Wednesday, 29 June 2016

House rules for cruising with friends

So you're going on a cruise! For two weeks! With friends, no less! A girls' only trip! Leave the boys at home!

It all sounds wonderful – and certainly is. Imagine: two and a half weeks of lying by the pool, eating heaps of yummy food, sipping endless cocktails, partying all night and throwing in a spot of duty free shopping every so often. Except it's not quite so wonderful if these activities aren't your idea of what you should do every day on holiday, or you want to try something different for a change, or even do something quiet by yourself occasionally.

Our group knew from the outset that one particular person was at risk of not returning. It was just a matter of who would do it, when and how. I'm pleased to report that we did survive the duration of the cruise, thanks to employing some survival tactics. It was tough at times to remain calm and patient but we can now repeat the wise words our cruise ship captain announced after each shore excursion, "all the souls are accounted for" – just.

House rules for cruising with friends

  • Choose your cabin mates wisely. The cabins are very small and two weeks is a long time to spend with others in a confined space.
  • Realise that not everybody has to or will want to do the same things at the same time – and that's perfectly ok. Desirable, even.
  • Know who in your group is an extrovert, who the introverts are and have a plan for keeping everybody alive. Not as simple as it sounds.
  • Realise that everyone has a different idea about what being on holiday means. For some it's drinking endless cocktails on a pool lounger. For others, it's having time out to quietly read a book or spending some time alone to recharge their energy.
  • Have an understanding that if people get separated or want some time out that you'll meet up at a regular activity or meal. For us, it was the daily quiz at 5 pm or dinner at 7.30.
  • Bring headphones and use them just like you would in an open plan office. They're a great way to carve out some personal space or even just to show others that you're not going to be part of this conversation.
  • Let stuff go. Remember that you're all away for a break and a good time. Your holiday will fly by and you'll be back to reality before you know it so enjoy it while you can.

Monday, 27 June 2016

High tea on the high seas

High tea on the high seas? Don't mind if we do! I couldn't resist booking a fancy afternoon tea towards the end of our cruise. $A20 for eleven high tea items, coffee and bubbles was excellent value and a special ladies' treat.

I love the way high tea was presented on an oval art deco style stand.
High seas high tea
We were advised to start in the middle row with five different sandwiches including shrimp, chicken, salmon, pork and beef. Then, hot scones with jam and cream were served before we let loose on the sweet layers: raspberry macaron, marscapone tart, florentine, chocolate lamington and more.

The restaurant wasn't able to cater for special dietary requirements for high tea so our friend with a nut allergy sat this one out. The sandwiches were also all non-vegetarian and contained quite a bit of seafood, so I was fine by the other two in my group were less happy. We were allowed to take the leftover sweets back to our room and enjoyed them as a late afternoon snack.

I think the Pacific Ocean is my most exotic high tea venue to date. How will I top this experience?

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Feeding a cruise ship

Almost everyone has asked me one common question since I got home from my cruise: "How was the food?" Honestly: it was excellent. Given that the Pacific Pearl is a three star ship and I'd read so many conflicting reviews before leaving, it was hard to know what to expect, but the overall standard of food and service in the Waterfront restaurant was fantastic and certainly a highlight of the cruise. They also catered for special dietary requirements. One of our group is allergic to nuts so she was brought the next day's menu in advance and her selections for breakfast, lunch and dinner were cooked separately.

They say that you board a cruise as a passenger and leave as cargo. It's entirely probable as the food is plentiful and you’ll never be hungry. This is both a good and bad thing. An almost continuous buffet with meals and snacks and an a la carte restaurant is included in the cruise fare. The menu changes daily and there are also themed menus each day such as Swedish, Italian, Greek and so on. You can order extra vegetables, something we started to miss, or extra fries or fruit on the side for most meals if you feel like something else. I got into the habit of ordering a plate of watermelon (five small pieces) to gorge on with breakfast and lunch.

It's worth checking out some of the specialty restaurants on board (these come with a surcharge) and the treats you can purchase from the cafes are worth trying at least once. While it's tempting to start each three course meal with the bread brought to your table (or pastries and toast for breakfast), I decided to pace myself and was even crazy enough to only have one course for lunch. Sometimes.
Fruit and marscapone tart
As one comedian on board pointed out, there are two days that you'll go to the gym: the first day as you try to establish a good routine and the last day when you try and undo all the eating in between. My Fitbit kept me honest most days and I managed to maintain or exceed my 10000 daily step goal, thanks to the walking track on the top deck and walking up copious flights of stairs instead of taking the elevator.

