Saturday 31 December 2016

All hail the travel agent

I hate this woman. Or, rather, I hate the TV ad that this actress appears in so much that I can't grab the remote fast enough to mute her whiny voice. What is even more alienating than that though, is what she's saying, which is dissing travel agents for being lazy, ignorant and incompetent, unable to access flight information that this clever woman can use WebJet to discover instantly.

I think travel agents are wonderful. To be able, as they do, to bring together so much disparate knowledge about places literally all over the world, from nuts and bolts to aspiration/inspiration, tailor it to the client, organise it all into a simple format, and then be there as back-up in case of unpredictable hiccups or even out-and-out disasters - well, that's so very admirable. I've worked with both high-end operations, like World Journeys, World Expeditions and Adventure World, as well as your literal high-street outlet like House of Travel, and have been impressed every time.

This year, for example, it was Marlene at Adventure World who put me in a place and at a time to experience the entire year's most unforgettable moment: standing just metres away from a wild elephant which was straddling the path between the restaurant and the bar at Royal Zambezi lodge in Zambia - a country I'd never even thought of visiting, until she slipped it into my South Africa itinerary.

Travel agents have in the recent past taken me effortlessly to Galapagos, Easter Island, Kakadu, Iguassu Falls, Machu Picchu: the travel so enjoyable because it was so stress-free. I knew I was in the hands of experts, and that everything would go smoothly. And it did.

Compare that with the trips I did this year that were DIY. They were only around NZ and to Tahiti and Hawaii, but the time and effort it took to piece them together, coupled with my perpetual mistrust in the value and workability of the final itinerary really did suck away a lot of the enjoyment of the trips. Instead of being proud of having done it all ourselves, I was suspicious of how much better - and, yes, more cheaply - it all might have been, if done with more inside knowledge and expertise.

So, out of this year's trips - horse-riding the Coromandel Peninsula, self-driving around New Zealand, ditto with exponentially higher stress levels in Louisiana, attending a conference in New Orleans, swanning through South Africa (and Zambia), sunning myself in Tahiti, swimming in Hawaii - it was the ones that were sorted by travel agents that were by far the most satisfying and the most fun. Suck on that, WebJet.

Wednesday 28 December 2016

Ovation (f)or UnCruise: a review

Ovation of the Seas made its first visit to Auckland yesterday, causing a bit of a stir and having to moor out in the harbour because we haven't got a wharf long enough. It's only the fourth-biggest in the world, but it still has almost 6,500 people on board, including 1500 staff, and it's 20m longer than the Sky Tower is high. Sounds like hell to me, and I wasn't one of those rushing to see it up close: this distant (but still imposing) view of it departing that afternoon was quite sufficient.

I don't do big ships. The largest I've sailed on, by far - if you discount the SS Orcades and the RMS Mataroa that I did a round trip to England on, back when I was three - is Silversea's Silver Spiritwhich takes just 540 guests. To contemplate something so big that it offers sky-diving, surfing and a 90-metre hydraulic arm with an observation pod on the end for me is to recoil in horror. Someone writing about it said, "It feels more like a floating city than a ship." So, what's the point, then?

No, give me the smaller ships, where you know you're at sea, where you can get to know - or at least recognise - your fellow passengers, and which can take you places (like, ahem, Queen's Wharf in Auckland) that the monsters can't fit into. Silversea has taken me right into the centre of Shanghai, into the shallows of a St Lawrence tributary to visit the extraordinary Saguenay, up close to the Hubbard Glacier in Alaska, amongst other treats. That's my sort of cruising.

And that's part of the reason I so much enjoyed my recent UnCruise Adventures outing recently, around four of Hawaii's islands. The ship is very small, just 44 metres long, taking 36 guests (in fact, only 24 on my cruise) - but still has 16 eager crew members to look after us all. So the service is personal, friendly, enthusiastic but very professional, and unfailingly patient and helpful. They call the Safari Explorer a boutique yacht on the website, but it's an expedition ship really - not luxurious, but comfortable, all needs met with as much elegance as they can manage.
There are several grades of cabin: mine was Commander, which meant slightly bigger; but they all had a window and glass door, room for a king or twin beds, an ensuite, a basin in the room, and a wardrobe. It was nice enough. My toilet had a bit of a niff, and the shower was very snug - but the water pressure was excellent. There was nowhere to stow the suitcases, which was a nuisance, but the beds were comfortable, which is really all that matters - on a cruise like this, you're only there to sleep anyway. All the rest of the time you're in the lounge, on deck, or away on an adventure.

