Thursday, January 30, 2014

January 29th – Deco-rating in Napier

The beautiful city of Napier in Hawke's Bay has one of the most distinctive city centres in the Southern Hemisphere – all the result of a frantic re-building programme that took off in the 1930s, after the town was pretty much destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1931. That earthquake gave the town planners and architects a clean slate to go with the latest trend in architecture – fabulous art deco.

In the 1930s, art deco represented everything that was exciting about the technological age – so, as we walked around the city centre, we saw lots of use of chrome, neon, and concrete to create these deco delights. The great thing about art deco architecture was that it was cheap to construct – obviously important for a cash-strapped city attempting to rebuild itself during the Great Depression – the use of poured concrete was cost effective and quick to construct.

On a half day call, we didn't have long to explore, but Napier's concentrated building boom and wonderful architectural harmony made it easy to tick off the main highlights within the space of a few city blocks. Fortunately we had some local experts to take us around – Napierites who we'd become great friends with in London almost two decades ago (how old does that make us feel?). So, we admired the sleek lines of the art deco architecture as we caught up on what's been going on in each other's lives.

Our friend Stu told us that when he was growing up in Napier in the 1980s, it was actually quite a rough place where people scarcely recognised that they were sitting on an architectural gold mine. The contrast couldn't have been greater from the Napier of 2014 – a bright, fun city that was scrupulously maintained. On a sunny day, Napier was looking fantastic.

They took us to Ahuriri for lunch, where we stopped in to look at probably the most impressive example of Napier deco – the National Tobacco Company Building, which had a superbly slick curved doorway and all the detailed decorative elements that makes this style so distinctive. After a lovely lunch, we drove up Bluff Hill to look over the port, and then raced around that beautiful city centre, ticking off art deco classics at every turn.

As ever with cruising, we didn't have enough time to fit everything in, but Napier was looking wonderful.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

January 28th – Tauranga and Rotorua

From the pleasant seaside resort of Tauranga, I joined the ship's tour to Rotorua – one of the world's most active geo-thermal areas – to visit its array of bath houses, bubbling mudpools, and spurting geysers.

Our drive took us past the long line of beautiful surf beaches which has turned Tauranga (and Mount Maunganui where we docked) into a popular tourist centre, and then we headed into the Bay of Plenty's beautiful countryside of rolling fields of pasture, kiwi fruit farms and volcanic lakes.

Once we got close to Rotorua – people on the bus began to look accusingly at each other as the smell of sulphur hit us, before we all realised that the rotten egg smell was coming out of the ground. We first headed to the old Edwardian bath house which has now become the Rotorua Museum – the grand mock tudor architecture showed that "taking the waters" was big business a century ago, when people would travel from Europe in search of the miraculous cures that Rotorua reputedly provided.

We had a good tour around the old facilities and around the exhibits on the local Maori culture (Rotorua has the largest proportion of Maoris of any city in New Zealand), before it was time for a delicious lunch at a local hotel.

The afternoon section of the tour was the bit that everyone was looking forward to – a trip to the Te Puia thermal park and Maori cultural centre. Our excellent Maori guide gave us an entertaining tour around the various displays of Maori culture and crafts, before we went to see the geysers and burping, splurting mudpools. Unfortunately, the Pohutu geyser wasn't playing ball during our visit – it was going off just as we arrived, calmed down while we actually watching it, and promptly sprung back into life just as we were leaving. It seemed like Mother Nature was taunting us!

Geyser or no geyser, it was a fascinating trip.

January 27th – Auckland Day

As ever, the sail-in to Auckland's sparkling harbour was a feast for the eyes – it's skyline of skyscrapers picked out by the early morning sun, while the grassy cones of the harbour's extinct volcanoes give this spectacular urban environment a unique twist.

Today was a bank holiday in Auckland because it was the Auckland Day celebrations, which meant that its shopping streets were pretty quiet, but its harbourfront was jam-packed full of revellers taking part in the many activities that had been put on – a music festival, a seafood festival, a busking festival, a yachting regatta, and dragon boat races. I've never seen the waterfront look so good.

The day started off pretty quiet though, so we decided to walk to Ponsonby, one of Auckland's more trendy suburbs. We walked through the quiet downtown, passing the iconic sky tower where people were doing bowel evacuating bungee jumps off the top, right over our heads – Tracy kept trying to tempt me to do one, but the potential shame of paying all that money and bottling out at the last minute prevented me from humiliating myself.

We trekked our way up to Ponsonby, which had a shabby chic kind of vibe – full of Victorian houses that are full of character, either slightly falling apart and occupied by students, or done up and occupied by smart Law Firms. There were plenty of cafes and restaurants in town, so we chose one with the best wifi, and settled in for lunch and some much needed internet time (after 9 days at sea only broken up by the less-than-technologically-advanced stops of American Samoa and Tonga.

After lunch, we made our way back down to the harbour again to soak up the lively atmosphere – there's no doubting that its waterfront is Auckland's best feature.

Friday, January 24, 2014

January 24th – Rainy Day in Tonga

After missing out on a day of our lives yesterday as we crossed the International Date Line and the calendar jumped from January 22nd to the 24th, we arrived at the island Kingdom of Tonga. With black clouds hanging menacingly overhead, this flat island didn't provide as spectacular approach as American Samoa; however, one of the brightest rainbows I've ever seen out to sea, gave us a warm welcome.

However, the rainbow was a sign of rain coming in from the sea, and boy, was it A LOT of rain. Almost as soon as we stepped ashore, the rain came thumping down in huge drops, with the strong winds mostly driving it sideways at us. This didn't exactly make it great sightseeing or picture-taking weather, but we saw enough of the island to give us a good feel for Tonga and its people.

