Thursday 28 February 2019

Pining for the kauri on a Red Boat cruise

With thanks to The Red Boats
It's a bit embarrassing, to recommend to friends, who live for most of the year on the other side of the world, an outing here that you've just enjoyed, only to have them tell you that they've been there, done that already - twice. It's not an unusual scenario, though, for tourists to have done a better job of exploring your taken-for-granted backyard, so I'm shrugging it off, and just being pleased that I've done it myself at last.
What it was, is a cruise up into the upper harbour here in Auckland, and along the Rangitopuni Creek to the little town of Riverhead, for lunch at the historic tavern there, and then a gentle chug back again to the city's marina. All very laid-back and undemanding physically (apart from the 52 steps up to the pub from the jetty) and so, unsurprisingly, the passengers were mostly grey-headed, and some of them quite tottery. Up on the open top deck, though, where you needed to climb a steep ladder to get there, were the ladies' day out groups, and younger tourist couples, all of them seemingly as keen to sun themselves as to admire the scenery.
And what lovely scenery! There was the marina first, with a mind-bogglingly large assembly of boats, some of them huge luxury jobs, all white and sleek with names like Promise and Dream, and others, even bigger, with unfeasibly tall masts. Owha the resident leopard seal was absent today from her usual pontoon - she's been a regular for about three years now - but the scow Ted Ashby was sailing picturesquely underneath the Harbour Bridge, so that was good compensation. 
Captain Ben gave us lots of interesting information en route, including about the kauri forest that used to cover the north shore - oh, so that's why it's called Kauri Point... - and the ferreting around for gum that happened once the timber was gone. A sugar bag of gum was worth a week's wages back then. The Chelsea Sugar refinery, in all its pink glory, is all that's left of a surprisingly busy industrial history along the water, which included flour, tobacco and paper bags. There were also shipwrecks and a crashed wartime plane, but there's nothing much left of any of all that now: just appealing little sandy bays beneath cliffs topped with (now) pine groves, farmland, a golf course, a Hare Krishna temple, and a remarkable number of very attractive, and big, homes with lawns sloping down to the water and sometimes private jetties. 
Our route was surprisingly circuitous, the MV Hogwash occasionally heading straight for a cliff before doing a right-angled turn - but that was because, despite having a draught of just 4 feet, she had to follow the winding channel in the silt-clogged creek that in places turned the blue water yellow. She's a very cute little vessel, built in 1949 and on only her second engine after seventy years of solid work, and chugged along steadily at 10 knots, so it took an hour and a half to cover the 18km to Riverhead.
The tavern is proud of holding the country's second-longest liquor licence (after Waiuku's Kentish Hotel, where I went last year) - but, really, should be prouder of being NZ's oldest wooden building, which is a much bigger achievement (and especially pertinent given our current recurrent wildfires in Nelson). It's quiet, laid-back and comfortable, with tables inside and out, and the food is excellent. Super-tender beef cheek, since you ask - though that was put into the shade by the fabulous beer-battered chips with truffle dip, which were crunchy perfection. (No photo - they got eaten too fast.)
There was plenty of time to relax at the hotel, and then the trip back was notable for being simultaneously livelier and more somnolent, depending on the age of the passenger and how much they had had to eat/drink at the Riverside. I took particular satisfaction of getting, for the first time ever, the sea-view of the suburb where I lived for 23 years.
It was a really lovely day out, especially on a warm sunny day, and - who knows? - I might even do it a second time myself.

