Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Azamara Journey - Sydney

As promised, Captain Johannes eased us past the Opera House this morning right on 10am. Everyone was on deck for the entry to Sydney Harbour, glimpsing first the Harbour Bridge above the coastal suburbs, then the city skyline, and then, as we entered the harbour, the whole classic panorama of tower, skyscrapers, Opera House and bridge laid out for us (jostling somewhat at the railings) to view and photograph. The weather, while warm, was a bit dull and grey, and the tiles on the roof of the Opera House appeared a little dingy in the low light – but it’s always a splendid sight.
Invisible Cruise Director Tony, who has been a touch more visible lately, treated us to a short lecture full of dates, facts and figures as we sailed in. When I asked afterwards, politely, why he hadn’t done something similar for, say, Milford Sound, he said quite bluntly, “Well, there isn’t much to say, is there?” Ditto for the other ports on the cruise. Apparently Azamara only does an arrival commentary for a few ‘iconic cities’ like here and Stockholm. Pft.
Anyway, it was lovely to be back here again, and I started at Darling Harbour where, in the Maritime Museum that I flitted through, I was surprised and pleased to find a connection: a big model of the SS Orcades, on which I sailed back to NZ from England in 1957 – my last crossing of the Tasman, before last week.
On a mission to buy a wedding present for (Aussie) Daughter #3, I powered through the central city – deeply impressed by local pedestrians keeping efficiently and uniformly to the left – and finally found what I wanted in a gallery at The Rocks, that charming and authentically old and architecturally interesting area at the base of the Harbour Bridge. It’s a lovely place to wander through, all stone steps, narrow cobbled lanes and tempting bars and restaurants, as well as lots of interesting shops and galleries. Good old Sydney. Who cares about the odd thunderstorm?

Monday, March 20, 2017

Azamara Journey - At Sea 3

There are two sorts of cruise passenger: those who love days at sea as an excuse not to do anything at all except eat and snooze; and those who see them purely as a necessary, and quite boring, evil. To placate the latter there are extra activities laid on, so today I attended the Captain’s Chat first of all.

He is (I asked) still cheerfully unrepentant about giving the NZ marine forecast people a hard time – “I have lost all faith in Kiwi forecasters!” – and now jokily relies on Siri for his weather predictions in his PA announcements. Not that, he admitted, he would have done anything different back at Tauranga if he’d been given more accurate information about the storm and sea conditions.

Then there was a lecture on Australia’s dark history of transportation – a subject always good for some horrifying facts and figures: 300 lashes with a cat o’ nine tails was pretty standard on the ships coming out, laying the bones bare with just 100; in Tasmania men running alongside the jigger acted as the engine for a railway; a full quarter of the convicts on board the second transportation fleet died at sea; it didn’t end till 1868 in Western Australia.
And then he moved onto the topic of the treatment of Aboriginals (no excuse for the several incorrect spellings of the word, by the way): “Not a pretty story”. Their population in Tasmania was reduced, in 1873, to just one, Truganini, who died three years later. The ‘Keep Australia White’ campaign of the first half of the 20th century today sounds (though this American professor chose not to make the connection) alarmingly like current news.
Next I did a galley tour, full of steam and stainless steel and spotless white uniforms: 59 cooks, 5 kitchens, 24-hour activity which, during the tour, involved much stirring, frying, rolling and cutting. Of course, by the time it finished, it was lunchtime and I had to eat some of it – for form’s sake, naturally.
Afterwards there was art: an attempt to do a version of an Aboriginal dot painting that was not a great success, thanks in equal part to having to use a fancy brush instead of a stick; to having to listen to nerve-jangling, apparently inescapable and absurdly inappropriate musak (Frank Sinatra) given that the average age on this ship is 63; and to a total lack of talent on my part. But I learned to respect the inspiration and dexterity of the original artists. (My pale imitation consigned without regret to the rubbish bin.)

