"" Writer's Wanderings: February 2015

Saturday, February 28, 2015

World Cruise - Hobbiton

It was a big secret until just a few days before we were to arrive in Tauranga. We knew there was to be a special event for all of the world cruisers but we had no idea what and then the notice arrived. We were all being treated to an evening at Hobbiton!

A small percentage of people had no idea of what to expect because they’d never read the J.R.R. Tolkien books or seen any of the movies. The rest of us were pretty excited. We opted to take the whole tour that was offered. Some could not because of the walking and climbing but they were to be treated to a wonderful time anyway.

Our buses arrived (Bob counted 20) and the first ones with the tour people set off for Matamata around 5:40 p.m. It was a little more than an hour drive and over a mountain range as Bob and I reminisced of our road trip in New Zealand, October of 2013. We hadn’t made it to Hobbiton so we were excited to see something very new to us.

Just into Matamata, we stopped to pick up our guide for the tour. She was dressed in costume and barefoot! “Because,” as she said sweetly, “Hobbits don’t wear shoes.” Her feet weren’t nearly big enough for a Hobbit either.  We each received a brochure and some information about Hobbiton and how our tour would go.

Arriving at Hobbiton, we were greeted by ship’s photographers. I wondered how many people had actually purchased the $2000 picture package for the world cruise. When the pictures were done, we were greeted by one of the sons of the Alexander family, the owner of the huge 1250 acre sheep and beef farm where the Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings movie set was built.

The original set for the first series of movies was built in 1999 (involving the NZ Army’s earthmovers) as a temporary place. As the story went, they were in the process of tearing it all down when the Alexanders realized its potential as a tourist attraction. When Peter Jackson decided to do the Hobbit series, he returned to Hobbiton to rebuild and add to the set. This time the contract with the Alexanders said that it had to be permanent. The structures that are there now will hopefully last until the Hobbit fever finally gives out.

Bags End-middle tree is artificial.
Each Hobbit dwelling we stopped at was picturesque in its own unique way and I had trouble refraining from picture snapping. Much of the vegetable gardens and some of the displays were real but there were some that were props and you couldn’t tell the difference.

Our guide pointed out a tree on the hillside where Sam comes running down with his contract in hand and said it was artificial. Until you got closer, you never would have known. When the first movies were shot, they planted the tree trunk with its branches and then in order to make it an oak tree, they glued or wired on the leaves. For the Hobbit movies, the tree was actually made of steel and silicon. There was only one problem however. Shooting of the film was slowed when the director took ill and by the time it started up again, the leaves had faded. They had to be individually painted to refresh it.

We climbed to the top of the hill to Bags End and back down again to the Green Dragon. Lots of canopies were set up to make it look like a market place and under each was a different kind of food to be sampled. We were told there would be appetizers but these appetizers were more than Hobbit-sized. Pork sandwiches, grilled sausage bits, toast bits with cheese and veggies, mussel fritters (who knew?), and even lamb chops. Wine and ale and cider in mugs flowed freely.

There was a pig roasting over an open fire and as we crossed over the double arched bridge, we found ourselves in front of the Green Dragon. We couldn’t resist a peek inside. Two huge tables of more food were set up but even better, we got to feel what it would be like inside the Hobbit tavern.

A little worn out, we found a bench to sit on and watch the activities around us. There was a fire eater performing and Bob got coerced into being part of the act. Costumed characters roamed all around us either offering food or just being part of the character of the place—some were on stilts, although I don’t recall how that fit with the movies.

Gathered around the center lake, the sun having set a couple of hours before, we listened to Gandolf (who sounded an awful lot like our cruise director, Gary Hunter) as he introduced the people involved with our gala event. Then we were entertained with videos projected on a wall of water being sprayed into the air (ala Disney style). It was a special video that told about Hobbiton but also offered birthday greetings to Crystal Cruises on their 25th silver celebration. Of course all of it ended with fireworks that were set off in sync with the fireworks in the video of the Hobbit celebration from the movie.
But the evening wasn’t over yet. There followed a spectacular laser show before we were invited to return to the buses and start our ride back to the ship. While I thought everyone would sleep on the way back, I found that we were all too excited. The bus buzzed most of the way back with excited chatter recounting the gala event. It had been quite an evening to remember.

