One of the great things about travel is the interactions you have with people. We meet many great people as we wander around, and on our trip to the Amazon at the end of 2017 we hit the jackpot. So many new friends and great conversations. One couple was a pair from Sydney who were great fun on the cruise. They were adventurous, friendly, and fun! Indeed, they offered us accommodations should we ever find our way to Australia. Well, we took them up on that offer and they were great hosts! Not only did they open their lovely home to us, they gave generously of their time and local knowledge. We made our way to their suburb in Sydney, one of the “Eastern Suburbs” on a peninsula around the harbor and got settled. S, the husband, was travelling, but V was in town and took us on a tour of the area, pointing out not only sights, but “here is the house I was raised in” and “here is my school,” a lovely place overlooking the harbor. She admitted that it is surprising she got any learning done as the views from her classroom were amazing across the harbor to the Harbor Bridge.
We saw the local Coogee Beach, which we agreed might be nicer than the much more famous Bondi Beach just up the coastline, and took us down to Botany Bay where some guy named Bligh had landed. No mention of it’s claim to fame as the name of the ship used to exile the criminal Khan by Captain Kirk, not sure why the Australians don’t capitalize on that. Beautiful views and a good sense of what it’s like to live in some of Sydney’s older and close by suburbs.
After the driving tour we went in to “The Spot” a retail and entertainment area close to their home where we had a great dinner and learned about the Australian practice of BYOG – bring your own grog. Apparently most Australian restaurants allow you to BYO, usually wine, even if they have a full bar. We stopped at a bottle shop and picked up some wine and then headed to dinner. Just an unassuming Vietnamese place where we shared our bottle of wine and a delicious dinner. On the way back, she pointed out a Japanese coffee shop across from the bus stop we would be using all week. The next morning we tried the coffee shop. Dan had his morning coffee, but in Australia it is a “long black” which is a shot or two of espresso with hot water, what we call an Americano. I had tea and we split a muffin, not unlike our usual routine at home.
Those of you us who know us can predict that this became the pattern for the rest of our stay in Sydney and you would be correct! Except on Sunday. The Café Japone is closed on Sunday, so we went a few blocks further to The Spot and tried another place where our server was an American who was studying abroad for a year and had great advice for things we should see. We are finding that even as we travel, the rhythm of our lives stays pretty constant.
Well, we are just about two months into this adventure and we already made some packing adjustments. There were some minor fails! My footwear plan didn’t quite pan out, and there was some minor overpacking.
Both the overpacking and the footwear fail had their origins in that classic planning mistake of focusing too much on an item that is not the key issue. I got all wrapped up in the “dress code” and “formal nights” parts of the cruise, which was only 21 days out of an 7-9 month trip.
Because I was so worried about not being too casual on the ship I picked my shoes based, in part, on them being “dressy.” Oh, they still had to be comfortable enough to walk around in all day, but… Anyway, I left my hiking sandals at home and brought a comfortable but prettier pair. The problem with that pair is that they really don’t do well in wet weather or on rough terrain. My flats, which were great but had been in heavy rotation for over a year at home also gave up the ghost on this trip and did not go down without drawing blood – literally, the leather heel piece decided to split in the middle of a long walk and rubbed quite the wound on my heel. So, I have purchased new hiking sandals and a pair of Australian all-purpose ankle boots!
In Dan’s defense, he didn’t really overpack, I pushed him to pack the dressier pieces in his travel wardrobe: black pants, travel sport coat, button down shirt that doesn’t have good pockets and a tie, as well as a pair of shoes that aren’t hiking boots. His plan all along was to donate the shoes once we arrived and he did, but we didn’t realize how little he would need any of the other pieces.
So, off to the post office we went in Melbourne to ship home a package with all of this in it:
We have bought a few things here, but it is still a net reduction for both of us. Even after several trips to test our packing strategy, we are learning things!
