Friday, March 23, 2018

P&O Pacific Jewel - a small(-ish) revelation

I don't know how it is that I've now got 17 cruises under my belt. I've never considered myself a cruiser and, though I wouldn't put myself into the same category as Geraldine who snorts with derision whenever she sees a cruise ship in the harbour and shrieks "That would be so GHASTLY!", a cruise would never be my first choice of holiday. Too tame and constrained, generally [Note: not a syllable of these or other derogatory comments apply to Silversea's Antarctica cruise, which will never be surpassed for sheer splendour.]
Of course I'm fortunate to have sailed 95% of the time with upper-end companies on smaller ships and have been supremely well looked after, with the result that I have inevitably become a snob about such things and do a muted Geraldine whenever one of the big ships comes to town. The thought of being imprisoned on a floating artificial city with 5,000-odd other bods is total anathema to me. Radiance of the Seas? Absolute hell. 
But. Being at a loose end, and naturally flattered anyway to be asked, on Wednesday I went aboard P&O's Pacific Jewel for a bit of a junket to promote their upcoming The Big Laugh cruise, which will feature 22 comedy shows over three nights. It was slightly odd to be sitting in a bar, offered canap├ęs and cocktails at midday, but we all did our best to cope, and enjoyed the sets professionally performed by three familiar comics.
Now, the Jewel is not one of the bigger ships - 1900 passengers - so I wasn't challenged on that score (though it's still more than four times bigger than my Silversea ships); but it is, shall we say, more affordable than most of the cruises I've been on (officially, that is, since for me all but one were free). (Sorry.) So although it was well presented (just out of a dry-dock refurbishment) it was more smart than elegant. It was quite disconcerting to see price lists displayed at the bars - just like, in fact, being in the real world, which is not how I've ever thought of cruises. To me they've always been a bit like palaces, where everything is done for you and supplied to you at your whim, and money is never mentioned.
However. People who don't drink (at all, or much) would appreciate not having that built into their fares, I'm sure. And here's the thing: it was all so friendly! The passengers wandering around exploring (this was the embarkation day for a 10 day cruise around NZ), all of the staff I encountered - everyone was cheerful and chatty and clearly pleased to be there. Silversea staff are nice too, but with an overlay of deference that means you're always aware they're at work. And some Silversea passengers can be a bit stand-offish. It was nice to see children on board too, being excited. Even the woman passenger lying in the salon having some unbelievable treatment with plaster-like stuff and wires all over her abdomen, purportedly losing inches just lying there, was relaxed and talkative with all of us wandering curiously past. 
And as for the route, well, the older lady I talked to in the theatre (two tiers of seating, that's something you don't see on the smaller ships) was very enthusiastic about advantages - we didn't mention the ports of call and the scenery, we took that for granted, this is New Zealand after all - in that she didn't have to bother with a passport or, more importantly, travel insurance. "When you get older, travel insurance is a KILLER!" she exclaimed (in a moderately unfortunate choice of phrase). "If I get sick on this cruise, I'll just go ashore." And she makes a good point that will be very relevant to a big proportion of cruise passengers.
So would I sail on Pacific Jewel? If I ever - horrors! - had to pay my own way, and there was no other more interesting holiday on offer, I actually think I might give it a whirl, and not just for the novelty. It's affordable, friendly, comfortable and smart enough to make you know you're somewhere a bit more special than home. Definitely worth considering - though since they reckon, over the six month season, that passengers will consume 9,000 litres of cream, 1,000 kilos of sliced cheese and 15,000 litres of Banana Smoky Caramel Hokey Pokey ice cream, you might want to get your name down for that waist-reducing treatment...