Back at the ship, we entered the atrium to find that there was a buffet set up—just in case anyone was hungry since we’d missed dinner. And yes, there were people eating. Yikes! It was almost 11 and past our bedtime. (We’re so old.) We passed on the food and went straight to bed.

The next day our ship left Tauranga at 5 AM but I don’t think there were many passengers up and about to hear our departing song played. I seriously doubt they played it or else I was so sound asleep I didn’t hear it. We are definitely not party animals.

Friday, February 27, 2015

World Cruise - Mount Maunganui (Tauranga)

With dismay we woke to rain. Lots of rain. But to our delight, the rain stopped by the time we’d been to church services and had breakfast. We were ready to go off and explore. 

Having been to Tauranga twice before, we decided to explore the Mount Maunganui area instead and we were up for a good walk. The gatekeeper at the port entrance suggested two routes, one through town to get to the mountain and the other along the harbor. We chose to check out the town on our way to the mountain.

It was a nice little town full of all sorts of shops and places to eat some of which were open for early breakfast diners. Our route took us through some residential area and past some large condo buildings that we suspected were vacation rentals. That was confirmed later when we met two Canadians from Toronto who were toughing out their winter by staying here through February.

At the base of the mountain was a mini-triathlon with all female participants. The running part of the meet was taking place and the crossing guards just smiled and said “Have a go but mind the runners,” as we tried to cross the street. Safely across, we started up the track that would lead around the base of the mountain. There was a track to the top but I was ready to walk, not climb.

It was a very nice three mile walk around the base of Mount Maunganui. The trail wasn’t muddy at all which was a surprise considering the rainfall. Huge trees with twisting branches and trunks overhung the pathway and the waters of the bay pounded the rocks along the shore with a rhythmic beat. The track ended at the Mount Maunganui beach where lots of Sunday surfers mixed with beach goers and some sort of children’s activities.

While it wasn’t very hot, it was humid and with our exercise we were both a bit damp and sweaty. We opted to return to the ship, shower, eat again, and then return to town to check out some of the shops. Our return route took us along the harbor boardwalk and past the triathlon participants who were receiving their rewards.

That afternoon we wandered in and out of shops looking for a couple more nice tops for me and the off chance of finding pants that Bob might like. I was the only one pleased. I found a pretty soft T that the sales lady said was actually made of recycled wood fibers. Who knew?

Back on the ship we tried to rest up a bit. We were set to have a grand celebration of Crystal’s 25th Anniversary. It would happen at a special place that evening and it would be “precious.”

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

World Cruise - Auckland, New Zealand

Our morning started as usual. The alarm went off at 7:30 and we turned on the TV and tuned to the channel that gives the live picture from the front of the ship. There before us was Queen Street, the main street running from the pier into the heart of the city of Auckland and in the distance the top of the Sky Tower, the tallest man-made structure in New Zealand. (Some also boast that it is the tallest structure in the southern hemisphere—maybe.)

There would be three days here to explore the city and surrounding area. Many were even planning overnight trips to places farther away. We chose to go shopping our first day. Bob had packed a pair of “good” pants that had seen better days and somehow gotten them past my watchful packing eyes. So off we went to look for a pair of black Dockers. Only one problem. Dockers don’t exist in New Zealand, he found out later online, or Australia for that matter. There was nothing that even came close and when it did, they were in the skinny style pant leg. I tried to talk him into it. You know, update him a bit but, oh well.
Our shopping expedition did get us out into some of the suburbs by way of the train system. It was easy to follow the map and the train schedule (helps when it’s in English) and the ride was smooth. We saw a little countryside and then returned with a few sundries that we picked up to restock our toiletries with. We’d also picked up several brochures to plan our remaining two days.