In Sydney we stayed with friends we made while on our Amazon cruise last year. On that adventure we observed that Australians are like the Midwesterners of international travel – willing to talk to anyone and very friendly! This couple was great on the cruise because they were great explorers and had fantastic stories. When they heard we were looking to do an extended trip to Australia they immediately offered us a place to stay when we came to visit. Well, little did they know we would take them up on it! Not only did they generously open their beautiful home to us, they made time to show us some of the local sights. In fact, on one 2 day period, we got a guided tour to “what the locals do” from our hosts that included several coastal walks and pub stops galore.
The first walk, originally planned as an afternoon coastal/pub walk, ended up being a two day trek as we got caught in a big rainstorm early on and decided to make it a pub stop! This walk was the Coogee to Bondi Beach walk. The walk is in the visitors guides and is about 6 kilometers. It takes you from beach to beach along the pacific and during whale migrations you can see whales from the path. Obviously a well used and loved trek, the path moves from sandy beaches, parks and coastal neighborhoods with great views along the way. Our guide stopped us often to take us into the neighborhood pubs, including the local Legion club where he is a member. While there – avoiding some of the rain – we watched women’s rugby on TV and finally had someone explain what was going on for us! Rugby is fun! We also walked by a lawn bowling club set right on the edge of the cliffs overlooking the ocean. Bowls is a popular game in Australia.
At the next beach area we observed some clouds over the water and a rainbow. While we marveled at the lovely sight the rain came roaring in and we were quickly soaked. We decided to head to that neighborhood’s pub and call for a ride to dinner. At dinner, at the DOG (Duke of Gloucester – when mentioning the restaurant one host said “I don’t know why he calls it DOG, it is the Duke of …. Oh….” They are so charming!) Anyway, we sat outside on an upstairs balcony and noticed some large birds flying around that looked a bit off, but then again, most of the things we had seen were not familiar. Then we realized they were Flying Foxes! Much bigger than the bats we are used to at home. There were a lot of them, and we were happy to see them. Alas, as it was twilight, we weren’t able to get any photos, but we will keep trying!
We woke up the next day to much better forecasts and set out to finish our walk to the famous Bondi Beach. Again, the walk does not disappoint. The ocean was still very big, so there was a lot to see between the waves and the coastline. At several of the beaches, including Bondi, they have the baths that are built right along the ocean and get the sea water pouring in and waves crashing along the edges. People were swimming laps and just standing near the edges as waves and spray refreshed the pool water.
Our host explained that Australian kids get swimming lessons in school and there are many programs that bring them to the sea and teach swimming and aquatic safety as well as fun. Given the rip tides and dangerous sea life it is essential. And, the amount of people braving the currents with surf boards or just to swim in the water shows people are very willing to use those skills.
After we finished the ocean side walk, we headed to the other end of the peninsula on which our hosts suburb is located for a walk along the Harbor. This walk took us by a number of Bays in the harbor full of sailboats. There is a great deal of public green space in the Sydney region and much of it is along the water. We passed several harbor beaches as well, with much calmer water but with “shark fencing” to allow swimming. We were assured that no one had been killed by a shark since at least the 70s, but none of us ran out to grab a swimsuit and take a dip. We ended up in Watson’s Bay, an old fishing area now home to some nice bars and restaurants. There, after a great lunch and some much appreciated Australian cider and beer, we looked at some of the small “fisherman’s cottages” in the area. These are now very valuable real estate and it is a charming neighborhood.
We needed to catch a bus to get back to the car without having to retrace our several hour walk. But, 2 of us (not Dan) had failed to grab our Opal cards. After some discussion at various points on the walk and at lunch we decided to us a cab, we called for said cab, but were told it would be a while. At that point, our guide (the one who remembered his card) said “well, I have several extra Opal Cards, let’s take the bus.” We all looked at him “why didn’t you say that earlier?” “you didn’t ask…” was the reply. After that chuckle, we headed for the bus and proceeded on with our day, which in keeping with the incredible generosity of our hosts included a great meal in their home where we were joined by their daughter and her partner who had even more great advice for us and the rest of our adventure!
There really is not enough time or room in this blog to share the great sights, wonderful people and experiences we are having! But, here are some more photos!