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

BM = Bitter Memory

I was writing about the Ghan the other day for a travel company's blog - incidentally, SO much better paid than writing for the newspapers these days, which is kind of a sadly vicious circle - and though it didn't get into the story, Bircher muesli was at the forefront of my mind.
The Ghan is the train that runs between Adelaide and Darwin, 2979km from one side of Australia to the other. When I first rode it back in 1975, it was still using the original route following the Overhead Telegraph line, on narrow-gauge tracks. Wash-outs were common and the train often had to crawl along the dodgy track so slowly that, standing outside at the back of a carriage, I once saw a trail of ants on a parallel rail moving more quickly - literally. Travelling with an Austrail pass, I had a room to myself which was fairly snug - the fold-up basin was a novelty - but it was luxury compared with the people in the seated carriages down the back. I remember being busy with my needle, taking IN the waistband of a pair of denim shorts (1975, remember) when the carriage attendant popped in to offer me a cup of tea, saw what I was doing, and asked if I would sew a button back on his jacket. Which I did, feeling only slightly used (he was an older guy).
Mainly, though, apart from initiating a life-long addiction to train journeys, that trip was notable for introducing me to Bircher muesli, which I'd never encountered before. It was a revelation, and ever since I've eaten it wherever it's been offered on the breakfast menu, all around the world, in hotels and restaurants and on cruise ships. I soon learned that it is a mutable beast, different in its every incarnation - drier, wetter, with fresh fruit or not, sweeter or not, nuts or not - so it's become a theme, an enjoyable private thread of experimentation running throughout my travels, and always recorded in my notebook, from BM - yuk! to BEST EVER BM! (On which topic, I'm deeply disappointed to report that the Bircher muesli on Silversea's Silver Explorer on my recent Antarctica cruise was at the Yuk! end of the scale: hopelessly too wet and flavourless.)
That was nothing though compared with the ghastly discovery, when I rode the Ghan again in 2009, that there was NO BIRCHER MUESLI on the menu any longer! Honestly, despite my travelling Platinum class, with a big double suite all to myself and lots of fancy extras, I was so let down. It was going to be a satisfying come-full-circle kind of thing, and it just didn't happen. I still feel thwarted. 
The other thing that journey was notable for was the crazy adventure of an Alaskan backpacker who just missed rejoining the train at Port Augusta, ran after it along the tracks, and climbed into a stairwell where he clung on for over 2 hours till he was discovered, hypothermic and perilously close to dropping off to his undoubted death in the dark, chilly and remote Outback. I'm guessing he didn't even notice the Bircher muesli scandal.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Pining for the fiords (well, glaciers)

Yes, agreed, this is a First World Problem, no argument. It's a privilege to even think about describing it, I realise that. OK?

So. On my recent Silversea cruise to the Antarctic (cue a volley of clicks on the x above) the term 'bucket list' was bandied around a lot. A lot. So many people I spoke to on board were gleefully anticipating ticking Antarctica off, having dreamed for ages of going there some day. And that is perfectly understandable and acceptable: it's a spectacular, beautiful, unique place, far away and hard to get to. It takes a lot of money and effort to go there - but quite apart from the delight of being there, and the memories (and thousands of photos) you carry away, there's the enjoyment of being able to bore people about your trip for the rest of your life. All worth a one-off major splurge, right? Absolutely.
Except, and here's the thing, there was a surprising number of people on board who had actually already been there. I truly was surprised. I'd thought Antarctica was the epitome of a been-there, done-that destination, for the reasons above. But, apparently, not. How rich would you have to be, I wondered, and/or how exhaustingly well-travelled, to be going somewhere like Antarctica for the second time?

[Side note: Silversea is a top-of-the-line cruise company, ie not cheap - this 18-day cruise started at NZ$30,000, with many unavoidable add-ons - but such is the ambience on board that you really wouldn't be able to pick the insanely rich from those who had saved up for years to buy their ticket. Or, indeed (so I hoped, anyway) those who had swanned there on a freebie.]
This, though, was all before we got very far into the cruise. Once we'd hit (metaphorically) South Georgia, and definitely once we got to the Antarctic Peninsula, it all became clear. This place is absolutely, honestly and truly, so thoroughly spectacular, beautiful, unique and SPECIAL that I understood why people went to all that expense and trouble to come back again. More than understood: agreed with them. Now I want to return to Antarctica too. I want to see again those icebergs, watch, hear and even smell all those adorable penguins, hear the clink and fizz of ice in the water on a rocky beach, and know that I am once again on the coldest, driest, highest and most stunning continent on the planet.

You listening, Silversea? (Or anyone else, come to that.)

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