So what does it take to feed a cruise ship? Here are some shopping list stats for average food consumption during a 10 day cruise:
  • 2900 kg flour
  • 2200 kg watermelon (I probably ate 200 kg of this alone)
  • 9800 l milk
  • 110 kg espresso beans (I also helped out here)
  • 1500 kg tomatoes
  • 1250 kg French fries
  • 2800 dozen eggs
  • 700 kg oranges
  • 850 kg apples
  • 3200 kg chicken
  • 2200 kg rice 
To serve all this food, 32000 plates, 13000 glasses and 30000 pieces of cutlery are washed every day. Here's a glimpse of the ship's galley (kitchen). We were lucky enough to catch a walk through tour on our second to last day at sea.
Kitchen assembly line, where meals are plated for serving
A row of gigantic refrigerators
Look at that mixer!
Apart from our vegetarian former chef friend, who was disappointed with aspects of almost every dish (either how they were made or the ingredients she expected they'd use), we were really impressed with the quality and variety of food. I enjoyed watching cooking demonstrations by some of the chefs and was really glad that menu was not based entirely around deep fried wonders like I'd worried they would be.

According to my calculations, we probably got our money's worth from the food alone, let alone travel, accommodation and entertainment - and that's with pacing ourselves and not getting carried away at each meal or in between. And my net damage? 1 kg down. Woo hoo!

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Coffee and vanilla in Vava'u

Hospitality comes in all shapes and forms. Sometimes you encounter it in the most unlikely of places. With a name that means "the friendly islands", we discovered hospitality first hand in the Kingdom of Tonga during a tiki tour of Vava‘u.

The port at Vava‘u is small and pretty. The tiny town is less than a stone's throw away and visitors can easily wander through markets to a few mall street blocks. There is a more tropical feel to this island than Tongatapu and the humidity is more obvious.
The wharf at Vava‘u
There are churches almost everywhere in Tonga. We passed so many on the main island of Tongatapu but didn't actually go inside any. St Joseph's Catholic Cathedral sits atop a small incline in Vava‘u. It stands out as an imposing whitewashed figure on the edge of the town and is worth walking up to see.
St Joseph's Cathedral
Inside St Joseph's Cathedral
Back in the township, it seemed that hiring a taxi for an hour was the best way to look around the island. I use the term 'taxi' loosely. Taxis don't have to be registered or even have doors that shut and we had many offers called out from within private vehicles in dubious states of disrepair. We found an 'actual' taxi back at the wharf, negotiated an hourly rate of T$80 (around $NZ53 - slightly above the going rate some others paid but there were few options available) and headed off for a tour.

Our driver didn't speak a lot of English but seemed to know where tourists might want to visit. We were treated to "Tongan air conditioning"; the sliding back door of the van didn't close and it was very hot so our driver just pushed it the whole way open and left it there. (No seat belts either, so we just held on tight.)

We drove up and down a hill and stopped next to a bridge to look at this lagoon. I didn't quite catch the story or significance of the lagoon but the events of the next few minutes will ensure I won't forget visiting it. After jumping back into the van (with the Tongan air conditioning wide open), we needed to back off the bridge, which the driver did by reversing a hundred or so metres. He then answered a mobile phone call but didn't let it interrupt him. Tonga must be the only place in the world where we could legally sit inside a van with the door wide open while the driver did a one-handed u-turn on a bridge and talked on the phone.
Lagoon near the bridge
Back towards town, our driver stopped to pick someone up. Another passenger? Perhaps. He didn't look Tongan and seemed to know the driver. "Hello," he said. "I hope you don't mind being flexible, but we do things a little differently in Tonga. I just need to pick up my groceries from the shop. It won't take long. Is that ok?" Who were we to argue?

It turns out our passenger was a Swiss national who had been living in Vava‘u since visiting many years ago. He married a local Tongan woman and they had returned to Vava‘u after living in Europe for a few years. His English was excellent and he pointed out various landmarks along the way. He also made an unbelievable offer.

"So, you ladies are on the cruise ship? What's the coffee like on board?" he asked.
"Pretty bad," was our honest answer.
"I have the best coffee at my place. Do you drink coffee?"
Do we ever?!
"I have the beans sent from Italy and make coffee using rain water. Come and have coffee with me - free of charge, of course."