We arrived for an overnight port of call in our final stop on the Arcadia. Pulling in to Sydney Harbor on a raining, foggy, cloudy morning made it less impressive than the brochures present it. We pulled in at 6 am, so it wasn’t all that bright out yet either. It was still very cool. We were at anchor near Rose Bay with great views of the city, the Harbor Bridge and the beginnings of the eastern suburbs. The ship tenders dropped us off firth at the base of the famous Sydney Opera House and the Royal Botanical Gardens.
Our first day was spent with some necessary housekeeping as we would be getting off of the ship and staying in Australia for a while. We headed into the Central Business District in search of a phone store. We were successful in replacing the SIM cards on our phones and are now the proud holders of Australian phone numbers. We also found a bank and got Australian money and a Post Office and got postcard stamps! So easy to please!
We then spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the Botanical Gardens, and the Rocks which the oldest neighborhood still standing. After all of that, we stopped at a brewpub and motioned at two ladies if we could take the other end of their picnic table. They welcomed us and with our thanks said, one asked the other “are they yours or mine?” We fessed up to being American and she said “yours.” Turns out they are longtime friends thanks to the American’s (a retired teacher from Virginia) participation in People to People. They met in the 70’s in Boston, UK and have been friends ever since. As we chatted it came up that we were on the Arcadia and they could not believe we hadn’t run in to each other as they were also on the ship. Our casual style and avoidance of eating in the dining room was determined to be the primary culprit. They were lovely table companions, too bad we hadn’t run in to them in the previous 21 days.
The next morning we disembarked from the first phase of our journey and said goodbye to the Arcadia and really began our Australian adventure. We managed to figure out the transit system and purchased our Opal Cards – giving us access to the great public transit in Sydney, buses, trains and ferries! The visitor center had a really great tourist map of the main parts of the city and we took advantage of it and found our way to so many great places. We had several days to wander around the city and see the tourist sights.
The fish market claims to be the largest in the southern hemisphere and it certainly had a lot going on! Most of the vendors were large companies so the size of the actual market did not reflect the amount of commerce that happens there. The variety of fish and seafood was pretty amazing. We saw huge king crab, lobsters that were the size of small pets and so many prawns!
From the fish market we headed toward Darling Harbor where there were museums and lots of restaurants and bars. This is an entertainment area and there was a lot to see from public art, historic and interesting boats, and lots of new building. It was also the area where we encountered a little rain that did allow us to determine if we had the right clothes. Fortunately, we had rain coats and hats and quick dry everything else. This is an area where the city is making a big investment in public space, transit and private development. A keystone is Barangaroo Park, a lovely greenspace overlooking the harbor and the bay bridge.
This was a great exploration on our way to my ultimate plan for the day – Claiming Walsh Bay! Alright it is already claimed and named, but I wanted to check it out. A nicely redeveloped area that is part of the arts district for Sydney. The main building which houses several theaters was under renovation, but you could walk along the water right up to the Bridge.
On another day we took the train to the Kings Cross neighborhood to check out their weekly market. A nice collection of local and organic produce, flowers, crafts and food. The neighborhood is very trendy and full of nice older homes. Everywhere in Sydney is dense in terms of housing, even the suburbs we saw, and Kings Cross is very dense given the age of the neighborhood.
Most days we found ourselves back in some area of the Royal Botanical Garden. Each time we saw different areas. It is am immense space with great views across the harbor and interesting plants everywhere. One day we came across a group of Cockatiels feasting on flowers. We saw these birds everywhere. They are very noisy.
Our first stop in Australia wasn’t where we thought it would be. Because of all of the schedule changes caused by the weather – thanks Cyclone Oma! – the cruise added a stop in the busy commercial port of Newcastle. Newcastle, Australia is known for mining and coal – which it has in common with its English namesake. Surprising, huh?
Newcastle is a nice coastal city with a very busy port – over 2,500 ships per year using the port. Not many of them are cruise ships, but there are enough that no one seemed surprised to see us.
The city as a long walkway along the water that was constructed to connect Nobby’s Island to the mainland. We walked along and saw dolphins in the harbor entrance jumping around as large cargo ships were being escorted in.
