It sounds like a lovely metaphor, doesn’t it? But no, in fact it’s what The Husband and I did – we spent the second week in January on the P&O Cruise ship “Pacific Dawn“. It was either that, or spend the money on a big bash for my 40th birthday which, considering most of my friends are scattered across the globe, did not seem that appealing.
Was it good? Hell, yes! Our impeccable timing meant we had perfect weather all the way. Having cruised through a cyclone once before, I can say with conviction that clear blue skies and calm seas are infinitely preferable.
And we didn’t crash, not even once. Upon our return we learned about the ill-fated Costa Concordia. Boy, was I glad we chose a Pacific cruise and not a Mediterranean one.
Our first two days we bobbed uninterrupted through the deep blue ocean. At least, the ship did, while inside we tried not to get lost in the labyrinth of passages and stairwells on board. It was all terribly posh with its plush carpets, polished handrails and varied display of artwork on the walls. We lounged in the sun beside sparkling pools on the upper deck and idly watched the girls strutting their too-small bikinis, women hiding under billowing tunics and men in shorts ogling the precious few who got it right.
Having expended our energy in a “Ballroom Dance” class in the ship’s night club “The Dome” at midday, afternoon naps were a given.
(I reserve judgement on the validity of the term “Ballroom Dance”. Being a teacher of this activity myself, I didn’t think we’d be winning any awards based on our on-board lessons… but we did ‘have a ball’ doing them..!)
There were dozens of other things to do every day, too: golf, horse-racing, bingo, trivia quizzes, cocktail-mixing classes – but frankly we did not have enough time for even half of these activities between meals…
… aah… the meals…
The great thing about a cruise is that your ticket price includes the three main expenses of any holiday: Travel, Accommodation and Meals.
And what meals they were! Up on the aft-end of Deck 12, beside the pools, lived a buffet restaurant called Cafe del Sol. Breakfast was the most impressive of the buffets, with fresh fruit and fruit salads, cereals, freshly baked bread and pastries, hot porridge, pancakes (plain or fruity), eggs (fried, scrambled, boiled or omelette), bacon and every other variation of breakfasty food you could possibly imagine. My only complaint was that the coffee from the coffee-machine only started to resemble coffee when I pressed the “Strong Black” button, mixed in a sachet of decaf and added just a drop of fresh milk. If you wanted decent coffee, there were plenty of little coffee bars around the ship that were happy to provide, at a nominal cost.
Lunch provided just as much variety. I tended to stick to my favourite of roasted chicken and salads, in a vain attempt to keep the pounds from piling on. I failed dismally. The culprits, of course, were the scrumptious desserts. Individually, they were just itty-bitty portions… so naturally, on some days we’d have two. Don’t judge. I saw some plates piled with enough sugar and carbs to keep a small army going! Best of all, was enjoying all this deliciousness at leisure beside a window or al fresco overlooking the broad, slick wake left on a glittering sea.
Dinner was a more formal affair, taken in the Palm Court Dining room on the Promenade Deck, Deck 7. Here two lovely Filipino ladies flapped napkins onto our laps, brought us fresh bread rolls (“Brown or white, Madame?”) and scraped the crumbs off the table afterwards with a nifty little silver crumb-scraper. (I gotta get me one of those!)
They brought us wine or beer from the bar and nodded approval when we selected the salmon entrée or the crème brûlée for dessert. Each meal was an event in itself, and every one taken with different companions, for The Husband and I opted for a table for four, to share. We met a hippie woman and her daughter, a farming couple from New South Wales, a retired Navy Diver and a school headmistress, as well as a pair of teachers, and an engineer from Hungary. It was a bit like Groundhog Day, having the same conversation day after day but with different people.
Evenings offered as much diversity in the way of entertainment as the days did, with Trivia Quizzes (I aced the ’80’s Music’ one!), gambling in the Casino (no thanks), Karaoke in the Bengal Bar on Deck 7 (we watched, but only once), or performances by “Pacific Cirque” in The Atrium that spanned Decks 5, 6 and 7, or by the “Pacific Entertainers” in the International Show Lounge. This last was my favourite. Who doesn’t love to watch people singing and dancing on stage?
And then in the early afternoon on Day 3 we sailed into the port of Noumea in New Caledonia. The ship eased to its berth with the help of a small tug, while its giant shadow swallowed up a handful of ebony locals in grass skirts beating welcome drums on the dockside. We watched and took photographs from the Promenade Deck high above. It all felt terribly Colonial.
The Husband and I opted to venture out on our own into town, rather than pay what I thought were rather exorbitant prices for the organized tours. Perhaps we should have paid the money, for we plodded through the streets in steamy heat harboring the constant hope that we would not be mugged. Paranoid? Perhaps. But among the Banyan Figs and overstuffed souvenir shops, graffiti and potholes there lurked a subtle scent of decay (mixed with a generous dose of marijuana that wafted over from groups of locals sprawled beneath shady trees in the park).
The people who took the Tchou Tchou Train Ride reported having a much better time!
