Islands: The Innocents Abroad Chapter 2
Like No Place On Earth
The message/logo on the back or stern of the Pacific Aria says "LIKE NO PLACE ON EARTH" and although each aspect has similarities to amenities, theatre shows, movies, swimming pools, health and beauty spas, fine dining venues, and casinos in cities on the mainland, having them all so easily accessible in one place and in easy walking distance is something unique to a cruise ship.
In the initial article of The Innocents Abroad I concluded on the first day at sea after unpacking our luggage and resting before our first dinner reservation. So, I will resume from the point of having rested and dressed for dinner. On the cruise ship, casual attire such as sleeveless shirts, swimwear, sandals etc is allowable up until 5.00pm but after that time casual formal wear is required (except around the pool.)
We were dressed and ready to go out an hour before our dinner booking so we decided to go to the Photo Gallery and book and Internet package for the entirety of the cruise. There were a number of packages available, however, the ship relies solely on satellite Internet and with 1500 passengers, many using the Internet speeds and connectivity are not optimal.
They were running a special if signed up on the first day..unlimited access for $75 for seven days at sea (normally $95) so we paid for that to allow us a chance to keep in contact with friends and family at home etc. The Internet quality would have to be the low point of the cruise, however, with most Internet sites being often inaccessible, and basically, only Facebook and Messenger being able to be used (except for very early morning or late at night when others were sleeping.)
Maybe this will be improved in the future, however my advice is unless you really need it, don't bother unless you take a basic package of 250 megabytes or just social media access which are cheaper.
Food Glorious Food: a Glutton's Paradise
The "all meals included in the fare price" option is one of the big attractions of cruise ships and there are more than enough options to choose from (from my point of view) without the need to dine at The Captains Table or at one of the exclusive restaurants. On this cruise ship this was the Salt Grill run by celebrity chef Luke Mangan. However, that option is there for those a little more cashed up than my wife and I.
We had the choice of the Waterfront Restaurant (modern Australian cuisine and catering for breakfast. lunch and dinner), The Dragon Lady (a blend of Asian food..Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese etc), and Angelo's (fine Italian dining). Then, if you wanted more informal dining The Pantry was open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and no bookings were necessary.
We chose The Waterfront for the first night and the food there was a great introduction to what we could expect. The best part is that you don't have to wait for or pay a bill at the end of your meal, and no tipping is required (at least on cruises originating in Australia.)
For my wife an I each meal was more than satisfying and included entree, main, and dessert. However, for the true glutton there was nothing stopping them booking one restaurant for 6 pm, another for say 7.30 pm , and one for 9 pm. That sounds very extreme, but I am sure there are some that would consider it. There were some very big people on board.
After dinner we just went out on deck to enjoy the refreshing sea breeze and marvel at the vastness and peaceful solitude of the ocean.
Day 2. First Full Day at Sea
The bed was so comfortable we both slept soundly. I would say like babies, but when I think about it many babies wake up crying during the night. A knock on the door by our friendly cabin stewards Flor and Maity (both Filipino) woke me, but they happily said they would return later. These guys were wonderful and told us not to hesitate in contacting them if we had any problems with the room etc.
We did have one problem. The air conditioner in our room was set too high and couldn't be adjusted. We told Flor this when he returned to clean the room and make the bed and he went away and returned with a fan. Not long after a technician returned with a gauge to test the air con and confirmed it was a little too hot. Then my wife received a phone call from reception apologizing for the faulty air con and saying they were giving us a voucher for a bottle of wine up to the value of $45.
(Later, on the second last day of the cruise we found an envelope on our door containing a letter informing us that $50 had been credited to each of our on board accounts as further restitution. This was all beyond our expectations.)
Each morning, the room stewards deliver an itinerary of ship board activities for the day so guests can choose what they want to partake of. We looked through it. and believe me, if you want you don't have to have one spare minute. We are a little too old to go non-stop, and Kathy's fibromyalgia restricts her somewhat. However we had always wanted to see the movie "the Greatest Showman" and it was showing at the cinema, so after breakfast at The Pantry we went there. It was well worth it and would have to rate as one of the best movies either of us had seen.