While we made the walk to the end we heard the distinctive sound of supersonic aircraft, then we started looking and saw a second one approaching, even prepared we barely got the picture! We were walking by some of the Australians from our ship and one said “you just saw the whole Australian Air Force” while another told him to stop sharing classified information! We heard later that they were new jets and the Air Force was running them at maximum speeds, including breaking the sound barrier, but we didn’t get any of that on this day.
We continued around several beaches and saw our first Australian Baths – which are large constructed pools next to the ocean that use the tides and some mechanical actions to fill the pools. Lots of swimmers and great views. You will have to read a future post to see a photo of one of these though. Another beach was around the corner.
Fort Scratchley is located in Newcastle and is the site of the only shots fired on Australian soil in World War II. A Japanese submarine fired on the city and the fort fired back. Originally built to defend British land from Russia during the Crimean War (a bit of history I need to learn), the fort sits atop a hill with great views of the ocean, harbor and city. The fort is now a historic site and is usually closed on Tuesday (our day of arrival) but it was opened especially for us. This was probably more exciting to our Captain than anyone else because when a cruise ship arrives for the first time in Newcastle part of the celebration is to have the Captain fire off the cannons. He must have announced that he would get that honor 4 times in the days between the addition of Newcastle to the ports of call and our arrival.
After exploring the fort and enjoying the views we headed into town for lunch. I enjoyed an interesting melt – chicken, pineapple and cheddar on a great piece of fresh bread. I liked it. Dan had a BLT he seemed to enjoy. After some more walking and looking at lovely older buildings we found our way to the brewpub near the harbor and enjoyed some Pacific Ales!
From Fiji we were scheduled to head to Vanuatu for a day, but Cyclone Oma had other ideas. We were forced to skip another stop and head on to New Caledonia a few days early.
The arrival into New Caledonia was another beautiful passage past islands and along the coast line. New Caledonia was named because it reminded English explorer Captain Cook of Scotland. It is, however, a French country. We picked up the local Pilot several hours before docking and came in between the UNESCO recognized barrier reef and the island. There was a lighthouse visible from several miles out that I expected to be a very impressive structure as we got closer. It was, on closer observation, just a very effectively designed utilitarian object. Of course, Dan was on the other side of the ship, so no photo of that.
As we came around the island and got closer to the city, we noticed some kite surfers in the distance. As the ship approached they came out further from the shore and turned out to be very skilled surfers who seemed to be welcoming us to the area. We even got a wave from one of them. A couple them took a spill and it was exciting to watch how quickly and efficiently they got back on their boards and continued on surfing.
Just before we made the turn into the port the captain called our attention to an odd craft on the port side, it was a solar powered catamaran currently sailing the world and calling attention to the condition of the oceans. The ship was named Breguet Race for Water, if anyone wants to learn more. It was an unexpected confluence of sailing schedules and captain seemed pretty interested in it.
We were greeted at the port by traditional dancing and drum and percussion music.
The ship parked in a commercial dock and there was a large container ship being loaded up as we pulled in, there were large cranes moving shipping containers in to place and it was both elegant and precise in pretty amazing ways.
Because we were in a commercial port, we were bused from the Arcadia into the Ferry Port closer to town. We were able to find postcards almost immediately, but the first night we were too late to catch the post office for stamps. So, we wrote the cards and the next morning headed back to town to find the post office. We tracked the place down and guessed at which queue to register for, waited for our number to be called and lucked out! We were in the right place and we had a very nice woman helping us. She forgave my butchering of the French for the number 14, counted out our postcards (yep, we had 14) and then asked “pretty stamps, yes?” We agreed we wanted pretty stamps and she gave us a selection, some of plants and some sea turtles. Of course we affixed them and mailed the cards before either of us thought to get a photo of the stamps. This is not the first time the person helping us at the post office made sure we had good stamps for our post cards, and it is always fun when they are as excited about our stamps as we are.
