Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Akaroa, a Little Bit of France in the South

French colonial buildings in Akaroa, New Zealand
Because of the earthquakes which devastated Christchurch and its port of Lyttelton, cruise ships can no longer visit there for the foreseeable future. So they make Akaroa their port of call.
   And what a beautiful place it is. Once again we were blessed with calm, blue sky weather. The 'Volendam' anchored out in the bay and we tendered ashore.
   The little township lies along the shore of Akaroa Harbour. It is the site of the first settlement in New Zealand by the French, over 160 years ago. In fact, if the English hadn't beaten them to it by a few months, we would have been saying "Bonjour" instead of "Hello" or "Kia ora".
   Part of the charm of the place is its well-preserved historic colonial cottages with their picket fences and displays of over-exuberant rambling roses. Many of the buildings fly French flags as well as New Zealand ones and some of the street names are in French.
   I enjoyed exploring the old-fashioned general store which sold just about everything from gumboots to gumballs. Nearby, in a restored cottage, was a shop specialising in French goods the owners personally selected on their trips to France. Beautiful homewares, unusual gift ideas and a treasure for me - a miniature book of Napoleon's love letters to Josephine. Now, where's my French dictionary?

Sunday, 26 June 2011

ms Volendam: The Library

One side of the library on Volendam
My favourite room - the library on the 'Volendam'. It's huge, big enough to incorporate a cafe and bigger than the library in my small home town! With floor to ceiling windows, Eames chairs and ottomans and leather couches, it's a place in which to spend many relaxing hours on sea days.
  At one end of the library is a long Italian marble table, inlaid with coloured flower motifs. It's ideal for spreading out the large atlases that are available. I like doing that to plot our course. Bookcases line the walls with a selection of history books and biographies that feature the lives of many famous people.
Explorations Cafe on Volendam
   The middle section of the library has a large table for jigsaws and another comfortable leather couch to curl up on. Here also is the Explorations cafe. If you feel like coffee and cookies while reading, the barista will make your order, for a small charge.
   Lots more bookcases have a great range of travel books and guides, the latest best sellers, novels, and beautiful photographic art and architecture, and wildlife books. There's even a book exchange for people who've finished with their own books and want to swap for another.         
Read and relax in Volendam's library
The other end of the room has computer stations, more couches and the ever so comfortable Eames chairs placed by the windows. So comfortable that you'll often find people have settled in them with a good book, then dozed off in the sun. You can read to the musical accompaniment of gentle snoring.
   A long table holds the latest edition magazines and newspapers. Every day, you can pick up a sheet of sudoku puzzles and the daily quiz questions (they're hard!). There's a prize for the person who gets the most correct answers. But don't get too excited - it's usually the dreaded luggage label!

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Dolphin Watching in Queen Charlotte Sound

Cruise Queen Charlotte Sound to Picton
We knew that after leaving Picton in the early evening we'd have a couple of hours scenic cruising in Queen Charlotte Sound. What we didn't expect was being escorted part of the way by a pod of bottlenose dolphins. Leaping and diving, they surfed the bow wave, so close to the ship I felt as if I could have touched them. It was a great sight to see.
 Queen Charlotte Sound is a beautiful part of New Zealand, best seen from the water.  Here at the top of the South Island the land divides into long peninsulars, like fingers lying on the sea. The bush covered hills run down to the shore. Sometimes, in the picturesque little coves, fur seals can be seen sunning themselves on the rocks.  Now some of the isolated bays have a holiday house or two, accessible only by boat. In the 19th century whaling stations were established along the shores of the Sounds. The whole area has a rich Maori heritage.
 Captain Cook was a fan of the Marlborough Sounds. As the first European explorer to these waters  he charted the coastline and stayed for a time in Ships Cove. Its freshwater spring and sheltered anchorage were a relief after being weeks in rough seas.
   We had been days in calm seas. Onwards now, and fingers crossed for a smooth sailing when we leave the shelter of the sounds and go into Cook Strait. Next port of call is Akaroa.    

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Picton, our First South Island Port of Call

The port and township of Picton
As the gateway to the South Island by water, Picton is a busy little port. We docked right next to the interisland ferry so there was a lot of interest watching all the comings and goings on that ship.
  After a warm welcome from the local volunteers stationed at the bottom of the gangway, we caught the free shuttle bus into the township. Picton is a pretty town with its landscaped and paved park on the waterfront at the bottom of the main street. I was impressed with the cafes and shops which seemed to be geared to well-heeled tourists rather than locals. The art and crafts on display in the galleries and stores were of high quality and interesting.
  I was particularly amused with the sign in the window of the ice cream parlour stating that it was open from midday, on sunny days. Too bad if you were after a gelato or chocolate dipped double scoop of hokey pokey when it was cloudy!
  In a back street we found one of our favourite types of shops, a secondhand/antiques emporium. We spent a happy hour poking around the shelves and displays looking for treasures.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Cooking Demonstrations on a Cruise

