Monday, 31 March 2014

Reflections on cruising

Having had a chance to reflect for a day or so, perhaps some reflections on cruising might not be out of place.    It's supposed to be relaxing because you don't have to do anything.   But there are so many things that you can do, you find yourself organising your day around meals, shows, excursions and so on.   In the end, it's quite a mental effort to “do nothing”. 

Many of our fellow-cruisers were obviously into a routine.   In particular, it's important not to be in the passage way linking the dining rooms with the rear show venue at change-over time between the first and second dinner sittings, because the diners from the first dinner seating head straight for their post-dinner show, meeting the diners from the late dinner seating heading to eat after their pre-dinner show!   It sometimes turns into the clash of walking frames.    Of course, these assert priority over able-bodied people, but when two of them meet head-on, the situation is a bit more complicated.
String quartet

I was impressed by the shows on board.    They were quite varied and were all very good, with some of them being excellent.   On top of this, there's a whole range of “nooks and crannies” where can drink and “hang out”, often with live music (a pianist, a string quartet, a duo consisting of a keyboard player and guitarist, a DJ....and perhaps others that I didn't come across).     

The acts for the some shows often come on for just a few nights, so there's always something new (although there are usually about three performances of each show to cater for the numbers).  There's an 11 member singing/dancing group who are in board the whole time but who do a wide variety of performances (with quite complicated sets and lighting), as well as a band.....and so it goes on.   There are also talks (for example, on upcoming ports) as well as games such as bingo and trivia which seem to have their own followers.

There are a number of swimming pools and hot tubs, as well as numerous sun-lounges.   However, the climate in the area that this cruise covered often doesn't encourage lying in the sun!   There was also a basket-ball hoop, open- air movies, an attempt at a library, an internet room (expensive)....and so it goes on.
I was impressed that Princess still had interesting new experiences in store for us on the last two sea days (such as the tour of the galley and passenger and crew talent shows), although the last sea day was quieter.

Then there's the food.   Keeping everyone fed and watered is a demanding activity, and certainly lots of staff are devoted to this (sometimes, it seems, to the extent that they're falling over each other - yet the bar/specialty coffee service was often fairly ordinary).  There are a variety of eating places.   We had all our evening meals in one of the main dining rooms at a fixed time (where we were allocated - in line with our request - to a table of 8)   Having the same group on our table was one of the real highlights, and it was good to catch up the days activities from different perspectives.   Two of the 13 nights were "formal nights" (basically, suit and tie for men).  You can also have breakfast and lunch in the main dining rooms (with menus and waiter service).  But if you don't want to eat in the main dining rooms, there was also the buffet (often crowded for breakfast and lunch), a pizza place, a burger bar and what's called a “specialty” restaurant ($25 extra per head, but we didn't bother).   One morning a “champagne breakfast” was offered (on your balcony, if you had one – which we didn’t!) …at $41 per couple.

Champagne "fountain" - photos available for purchase!
I don't think anything ever happens spontaneously.  I strongly suspect that just about all the entertainment and food is presented accordingly to carefully prepared scripts from Princess headquarters.  And there are lots of opportunities to spend money!   These include the casino, photos (numerous), drinks, specialty coffees and of course beauty treatments and excursions (both at the top end of the price rage).

Our fellow-cruisers included a significant number of addictees!    Apparently over 900 of the nearly 2000 passengers on board had previously undertaken at least one cruise with Princess (and possibly there were others who had cruised with other lines).   Mention was made of the passenger on board with the highest number of cruise nights with this cruise line - 841!