That was followed an hour later by a stage show in the Marque theatre called 'Sideshow Alley' which had a similar theme and was an incredible production.
By the time the show finished it was time to eat again, so it was off to The Pantry again where the choice of food changes for each meal of the day. After eating, we sat on the Lido pool deck for awhile relaxing and listening to music played by a DJ.
Other activities included free beauty and health seminars, bingo, name that tune, trivia, deck quoits, boche, duty-free shopping, casino, piano bar jam sessions, adult remote control car racing, extreme sports like an obstacle course, flying fox, and rock climbing at The Edge on the top deck.
By this time we needed a rest, again, call it a nanny nap if you must, before preparing for dinner once again. This time we would be dining at The Dragon Lady. This dynamic Asian restaurant provided a mysterious oriental environment and the food consisted of many dishes most of us would never have tried before. It was an enjoyable dining experience, and although the food wasn't my favourite, it was interesting to try new things and the cocktails were to die for.
Day 3. Noumea: Our First Island Stopover
Day three was to be the ship's first island stopover at Noumea, and we were up early as I had booked a shore tour of the city sights and aquarium to commence at 10.30 am. New Caledonia's capital and situated on the main island of Grande Terre.
Disembarking the ship on this occasion was not the most pleasant experience as many people, being inexperienced cruislings like ourselves, gathered on deck three not wanting to miss their shore tour deadlines. The lifts were packed like sardines and this was inconvenient as my wife Kathy needs to use a walker most of the time. We ended up having to take the stairs, Kathy struggling and me carrying the walker. It was a slow process and a number of tours were delayed due to people not being able to exit the ship on time. It was also a long walk to the carpark of the Gare Maritime Terminal where we had to meet the bus.
Noumea boasts the atmosphere and ambience of a bustling, sophisticated provincial French town combined with the friendly charm, adventure and lovely climate of the Pacific Islands. To me, the beach-side esplanade, shops, cafes etc looked very much like a typical Australian seaside village or town.
The tour guide on our bus actually turned out to be an Aussie and as we travelled he gave an interesting account of Noumea's history, the current lifestyle etc. The bus could not take it's usual route through the city because a number of roads were closed due to it being the monthly 'children's bicycle day' when roads are closed so that children can be free to ride their bike safely without the fear of traffic.
One thing we noticed was the proliferation of small cars on the roads and in car parks. The tour guide, Roy, told us that these cars for underage drivers. Apparently, and somewhat worryingly they are allowed to drive these small engined vehicles to get driving practice before they are actually old enough to obtain a licence.
Aquarium des Lagons
The main part of the tour was a visit to 'Aquarium des Lagons' and, for me, this was the highlight of my visit to Noumea. We had 45 minutes to spend here but we needed every one of those to see all the amazing sea life, including many species of fish, sea snakes, starfish, seahorse, and beautiful fluorescent corals many of which are raised from polyps in the aquarium itself.
The Aquarium's designer travelled around Australia and New Zealand to view other aquariums to incorporate the best aspects of all those into this one in Noumea.
One tank even contained the remarkable living fossil the Nautilus. It is a cousin of the squid but unlike its colour-changing cousin, the soft-bodied Nautilus lives inside a hard external shell.
The only rule at the aquarium was that you were not allowed to take flash photos. That made it difficult to capture some creatures such as the Nautilus.
Our tour guide was a hive of information in relation to Noumea's rich history, and there was far too much for me to go into here. However, I encourage you to do a Google search and I guarantee you will find it interesting.
A couple of things I will mention are that Noumea once was a South Pacific base for the US Military during WWII, and they had a big influence on the city. Some of the streets and districts still bear names associated with the military operation that took place in the are e.g. Artillery, Receiving, Motor Pool St. etc. Some signs of US military occupation is still evident in a number of buildings that they constructed.
