Wednesday, December 28, 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.

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