Cruisin’

She came up to me and stood beside me at the open portal up on Deck 9. It was during that half hour or so, out there in Sydney, as the sun sets, when the cityscape is coated with that burnished glow so beloved of artists and camera pointers. She was slim, dressed in black leisure wear with a blonde bob – thirty to forty-ish I suspect. She asked if she could share the open window with me. I stepped back as she pointed her hand held device out of it, towards the towers surrounding Circular Quay, snapping away. She then turned and asked, ‘How good is this? How glorious is that sight out there?’ And, as she turned to leave me, she gave me a smile of such wattage it lit up her face to transform it into something as golden as the glow the sun was bequeathing to the Emerald city that evening. ‘You have a great cruise now,’ were her parting words.

I kept an eye out for her during the course of our eleven night sojourn across the South Pacific. We were off to an island country that once was a condominium, shared by the imperial powers of the UK and France, as well as to an island still officially part of the latter. I never spotted the lady at the portal again though. Perhaps, as dusk morphed into night on that first day, she really wasn’t there at all.

But I did. I had a great cruise. It wasn’t the life changing affair that 2011’s had been, with the Pacific Pearl, as the Carnival Spirit was a different beast entirely. It was bigger, noisier, with a decidedly more varied demographic than the more sedate, intimate and stress-killing affair that was the Pearl. But you couldn’t knock the plus features and experiences of the Spirit. It heralds itself, not as the ‘love boat’, but as the ‘fun boat’ and it delivered. On it too much occurred to write it all up in diary form, but stuff happens – so what follows are some snapshots of the good (by a mile in the majority) and the not so good of life afloat on our cruising city of a ship.

The Beautiful
I’d read that it was over-rated. I assure you, it isn’t. The Ile des Pins (Isle of Pines) is sublime. It was our first land destination since leaving Oz and it is a real show stopper. The second, Mystery Island, may be the stereotypical tropical paradise but, at the southern tip of New Caledonia, these pine clad islands floating in the azure are something else. You’ve probably seen the pictures, so I won’t set about describing their beauty here, but sailing in and actually landing on one beats all the net images hands down. And just possibly I do not have the words to conjure up a depiction of what I saw there to give them their due. They were beyond beautiful.

The Red Frog pub was one of my favourite places on board, particularly when the house bands were thumping out their classic beats to much gyrating and singing along. I really liked standing, for a seat was often hard to find, sipping on a generous ale and watching the dancers – and there were some great movers amongst them. Many were more vintage than I, but still put together some cool rock ‘n’ roll moves on the dance floor. There were some talented guys revving up the night in that venue, particularly a band from Manila and a Liverpudlian duo. On one night my lovely Leigh and her lovely Mum joined me at a hard won table. Before they arrived, I had noticed an elegant lady, possibly in her seventies, sitting alone nearby. In the breaks I was soon caught up in the doings of Leigh’s adventures that day, but when I turned back to to the septuagenarian across the way, I noticed that the woman had been joined by another – obviously her partner as his hand rested on hers. The music from the aforementioned pair from Liverpool cranked up again with a set of tunes from decades past – all well known by the punters who could well remember those same decades. At one stage they slowed it down and started harmonising on Elvis’ ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’. I turned to the couple and observed them deep in a passionate kiss; a very, very deep pash. In their minds, no doubt, they had been taken back to when the King was at his peak and they were young and in love. Back then, they would have thought, like all of us, that they’d be forever young. And for a short time, in the Red Frog that night, they were. It was a beautiful thing to behold – discreetly.