Outside, the pool deck was well used through the afternoon by sunbathers, snoozers and readers, with an alarming number of tats on full display (remember: 63). On the jogging track above, serious women in stretch pants swirled around above the recumbent forms below, presumably keeping count of their revolutions in their heads: 13 to cover a mile. I wondered: if they jogged instead of walked, would they have to do more circuits to make up for the ship moving below them with each stride? Or would going first with the ship’s direction, and then against it, cancel each other out?
Dinner tonight was at Prime C on the top deck, one of the two specialty restaurants on board, which are not included in the fare (so thanks, Azamara, for hosting us). It was a very classy affair, from the décor through the service to the food itself, which was beautifully cooked and presented. Chateaubriand, since you ask. Delicious, and so tender!

Finally, tomorrow being the last full day of this cruise, there was the Crew Parade – a cheesy affair, but irresistible, especially on a small ship, where so many of the faces are recognisable. Captain Johannes was jolly, and keen to share how many passengers are staying on board, or have signed up already for further cruises. The ambiance was so friendly that it was even more of the shame that the mood was so totally wrecked five minutes later by sodding jazz on the piano.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Azamara Journey - Hobart

We woke this morning in Hobart, Tasmania, and scurried ashore without breakfast to avoid the large queues at immigration that actually didn’t eventuate. Never mind, it was nice to be back in Tassie again. Hobart has a pretty waterfront, with lots of historic buildings still in use, picturesque fishing boats ditto, and even some old sailing ships (don’t know).

I boarded a camouflaged catamaran and sat on a plaster sheep for a half-hour ride up the Derwent River – I was going to MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, and they pride themselves there on being idiosyncratic, hence the boat. It’s a private collection, and isn’t included on the Azamara excursion options in case anyone is offended. Certainly there is some very rude stuff in there: large and obvious (I’m thinking of the gallery comprising a long line of plaster casts of women’s genitalia – which made me, and I’m sure every other women viewing it, wince at the thought of removing the plaster afterwards) and some of it sneaky.
These silver sardine tins, with their pretty botanical features, for example – it was only when I enlarged my photo of three of them that I noticed how indecent they are.

I wasn’t a big fan of Cloaca, which is four large glass containers hanging beneath pipes and tubes that feed them a faecal concoction that emits farts and periodically has to be excreted. Hard to imagine who would be. But there was plenty of lovely stuff there too, in all media, from all times and cultures, big and small, obscure and approachable; and all explained on a nifty cellphone-type guide. Hobart is lucky to have it.
The building messes with your head, though: it’s like the Tardis, and impossible to work out how all the galleries fit together. I've no idea how it looks from the outside.
“It’s not my cup of tea,” was the verdict of the pre-Baby Boomer woman sitting next to me as I waited afterwards for the ferry back to town. I think it pretty much goes without saying that if that expression trips comfortably off your tongue, MONA is not meant for you.
At the town’s Female Factory, the initial impression is that there’s nothing there: so it’s essential to pay for the Heritage Tour. Then you get someone like John showing you around the three yards that remain, empty spaces behind high sandstone walls. He told vivid stories about the lives of the inmates that brought the place to horrifying life – no dramatic exaggerations, just bare facts. Like, after 3 to 6 months being incarcerated in the hold of a transport ship on minimum provisions, having to walk at 4am (lest the sight of 100 women inflame the passions of the town’s sex-starved sailors) seven kilometres uphill to the gates of the prison, where any child aged three or above was taken from its mother, often never to be seen again.

It was a dreadful, dreadful place. Tasmania’s history is so very dark. I’ve previously been to Port Arthur (“A holiday camp in comparison,” said John, who has also guided there) and to Sarah Island, and Brickendon and Woolmer – and that’s only the convict side of the story. The Aboriginal people fared even worse. None of it should be forgotten.

But there was fun today too, in the person of Nick Nickolas, an English magician/comedian I’ve seen performing on the waterfront in Auckland many times. His act in the cabaret theatre after dinner was familiar but as funny as ever and, yet again, knowing the sleight-of-hand tricks he had (not literally) up his sleeve was of no use whatsoever in figuring out how he did them. Excellent!

