Sunday, February 14, 2016

Where Are The Used Cars?


Yesterday we visited the main island in the country of New Caledonia, Grand Terre, and docked at its capital, Noumea. The Island of Grand Terre is quite large, but the capital city of Noumea is confined to what amounts to a relatively small peninsula on the southern tip, and is home to over 140,000 people. Outside of the Loyalty Island Chain, which we visited when going to Mare’, most of the population of the country lives here. During the Second World War, Noumea became home to the South Pacific Headquarters of the United States Military. Today, Noumea is considered the “Paris of the Pacific!” This country is officially a part of France, and has been so since 1853; indeed, the citizens of Noumea carry French Passports.

Our little party of four arranged for a van and a guide to show us around the city. Because of traffic congestion, believe it or not, it took almost four hours just to see the city itself. We started with the van climbing to a hilltop not far from the port to get an overview of the magnificent surroundings. The island tip is ringed by smaller islands and islets, and the coastal drive, which we would later take, is lined with fine hotel and beaches. When standing outside on the hilltop, I became aware of the high humidity which limited visibility and made it quite uncomfortable in spite of a light breeze. When we got back into the van, our guide pointed out the large size of the mangos on the nearby trees and noted that they predicted the likelihood of a cyclone nearby which would account for the high humidity that was quite unusual. If the mangos were larger, he would say the island itself would soon be hit, but since they were only moderately swollen, he predicted simply a storm nearby in the next day or two. Now to digress, I had heard nothing about any bad weather, and judging from the perfectly clear skies, I thought this was just so much rubbish. Imagine my surprise when as the ship prepared to depart the harbor that evening, the Captain came on to advise us that the area we had just left in Fiji was experiencing a cyclone that was headed our way, but that it should soon turn away from us. However, there was a monster cyclone to our north headed our way which would require a close watch. So, I guess I better learn to watch my Mangos!!

Returning to our city tour, our little van climbed to yet another hilltop, this time occupied by a statue of Mary and surrounded by a small grotto and shrine. Back into the van, and up yet another hilltop, but by now we were all becoming uncomfortably hot. Yes, the day was heating up, but the van appeared to be heating faster. Thus, we welcomed yet another opportunity to get out into the breeze and take a picture or two before dragging ourselves back inside. From our vantage point, we descended down and joined the very modern freeway system to travel north for quite some distance to visit what we were told was a beautiful Catholic Cathedral. I would make two points, the road system was quite amazing, and filled to capacity with rush hour traffic. Second, the “beautiful Cathedral” turned out to be a fairly non-descript little cathedral. It would have hardly been worth the long drive in the increasingly hot van, except there was a family with two young daughters preparing them for their Baptism. Everyone looked lovely in their white outfits and dresses. Now having traveled almost out of the city, we had to fight rush hour traffic to get back into the city and visit yet another hilltop. We welcomed any chance to get out of the hot van – it was so much nicer outside in the heat than in the stifling van. So when offered an opportunity to visit the local aquarium, we jumped at the chance to get into some cool air.

The aquarium was small, but really well done, and offered some very unique specimens. It did have small air conditioning units blowing some cool air, but still the building was hot and humid; so much for that idea. I did get some good pictures, but Lisa actually got some that were much better. Reluctantly we climbed into the van to drive the coastal road and to head into town to see the WW II Memorial to the United States. During this drive, it dawned on me that every car I saw looked almost new, and almost everyone was French built. I pointed this out to the group, and we started looking to see if we could find any older models, and I don’t think we saw a single one. Then it hit me – The French Connection! The new cars, the modern roads, the obvious affluence! It reminds me of two sister islands just east of Madagascar. Mauritius Island, which is independent, as I recall was rather undeveloped as compared to its neighbor, Reunion Island. Reunion Island is actually a Prefecture or State of the French Republic, and the Island was so highly developed that if dropped onto the island blindfolded and told to open my eyes, I would have sworn that I was in the French countryside. I got that same feeling when visiting Noumea – no used cars, super highways, and affluent lifestyle. It was all there.

Today we are at sea on the way to our final destination, Sydney, Australia. Unfortunately, and for some unknown reason, our ship will not be docking, but instead will be required to anchor in the harbor. That means that all turnaround operations will require the use of ferries to move 500 people and their luggage ashore, and then to move 500 people and their things back to the ship; not to mention that after 21 days at sea, the ship will require a great deal of re-provisioning. Quite a mess I understand.