The lounge/bar/dining room was welcoming and comfortable with nice touches like a piano, games, books and maps - and mugshots of everyone on board, named for (in my case) constant reference. Thoughtful. All drinks are included, by the way - and barman Donnie (from N'Orleans, y'all) was happy to whip up any cocktail you fancied. The food was excellent and varied, beautifully cooked and presented, and almost too much - there was really no need for an irresistible dessert at lunch as well as at dinner. The chef, Kerri, was though perfectly happy with serving up variations and half-portions - or, alternatively, double-portions if you couldn't deprive yourself of one of the options. Pastry-chef Dawn was also a magician - from bread to Chelsea bun, it was all glorious.

Amanda was in charge of Wellness, which boiled down to pre-breakfast yoga sessions on the top deck - no mumbo-jumbo, just good stretches and pauses to appreciate the dawn - and one included half-hour massage, which I enjoyed. The captain, Rod, was relaxed and approachable, the bridge being open most of the time (and an excellent place to whale-watch from). Our main points of contact, though, and the real stars, were expedition leaders Dai Mar and Mitch, who both had extensive knowledge of the area, history, culture and wildlife, and were likeable, cheerful, funny and professional.

Apart from the small size, UnCruise's other proud point of difference is to take you places other ships can't, getting you into local contact, and its programme of activities (though that's not obligatory, and more sedentary other halves are catered for too). So we were the only ship welcomed on Molokai, where we spent a day with locals who generously shared their culture; and we did some spectacular snorkelling, as well as kayaking, with several opportunities to swim off the boat as well, when we were encouraged to jump in from the second deck.
There was plenty of wild (sea) life, and a relaxed attitude to the itinerary that allowed for detours and delays when there were, for example, whales to watch. I especially liked that the crew were as keen on all this as we were, and joined in where possible (Marqus the steward actually somersaulted from the top deck).

Though at the end he let slip that the real reason he wished we were on board for two weeks instead of one was so that he wouldn't have to learn a whole new lot of names, I did feel that the crew genuinely enjoyed our company as much as we did theirs. We were a good bunch, I think - mostly active, positive people, interested and interesting, from all sorts of backgrounds but with a common attitude that transcended age (from 55 to 73). That's probably UnCruise's best feature: that it attracts this kind of guest. Not the sort to spend all their time in thrall to a robot bar-tender on the Ovation, then.

Tuesday 20 December 2016

Aloha and kia ora

Just to finish this off, because we got asked so many times: the flight from Honolulu to Auckland is a bit over 8 hours – far shorter than for many of the Americans on UnCruise, some of them coming from New England and Pennsylvania. It was less than an hour from the Big Island to Oahu – after a pleasant wait for the flight in the outside waiting room.

A warning, though: Hawaiian Airlines is not known, apparently, for its punctuality and reliability. In our case, boarding was just about to start for the international leg from Honolulu when the captain found a problem, and we were delayed for 20 minutes. That became an hour, after which we had to switch gates, and wait again as a different plane was brought to the gate and the baggage etc transferred. We took off, eventually, two hours late – the cabin attendant said, of the problem, that it was “Computer stuff. Captain stuff” but that we were lucky that there was a spare plane “that we could steal”.

The reason it was there to steal, it turned out, was an unrepaired entertainment system, so we were all thrown back onto our own resources to pass the evening flight. Hooray for cell phones! And also the airline’s very decent, well-written and interesting inflight magazine, Hana Hou. When you’re hungry, too, otherwise unexciting airline food becomes a satisfying treat; and our flight attendant was friendly and cheerful, and a great fan of Waiheke Island where she too was looking forward to spending some time after arrival in Auckland.

So that was Hawaii: two weeks, five islands, four hotels, one ship, one boat, one battleship, one submarine, four planes, two buses and a mule. Rain, snow, sunshine, sea, rainforest, lava, gardens, beaches and roads. Meals that were appalling (one), excellent (many) and superb (two). Nice people, no incidents, nothing lost, kilograms gained. I’d call that a success. Aloha a hui hou!