Azamara Journey - At sea 2

Sunshine! And a (relatively) calm sea. The temperature is up to 19 degrees and it’s possible that the swimming pool, which yesterday had not just waves, but breakers, will be refilled and opened for the hardy souls on board. Even with it netted off, they’re out there, bundled up in rugs and towels, beanies pulled low, squinting at their Kindles and retro books, determined to make the most of the sun.

Today there were lectures, ship tours and all the usual offerings at the spa and gym. Generously given a credit there, I decided – foolishly, in retrospect – to go for the metabolic function test. This involved sending a current through me from my foot to my hand, generating a printout telling me how much weight I need to lose, how dehydrated I am, and how much invisible fat is lodged around my organs. Given that there are about eight places to eat on the ship, many of them continuously available, and not much physical to do, it was not a helpful exercise (not any sort of exercise at all, in fact). Naturally, the follow-up anti-toxin spiel was lost on me.
More distracting were the tours of the bridge and the control room: full of screens these days, of course, and buttons (“You are not allowed to push any buttons!” was the stern warning before each tour). But the bridge still has a classic wheel, and a sextant in a perspex box with a dramatic but redundant ‘In case of emergency break glass’ label (it had a hinged lid). More to the point, you'd need to fish out the paper chart and find the guy who knows how to use it and the sextant so that, if the GPS won’t pinpoint your position with its usual 30cm variation, the sextant can do it to within, ooh, 30 or 40 miles.
The bridge is the brain of the ship, Aleksander from Montenegro told us airily, and the control room is the heart. Stanko from Croatia disagreed: they are both bodies and the ship is the soul. Pretty airy-fairy stuff from a man who spends his working day in a chilly windowless room full of screens and buttons. I did notice, though, that both places had Christian icons on the wall, the one in the control room showing Jesus pointing the way to the steersman, standing behind him with one hand on his shoulder.

The afternoon was warm and sunny, the sea calm and empty, and the sun eventually sank, with the expected but always exciting green flash. The dinner theme was Moroccan (my tabbouleh is better) and the cabaret show tonight was an energetic compilation of movie musicals, with some excellent dancing on dangerously high heels. Tomorrow morning we reach land again: Hobart – my fourth visit to Tasmania.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Azamara Journey - At Sea 1

My distinct impression is that Captain Tysse disapproves of New Zealand weather, and its forecasters, and is pleased to be leaving both behind. This is the first time Azamara has cruised NZ waters and our skipper is unimpressed. He was upfront that his main purpose in giving us an extra taste of the fiords yesterday was to encourage interest in the company's annual 15-day Norwegian route which is - unsurprisingly, since he was born there - his particular favourite, including as it does the "pretty colourful villages" that wild and untouched Fiordland, to its implied detriment, lacks. I saw people today duly signing up for that cruise in the main foyer today, at the steadily busy Loyalty Desk.

Today was our first sea day, a bit wet and rough to begin with, and there was staggering (as well as sheafs of sick bags discreetly placed about the ship); but it improved as the day went on, and became distinctly brighter. We are promised 30 degrees in Hobart the day after tomorrow, which after our recent chilly dampness seems like another world. No doubt the Aussies will be crowing about beating the Kiwis at weather.

We actually heard from Tony the Invisible Cruise Director today - it was purely coincidental, of course, that one of the things he was promoting in his PA spiel was his own performance tonight singing Irish songs, it being St Patrick's Day.
Today's programme included also Bingo, with a free Tshirt and the chance of winning a prize cruise; a sale of stuff from the shops; a spa seminar on 'Youthful Lips'; a lecture on Maori Art (which seems a little late in the piece); various Trivia competitions; a wine-tasting pitting Oz against NZ; and, amongst other 'activities' (bit of a misnomer) a Watercolour Class, at which I discovered that my technique has suffered somewhat in the fifty years since I last picked up a paint brush. Other than to paint, you know, walls.
It wasn't all frittering time away today - there was laundry to do. But the reward was dinner at one of the two special (= higher end but also pay for) restaurants, Aqualina, on the tenth deck at the stern. And very nice it was, too. Excellent service from Allan, from the Philippines, who gets home every 6 months for 8 weeks, and for the rest of the time gets just part of one day off a week - but sometimes not, depending on cruise schedule and weather. What would the hospitality/service industries worldwide do without the Filipinos?