The next morning, we took off early and purchased tickets for a harbor cruise. The cruise was an hour and a half and included morning tea with a muffin. The start of it was nothing more than piers full of containers from ships. Then off to an old lighthouse that sits on stilts in the middle of the harbor. It’s been around since the 1860s.

As the boat sped up a bit to our next point of interest, we pulled out the jackets that someone had told us we wouldn’t need and donned them. The air was getting a bit cooler and the sky a bit grayer but the dark clouds were so distant that we thought they would miss us. At Rangitoto Island, the boat stopped for a ten minute look if you wanted to see the volcanic island close up. Ten minutes barely got you off the dock and back again but many walked it.

Motoring past Devonport, a suburb of Auckland across from the main city, we passed two more dormant volcanoes and then headed for the Harbour Bridge. It’s not as dramatic as the Sydney Bridge but close. There is also opportunity to climb it and bungee jump from it (we passed on both). The skies were getting darker again but still a distance away.

On the way back to the ferry terminal, we passed the Westhaven Marina. This is the place where they bring in the America’s Cup sailboats when the competition is here. We remembered seeing some of the boats on our very first cruise from Auckland years ago.

Our ticket included a return ticket (we would call it a round-trip) to Devonport so we hopped on the next ferry and rode it over. Devonport reminded me a little of Russell with its Victorian styled buildings. We found a little out of the way café that had pizza and indulged. We never seemed to find it on the ship. By the time we were ready to stroll along the waterfront, those distant dark clouds were upon us and it began to rain. A little spritz at first, then harder. We walked a bit, met a couple who’d forgotten to grab an umbrella and loaned them one of ours. A little damp but happy, we all made it back to the ship in one piece.

The last day in Auckland, we took the Hop On, Hop Off Explorer bus. There were two circles, one red and one blue, each taking about one hour if you didn’t hop off. We bought our pass and caught the first bus by the pier that started us on the red circle. There was commentary at the points of interest and we got a more extensive look at the city of Auckland and some of the outlying areas on the blue line.

The red line met the blue line at the Auckland museum but we were too early to get the blue bus and the museum wasn’t open yet. We opted for the winter gardens that were a short walk from the museum. It was Saturday morning and a beautiful sunny one at that. Hundreds of children could be seen spread out on the many surrounding cricket courts. We paused to watch a bit but we’ve never been able to understand it.

Then we noticed something else unusual. People running around in inflated bubbles like the ones they get in to roll down hills. As we passed a blue van with yellow letters that read BUBBLE SOCCER, we understood. There was a yellow ball they were trying to kick into their respective goals but if they got to close to another person, they were bounced away and often bounced to the ground. The closer we got the more we could hear the giggles and laughter. It looked like a fun time.
A stroll through the winter gardens, a cup of coffee at the garden café outdoors, and we were in time to get on the first blue bus for the day. It took us to Mount Eden, Auckland’s highest point, where if we wanted to, we could have climbed up for a good view of the city. Then it was on to the zoo that was packed with visitors on a sunny Saturday. We stayed on the bus and made it back around to the museum again where we boarded the red bus for the trip back to the city center. It was a nice ride and a good way to see Auckland and had we been more ambitious and had more time, we would have hopped off and on more but we needed some lunch (seems like we’re always eating) and a post office before it closed.

Lunch was had at the base of the Sky Tower. The post office was found just in time before it closed and the rain started. Our poor table waiter was not going to get off the ship again. We kept teasing him that if he took an umbrella he wouldn’t get wet—even offered him one of ours. He just smiled and shook his head like we were crazy. I did hear him say something about being made of sugar and melting—or was that Bob?

Just before dinner and after another muster drill required for world cruisers once a month and for the newbies who had joined this segment of our cruise, the Crystal Serenity set sail to the tune of It’s A Wonderful World. A group of wedding party guests stood on the pier, all dressed in white, and waved as we backed away.

Yes, it’s a wonderful world. Oh yaaaay.

