Saturday, 30 August 2014

It's a wrap!

Three months away is a long time, but the memories are fresh – well, fairly fresh and probably an opportune time to sum up.
I’ll not dwell too long on the UK month, other than to say we thoroughly enjoyed it.  The weather was great (just three patches of rain in 30 days), the company was great (especially the family) and the food was as good as anywhere.  Somewhat surprisingly for some, the service and friendliness in shops, cafés and restaurants was also most impressive.  Prices, particularly in the larger supermarkets, including their non-food outlets, were a lot cheaper than we expected and it is only the cost of petrol which makes the UK seem expensive.
Driving in the UK is still a revelation compared to NZ, as generally, they keep left except when overtaking and apart from the southern end of the M1, where they seem to have installed a load of average speed cameras (revenue collectors), traffic moves pretty quickly and safely.  Given the proliferation of speed cameras in the towns, there seems to be far too many sleeping policemen/speed bumps, meaning extra pollution and poor fuel consumption.  Parking is a bit of an issue in some places and thankfully, back at our home base, they have abolished the paid parking for the first two hours, which is an application of common-sense.  Within the City it is a different story and most travel by bus and the car parks always have spaces.  With even the local buses now having free WiFi and on most routes, buses about every 10 minutes at worst, no wonder.
The middle section of our trip was the 14 day Emerald Princess Baltic’s Cruise.   We loved it!  Sure the Emerald is bigger than the Dawn and a bit less homely, but for a cruise where most days were in port anyway, the ship assumes less importance than on a long cruise with loads of sea days.
I compared the Diamond Princess with the Dawn way back at the beginning of 2012.  Much of what I wrote then still holds, as the Emerald is similar.  Not identical, but similar.  In terms of the deck 5 area, the Emerald boasts an International Café which we enjoyed, but the secondary entertainment lounges, just like the Diamond, are disappointing.
Where the Emerald really scored over the Dawn was the theatre.  Far more modern.  A larger production cast and good scenery made the Dawn look drab by comparison.
The destinations were excellent and the only down sides were a couple of Princess tours where the guides talked non-stop and bored us to death.
Northern Europe’s life style isn’t so different from what we are used to.   I’ll cover that later.
Having a few hours with brother Malcolm between transferring from the Emerald to the Dawn Princess was a bonus and an opportunity to visit the National Motor Museum.
Hopping aboard the Dawn was like returning home.  Loads of people we already knew from past cruises and three of the entertainment staff just made is so easy to slot back in.  It wasn’t long before we caught up with those we’d met previously at Alana’s dance classes (and on then to those great fun evenings in the atrium).  The one sour note of the whole cruise was the deck 7 atrium area...  Putting the same self-centred and rather arrogant pianist in there last year for 90 days was bad enough, but having to suffer again all the way back to Auckland was just one factor in deciding to cancel next year’s second half.
To his credit, Cruise Director Mark was well aware of the feeling of those who were not sycophantic choir members (the pianist also runs the passenger choir) and did his level best to get other musicians in there for dancing, even if only for a couple of hours most nights.   It helped, but whereas in 2011 and 2012, those who’d been to a dance class in the morning were encouraged to come along in the evenings and practice, so the group continued to grow.   Without that continuity and support, the dance group didn’t grow at all this time, which is  shame.  We are convinced the deck 7 bar takings would be well down on 2011 and 2012!
As you may well have read from the blog, this leg of the cruise didn’t really inspire us to repeat it next year.  Too similar and unlike the Med last year, it was much cooler once we’d left the Panama Canal than we expected.  With Easter Island cancelled and nothing more than a sedate trundle around Pitcairn Island, a history of the ship never managing to get passengers to Easter Island, we felt that the ten continuous days at sea and basically most passengers indoors, wasn’t ideal.
Those who made the trek to Machu Picchu thoroughly enjoyed it and for them, it probably made the itinerary worthwhile.
As always, the on board staff were superb on both cruises and our Elite status giving us free laundry and a fair few internet minutes, makes continuing with Princess attractive.
Over the last three years we have been fortunate enough to experience various different cultures and seen some of what is behind the glossy brochures.  Looking at a white sand beach resort for the wealthy on Antigua for example, is one thing.  Seeing the poverty one street back is an eye opener.   Those on benefits in NZ, UK, Aus etc., moaning about their lot in life, need to check out Peru and other countries where there is no dole money.  The eldest son pays for the upkeep of his aged parents,  the eldest daughter looks after them and if a brother loses his job, they all chip in to help him out.  So on the streets, in the traffic queues, you get people trying to sell you tea towels, drinks, sweets, water.  Anything to make a dollar.
The Baltic cruise we loved, as we probably identify with the people rather more than the Caribbean, the Arab States, South America, the Pacific Islands, even the Mediterranean.
We now look forward to doing Sydney to Southampton on the Sea Princess (sister ship to the Dawn) next year.  Hopefully, we’ll be catching up with even more old friends but the last word has to be a massive thank you to Darryl and Sue from Adelaide, for the fun, the laughs and even 2 trivia wins!
We have booked for the Royal Princess round Britain 12 day cruise July 20th 2015...

