Wednesday, January 30, 2019

January 29th – Viewing Auckland’s Sky Tower

As you sail into Auckland's stunning harbour, the first thing you can make out in the distance is the Sky Tower. This is a city of so many great views, but from pretty much any point in the city - from the water, from its beaches, from its many hill tops - those views are all framed by the Sky Tower. So, today our mission was to see the southern hemisphere's tallest building from close up.

Having done a drive around Auckland's many pleasant harbourfront suburbs (all with million dollar views of the waters in front of them), the impression that this must be a good place to live was being constantly re-inforced. Once you were out of the congested CBD, the atmosphere in these relaxed suburbs felt more like they were holiday towns rather than commuter suburbs – although we were told that property prices have been absolutely going through the roof in the last couple of years, so maybe it's not as easy to live here as it might seem.

But, all the time, your eye is constantly drawn back to the Sky Tower, its iconic outline overshadowing everything in Auckland. But, rather than just go up to the Observation Deck, it makes sense instead to go to Orbit, the revolving restaurant just above the Deck. The food was excellent, and the cost wasn't that much more than the price of the Observation Deck.

It takes an hour to do a full revolution, with the changing views slowly revealing what a large and sprawling city Auckland is – in area, it's twice the size of London, yet it houses one-seventh of London's population. Below us, we could see our ship looking like a toy boat next to the monster-sized cruise ship anchored in the bay (it was too large to even tie up in the port).

As we enjoyed our meal, the serene views were occasionally interrupted by the sound of a muffled scream, and the blurred glimpse of one of the lunatics plummeting past the window who had paid good money to jump off the top of the building. The "Sky Jump" is an assisted fall, so they don't reach terminal velocity, but from the sounds of terror you hear from its victims maybe the biggest danger is from suffering a heart attack before you get to ground level. In the morning, I had made brave pronouncements that I might do a jump myself, but having got to the top I quickly made sure that I shoveled in as much food as possible, so that I was now "too full" to attempt it.

So, after our lunch at altitude, we walked back down Queen Street, Auckland's main shopping street, before heading to Viaduct Basin, the main yachting centre. From the Sky Tower, you could see how much development and building work there was going on around the waterfront, as Auckland readies itself for hosting the America's Cup next year; and at ground level, it all looks pretty impressive. There's a massive choice of bars and restaurants down there, and from the number of luxury apartments being built all around, they should be pretty busy. Having a cold beer as the sun goes down, with the sparkling water in front of you (and of course with the Sky Tower behind you), once again you're thinking – life is good in Auckland.

Today proved that on a sunny day, Auckland looks good from all angles.

Friday, January 25, 2019

January 25th – Adjusting to Tongan Time in Neiafu

Even though we had fast forwarded our lives by a day crossing the International Date Line to get here, it didn't take long to see that nothing moves at a fast pace on the Vava'u Islands, and in their sleepy capital Neiafu.

Even our approach to our anchorage off Neiafu, through a stunning succession of green islands, was slow and stately. Then, on land, things slowed to a standstill. We boarded a battered old bus that must have dated from the Jurassic era, and began our tour around the island at glacial speed. I swear that the driver never got us out of 1st gear (maybe that was all he had), as we crawled around at a maximum speed of 7 mph. The fact that the coach's clock was literally hanging off the wall in pieces, stuck on 17 minutes to 12, was a reminder that we had now entered island time.

I joined a tour called "Historical Vava'u" that duly confirmed that there really was very little historical on the island to see, but the lack of sights didn't bother us – we were just tuning into Vava'u's supremely relaxed pace of life, enjoying the scenery and meeting the charming people. We visited a site where people may have spoken in tongues when Christianity arrived on the island (the guide didn't seem too sure what had happened); we visited a low rock wall overgrown with tall weeds which people may have used to record births; and we saw a small cave where someone royal might have had a bath once. That was it – but, it didn't matter, it still somehow felt like time well spent.

At exactly 17 minutes to 12, the tour was over, and we were deposited back at the pier – with perfect timing, our coach's island time clock was correct for the first and only time that morning.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the somnolent streets of Neiafu, a place that (apart from its busy market) seemed to have more churches than people. It was boiling hot, but we decided to walk to the lookout point at the top of Mount Talau, a couple of kms outside of town. It was 179 steep (and strangely sloping) steps up to the top, but the tremendous views over the bay below made all the huffing and puffing worthwhile. It didn't seem right to be active in this most inactive of places, but it was an enjoyable trek.