 Amongst those who wore lanyards with their room keys attached, there are many with key cards of various colours. I now know that there is a pecking order, but as a first-time ocean cruiser, our colour was at the bottom of the heap (so I didn't wear a lanyard)!   The passengers were overwhelmingly Australian (a lot from Victoria), which is hardly surprising given that the journey is a round trip from Melbourne.   However, there were other nationalities on board including New Zealanders, who do an Auckland-based round trip and just a few from places such as Malta, the USA, one couple from Laos (who now live in Melbourne) and even Taiwan.     There were quite a few groups where the middle aged couple travelled with their (senior) parents.   The atmosphere could perhaps be described as "middle Australian".
Overall, the cruise was satisfactory and as I had done my research,  it was in line with my expectations.   In fact, I had braced myself for disruptions, such as missed ports, due to the weather.  We were fortunate that nothing like this occurred.   However, as a long-time independent traveller, I didn't expect to be converted to a “cruise junkie”, and I wasn't.   Hence, I won't be rushing to book another one.  Be that as it may, it's obviously an excellent mode of travel for those people who want a "no hassle" experience.

The Captain at Captain's drinks party.
A further post setting out some more details as well as responses to some of my pre-cruise questions that weren't clear to me before departing will follow.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Tasman Sea (again)

After leaving Fiordland, we had two sea days (three evenings) heading west towards Melbourne. The first night after leaving the New Zealand coast was a little bumpy, but after that things smoothed down.

Ready for the balloon drop
On board, the cruise line continued to serve up a variety of activities to amuse the passengers: a culinary demonstration and galley tour (large quantities of stainless steel), various bingo and card jackpots (I didn't take much notice), a passenger talent show and (separately) a performance by the passenger choir concert as well as the crew talent show. And of course there was the final gala dinner.
The passenger choir

We arrived in Melbourne on schedule, and are now waiting to disembark.   Like most other things on board, this is a highly organised procedure, with passengers being allocated a specific disembarkation time.    Most of the time slots are for passengers with "independent arrangements", which seems to confirm my impression that a large number of those travelling have been from Melbourne and nearby  - a market that Princess appear to have tapped into very successfully.


The morning was misty and overcast, so our first view of Dusky Sound was pretty typical, we were told by the on board commentator. 

The route took the ship through Dusky Sound, then behind Resolution Island and back out to sea through Breaksea Sound. The fiords are quite deep and often narrow, so the ship comes very close to land.


After returning to the Tasman Sea, the ship followed the coast to Milford Sound. By this time, the sun was out and Milford Sound was wonderful with the peaks towering hundreds of metres above the sea. 

The ship cruised almost to the head of the Sound before pivoting and heading back to the open sea where it set course for Melbourne. Apparently it rains here for more than 200 days each year, but the price for not being here on a rainy day was that only the permanent waterfalls were flowing. There are quite a number of these, but we were told that after rain, water cascades down all the rock faces.



Looking towards the open sea

 (additional images added)
Going up the sound the weather was quite still (and sunny), which was perfect for standing on deck and taking it all in. However, the wind rose as we approached the open sea, and it looks as though there will be a pretty solid head wind as we head back across the Tasman Sea.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014


I took the excursion train up the Taieri Gorge. Like the Arthur's Pass excursion, this was well worth while, with most impressive scenery. Of course, it wasn't cheap, but it departed from the wharf, alongside the ship. The line is operated as a tourist attraction, and seems well patronised and very well organised. The return trip took over 4 hours, but this included some stops. In addition to the 15 carriage special train operated as an excursion for the cruise passengers (who were supplied on board with coffee, soft drinks, beer and lunch with white wine), the normal train operated two trips, both of which we saw (one at the terminus, and one on our return) and both were well patronised.

The gorge scenery can only be appreciated from pictures, one of which is here and I'll post more when I can (now done).

As mentioned in the previous post, we'll now be at sea with no affordable internet until our return.   The ship is preparing to depart, and there's a piper on the wharf as evidence of Dunedin's Scottish heritage.




Dunedin station

Akaroa and the TranzAlpine

No blog post from Akoroa because I was too occupied to go looking for an internet connection, which probably didn't exist anyway.

The cruise ships now call at Akoroa instead of Lyttelton because the berthing facilities at Lyttelton were apparently damaged in Christchurch's earthquakes and haven't yet been restored. Akoroa is out on the Banks Peninsula and has a French heritage. Cute, it seems, but just a small town.