Friday, 29 August 2014

Auckland and home - but with visitors!

Although it was late to bed and we were tired, Paula couldn’t sleep!  We’d set the alarm for 6:30am and the ship was already lining up to dock at Queen’s Wharf – not Prince’s Wharf as last time.  That meant the meeting instructions I’d given to Darryl & Sue were a bit out, so I scribbled a quick note and pushed it under their cabin door.

It didn’t take long to get sorted and we left the cabin quite early and parked ourselves in the dining room on deck 5, awaiting the clearance to disembark – once the luggage had been off-loaded.

It didn’t take long and we were first off along with M & M!  Two immigration booths open and then we collected our luggage. The lack of sleep must have affected Paula’s eyesight as she’d loaded someone else’s case onto our trolley!  Luckily we spotted it straightaway so we rolled up to the MAF (Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries) to declare our wood/nuts etc. after first passing the beagle test. 

For future travellers arriving at that wharf, currently, no Duty Free facilities on arrival.

The official was quite happy with the Panama hat in its balsa wood box and the three or four small ornaments made out of ivory nuts, so straight out for a taxi, parked at the exit to the shed.

First time I had ridden in a Toyota Prius.  Eerie silence…

The trip home was against the traffic, so easy enough, but the queue going into town from Onewa Rd. stretched the full length (about 2kms).  Missing out on the daily rush hour traffic is something I really am happy to have left well behind.

The house was still standing and heaving the four suitcases, two carry-on bags, the backpack with computer and camera and a zip bag with the balsa box and the left over cans of cider, was easy enough. The advantage of arriving home by ship!

First jobs were turning the water and electricity back on and heading for the garage to see if the 2010 vehicle would start.  Luckily it did, (the AA man lives across the road and was on standby) though the remote unlock button is on the way out.  Ditto, buttons on the CD/radio remote and also the Sky TV remote…

After a quick sort out and a partial unpack of one case each, we nipped out to the supermarket for a couple of basics.

Out again and into town to pick up Darryl & Sue at 11am – though we’d forgotten what a pain it was dealing with Auckland’s unsynchronised traffic lights.  All OK and off then to our regular garden centre for the best coffee in two months.  Ship coffee is OK but it pales against the local brew.

A bit of a trundle around with our guests then home.  We relaxed and also watched Ganjo’s first two DVDs of last year’s cruise, as Darryl & Sue were on until Rome.

Out then for an excellent Indian meal before returning them to the dock, for their last three days to Sydney. It was rather cool so the heaters were on at home.

So that is it.  Three months away and blogging our progress at every stage.

I’ll post a summary in a day or two but that will be aimed more at the future cruisers who I know followed this hoping to pick up tips; those who keep in touch because they couldn’t travel this year and oddly enough, those who were also on the cruise.

I hope you enjoyed the ramble and weren’t too bored but any comments, positive or negative will be welcomed. 



Thursday, 28 August 2014

Day 93 - The last sea day of this cruise - for us.