Anyway, delicious food, beautifully presented and served, with a view of white-capped Tasman, white-clouded blue sky, sundry seabirds swooping low and soaring high, and - sadly, inevitably - a discordant musak track of jangly and irritating jazz.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Azamara Journey - Milford Sound

Today went from monochrome to Technicolor. We spent the night creeping around the south of the South Island, through Foveaux Strait, past the bright lights of Invercargill in the night, and along the Fiordland coast, around and up from the bottom left-hand corner (south-east to you compass nerds). Shortly after we woke, the ship was easing into Dusky Sound, to glide through the misty, moisty fiord where the tops of the peaks were hidden in cloud. People were impressed, and taking photos, but I held my peace about how Milford Sound would totally eclipse what they were seeing, and make all their pics redundant. I’m restrained like that.
Back out through Breaksea Sound onto the Tasman coast, we soon took another detour into bigger, greener Doubtful Sound for more of the same, luxuriating in the sunshine and the untouched, and untouchable, vertical native bush that could hide anything – takahe, moose, moa… There were certainly seals, as we turned into Thompson Sound to return to the Tasman.

We sailed up the coast a few hours, and I went to a lecture by an American professor about New Zealand’s self-image, fully prepared to bristle and argue, and found myself agreeing with everything he said. Good job, Allan Hanson. The ship then turned right into an unprepossessing-looking inlet, all grey and misty, and we found ourselves heading towards the light: the sun was shining in Milford Sound, the sky was blue, and those high, high, sheer rocky peaks were as spectacular as ever, trails of low cloud below the tops. 
We dawdled by a tall, graceful waterfall, watched kayaks and catamaran cruisers, small planes made to seem even smaller by the scale of the scenery, and were smug about how lucky we were to be there at all, especially in bright sunshine.
Tony the Invisible Cruise Director lived up to his name, and I found myself doing his job, telling people about the fiord, the rainfall, the freshwater layer, Mitre Peak, the Milford Track and so on. I might mention this to him, if I ever see him around the ship.

The Queenstown overnighters rejoined the ship, a piano played on the pool deck, the captain announced the strong possibility of “motion on the ocean” as we head across the Tasman Sea to Hobart, and we said goodbye to New Zealand. I think most people were pleased, on the whole, with what they saw here – though, naturally, the weather was often a disappointment on this particular cruise, what with that storm and all.
At dinner we chose to sit at a table for eight, and were joined by a couple from South Georgia, another from California, and a pair of ex-Kiwis from Melbourne. That’s the nice thing about the open-dining option on cruise ships: new people, new stories, new ideas. The not so nice bit is that sometimes your neighbour will turn from you as you’re mid-sentence, to join the conversation at the other end of the table, which he (did you guess it was a he?) had been listening to with one ear and had decided was more interesting. What, mate, the (lite version) history of Aboriginal oppression in Tasmania not dramatic enough for you? Better spend your time in Hobart drinking Cascade beer and keeping your blinkers on, then.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Azamara Journey - Dunedin

