November 5 2012

Home Again

For the fourth time on this trip I have crossed the International Dateline and Sunday November 4 was nonexistent. Even though we were late leaving LAX, we arrived into Sydney a little ahead of time (you can always count on Qantas to step on the gas) and I used the SmartGate at immigration and sailed through without queues.

Being the good little Aussie that I am (and paranoid about having a starring role on Border Security), I always declare anything I have that might warrant the Customs and Quarantine guys a second look – normally food or wooden objects, etc. Which is exactly what I did this morning, and was so relieved I did as there was a big sign just before Customs and Quarantine inspections that Border Security was being filmed there today. (For those who are unfamiliar with this show, it focuses on passengers being questioned by officials because they are trying to bring illegal goods and substances into the country without declaring them, or are trying to enter the country illegally. We have very strict rules on entering Australia as we are free of rabies, foot and mouth, etc. and our government will fine and prosecute offenders.)

Half an hour after stepping out of the airport I was going through my front door – and checking out the fridge. After a shower, some wine and pate I now have to contemplate unpacking, washing and facing work tomorrow.

With a future cruise deposit for a 22 to 35 night cruise made a few days ago, I also have to consider what looks best – a Collectors cruise in either the Med or out of Sydney next year or the 34 night Australian Circumnavigation. I have grown to love sea days so enjoy the longer cruises but I guess I should check in with work first! I’ve still got Rajasthan and the Galapagos on my bucket list though.

November 3 2012

The Long Road Home

It was still dark when I got up at 6.30am, readying myself to front up to San Diego officials for immigration checks. Decks 1 and 4 were called at 6.50 am and by 7.05 am I was back in my cabin, and ready to have my last waffles with blueberry sauce up in the Lido for quite some time.

I’ve heard lots of bad reports about San Diego red tape but at 9am they were calling for the first lot of passengers to leave the ship – and by 10 am I was sitting on a coach for HAL’s City Highlights tour and airport transfer, with my luggage safely bestowed underneath.

The coach wasn’t filled to capacity but it included Jenny, Carol, Norm and John from my trivia team plus my Canadian dinner companions from last night. As transfer tours go, this is about the best I’ve been on in that we actually had stops where we got out of the coach, first at Coronado to take photos back across to the city skyline, at La Jolla to see the sea caves and marine life along the shore and then a lunch stop at Old Town. We also drove through the Gaslight District and Balboa Park.

At Old Town our trivia team had lunch together in a Mexican restaurant, the others licking the salt off their Margaritas while I had a soda (while I’ll still be waiting at LAX for my flight tonight they will have arrived home!).

I think what made this tour better than most was to spend the final few hours before departure with friends I have made on this cruise so that it didn't feel final when I walked down the gangway for the last time. And I’ll be catching up with Jenny and Norm when they come to Sydney next year.

As I was the only person flying out of San Diego’s commuter terminal, I was dropped off at the airport first. I had read up on the facilities at San Diego’s International Airport but obviously had missed the part about the commuter terminal where I had to spend the next 6 hours.

Free wifi is on offer and although there were power points in most seat blocks to recharge your iPad, phone, laptop etc. the majority did not work. With vacant seats available for passengers, it is always amusing to see some seated on the floor immediately outside restrooms because that is where the only working power source is – for the cleaners!

Over the last few days I had watched news coverage of Superstorm Sandy and one thing that stood out for me was how much we rely on the ability to recharge our gadgets now to stay in touch with people. A lot of people have given up landlines and rely on mobile phones, which are great as long as you have a charged battery, and this was difficult for a lot of those affected by the storm. All three airports I have spent time  in (as in many hours!) on this trip – Sydney, LAX and San Diego – offer free wifi but not enough charging facilities and it has been interesting to see passengers breathing down the necks of others, waiting for them to unplug and move on.

My little commuter flight to LAX also carried the three Aussies from Maske but they sat at the back of the plane so I didn’t speak to them. The seatbelt off sign had barely come on

In LAX I had 2 hours to fill in before the long haul home. The A380 to Sydney left just before my flight so after my 747 took off we were hit with quite a bit of turbulence as we were in the jet stream of either it or one of the other 3 Qantas flights departing at around the same time for Australia. Whichever one it was, it caused quite a few bumpy minutes. I’m a seasoned traveller but I was a little unnerved as it wasn’t like turbulence I’ve experienced in the past so I was glad when the Captain explained the cause.