We are now on NZ time.
A fair sleep and the cough has almost gone, thank goodness.  A bit late breakfasting as trivia wasn’t until 11:30 as Chef Marzi had another one of his cooking demonstrations, followed by a tour of the kitchens for those who hadn’t done the tour before.  That increased our chances of trivia success, but despite Paula’s earlier Zumba session, it didn’t kick the brain into gear any more than usual.
We headed to deck 5 for coffee, but once again, no seating.   With so many staff being so friendly, it comes as a bit of a shock to find a couple of the deck 7 waiters/waitresses distinctly cold.  (It hadn’t gone unnoticed by our head waiter Vasco, so it wasn’t just our assessment.)
So packing was on my agenda for the afternoon and that all went OK and then an escape to the final Ukulele class with Alex at 4:15pm – exactly the same time as trivia…
One of the group (another Ray) had organised a whip round for Alex but asked me to propose the vote of thanks.  Hopefully Alex will use the loot to buy his own ukulele.
Sadly, due to the late scheduling, the drinkers started rolling in well before we’d finished and as I was at the rear of the room, their noise was drowning out Alex.  I managed to move a couple on, but they were coming in too fast so we just had to put up with it.

With Dave Watson 
It was a busy night with another show (that is 3) from Roland Storm.  He is a real encyclopaedia of popular music and this was another show backed by the orchestra.   Another enjoyable show too.  Too few of the entertainers have enough decent material for three shows, some can't even cope with two and several rely on old material.
A bit of dancing and some farewells then our last dinner and I managed to grab a pic with former England football player Dave Watson.  He started his professional career with Notts County in 1967 when I was a regular spectator at Meadow Lane then he went via Rotherham and Sunderland to Manchester City and 65 England caps. 
A spell overseas before bowing out back at Notts County 1984/85, though he retains a strong interest in the club.
After dinner and a few other farewells and down to the Vista lounge for a Princess favourite, the Marriage Show.
We were thrilled to find out that Theresa and Errol had put their names in – as newlyweds.  That is a relative term on cruises when the average age is well over 60.  They had been married 8 years, but known each other 24.  They had no idea what they were letting themselves in for, expecting it to be simple stuff such as what is his favourite film, or her favourite colour.
For those new to Princess cruises, it is a little bit bawdier than that and depending on the Cruise Director/Host and the three couples, can be so-so or hilarious.  This was definitely in the latter category, with all three couples creating the laughs.  As Errol & Theresa were the newlyweds, the middle couple had been married about 35 years and the final couple 57.
It started a bit late (no idea why) so after it had finished, we still had Danny McMaster again and another good show.  Yes, we’d seen it before but still funny.
So, on our last night, Paula was just about asleep standing up as we headed to the cabin for the last time but we managed to drain the last of the port before falling into bed just after midnight.
Just a few hours more and we are home.

We wuz robbed - August 25th

Well, what a con.  We went to bed August 24th and when we woke, it was already August 26th, so no treats, no top line guests, no free drinks.

On the positive side, August 25th was designated a low calorie fasting day.


(For those unaware, we crossed the International Date line, which is 180 degrees west of Greenwich, so we lost a whole day.)   

Day 92 - Penultimate sea day

More rocking and rolling and at 2am we were awake so I switched on the TV.  The Grand Prix wasn’t on live but the sports news channel was enough to find out that Hamilton had been tapped by his team mate.  Oh dear.

I finally woke 8am and did manage to watch the last 5 laps.  Better than nothing!  Paula was still asleep so I managed to watch most of ‘The Sting’, one of my favourite movies and one that brought Ragtime piano back into popularity for a while.  The title tune ‘The Sting’ is in fact ‘The Entertainer Rag’ and when (if) my left hand is restored, I am determined to learn how to play it, having started to learn it well over 30 years ago.

Juts for a change, breakfast was with ace Rock n’ Roll dancers Graham and Linda. (That first pic is Graham resting his feet, ready for some energetic dancing later.) 

After trivia, once again, no seats so no morning coffee, but lunch at 12:30.

For our last formal night, we had an early show – impressionist Danny McMaster.  We’d seen his show before and enjoyed it this time too.  An amazing range of characters and almost all done very well.  On then to the Captain’s farewell drinks in the Atrium, but this time, Paula steered well clear of the red wine!  We caught up with new evening musical trivia friends, Theresa and Errol from the UK. (Picture 2.)

Dinner was one of my Princess favourites ‘Veal Orloff’.

The last Production Show for us was a tribute to ‘The Beatles’ – ‘ Here There and Everywhere’.   Not very impressed.  As noted before, the scenery is virtually non-existent and the mismatched male singers (one tall, hefty and bald, the other small and swarthy – who can at least sing);  mismatched male dancers (one tall, thin and young, the other solid, dark and squat and looking more like a boxer) made it almost awkward to watch at times.