Anyway, tomorrow we will have the day to visit this great city. Lisa and I have decided to go ashore and take a taxi to the famous New South Wales Museum of Art. We enjoy visiting art museums, and a short visit with perhaps a coffee down by the wharf will be just the thing considering that we also have to finish packing for our 6am departure the following day. For that reason, I am going to make this my last blog for this trip. For those of you who have followed my previous travels, I suspect that you have read between the lines at my disappointment in this cruise. I am not disappointed in the ship or service; quite the contrary. I still would rate this one of the finest cruise ships in the world. However, the itinerary was not what I had hoped. Of the 22 days we spent on board, 13 days were at sea. We spent four full days doing nothing, but anchoring off beaches. We made five ports of call, but two of those were just for half a day, including Honolulu.

I guess Lisa and I have gotten spoiled with the activities surrounding expedition cruising as compared to spending 22 days on a floating hotel. Crystal’s motto seems to be that “getting there should be more fun than what you see along the way.” Anyway, my pictures are all posted at; I hope you enjoy, and with good fortune, we will be headed out again in May.


Thursday, February 11, 2016

We Came, We Saw, We Beached, Again


We Came, We Saw, We Beached, Again

I just went for a walk around the wide promenade deck, and could not help but marvel at the magnificent vista surrounding our ship. We are at anchor in Tadine Bay, located off the coast of Mare’ Island (pronounced Mah-ray) in New Caledonia. The waters are a pallet of colors ranging from black, to deep blue, to green, and to completely clear. The nearby island is a rich green dotted all over with tall swaying Norfolk Pines, and the sky is an azure blue filled with puffy white clouds.

Our ship swings lazily to and fro from the anchor chain while darting from the vessel in a rhythmic and mesmerizing procession is a flotilla of our tenders sailing in an endless chain back and forth from the shore. It makes no difference if there are any passengers on board, the little craft’s job is to spend the day in a never-ending dance that is carefully orchestrated and timed to the minute. But the dance continues ashore, where Crystal has hired each and every available taxi, bus or van to maintain a continuous shuttle to Yejele Beach, which is roughly 10 miles down the coast from where we are anchored.

WAIT, what is wrong with this picture? Well, for one thing, this is the fourth stop dedicated to simply sitting all day on a beach in the tropical sun, heat, and humidity. There is nothing else offered! A large percentage of the passengers never even bothered going ashore, and of those who did, most go look, perhaps take a quick swim, and then return to the ship. Because this island is home to over six thousand people, it actually offers a number of potentially interesting sights. So, along with our friends Bill and Jayne, we decided to skip yet another beach and to rent a taxi of some kind and explore the island on our own. Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it!

Well the brochure we went down and got last night said “Limited taxis are available on the pier, but it is not advisable to take taxis.” Our question was simple, what did that mean? So, I went to the shore excursion desk and asked that very question. The young lady looked puzzled by my question and then admitted that she had no idea what that meant. After consulting some higher authority in the back room, she returned to explain that we would be going to an island and therefore they could not vouch for the infrastructure. Now you tell me what that meant? All we have visited on this trip are islands. This morning we received our daily ship newsletter and we now have a new song: “It is recommended to all our guests not to take a local taxi, or any other type of transportation that was not arranged in advance.”

Not to be deterred, we saw to it that we went ashore on the first tender, and having done so, we inquired from the shore manager where we could find a taxi. He directed us around the corner, but then returned and informed us there were no taxis on this island. Now I am not the brightest bulb in a room, but when he told us this, we were standing on the pier surrounded by taxis of every conceivable shape and size; so on the surface this made no sense! All of these vehicles, however, had a Crystal sign in their windshield. So we walked over to the local market and found someone who spoke good English, and he informed us that every taxi on the island had been hired for the day by Crystal, and that no taxis would be available for us! So much for our efforts at being a tourist interested in the local culture. Without any other option besides walking, we reluctantly boarded the bus to the beach.

After about 15 minutes we arrive at Yejele Beach, which was dazzling by any standards. The beach was however lined as far as the eye could see with thatched huts hawking every imaginable trinket. Unlike yesterday, we saw no toilets, nor did the ship bring any beverages to the party. It was, just a beach! After about 15 minutes, we boarded a van back to the pier, getting off early so we could walk around some. Unfortunately, other than the Post Office and the local market, everything else was uphill and inland. They actually have a college on the island and an airport, but all were too far to walk, and so we returned to the ship to enjoy a “day at anchor” swinging to and fro.


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Be Careful What You Ask For


The last two days have been a first for both Lisa and myself; it was the very first time that we visited the Republic of Fiji. I had no idea that Fiji was comprised of over 330 islands stretching across the South Pacific. For almost 100 years it was a British colony, however, it gained independence in 1970. During its colonial past, the British imported large numbers of indentured servants, mostly Eastern Indians, in order to work the sugar plantations. Today, the island’s population is composed largely of two groups, the indigenous Fijians who comprise about 58% of the population, most of whom are Christian – while the remaining Indian/Hindu population comprises the balance.

