For much of the past three weeks my wife and I were on an enormous ship, cruising the Pacific — more specifically, going from Honolulu to Tahiti, then to New Zealand, then to Sydney. A death in the family cut short the cruise, and we left it at Auckland to return to a funeral, a stressful event in almost every way. I thought it might be useful, at least to some readers, to say something about ‘cruising’, a new form of adventure, especially for retired people with a little money.
We were ‘virgins’ in this activity, but we encountered a few for whom it is life itself. One woman had done more than 40 cruises in the last ten years. There is apparently a woman who spends her whole life on one of the big ships, with a stateroom permanently hers, whether she is there or not.
Our ship was the Celebrity Solstice, a mere 122,000 tonnes (equal 32nd in size). The biggest such ship today is almost twice as large. No matter, with sixteen decks, 2800 passengers and 1200 staff, the Solstice seemed enormous to us, especially when you stood on the dock beside it. When I went to the UK in 1964 it was on the Fairstar, 20,000 tonnes. It seemed big then.
It was easy to get lost in the Solstice. Over 1000 feet long, and with two corridors, a lift system in a 14-deck atrium, a two-level, four-part main dining room, a buffet restaurant and cafe on the 14th floor, and a number of speciality restaurants as well, the ship took several days to explore. Even then, you could find yourself going the wrong way, usually by following other passengers without thinking first where you actually wanted to go.
There was little to find fault with.The staff were uniformly courteous, and their demeanour raised the civility of the passengers, who greeted each other cheerfully as they passed one another. We did not meet a single unpleasant person, or couple. The ship was spotless, the cabins attended to twice a day at least, the food of excellent quality, and the ‘shows’ — the nightly entertainments in a theatre that seats not quite 1000 people — always enjoyable, and sometimes of breathtaking quality.
What do people do on a cruise ship? There is a great deal to do. A lot hung out on the swimming-pool deck, bagging the deck-chairs and hanging on to them all day. Having a tendency to skin cancer, we left them to it. There was shopping, with lots of shops and ‘sales’. There was a daily art auction, with free champagne for those who would turn up. I admired a small Chagall colour lithograph (number 26 of 60) that was to be auctioned that day, and asked the next day whether it had gone. No, was the reply. Was I interested? I ventured the thought that it would probably be outside my price range. Well, said the man, the retail is $US81,300. I did my best to look blasé, stroked my chin and nodded briefly. Yes, outside it, I said, and moved on. The next day a woman bid $US33,200 for a painting and won it. It was not for me, at a tenth the price. A lot of people played Bingo, too, and a casino and an abundance of poker machines catered to serious gamblers.
The Library was not a great attraction, though it had pleasant chairs and a good ambience. The books were odd indeed — Also Sprach Zarathustra (two copies), and lots of technical stuff. An old copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica told me that Canberra’s population was 47,000 (1954). An iLounge provided courses on how to use your lap-top or iPhone. The ship’s Executive Chef, an Australian, gave lectures and demonstrations about cooking which, as an Army-trained cook myself, I found enlightening and accurate. Daily lectures told you about Polynesia, the reason we had chosen this voyage. And Maui, Tahiti, Bora Bora and Moorea were all (to me) fascinating both geologically and ecologically. I could have spent many days there, and greatly admired a hotel on Moorea whose rooms were built out over a lagoon. Yes, I know they’re everywhere, but to approach them by boat was special.
Another big attraction to me was the Pacific Ocean itself. Our voyage went through a small portion of it, but even on the top deck of the ship, the Pacific seemed gigantic. Indeed it is, because it comprises not quite half of all the seas on the planet, and occupies about a third of its surface area. Magellan named it the mare pacifico (peaceful sea) because once he got through the Strait named after him he met with favourable winds and calm seas. The biggest seas we experienced were three metres, but you would never have known. There was hardly a movement you could detect as you walked. My wife, initially worried about sea-sickness, fell asleep before we left Honolulu and woke up at Maui, having been unaware of the departure, arrival or passage.
Very roughly, our voyage cost us as a couple about AUD550 a day, which covered the voyage, all meals, excellent accommodation and being taken to fabulous places. That is pretty good value for money. Warning, you will spend more than that, and the whole strategy of the cruise is to get you to spend and spend and spend. Wine (we tend to have a glass with dinner) was very expensive and not good value for money at all. But we paid. Serious drinkers could buy a drinks package for $US1000 (each) which would allow them drink as much as they liked throughout the voyage. We would have had to drink much more than would be good for us to make that sensible.
Would we do it again? No. We decided that we were travellers rather than cruisers, interested in getting to the next port of call rather than enjoying seaboard life. And cruising the Pacific does involve long stretches of seaboard life, towards the end of which we became restless, longing for land, flowers, trees and the other accoutrements of land-lubberdom.
No matter. It was an experience, even though it was overshadowed by the death of a family member. Oh, for people like me, who at home live on a desk computer, the trip was exasperating. Reception was via satellite, and when many people wanted to use the system it creaked and groaned. We found it difficult to use email until we switched to iCloud, which meant that we were blocked from some of our contacts. Running a website on board a ship in the mid-Pacific is not to be recommended. But you learn. Next time …