Decorating a cake demonstration
During the day on a cruise, when I'm not lying in a deck chair, reading in the library, playing shuffleboard, or checking out the food, I like to go to cooking demonstrations. Yes, more food!
   The Culinary Arts Centre on the 'Volendam' is perfectly set up for passengers to watch and learn from some of the best chefs on the high seas. I really enjoy their presentations where they make creating beautiful food seem so easy. Whether it is grilled lamb chops with oregano and apple chutney, shrimp curry, or creme brulee, I learn tips and techniques that I can try at home.
  Recipe cards are given out for us to take away and, of course, there is the all important tasting of the recipes we have watched being made. My favourite part!    
  Cake decorating is not my strong suit so I was interested to go to a demonstration called 'A Piece of Cake'. Pastry Chef Neil showed us how to decorate a sponge and make marzipan roses.
   Firstly he sliced a sponge cake into thirds horizontally. He sprinkled the bottom layer with a thick sugar syrup, drizzled it with liqueur, then smoothed on a layer of whipped cream.  He repeated the process with the other two pieces of cake, layering them on top of each other.
   More whipped cream, laid on liberally with a palette knife, covered the sides of the cake. The final touches were a covering of grated chocolate, decorative swirls piped with chocolate and the marzipan roses on top.
  When I saw how simple it all was I was inspired to recreate it when I got home from the cruise. It was good enough to eat! 

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Wellington Port of Call

Cruise ships docked at Wellington, New Zealand
Wellington looked beautiful with the harbour sparkling in the morning sun as we came in to dock. The 'Dawn Princess' was already in port by the time we arrived. Its passengers had almost all disembarked, to walk into the city or board buses for their day's tours.
   Wellington is a favourite city of mine with its cultural vibe and cafes galore. We met a friend for lunch - on a tug boat in Oriental Bay! The tug has been refurbished as a restaurant. We sat right in the bow to eat, with great views back to the city.
   The 'Volendam's' departure was scheduled for one minute before midnight, which gave us time to meet family after they had finished work. Dinner was at an award-winning restaurant ashore. And very nice it was too. Later that night we arrived back at the dock to board the 'Volendam'. Apart from security guards in the cruise ship terminal, no one else was around. As we walked up the gangway, it felt as if we were royalty, boarding our private vessel. I wish!

Monday, 13 June 2011

Towel Animals - Love Those Critters!

Towel animal elephant
The sense of anticipation rises as you make your way along the corridor to your stateroom after a night of fine dining and entertainment. You know that the cabin steward will have turned down your bed, turned on the bedside lights, left chocolates on your pillows and perhaps a note wishing you sweet dreams. But what, you wonder, will today's towel animal be?
   Will it be sitting on the bed, on the dressing table, or hanging from the wall light? Will it be a dog or a squid or an elephant? A gorilla or a lobster or a rabbit? Whatever it is, it is guaranteed to make you smile!
   And if you want to make them for yourself when you are home, go along to the towel animal making demonstration or buy the book for more wonderful ideas on what you can do with a couple of small towels and two stick-on paper eyes!
   You've got to love those critters!

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Shore Tour From Gisborne - Fantastic!

Maori children's cultural performance on a shore tour
The idea of sipping champagne while riding on a vintage steam train and seeing some Maori culture certainly appealed! With visions of the romance of the 'Orient Express' in mind, I booked the shore tour from Gisborne.  For train buffs, the chance to take a trip that featured the only Wa Class locomotive (built in 1897) left in the world, was too good to miss. The tour booked out quickly. 
   The steam engine, Wa 165, and its three carriages certainly was a great sight with its shiny, black body edged with gold, and its copper boiler gleaming in the sun. Restored by a keen band of volunteer railway enthusiasts, it took its first fare-paying passengers in 2000 after many years of work.
   Down the coastal railway line we went, stopping at the airport to let a plane take off. Gisborne is the only airport in the world that has a train track crossing it. The views of Young Nicks Head across the bay were superb.
   After a trip of about 40 minutes, sipping Lindaur sparkling wine or orange juice all the while, we stopped in the middle of nowhere! On a grassy bank beside the line, a group of children from the local Maori immersion school (kura kaupapa) were waiting. Aged from 5 to 12 years, they were dressed in traditionally-styled costumes in their school colours. They waited quietly while the principal explained to us about the school and Maori legends of the area.
   And then they performed for us -  songs, a poi dance and a haka (war dance) done very enthusiastically by the boys! It was a charming, touching, authentic experience, one that left all the cruise ship passengers smiling and eager to talk to and have photographs taken with the children after the concert.
    On the train ride back to Gisborne, a hat was passed round and donations (koha) were thrown into it, raising over $200 for the school. It was a great afternoon!