Monday, February 23, 2015

World Cruise - Land Ho! Bay of Islands

Land ho! You could sense the excitement when after four more sea days (making 13 sea days out of the seventeen days of this segment) passengers spotted the green hills of New Zealand. The ship anchored in Waitangi Bay near Paihia on the North Island, the place where our last New Zealand adventure had begun. How fitting. 

This area is known as the Bay of Islands and is a beautiful area to explore by water or land. Enough of the water for us. On to the land. Just after lunch, our arrival time, we boarded a tender and set off to the landing area near the Waitangi Treaty Grounds where a treaty was formed between the Maori Chiefs and the British Crown back in 1840. From there we took a shuttle bus with a delightful Kiwi driver. Australians are known as Aussies. New Zealanders as Kiwis. The bus stop was right next to the ferry dock and we set off for another NZ adventure.
Since we’d stayed three days in Paihia on our last trip here, we decided to go across the bay and visit the town of Russell. We boarded the little passenger ferry and headed across the bay. I found it ironic that we’d been so excited to get off the ship and here we were on another water vessel. It was a short ride to Russell and the weather was looking wonderful.

Russell turned out to be very charming. The older buildings are Victorian in style and the pace was nice and easy. No hustle and bustle. People strolled along the waterfront and down the main street dawdling to look at the many antiques and bookstores and the restaurants. Ah yes, food! We had been amply fed before leaving the ship but the chalkboard sign read, “Green Lipped Mussels in Coconut Thai Sauce”. I gulped.

“Honey, I know we just ate but they have mussels. . .in coconut Thai sauce.” Would my big brown puppy dog eyes do the trick? Ha!

“Okay, but let’s walk off lunch first,” came Bob’s reply.

Gladly I strolled the streets, took the requisite pictures, but my mind was on those mussels. On our last trip, we had found a place called the Mussel Pot on the South Island and had gone out of our way to stop there twice because the mussels were so good. I had not expected to find them anywhere else and worried this might be my only chance to have them again.

Finally we had exhausted the little town’s main streets and we made our way back to Sally’s Café where I’d seen the sign. We knew we couldn’t eat a whole order each so we ordered one to split with a side of fries. All I can say is heavenly. Just heavenly.

On our way back to Paihia, we passed a nice looking sailing ship and admired the dramatic way the clouds where shaped in the skies above, all the time savoring the left over tingle in our mouths from the Thai sauce. A quick walkabout in the craft market (set up when the cruise ship arrives) and a few minutes of free WiFi outside the library around the corner and we were back on the shuttle chuckling with the driver who seemed excited that our ship had chosen to stop this day.

As we headed for our room, Bob steered me toward the display where the evening’s menu was displayed. We were eating in a specialty restaurant and he wanted to see what we were missing.
There, listed under appetizers, was green lipped mussels! Who knew? I was glad we’d had them on shore though. We had more than an appetizer and I think the coconut sauce was probably better. How many more times, I wondered, would I run into the mussels again?

Friday, February 20, 2015

World Cruise - Rarotonga. . .Or Not

After a day at sea, we were ready for land again especially in the light of three more sea days ahead after Rarotonga. The concierge on the ship had printed up a list of four hotels where you could go to enjoy the beach and their property for the cost of a day pass. It sounded wonderful. Sand, sun, and water and a place to change clothes and shower off.

It didn’t happen.

While we had lucked out with tender landings in Easter Island and Bora Bora, the wind and the swells were too great to safely put tenders down and get into shore. So, we awoke to a lovely green island before us with white sandy beaches that we could see from the ship and no chance of getting there.

It was Valentine’s Day! This was like setting up the chocolate fountain in the Bistro and telling us we could only look, not touch.

The cruise director hustled to reschedule our day’s activities and the captain announced that we would set course for the Bay of Islands north of Auckland. All told though on this segment of our world cruise we will be spending sixteen days at sea. No, make that fifteen because we lose one day to the International

Dateline when we cross it. So, out of 20 days we will have spent fifteen at sea if we don’t stop at one of the islands in New Zealand. I’m not complaining. It’s hard not to have a good time on the ship as well as off.

