Voyage Through Paradise

| Wednesday, 05 Mar. 2003

When the South Pacific is your destination its more than a cruise, it's adventure and romance. This is where Paul Gauguin found inspiration, Robert Louis Stevenson found beauty and Fletcher Christian led a mutiny rather than leave this paradise behind. Still largely untouched today, the breathtaking beauty of the South Pacific isles is spellbinding.

We recently sailed from Sydney to Papeete with Princess which allowed us to visit Australia and ports of call in New Zealand en route to the South Pacific islands. It was a 16-day cruise with a comprehensive itinerary, well organized with excellent shore arrangements in every port. Those interested in Tahiti cruises will love this.

Sydney's historic Rocks district was a delightful and convenient pre-cruise home. The Old Sydney Parkroyal hotel is situated a block from the cruise terminal and offers spectacular views of the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge from the rooftop swimming pool and patio. The Discover Sydney hop-on-and-off bus service stops nearby at the tourist center and takes you to all major attractions as well as through the harbour tunnel and over the bridge. This beautiful, slow paced city is worth a few days visit before boarding your ship. You'll also appreciate some time to recover from your flight.

On the morning of embarkation, there was no ship at the cruise terminal. Imagine our surprise when we looked out the window, excited and expectant, and no ship. This meant it had docked at Darling Harbour and we would have to take a taxi to meet it. However, our irrition at this minor inconvenience soon evaporated once we realized we would be sailing under the Harbour Bridge to leave Sydney. As we sailed at dusk the lights were coming on in Darling Harbour and by the time we arrived at the bridge, the city sparkled. The site of the Opera House fully lit as we came under the Harbour Bridge was dazzling.

The next two days were spent on the Tasman Sea heading for New Zealand. We encountered the remnants of the hurricane which had swept across Australia to the south island of New Zealand. The long swells were high and our crooked wake revealed how difficult it was to steer a steady course. The skies were clear.

NEW ZEALAND

We welcomed the tranquility of Bay of Islands after two rough sea days. We anchored in the scenic Bay, just as James Cook did in 1769. Historic Russell was portside, picturesque Paihia, starboard. The Waitangi Treaty House could be seen on a hill where in 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was signed establishing British rule and granting native inhabitants equal status. Other points of interest included the first missionary settlement, established in 1819 at Kerikeri Station, a walk through an ancient Kauri forest, deep sea fishing, sailing to the hole in the rock (a formation similar to that at Cabo San Lucas, Mexico) and a ride on a vintage steam train through a mangrove swamp.

On Good Friday, we docked in Auckland and most businesses were shut, as we had been warned. Our tour to the museum was replaced with a ride to the top of the tower from where we had a superb view of the volcano, Rangitoto Island and the city environs. The America's Cup race preparations were well under way with the participating teams busy at work in the yacht basin. The maritime museum is near the wharves, walking distance from the ship. Tours in Auckland include city sights, harbour cruises, Rangitoto Island and a day trip inland to the Glow Worm Grotto.

The next day we docked near the volcanic cone at Mt. Manganui, the port for Tauranga and Rotorua. Mt. Manganui is a resort town, situated on the Bay of Plenty with miles of magnificent, empty, white sand beaches. It was spectacular.

Rotorua, New Zealand's thermal capital, is a unique city where steam can be seen rising out of the ground almost everywhere. The thermal activity is put to good use as homes have built-in steamers and there is a geo-thermal electrical station at nearby Wairakei. The activity is widespread and takes the form of bubbling mud pools, acid pools, geysers and steam vents. Even parts of the golf course were boarded off due to steam vents. The best display was at Whakarewarewa, where Maori guides greet you with the traditional welcome and take you on a tour of the area. You can walk the trails or ride on an electric trolley around the grounds. The geyser activity was spectacular with several going off at once.

This was a very full day tour which included a visit to Rainbow Springs trout farm and bird sanctuary, where we saw a rare Brown Kiwi, New Zealand's national bird, and a visit to a sheep farm for sheep shearing and sheep dog demonstrations. Lunch was exceptionally good - roast lamb at the Lake Plaza Hotel on Lake Rotorua with a Maori folkloric show after the meal. It was one of the fullest and most rewarding days of the entire cruise.

SAILING TO SUVA, FIJI

Sailing north we enjoyed two days at sea before arriving at Suva, on the island of Viti Levu, Fiji.