Our first port of call to this idyllic faraway nation, was to a little known island know as Yasawa-i-Rara. Once again, the shore excursions staff on board Crystal, provided virtually no meaningful information as to what we could expect, or what we should be prepared to find. The day before our arrival, we located a small pamphlet that had been left on the shore excursion counter which contained a map showing that the island was some 13 miles long, and on this map was clearly depicted roadways and an airport. However, the map did say that taxis “were not available, nor would shuttle service be available or necessary.” The brochure spoke of an exclusive luxury resort discreetly hidden among the palm trees, and the map indicated that we would be tendering ashore to that location. That evening the daily newsletter was left in our room as is the usual custom. Here is what was quoted therein “No shuttle will be necessary in Yasawa-I-Rara. Taxis however will be available on the pier though and they will be metered.” Trying to put all this together at breakfast, the four of us decided that we would attempt to be among the first to depart from the ship in order to see if we could grab a taxi and tour the island to the extent that it was possible.

We were fortunate indeed in making the first tender to go ashore, and I will tell you that we were met with an unspoiled sandy beach of extraordinary beauty. The beach was the stuff of picture postcards, completely isolated, with pretty palms, powdery white sand, and crystal clear warm water. We would have been well served to have brought the snorkel gear we were never told about; however we were focused instead on finding a taxi.

All four of us went searching in different directions looking for the elusive taxi, only to fail. Somewhat in desperation, I ran up to the Fijian Policewoman, and asked if she could please help us in finding a taxi. She broke out into such a large and raucous laugh, that I thought she was literally going to fall over. She kept looking at me and saying over and over “so you want a taxi?” Smiling as broadly as she could, she gave Lisa and me hugs, and told us to stand right where we were and that she would be back with a taxi. We gathered Bill and Jayne, and patiently waited on the beach wondering from what direction our driver would arrive. Well, we didn’t have to wait long, until a small fiberglass boat with a 50 horsepower outboard engine came puttering around the corner of the rocks, and started backing up to where we were standing. Our police officer/friend arrived, and commenced on our behalf, negotiations about our fare for the water taxi. The whole scene became rather comical, because we were actively negotiating a fare for something, in truth we didn’t have any idea what we were negotiating for. Eventually, the driver agreed to accept $35 per person, only on the condition that we could find two more people to ride with us. We ran around and quickly corralled two other gentlemen who were willing to join the adventure. With the deal now sealed, we had to board our little boat.

At this point, common sense was telling me to walk away from this as fast as I could. First off, I had gotten off the ship without so much as one drop of sunscreen assuming that I would be getting in a taxi and driving around for an hour or so and returning to the ship. The policewoman told us that it was only a 35 minute ride to where we were going, and somehow I assumed that I could stand 35 minutes in this sunlight without a problem. Then there was the little issue of how we were dressed; I had on shorts, socks, and walking shoes, as did pretty much everyone else in our party. Again, had I realized what we were going to be getting into, I would’ve come ashore with flip-flops and a swimsuit, and a cover-up. The exuberance of the moment overtook all of our sound judgment, as we walked out into the water in our good shoes, and climbed into the little boat for a short 35 minute ride.

Short drive my foot! We literally flew across the water at top speed for almost an hour traveling I would guess a full 13 miles down the length of the island. Fortunately for me, I was able to borrow a towel from my friend Jayne, and cover up, but everyone else in our party pretty much had to suffer the unrelenting rays of the tropical sun. The water temperature was 90°, and the outside temperature was easily around 95° or higher. The sun and the temperature however were only part of the problem. Our little boat was hitting the wave tops so hard that at times it threatened to compress our spines, and at times, to literally throw us overboard. Today, Lisa and I are both sore from having held on so hard during the ride. In the end, our driver had taken us around the island to the location at which the movie The Blue Lagoon had been filmed. Located at this spot, is an amazing cave-within-a-cave, which is a geological rarity that should be seen. Having finally arrived at this idyllic paradise, we were confronted with something for which we were totally unprepared. Once again we had to walk out of our boat in our good shoes over very slippery moss covered coral to access a small sandy beach. From here, we were to walk up a narrow and steep flight of stairs that I understand went down the other side and into a large cave. There we were to jump in the shimmering blue water, hold our breath, and emerge later into the hidden and much larger cave within. Not one of us was dressed for such an adventure, and so this entire outing became almost laughable if not outright idiotic. Now the two gentlemen who joined our tour must have had some idea what was coming because they were dressed for swimming, and they did disappear into the cave for almost an hour while we politely waited in the burning sun for their eventual return.

If I thought the ride out was difficult, the ride back was even worse. By this point the effects of the sun’s rays were beginning to be felt, and the water had become choppier making the ride home even more violent.