Tuesday 26 February 2019

A free lunch on board Oceania Insignia

Of course, we all know that there is no such thing as a free lunch, particularly in my line of work - but, pft, I'm far too frugal to turn my nose up at complimentary nosh, and besides, it was the perfect thing to do today. Brilliant sunshine, bright blues above and below, some friends amongst the gathered throng of mostly travel agents with a sprinkling of media and some Oceania faithful consumers - what's not to like?
Naturally, Oceania Insignia is one of the line's smaller ships - naturally, because I'm far too much of a cruise snob to even consider setting foot on board one of the huge monstrosities that get all the publicity these days. No, thanks to Silversea, I won't consider anything over 900 passengers - and even that feels a bit city-like. Insignia caters for 684 guests, looked after by 400 staff, who seemed typically friendly but professional.
The ship has just been completely refurbished and is looking fashionably elegant - a lot of muted blue, green and of course the inevitable taupe, polished wood and marble, and some quite spectacular crystal chandeliers - very much in the style to which I have become accustomed, thank you kindly. 
We were shown over by Steve Mclaughlin, VP of Sales and obviously very pro-Oceania: a question about non-included alcohol was so neatly turned around that we all ended up nodding in agreement that yes, it is unfair to non- and moderate drinkers to have a booze charge built into their fares.
He also said, several times, "You can't buy food on board" and that's an important point, because Oceania makes a very big thing about serving excellent food, from the non-self-serve breakfast buffet, right through (including what sounded like a very hard to resist classic afternoon tea, a personal weakness) to dinner at any of the six restaurants on board. We ate at Toscana, off beautiful Versace plates, and the meal included tastes of caviare and lobster, and pasta, leading up to the utter triumph of a super-tender beef tenderloin*, followed by a chocolate volcano that has been on the menu for 15 years because taking it off apparently leads to passenger petitions.
Another Silversea veteran in the group nevertheless kept muttering that "It isn't the Muse" and he was right: it's not as spacious, either in the public areas or the rooms, and, while very high-quality throughout, just somehow misses out on Silversea's effortless class. The ship also has interior cabins, unheard of on Silversea. However, when you compare prices, those things diminish in significance, because Oceania is about a third cheaper (but don't quote me - these things are complicated and Silversea does throw in a lot of useful stuff, like sometimes even air fares).
Insignia is visiting Auckland as part of a 180-day cruise, and it is notable that a good third of the current passengers are doing the whole thing; and that 55% of the clientèle are repeat customers on Oceania. Mostly Americans, of course, with Australians second, I believe; and generally a bit younger than your cliché world cruise old lady. Clearly, Oceania is getting it right with surroundings, service, itineraries and the on-board relaxed ambiance (ie no guilt-inducing long list of activities every day, so you can do nothing with a clear conscience). Would I sail with them? Yes, I would.
*We each got a generous chunk of the beef, and my neighbour who couldn't finish hers was happy to drop the leftovers into the ziplock bag that I had presciently brought with me. "For the cat," I explained blithely. I successfully smuggled it past biosecurity on disembarking - but did the cat get to see it? Ha! I tell you, it was good...

Tuesday 19 February 2019

I'd rather have Rodin's version. Nakedness notwithstanding.

I dunno, possibly you could get tired of this sort of thing. So, what's just happened is that an hour or so ago I was asked to caption the photos I submitted to go with a story about Pearl Harbo[u]r, which I did. They included this one. And then, in one of my many daily Oh well moments, I mentally wandered off to check out Twitter and there was a tweet from the NZ Herald, announcing this:

Coincidences, they're not really that special, people. Sorry, and all that. Also, would you really want to be that woman? Talk about snatch and grab.

Wednesday 6 February 2019

Waitangi tangi

My typically Kiwi response to today's Google Doodle, which celebrates Waitangi Day, is to be simultaneously ridiculously chuffed to see New Zealand's (somewhat contentious) national day featured in that space, and disbelieving that it's actually a global webpage feature. I've even asked my spies in the UK and US if they can see it too.* But anyway, silver fern, yellow kowhai, red pohutukawa - good to see, on this beautiful, and very hot, summer's day which began (evidently) with a Dawn Service at Waitangi followed by a barbecue at which the PM was a cook. All as it should be.
However, further down the country, near Nelson, Waitangi Day 2019 is going to be remembered for all the wrong reasons: a huge forest fire blazing since yesterday afternoon, causing evacuations of 170 houses so far, one of which has been burnt down. There are two separate fires on Rabbit Island, where I cycled just a few months ago. It's awful news - and all the worse for being so familiar. I mean, fires, floods, blizzards and droughts: it's standard news report fare these days, isn't it?
Currently it's Townsville in Queensland suffering from hugely destructive floods; while Chicago is beginning to thaw from the Polar Vortex. (Did anyone else notice - yet again - the deafening silence on the subject from Canada?) The rest of Australia is only now emerging from the red/purple spectrum on the temperature map, where it was for most of January, causing horrendous wildlife suffering and deaths, and not much fun for the people either.
Every day the newspaper and TV news report another environmental disaster discovery, which I'm not going to list because you know them as well as I do. Depressing, isn't it? Even people who are only familiar with the locations through nature documentaries narrated by the (increasingly frustrated) Sir David will be saddened to hear about it. I tell you, it's even worse when you've been to so many of these places and seen their glories in real life.
I can't decide if all this is good reason not to travel, so you don't take it so personally - or, on the other hand, impetus to get out there fast to see it for yourself. Before it's all gone.