Good old Dunedin! Broke the pattern, gave us a warm sunny day to appease all the grumbling Brits on board (who of course are unaccustomed to inclement weather). So we glided into Port Chalmers on a glassy sea under a sky of pink wisps, and after breakfast boarded the Taieri Gorge Railway train, which was conveniently right by the ship.
Sitting in (mostly) 100-year old carriages, and welcomed by the lovely Daphne, one of a crew of enthusiastic volunteers who keep this service running, we rattled through Dunedin, past Wingatui, and away towards Middlemarch (though our trip was only to Pukerangi) through farmland and then into the gorge. It was pretty spectacular. 
People were comparing the route favourably with the Rocky Mountaineer, which was a bit of an overstatement, but the gorge is certainly high, steep and narrow, the river stained dark with tannin foaming over huge rocks that have fallen from the cliffs.
The line was built to service the gold fields, and though it was finished too late for that, was still of much use for agriculture and the Clyde Dam builders. There were tunnels, bridges and viaducts (including the Wingatui Viaduct at 47m high), sheep and wild goats, oaks, larches and native bush. At the turnaround, doughty locals had stalls selling fudge, patchwork, and merino scarves and tops that were very popular, as we’d climbed up into cloud.
Back in sunny Dunedin, after a quick scoot round the Octagon (Robbie Burns’ statue the colourful victim of guerrilla knitters) I took the shuttle to the port again, to mosey round the Maritime Museum. There’s a big Antarctica connection at Port Chalmers, many expeditions having left from here, and they had Shackleton’s typewriter (by the way, his skipper on the Endurance Expedition, Frank Worsley, was born in Akaroa and I walked past his birth place there yesterday) as well as more eclectic items such as a glass tube of cod liver oil, a bomb fragment from the Japanese raid on Darwin in 1942 and a dainty little iron for doing collars. There was also a bold statement that “There is nothing mystical or complicated about a sextant” followed by a dense and impenetrable explanation of its use.
We sailed away in bright sunshine, the royal albatrosses nesting on Taiaroa Head so big that they were easily visible. Having seen the sun rise, I also watched it set as we ate dinner outside on the Pool Deck. Final Azamara observation of the day? People will dive with great enthusiasm into criticisms of shipboard arrangements and certain staff (namely Tony the Invisible Cruise Director), until they learn I’m writing a review of the cruise, at which point they become immediately defensive and energetically praise the ship. Almost half of them are repeat cruisers, one couple on their eighteenth trip with the company. So that tells you plenty.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Azamara Journey - Akaroa

New Zealand isn’t coming out of this cruise very well, so far. The weather has been a huge disappointment to the passengers (and to most Kiwis ashore, it must be said) – some of the Australians are already looking forward to getting to Tasmania and some proper sun at last (which must also be a first, given how most mainland Aussies regard Tassie). Of course, the scenery, when visible through the mist and rain, has not been at its best.

The Captain seems a jolly sort and much more hands-on with the passengers than Tony the Hotel Director, who has been pretty much invisible – to the bitter discontent of the solo travellers, who on past experience expected much more personal attention, and are feeling neglected. Even the Captain, though, has been disgruntled by the weather information he’s been supplied by the NZ authorities. Apparently, the Tauranga storm turned out to be far worse than he was advised, and he would have taken other action had he known what it would be like – and thus, presumably, avoided the flooding of several suites up on Deck 8, which necessitated the replacement of the carpets.
Last night was bumpier than he was expecting, too, with much stronger winds. Being down on Deck 4 here, though, we got a smoother ride than those higher up; and we’re midships too, which helps. Even anchored today in the harbour, the engine was running to keep the ship steady – as a rock, actually, so well done whoever was at the wheel. The tenders gallantly made repeated 5-minute trips to the jetty, periodically disappearing in clouds of spray as they bounced over the whitecaps.
But eventually the weather improved enough to get ashore – though not enough to do the dolphin swim that was originally scheduled which, given the temperature, was a small mercy – and I strode along the waterfront and up Rue Balguérie past its pretty little wooden cottages surrounded by lavender hedges to the Giant’s House with its fabulous garden.
Josie Martin has spent 20 years playing/working hard both landscaping and planting her colourful garden, the framework for which is a huge collection of mosaic paths, walls, figures and fountains. She’s used pebbles, broken china and tile, ornaments, glass and mirror to make patterns and decorate people and animals, steps and seats, sculptures and archways. It’s fun, pretty, amazing, arty, colourful and impressive, and very well worth going to see. 
I got really bored and crabby hanging around on board after lunch, waiting for the weather to improve - but once I got ashore and had a good wander around Josie's garden, getting up close with all her amazing works, my mood improved 100-fold. So thanks for that, JM.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Azamara Journey - Picton 2

I almost got a little bored today, before our departure from Picton at 2pm. It was dull and wet again, and I’d forgotten to bring my book, and, well , Picton. But then I remembered the Edwin Fox, and counted my blessings.

