Monday 28 January 2019

Anniversary, acrobats, Australia

It's that time of year again: Auckland Anniversary Day, high summer, the harbour full of boats for the regatta, from radio-controlled models to tall ships, but all of them dwarfed by HMNZS Te Kaha moored in the middle of it all, keeping everything in order. And to make it even better, the rest of the country is back at work on a normal Monday. Smug!

There's all sorts going on in the city, which is buzzing nicely with residents and visitors, all of them trying to ignore the ugly and inconvenient mess of roadworks, rail tunnelling and building that seems to have reached a peak recently. The Port is open, strongly selling itself and its plans for future developments on what everybody else sees is a prime waterfront site. There's music, there are food trucks (genuine gozleme! baklava!) and there is the Buskers Festival, which this year seemed even more international than before.

I watched German jugglers in 1920s tweed knickerbockers, a lone Argentinian with a vast repertoire of music snatches on his phone and a talent for improvising with passers by (who, pleasingly, played along well), four French acrobats, and a Japanese handstand specialist. They all, as usual, had good patter to pad out their few actual tricks to the requisite half-hour; and this year's common joke (there is always one that every act adopts) was, when trying to work up the audience to give them some energy (bro! this is New Zealand!), telling the men with their hands in their pockets that they would hurt themselves clapping like that.

Even harder work than getting the audience to make some noise was having to perform in the baking sun, with the temperature creeping up into the high 20s (this is NZ. For us, that is sweltering). It's all down to the current Australian heatwave rolling across the Tasman to afflict us, hopefully not to the extent that they've been suffering there, which has been horrendous. What it must be like in the Outback I shudder to think. There'll be plenty of kangaroo spit being spread around, that's for sure.

And speaking of Australia, it was quite a thrill to hear this week what they found in London when digging their own new train tunnel at Euston: only the grave of Matthew Flinders, people! He was the first explorer to circumnavigate Australia (don't listen to the country's current PM, who recently claimed it was James Cook. Pft. He won't last long) (do they ever?) Flinders also, not incidentally, was the first to use that name for the great southern land. I've bumped into him quite often in my travels, and have become a fan: he seems a lot more interesting and personable than Cook. Plus, he had a cat called Trim that went with him on his voyages - but which went missing when Flinders was arrested as a spy in Mauritius because when he arrived there the French and English were at war.

I saw a black and white cat there, that might have been a descendant. I'm sorry I didn't see the statues of Flinders and Trim in Port Lincoln, South Australia, and in Lincolnshire when I was those places. But next time I go to London, I'll be sure to go and visit Matthew's grave.

Sunday 20 January 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 😃 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 12 January 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' cliché today. Regular readers 😃 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 7 January 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 😃 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 1 January 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 😃 - 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:


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