back at the hotel I really didn't feel like stirring again for another group meal heavy on the meat and potatoes. But, obligated by being hosted (thank you, Insight Vacations), I trudged out again for the evening's function - and (presumably you were expecting this) was very glad I did. 
Although my notebook indicates that my initial wow! moment was having the wine waiter pour generous serves from a long glass bulb slung over his shoulder, very precisely controlling the flow with his (presumably clean, if stained) forefinger over the opening, I soon got swept up with the entertainment energy.
We were in a big room with long tables and the music was organised by a team of ladies in national dress playing a hammered dulcimer, double bass, clarinet and violin - although more esoteric instruments got their moments of glory later. There was dancing, singing, foot stomping, thigh slapping, spur jingling and girls being flung up into the air by vigorous young men. Even my tch! moment during the international musical welcome that included Waltzing Matilda but nothing from NZ had to be retracted later when, in the audience participation section, one game man from Christchurch played Pokarekare Ana on the dulcimer. It was a brilliant evening: a fun, professional, energetic and colourful celebration of local culture. And last night Zbigniew brought it all back with his gypsy tune.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Well, new, anyway

"Tch! Who can be bothered with 2019?" said the man ahead of me in the dairy today. "We're all just waiting for 2020, aren't we? That sounds much more fun!"

It seems a bit harsh to condemn an entire year for such a frivolous (if probably correct) reason, and I'm sure we'll all be perfectly satisfied with 2019 if it manages to behave itself even marginally better than the last three. As usual, I have no idea of what it might bring - well, who has, you might reasonably ask - but it is the expectation when talking to people in the travel writing business that they will have trips planned. Not me.

All I can tell you is that I would like to go to some more cold places - the Arctic, in Greenland, Alaska or Canada, I'm not fussy, as long as there are polar bears and the Northern Lights. Also Japan, Switzerland, Spain, Italy... any (or all) of them would do.

But being, as I am, somewhat hampered by boring domestic issues, it's entirely possible that I won't be needing my passport at all this year; and that this blog, already coughing up blood, may finally expire before completing its tenth year. Which would be such a tragedy for my regular readers πŸ˜ƒ - so let's hope the travel fairy waves her wand at me.

In the meantime, this is the sort of rubbish I'm currently having to put up with, every damn day:

Monday, December 3, 2018

I bless the dogs down in Africa

I've just been watching the latest - and I mean the latest: it's only just been shown in the UK - episode of the sainted David Attenborough's new series, Dynasties. This one was about two packs of African Wild Dogs, or painted wolves as he called them, whose territories are in Mana Pools in Zimbabwe.
Regular readers πŸ˜ƒ will remember that a couple of years ago I spent a few days just across the Zambezi River from Mana Pools, at Royal Zambezi Lodge in Zambia. One of the highlights (and there were SO MANY!) was on safari one day our coming across a small pack of these dogs in the national park alongside the lodge's grounds, and watching them devour the impala one of them had killed. Seeing these cute dogs on the screen, with their big round ears and mottled shaggy coats brought it all back - as did hearing the collared doves warbling in the background, and the distinctive squeaks of the dogs. We were so lucky to see the dogs - there are fewer than 7,000 left in the world, sadly. Usual reasons, sigh.

Naturally, the photography in the series is brilliantly done, and it looked just gorgeous, the colours so rich and the sun so golden and mellow in the hazy sky. I was thinking only yesterday about my African trips and what an edgy place Africa is, and how going there is simultaneously exciting and frightening. I was inclining towards thinking - such a wuss - that I was kind of relieved not to be contemplating another trip there in the foreseeable; but now I'm keen to go again. It certainly is a harsh and dangerous place - ask the wildlife, as well as the people - but it's truly a magical, super-special destination, and I'd go again tomorrow if I could.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Cheating on Silversea with Seven Seas Mariner

