Sunday, May 06, 2012

Cruisin' N Z

We went on a cruise to the southern Caribbean a couple of years ago, and it wasn't nearly as dreadful as I had feared it would be. The food was delicious and constant, the staff courteous but not obsequious. Most important, each of the stops was long enough and each of the islands was small enough so that I could plan and exercise a sufficient adventure on each.

That didn't mean that I necessarily wanted to go on another cruise. But the idea of crossing the entire Pacific Ocean certainly had its pull. Plus it would be a relatively cheap way to check out places like Fiji and Tahiti. Plus it would be an excuse to see at least a portion of Australia and New Zealand. I had been putting off both of them for forever since I wanted to have sufficient time to do them properly. But now both of them had gotten so expensive that, forget about not having enough time, at this point I didn't have enough money to do them properly.

Anyway, my slice of Australia had been taken care of, and we were now on the Sea Princess. Our first assignment, the Ruby Princess had been 951 feet long, well over twice the volume of the Titanic. This one was listed as 851 feet, which one would think would make it pretty much the same size. But it wasn't. The saunter to our stateroom showed that whole sections of useless bars and useful eating opportunities had been excised. The Sea would turn out to be only about 70% of the size of the Ruby. Plus a bunch less new and shiny.

But these seemed niggly points as we sat there in Sydney Harbour, right next to the CBD. Lots of small ferries and tiny private boats scooted past, some of them waving happily up to us in our behemoth. And as the sun sank on Australia, we hoisted anchor.

The first mile of the voyage was the most dramatic. For we turned the corner in the quickening darkness and found ourselves on a collision course with the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It now became obvious why Princess didn't send bigger ships here. Because we made it under with less than six feet to spare. Being on the top of the giant ship as it went full steam under the giant bridge like that was one of the cooler experiences of my life.

First sailing past the lit up Opera House, it took more than an hour for us to make our way out of the length of Sydney Harbour Then we were through the narrow entrance, all the twinkling lights diminished to nothing, and we were surrounded by the dark, dark sea.

There are places to go on land where one can imagine that this is what the Earth looked like before Man arrived to move things around. The salient point of the ocean is that, once you are out in the middle of it, this is exactly what it looked like a billion years ago. When crossing the ocean it is important to try to remember this as often as possible.

Unfortunately most of the people who have the money and inclination to go on a cruise aren't the poetic sorts who appreciate these things. Indeed I had found most of my fellow passengers on the first cruise to be of the unsympatico persuasion. Foolish optimist that I always am, I had imagined that the type of person who would want to cross the Pacific Ocean might be slightly more interesting. And it would turn out that about 40% of the people hailed from western North America, primarily British Columbia and northern California. So at least some of them would prove to be of the level of a fellow hiker who might smile and say hello as you passed each other.

But let's face it. The Most Interesting Man In The World probably wouldn't be booking a Princess Cruise.

Of course, my purpose in cruising was to commune with The Great Ocean. And to get lots of that all important writing done. Which is why it was kind of disorienting after a couple of days of open ocean to find that I wasn't accomplishing any of that. Yes, I had a few times contemplated how the Tasman Sea trailed only Greenland and the Antarctic as an exotic watery locale. But any writing done? Or anything else remotely useful done? How can a day be effortlessly consumed by nothing more than watching a stupid movie, walking my hour around the promenade deck (three laps equals one mile), and transferring my body from one dining hall to another?

The Tasman Sea can get rough—after all, we were going to get to 50 degrees South latitude—but we experienced no more than moderate swells. More important, the sky Tuesday evening was clear ahead.

Yes it was, for when the ship pulled into Milford Sound at dawn there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Norway, BC/Alaska, Chile, and New Zealand are the only semi-civilized places in the world with fjords, and all of them are famously foggy, rainy, stormy, and otherwise gray. To arrive on a crisp clear Autumn day was something special.

The weather would hold all day, and for all day we would steam in and out of the various inlets and passageways on New Zealand's southwest coast. It is always awkward to be in such awesome situations. On the one hand, you feel foolish if you are not taking pictures. But once you start doing that you feel foolish that you are not just standing there taking it in. And how is a picture supposed to capture the 360 degree nature of it all anyway?

So I basically spent the entire day gawking at the rugged rock and grass and tree strewn cliffs, the ocean between, the blue sky, etc. At the end of the run I was hoping that the ship would turn back to Milford Sound and we could go on the ride one more time. But instead we continued on, rolling throug the night on those moderate swells around the southern tip of the South Island.

Thursday morning we were pulled up at the dock at Port Chalmers, about 8 miles from the small southern NZ city of Dunedin. Our first port of call. We trooped down the gangway and got on the shuttle bus for Dunedin. Friendly people these Kiwis, because after letting all the other people off downtown, the bus driver drove Maureen and me another mile or two to where our rental car was waiting.