I'm not sure that Vava'u is ready for mainstream tourism yet – but, for me, that's part of its charm. The island feels like it's locked in a time warp, where the cares of this over-hurried world just melt away. You shouldn't expect too much of Neiafu – but you can expect to have a very chilled out time.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

January 21st – Getting In To Rarotonga

For me, getting back to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands has become something of a Holy Grail. Tracy and I first went there 19 years ago when we were backpacking around the world, and we spent a blissful 2 weeks falling in love with the lush landscapes, the coral seas, and the friendly ways of the laid-back locals.

But, when we've tried to get there on the 2013 and 2016 World Cruises, sadly both calls had to be cancelled because the waves were too rough for the ship's tenders to get in. To be honest, it didn't look too promising first thing this morning – no big waves, but the swell was large enough to make the tenders bob up and down by a metre or two.

However, in my lecture I had asked the passengers to pray for smooth seas, and our prayers were answered as the seas relented and we only had a slightly bumpy tender ride into Avarua's (the capital's) little harbour.

When we were backpackers, we were too lazy to venture much from the beach or the bar, so today I wanted to prove to myself that I still had it, by doing a "Conservation Nature Trek" up into the green hills of the island's rugged interior. We went to the Takitumu Reserve, where strong efforts are being made to preserve what remains of the local flora and fauna, and to remove as much as possible of the invasive species that have been carelessly introduced over the years since Westerners arrived on this remote spot.

As our excellent guides told us, the problem is that the fertile soil and tropical climate mean that virtually anything will grow here – so foreign trees and plants have threatened to totally overtake the native flora. We heard how careful biological research has been introducing caterpillars and fungal that only feast on the foreign plantlife, but leave the indigenous species alone.

Our trek through the dense undergrowth was challenging but not too tough, and the views from the top were great – a fun way to exercise, to sightsee, and to learn.

Once we were back in Avarua, it was time to see how much had changed since our last visit here. In some ways, not much has changed – this is still a supremely laid-back and friendly town, with plenty of small-scale bars, shops and restaurants (and almost as many churches). But, you could also detect why the Cook Islands have just passed (this year) from being classified as "developing" to now being officially "developed".

There was more traffic on the streets (this has graduated from being a "One Roundabout Town" into a "Two Roundabout Town"), and the town was certainly a lot smarter in appearance (I used to enjoy its more charmingly scruffy appearance). Outside of town, there were more resorts (and fewer shabby hostels like the one we stayed in), as the island has become less of an off-the-beaten-track destination. With direct flights to LA, Sydney and New Zealand, tourist numbers have risen to 170,000 a year (about twice what it was when we visited in 2000). However, it's good to see that here, the tourist industry hasn't yet given the island an air of artificiality that affects some parts of French Polynesia.

For me, the Cook Islands are the most "liveable" of the Pacific Islands. The nation's close association with New Zealand has given it a good infrastructure and decent standard of living (plus everyone speaks perfect English), but it has still stayed true to its traditions and Polynesian ways of life.

They say you should never go back – that does not apply to Rarotonga. I hope it's not another 19 years until my next visit.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

January 19th – The Best of Bora Bora

Today I got to experience pretty much all the elements that have turned the exotic island of Bora Bora into one of the most sought-after destinations on the planet for the world's rich and famous.

On land, if you want amazing landscapes and mountains, then the striking tropical scenery of Bora Bora is difficult to beat. In the water, the combination of colours, sealife and watersports makes it almost impossible what to choose what to do. While, the tourist industry here is so perfectly set up to indulge the slightest whim of its visitors (as long as they can afford the steep prices), that the levels of luxury and sophistication are off the scale.

We started in the water. Taking a boat across the lagoon and going outside the reef (a first for me) for a chance to snorkel with the sharks. Once I was in the water, I could scarcely believe what I was seeing – at least 50 black-tipped sharks circling around at surface level, and 3 or 4 large lemon sharks skulking around at the bottom, about 10 metres down. There were more sharks down there than a convention of lawyers!

In amongst the dense clouds of black trigger fish, it was the proximity of all these sharks that really got the adrenalin going – going face-to-face with the black-tipped sharks literally a metre or two away. Every now and again, our guide would try to lure up a lemon shark up from the depths with a little bit of diced fish. The first time, I was caught unawares, and turned around to see a dead-eyed lemon shark right next to me – I hadn't realised how big they were (about 3 metres long) until I was able to count the teeth of his fixed grin just a couple of metres away from me. I've never kicked so hard to get away from an underwater situation!

Next, we went back into a shallow section of the lagoon to get up close to some stingrays – I've done this before, so I did my best to seem nonchalant as they rubbed their silky bodies against my legs as they glided past me. Here, the sharks were "only" about a metre long, so no need to panic.