Arriving back at the pier, we immediately sought out the policewoman who had found us our taxi, and you could not help but laugh at what it happened. She was so jovial and so friendly that we all immediately adopted her and encouraged her to come back on the ship to have lunch. Her name was Elena McGowan, and on the tender ride to the ship, she showed us pictures of her family and friends from her phone. She lived on the nearby island that we would be visiting the next day, but was required to spend the entire day standing on the beach in the hot sun as long as our ship was at anchor in order to provide for our safety and security. After we departed at 6 PM, she would take a water taxi over to the resort which was several miles away, and from there she would make her way back to the larger island.

That evening our cruise was a very slow peaceful transition to the nearby island of Viti Levu. Our ship docked the next morning at the city of Lautoka, which is the second largest city on the island. The largest city, Suva, is the capital of the Republic of Fiji. This island is quite large, and we learned that the drive all the way around the island would take approximately 18 hours. The only good roads that exist on the island run around its perimeter. Today we had a nice van with a good driver and also a competent English-speaking guide.

Our first stop was to visit a traditional Fijian village. This really was quite interesting because the word “village” conjures up the idea that these people are living in thatched roof huts, but that is far from the case. They have traditional homes, with electricity, and very beautiful landscaped grounds. In the center of a very large compound is the home of the chief, and it is impressive indeed. The next largest building in the center of the compound is the Methodist Church. While other religious denominations do exist on the island, none of them are allowed to build their churches inside a traditional Fijian village. It was the Methodists missionaries who first came to these islands and converted the people to the ways of Christianity. Also inside the family compound, you will find the burial sites for the previous village chiefs. Other members of the tribal community had to be buried outside of the compound.

We told our driver that all of us were interested in botanical gardens, so for our first stop we visited an area where the gardens were founded by Raymond Burr to house his vast orchid collection. Since we enjoyed this so much our guide took us to a less visited and less touristy orchard farm, and I’m afraid that most of the photographs we took of our day turned out to be pictures of flowers.

After having driven almost 2 hours into the countryside, on our return we passed the island’s only airport, something about which they are justifiably proud, and we turned off the main road to visit a local village, stopping long enough for Bill and I to stroll the farmers’ market.

In my mind, Fiji offered some of the most unspoiled and beautiful island scenery ever encountered. But upon our return, all of us ask each other one question – would you come back again? The answer in this case is sadly “no,” and that is primarily because while the island is idyllic and peaceful, it simply does not have a tourist infrastructure. There is very little to see and do, and the one really good resort is out on an exclusive island, so that once you are there, you are pretty much trapped.

Today we are enjoying a day at sea, however we will visit three new places over the next three days, before having a two day break, ending with our arrival into Sydney Australia.

Lisa and I hope that everyone is doing well, and that you are enjoying traveling along with us.


Saturday, February 6, 2016

It Simply VANISHED – Saturday, I Mean!


It is really quite amazing, and truly unbelievable! In fact I wouldn’t believe it if I had not witnessed it with my own eyes. I am absolutely positive that yesterday afternoon it was Friday, because as we were driving through town I commented about how it appeared that the town had completely shut down on Friday afternoons. Our driver even confirmed that the schools did not open on Friday. So there, it had to be Friday!

However, when I woke up this morning and looked at my iWatch, it told me that it was Sunday? So, what happened to Saturday? I mean honestly, at my age I can’t afford to lose a day by just having it vanish. So clearly something was wrong. Yesterday was Friday, today is Sunday; so I look at the ship’s newspaper, and sure enough at the top of the page it reads that today is indeed Sunday. It seems patently unfair that I’m being charged for a 22 day cruise, when in fact, we lost a day along the way. This should only be billed as a 21 day cruise, and I should go downstairs promptly and ask for a refund.

All kidding aside, I did lose Saturday, but I lost it to a good cause – the International Date Line. You see, long ago when the official latitudes on the surface of the Earth were being charted, it was decided that the 0° point would go through Greenwich, England. It is for that reason that we calculate time around the earth beginning at this 0° point, and it is known as Greenwich Mean Time, or GMT. As everyone knows, there are 360° of longitudinal lines across the surface of the earth. So halfway around the world from Greenwich England, there is the 180° longitude which is known as the International Date Line. It is at that line that the day begins or ends. If you are travelling west across the International Date Line, then you simply add another day, or to put it another way, you essentially skip a day as we did last evening. On the other hand, if you are traveling in an easterly direction, you subtract a day as you cross the dateline so that in essence, you repeat the day. It’s all very confusing, and is very frustrating to me to think that I lost Saturday somewhere.