However, tomorrow is the big day, August 25th, with so many promises and treats.

Can’t wait!

Clocks back another hour tonight.


Monday, 25 August 2014

Day 91 - At sea - Rock 'n Rolling

A good, undisturbed sleep – which is a bit of a luxury, but not long after leaving Pago Pago (pronounced Pango Pango) the ship started moving around a bit, so not the smoothest of nights.  The coughing seems to be fading but hasn’t yet gone altogether.
We were up for breakfast about 9am and headed for trivia at 11am, but as usual, Alfredo Marzi, the Princess Executive chef was doing one of his culinary demonstrations.  In the past, he has always been ‘assisted’ by the Maitre  d’Hotel, but not on this cruise.  The Maitre D’ is a very likeable and quite funny so maybe he doesn’t care for the rather arrogant Excecutive chef?  As usual, the demo ran well over time (20 minutes) which then puts pressure on several other activities.
We didn’t win.  After a deck 7 coffee, Paula and I went to the front desk and drew out the remainder of our credit in cash.  We now have a positive balance of just $2.51, which I am sure we’ll be able to spend.
Paula and Sue went off to see the film at 1pm – but there wasn’t one!
Meanwhile, I’d been sorting out some minor packing, including the contents of the drawers and also the safe.  I started to panic when I couldn’t find my wallet containing my UK driving licence, Costa’s coffee card (most important!) and my credit card.
I didn’t really panic, but as the safe is located in a dark cupboard and the lining is black, the black wallet was eventually found tucked up against the dark end.  Phew!  I know I am not the first who has had that problem.
We headed for trivia but Mike didn’t make it as he’d cut his head.  We were joined by an odd lady who didn’t exactly endear herself as she took over the writing and spent more time writing out the questions than contributing to the answers, leaving gaps all over the place, which didn’t go down too well – nor did her very smelly feet!   Paula was just about gagging and we were so pleased when trivia was over and we could grab some fresh air.
The early show at 6:15 was Roland Storm again, this time just with his keyboard.  Lots of short versions of various Rock ‘n Roll numbers and a bit of current history of the stars of yesteryear.  He just loves performing.  Given the chance, I think he’d be running for at least 2 hours but at least he has that amount of material, unlike some.  I really enjoyed his style and presentation.  He loves performing so much that he overran by 15 minutes, so the second show people were queuing up in the corridor and we had to rush to the pizzeria, where we were supposed to be at 7pm, with the dance group.
A nice meal and 14 of us to enjoy it.
The 9:45pm show was billed as ‘comedy vocalist’ Shayne-Ann O’Leary.  A rather buxom blonde and her show was all about blonde singers.  She wasn’t a vocal impressionist (if she was, they all sounded the same) and she wasn’t really much of a comedienne either.  No better than a 7/10 I’m afraid.
Just Paula and I for a late night drink on deck 5.
Bed 11:40pm and hoping that the Belgian GP would be live on TV.  It wasn’t.  The ship was still rocking and rolling and I suspect we won’t have an easy night’s sleep.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Day 90 - Pago Pago - our last port - and a good one.