The Edwin Fox is an 1853-built barque that’s the focus of a museum just a few minutes’ walk from the ship, and I spent a contented couple of hours poking around it. The museum is really well done, with a video about the ship’s history and restoration, lots of genuine artefacts, and pleasingly arcane information: I learned about scarf joints, treenails, daggerknees and teredo shipworm. Outside in dry dock was the hull of the Edwin Fox herself, authentically weather-beaten and decayed, but still big and impressive.

She was built in Calcutta from Burmese teak and traversed the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans for 20 years, carrying everything from raspberry vinegar to rapists, before ending up ignominiously as first a freezer and then a coal bunker here in Picton. The vinegar was just one of many cargoes transported – the rapists were transported in the wider sense: convicts sent from England to Australia. Being anal and having plenty of time, here are some details I noted from that one voyage: the youngest was John Lowes, 18, given 6 years for stealing; the oldest William Beresford, 59, given 15 years for forgery; the crimes ranged from sheep stealing (kind of coals to Newcastle for them, ending up in Australia) through pickpocketing, sacrilege, highway robbery, habitual drunkenness (ditto) to carnal knowledge of a girl aged under 10 (11 year-olds presumably fair game). William Burston of Taunton got 14 years for a misdemeanour, which seems a bit harsh.
Their conditions on board were horrendous, crowded into a prison at one end of the main deck, with two cannons trained on it. But the settlers who were the next four cargoes fared not much better: steerage was just awful, families of 6 crammed into one double bunk space with vomit and human and animal faeces dripping into it, gruel to eat, and nothing but cold sea water to wash in – for more than 100 days. Courtesy of Shaw Saville, believe it or not.

So being at a bit of a loose end on Azamara Journey today, sprawled on a queen bed in a comfortable stateroom, with lots of lounges scattered about and more eating options on board than you could shake a stick at, including an Indian cuisine special tonight to look forward to, wasn’t, in comparison, much of a hardship…

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Azamara Journey - Picton 1

The Cook Strait crossing normally takes 3½ hours on the ferry – for us last night it was more than eleven. Thankfully, not because we were fighting rough seas, but instead avoiding them, by sailing in the opposite direction almost as far as Palmerston North, to give them time to abate before we headed back south into the Marlborough Sounds. Nice to know Azamara puts passenger comfort ahead of fuel economy.
It was grey and wet this morning, so when our tour driver Don announced that this is NZ’s sunniest province, there was some disbelief – but the acres of neat vineyards backed him up. Our first call was the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, which ought to have been our sole destination. We only had an hour there and to study the exhibits and appreciate the artistry of the story-telling there really deserves about three times that.
It’s Peter Jackson’s private collection of WWI aircraft and related memorabilia, all displayed with Weta Workshop panache and brilliance, and it really is stunning. Genuine aircraft, rebuilds and models, many of them staged realistically, with stories and masses of rare artefacts in cases… it’s unique and we were so sorry to have to rush past most of it. “Take a photo of that storyboard to read later,” advised the guide heartlessly. And we never got near the WWII hangar. Tch.
All we were taken to do afterwards was have a tasting at the Moa Brewery, and some chocolate at the Makana factory – both pleasant enough, but if we’d been more clued-up we’d have made our own way to Omaka and spent as much time there as we needed.
Picton’s waterfront is ok but it’s a transit town really – small and touristy and not offering much to do. It’s a shame that we have more time here than originally scheduled, because Kaikoura, along the coast, is off the itinerary after November’s big earthquake raised the seabed by two metres. It’s one of an unfortunate trilogy of disappointments this trip: the big storm a few days ago meant the Tauranga (gateway to Rotorua) stop had to be skipped; then no Kaikoura tomorrow; and after that, the recent wildfires around Christchurch damaged a bridge on the TranzAlpine track so that train trip is a no-go too. It’s all just nature, but it’s hard for some of the passengers not to feel victimised. I wonder what Azamara might come up with in compensation?

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