Moving along, let’s talk about our journey yesterday on one of the major islands in the Republic of Samoa. Until researching our journey, I always thought that Samoa was “American Samoa.” As it turns out, I was both right, and wrong. There is an American Samoa, and it is quite different from the Western Samoa that we visited yesterday. Western Samoa, or as it is now called simply “Samoa,” is composed of two large volcanic islands, and a few smaller islands in the far south Pacific. Samoa was the first Polynesian territory to become independent in 1962, and today it can boast a 99% literacy rate. We visited the largest island, Upolu, and docked at the Capital city of Apia. Once again our ship provided us with only a five hour opportunity to tour this tropical paradise before setting off for yet another day at sea.

Along with Bill and Jayne, we were very interested in seeing everything that the island had to offer, so for this reason we booked a half-day van with an English-Speaking Guide for the four of us. What we got in reality, turned out to be a little different. We did get a small van with a driver who was only marginally able to speak English. In real life, the man was a taxi-driver, and that’s what the gentleman did for a living, he was not a guide. It became quickly apparent that this idea of what to do with us was to simply drive around the city of Apia muttering something under his breath about what we were seeing. I presented him with a list of the things we had prepared that we would like to see, and believe it, or not, he had to pull over to the side of the road, and take out a map to try to figure out where to go. At one point, I asked the driver if he was born on this island, and to my surprise he said “no.” With a little more questioning, it became apparent that he had been born in the city of Apia, but had not driven to the opposite side of the island, ever. So we were giving him his very first opportunity to see what the other side of his island looked like. Needless to say, he was about as useless as a guide as one could possibly be. Fortunately, we had our own maps, and I had an electronic map that allowed me to follow where we were around the island. At one point, our guide took a turn down a long gravel road. At the end of the road there was a trail that went off through the woods on a rough steep pebble strewn volcanic path. When we asked the driver how long it would take to do the walk, he shrugged his shoulders and had to admit he’d never been there before. We all started out walking for a short distance, but quickly concluded that this was not something that we wanted to do.

Forgetting our disappointment with the guide, the fact of the matter is that we spent four hours touring what was a beautiful tropical island. The people all seemed very friendly and clean. They had an interesting way of living. It appeared that on large plots of land family units had individual homes. In the center of the compound there would be a large platform with a hard cool surface on top of which had been placed columns supporting a roof above. This open air shaded area appeared to then be where members of the family could come out and play, or weave, or simply sit and talk. There would also be several built-up graves plots; raised because of the water level.

I don't believe I have ever visited any place that had as many churches as we saw on this island. It seemed that for every 20 homes or so, there was yet another church. There were churches of all denominations from Catholic, to Methodist, to Mormon. The people on the island all had electricity, and according to our driver, they also had Internet. I find that more than a little surprising, but let’s take it at face value. The only lines that I saw running across the island were electrical. I saw very few phone lines, and I can’t imagine where they got the cable from. I never saw a satellite dish. The other thing that was strange is that we did not see air-conditioning on the island at all. The temperature while we were there was 92°, and I gather that’s pretty typical for an average day. The only time that we saw air-conditioning were in a few of the new buildings in the capital city, all of which were owned by the government.

I think you will enjoy my pictures when I’m able to get them posted; one of our very first visits was to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception which was rebuilt in 2011 and was a stunning structure. We then visited the mansion where Robert Louis Stevenson spent his final years. From there we drove into the hills and saw some truly magnificent scenery including spectacular waterfalls. All in all, we drove the island for four hours, and in the process, only got to see one half of the landmass.

Last night during dinner we were talking about our experience, and Bill posed the question as to whether or not we would choose to go back to Samoa. While it was beautiful, all of us answered a resounding no! There really were no tourist facilities, and once you drove around, there wasn’t much to do. So I guess I add this to the list of countries I visited, and we move on. Today we are at sea on Sunday, February 7, in route to Yasawa-I-Rara, Fiji.

Lisa and I hope everyone is well, and that you, too did not lose your Saturday.

Jim meeting

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Fanning Island – An Atoll Alright



Fanning Island – An Atoll Alright

So let me see if I can paint the picture properly:

We had been at sea for four long days to reach the city of Honolulu, only to be given an afternoon in which to enjoy its charms.

We then spent another two full days at sea sailing directly south from the Hawaiian Islands to reach the Republic of Kiribati. To be more specific, we anchored off Fanning Island. Now sitting at home in your lounge chair, or when looking over a brochure to decide on a cruise, you might find the idea of visiting Fanning Island in this little-known Republic exciting and adventuresome – you would be wrong! To start with, the name Fanning Island, is a misnomer. It really is not an island at all, but rather a large oval coral covered, atoll. You might remember from our trip last fall that an atoll is produced by the collapse of a volcanoes caldera. Inactive volcanoes are eventually eroded by the ocean, and sooner or later the sides of the caldera will fall inward allowing seawater to reach the interior. That then leaves a ring of sand around the previous volcanoes’ edge which overtime will eventually erode away. Until it does erode, these sandbars can be home to large groups of people, and I was mistaken when I said in my previous blog that Fanning Island was uninhabited, it is actually home to almost 1900 people. The size of the lagoon is over 42 mi.², and the land area is roughly 13 mi.². We, of course, only saw a very small portion of that.