On the big stage of Pharaoh’s Palace, the liner’s vast auditorium, the singer/dancers and dancer/singers performed most evenings. At a meet and greet session we learnt that nobody in the Carnival Company’s entertainment troupes could be just one or the other – they had to be skilled in both. They belted out tunes from pop history to flashy choreography and certainly were energetic even if, for some, their performances didn’t last long enough – generally because the masses watching were having such a good time with it all. I attended on several occasions and on the first I espied her. Now, just in case you think I am totally fixated on the fairer gender on board, just wait. She was perched on the edge of her seat, very erect, her brunette tresses piled on her head. She was dressed in slinky black, her gorgeous face heavily made up and she was mouthing the lyrics to every song. It seemed to me that, in her heavily mascaraed eyes, she was up there herself on that stage, being part of the show. I found she was almost as stimulating to look at as the dazzling scenes on said stage. The following night, to my delight, she was in the same row as my lady and I, just a few seats away. This time her lips were still violently rouged in red, but now her hair was down to her waist, covering an uncovered back. There was the same tense posture, the same mesmerised look as she she fully focused on the lads and lasses under the disco lights, frenetically entertaining us all. I gawped at her over and over as she, in turn, mesmerised me. But then, slowly, the realisation dawned. She wasn’t a she. She was a she/he. Waking up to this didn’t in any way shake me. It probably made her even more fascinating. I never saw her after that – perhaps during daylight hours she wandered the ship in her boy guise. Perhaps, like a wanton vampire, she only came out at night. She was beautiful – and that’s all that matters in the end.

Until this voyage I hadn’t experienced anything quite like it. Of course, over my long years, I’d observed many a sunset, but never one when the whole horizon was consumed by the briny meeting the sky. On the second eve of our travels afloat I watched one such vibrant display of nature from the balcony of our cabin. It seemed the blood red sun was being sucked down by the Pacific – right down into Davy Jones’ domain. Amongst my humble image making there are some sunset shots from later in the voyage. But neither I, nor, I suggest, even far more proficient camerasmiths would be capable of doing justice to those dazzlements. Nothing beats the naked eye. It was simply and marvellously beautiful.

There were many more beautiful moments. Take the drop-kick looking teen, all cap on backwards with long, stringy and greasy hair, who poked his acned face into the cruise-ship’s piano lounge, took a look at the chartreuse warbling there and was quickly on his way. Patently this was not his scene, or so it seemed. Surprisingly, he was back a few minutes later, his mother held by the hand. For the rest of the evening they were together, singing along to the songs they obviously both knew by heart.

But by far and away the most wonderful person on that boat sailing to and from the tropics was my beautiful Leigh. Many, many times during the voyage I was thankful that she was with me, enjoying what we saw. She is bliss to travel with. I hope I have many, many more years of doing so. She is just so giving towards those around her; just so understandingly generous towards me, the luckiest fella on the planet.

The Not So Beautiful
We’ll call them the entitled ones. The first dip-stick on the list we’ll call Basil. I kid you not, he, both in looks and demeanour, was the dead spit of John Cleese in ‘Fawlty Towers’ mode. Now I first encountered him in the Chippendale Library on Deck 3. This was one of the few places of refuge in a noisy environment, a haven I would go in the early mornings while Leigh and her Mum made ready for their day up in our well appointed cabin. I’d write, read or simply watch the sea passing by. I was always joined by other like-minded people – some doing as I, a few meditating and one guy worked hard most mornings on architectural plans. Now you’d think the words ‘library’ and ‘please be quiet’ would mean something. Not so for Basil. In he promenaded, his wife in trail, together with another couple. He strode to a sofa, the one that backed on to where I was engaged with my latest novel. He had decided this was the ideal place for a chat – but, as it turned out, he did most of the yakking as he was obviously the alpha-male. He pontificated on the weather, the cruise so far (mainly negative), his plans for the day and curiously, his admiration for Tom Gleeson’s new ABC show, Hard Quiz. I’d imagine he’d be a keen fan of Tom’s put-downs of the lesser mortals attempting to win the night’s cup. It was impossible to concentrate on anything but his booming voice. Despite the vast array of locations around the vessel, designed for the purpose, he and his acolytes were engaged in, it was where I was starting my day with hoped-for quietude he chose. In the end he won. I got up and left. You see, he’d paid his money and was entitled to sit anywhere he deemed appropriate.