Monday 19 December 2016

A roar, and a hiss

We woke to sun and snow this morning: the one hoped-for, the other unlooked-for, on the tops of volcanoes Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. They made a bizarre sight with a foreground of coconut palms as we followed yesterday’s path back around the coast again to Hilo. It’s a pretty town, suggestive of Napier, with added banyan trees, but we had no time to explore it. We were meeting Steve of Discover Hawaii Tourswho took us in his mini-bus on a 9-hour ride around the high point of this bit of the Big Island.
There wasn’t quite enough sun for the rainbow to put in an appearance at the Rainbow Falls, and the black sand beach didn’t look its best in the still dull light – but it got better. We drove up the Halema'uma'u Crater road and trailed through the Thurston lava tube (more tunnel than tube – it was big) before having a view over the crater at our lunch stop at the Visitor Centre, where the movie was well worth seeing for footage of eruptions, flowing lava and the blasé scientist scooping molten lava into a bucket, his boot inches from the boiling rock.
We drove down across the lava fields, a vast swathe of black cutting through the vegetation, either shiny black frozen into ropes, wrinkles and cow-pats, or the scratchy shattered rock called a’a – possibly onomatapoeiacally, by barefooted early Hawaiians. Down at the end of the road there are, typically, both dire warnings about safety crossing the lava flow, and instructions on how to do it; and a sea arch which is cheerfully expected to collapse in the not-too-distant future.
After an unashamedly awful dinner at the Kilauea Military Camp (a baked potato from the buffet, served with a pseudo cheese the colour and texture of lava, plus what tasted like boiled mushrooms) where the sign on the shop reads ‘Soldiers, Families, Retirees, Civilians’ – in that order, presumably – we headed back up to the crater for the high point of the tour, The Glow. Steve had built it up in his commentary, and wasn’t at all worried that it might not live up to the hype. Nor did it: the cloud above the hotspot did glow, more and more vibrantly, as the sun disappeared and the night darkened, lit by the three points where the lava was boiling and splashing. Though it was distant, it was dramatic, and a sight to see.
Not that the mother and daughters sitting beside me thought so. Never mind that molten rock from the earth’s core was erupting right in front of them: they were more concerned about not having told Dad to put the trash out, and that the daughter hadn’t kept up with her piano lessons, and the younger one was cold and sleepy, and there weren’t as many stars as they’d been led to believe, and the eruption was smaller, ditto.
Reader, I told them off. And they were subsequently silent.


Sunday 18 December 2016

A spittin' and a splashin'

The comfort of a Fairmont bed was immeasurably improved by its making no attempt to throw us out of it, though my brain did its best to compensate for that, replicating the motion of the Safari Explorer very convincingly. Since it was raining, all the colour sucked out of sea and sky, we spent the morning cruisin’, as they term it here: just hanging out, reading and listening to the patter of the rain and the regular roar of the surf. It was still warm.

After a while, though, you can have enough of that, so at midday, despite no discernible improvement in the weather, we set off on a (long – on the Big Island, it’s always long) drive to Hilo over on the south-east coast. Had the rain been less torrential, we would have stopped for scenic views along the coast, a colourful wander through a tropical botanic garden, a smoothie perhaps at What's Shakin', and to admire the waterfalls. Actually, there was no need for the latter, since there were torrents of brownish water leaping onto the road along the route.