After our successful post card moment, we meandered around the city of New Caledonia, stopping at a number of the markers on the history walk. We learned a few things about the city and were intrigued by some of the artifacts that were encased in the signposts, but never explained or attributed. It was cloudy and a little rainy and Cyclone Oma was catching up with us so we skipped what was likely an ambitious walk up to the lookout point, but saw a number of nice sights. The French did not make significant investment in New Caledonia, so while it was a nice and cosmopolitan city, most of the buildings were utilitarian. We sampled the local beer, but fell prey to a rookie mistake of getting it at the Ferry Port and were overcharged by an extreme amount, but we fell for it. I enjoyed my beer, a flavorful pilsner, but I think Dan might have enjoyed his a little less as he fumed a bit over the price.
After seven days at sea, several of them through high winds and seas, we arrived on a beautiful sunny day to Fiji. The ship skipped our stop in Pago Pago, American Samoa due to tropical storms. That was a bit of a ride. The ride in to the port took us past a number of beautiful islands, most small and filled with greenery and white sand beaches. Fiji is made up of over 300 islands, but I don’t know how many are actually inhabited.
The port of Lautoka is a commercial port where sugar and lumber are the main industries. There are beautiful mountains rising up behind the city and everyone is very friendly. So friendly that you have to be alert to reply to many greetings of “oola!” (hello) that you hear as you walk along the street and enter shops. We caught a shuttle in to town and immediately set out to find postcards! There were many shops but they clearly catered to local residents as opposed to tourists. We stumbled across the central market which was full of stands selling fruits and vegetables, many easily recognizable but more than enough exotic offerings to remind us that we were a long way from home. No pictures of the market though, we were too distracted looking around.
Eventually we found our postcards and got them written. Then we headed off to the post office where everyone greeted us and pointed us to the right counter. We got our stamps and the guy behind the counter even offered a damp sponge to affix them. When I pulled out my credit card to pay, he gave me a blank look. And, they – unlike almost every other merchant – did not take US currency. He pointed us down the street to the currency exchange and offered to finish putting the stamps on our cards. We could not quite communicate the need to know how much the stamps were going to cost though, so we took a guess and got some Fijian cash. When we came back, he took our money, gave us some change, showed us our stamped cards and sent us on our way with a friendly smile.
This particular area of Fiji is home to large Indian community brought to the islands by the British for the sugar trade. There are several Hindu Temples and a Mosque. We were able to see one of the Temples and the Mosque on our walk around town.
We are meeting lots of great people, as usual. What is different on this ship so far is that people don’t introduce themselves. You sit at tea, share stories, enjoy the tea cakes and scones and then wander off never sharing names. That said, we attend tea most afternoons and always request to sit at a larger table with others and this is proving to be great for our travel research as we are meeting a lot of people who have been to Australia and New Zealand or are Australian! The plan to rely on the knowledge of strangers to give us local insight instead of planning via the internet is already being rewarded!
Our room is considered “external, blocked view” and we have a lovely full window overlooking a lifeboat. While we can’t see much, we can tell if it is day or night, sunny or overcast and we get natural light if we are ever spending any time in there. It is a nice size room and our room steward is a great guy, so we are happy with it.
Those who know us well will not be surprised that we have developed a routine and that the bartenders and cocktail servers have us pretty well figured out. We enjoy several walks around the ship during the day, find a place to sit and enjoy the ocean going by and read a book, go to tea and then head down to the pub for a post-tea, pre-dinner beer from the ship’s nice selection (more on that in another post). After dinner we commandeer a table by the windows in the piano bar for an after-dinner libation which several of the servers and the guy behind the bar now have memorized.
This ship is by far the largest cruise ship we have ever been on, it has about 2,000 passengers making it twice as big as any of our other (3) cruises. Any concerns that it would feel crowded were quickly dismissed though. It is just that much bigger and has a lot more places for people to hang out, so it never seems too crowded. There are a lot more activities, especially on sea days, to keep people entertained. There are shows, lectures, lessons on dance, languages, bridge, painting and other skills, crafts, a spa, an acupuncturist, trivia and bingo. A dizzying array of things for us to totally ignore. But, we get reports at tea about what we are missing, so we are comfortable with our relaxed attitude toward the offerings.