Sailing into Suva, the palm clad hills looked very lush and this was confirmed as we drove around the island. The vegetation is thick. Suva is the capital and largest city in Fiji. There was a market near the ship and we were within walking distance of town. Our city tour took us to the museum which contains artifacts from the Bounty as well as exhibits of Fijian history.

The police band played a variety of traditional marches and modern popular pieces as we prepared to sail. Smartly dressed in red and white uniforms, marching up and down the dock, they gave us a colorful and moving sendoff.

TIN CAN MAIL, TONGA

One of those exciting events that can only happen on a sea voyage took place en route to Apia, from Fiji when we delivered the Tin Can Mail to Tonga's northernmost island, Niuafo'ou, a small island covered with vegetation with only a few small structures evident. It was the only time we encountered rain on the entire journey as squalls came over the ship several times. The dramatic cloud formations and lighting effects added to the excitement.

This unique method of mail delivery was instituted in the 1920's when the mail from visiting ships was sealed in large biscuit tins and thrown overboard. Two or three islanders would swim out to collect the tins. Nowadays, they come for the tins in a small boat. On our visit, they had run out of gasoline, so they had to paddle out. The rain was heavy and it was difficult to get very close to the island. Eventually we were in position and the small boat came out to meet us. We gave them fuel along with the mail tins which were filled with the special commemorative envelopes Princess provided for us to mail home. It took a couple of months for the Tin Can Mail to reach its destination, but it did follow us home.

INTERNATIONAL DATE LINE

Wednesday was enjoyed twice this week as we crossed the International Dateline between Fiji and Samoa and made up the day lost flying to Sydney. Certificates arrived under the cabin door announcing that we had crossed the dateline. It was disappointing that there was no ceremony for the occasion as there is when crossing the Equator.

APIA, SAMOA - HOME OF ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

Apia, Samoa, formerly Western Samoa, is an idyllic, peaceful island, off the tourist track and it was the friendliest of the islands we visited.

It was a surprise to see so many taxisoutside the port gates. It turned out that the locals use taxis a lot themselves so it was easy to get a ride into town. Apia is very clean, tidy and friendly. Lots of shops, a market, numerous churches, government buildings, visitor's bureau and WWI and WWII war memorials were seen in town. Samoa was the last place the sun set on the old millennium. A digital clock was ticking away the seconds on the government office tower.

The parliament building is out of town and was a stop on the island tour. Agriculture is a major industry here with coconut, banana and other plantations covering the countryside. The Polynesians bury their family in the garden so shrines are seen outside the homes. There are many buildings with no walls, the climate being so favourable all year round, only a roof is needed.

The most famous place to stay here is Aggie Greys, a hotel since 1933. Many celebrities and writers have made this their home while on Samoa. Still family owned, it is decorated in genuine South Seas style and looked very welcoming. Definitely a good base for a Samoan vacation.

Vailima, home of the writer, Robert Louis Stevenson sits high on the slopes of Mt. Vai outside Apia. Forced to leave Scotland for health reasons, Stevenson spent the last 5 years of his life here. His beautiful home is now a fascinating museum filled with photos, furniture and memorabilia. In the study, there are original pages of Stevenson's writings and first editions of Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Stevenson was a good friend of the Samoans who called him Tusitala, "Teller of Tales". Stevenson was given a Samoan Royal burial on top of Mt. Vai. His American wife, Fanny was later buried beside him. A 45 minute walk through the nature sanctuary takes you to Stevenson's grave and offers superb island views. Visiting Vailima was certainly a highlight of this cruise.

PAGO PAGO, AMERICAN SAMOA

The port of Pago Pago (pronounced Pango Pango) sits in the crater of a volcano. The steep slopes of the crater are lush green and surround the town. With no coral reef, the surf pounds the many magnificent beaches which fringe the island. Several large fishing boats have run aground along the shores of the island and the harbour. These boats brought their catch to the tuna cannery in Pago Pago harbour which is the largest in the world.

A market was setup at the foot of the gangway making shopping for crafts very easy. Musicians and dancers entertained us throughout the afternoon. It was a short walk into town.

Tea at infamous Sadie Thompson's was a stop on the island tour. Featured in Somerset Maugham's short story and the movie, Rain, Sadie Thompson's is now a restaurant and bar.