Our final water stop was out on the coral garden next to the reef. The coral was in pretty good shape (lots of blues and purples), and the fishlife was plentiful. As the shoals of colourful fish swayed gracefully in the currents, there was a peaceful serenity to this underwater world that you just can't get on land.

By now, we had worked up an appetite, so we headed to that Bora Bora institution – Bloody Mary's. For a 5-star island, it had a refreshingly informal atmosphere, and the prices weren't quite as steep as I had expected.

Wisely, I didn't partake in the restaurant's trademark cocktail, but my fellow travellers who did, may have been regretting that decision once our "4x4 Off-road Adventure" began. As we bounced up the incredibly rutted paths (if you can even call them paths), we were thrown around the back of our jeep like we were in a tumble drier, hanging on to the sides as if our lives depended on it (they probably did).

The point of this test of endurance was to see the huge American guns left over from the Second World War. This is the second time I've gone through this to get there, and while they are impressive, and the views are good – I think that's enough. Certainly, once we made it back down to the coast road, the road felt as smooth as velvet – I almost felt like doing a Pope John Paul II and kissing the tarmac.

Our drive back saw us pass through various little villages where the local people live very simple lives, past a couple of swanky resorts where bungalows cost well over $1,000 a night (and a couple that have been left derelict for the last decade), and we called in at the beautiful Matira beach – a public beach that's about the only thing that's free on this most expensive of islands.

So, we really did see the best of Bora Bora on sea and land – when you see sights like we did today, you can understand just why people pay such a premium to stay here.

January 18th – A Spectacular Event in Tahiti

Coming to Tahiti straight after Moorea is a bit unfair on Tahiti. Instead of the idyllic island paradise you left behind a few miles away in Moorea, you're greeted by the traffic and concrete buildings of Papeete. But, scratch below the surface and there are plenty of gems to uncover on an island of lush mountains and attractive beaches (OK – most of them are black sand, so can't really compare to Moorea).

Of course, our efforts to find the positives on Tahiti were helped by Silversea putting on an amazing World Cruise Event that turned into a sensory overload of singing and dancing, eating and drinking. The location itself was certainly pretty spectacular – in the lush gardens of the museum, overlooking the sea, to a background theme tune of crashing waves, and the jagged outline of Moorea providing the perfect backdrop.

Here, we were treated to one excellent performance after another – lilting choirs, vigorous warriors, graceful hula, sensuous hip-swaying. If Papeete made you concerned that Tahiti was getting swamped by Western culture, then these superb performances made you realise that Tahitian culture and traditions are most certainly alive and well.

Just watching these highly energetic performances in the extreme heat and humidity made you feel tired (how the dancers kept up the levels of intensity I'll never know), but fortunately we were able to keep hydrated with essential champagne and beer-based energy drinks. To put on a show like this on a remote island must have been a major logistical exercise, but Tahiti is about the only island in the South Pacific that could do it.

Tahiti may not be the paradise that inspired the Bounty Mutineers or Gaugin any longer, but days like today proved that it's still a pretty special place.

Friday, January 18, 2019

January 17th – Moorea à Vélo

The rugged green landscapes of Moorea make for a striking contrast to the pancake flat atolls we saw Rangiroa yesterday. That's the remarkable thing about French Polynesia – it has such a variety of scenery, that you can feel like you've ended up on a different planet as you move from island to island.

So, as a contrast to yesterday's day of indolence and luxury, today was going to be all about hard work and exercise. From the pier, we walked down to one of the hotels to hire bikes so that we could combine sightseeing with a workout – seeing as it was about 32 degrees and very humid, it was like doing a spinning class in a sauna.

To add to the workout, these were heavy old bikes with no gears (you had to cycle backwards to get them to brake). This was mostly fine because the coast road is predominantly flat, although in one section where you climb about 40 metres (it felt like 400!) up to a viewpoint, our heartbeats were going through the roof.

But, the great thing about cycling around Moorea is that the views are always spectacular – on one side you have steep slopes of thick vegetation leading up to striking jagged mountains; on the other you have Moorea's blue lagoon, in an ever changing variety of colours. In fact, those amazing colours in the lagoon are the thing that link Moorea and Rangiroa.

As we set off, I confidently told Tracy that it was "only 37 kms" all the way around the island, so if we were making good progress maybe we could do a full circuit. Fortunately, the cronky old bikes prevented us from going too fast, because on closer investigation it turned out that while I had got the number right, the units were wrong – it was 37 miles (more like 60kms), which would have killed off Lance Armstrong, never mind a couple of out of shape old shufflers who'd been over-indulging on a cruise ship for 2 weeks.