I came across him later in the trip. Again I was reading, this time in the Fountain Lounge on Deck 2. Yes, now he chose well. It was a place for sitting and chewing the fat, but it was a quiet afternoon all the same. He sat down with his missus and proceeded to expound on all the inadequacies of, for him, this cruising life. His wife contributed very little. Along to the coffee bar opposite came a gaggle of teens to partake of some liquid sustenance. To say they were skylarking would be to overstate the case, but they were loudish. I noticed they ordered politely from the lovely baristas serving at the best place to go for coffee on the Spirit. But obviously they had interrupted Basil’s train of thought. He hadn’t paid his money for this. He was entitled to have a place where such interjection of clamour should not occur. He stood up, bellowed at the youngsters, screeching ‘Where do you lot think you are? You’re not in some suburban pub now you know.’ The kids turned, stunned expressions on their countenances, mouthing, ‘Who, us?’
‘Yes you lot.’ came the stentorian reply. ‘Now off you go, the lot of you.’
And go they did, their tails between their legs, their fun blunted. He sat down with a harrumph. He’d won again. His wife, though, promptly got up and left. Apart from glaring, at one stage, to a family nearby with an upset baby, he spent the rest of the time I was there staring into space. I wonder who had really won.

The tucker on board was plentiful, varied and tasty. For those that liked that sort of thing there was high end gourmand-style available for a fee, but the no excess charge formal dining room was there as well, vastly spread out over two levels. It even had a singing waiter on its staff, as we found out when we witnessed, along with hundreds of others, a proposal (she said yes – her beau must have been pretty certain given his audience). The waiter had an angelic voice. He would be very worthy of a gig on, well, ‘The Voice’. Breakfasts in the Empire Room were a joy – the salmon bagels, yum! But we mainly stuck to the array of food stations up on Deck 9. You could only call them modern day trenchers, the vast plates there with which we could could select and tuck into our selected grub – and there’s the rub. Because some felt they were entitled, as they had paid for the privilege, these peons would return to their tables with veritable pyramids of fare. Mostly it was far too much for the average human to consume in one sitting, nevertheless they shovelled it in. Most unedifying – and the wastage was phenomenal. It was not uncommon to find such gargantuan meals hardly touched. I can only imagine what the largely third world attendants must think of us, despite their smiles and graciousness.

Here’s one example. It may have been an emergency, but it sure didn’t look like it from where I was sitting. A family grouping of three had obviously been to the hamburger station, returning with the lot between their split buns, as well as a large array of sides. They sat down and had taken a mere nibble of each before a mobile summoned them to somewhere else. Off they trooped, leaving their meal on the tables. After all, they could come back at any time to replenish their appetites. They were entitled. They’d paid their dosh. The poor lass cleaning up the uneaten remains just sadly shook her head.

Trivia competitions were a load of fun, played out for laughs as much as anything. The ones to do with music were rollicking affairs, the participants joining in, chorusing along, with gusto and good humour. That is, except for the big ginger American guy and his small entourage. No, trivia events were not a matter to be trifled with. They were serious business. He was out to win and nothing would stand in his way. One of his colleagues had a trusty i-pad, or something similar, with her at all times and seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time during contests tapping away at it. Naturally he won gold – gold being a cheap medal on a ribbon – at most competitions – and he attended them all, four or five a day. He’d obnoxiously query the host’s answers, interrupt if he felt the questions weren’t precise enough and indulge in much fist pumping when he won through at the end. He did his level best to turn what should have been a fun interlude into something of Olympic proportions in which, yet again, Americans can show their superiority to all-comers. I was so proud of my beautiful Leigh in winning two gold against such a, excuse the language, dick.