At this stage we thought he may have been involved with a cafe in town that looked quite upmarket but didn't really take him seriously. "Sure, that would be good," we replied noncommittally as we drove up a hill towards his home, dropping him off along with his groceries. So much for the coffee.

Our next stop was at Veimumuni cave and fresh water pool. Used as the bathing place of local villagers as recently as 30 years ago, the source of the water is unknown. Even though the mouth of the cave directly faces the ocean, the water does not originate from there. Our driver insisted that 20 women could fit in the cave at once, but we weren't prepared to see for ourselves.
Veimumuni cave
Our hour long tour was marching on. Once back in the van, our driver headed back towards the house where we'd dropped off his Swiss passenger. "Coffee," he announced before ushering us onto the property.

Within moments, our host had emerged from the house carrying some indoor furniture. He set up a table and four chairs underneath a giant mango tree in the front yard while his dogs checked us out as visitors. His wife joined us ("I was in the shower when I was told to make coffee because we're having guests!" she said) and we chatted for a few minutes before the coffee arrived in beautiful espresso cups - and it was the most delicious coffee I'd tasted since leaving Wellington. We sweetened it with icing sugar as there is no sugar in Vava‘u, despite Tonga producing so much sugar cane. Sipping coffee in the shade of a mango tree in a stranger's front yard is an experience I'll never forget.
The best coffee in Tonga
Just as we were thanking our hosts for their coffee and hospitality, we heard mention of a vanilla plantation "just up the road". We looked expectantly at our driver who reluctantly agreed to take us there. "Why do you want to go to a vanilla farm?" he asked. "Because we're bakers!" was our reply. We were thrilled to visit the home of Queen baking products and be welcomed by the strong aroma of delicious vanilla. It turns out we'd just missed seeing all the vanilla pods laid out to dry in the sun on huge drying racks. They'd were collected up in large bags, ready for processing and packaging for Queen products in Australia. We bought some specialty Vava‘u vanilla pods and coconut moisturiser from the factory shop across the road.
Vanilla pods ready for drying
Vanilla pods are spread on racks and left to dry in the sun
Mālō, Tonga. I'll never forget the warm hospitality of Vava‘u.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Tiki tour of Nuku‘alofa

Nuku‘alofa is the capital city of the Kingdom of Tonga. We'd arranged a private tour of the island of Tongatapu with Toni's Tours. Toni is originally from England and has been living in Tonga for 25 years. "Tonga is home. I'm a Tongan," he told me.