On the morning of Day 4, The Husband awoke and announced that he could see a giant mushroom out our window. It was an effective way of getting me out of bed, the cheeky bastard. The ‘mushroom’ in question was one end of the island of Lifou, New Caledonia, where a lighthouse perched atop a headland eaten away at sea-level by centuries of hungry ocean. The view was too good to pass up, so we scoffed breakfast, took a number and hopped aboard a tender, i.e. one of the life-boats that spent the day ferrying passengers between ship and shore (whose bright idea was it to call them ‘Tenders’?! Silliest thing I’ve heard in a long time.)
It was hot, damn hot, and we spent a few hours swimming in water so clear you could see the fish darting between the coral outcrops beneath your feet even when it was too deep to stand. I learned that day that plastic thongs (flip-flops) are less than ideal footwear for swimming in seawater. My feet kept floating to the surface, unbidden, making my progress slow and endlessly amusing for The Husband.
By the time we finished breakfast the next day, we had docked beside Port Vila, Vanuatu. ‘Bloink’ went the computer as it scanned our Cruise Cards at the door, and then we were out in the devastating sunshine on a deserted dock. Deserted, that is, until we got to the crude wire gate where dozens of local taxi drivers jostled for business. “I give you a special price, my friend!” Uh-huh.
Local market stalls lined the road as far as we could see, packed with sarongs, lei’s and other tourist paraphernalia in bright floral colours. After a few minutes of baking under our hats, a taxi driver who had latched onto us grabbed Dave’s attention, and they did that thing that men do to negotiate a mutually satisfactory deal. But before going anywhere we had to clear the traffic, jammed up with taxis and minibuses parked on the verge, pressed up against a mountainside on one side and the port fence on the other. There was a policeman, somewhere, trying to get everyone moving, but he vanished at some point and left the drivers to sort it out themselves. With troubled expressions and much shouting and arm waving they managed to back this one up, move that one forward, find the driver of that vehicle and get him to park properly… all the while we sat in back with air-con in desperate need of a service, slapping at mosquitos and gawping at the show. Eventually we bumped forward, nose to tail, eased through the throng of weaving pedestrians in the market and out onto the road to Port Vila. I felt a little apprehensive, I admit, about jumping into a banged-up taxi with a harassed-looking local with his heavy brow and sulky expression, and just his word that he was taking us where we wanted to go. My anxiety only increased when he stopped to fill up with petrol and a second man jumped in beside him. The newcomer introduced himself as our driver’s brother, Cedric.
“And my brother, his name is Joseph,” he said.
“He said his name was Tom,” I pointed out and he laughed.
“Yes, Tommy Joseph,” he guffawed and slapped his knee.
The label on the rearview mirror said TAMAN HARRY. I wondered what the bloke’s name really was. He just grunted and continued to play dodgems with the other cars on the road, mostly minibuses like ours and taxis.
My mind eased when we turned off the road at a sign for the Cascade Waterfalls and I saw other tourists straggling across to a rudimentary hut to buy tickets to get in. ($20 each, if you’re ever in the vicinity.) There was a small bar there, and a shaded deck area beside a crystal clear stream, with a local strumming a guitar and singing hits by Santana and Neil Diamond. Inside the Ladies’ room I changed into my swimwear and then we followed the signs to the waterfalls. Deep, uneven stairs led upwards over ground worn smooth by thousands of tourist feet over the years. The wooden hand-railing couldn’t really be counted on for support and I could see why they had recommended good walking shoes for this bit. Eventually the ground levelled out a bit and we passed through lush tropical vegetation, beneath palm trees and past bright red and pink flowers while birds not much bigger than butterflies flitted overhead. I hoped they were feasting on the mosquitos that were trying to eat us alive. The path crisscrossed a cold, shallow stream, and the rope railings at the water crossings proved quite reliable and, further along, necessary.
(Kudos to my Sketchers for doubling as hiking-and-swimming shoes. I skipped over the wet, rocky path with the agility of a mountain goat, while those in bare feet and thongs fared less well. I confess I smirked a little.)
All along the pathway clusters of tourists giggled and splashed in secluded little rock pools. We clambered over the hard packed path, always up, taking care at the cool rocky stream crossings where water flowed shallow but strong. It was single file only in many places, a tricky thing with a sporadic flow of people going in both directions. After 20-minutes of gentle hiking we reached the cascade waterfall where we took a dip in the cold pool below as the stream tumbled over a mossy rock face and smacked into the foamy depths from above. You only got a sense of how high it was when you saw the men abseiling down, almost disappearing into the green tangle of shadows from the thick vegetation that surrounded the little paradise.
An hour after arriving we jumped back in our taxi with Tom-Joseph-Taman-Harry and Cedric, and sped off to the lookout point at a war memorial opposite the Reserve Bank. We passed a countryside loaded with churches and low-slung buildings, and shiny locals with big smiles and heavy brows swimming in every pool of water we saw.
We had lunch at Port Vila’s yacht club, enjoying fresh fish and a crisp prawn salad on a wooden deck overlooking the bay, with the Pacific Dawn lying peacefully at bay on the other side. Afterwards we strolled through town, browsing shops and stopping to buy gifts to take home, and lei’s to wear for that night’s Tropical Party theme on board.
From Vanuatu it was time to head back to Brisbane. Another two days at sea floated by in a haze of sun, food and piña colada‘s. The trip was worth every dollar, and every pound 😉 and now I can honestly say I sailed into my 40’s in style.