We persisted, because we had a 5pm tour booked with Lava Ocean Tours, for a cruise along the coast to view the lava pouring into the sea from Kilauea volcano. There were some stern warnings from the greeter – “It’s like Magic Mountain on steroids,” he promised kids who hopefully had no idea what steroids were; and, “Have you ridden any bulls lately?” to a man taking a seat at the front of the boat, who then scuttled meekly to the back where we 60+ passengers were assigned our seating. "Much easier on your backs," we were told somewhat patronisingly, and no doubt with litigation avoidance in mind.
We’d climbed a ladder onto the boat, still on its trailer, which was then very efficiently backed into the water and at once we were away, thumping and splashing along the coast for half an hour, great curtains of spray constantly thrown up on each side and sometimes inside too, to the delight of the shrieking kids up front alongside their long-suffering, teeth-gritting parents.
When we got to the lava flow, at first mostly all we could see were billowing clouds of smoke and steam, warm and smelling of sulphur, though the guide assured us there was no threat of SO2 poisoning. Mind you, as we sat on the surging waves about three metres from the hissing rocks, he did also say, “If the coast guard asks, tell him Half a mile”. Every so often there was a blurry flash of orange through the white. What sounded like rain pattering on the roof was gritty ash falling down. I could see steaming pieces of rock floating in the water. Dramatic stuff: fire meeting the sea, literally.
And then, the clouds parted and we could get momentary glimpses of the brilliant orange of the molten lava, dazzlingly bright in the evening light, splashing into the air and streaming into the water. It was so impressive: the Big Island being made bigger, right before our eyes, in an eruption that’s been continuous since 1983. Even though Cotopaxi was much bigger, it was really exciting, to be so close to it – literally, metres, I have no idea how they get away with it – and much better I think than the helicopter flight would have been.
After about 40 minutes of manoeuvring so everyone got a good view, we slammed and banged our way back along the edge of the lava flow again, the whole tour taking two hours and finishing up at the car park in the pitch dark at 7pm. We drove gingerly through the rainforest along a single-lane road, thousands of coqui frogs peeping away in an invisible but noisy chorus, and followed the long road back to the Fairmont, the rain mostly holding off, our hopes high for a fine day tomorrow.

Saturday 17 December 2016

Aloha a hui hou to Safari Explorer

The ship did its best to throw us off last night, quite unnecessarily, as this morning our cruise was over. Visually, it was more of a whimper than a roar, if you see what I mean, as we were moored at a pier in a small container port which, disconcertingly, entirely lacked the name Maersk emblazoned anywhere. Instead, it was Matson on nearly every container. It was like an alternate reality.
The crew made up for the uninspiring surroundings by a cheerful line-up on the pier, and we each collected 16 hugs or handshakes as we worked our way along to the bus waiting to take us to the airport. There were some tears – not mine, obviously – and promises to meet again, and invitations to visit, neither of which are likely to happen. I’ve done this before. I know how it works. But it was a feel-good moment, the last of many we'd had on the Safari Explorer, and we were all genuinely happy that we had done the cruise. Thank you, UnCruise Adventures!
On, on. The bus took us on a good road across flat volcanic flow country, the rocks on each side either shattered or still wrinkled as if they had only just cooled (though that eruption took place in 1801). Tawny grasses were colonising it in parts, gold against the black, and white waves were breaking at the edge of the sea which was turquoise and deep blue. The two biggest volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, had their heads in the clouds. Cyclists had their heads down against the wind, and we passed an unexpected Beware Donkeys road sign.
At the airport we all finally parted company, and we claimed our indulgent hire car, a Ford Mustang convertible – white, not red, we broke the mould – to drive back up the road again to our hotel, the Fairmont Orchid. We passed several resorts on the way, all with neat basalt walls, trimmed bougainvillea hedges, coconut palms and a spread of attractive buildings, and the Fairmont is one of the best. It’s open, airy, beautifully landscaped around swimming pools and a big pond with waterfalls and huge goldfish; it’s attractively decorated for Christmas, the staff are solicitous without being obsequious, and our room is large and comfortable with a view over the manicured golf course and the sea.
We set out again to explore, driving south past the town and suburbs of Kona and along a narrow winding side-road where the person driving (ahem, not me) got yelled at by a couple of locals to “Slow the f--- down!” Our top was down, of course, so we felt the full force of their anger – they keep that quiet about convertibles, that you’re literally open to pedestrian abuse.
At the Paleaku Peace Botanical Gardens, I breathed deeply of said peace, admired the flowers, learnt about some plants (macadamias are native to Australia, apparently – who knew?), watched some pretty finches bathing in a rocky fountain, saw a mongoose, skipped the spiritual stuff, and cracked myself, with satisfying ease, a blissfully moist and creamy macadamia in the gift shop.
Next stop was the Painted Church, a cute little wooden thing on a hillside overlooking its tropically-planted graveyard. Inside, its original builder-priest had turned his hand to decoration, and painted it from ceiling to floor – from the Stations of the Cross to coconut palms and blue skies. Not what you’d call skilful, but certainly pretty, and unusual. I most enjoyed, though, the two friendly cats sprawled outside, who generously accepted my attentions. The church is still in use, and a few congregation members were gathering for a service, from an ancient man creeping up the path with a walking stick to a bulky bandanna-ed biker who arrived on some roaring beast.

