Monday 16 December 2019

Explorer Dream - a bit of a nightmare (not what you think)

Am I as woke as the next bloke? Probably not, especially if the bloke is a younger person, and not actually a bloke - but I try. I do confess to some prejudices, though, and big cruise ships and Chinese tourists are two of them. So why did I agree to do a ship inspection yesterday of the 1,856-passenger Explorer Dream which is owned by a Hong Kong company? I really did wonder that myself, as I stood for ages in the poorly-organised security queue in Shed 10 with a large bunch of travel agents, waiting to board. I very nearly gave up on the whole thing, truly.
Turns out, it was a good thing I didn't, because I haven't had such an entertaining Sunday afternoon for ages. Getting eventually onto the ship, we were wafted through by dozens of neatly-uniformed smiling crew wishing us "Welcome on board!" and ended up in The Palace. This is the ship-within-a-ship that enables people with deeper pockets to get the sort of high-end, butlered, spacious experience that those of us accustomed to *cough* Silversea are happily familiar with. So we stood on deck at the stern, around the pool, or lounged a bit self-consciously on the four-poster sunbeds, and helped ourselves to an array of drinks. Being serenaded at that point by a solo saxophone (instrument of the devil, should only ever be allowed to play Baker Street, you've heard me on this before) I still had doubts - but things improved immeasurably very quickly.
We given an official welcome to the Explorer's maiden voyage round NZ that included, rather touchingly, a one-minute silence for the victims of Whakaari/White Island (slightly upstaging today's 2.11pm official silence, unfortunately) and then the mood was lifted by a really spectacular performance by some of the 50+ entertainers on board. Honestly, it was like something out of AGT - splendidly-costumed graceful dancing incorporating strength and contortions, drums and a mermaid who swam the length of the pool. It was brilliant!
So we were all in a good mood when the media contingent went for a Q&A session with the company president, head chef and PR person, and asked interested questions, and hardly quivered at all when the president trotted out for the fifth time his "Asian at heart, international in spirit" tagline. But then we toured the ship and, honestly, my prejudices fired up again. Yes, there was all the usual stuff - restaurants, spa, gym, casino, pool, lounges, huge theatre - plus kids' corner, games arcade. Trouble is (apart from the sobering comments from our guide that most of it was "chargeable"), it felt really crowded. And smoking is permitted. And the décor was a jumbled mix of styles, patterns and colours - eg the pool deck had a big video screen, a tangle of hydroslide, and Greek statues, so that all added to the crowded impression.
Then, we got to the first of two 'cabins' (not 'suites'!) that we were to be shown and boy, was it cramped. Tiny bathroom, very little storage space, and good-sized bed we all had to edge around. The sofa folded out into a bed for a further two people and no-one wanted to imagine what that would be like. We were taken then to an upper-end cabin, which was pretty classy, especially the spa bath with full-length window, and spacious too - but we were, spoiled babies that we are, still in shock from the other one, to be honest.
We'd been generously fed yummy samples at some of the restaurants we'd visited, and then were taken to the main restaurant for our promised "afternoon tea". Well! Kumera crisps, green-lipped mussel miso soup, hapuka, then wagyu beef and finally a sort of crème caramel, all delicious, and served with bottomless wines. And that wasn't all! We got another sample of the range of dancing on offer: Spanish, ballroom, fifties swing, ballet, acrobatic... again, brilliant, and very impressive - if just a teeny bit disappointing that we didn't get a taster of the Dream Boys act, which is like the Thunder from Downunder show I saw ages ago in Vegas (and which it seems I've never written about here. There was skin contact!)
So we all ended up in very good moods, especially the people staying on board for their week-long NZ cruise famil, who were feeling particularly smug. People like me who'd been invited but had turned it down were somewhat regretting it, to be honest. You'd think I'd never read Pride and Prejudice.

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