I read somewhere that comparing Seven Seas Regent with Silversea is like comparing lobster with filet mignon, so it was appropriate that my meal today on board Seven Seas Mariner included both dishes - well, a lobster starter and an Angus beef steak, which is pretty good going for a Friday lunch, I reckon. Regular readers πŸ˜ƒ will remember that I have done a number of Silversea cruises (SIX! I've done SIX!), the most recent a few months ago in Norway, and the most memorable last Christmas in Antarctica - so I was very interested to see how one of Regent's upper-end ships compared.
It helped that the Mariner was moored near the obscenely long and high Golden Princess, so from the start it looked appealingly intimate and Silversea-like, despite catering for 700 passengers (compared with Silver Spirit's 540, for example). It's recently been refurbished and is impressively elegant inside, with quantities of shiny marble, sparkly chandeliers, soft chairs, modern abstract artworks, pleasingly curvaceous staircases and a classy muted colour scheme. We, a contingent of travel agents and a trio of media people, spent an hour and a half trailing over the ship, visiting one of every type of suite (it's an all-suite ship though, like Silversea, its 'veranda suite' is really just one room, with a curtain to divide the bed from the sitting area). 
My general impression is that it's just like Silversea, except roomier, especially the upper-end suites, which are remarkably spacious, some of them even with private conservatory-style deck areas. The furnishings were all 6-star, the bathrooms supplied with l'Occitane toiletries and the walk-in wardrobes with a challenging number of clothes hangers (formal nights, incidentally, are much less formal than Silversea's). The staff were prepping the suites for a new complement of passengers, and the ice buckets were already out with the welcome bottle of champagne in them. 
There were rows of loungers beside the pool, each with a rolled-up towel on it - Eddie, the Cruise Director, was at pains to point out how preferable that is to the free-for-all that takes place on the bigger ships. Even on the sunniest days, there's always room, he said. We saw the gym and the spa (yawn, x2) and all of the restaurants and snack bars, some of them a bit boudoir-like for my tastes, but others ruinously (to the waist line) inviting. The theatre is big and has a cast of twelve - there's plenty of music and dancing around the ship in the various bars and lounges. I especially liked the library, even if its quietly crackling video fireplace was slightly hokey.
As far as pricing goes, Regent is more expensive (gasp! I suppose) than Silversea, but that does include more stuff, like all restaurants, shore excursions, wifi, airfares, transfers and pre-cruise hotels. Not all of that applies to all passengers, though; plus, you only get a butler in the more expensive suites, and if you're in a veranda suite you're only supplied (proper gasp!) beer in your minibar. Nevertheless, Eddie was quite emphatic about the joy of being able to have a properly indulgent 90-day cruise and at the end of it have a bill of zero dollars - *cough* on top of your original fare, that is.
Then we went to the Compass Rose restaurant for our reward, a lunch of the afore-mentioned lobster, then really nice soup, super-tender if perhaps slightly under-flavoured beef with a yummy mushroom vol au vent, followed by an intensely-chocolatey mousse thing and yummy little petits fours. As well as excellent wine, natch. It was all eminently acceptable. Thank you, Regent. I'd come back again, any time. Er, sorry, Silversea.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Waiheke Walking Festival - Owhanake Headland Sculpture Walk

You know how much more accurate weather forecasts are these days than back when we (I) were young and they were pretty much just hopeful guesses? Well not today. We were meant to have a fine morning and then rain and hail from early afternoon; but in fact it's been the opposite, except (thankfully) for 'rain and hail' read 'showers'. But we still had a very enjoyable walk.
We gathered in the ferry terminal at Matiatia for our friendly welcome and ritual shoe scrub and spray, and set off straight through the bush, up the hill beside the road. We emerged at Delamore Drive, which is one of the fancier roads on the island - where 'fancier' means discreetly linking multi-million dollar properties tucked below the skyline and at the end of long driveways behind electric gates. We followed the road for a while before rejoining the track that led down lots of steps to some splendid views of Owhanake Bay - even today, under a grey sky, looking improbably blue. 
We trailed around the edge of the bay, stopping to view our first sculpture, a piece made of railway ties and rusted metal, in the shape of a dog and with, according to guide Sue who had done the homework, many cultural references that included Maori, Cook, species extinction and other arty stuff, none of which I could see myself. Nor could many others, I suspect - especially the woman who thought it was a horse (and was dogged (ha!) in her interpretation, even when I pointed out the droopy ears: "My friend's horse has ears just like that!" she insisted, unconvincingly). 
But better was to come, at the top of the headland where we were allowed onto the property of a generous rich person to view the sculptures there. My goodness, it was a magnificent house. Big, low, modern, lots of glass to make the most of the wonderful views in all directions, a lovely and super-neat garden heavy on the topiary, swimming pool, the lot. Plus of course some beautiful sculptures, the best of which was a gorgeous fat bronze kereru, second place going to some moulded glass fish. 
We were even allowed into the courtyard (on condition that no-one left nose-prints on the windows - though there was plenty of sideways staring nonetheless into the interior which included, I saw, a dining table with seating for twelve. It's another world). Even on a dull day, it was spectacular.
Then we continued around the headland, past other enviable houses, along cliffs overlooking little beaches and past magnificent pohutukawa trees that in a few weeks' time will be in full bright red flower, framing blue sea and green islands - I must go back for that. Oystercatchers peeped, skylarks trilled, grey warblers er, warbled, and tuis flew past with a whoosh! Finally, as the weather turned brighter and brighter, we ended up back at Matiatia, another walk ticked off - and, in my case anyway, very conscious of the fact that the doughty souls starting the circumnavigation today were only halfway through their first section of the 100km circuit they're doing of the island. Maybe next year?


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