Then we drove back – there was a moment of excitement when one of us (not me) managed to switch off the ignition en route while trying to adjust the aircon – and arrived without further incident to watch yet another spectacular sunset silhouetting coconut palms across the bay. Being both cheap and members of the Gold class, we were able to eat what are officially called hors d’oeuvres in the lounge but are really a free option to going to one of the restaurants (though we probably missed something special, not going to Brown’s down in the garden).

Friday 16 December 2016

Saving the best for last?

Oh, cruel irony! Having killed my Olympus Tough yesterday, this morning I had my best snorkel ever – yes, better than the Great Barrier Reef, than Galapagos, than Tahiti. And all I had were my eyes to see it, and my brain to remember it. Ouch. So primitive. (So I've had to use Dai Mar's photos for that.)
We transferred from the skiff to a local Captain Zodiac rigid inflatable, captained by flamboyant Preston and ably assisted by big and initially enigmatic Buddha up the front in his reflective sunglasses. He was the sealife whisperer, and started by conjuring up a couple of humpbacks as we roared out along the coast on a sparkling blue-sky morning. They waved their tails at us, and we continued to Kealakekua Bay, where Captain Cook (“a famous cartographer” Buddha explained) was murdered in 1779 – along with 33 Hawaiians, Preston murmured, whose names are not recorded on the white-painted obelisk by the water’s edge.
Here we dropped into the slightly cool water to be rewarded by simply stunning snorkelling: the water crystal clear (except where it was blurred by colder fresh water seeping up out of the rock, after filtering down from the volcano peaks), the light strong and bright, and the fish abundant both in number and variety. Schools of brilliant yellow tangs, big turquoise parrot fish biting at the coral, see-through trumpet fish, orange slate-pencil and black spiny sea-urchins, and all sorts of other fish I can’t name – black, orange, blue, yellow, striped, cross-hatched, spotted. All were busy going about their business – or, in the case of one school, dozing on the bottom. It was fascinating and I was enthralled. And I didn’t even see the octopus! Brilliant.
Eventually, we were all hauled out, but then the outing turned a bit dramatic. Buddha noticed a couple struggling to right their capsized kayak, stripped off, dived in and – rather show-offily, I thought – swam underwater to where they were thrashing about, looking agitated. He righted the kayak, and got the woman aboard, but when the man capsized it again climbing on, ushered them to our skiff where they gratefully accepted the offer of a lift. He then tied on the kayak and rode it behind the boat, meaning he was handy to rescue our sun umbrella when it flew off, Preston having forgotten to take it down in all the excitement.
We returned the couple and their sub-standard kayak to shore with a few stern words from Buddha to the renter, and then zoomed away again, having accomplished our second marine rescue in three days. Karma rewarded us with a manta ray sighting, spotted by Buddha naturally and prompting a spectacularly tight 360 by Preston; and then some spinner dolphins including a baby as we returned to the Safari Explorer.
The next event was a taster in an outrigger canoe which, on a calm day with smooth seas, seemed a reassuringly stable craft and much easier to propel than a kayak – six paddles in the water will do that, of course. [Interestng note for NZ readers: waka is the canoe; ama is the outrigger.] Then I explored the town of Kona, which really didn’t take long – it’s very touristy, full of shops selling paintings, Hawaiian shirts and sarongs, shell ornaments, jewellery and Kona coffee. There’s a small, plain-looking palace, and a church with a model of a brig inside whose story I skipped (sorry) – for me, the interest was in the splendid trees along the seafront, and all the local life on the shore and the water. It was training day for half a dozen young outrigger teams, who were stimulatingly enthusiastic.
There was more enthusiasm that night as Dai Mar presented the slideshow he’d been building up all week. He’d got some really good shots of us all, and the fish, sunsets, people and activities, and there was a lot of “Oh yes! I’d forgotten that!” It’s a nice touch that UnCruise gives us a memory stick with all this on, since our own memories are clearly so deficient.

Our last dinner, our last night, and there was some carousing and drinking, some singing around the piano, and self-congratulation on what a good group we were. With some truth, I do agree: it doesn’t always happen, in my experience, that strangers gel so well. I think it’s an UnCruise thing: their type of cruise attracts mainly active, positive people, no matter their age. It’s a definite plus.


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