At each stop, we'd dive out of the bus and try to take our pictures as quickly as possible before we got totally drenched – we weren't always very successful at this. Our first stop was at the impressive Royal Palace guarded by a barbed-wire fence – the monarchy has only given up its absolute powers in the last few years and allowed Tonga to evolve into a democracy, so the fact that the Palace was fenced off and closed from its public, was perhaps symbolic of the distance between the King and his subjects.

As we drove around this drenched island, the main things that struck you were how fertile it was – flat fields of crops and livestock making a strong contrast to the jagged peaks of American Samoa, while the waves and smiles we got from the soaked locals meant that the welcome was every bit as warm as Pago Pago's. We arrived at the south of the island and the rain relented briefly to allow us to see the famous blowholes at Houma – as if we needed to get any wetter, the thrashing of the sea swept the waves into holes in the limestone rock, that would then spurt into the air like a geyser, and cover us in fine spray.

We then visited a couple of ancient sites that were a legacy of the early Tongan kings – a stone archway from 1200AD that was Tonga's version of Stonehenge, and some stone platform tombs of a similar vintage. Of course, things changed for Tonga's Kings with the arrival of the first Westerners, so we travelled over to the site of Captain Cook's first landing on the island. Cook thought he was getting on well with the King, and called the Tongans "The Friendly Islanders" (in spite of the fact that they were planning to kill him just before he sailed off).

Over the next century, the rest of the Pacific islands were being carved up by the Western powers, but somehow Tonga retained its independence, and its monarchy is the last Kingdom left in the Pacific. However, as we saw when we got back to the capital, Nuku'alofa, Tonga hasn't had an easy transition from being an absolute monarchy to now being a young democracy. The gaps in the buildings on the main street, and the newly re-built buildings were all a reminder of the terrible riots that struck the capital in 2006, when a pro-democracy demonstration turned nasty as 80% of the downtown area was burned down and 8 people were killed. That much of the re-building has been financed by loans from China, rather than the former main regional powers of Australia or the US, is an indication of how the balance of world power has shifted in the last decade.

At the port, we were treated to a dance show by a local troupe, although it was sadly cut short when the nasty weather turned particularly vicious – the tent they were in nearly took off in the 50mph gales, and everyone was forced to run for cover like drowned rats. A dramatic end to a turbulent day.

Next time we come back to Tonga, it had better be sunny!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

January 21st – A Wonderful Day on American Samoa

There's a number of reasons why American Samoa is not on the mainstream tourist routes – the few international flights arrive from only Hawaii, nor does it have many hotels and resorts, but the biggest factor keeping away visitors is the weather – it receives some of the highest levels of rainfall in the Pacific. In fact, according to some studies, our port of call, Pago Pago (pronounced Pango Pango), is the harbour with the heaviest rainfall in the world – 5,000mm a year (over 16 feet of rain)!

So, to arrive on this equatorial island in the middle of the rainy season, and not to experience any rain was pretty special. It was ferociously hot and sappingly humid, but the good weather allowed us to experience this laid-back island at its absolute best. We stepped out of the air-conditioned luxury of the Silver Whisper into a wall of heat, and began to explore the Territory's tiny capital.

Everywhere we went, we were greeted by cheery hellos from the friendly locals, including the beautiful Miss American Samoa who was elegantly statuesque, but half the size of many of the enormous locals. These gigantic people have huge shoulders and are very tall, although, sadly obesity is clearly a major problem here – in fact, a recent World Health Organisation report stated that this was officially the fattest land on the planet, with a scarily high 94% obesity level.

To escape the furnace-like heat, we stepped into the air-conditioned Parliament building, the Fono, where they were happy to wander into the debating chambers and have a general nose around. The island may be a Non-Incorporated Territory of the United States (which, as US Nationals, gives the American Samoans full rights to live and work in the mainland US), but we soon saw that traditional Samoan culture was alive and well here. Of course, there was a McDonalds in town to fuel the prodigious eating habits of the locals, but there were so many churches all around the island to cater for the deeply religious population.

We sweated our way around Pago Pago's beautiful harbour, surrounded by a ring of steep green cliffs that told us that this was once a volcanic crater before one of the sides collapsed and the sea flooded in. We were lucky enough to bump into the High Chieftess of the town, who told us a little bit about the local culture, and we popped into a couple of the museums (as much for the air-con as for the educational value).

In the afternoon, we went on a cultural tour to explore a bit more of this beautifully lush green island, and to see a dance performance. We clambered onto an "island bus" – a ramshackle, open-sided vehicle that bounced its way along the roads through the countryside, passing villagers constantly waving their hellos. Our destination was a lovely house overlooking the crashing surf – on a day like today, American Samoa was looking like a fairly idyllic place to live, although when a rain storm sets in, it would clearly be a totally different prospect.

The dance performance was good fun – the women were typically graceful and elegant, while the men jigged away enthusiastically with massive smiles on their faces – not anywhere near as fierce as the New Zealand Maori.

At the end of the day, all the passengers I spoke to were pleasantly surprised by American Samoa – there's been a concerted campaign to clear up the litter, it was too hot for the packs of wild dogs to be a nuisance, the wind was blowing in the right direction to take away the fishy smell of its tuna canneries, and the much expected rain never materialised. Instead, we all fell in love with the wonderfully friendly people, while the island's gorgeous scenery looked as spectacular as it could be.

American Samoa at its best!