* UPDATE: As I suspected, it's just us. Pft.
UPDATE 2: After a week of unrelenting effort by the fire-fighters, it's still not out, and 3,000 people (and their animals) have been evacuated. 

Friday 1 February 2019

Conspicuous consumption confusion

At 412 square-metres, the Regent Suite is nearly twice as large as the average Australian home and 20 times larger than the average cruise ship stateroom. With an all-inclusive price of US$11,000 per night based on double occupancy, the Regent Suite is already sold-out for nearly all of Seven Seas Splendor’s 2020 inaugural season sailings.

This is the opening paragraph of a release sent to me by someone from the PR company that represents Regent Seven Seas Cruises. Regular readers 😃 will recall that last November I had a tour over the Seven Seas Mariner, followed by a fancy lunch. Despite being well-used to high-end cruise ships, thanks to a fortuitous and much appreciated work relationship with Silversea, I was still impressed by the level of luxury on the Mariner, and the size of the upper-end suites. They were HUGE! And clearly no expense had been spared with the fittings and furnishings, either. But the Splendo[u]r, which is to be launched next month, is going to be even more lavish, it seems. At least, so you would hope: US$11,000 a night!

Of course I'm being hopelessly out-of-touch and unsophisticated here. I know there are plenty of super-rich people in the world, for whom this kind of extravagance is nothing of the sort. Who do I think I'm rubbing elbows with on Silversea cruises, at Peninsula hotels, up the front in aeroplanes? (Er, not ever the very front, sadly - and actually not even in Business much, these days.) Because I'm getting it all for free, as work, I don't often actually find out how much all this stuff would cost if I had to pay - nor do I need to. Travel story factboxes commonly omit such prosaic detail, which rather makes a nonsense of the title. In the promotional emails I receive it can take some effort to drill down to the price for things. Quite often you have to get to the latter stages of making a booking on a website to get to the nitty gritty. I suppose it's the old 'If you have to ask the price, you can't afford it' thing.

I'm not skint - we did once actually pay for a Silversea cruise that was too popular for us to get onto any other way (that's frequently how this free stuff works - it's only offered at the last minute when it's clear no-one is going to buy it). But I am, by upbringing and temperament, relentlessly frugal, and it goes against every fibre of my being to even consider being so reckless with money. An Auckland hotel is currently advertising a Chinese New Year dinner that will cost NZ$18,000 for six. Honestly, I would choke on my $3,000 share.

To me, it's not only a stupid waste, it's an obscene self-indulgence when, clearly at little cost financially or otherwise to the squanderer, that money could have been spread so far amongst people and organisations who really need it, who could do some real good with it. I know that some rich people do give away big sums, quietly, and well done them - but all that conspicuous consumption? I can't get on board with that.

Except, of course, that I have/do - literally. And the people on my Silversea cruises, that I've talked to, and eaten dinner with, and played Trivial Pursuit with, have nearly all been pleasant, interesting and perfectly ordinary in appearance (I may have been missing the subtleties of labels, watches, handbags and so on). They haven't flaunted their wealth, or boasted about their successes - they've rarely even mentioned their jobs. 

I, of course, rarely mention mine on my various trips. I've always said it's because I don't want people to resent my being there for free, when they've had to pay with big chunks of their hard-earned - I have got that, occasionally, and it has been awkward. But actually, it's equally the case that on the fancy famils I don't want to risk people looking down their noses at me, as someone who's only there because it's a freebie. Not that I would particularly care what they think, but who needs even incidental negative stuff when your actual job is to be enjoying yourself?

I don't know where I'm going with this. I disapprove of people squandering vast sums of money on unnecessary luxuries. I also thoroughly enjoy my occasional upper-end experiences courtesy of Silversea and the Peninsula, amongst others, which I entirely accept many people would consider to be unnecessary luxuries. I think the world's wealth should be spread more evenly. I also think we would all be much worse off if some people didn't do extravagant things like building Blenheim Palace or the Taj Mahal. This is complicated. Why is life so hard?


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