Once again, the Tannoy woke us in the middle of the night.  At 2am, there was a call from the bridge for the ‘1st Aid’ team (not to be confused with ‘First Aid’ – which is a medical response and is called differently!) to investigate dense smoke in the garbage sorting area.
The Captain came on a few minutes later to confirm and then again a few more minutes later to stand down the team when all was found to be OK.
Whilst one or two passengers have moaned recently about these announcement calls, they are obviously unaware of the fallout from the Costa Concordia, a couple of years ago.  The maritime industry has had to lift its game.  Along with having to do the lifeboat drill within every 30 day period, the Captain is presumably now obliged to make passengers aware of any incidents that could in any way escalate or put passengers or crew in danger.  Princess takes all aspects of safety seriously so we just have to put up with these minor hiccups.
However, Paula’s sleep was disturbed and I started coughing again!
We docked at Pago Pago in American Samoa about 8am and as this is a very small island, there was no rush to go ashore.  We made it about 9:50 with D & S and just wandered through the stalls set up on the dockside and straight out to the street.
We studied one or two tour offers – most of which were about $20 (USD is the local currency) but on what can be best described as Toyota Hilux utes with truck bodies atop (see pic), basic wooden seats, no windows.  The thought of sitting on those with no knee room and a very lack lustre tour for three hours, didn’t really appeal. 
We spied one fit looking guy, quietly holding a plain ‘TAXI’ sign and just patiently waiting to be approached.  A very quick discussion followed and we agreed a 3 hour tour for a total of $120.
Ziggy was his name and he led us across the road to a Toyota showing a few battle scars.  He explained later that he owned a truck but had picked up this Toyota for $800 from someone heading overseas and had converted it to commercial just yesterday, so we were the first paying passengers. 
We headed out through the town (that took approximately 3 minutes!) and past the very smelly tuna canning factory to open country.  Well, the one road that runs out to the eastern end of the island anyway.
With a 25mph speed limit and a rather pot-holed road, progress was stately and we passed through several villages.  On the island, there are 67 of these villages, each with its own chief and that means that misdemeanours are usually dealt with within the village.  We have to say that of all the stops on this trip, this would be one of the very few with minimal graffiti.  The Tsunami of 2010 had left its mark so there was a mix of buildings still unrestored, buildings that were new and others that had been repaired.
At each village was an open walled building which was the chief’s guest-house. 
Land is cheap here with a 1/4 acre section at about $30,000 and a three bedroom house could be built for about $20,000.  No planning permission required as it is YOUR land.  Sounds blissful, though the 25mph limit and a tiny island wouldn’t be much fun for petrol-heads.
We thoroughly enjoyed our trundle out and Ziggy was more than happy to stop for photos whenever we wanted.  He happily answered questions and pointed out a few things of interest.  We hopped out briefly at ‘The Barefoot Bar’ at an idyllic beach setting to take pics and found our table mates, Mike and Sue sampling the local hospitality.
Out effectively to the end of the island, to a church (there are a fair few churches here, most are Anglican) then we turned around and called in at ‘Two Dollar Beach’ where there were several Princess tour trucks and taxis, enjoying a local show.  There was a charge to enter the beach area, even to take photographs.  That is how it gets its name…  We didn’t stay more than 5 minutes but Paula decided that as we’d paid, she may as well use their rest room!
Back then to ‘Tisa’s Bar & Grill’ – the ‘Barefoot Bar’.  Tisa is a local chief – the only female chief on the island and she owns the bar and runs it with her NZ partner.  By this time, there were cruisers everywhere and we relaxed with a cold drink.
Ziggy had turned down our invitation for a drink but time was marching on so we returned to the taxi.  He drove us back into town then out the other side to the ‘flower pot’ rocks and then to the abandoned cable car station.  We passed one of the world famous Wyland whale paintings on the way.
Another Wyland Whale mural
At one time, this was the longest unsupported cable car in the world, but years ago, a military aircraft clipped it and several lives were lost and it has never been used since.
Back then to the ship and as we’d extended our tour by half an hour or more, we paid Ziggy the extra.
We preferred today to Apia in Western Samoa three years ago so along with Moorea and even Papeete, the gloss was restored to this section of the cruise.  When we do a summary at the end of the trip, it may well be that the South American stops were the ones that didn’t really live up to our expectations.
Back on board and suitably refreshed, we joined not only the regular Cruise Critic group for our final sail-away, but also those of our dance group.
The abandoned cable car
At dinner, I managed to mix a starter of beef and chicken satays, with a main of vegetable korma, to make a very nice curry.
I introduced myself to an ex-English league soccer player on a nearby table who I’d been told about and he is happy enough to have his pic taken with me, so hopefully I’ll manage that.  There is a good reason for that as son Stewart keeps posting pics of himself with soccer players, usually ex-Nottingham Forest.
To the theatre to see a performer we’d only half seen before, last year I think - Roland Storm.  I really enjoyed the show.  He was well known in Australia in the 1960’s and has a pleasant voice and although with the orchestra, plays his own piano (keyboard) accompaniment.  The tunes might have been a bit before Sue’s time, but we knew them!  I’ll give him an 8.5/10 as I believe much of his show was as before as he covers quite a few musical icons of that era but without trying to be a vocal impressionist.
A hot chocolate before bed.
Just three days at sea now and we are home.  Not sure whether or not I’ll be posting again before then, but keep your fingers crossed.
Plans are filtering through about August 25th. These include free drinks at the bar and a class entertainer making a special one night appearance, just for the Elite passengers.  Rumour has it that it may even be Rod Stewart.