Prior to this cruise, I tried my best to find out information from the cruise line about what to expect when we reached Fanning Island, and all I got were “puzzled looks” or “silence on the phone.” I could not imagine what such an elegant cruise ship like the Crystal Serenity was going to do, dropping anchor off a small island in the Pacific, with the 900 passengers, many of whom are quite elderly. “Surely,” I said to myself, “they must have some activities planned ashore, or perhaps they’re taking us to an exotic resort where we could spend the afternoon on a sandy beach.”

It wasn’t until the day before we were to arrive that by accident my friend Bill and I discovered that a small brochure had been put out describing the island. It sounded absolutely idyllic.” Fanning Island is a roughly oval coral atoll covered in coconut grows and framed by unspoiled, white – sandy beaches and warm, clear water. Fanning Island is a remote, rustic paradise sure to leave lasting memories.” Still there was absolutely no indication from anyone on the staff as to what we were to do when we got to this paradise of an island.

The morning of our arrival brought great anticipation as in a light drizzle, we slowly approached a formless mass sitting low in the water just off our bow. We were told to expect quote “colorful marine life, including parrotfish and angelfish that thrive in the tepid lagoon, while parakeets and warblers decorate the trees. Outrigger canoe will bob gently in the surf as locals await your arrival with hand – strung shell necklaces, etc.” Our daily newspaper advised that “this was an outstanding spot to spend the day enjoying sandy beaches and snorkeling was a must.” The only problem was that anyone who was interested in doing so should be sure and bring their own snorkeling equipment since non equipment was available on the island. Wait a minute – snorkeling equipment? Absolutely none of the information that we were given prior to this cruise made any mention of our having to bring our own equipment! As it turns out, I did not see a single per person with snorkeling equipment, but I did see a large number of people who had taken towels so that they could spend a day on the beach.

Well, let me tell you the reality of the experience was quite different than the hype! Unlike the smooth operation which Silversea is able to run when arriving at isolated destinations, the Crystal crew seemed to be totally unprepared for transporting 900 people ashore in an organized and safe fashion. We finally arrived at our anchorage almost 45 minutes late from our scheduled time, and then had to wait 30 minutes for the officials to board the ship and clear us to land. This was the usual motley group of overweight bounty hunters, which typically come aboard in such places. In fact, we later found them at lunchtime having taken over a large table where they were sitting with their brand-new Crystal hats and Crystal bags while eating everything in sight!

Finally an announcement was made that we could proceed to midship’s deck four to board our transport to the island. Lisa and I put our things together, went down on the elevator, but when the doors opened there was no way to go any further than to barely allow the elevator door to close behind us. There were 100 people or more crammed into a small space with more pushing down from the stairs above, and more arriving every minute via the elevators to the point that everything came to a complete standstill. The ship was not prepared for the people to disembark, and why they made the announcement I have no idea. The crew was frantically running around trying to organize the departure in what was an almost comical routine. This turned dangerous, however, when we started to board the tenders. The swell was very high, as were the winds. The operation was on the verge of being unsafe, and the crew was certainly not used to handling this kind of disembarkation. After almost 45 minutes of pushing and shoving, we were finally able to board our tender, Lisa and I had to sit there while 100 people were loaded behind us. The tender was banging up against the side of the landing platform, and we watched elderly people slip and slide, and almost fall in their attempt to board. It is amazing to me that someone was not seriously injured.

Our tender slowly made the roughly 25 minute trip into the lagoon, and pulled up to a rickety old wooden dock that rocked from side to side every time our boat rubbed up against it. Many of the slats on the dock were rotten, but some type of particle board had been laid over the top so that we could depart without falling thru. As we walked down the dock, there was a small group singing a welcome song as is so typical in Micronesia, and just beyond the dock was a mass of people standing with baskets on the ground in front of them asking for money. I was immediately turned off at this, as were our friends Bill and Jayne. There were no items for sale that were of any interest, and the people seemed more interested in getting money, then in welcoming us to the island. Several times I tried to take pictures, only to have a mother put her hand in front of the child’s face until I put money in the bucket – which I would not do. At about this point, it started to rain, lightly at first and then with increasing intensity so that I had to wrap my camera in a plastic bag. I continued walking hoping that I could find the idyllic beaches that we had been told about, but at about this point I looked down at the legs of the gentleman in front of me and saw that they were completely covered in flies and mosquitoes. Then I looked down at my own legs to realize that I was in the same condition. At that point, I turned around and headed for the tender figuring I’d had just about enough of this place. Running into Lisa was no surprise, since she had the same idea.