By the way, that dateline thing is playing havoc with the new itinerary. You see on the original itinerary before we set sail the website said there would be no February 17. Then when we got on the ship, the itinerary said there would be no February 18 which eliminated Ash Wednesday. That meant that those who observe Ash Wednesday would have to do it on Tuesday because crossing the dateline would eliminate Wednesday. Then came Rarotonga and a new itinerary which put Wednesday back but eliminated Tuesday. Hopefully by now we will all know what the day is as well as the date. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

World Cruise - Bora Bora

Bora Bora is a tender port. That means the condition of the surf needed to be calm enough to allow passengers to get off and on the lifeboat tenders without a lot of trouble. We had come close to not getting into Easter Island and I wondered if we would make it to Bora Bora. The captain was hedging.

Thankfully the weather was a lot calmer than at Easter Island and we were able to start all the day’s activities on time. The large mountains in the middle of the island were shrouded however threatening the possibility of rain. Undaunted, we made it ashore and went straight to the Avis rental car service and were promptly told that unless we had a reservation, we were out of luck. It seems lots of other people must have found out about the rental cars. The attendant sent us down the street to Eurocar rentals and without much hope, we walked there.

There were no cars in the small lot but there was a dune buggy and the two fellows in front of us were renting that one. I was already making mental notes of where we might go on foot to explore. When it came our turn, we were told there was still a dune buggy to rent at the garage but no cars. We took it. We’ve done a dune buggy here before and it was fine as long as it didn’t rain. The sun was shining we felt confident.

After a short ride to the garage, the dune buggy was pushed out, Bob was given instructions, and we were on our way through the extremely bumpy streets of the town. I hoped the roads were going to get better once we got out of the congestion of the town.

They did. Soon we were on smoother pavement and enjoying the ride even though it sounded like we were on a riding lawn mower. It was clouding over though and the pretty lagoons and bays that we had seen in the past were getting dark and wind tossed. As a matter of fact, as we went around one curve, we found ourselves buffeted by high winds. If we’d have had a windshield and doors, the little car probably would have been blown from one side of the road to the other.

Our rental time was for two hours and it takes about an hour to drive all the way around the island. Since we weren’t stopping much to take pictures, we had plenty of time to stop in at the famous Bloody Mary restaurant and bar. It’s a funky kind of place with sand for floors and a thatched roof. And of course is a takeoff on the South Pacific character.

We sat at a Tiki bar since the restaurant wasn’t open for lunch yet, ordered some beverages, and connected with the WiFi. The internet on the ship had been so intermittent that it was driving us crazy. We spent about a half hour just catching up on email and Facebook and talking with some people whose plans had changed because of the weather. They were from Michigan and had canceled their boat rental when they saw the choppy seas. Good thing because as we went out of the restaurant, it started raining in earnest.

The dune buggy had to be back in fifteen minutes and we still had to fill the tank. We donned our sunglasses to protect from the pelting rain and wind and held onto our hats as we took off down the road. Rain began to whip our faces and arms and at one point I yelled for Bob to slow down because it felt like thousands of needles hitting us. It turned out when we finally stopped I realized it wasn’t the rain that hurt so much. We had been pelted by sand picked up by the wind and thrown at us as well. Little pieces of it still clung to my skin.

The good news was we made it back in time with a full tank of gas and. . .I had a free exfoliation treatment, one that would have been pretty expensive in the spa on board. Not only that but we had a great story to share at the table during dinner.

The afternoon melted away the morning’s rain and clouds and the island shone green in the sunshine. It truly is beautiful—even in the rain. We watched it disappear from our vantage point in the Palm Court Deck 12 as we played our early evening round of rummy and enjoyed hors d’oeuvres. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

World Cruise - Papeete, Tahiti

Every cruise line has its own daily newsletter that usually comes the night before when your bed is turned down. After leaving Pitcairn we began to notice a health alert taking up considerable space in our Reflections each night. We were on our way to Papeete, Tahiti, and then Bora Bora and a place in the Cook Islands. Yellow fever, dengue, malaria, and the usual viruses we had all taken into consideration and indulged in precautionary methods to prevent an early end to our vacations. Now enter Chikungunya.