It’s difficult to fault what we received for our money. The ship’s staff were delightful and it was fun for me checking out their country of origin and chatting with them. There were some who stood out, such as the vibrant Fillipino attendant who gave us the heads up about avoiding the duty free on board. Instead we should stock up, as many did big time, on shore. All the musicians and performers were approachable and our deck steward, I Made – yep, that’s his name – was just a joy. He’s Balinese so enough said – just a pity, as he says, that he cannot find work on his island so has to take such long contracts away from his family. We loved him – him and the towel animals he left in our cabin daily. I suppose the only real negative I found was, given that it was a cruise to tropical islands, why is it that the air conditioning on the public decks transformed them into a temperature akin what I had left behind in Hobs. I took several pairs of shorts along with me but only wore one sparingly such were the Arctic conditions. I also think it went in someway to contributing to the lurgie many picked up on board, including Leigh’s dear Mum. Not cool at all Carnival.

My Kind of Town
Now and again you just find a place that feels right – that you’d love to spend longer in. Perhaps, in your dreams, you may like a second home in. As much as I’m content being by the river, there are a few locations I’d consider. My second home in Bridport is one. So was Byron before it was ‘discovered’. Port Douglas, from the last cruise, is definitely a contender too, as was Ubud from our Bali sojourn. And now there’s Port Vila. I just felt at home in its laid-back vibe. We based ourselves at the Beach Shack, a local, island style. Here we supped on Vanuatu’s finest, Tusker beer, making regular forays out to the nearby shops. There were bargains to be had at the much recommended duty-free next door (Burnie’s Hellyer Road whiskey, around $90 a pop at home, here was a mere $32). There were the vivacious Vanuatuans around the streets, giving lovely smiles of welcome, saying hello. The shop assistants, when making a sale, were just wonderful. All in all it was bliss to be there. At one stage I took my beer out the back of the Shack to a small terrace overlooking the foreshore. I sat down and watched the passing parade of children, in their school uniforms, on their way home. Many yelled out a greeting to me or waved. Some laughed at the crazy tourists who were sitting inside drinking when they could be outside promenading, as they were. I took their advice myself and set off towards the town’s centre. En route I saw numerous kids in the water, enjoying the 28 degrees as I was. In a younger time I might have considered joining them, PV is the only world capital with coral in its port. Couples were taking the air, arm in arm, the women attired in tropical florals. When I reached the market I was amazed by the produce – the taro laid out on the ground, the brightly hued flowers for sale and the vast dining space at the rear. In it the customers were dining off big trenchers too, just as on the Spirit. Their fare was mainly vegetarian in nature, from what I could deduce, but I bet the hundreds of them under canvas that day wouldn’t have left a scrap. Port Vila is on my bucket list to return to.

Earwiggin’
I couldn’t believe it. A strident American female voice at the pizza station – ‘I’ll have a Hawaiian please, only hold the pineapple.’ Hawaiian. Without pineapple. What would be the point?
Three days in, up on Serenity, where the pods (private sunbathing baskets) were, a flustered twenty-ish lass goes rushing back to the one she and her mates were sharing. ‘Guess what guys? We’ve already spent all our money. All of it! I’ve just checked!‘ Howls of abject horror greeted her announcement. Of course cruising can be a trap for the unwary and how it can all mount up. The booze, the pokies, the shops. If you are not careful it might ruin the whole affair. One tip worth remembering is that the shops often have sales, with very generous markdowns, during the last days afloat.
Two admittedly quite plain (sorry) young ladies examining their photos by the franchise for taking of and developing them – ‘Geez Elaine, we’re not very photogenic, are we?’
‘No Doreen, we’re certainly not. And what’s worse is we are four days in and we haven’t hooked a gentleman yet?’ Maybe they did by cruise end. I hope so, anyway, if that was their aim.