Another difference on this cruise is that P&O proudly offers multiple formal nights on their cruises and many on board take full advantage. We made sure there was a dining venue available to those who didn’t bring any fancy duds, so never fear that we needed to miss any dinners. We do enjoy seeing everyone in their finery though. We did pack an outfit each that would meet the minimum formal standard though and were able to enjoy one dinner with all of the other sartorially excellent passengers! There are a lot of passengers who dress for dinner every night, far exceeding the “evening casual” standard. I am proud to say that even with our minimalist packing we have managed to meet the dress code and not be an embarrassment to the good old Midwest!
“Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” ― Matsuo Bashô
The first leg of the cruise was four days at sea from San Francisco to Honolulu. We knew this from that start, and yet we still decided that booking an excursion to spend four hours on a smaller boat to go whale watching was what we wanted to do when we arrived. Weather in Honolulu was beautiful, sunny and warm with a gentle ocean breeze. We went out of the port and boarded the tour bus to take us to the Majestic, our whale watching vessel. I wondered if we would get a good bonus tour of parts of Oahu we hadn’t seen when we were here last summer. Good thing we weren’t counting on that because the whale watching boat was moored about 100 yards (as the crow flies) from where the Arcadia docked. The bus ride took a good 10 minutes though as it had to make a lot of left hand turns on busy roads. Everyone on the bus got a laugh out of that. Had we known, we might have all walked and raced the bus.
Our boat headed out along Waikiki Beach and the views of the city from the ocean were stunning. Dan and I did spend a little time identifying places we had seen on our last visit, so we had a good idea of where we were. The boat went out past Diamond Head and we got to see what that looked like from the other side. We had hiked up to the top and looked out on the ocean in June, so it was fun to see the outside of the crater and look up at the people sitting where we had been.
Once we got ourselves into the area below Diamond Head we started looking for the telltale spouts from the humpback whales. And we had some sightings! We were able to watch for several whales in the area, including a calf. There was also a bunch of Hawaiian spinner dolphins in the area and they obligingly jumped for us – alas, they chose to do it when neither of us had a camera ready!
We overnighted in Oahu, but were pulling out at lunchtime, so good thing we get up early. We took off exploring near the port and were able to see some tropical fish hanging out near the piers in the area. We also walked over to the Capitol area just to make sure nothing had changed since our last visit. We came across a local market happening that day and resisted buying some delicious Hawaiian banana bread – but just barely. As the ship was pulling out of port we were settled on the Promenade Deck enjoying the ocean when guess what? We saw whales!
This cruise was scheduled with a fair number of sea days thanks to the distance we were going and the fact that there just aren’t that many land masses between California and Australia. We had 21 days and 5 planned stops. The original itinerary had 14 days spent at sea.
After our stop in Honolulu we were scheduled to head to American Samoa for a day long stop in Pago Pago, but the second sea day of four scheduled between Hawaii and Pago Pago the Captain announced that there was bad weather being caused by a “series of low pressure events” combined with “higher than usual surface temperatures” all of which conspired to require a change of course and itinerary. We would be skipping Pago Pago and heading on to Fiji. The storm was predicted to have sea swells of up to seven meters on our original course, and our change of course would take us through seas projected to have five to six meter swells. It also meant we had seven consecutive sea days between ports.
Despite the dire storm warnings ahead, the next few days were sunny and pleasant, so we enjoyed waking the promenade deck – along with a lot of others. As we skirted the storm the seas did get pretty rough and there was a lot of wind, but the ship handled it with great aplomb.
Alas, the weather goblins were not finished with us. As we were pulling out of our stop in sunny and very warm Fiji, the captain announced that another storm was in our path. This storm, Tropical Cyclone Oma, was headed for Vanuatu and was expected to arrive about the same time we were to be there. So, we would again be re-routing to avoid the storm. The itinerary was being changed and we would miss our stop in Vanuatu and arrive early in New Caledonia.
As we cruised on our new heading the next day, the Officer of the Watch made the daily noontime announcement and provided some information about the weather and conditions, including that the sea swell was “confused.” Not sure I ever expected that type of information, nor do I really know what it means, but again the ship took this confused sea state in stride. With the exception of some rain over several days we avoided any real impact from the storm, although it did follow us into New Caledonia by a day or so.
In addition to changing the date for our stop in New Caledonia, we added a stop in Newcastle, Australia!