However, I didn't have time to look at it because I booked for the train excursion on the TranzAlpine. This is referred as one of the world's top scenic train trips, and so it proved to be: amazing views as the train ascended to Arthur's Pass alongside the river. The not-inexpensive excursion doesn't have time to do the whole TranzAlpine trip to Greymouth. It was advertised as bus to Arthur's Pass to pick up the train returning from Greymouth (presumably because there are spare seats on the return trip) but in fact it seems that a special train was operated to cater for the excursion from our ship as well as another ship in port. So, we had an uphill trip. I thought, this will be better, because the train will have to go more slowly up to the pass. Not so: this is mostly 100 kmph track (!!), and the 10 or so carriage train really rattled along! 

There are a couple of open observation cars, which were fun to stand in, but you certainly had to hold on to the rails (and to your camera).

To get to Rollestone, where we joined the train, it was necessary to travel by bus across the Banks Peninsula. Again, the scenery was great as the road wound up to the “Hilltop” and then down again. 
Banks Peninsula

However, my pre-conceived idea that this peninsula would be forested was totally wrong: most of the hills are quite denuded of trees, with only odd patches of trees. The bus driver stated that the original forests had been logged in the early days. I haven't checked whether this is the case, but if it is, they certainly did a good job with the clear felling.

This post is from Dunedin, where I did another rail excursion (details in later post).

We'll be at sea from this evening until we return to Melbourne, although a cruise through the fjords will occur tomorrow.

[Further images added]

Sunday, 23 March 2014


It's Sunday, so we must be in Wellington!   Life is beginning to feel a bit like that!

Anyway, we took the obligatory cable car ride up the hill (a "must do"), then walked down the hill via a well marked path, pausing at the Observatory (I still don't understand the "Big Bang"), through the Botanical Gardens (very scenic), pausing for coffee and lunch at the cafe behind the rose gardens (refreshing), past the Beehive (being renovated) and we're now in the main street (Lambton Quay)......not too much happening as it's Sunday, but the free wi fi is available (30 minute cap).

The weather is an improvement on Napier's rain, so we're hoping that it keeps behaving.

Wellington update: the one thing missing in Wellington was the wind. Even one of the local security guys commented, as we were getting off the ship, that the weather was better than usual! We had headed for the cable car (funicular) as soon as we arrived, but after that our day had been unplanned. In face, the walk back to the CBD through the gardens (via the Observatory and the rose garden cafe) was a very good use of our time.

Unlike the departure from Napier which led almost directly into quite a lot of wind and some significant swell in Hawke's Bay, the departure from Wellington led into a virtual mill-pond …..yes, Cook Strait was quite flat. Given the reputation of this bit of sea (and in fact, my past experience, many decades ago), this was most welcome.

Cable car museum



Beehive and Parliament House
Botanical Gardens

[Further photos have been added]

Saturday, 22 March 2014


The port at Napier is rather congested so it's necessary to take a shuttle bus into town (just a few minutes drive).    The cruise operators are certainly familiar with herding about 2000 people around, and the arrangements were smooth and hassle free.     There was a 15-20 minute wait to get off the ship, but everyone was given a number and it went well.

As already mentioned napier is famous for its are deco buildings, but I was interested to see that there aren't preserved as if in a museum:   they're living, operating buildings, with busy shops and the like occupying them.

It's quite cool but not unbearable.   Good weather for coffee!   And the free wi fi functions well.

Update: At first I thought Napier was quite vibrant – and so it was - but our initial impressions were of it at lunch time on a Saturday just after the arrival of a cruise ship (at noon). By 4 pm, things were a bit different! The misty rain had endured, the shops had mostly closed and so the crowds had gone, I'd walked around some of the secondary shopping streets and had been overwhelmed by the number of vacant shops with “To Lease” signs and several of the accommodation places on the sea frontage with “no vacancy” signs had no cars (apparently they were closed). Still, the architecture remains in our mind.