BORA BORA, FRENCH POLYNESIA

Another two, peaceful days at sea brought us to Bora Bora in French Polynesia. On deck, it was easy to see why so many, including James Mitchener, consider this the world's most exquisite island. The view was an idyllic tropical scene. Calm crystal clear water and palm fringed beaches surround Mt. Otemanu with thatched beach houses and the tiny village of Vaitape set amongst the lush greenery. The serenity of the lagoons surrounding Bora Bora is magical. The beach at Matira Point proved a perfect spot for a restful afternoon, swimming with the fish in the lagoon. An ideal spot for snorkeling. The surf could be seen crashing against the coral reef far out from shore.

Several shore excursions were offered including an island drive (it is just 25 miles around the island) landrover safari, glass bottom boat and lagoon cruise, snorkel safari and shark feeding, scuba dives and a cultural show. Vehicles were available in Vaitape for those setting out on their own. There was a shuttle from the ship to Matira Point and another to Bloody Mary's, the bar and seafood restaurant made famous by the musical South Pacific.

In Bora Bora we encountered the only cruise ship of our voyage. It was Society Expeditions' ms World Discoverer, a 3,153 ton vessel built specially for expedition and adventure cruising. Passengers were enjoying water sports from the stern as it sat close to shore near Vaitape.

MOOREA, FRENCH POLYNESIA

At anchor in Opunohu Bay, the view of the mountains of Moorea was outstanding. Again we were enchanted by the beauty and tranquility of French Polynesia. There is something magical about these islands, which are the quintessential tropical paradise. It is not surprising that many features have been filmed here including Mutiny on the Bounty and some of the scenes in South Pacific.

Tenders took us ashore at the village of Papetoai whose Protestant church is the oldest European structure still being used in the South Pacific. Built in 1822, it is octagonal in shape and was made with the stones of a Tahitian marae, or temple, originally located here. A trio of musicians welcomed us ashore. Tropical fruit was being cut for our refreshment and stalls with local crafts and paintings were setup. Tours left from here circling the island (37 miles around). The lookout from Mt. Belvedere is one of the most spectacular in the Pacific. From here you can see both Opunohu Bay and Cook's Bay. There is an agricultural college on Moorea which has ideal conditions for tropical plantations. It was surprising to see sheep grazing at the foot of the mountains. Horses and goats are also raised here.

The hotels in French Polynesia feature thatched, over-water bungalows. You can watch the fish from a window in the floor and climb down your private ladder to swim in the lagoon. The ideal tropical getaway.

Excursions were varied in Moorea. As well as circle island drives in the open air "le truck", a cultural show, snorkeling by catamaran, 4WD adventure and motu islet cruise were offered.

Again there were cars and motorbikes for rent.

Another sublime moment in Moorea was the sail away from Opunohu Bay at sunset, with the mountains silhouetted against the sky.

PAPEETE, TAHITI

The bustle of Papeete seemed strange after so many peaceful days at sea and on more remote islands. We docked downtown, 3 hours after leaving Moorea, which can be seen from Papeete, just 15 miles away. We stayed on board overnight and the next day. We didn't have to disembark until it was time to board our plane home.

From the ship it was easy to walk around town, visit the colourful market and do some shopping. Taxis and car rentals were available at the gangway but are very expensive in Tahiti. Better to take the local transportation, le truck, to get around. Tours of Tahiti available from the ship included stops at the Paul Gauguin museum (which houses only two of his paintings), the Museum of Tahiti and her islands, Point Venus and an island drive.

Point Venus is the site where the transit of Venus across the sun was tracked by Captain James Cook's Astronomer, Charles Green, on June 3, 1769. It is now a park and beach with a lighthouse and monument to the missionaries who came to Tahiti.

From Point Venus you look back to Matavai Bay. Here the ships of Cook's expeditions and Bligh's Bounty once anchored. On the road back to Papeete, at Tahara'a Hill, is another spectacular view of the Bay, looking back to Papeete with Moorea in the distance.

DISEMBARKATION AND FLIGHT HOME:

Once again Princess Cruises' organization was exceptional. Luggage was checked in at the airline desk at the gangway in the morning. We had to leave our cabins by 12:00noon. For the rest of the day we were able to use the lounges and have meals on board before being bussed to the airport for our night flight. There were seven categories of departing passengers, all with their own dinner and airport departure arrangements. Everything went smoothly.

Cruising is an ideal way to experience the beauty of the South Pacific islands. See CruiseMates South Pacific Itineraries for the latest listing of ships visiting this region

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