They say that time slows down in Tonga. The open road speed limit is 70 km/h and the hot, sticky, dusty climate does the rest. Pigs are everywhere around houses and along the side of the road, bringing a whole new meaning to the term free range. There are fishing pigs all around the lagoon searching for whatever food they can find.
A fishing pig
We began our tour by driving around the lagoon to Niutoua. Ha‘amonga ‘a Maui is at the eastern most point of the island. Tonga claims to be the very first country in the world to see the dawn of every new day, something this Chatham Islander finds somewhat contentious. The top stone of the ancient trilithon monument lines up with the skyline on the longest day of the year.
Haʻamonga ʻa Maui trilithon
We drove to the scenic Captain Cook's landing point. There is a makeshift craft centre at the site where you can buy trinkets while listening to a Tongan musical group performing local songs. We watched a group of preparing to work on printing a large tapa cloth.
Preparing tapa cloth for printing
Nearby, Paepae‘o Tele‘a is the site of the terraced royal tombs built over 300 years ago for the Tu‘i Tonga. Tu‘i Tonga are historical figures considered to be half god, half man. They held a significant place in Tongan culture and were revered in society. However, Christianity saw the end of worshipping any other god and the last Tu‘i Tonga died in 1810. One Tu‘i Tonga was laid to rest on top of each burial site. Second tier royalty are now buried in the lower levels of each pyramid.
Paepae‘o Tele‘a terraced tomb
Our day ashore was almost in the so called middle of winter for Tonga. This means a temperature of 26°C (that can drop to as low as 8°C at night) and some welcome warm breezes. Our tour guide explained that the Tongan winters are getting progressively warmer and wetter. The impact on agriculture is immense. Crops such as coffee that would flower in summer were now flowering two or three times a year, making for smaller fruit and exhausted plants who chewed through nutrients twice as fast as usual. Watermelon is now available all year round (something I'm not complaining about). Bougainvillea and poinsettia grow freely on the side of the road but frangipani is no longer taking its winter hiatus, meaning its branches are continually trying to flower and hold onto its foliage. Beautiful, but ecologically worrying.
A coconut plantation
There is so much plant life crammed onto this tiny island. Talo (taro), yams, Naturally, there are coconut trees but interestingly enough coconuts are seemingly worthless in Tonga. The green coconuts are used for milk but the ripe coconuts are cut in half and fed to the pigs. "Nobody eats coconut meat," I was told. Some people make coconut oil if they need it but most Tongans buy desiccated coconut packaged from Indonesia if they need it for cooking. Apparently you can buy a ripe eating coconut for around 10 cents, but they're usually just given away and not sold as there is so little demand for them!
Double coconut tree
I'd been told about Tonga's lack of infrastructure and its effect on daily life so had some idea of what to expect, but it is quite humbling to see this first-hand. It seems like so many initiatives were started but not finished or, once established, left unmaintained until they simply crumble away. Many houses are ramshackle with panels of rusted corrugated iron secured by concrete bricks. Chicken wire and makeshift tarpaulins wrap around windows. The once bright colourful paint is now faded and peeling. Buildings destroyed in cyclones are left abandoned. It seems that the Chinese and Japanese are in competition with each other to develop infrastructure such as roads, hospitals and even a solar farm. Tourism seems the main motivation to clean up the destruction and entice foreign money, but I really wish the communities had the means and support to do this for their own benefit. Roadside shops dot the rural roads, their grilled front walls offering glimpses of supplies for sale but many now lie empty.
Roadside store
There are Christian churches absolutely everywhere, from the lavish Mormon churches each with their ostentatious cookie-cutter layout to the colourful buildings belonging to the Church of Tonga. Funded by the community, each tries to outdo the other in design and form at the expense of the congregation's homes and quality of life.

Our next stop was the famous blowholes at Mapu a Vaea, which apparently had been performing beautifully the day before we visited but still were a great site to see on the day we arrived. The sea pulls back along the rocky sea wall and a thunderous roar signals that something is about the happen. The water rolls back in, smashing up against the wall and releasing itself through a series of blow holes that spurt torrents of water high into the air. Sometimes they blow in succession from left to right across a distance off around 100 metres, much like the rolling of surf breakers.
Blowholes at Mapu a Vaea
Finally, we headed over to Keleti Resort for lunch overlooking the ocean. It was a lovely way to finish our tour and a very warm welcome to the Kingdom of Tonga.
The view from Keleti Resort

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Dravuni Island

Just south of Suva in south east Fiji is the tiny tropical paradise that is Dravuni Island. This is the Fiji you see in postcards: coconut trees along the shoreline, white sand beach, crystal blue sea and endless sunshine. Our cruise ship had to anchor at sea and tenders brought us ashore to the centre of the island where the school is located. The island is tiny; you can cover it on foot with just a fifteen minute walk in one direction and ten in another. There is a small hill from where I’m assured the view is superb. Various snorkelling spots surround the main beach area and locals will take you out on scenic boat rides for a small cost.
Dravuni Island
Despite all my mixed feelings about Fiji and tourism endorsing its status as a military dictatorship, along with my general aversion to lying around on beaches, I thoroughly enjoyed the clichéd tourist experience of a few hours on Dravuni. After a quick look around the village and a wander along one of the main trails, we settled at a semi-shaded spot under a coconut tree and let the cathartic tropical air work its magic.
Dravuni Beach
The tiny village at Dravuni
Dravuni School
Colourful shirts and sulus on sale were flapping flamboyantly in the warm breeze from makeshift outdoor stalls. They were accompanied by the usual range of pendants, carved kava bowls and turtle memorabilia that you'll find anywhere else in Fiji. An offer of a ten minute head and shoulder massage for just $FJD10 was too good to turn down and I now have yet another sulu to add to my colourful collection of beautiful yet rarely used sarongs.
Beach side stalls
Then it was into the shallow water, crystal clear save for a few beach floaty bits that were easily swept away. As someone who is averse to cold water, I haven’t dipped more than an occasional toe in the sea in more years than I care to remember. The salt water's healing properties coupled with a relaxing massage did wonders for my tired, aching body and mind.
A sandy paradise
Vinaka, Fiji.