Sydney On Return
There were highlights, too, on our return to our port of departure, although the start wasn’t all that auspicious. On arrival Leigh was informed that our booked hotel had no rooms awaiting us. There was a glitch in the way their website had been set up. They knew they had a problem with it but had done nothing about to remedy the fault so it cost us our accommodation. Thankfully the wonderful people at Travelodge rescued us and we were set up in style at their Wentworth Avenue (27-33) hostelry. It turned out we liked the position in Surrey Hills too, a few bocks from World Square and the Museum station, for the rail network, was a short walk away. Across the road from it was an amazing pub, at least when you went upstairs, where we dined out first night back. Hotel Harry (40-44 Wentworth Ave) is incredibly popular at weekends, but during the week is quieter and the upstairs dining rooms are real eye-openers – a different world in each. I had a most interesting time at the National Maritime Museum (Darling Harbour), wandering around its exhibits, including the warships out the front. The main reason for taking the light rail around there was to view ‘The Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2016’ on show. On my last day I saw the local equivalent, ‘The Ausrtralian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year’ at our country’s oldest museum, the Australian (1 William Street). Both were totally worth it – a double whammy. I am a fan of the work of Margaret Preston and she was on show at the Art Gallery of NSW (Art Gallery Road), along with her contemporaries Grace Cossington Smith and Georgia O’Keeffe. It was a treat. Whilst there I also took in a retrospective of the work of Mervyn Bishop, our most prolific indigenous photographer, famous for that moment between Whitlam and Vincent Lingiari. Another delight was Jenny Watson’s oeuvre at the Museum of Contemporary Art (140 George Street), down in the Rocks. I bought up big on postcards of her rendering of a young Nick Cave. After all that I was in need of some liquid refreshment and I was lucky enough to score an outside table at the Endeavour Tap House (39-43 Argyle St, The Rocks) where the informative bar-tender told me I’d soon be partaking of a creamy American-style dark brewed on the premises. It was a delicious, much needed pick-me-up and the bar’s well worth a pit stop in that historic part of Sydney. And if you want a wild ride, take the Manly ferry on a rough day as I did. Exhilarating.

The Turnip Head Affair
That’s what she called me, my wonderful lady, in lovely, affectionate jest. I was making ready to go out with my usual lack of commitment to the finer details when Leigh spotted the unkempt nature of what remains of my my cranial thatch. She reckoned what it looked like reminded her of that much maligned vegetable and told me so. I attended to the problem and we were still laughing about the likeness of my noggin to the legume as we entered the elevator to take us down to the ground floor of our hotel and out into the night. In the lift was a young Sydney metro-sexual, very nattily attired, who seemed bemused by our hilarity. I informed him of the atrocious fun the love of my life was having at my expense and he cracked a wide smile. He gave my head the once over and informed the provider of the harsh judgement that he reckoned I still had a few worthy tufts on top. Well that caused my my beloved Leigh to further crack up. It was reflective of the good humour we met in Sydney. Another example was our welcoming host at Gazzi, a lunch venue for us on World Square (Shop 10.28), up for as much repartee as we could muster. There were two marvellous taxi drivers who transported us to the airport at various stages The first was a Ghanian who told us the giggle-inducing tale of how the coppers go about catching criminals in his homeland – by hiring taxis. We concluded that was a win-win situation for all concerned, except for the would-be felons, who were charged for the police transport as well as their crimes. Should be tried here I reckon. The black South African, of Scottish descent, who had my fare a few days later, engaged me with his philosophical views on life. From a doctor back in RSA to a taxi driver in Oz, he reckoned life couldn’t be better.

Memories – Yes, I retain many fine memories of my time on the Carnival Spirit in the company of Leigh, Pat, Phil and Julie whilst on the boat – and of my stay in our most populous city. But there was special one the Sunday morning before I was about to fly home. I was meandering around Hyde Park, snapping away when, up ahead, I espied the Shrine of Remembrance. I made my way inside this art deco edifice and faced the eternal flame. For a quiet moment or two I communed with my father – long gone but still missed. A perfect ending.

Carnival Spirit on-line = https://www.carnival.com.au/cruise-ships/carnival-spirit.

 

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