We were also informed that the French Government's solution for populating the city with French nationals and establishing local government and businesses in Noumea was to offer French public servants double their wages to move to the island colony. They also offered double the normal pension to retirees who chose to move there and help boost the economy.
Our Lady's Grotto, Notre Dame Du Pacifique
Our coach tour took us to this outdoor Catholic worship space on top of a hill overlooking one of the many bays of Noumea. We were asked to be respectful.
There is a large statue of the Virgin Mary gazing down on the city. The pleasant path leading around the site takes you past the Stations of the Cross. Each of the Stations has a charming, brightly coloured hand-modelled depiction of the particular moment in the day of Christs's crucifixion. Many locals still use it as a quiet outdoor place to go and pray.
So, our time at Noumea had come to an end. It was around 2.00 pm when we headed back to the ship. There were a number of other shore tours at various times or people could choose to go off on their own to explore the island and find their own way back.
Tours arranged by the ship are recommended because they do a passenger check so you are guaranteed to get back on time and don't risk the ship leaving without you. Some people prefer to do their own thing and see the 'real' island local culture rather than the usual tourist attractions.
My wife can't walk far without tiring and 3 1/2 hours on the island was more than enough for her to handle physically. In hindsight, I probably should have chosen to take a Tchou Tchou Train instead of the coach so Kathy didn't have to climb in and out the steps of the bus, and the seats on the train were roomier. We were rather cramped. That said though, we still greatly enjoyed the tour.
Every time you re-board the ship you have to have your passenger card scanned, and then your body and bags, like any airport.
Back on the boat, we went to lunch and then retired to our cabin for a short rest before dinner, this time at Angelo's Italian restaurant.
Our first time the restaurant we were to share a table with another couple. They were newly married and this cruise was their honeymoon. We had an enjoyable meal and pleasant conversation. It's funny how after you have met someone you seem to keep encountering them. We must have run into them three more times at different places on the ship.
After dinner, we stopped at the Shore Tours Desk to book a tour for the next day at Lifou for myself and one for us both for Port Vila, Vanuatu.
Day 4. Lifou (The Loyalty Islands): New Caledonia
This would be the first day that Kathy and I would spend apart. Because Lifou is a mostly undeveloped and unspoiled island and has very clear and shallow waters, the cruise ship had to dock quite a way offshore and passengers were transferred by tender boat to the pier at Lifou.
Getting on and off the tender boats and walking the jetty required a good level of fitness and no room for a mobility walker. This meant Kathy couldn't partake of a shore tour of this island, but she said no to let that stop me. So, I booked the Rainforest Walk and Secret Grotto tour, and I'm glad I did. It was one of the highlights of the voyage.
I had to meet the tender boat at 9.30 am, so I rose early to have breakfast and bring some back to the cabin for Kathy. We agreed that as she missed out on the tour she could go to the Health and Beauty Spa, Elemis, and book a treatment of some sort. Ships usually offer discounts on days when the ship is docked at a stopover, so there was a '$50 off' voucher if she used it there today.
It was time to depart, so I said goodbye and made my way to catch a tender boat. The sea was a little choppy so the crew decided to only half fill each boat but I got on the second one and it was only about ten minutes to transfer from the ship to shore.
Walking along the jetty to the island you are accosted by pirates... well, not real pirates but little Lifouans dressed as pirates crying "Arrrrhhh....ahoy there!' They encourage the visitors to have photos taken with them.
Some Facts About Lifou
First discovered by the Frenchman Dumont d’Urville in 1857, it was soon visited by whalers and traders and became a destination for Protestant and Catholic Missionaries out to save the local populations' souls. In 1864 the islands were annexed by France who in turn established it as an Aboriginal Reserve as it was not believed suitable for extensive colonization.
Lifou Island is irregular in shape,81 km long and 16 to 24 km wide. The island is flat with no hills or rivers but has abundant vegetation, dense interior jungles, fertile soils, terraced cliffs and breathtaking reefs and corals.