My adventure for today was to drive as far southwest as I could before I had to turn around and come back. It turned out that Dunedin itself, even though tour books proclaimed it to be the best preserved Victorian city in the world, was just a pleasant small city of 100,000. Without much traffic, either. So this would prove to be one of the least traumatic entries to a foreign country ever.

After it had been assigned a more realistic billing, Australia had lived up to it splendidly. But how would New Zealand do? After all, people pretty much unanimously raved about the place. That's usually the sign of somewhere really sucking.

But it was immediately clear that the country was all that it was supposed to be. That is to say, a combination of England and Oregon: quaint, winding sheep strewn hills but with a bigger, wilder feel to it. I could easily imagine spending weeks meandering around it from one end to the other. And taking plenty of time out to tramp along the innumerable hiking/walking trails.

Just not today. Today it was about a hundred miles, past Nugget Point lighthouse, and to Papatowei. Some places like Point Reyes, some like Sussex, some like Eugene. All distinctly foreign but somehow familiar.

On the way back we had a little time to start out the Otago peninsula, a sort of cross between Scotland and Sonoma County that is right across the harbour from Dunedin. Then it was back to Ace Car Rental with minutes to spare, and a ride back to the ship.

Next day this cruise usually stops in Christchurch, New Zealand's second largest city. But last year they had four major earthquakes, the last two of which took out most of their downtown. And their port facilities. So the Sea Princess stopped about fifty miles away in the middle of a bay which is the middle of the caldera of an ancient volcano. And there are no car rental companies in the little town of Akaroa that we were tendered to. So I had to pay for overpriced bus tickets so that we could go see the ruins of Christchurch.

At least our bus driver was the sort of natural born ham who liked to endlessly regale us with colorful stories of Kiwi history. He needn't have, since the scenery for the first 25 miles was some of the best sea and hill and grass and tree stuff in the world. Then it got normal, but, hey, we were almost at New Zealand's Most English & Cultured City.

Uh, not really. In fact, the the totally uninspired 'modern' architecture of the CBD reminded me of Bridgeport, CT, after a fitful try at redevelopment. Nor was the earthquake damage all that memorable. Just some roped off buildings and bulldozers methodically rebuilding the $10-20 billion in damages. Not even a glimmer of the world class despair we had just witnessed in Haiti.

And, since almost all of the central shopping district was roped off/destroyed, as well as the cathedral and the museum, there really wasn't all that much to do in Christchurch. So we wandered over to the botanical gardens to kill a couple of hours until the bus went back.

Ah, but what a couple of hours! Because it turned out that their city park is hands down the best city park I have ever seen. Truly giant trees of all sorts, including fully grown redwoods and sequoias. Flowers. Mown grassy expanses. A tiny little river with boats punting down it. All with colors turning on a beautiful Autumn day. I could only admire how the city fathers had so presciently planned all this harmonious civility back around 1880, when southern New Zealand made the American West look tame and overcrowded in comparison.

Back on the bus and back to Akaroa, with the bus driver now telling us stirring tales of his youth spent as a helicopter deer poacher. Probably used to be an accountant. Then back to the boat and another day out at sea going up to the northernmost reaches of the North Island. The most memorable point of which was when three dolphins all leaped out of the sea in unison not fifty feet from the ship.

Early Sunday morning we were tied up to the dock in downtown Auckland. With a million people, it is easily NZ's largest city, but, despite the blurbs and the years of anticipation, it too turned out to be entirely unprepossessing. Sydney was starting to look much more dramatic in restrospect.

We walked the empty early morning streets for about 20 minutes to find the car rental place, and soon we were on a freeway, then off it on a byway. Once more it was Oregon England, this time with a touch of subtropical South Carolina thrown in. More dramatically cute birds. More sheep. We made it to the semi-coast, the Firth of Thames, and drove along its tame, bucolic edge. Around the corner to the town of Thames, lauded as one of those 'artistic' centers. But once again the only artistry was in the mind of whoever imagined it to have other than hardware stores and McDonaldses.

We were now, however, on the Coromandel Peninsula, a land of dramatic hills and rocky seascapes. The government of NZ (as had the govt of AUS) had provided us with umpteen helpful maps and other tourist info, so I knew to drive east over the hill, and past umpteen walking trails, to the real coast.

We stopped at the small town of Tairua, with as English Oregon a feel as you could get. We bought a couple of sandwiches at a small bakery and then had a little picnic by the Pacific. A romantic walk on the beach, and then it was time to head back.

Whilst driving back I could contemplate how nice it would be to have unlimited travel time here. Even to live here. If (once again) I could only afford it. Relatively cheap just ten years ago, the cost of NZ has soared up to near Aussie heights. As I've noted before, those who insist that the US is still a great power should try traveling to the rest of the world some time.

Ah well. At least we were fortunate enough to be able to squeeze in at least a tiny nibble of the place.


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