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Gisborne, First City to See the Sun

Gisborne port of call
"Land!" cried a young sailor in October, 1769, and was promptly immortalised in history - Captain Cook named the promontary he sighted 'Young Nick's Head' in his honour. Seeing Nicholas was only 12 years old at the time, I wonder if he got the gallon of rum that Cook had promised to whomever first saw land!
   I was really looking forward to going to Gisborne. I'd been there only twice before, when I was a child. The city looked its best on this bright, blue sky day. The 'Volendam' anchored offshore which gave us a great view of Young Nick's Head, its sheer white cliffs reminiscent of those at Dover. The tender ride didn't take too long, up the river a little way to the marina. We spotted the statue of Captain Cook on the foreshore where he is said to have landed all those years ago.
Millennium wall, Gisborne, New Zealand
   The new millenium celebrations of 2000 started in Gisborne as it is the city nearest the international date-line, and so the first to see the sunrise. Hundreds of school children painted their self-portraits on tiles to mark the occasion. You can see them all on a wall by the marina.
   We had a good look around the town. Its palm trees give it a tropical feel and with great beaches a couple of blocks from the main street, you can see why surfie types like to live here. With the beach so close, you can ride the waves in your lunch hour!
   In the afternoon we went on a fantastic shore excursion - I'll tell you about that next time!

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Sail Away

Sail away serenade
I love 'sail away', the time when the ship leaves port. The ship's band plays to get us in a party mood and waiters circulate with trays of cocktails and beers. All the passengers seem to be in a happy mood after a day ashore exploring the town or going on excursions. The vibe is positive and fun.
   I always stand at the very stern, watching as the lines are cast off, waving to the people left on the wharf. Sometimes a local pipe band will serenade us with the skirl of bagpipes. Then, with three long blasts on the ship's hooter, we are off. It is time for one last, long look at the port as the land recedes. I turn away then and face forward as we head out to sea, to new horizons and a new destination tomorrow. That's exciting!

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Tauranga Port of Call

Volendam docked at Mount Maunganui, Tauranga
Our first port of call on this cruise was Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty. The 'Volendam' docked at the seaside suburb of Mt Maunganui. There were three cruise ships in port that day, so I imagine the cash registers of the local businesses and tour companies were ringing non-stop!  
  Many of the ship's passengers piled aboard coaches to be whisked away to Rotorua for the day, to see erupting geysers, boiling mud pools and a sampling of Maori culture.  Others headed off to Te Puke to tour a kiwifruit orchard and to taste kiwifruit products such as chocolate, liqueurs and wine.
   We decided to stay in Mt Maunganui and visit friends on this glorious day. We had coffee at a cafe on the promenade opposite the popular surf beach. Despite the high-rise apartments and luxurious houses in the area, the Mount has a laid-back feel to it, as if the real importance of the place is based on the sun, sea and sand.
   Lunch was in the sunny courtyard of a main street cafe that had glass cases filled to overflowing with baking - those old Kiwi favourites such as Afghan biscuits, Melting Moments and Eccles cakes.
   Because of the narrow harbour entrance and strong currents, the 'Volendam' had to leave strictly on time to meet the window of opportunity that high tide allowed ships to depart. We sailed close between long, low Matakana Island and Mt Maunganui, waving goodbye to all the people who were standing on top of the mountain.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Scenic Cruising to White Island

White Island, active volcano, Bay of Plenty
The first day of the New Zealand/Australia cruise was glorious. Brilliant sunshine, calm seas and wonderful views of the Coromandel and Bay of Plenty coastlines.
  We passed close by Mercury Island and the pointed rocks of the Alderman Islands, named by Captain Cook after English officials. I hope when he sailed this way in 1769 to observe the transit of Mercury that the weather was as good and he appreciated the beauty of the area.
   The highlight of the day for me was when we sailed to White Island. I have been fascinated by the place since reading about it many years ago. How, in the inhospitable, dangerous environment of this active volcano, men mined for sulphur; how an eruption in 1914 killed ten miners but spared the camp cat which was found unharmed three weeks later. White Island last erupted in 2000.
   From a distance the island looked triangular, topped by a billowing plume of steam.  As we cruised closer, its jagged peaks, rocks and crater came into view. The only signs of life were gannets flying close to shore and landing on a sloping piece of ground where they have established a large colony.
  We spent several hours cruising backwards and forwards just off-shore. The 'Volendam's' captain, visiting the area on cruises since last October, said that this was the most active the volcano had been.
   It was all very dramatic. The hissing of the fumeroles. The sight of the collapsed sides of the crater seen through the shifting clouds of steam. The acrid smell of sulphur that lodged in the back of my throat. All these combined to make me very aware of the hugely destructive powers of nature.
  I was very glad that I had got so close to White Island. I was also very glad to leave.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The Aussie/Kiwi Mix-up

The cruise started brilliantly. Holland America Line had their embarkation procedures down pat. From the time we handed our car keys to the parking atendant on the wharf, to the time we walked into our cabin, was only 15 minutes.
   And in our cabin  (sorry, I should be saying stateroom!) there was a bottle of champagne, a plate of chocolate-dipped strawberries, a voucher for photos and a gift voucher for dinner for two at the Pinnacle Grill. A very nice surprise.
   As we wandered around the 'Volendam' we took note of the Australia/New Zealand displays.
   In the Aussie corner of the buffet dining room there were cute kangaroos and cuddly koalas.
   On the other side of the room a stand showed the New Zealand flag, the silver fern, the teatowel with the map, the woolly sheep, the kiwis wearing black jerseys, the yellow-eyed penguins, the appealing little lambs and ...a wombat! A great big Australian native wombat!