So that is my sad tale of Fanning Island. Our friends Bill and Jayne somehow managed to get on the first tender which was loaded with only about 50 people so they never experienced the panic driven loading operation that we underwent. As a result of being first on the island, they were able to walk much farther in, and in looking at their pictures, I see that they managed to reach the school and to get several good photographs of the locals without being asked to pay money. They finally made it to the other side of the small peninsula on which we had landed where the “beautiful sandy beaches” were located. Guess what, there were no picturesque sandy beaches. There were instead very narrow strips of beach covered with crushed seashells and rocks. From there it was a sharp drop into deep water, and not a safe place to swim. In fact, in the entire time that they were on the island they never saw anybody swimming, nor did we. So much for the snorkel gear!

At this point I have to be honest, I really don’t have a clue why in the world Crystal decided to take 900 people to an almost deserted atoll and dump them ashore. They obviously were not prepared or practiced in the maneuver, and it was basically a waste of time. Now we are back at sea for yet another two days on our way to Apia, Samoa. Let’s hope our experiences improve, because so far this cruise is what I would call – boring!

Monday, February 1, 2016

It Was Closed !!!!

Depending on how you look at it, this cruise has either been very boring, or full of excitement. Perhaps another way to say it is that so far the cruise is basically boring with a few moments punctuated by panic.

My last email ended with our ship sailing under the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, and heading off into the Pacific Ocean for four days of cruising to Honolulu. Shortly after we departed, Lisa and I discovered that in spite of our best efforts, we had left home without several items that we were going to need on this trip. So even though it would cost an arm and a leg, I phoned home and talked to our good friend, Jack Smithson, who is housesitting for us, and made arrangements for him to locate the items that we were missing, and take them to our friendly UPS store. Then I had to find out how the items needed to be addressed before contacting the UPS store to provide them with exact instructions as to where and how the package would be delivered to our ship once we reached Honolulu. I think I probably spent the better part of our first day at sea, simply straightening out that mess.

Our days at sea on the way to Honolulu have been rather rough, and in fact, the pool has yet to be filled for our use. I must, however, complement Crystal on their cuisine. The food and service have been absolutely superb, and as I said earlier, the ship is extremely elegant. On about our third day, we suddenly realized that a mistake and been made in putting our medications together, and a very important medicine had been omitted. Panic very quickly set in, until we were able to determine that the mistake only covered seven days. Nevertheless, we could not go seven days without that medication. So once again I find myself back on the phone trying to coordinate how in the world were going to get medication in Honolulu. Just to add to the fun and games, the physician who prescribed the medication is currently out ill, and so we’re needing to obtain a refill from one of his partners. Before I could negotiate a refill, however, I had to find out where the prescription should be called in. As luck would have it, while I was sitting in the office of the ship’s physician hoping that perhaps he would write the prescription for us (which he did not), one of the patient’s there told us exactly where we could find a pharmacy near to where the ship would dock. He was from Honolulu, and very familiar with the downtown area. Using Google, I was able to locate the pharmacy and contact them by phone, only to learn that when we arrived on Saturday at 1 PM, they would already have been closed at noon. However, they were very helpful, and told me of another pharmacy in their chain which would be open, and I was able to call them and confirm that “yes if we had a prescription sent there, then they would be open until 6 PM.” So now I’m back on the phone making sure that everybody has the right address in all the right information, only to learn that the physician writing the prescription was going to be off on Thursday. That would be okay until I realized that with the time change, and the fact that their office closed Friday at noon, there was only going to be a 60 minute window during which he could make the proper call. More panic set in, although the doctor’s office handled it very nicely by simply leaving a message on the pharmacy’s voicemail. Just to be certain that everything is handled, I went so far as to call the pharmacy to confirm that they had the prescription, and I was glad that I had done so because they had not filled it since our insurance declined to pay. Once I assured them that we would pay in cash, they confirmed for me that they would be open until 6 PM.

So everything had now been carefully arranged and orchestrated. The ship would arrive at noon, we had a shore excursion at 12:45, and would return at 5 PM. We then would have a one hour window in which to run to the pharmacy, grab our medication, and return to the ship. Well, as it turned out, the ship actually arrived in Honolulu at around 11 AM. By the time all the formalities were completed it was 11:30, and Lisa and I decided that we had exactly one hour in which we could grab a cab, run to the pharmacy, get her medication, and at the same time, buy some supplies for our friends who had also forgotten some items from home. Let me tell you that even in the best of circumstances, getting off a cruise ship is not all that easy. You don’t simply walk downstairs to a waiting taxi. We had to go into the cruise terminal, weave our way through the terminal maze, then go down the stairs out the one door that they had open, only to find out that the taxis were parked on the opposite side of the area where the buses were parked. We then ran and grabbed a waiting taxi, and I told the man that we would pay him to take us to the pharmacy, wait for us to come back and bring us back to the ship, all of which he agrees to do. Even though the pharmacy is only four blocks away, four blocks away in downtown Honolulu might as well have been the moon! We couldn’t go up a one-way street; we couldn’t go this way or that way; and after 25 minutes of driving around, we finally reached the pharmacy. The cab lets us off, but can’t park because the area is under temporary construction, and so he drives off with us holding his phone number. We run to the pharmacy door only to find it was not only dark, closed! It was closed because of a power failure! After all of our careful planning, who would ever have thought that we would be shot down by a simple power failure?