November 2 2012 At sea

Feeling Blue

Our last day at sea and the weather is reflecting the mood on board – or at least mine – dismal. The final Good Morning Westerdam featured Jason, Ron (the Hotel Director) and Captain PJ and as always it was informative and entertaining.

Following on straight afterwards were travel trivia, team trivia and then the talk regarding departure procedures tomorrow morning. All non US citizens will be going through Immigration on board, starting at 7am.

A few months ago I came across a tip in a travel journal: as it is such a letdown to arrive home after a holiday and have to face unpacking, it was advised to have a bottle of bubbly chilled in the fridge with a few little treats like cheese and crackers, pate, etc. I thought this was great advice as I hate unpacking after my return, but as I was feeling down about having to pack today I also thought I might put it into practice here and now, especially as I still had some wine in my cabin’s fridge. So, with some brie and crackers to accompany the wine I packed up all my belongings in preparation for tomorrow’s departure. I must admit that it made the packing slightly more bearable!

The end of the cruise and the aft of the Westerdam
 - I got this idea from someone else's photo

At dinner tonight I shared a table with 5 others – two Canadians and 3 Germans. Although the German ladies spoke English, they conversed in German and excluded the Canadians and myself throughout dinner, with one odd exception. Towards the end of the meal when the dessert menu was presented, one of the dishes had a German name and one woman asked the Canadian lady to pronounce it, obviously hoping she would make a hash of it. The Canadian woman could speak Dutch so had no problem with the pronunciation which caught the Germans by surprise so they resumed talking amongst themselves and ignored us. As I said, odd! Fortunately for me, the Canadian couple were amiable dinner companions.

After dinner I saw the last guest talent show and then went onto the Farewell Variety Show with Mike Robinson, a comedian, and Dale Kristien, a singer, both of whom had performed earlier this week.  

I haven’t seen all the evening entertainment on board as some didn’t appeal to me. Often I would sit up the back in case I wanted to leave early but except for one occasion I found myself enjoying the shows and staying until the end. Quite a few others obviously have had the same thoughts as me and at some shows, especially Darren Williams’ performances, the people who were standing at the back of the theatre ended up finding seats after the first few songs until in the end there was only standing room in the theatre.

My luggage is now out in the corridor which is lined with suitcases of all colours and sizes, and the cabin is looking a little bare. I’ve really enjoyed this cruise so am feeling sad about leaving the ship. At leave I have put an open deposit down for another longish cruise.

November 1 2012 At sea

Winners and Losers

The winners of the 30 day cumulative team trivia were announced today and as we all expected, the team which has taken the lead from the very beginning won with the highest score Jason has seen before. Jason said that despite very close scrutiny there was never any evidence that they, or indeed any other team, did anything untoward. Obviously the rest of the teams have been suffering from trivia envy for having such unflattering thoughts about a team which has just been plain smarter than the rest of us.

For their win they each received a jacket with their team name embroidered on it. The two teams which tied for second received a Pinnacle lunch and the team who sat next to my team for the entire competition, were very excited to hear they came last. That hadn’t been their aim but they were awarded a certificate for a free lunch in the Lido with unlimited tea and coffee (which if you’re familiar with HAL, you will know that the Lido is complimentary anyway!)

Trish had a bottle of champagne so brought it along for our trivia team today. All I can say is, no wonder we don’t win! (We ended up 8th out of 27 teams.)

Tonight was our last formal dinner which was followed by the Officers’ Black and White Ball. Unfortunately I have developed a sore throat so since I go back to work the day after I arrive back in Australia, I opted for room service and an early night.  I must say that I find the room service Chocolate Cake with Raspberry Sauce to be one of my favourite desserts.And in case you think otherwise, yes, I can still fit into my formal clothes so that wasn’t the reason I didn’t attend.

October 31 2012 At sea

Trick or … dessert!

It’s been harder to get out of bed in the mornings since Papeete – we’ve lost 3 hours over the last few days and as we put our clocks forward at night, that means less sleep unless you sleep in. Sunrise is later so I no longer have the sun to wake me naturally either.

This morning I attended a reception where 205 fellow passengers and I were recognised for earning our Copper Medallions. Apparently this is a HAL record and after the reception as we all headed off to lunch the ship listed to one side under the weight of all our hardware.

Today is also Halloween, which we don’t really get into back home in Australia so it was interesting to see the involvement around the ship. A few passengers were dressed in costume nearly all day. I have to admit I didn’t realise they were in costume until I saw them again later in the evening with all the other partygoers – I just thought they had a funny idea of cruise attire!