“What?” was the collective question voiced throughout the ship. Chikungunya is a disease carried by mosquitoes, those dastardly critters that seem to spread so many things. It was said to be particularly dangerous to those over 65 and those who suffer from arthritis. Are they kidding? Someone quoted a statistic for this trip and said that 85% of all the passengers were over the age of 65. Judging from how many in our evening show raised hands in the audience to indicate they’d been married 50 years or more, I’d say it was right. Now how many of those do you suppose have arthritis?

One passenger was said to have gone to the excursion desk and cancel his excursions on the upcoming islands adding, “What are you trying to do? Kill me?” To the contrary. The ship had a supply of insect repellent available in the form of wipe-ons and spray that would be ready for use at the gangplank. It was also suggested that we wear long sleeved shirts and long pants as well as hats. Sure, but what about those oldsters who are going swimming?

After several days at sea, we awoke to see land in the distance. The island of Tahiti was growing larger as we neared it. Our estimated time of docking was noon so we spent the morning enjoying the cruise around the island and the approach to the port of Papeete.

I had no idea what the temperature was but as I tried to take some pictures from the front of the ship on Deck 13, the sun felt intense. So much for the thought of wearing long sleeves and long pants. It was HOT! Humid too. It took my camera about 15 minutes before the lens finally defogged. I’ve had it fog on the outside of the lens before but this time it even fogged inside.

Bob and I met for an early lunch and then prepared to go ashore. We used our sun block and then wiped on our insect repellant and hoped for the best. We walked through a cloud of insect repellant spray at the bottom of the gangway and figured we were doubly protected now.

Papeete has grown some since we were last here or else my memory is not serving me well (I do fit the passenger profile). They have made and are still in the process of making lots of improvements to their waterfront. A boardwalk was being finished that will be a very nice walk along the harbor.

Our first order of business was getting postcards mailed so we headed in the direction of the Post Office. As we did we passed a nice park that was full of canopies and bandstands. It must have been some sort of festival geared to young people because there were a lot of them gathered there.
We wandered around the waterfront a bit and then headed back in the direction of the cathedral and the marketplace. Our shirts were already sticking to us and trickles of sweat were pouring down our backs. I kept telling myself I could be trekking through snow back home but somehow that didn’t help.

At the cathedral we paused to take a few pictures and admire the beautiful wooden sculpture of Madonna and Child then continued on to the Marketplace. I’m not sure if it was because we were there late or if it was because of the festival but there didn’t seem to be as many booths as I remembered especially flower booths. The last time I remember going crazy photographing so many beautiful bright colored flowers.

Because of Valentine’s Day approaching, Bob decided we needed to buy an arrangement of flowers. It was difficult to find one small enough for our room. Finally we settled on one that I thought we could make room for and purchased it. If I remember my flower prices correctly from my florist days, I’m guessing in the states the arrangement of red anthiriums and ginger would have cost around $125. When Bob asked the price the lady said $22 USD. Bob said he thought he only had $20 and she said fine but when he found another $2 in his stash, he gave it to her. What a guy.

Since we had to wait on a container truck for some fresh food stuffs (we were out of strawberries, again) our stay in Papeete took us into the evening hours. We got to watch a local troupe of dancers called O Tahiti E who were absolutely wonderful. The men fanned their legs back and forth as they danced and even did it from a squatting position. The women—well, I am always amazed at how they can shake their hips and everything else stays in place. I think I’d put something out of joint if I tried it.

Out on the deck after the show, we took in the pretty lights of the harbor reflected in the waters and watched as they finished unloading the container on the dock that had our supplies. The troupe of entertainers waved goodbye as they left the ship and before long the lines were unhooked and Louis Armstrong began to belt out It’s A Wonderful World. We were on our way again, heading to Bora Bora.

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