I just about wanted to sit down and cry. We desperately needed the medication, and here we were standing right outside the door where we were supposed to be, at the right time, in the right place, and I knew the prescription was there because I had phoned the day before, but the damn place was closed! So, I decided to call the original pharmacy with whom I had spoken. The same lady who had assisted me the other day answered, understood my problem, looked up Lisa’s prescription, found the prescription, and I told her “great! I’ll be there in 10 minutes to pick it up.” She said “but you forgot. We closed at noon” and I looked at my watch to see that it was two minutes after noon. She asked me to hold, and I was on hold for 12 minutes. All the while the clock is ticking about when we had to be back at the ship, and I have a taxi cab circling the block for which I’m paying, while I wait. Finally the lady comes back on the line, and explains that I can go to the locked door and knock and someone will let me in and give us our prescription. I thought that she meant I was to go to her pharmacy, but after some confusion, she was actually telling me to go to the pharmacy that had no power. We ran to the door, banged on the door, banged on the door, banged on the door, and finally a young man comes up and angrily tells us to get away that the pharmacy is closed. I tried to explain that we had been told to come here, but it was like talking to a turnip. As I was getting angrier and angrier, Lisa grabbed me by the arm and told me to run across the street to the Walgreens and get the supplies for our friends, while she sweet talked her way into the pharmacy.

Walgreens, how lucky can you be to have a Walgreens directly across the street, and it’s open. I ran over, grabbed the supplies that we needed, ran back to pick up Lisa who had paid cash for our prescription, and we immediately phoned our cab to come pick us up. Bless the guy; he was right there, took us back to the ship, and received a nice gratuity in return. Now if you think getting off the ship is difficult, let me tell you getting back on is also not quite as easy as it looks. Even though we had only been gone for a few minutes, and the people recognized us, we nonetheless had to show our cruise card three times, we had to go through the body scanner, and have all of our packages searched before running down the hallway to board the ship. The gangway was completely full of people coming off to board their tour buses so we had to patiently wait our turn. By the time we recklessly ran into our room it was already too late to meet our tour at its assembly point in the ship’s theater. So instead, we grabbed everything that we needed, and ran off the ship directly to the bus. Lo and behold we made it!

Judging by the heavy traffic in downtown Honolulu, I was afraid that our tour would turn into what I call a “spam in a can tour.” Surprisingly enough, that was not the case. Downtown Honolulu while busy, was also very interesting. It was clean, modern, and I must say almost breathtaking. I was very disappointed to see that the beach area was no longer the wide-open expanse of white sand that I remember from many years ago, but instead it had been hidden behind a plethora of condominiums and hotels. We saw a sliver of Waikiki Beach, but there was not a square inch of open sand. We continued our drive on into Diamond Head Crater, where we were given 15 minutes to look around. Since we can’t do much walking in 15 minutes, Lisa and I sat on the bench, and we managed to get a photograph of a mongoose, and several birds whose names I don’t know. Back on the bus, we continued to drive around the island to its most southern tip, and along the way made several stops for photographs. As had been the case on the whole cruise, Lisa and I were by far the youngest people on the bus. Rounding the southern tip of the island, we came to a much more quiet area, where President Obama grew up and which he comes to visit every Christmas to see the family. We were told that the average price of a home on the island of Oahu is $750,000. What really blew me away however was to learn that the number one employer in the state of Hawaii is the federal government, followed by the state government of Hawaii. Tourism ranks a distant third in terms of its contribution to the islands income.

Coming to the end of our tour, we drove across the island which necessitated that we climb over the steep hills to come back down into the city of Honolulu.

All in all, I must say that I found our bus tour to be very enjoyable, and I wish we had had more time to spend on the island. Our ship dutifully departed at 1 AM the next morning, and we are spending today and tomorrow at sea on our way to Fanning Island where I can’t wait to see what that adventure brings. When I looked Fanning Island up before this trip, I was told that it was an uninhabited atoll. If that’s true, then I cannot imagine what 900 elderly people are going to do on an uninhabited island for an entire day.

So I guess all I can say is, “stay tuned.” As Yogi Berra used to say, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”