Anyway, we made it past the golf course, the airport, the Sofitel Resort and got as far as Vaiare were the Tahiti ferry comes in, before prudence told us that it was time to turn back. On the way back, we called in at the wide Temae Beach where the warm, turquoise waters made for a great place to rejuvenate before heading back on the final leg of our Tour de Moorea.

At the end of the day we'd ticked off 25 kms of the island, we'd ticked off mountain scenery, blue lagoons, little villages and friendly locals – all the elements that make Moorea my favourite island in French Polynesia. Moorea is a great place to relax, but it's also a wonderful place to expend a little energy.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

January 16th – Busy Doing Nothing in Rangiroa

Some places aren't made for high octane experiences. On a low-lying atoll like Rangiroa there's no bungee jumping opportunities. With so few visitors, there's no speedboat rides or jet skiing.  With the biggest settlement having no more than a few hundred people, there's no "sights" to see.

But, with Rangiroa, the "sight" is all around you – the island's huge, luminescent lagoon glittering in all shades of blue. And what a sight it is – if you wanted to construct a stereotypical desert island paradise, Rangiroa would probably be it.

Seeing as land is no more than a few hundred metres wide, everything here is dominated by that lagoon – it's the food source, it's the playground, it's the attraction that drives visitors to come to an incredibly out-of-the-way place like this.

So, the thing to do here (some might say the only thing to do here), is to find a comfortable spot by that lagoon, set up camp on the white sands underneath the shade of a swaying coconut tree, and launch yourself into those warm blue waters for a spot of snorkelling. Fortunately, we weren't just setting up camp in any old spot – a couple of generous fellow passengers had invited us to join them at the Kia Ora resort (the island's only 5-star resort), where they had rented a bungalow for the day. With all views framed by the lagoon, this was luxury beyond luxury.

There were plenty of tropical fish to see in the coral garden in front of "our" bungalow, while the food (seafood of course) was fabulous, but the temptation to just settle into a hammock and drift off to the sounds of lapping waves and rustling palms was hard to resist. Every time I opened my eyes, it was still a "wow" moment – the variety of shades of blue almost seemed like it was a painting rather than nature.

If you're going to do nothing all day, I would recommend Rangiroa as the perfect spot.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

January 14th – Land Ahoy in Nuku Hiva

After 7 (remarkably smooth) days at sea across the Pacific, we finally saw dry land, in the shape of the rugged volcanic island of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas. This place is all about its vistas and spectacular scenery, rather than for its man-made sights, but most of us were just glad to be setting foot on dry land, whatever it looked like.

It's fairly obvious that not much changes on Nuku Hiva – this is one of the most remote island groups in the world, and home to less than 3,000 people – and for me, that's one of the attractions of a place where life moves at an agreeably slow pace, where everyone knows everyone else, and where the modern world doesn't get much of a look in. That means that tourists aren't exactly spoilt for choice here - visitors either do a 4x4 ride up into the rugged mountains, or they just do a leisurely walk around the capital, Taiohae's pleasant waterfront.

But, having said that, Nuku Hiva has added one attraction since we were last here – on a small hill overlooking Taiohae Bay, a huge 12-metre tall Tiki statue has been built to welcome visitors to the island. Actually, the site, called Tuhiva, has an interesting history that encapsulates some of Nuku Hiva's story. Originally it was a meeting place for the local tribes; then, as western whalers began to call in to the island in the 19th century, the Americans built a small fort here in 1812 (called "Fort Madison") as they unsuccessfully tried to claim a Pacific Empire. Next, when the French took over in the 1840s, it became "Fort Colet", before the site was abandoned at the end of the century. Now Tuhiva has a new focus which, even if it's not the most subtle statue, is a joyful celebration of the isand's local culture.

As a reminder that the local culture has had to withstand outside influences for a couple of centuries, down at the dockside we saw a couple of smartly dressed Mormon missionaries ready to go out and spread the word to the island's 2,800 inhabitants. The first Christian missionaries, who arrived in the 19th century, attempted to ban tattoos, traditional dress, and the local dancing. Thankfully, they weren't successful in this, and all three things are making a real comeback these days, which gives this remote place a really exotic flavour. Whether the Book of Mormon will affect things, remains to be seen.

To prove the enduring strength of the local traditions, back on board, we were treated to a fantastic local show of drumming, singing and dancing that really brought to life the atmosphere of Polynesia – in parts aggressive, in parts sensual, there was a delightfully primitive air to the dancing which captured the unique spirit of Nuku Hiva.

Nuku Hiva is a gentle start to the World Cruise; but, we don't do journeys like this just to visit big cities, to see huge skyscrapers or massive monuments. We come to visit hard-to-reach places that show us life away from modernity, where traditional culture still gets a look in, and where the natural setting is more important than the touch of mankind.