The dining room was decorated in black and orange with cobwebs and spooky ornaments, and this theme was carried on through the atrium and Queens Lounge. One of the arts and craft classes had been pumpkin carving so these were displayed for judging.

Above photos are of the Dining Room

Stryker, of Piano Bar fame, hosted a party in the Queens Lounge which was very crowded when it first started but once the main event approached, people went in search of their cameras for photo taking.

Stryker, DJ  Mario and 'The Queen of Hearts'
And the main event for Halloween …. a dessert gala at 9.30pm set out around the three storeys of the atrium and neighbouring bars. You would think after 4 weeks at sea the thought of more dessert would make us groan with boredom but apparently not!

October 30 2012 At sea

Serious Dosh
This morning’s guest with Jason for Good Morning Westerdam was Noel O’Driscoll, the Staff Captain. He gave some interesting insights into the workings of the Bridge. The Westerdam is often the first of the HAL fleet to introduce new things and it is now the first ship to trial an automated man overboard warning. Currently the only way to know if someone has gone overboard is if there is a witness/bystander or search of the ship doesn’t find someone. Sensors have been placed so that any movement over the railings can be monitored and adjustments have had to be made so that birds don’t set off the alarms.

Only two trivia sessions today – travel trivia this morning and the last day of the 30 day cumulative trivia. Needless to say, we did not come first in either but we’ve had a lot of fun.

I’ve been using my netbook throughout the cruise to access the internet and post this blog and finally today I got my iPad talking to the internet service. Apparently the brightness has to be turned up to maximum so that the battery has the power to pick up the signal (or something along those lines). At home I always have the brightness turned down as it chews up battery life, hence not being able to access the internet.

This evening Jennie, Carole, Norm and John from my trivia team and I had a leisurely dinner in the Canaletto restaurant – obviously with Italian cuisine. It’s always very pleasant to have good company and swap travel tales.

Back in Papeete I mentioned we were docked between some mega yachts and here are some photos of them.

Golden Odyssey

Most passengers were very taken, and fascinated, with the super sleek  ‘Pacific’ which was right beside us, with its two heliports and own helicopter. We found out it is 2 years old, has 17 suites, is worth about $300 million and is privately owned by a very ‘under the radar’ Russian gentleman.

The ‘Pacific’ can be chartered for about $34,000 per week which sounded a lot until I worked out that if I shared the cost with others, filling up those suites, it would actually be quite reasonable. I’m sure though, that there would be very strict criteria as to who they chartered to and as I don’t have a Black Amex I guess I wouldn’t qualify.

This is probably more in my price range – but not as appealing!

October 29, 2012 At sea

Fish of the Day

A good cabin steward is worth his weight in gold and Agus, who looks after my cabin, tapped on my door at 7.13  this morning with all my clothes, washed, pressed and hung on hangars. He had to listen to my tale of woe last evening and he came through for me! It’s amazing how a whole wardrobe of clean clothes makes the day look brighter.

We crossed the Equator today as we head back north so King Neptune had to preside over the ceremony to judge the Pollywogs (those who haven’t crossed the Equator before) to ensure our continued safe passage. With political correctness nowadays, only crew are subjected to the trial, sentence and punishment. It was a lot of fun, especially watching the crew that we have come to know after nearly 4 weeks at sea, submit to kissing the fish (a Dolphin fish or Mahi Mahi), get dragged along tables for treatment by ‘medical staff’ which included being covered in pasta and soft meringue, and finally go into the pool.

For obvious reasons the after pool was closed for the remainder of the day for cleaning.

A huge seafood buffet was on offer around the mid Lido pool with Alaskan crab legs and barbecued lobster. As someone who unfortunately is allergic to shellfish this area was off limits to me except for taking a few photos.

This afternoon I attended another public forum, this time on Astronomy and Star Gazing. The talk was mainly about celestial navigation, so although informative, wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I did learn a few interesting little tidbits which might prove helpful in star gazing in general.

As I didn’t have a big lunch today, I was a little peckish so dropped by Chocolate Seduction, the Westerdam’s chocolate bar, for a treat and came away with a small selection of enjoy back in my cabin. Why haven’t I been coming here more regularly?

This evening’s entertainment was an encore of our recent Australian acts – Maske and Darren Williams. I think this is the first cruise I have been on where the Aussie entertainers and crew outnumber the Aussie passengers.