The Island is a former coral atoll that was part of a submerged volcano. Nearly 2 million years ago, the island was uplifted to its present shape and elevation. Since there are no rivers on Lifou, the water comes from rain that seeps through the calcareous soil and forms freshwater ponds.
With its rich Pacific waters fish including crab, lobster, and turtle are in abundance, along with typical food animals such as goat, pig and chicken. Crops include coconut, banana, taro, sweet potato, yam and vanilla. The French introduced coffee.
Tourism is a major industry on the island. Chief exports include copra, rubber, vanilla and sugarcane.
Rain Forest Walk and Secret Grotto
We met our tour buses in the car park and they took us to the various venues around the island.
The most popular tourist activity on Lifou Island is snorkelling because of the clear waters and abundant coral and sea life close to shore. Quite a few visitors chose to walk to the various beaches or just sight see on foot, but my tour to the rain forest and grotto was about a ten-minute drive so would have been too far to walk there and back.
We were introduced to our guide Eddy, who was funny, and very knowledgeable. He explained what the different types of trees and plants in the rain forest were traditionally used for and gave demonstrations of traps used for hunting wild boar, birds, coconut crabs etc.
Eddy said "Lifou" actually means "crazy" so the island is really "Crazy Island" and all the islanders "Crazies."
We walked quite a long way and had to watch our footing because of tree roots, rocks etc but it was so interesting I didn't really notice. Also, we did keep stopping to view the various trees and so Eddy could demonstrate or explain their use.
Eventually, we arrived at the entrance to the grotto, an underground cave network, and climbed down inside to explore. It was very cool underground and stalactites hung down from the cave ceiling in places.
Coconut crabs live in some of the caves during the day as they are nocturnal and come out at night. They can grow to 3 or 4 kilograms in weight and crush coconut shells with their claws so can easily crush a person's hand.
Eddy said a certain creature lived in one of the caves but didn't reveal what, then told us to close our eyes and he would bring it out. When we opened our eyes he had placed it on the ground in front of the group. It was a coconut crab and a couple of little children near it became scared.
When he placed the crab on it's back, however, it went to sleep so everyone had the opportunity to hold it, including me. It was only a small one anyway. Even the children were ok with it eventually.
When we finished the tour, Eddy led us back to his home when his mother served us homemade lemonade under a thatched roof pergola, before heading back to the jetty. This tour was an experience I will remember for a long time.
Farewell Lifou and the Loyalty Islands
We thanked Eddy and bid him farewell, then boarded our buses which were waiting to collect us and we went back to Easo Beach Jetty to catch a tender boat back to the ship.
There was a long line up of people already on the jetty but it was a pleasant enough water the water was so clear we could watch turtles and fish swimming among the coral. Some people chose to stay longer and browse the market stalls that had been specially set up by the villages to meet this cruise.
My time on Lifou had been short but enjoyable, now it was time to head back to the ship and see what the remainder of the cruise would hold.
I had planned on this being the final chapter but my plans rarely work out as expected and with the word count already approaching 4000 I had to call and end to this article. Never fear, I promise the next will conclude the journey’s account and cover our final island stopover, Port Vila, Vanuatu.
(...TO BE CONTINUED...)
Off the Shelf
The novel title I chose off the shelf this time was ’ by Richard Laymon. This one is in the horror/pycho thriller genre so as far removed from the account of my cruise as possible, but the name suited so that is why it was selected. Island’
’From the journal of upert Conway, castaway: “Today the yacht exploded. Fortunately all of us had gone ashore to have a picnic on this island, so we didn’t get blown to smithereens. All of us, that is, except Prince Wesley...’
To find out more of the story and who Prince Wesley was you will need to read the book...awww.
Richard Laymon is an American author of more than 20 acclaimed novels and a host of short stories. He has a BA and MA in English Literature and worked as a school teacher, librarian, and report writer for a law firm before becoming a full time writer.
His novel Flesh was named best horror novel of 1998 by Science Fiction Chronical and also shortlisted for the coveted Bram Stoker Award.
© 2018 John Hansen